230. What is at Stake with the Roman Catholic View of the Sacraments? Ask Professor Henri Blocher

Dean of European evangelical theologians, Henri Blocher needs little introduction. The opportunity to measure up to his work again is offered by the publication of the second volume on the church and the sacraments: La doctrine de l’Église et des sacrementsvol 2 (Charols: Excelsis; Vaux-sur-Seine: Edifac, 2024). The Parisian theologian’s ecclesiology and sacramentology are confirmed to live up to the notorious depth of his thought.

As with the first volume on the church, La doctrine de l’Église e des sacrements, vol. 1 (Vaux-sur-Seine: Edifac, 2023), which I reviewed in the article “What is at Stake with the Roman Catholic View of the Church? Ask Professor Henri Blocher” (1 February 2024), the focus of this review will also be on Blocher’s assessment of Catholic sacramentology. The book also contains a discussion of Reformed theology’s conception of the sacraments and that of the baptistic churches. Obviously, it is worth reading it all to appreciate not only Blocher’s critical reading of Roman Catholicism but also of the Reformed view, especially concerning pedobaptism.

Blocher begins the volume with an analysis of the Catholic understanding of the sacraments. While he acknowledges that it is a well-codified doctrine in the Roman magisterium, he does not hide the fact that in Catholic seminaries in the last century the “traditional” version has been subject to very discordant interpretations and versions. It is not so much a matter of detail, rather of different conceptualities with which it is approached: no longer the Aristotelian-Thomistic one with which it was constructed, but those borrowed from Heidegger’s philosophy, Lacan’s psychoanalysis, Oddo Casel’s “mystery” theology or Austin and Searle’s speech-act theory. This is to say that Catholic sacramentality, while retaining a “Roman” hard core still tied to a certain causative mechanism, also has its own “Catholic” vitality that allows it not to limit itself to the mere repetition of past formulas and arguments, but to expand them to readings influenced by theories of signs, symbols and meanings inferred from modern currents of thought. An example of this internal dynamic of Catholic sacramental theology is, for Blocher (p. 11, 15-20, 37-40), represented by F. Schillebeeckx’s work, Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God (1960 ; English edition 1987), who rereads sacramentality from a personalist perspective.

Questioning sacramental causation
For Blocher, at the heart of Catholic sacramentality lies the causative role in the administration of grace, that is, “the real efficacy of the sacramental operation” (p. 13). The cause is connected to the sign. While in the Church Fathers and the early Middle Ages the relationship between cause and sign is established but still fluid, Thomas Aquinas imprinted on Catholic theology the concept of “causative efficacy.” Famous is his phrase “significando causant” (Summa Theologiae III, qq. 60-65) as it refers to the sacraments as a cause of grace by means of signifying it. In an anti-Protestant function, the Council of Trent espouses this definition and carves it into its canons, which anathematize those who do not embrace it. In the Thomist-Tridentine line, Christ acts through “another Christ” (the priest) through the sign that causes the administration of grace contained and conferred by the sign.

Blocher warns against the temptation to have a “magical” view of Catholic sacramentality (p. 20). There is no impersonal mechanism that disregards the disposition and cooperation of each person (priest, faithful) and the absence of “obstacles.” However, while recognizing the role of the faith of the subjects, it is the sacramental conception of the church itself as an extension of Christ (p. 25) that makes up for the shortcomings of one or the other and ensures the efficacy of the sacrament. As the human and divine natures are united in Jesus Christ, the humanity of the element is joined to the “divinity” of grace bestowed by the church in the unity of the sacrament. As already argued in the first volume on the church, for Blocher the Roman Catholic understanding of the church as an extension of the incarnation is a distinctive feature of the entire Roman Catholic system, including its view of sacramentality.

Being the fine exegete that he is, Blocher reviews the biblical texts that Catholic theology reads from a sacramentalist perspective, noting that no evidence stands out about the plausibility of this reading. Moreover, it reverses biblical proportions about the relationship between interiority and exteriority (the former being more important than the latter). Moreover, it is in open contradiction with biblical texts such as 1 Corinthians 1:17, Romans 14:17 and Hebrews 9-13. In addition, the New Testament never associates the sacraments with the action of Christ Himself, but with that of the disciples sent by Christ. In other words, it is not Christ who baptizes or administers the Supper (as Roman Catholicism believes), but it is the disciples who are commissioned to do so in His name. Christ baptizes with the Holy Spirit but commands the church to baptize in water and administer the Supper.

The Roman Catholic sacramental system, thus infused with causal efficacy, turns out to be a mirror of pagan systems of rites of passage associated with birth, adolescence, marriage and death (p. 35). By minimizing the impact of sin, Roman Catholicism has opened itself to syncretistic forms and structural compromises with pagan forms of “natural” religiosity (pp. 36-37).

On the theories of causality at work in Catholic sacramentology, Blocher shows awareness of the nuances present between the Thomist reading already referred to (“significando causant”), the “occasional” one of Bonaventure and Duns Scotus, the “moral” one by Melchor Cano,” and others. These are all variations on the theme of causality that do not eliminate the underlying problem: for Rome, grace is made to flow from an act of the church.

Roman Catholicism elevates the incarnation to a metaphysical principle that must reproduce itself to be efficacious. Because of that, it loses sight of the “once and for all” of the atonement, it shatters the “it is finished” of the cross, it derogates from the celebration of God alone and his glory, it questions justification by faith alone (without works). It elevates the church to a dispenser of grace (pp. 43-45). In short, Catholic sacramentology considers the church to be a “mediator” of grace and stands in radical contrast to the biblical message.

Continuing his discussion, regarding the seven sacraments dogmatized at the Council of Trent, Blocher notes that “the sacramental septenary leads to fragmenting grace in a way the New Testament does not” (p. 93). In breaking down grace, Roman Catholicism parcels it by losing sight of its being a divine gift: God’s grace is not a “thing” that the church slices up and serves individually, but God himself giving himself.

On baptism, the Parisian theologian dwells more on the critique of Protestant paedobaptism while glossing over the Catholic conception. This is a limitation of the book: not including a chapter on baptism according to Rome.

The Problems of the Roman Catholic Eucharist
Blocher focuses on the Roman Catholic Eucharist the most. He recalls that Thomas Aquinas described the Eucharist as the most important sacrament because it essentially contains Christ Himself, while the other sacraments only involve Christ by participation (meaning Christ’s presence not being as real and substantial as in the Eucharist). Blocher speaks of a “Catholic exaltation of the Eucharist” (p. 145) because it is considered the source and summit of all Christian life. In it, Roman Catholicism encapsulates all: ecclesiastical dogmatics and institutional belonging. Besides being prevented by Rome itself, evangelical participation in the Eucharist is therefore to be avoided precisely because it is the sacrament par excellence of those who are Roman Catholic (p. 187).

Blocher devotes an entire chapter to analyzing two pillars of the Catholic Eucharist: the “real presence” and the “sacrifice.” From the Council of Trent, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nn. 1373-1377) speaks about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist by using the adverbs “truly, really and substantially.” Blocher notes that evangelicals too (even the Zwinglians!) speak of “presence.” One must understand what meaning to attribute to this presence: for evangelicals (except Lutherans who have a conception of their own), it is “spiritual,” that is, thanks to the Holy Spirit and in the Spirit; for Catholics, on the other hand, it implies the change of substance of the bread and wine brought about by the officiant into the sacramental body of Christ. These are two effectively distant experiences and concepts of presence.

Where does this Roman Catholic understanding come from? Blocher recalls the evolution of Catholic dogma. While the thinking of Irenaeus, Origen and Tertullian swings and tends toward a realist interpretation, more spiritualist readings are found in other Church Fathers (p. 195): Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus and Augustine are cited. The latter has an unresolved theology of the Supper: at times he identifies the divine reality and the sacramental sign, at other times he speaks of their difference (p. 200). Medieval development reached its peak with the dogma of transubstantiation at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. This dogma adopted a literal interpretation of Jesus’ words, “this is my body,” and became a core part of Roman Catholic doctrine. It was accompanied by a devotion to the mystery of the Eucharist, a desire for physical contact to receive grace, and a heightened reverence for the ecclesiastical institution’s power to sanctify (p. 207).

Biblically speaking, Blocher notes that in Scripture the body and blood of Christ are not linked to the bread and wine: it is out of biblical parameters to think of a change in their nature. It is “methodologically irresponsible to invent a new use of language without the text requiring it” (p. 215). If anything, the church is the body of Christ and “nothing indicates that the bread becomes the body” (p. 217). In addition, the wine remains the “fruit of the vine” (Matthew 26:29). Moreover, bread and wine signify and represent the body and blood of Christ, without being transformed into Christ Himself. Finally, Christ’s ascension to the right hand of the Father does not allow for the “localization” of Christ’s presence on the Eucharistic table (p. 211).

Remaining tied to the Tridentine dogma of transubstantiation, Roman Catholicism has in recent decades paved the way for relational re-interpretations of substance (e.g., B. Sesboüé) or in the direction of “transignification” (e.g., P. Schoonenberg) that, however, do not change the Catholic sacramental system (p. 213). The bottom line of the problem remains: Roman Catholicism needs to locate a “substantial” contact by which divine life is transmitted (p. 220).

As for the Catholic conception of the Eucharist as a “sacrifice” (and therefore propitiatory), Blocher notes how in the early Church Fathers the Eucharist is primarily associated with the sacrifice of prayers (Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian). It is only from the second half of the third century that the emphasis changes and the idea of the re-presented immolation of Christ’s sacrifice takes hold (Cyprian of Carthage, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom). Again, Augustine oscillates between positions. At the Council of Trent, Rome carved into its doctrine the sacrificial and expiatory conception of the Eucharist: according to Dutch theologian G. Berkouwer, it is a shadow cast over the sufficiency of Christ’s work (p. 232). The work of the atonement is not accomplished once and for all but is continually immolated. For Roman Catholicism, it is therefore not complete: it requires the substantial presence of the body of Christ and the continual offering of the church. Blocher is peremptory: “the idea of a sacrificial immolation of Christ on the Eucharistic table, transformed into an altar, has no justification whatsoever, be it biblical or theological” (p. 241). We are in the presence of an accretion of Roman Catholicism dependent on the natural and pagan religions absorbed into the corpus of Catholic experience.

Contrary to the ecumenical reading that wants to see in the Roman Catholic conception of the Eucharist another and complementary way of understanding and practicing the Lord’s Supper, Blocher helps to clarify that, even in the presence of the same and similar words, Roman Catholic sacramentology operates in a universe other than the evangelical faith. For this reason, the Parisian theologian has rendered with this dense and profound book another useful service to evangelical theological discernment.