Monday, November 09, 2015

The Comparative Nobility of the Sacraments

Marriage, as one of the seven sacraments of the New Law, is a metaphysical and supernatural reality of immense power, beauty, and importance in the Christian scheme of things. It inaugurates and sustains a noble state of life, within which spouses who follow the law of Christ and His Church receive all the graces they need to achieve personal holiness and to bring one another and their family to heaven.

The nobility of marriage derives chiefly from four things:
  1. its institution by the Creator in the beginning, as the highest form of friendship between man and woman; 
  2. its fertility in providing citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem — a fertility blessed by God and beloved to Him because it is the echo, in the material world, of His own infinite and eternal processions and the overflowing of His goodness in creating the universe;
  3. its use by Divine Providence as an instrument by which the race of Israel gave to Christ His human flesh and blood; 
  4. its elevation by our Lord to be a sacred sign of His indissoluble union with His immaculate bride, the Church.
The attack on marriage today — whether by the world and its prince, or by modernist clergy and their lackeys — is therefore nothing less than an attack on the Creator and the order of creation, on the supreme mystery of the Blessed Trinity, on the people of Israel and the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, and on the innermost nature of His Bride, the Church. Put simply, if you attack marriage, you attack all of reality, front to back, top to bottom.

The Church’s teaching about marriage and the family is, therefore, an integral and central part of the glorious heritage of our faith. Nevertheless, I sometimes wonder if moderns do not fall into the tendency of viewing the sacraments individually, in isolation from one another (and largely depending on which of the sacraments might be getting neglected or attacked at any given time), rather than taking time to ponder and appreciate the entire sacramental system. If we do this, we might come to see, with St. Thomas Aquinas, that while marriage is truly a “great sacrament” (Eph 5:32), it is, absolutely speaking, the least of the seven sacraments. Rather than denigrating marriage, this only serves to magnify the underappreciated greatness of the other six! It is like a building in which the first room you enter is already magnificently decked out, but each successive room as you walk towards the throne room is more resplendent still; or like a chest of wondrous medicines in which the least is already more potent than any natural remedy known to man.

Let us, in any case, consider the reasoning St. Thomas uses in the first work where he tackles the question. In his Commentary on the Sentences, Thomas relegates marriage to last place among the seven sacraments, because while it has “the greatest signification [habet maximam significationem],” it works a lesser effect as regards the spiritual life than the other six sacraments do.
One sacrament may be said to be nobler than another in five ways.
       In one way, as regards the reality of the sacrament, or its effect; and thus baptism, which wipes away all guilt and takes away all punishment, is the greatest sacrament. In another way, as regards that which is contained in the sacrament; and thus the Eucharist is the noblest, in which is contained Christ himself. In a third way, as regards the grade of dignity in which it consists; and thus holy orders is the noblest sacrament. In a fourth way, as regards the minister; and thus confirmation, and holy orders too, are the noblest, because they are only administered by a bishop. In a fifth way, as regards what is signified and not contained therein, and thus marriage is the noblest, because it signifies the conjunction of the two natures in the person of Christ.
       Nevertheless if we compare these dignities with one another, that dignity is found to be foremost that a sacrament has from its content, because that is more essential. And so the sacrament of the Eucharist is simply the most noble, and to it, in a certain way, all the sacraments are ordered. However, the dignity that consists in bringing about some effect prevails over that which consists in the signifying [of some reality]; and that which consists in bringing about some effect with respect to good, simply speaking, prevails over that which consists in the removal of evil.
       And so, simply speaking, after the Eucharist the noblest sacrament is holy orders, through which a man is established both in grace and in a grade of [special] dignity; and after this, confirmation, through which the perfection of grace is conferred; and after this, baptism, through which is accomplished a full remission of guilt and punishment; and after this, marriage, which has the greatest signification [i.e., it signifies the greatest of mysteries].
       But penance and extreme unction are placed between baptism and marriage, because they are directly ordered to the removal of evil, although in this regard penance has less efficacy than baptism, because it is ordered against actual guilt alone, and does not totally take away punishment; and still less has extreme unction, which is ordered against the remnants [reliquias] of sin.[1]
This conclusion can ring true only to one who has, like St. Thomas, a robust view of the effects produced by confirmation, holy orders, penance, and extreme unction. The question this poses for the Church today and for her leaders is this: Do we have a robust view of confirmation and extreme unction? I think it would be fair to say that believing and practicing Catholics have a pretty clear idea of the unique power of holy orders (it makes a man a priest) and penance (it takes away the guilt of mortal sin), but it’s harder to say whether we appreciate the mysteries of confirmation and (as we tend to call it nowadays) anointing of the sick. And yet, Aquinas is claiming that, as good as sacramental marriage is, confirmation and anointing are superior in their effects. We remember and celebrate the anniversary of our marriage, but do we remember and celebrate the anniversary of our confirmation? And do we pray and prepare for a holy death — one in which “the consolation of the sacraments” (especially extreme unction) is made available to us by the mercy of God and the ministry of the Church?

Another interesting point to consider in the above text is where Aquinas says that “the sacrament of the Eucharist is simply the most noble, and to it, in a certain way, all the sacraments are ordered.” He must mean that marriage, too — not just the individual Christian who happens to be married — is ordered to the Eucharist. As far as I know, he never works out exactly how this is so or the implications of it, beyond the observations that, first, “marriage, at least in its signification, touches this sacrament, in so far as it signifies the conjoining of Christ and the Church, whose unity is represented (figuratur) by the sacrament of the Eucharist; hence the Apostle says: ‘This is a great sacrament, but I speak in Christ and in the Church’ (Eph. 5:32),” and, second, that the celebration of the Eucharist is the point of arrival in the celebration of other sacraments.[2]

In the Tertia Pars of the Summa theologiae, written at the other end of his career, he describes the “excellence” of marriage as follows, in answer to an objection that tries to make baptism a greater sacrament than the Eucharist:
For in that way [i.e., from the vantage of necessity], baptism, since it is of greatest necessity, is the most powerful of the sacraments — just as holy orders and confirmation have a certain excellence by reason of their administration, and marriage by reason of its signification. For there is no reason why a thing should not be worthier from a certain point of view which is not worthier absolutely speaking.[3]


[1] Response of In IV Sent. d. 7, q. 1, a. 1, qa. 3. Like other scholastic authors, Thomas talks simply of ordo or “order” rather than “holy orders” as we do in English. I have nevertheless used the phrase more familiar to us.

[2] For both observations, see ST III, q. 65, a. 3. The latter was also made in the Sent. text just quoted.

[3] ST III, q. 65, a. 3, ad 4.

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