Effecting what is signified

Which brings us to the issue of sacramental efficacy. Since the twelfth century it has commonly been said to be in the nature of a sacrament to 'effect what it signifies'. And while there is no call to quibble with this formula as such, it needs to be said that, largely because of post-medieval and distinctly empiricist notions of causality, it is now a highly misleading formula. For these reasons.

I have suggested that we ought to distinguish between the formal character of a sign in virtue of which it signifies and its material existence as an event or thing in the world. Now I propose to misuse a famous distinction of J. L. Austin's between 'illocutionary' and 'perlocutionary' performative speech-acts, so as to distinguish, in analogous fashion, within types of performative, between what one might call the formal and material efficacy of a performative utterance, and so between what you are doing in saying something - for example, promising in uttering the words 'I promise' - and what you are doing by means of saying it - for example, misleading the promisee when you have no intention of carrying out the promise.16 We might, even more generally, distinguish between what it is that your words effect in virtue of what they mean and what it is that your act of saying those words effects in virtue of their being uttered. This distinction is easiest to see in the case of what we might call 'performative contradictions', where the two fall apart: arguing at tedious length in favour of maximum participation at the seminar means one thing, which the prolixity of your saying it inhibits; reading the Riot Act, as in 1922 the British army officer did to a peaceful assembly of striking Welsh miners, means: 'Behave in an orderly fashion, or else I shall use military force to disperse you', but the intended (and actual) effect was so to anger the miners as to provoke the riotous behaviour it prohibits, thus to justify employing the force the Act then permits; or, more recently, creating racial conflict in the manner of the late British member of Parliament, Enoch Powell, by means of lurid warnings against its dangers; these are all cases in which people subvert what they are saying by the act of saying it. They say one thing, but what their saying of it does says the opposite.

Now this last formula may need a little explanation. It is possible to balk at the notion of an utterance being 'contradicted by' its being uttered, since only meanings can be in relations of contradiction with one another, not actions with meanings. But the notion is not after all so problematic. We are, since Austin, accustomed to the notion of a performative

16 J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), pp. 7-11.

utterance. We ought to be as used, since Wittgenstein, to the notion of an uttering performance, that is to say, of an action's bearing meaning. We all know that actions 'speak', and, that being so, we should note that utter-ings too are actions. There ought therefore to be little difficulty with the notion that utterances not only utter what the words spoken say, but also, being actions, can speak qua performances. For this reason, there ought to be no greater difficulty in principle with the analysis of the recursively contradictory behaviour, say, of the parent who smacks the child in order to teach her not to solve problems by means of violence.

Now rituals and liturgies are, par excellence, complex behaviours constituted by their interactions of performative utterances and uttering performances. Every liturgical action gets its rationale from what it means, which is to say, every liturgical action is a sign; and the central utterances of a Eucharistic liturgy are performative utterances: they are signs 'which effect what they signify', they do what they say. The utterance 'I baptise you' baptises; the priest's saying 'This is my body' over what appears to be bread makes 'this' to be the body of Christ.17

These distinctions are, at least theoretically, fairly clear. All the same, there lies in them a source of very common confusion. I have suggested that Austin's distinction between an 'illocutionary' and a 'perlocution-ary' speech-act roughly corresponds with my distinction between what an utterance effects by virtue of its meaning and what the action of uttering effects by virtue of that action's meaning. There is, of course, a distinction between my uttering the words 'I promise', which, by virtue of the meaning of the utterance, enacts a promise, and the effect which flows from my uttering it; for example, your being persuaded that I mean what I say. An illocutionary act performs what it says by virtue of what the words mean;18 the words of a promise do not cause a promise to be made, they are, appropriate conditions being met, a promise made. By contrast, a perlocutionary effect is caused by an utterance; by promising I have caused you to have confidence in my word. Now there are many

17 Thomas contemplates a conundrum at ST 3a q78 a5 corp.: are the words of institution true? He replies that they are, notwithstanding the objection that the 'this' in 'this is my body' cannot refer at the time of utterance to anything but the bread, since it is not until the utterance of the whole formula that the bread is changed into the body of Christ. The problem does not arise, he says, because the utterance is not a mere description of what is the case, but is one which makes 'this bread' to be the body of Christ: the utterance realises its own truth in practice, or, as he agrees, efficit quodfigurat, 'makes to be what it discloses'.

18 Of course, generally speaking it will do so only under 'due conditions', as Austin says (How to Do Things with Words, pp. 8-9). A 'practice Mass' is not a Mass; the Queen's rehearsing the words of naming the ship do not name the ship; telling someone what 'I promise to pay you five pounds' means is not to promise that person five pounds. Performatives are not magic incantations.

who confuse the two, and I suspect that Zwingli is one such. But then perhaps he is no more confused than some contemporary theologians of the Eucharist.

For the effects of a liturgy's system of signs being enacted are not to be confused with what those signs realise as sacramental signs. For Thomas, the efficacy of a sacrament is guaranteed by God and is brought about, in the sign, by God alone. But God does not guarantee, for any ritual whatever, that the empirical effects it gives rise to as perlocution are just those which, as sacramental sign, the ritual act signifies and effects.

A somewhat stereotyped if not entirely fanciful example may serve to illustrate, by analogy, some of the complexity with which illocutionary and perlocutionary forces interact with one another. Let us suppose a celibate male preacher delivering his sermon, as it were, from the height of his authoritarian pulpit, on the equality of all the people of God, priests and laypeople, women and men. Now we should not, on the strength of the distinction I have made between the formal message of a speech-act and the perlocutionary message of its being uttered, analyse these elements into separate, unrelated factors, the egalitarian communication and the fact that, as it happens, it is delivered from an authoritarian pulpit by a member of an exclusively male priesthood. For the point about the authoritarian pulpit and the exclusive maleness of the priest is that they are in themselves already sermons: as I said, actions also speak, as do this pulpit and the maleness of this priest, which communicate quite effectively enough within the words of the egalitarian sermon. We might suppose it is adequate to say that the pulpit or the maleness is but part of the materiality of the preacher's act of saying, as if thereby to suggest that it can play no part in the total communicative act. But this would be to misdescribe the distinction. The pulpit communicates too, as does the exclusivity of the priest's gender, for they both internalise and exhibit the character of the preacher's relationship with the congregation, and the significance of that materiality - its possessing its own meaning -practises its own hermeneutic upon the explicit formal meanings of the preacher's words. This is why the performance of an utterance can 'contradict' the utterance it performs, as in this case. For here those words of the preacher become the bearer of a condensation of conflicting meanings which, precisely in so far as that complex semantic whole lies outside the intended communication of the preacher, exists independently of those intentions, while at the same time subverting them. The total result is a social reality constructed upon a contradictoriness which is internal to the communicative act.

For it is in the facts of this contradiction that the members of the worshipping community are socialised. They perceive their relationship to the act of worship via the condensation of contradictory meanings, for at one level they attend, perhaps with approval, to the egalitarian message of the preacher and in so doing they reciprocate the authoritarianism of his act of saying it. Consequently, the preacher and the congregation enact a relationship constituted by the contradiction in which they are jointly socialised. Thus as they live out their relationship with the egalitarian-ism of the preacher's message through the authoritarian structures of its communication, so they live out their relationships with the authoritarianism of those structures through mystified categories of egalitarianism. In short, what such rituals effect is a rupture between what the ritual signifies as illocution and what it effects as perlocution. And when a ritual effects this rupture as a routine - when, in other words, it socialises the participants in this rupturing - then we can say that such rituals have the character of a certain kind of 'false consciousness', as Marxists used to say. In more theological terms we can also say that they parodise the sacramental character which they are supposed to exhibit. For they are rituals whose effects contradict what they signify: thus do the participants, as Paul says, 'eat and drink judgement on themselves' (1 Cor. 11:29).

Now these phenomena of bastard liturgies all have to do with the perlocutionary effects of the enactment of liturgical signs, in other words with what, as perlocutions, the signs effect under certain empirical conditions of their reception. The issues which arise here are altogether different from (if not entirely unrelated to) the issue of the sacramental efficacy of a sign, which is not in the same way causal. For if the Eucharistic 'presence' is to be seen, as I have suggested it must, as an act of radical communication - the 'Word' - spoken to us by the Father in Jesus, then the signs which sacramentally 'effect' that communication must be seen as more like Austin's illocutions than like his perlocutions, and the causal language of the traditional formula as in some way obscuring that distinction. For the way in which the Father communicates with us in Jesus through the eating of bread and wine is efficacious of that communication rather more in the way in which to say the words 'I promise' is to promise, is to communicate in that way, not, as Austin says, as being the cause of some mysterious 'promising event' over and above that communication. Thus too, the uttering of the words 'This is my body' and the subsequent eating and drinking of what appears to be bread and wine is not in a quasi-perlocutionary fashion the cause of something miraculous by means of a communication: it is the communication, or, as we say, the communion, in the body and blood of Christ. That is how Christ is present, not the less 'really' because it is a communication through signs, as if by saying it is a 'communication' one had denied that it was 'real'. For that is pure Zwinglianism.

And so we return to the central point of Thomas's Eucharistic theology. The Eucharist is the presence of Jesus' raised body - the resurrection -in so far as it can be present as communication to our unraised bodies. At the heart of Thomas's theology of the Eucharist is the conviction that the resurrection of Jesus does not diminish his bodiliness. It fulfils it: we might say that it radicalises it. In his natural life, Jesus' presence was limited by time and space and contingency, for his body was thus limited. We should not say: Jesus' presence, his availability, his power to communicate, was limited by his body. We should say rather: his power to communicate was limited by his body's mortality, by its being a 'body of death'. Therefore, by overcoming death Jesus' body was released from its limitations; and so, raised by his Father to immortality, he was more 'present' - signified more- to his disciples in the room when, after his resurrection, he ate a fish with them, than he had been when on the hillside he multiplied loaves and fishes - not less. He is more present to us now, in the Eucharist, than he could have been had we walked with him on the shores of Lake Galilee - not less. And so he is more bodily now, precisely as signifying more fully now when raised, not less, than before his death:19 this presence of mine, he said to his disciples, is not that of a ghost (Luke 24:39).

But if that is how Christ is present to us - in an act of radical communication - it is also how Christ is absent. For until we too are raised, that communication with the risen Jesus can only fail of ultimacy. The Eucharist is not yet the kingdom of the future as it will be in the future. It points to it as absent, not because, as a sign, it is in the nature of signs to signify in the absence of the signified, but because by means of the Father's action this human, bodily, sign of eating and drinking acquires a depth, an 'inwardness' of meaning, which realises the whole nature of our historical condition: what, in its essential brokenness, the Eucharist haltingly and provisionally signifies, can be fully realised only by the sacrament's abolition in the kingdom itself. The Eucharistic sign, the bodily acts of eating and drinking, thus caught up in this eschatolog-ical two-sidedness, becomes thereby and necessarily a two-sided sign:20 it is affirmation interpenetrated by negation, presence interpenetrated by absence; and it is that complexity of utterance, of 'sign', which is made 'real' in the Eucharist, inscribed within a body's presence.

In this perspective it is now possible to see just what is wrong with Zwingli's 'absence'. It is a one-sided absence which gets its meaning by

19 For further discussion of this relationship between bodiliness and significance, see pp. 89-94 below.

reaction against a rather mechanistically causalist account of Eucharistic efficacy: as if the doctrine of real presence he denies maintained that the sign 'effects what it signifies' in a perlocutionary manner, such that the uttering of the words pulls off the effect of Christ's presence in the way in which a provocative remark pulls off a provocation; so that, if you are to deny that account, the only thing you are left with is sign, with no 'reality' effected, a sort of one-sided negativity. As we have seen, this is not in any case what the formula means, even if there are indeed Catholic theologians who, unlike Thomas, appear to have thought it. But then Zwingli does not reject that position in the name of any less mechanistic an account of sacramental efficacy, since for him no account of Christ's presence as 'real' is possible other than in such mechanistically causal terms. As a consequence, for him, what the sign effects is merely the negative significance of absence in the minds of the Eucharistic community.

And this, in the end, is what, in Zwingli's account, 'overthroweth the nature of the sacrament', namely that he supposes the efficacy of the sacrament to lie in what it causes to occur 'in the mind' by contrast with what occurs 'in reality'. Zwingli's theological opponents, of course, will only reinforce the error of Zwingli's ways if they affirm, as Zwingli thought they did, that what the sacrament effects is something 'in reality' by contrast with its occurring 'in the mind', or 'in the sign'. And those opponents might be all the more tempted to say such things when they hear it said, as I have explained Thomas to be saying, that what the sacrament effects is an act of 'radical communication'; at any rate, they will be so tempted in so far as they suppose, as many nowadays seem to suppose, that communication itself is something which occurs 'in the mind' rather than 'in reality'. But Thomas, at any rate, will have nothing to do with such episte-mologies, which split off from one another the 'significant' from the 'real' and the 'real' from the body - if only for the sake of a coherent theology of Eucharistic presence. For Thomas, it is within such a theology that the dialectic of affirmation and negation, of the darkness of God and the light of Christ, is first, that is to say, primordially, located and sourced. It is located, for Thomas, in the body, in a bodily action so caught up in the eschatological temporality of faith that body and communication, matter and significance, become entirely transparent to one another, all significance and all body and the one because of the other. This, for Thomas, is the general significance of the Eucharist as sacrament: it is the body as language, our language of communion with one another made into the Father's language of communion with us through Christ, who is at once present and absent. And it is that dialectic of presence and absence which is made real, 'realised', in the Eucharist. For Thomas, then, this doctrine of the Eucharistic presence is not formed by that dialectic - as if those relations of affirmativity and negativity stood preformed in some Platonic or pagan philosophy of language about God thus to determine the shape of Eucharistic theology a priori. Rather it is the reverse: for Thomas it is in the eschatological dynamic of the Eucharist, and so in the more general character of sacramentality as such, that the complexities of presence and absence, of realisation and failure, of its multi-faceted temporalities, are forced upon us as quite universal and constitutive features of theological language as such. And for that matter it is in the equally oxymoronic dialectic of visibility and invisibility in Bonaventure's Chal-cedonian Christology, and of oneness and threeness in Nicaean trinitarian orthodoxy, that those Platonic dialectics of affirmation and negation are forced upon us as theological necessities of thought. Giving a coherent conceptual construction on those dialectics requires much philosophy, one which is no doubt in Thomas's case, as in Bonaventure's, indebted to their Neoplatonic forebears. But it is the philosophy which yields to, and does not impose, the radicalness of faith's claims upon it.

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