Analyzing Sacramental Efficacy

Thomas is often credited with the definitive formulation of sacraments as causes of grace. Part of the credit usually goes to his philosophical account of causality: he was able to explain the sacraments because he understood Aristotle so well. In other contexts, Thomas does indeed prove himself an attentive reader of Aristotle on causes. Of course, he often supplements the Aristotelian classifications of causes - for example, by borrowing from Avi-cenna and by insisting on the importance of exemplary causality, that is, causality by participative likeness. Thomas does not hold for one and only one proper cause behind a natural event, nor does he teach any strict doctrine of causal determinism in nature. He is careful not to reduce the complex discourse about causes to one or several tightly worded "principles." He is even more careful when theological analyses are required. Thomas's understanding of theologically important cases of causality leads him to reformulate causality in general.

Thomas is by no means the first Scholastic theologian to call the sacraments causes. Scholastic usage goes back at least a century before him. Peter Lombard distinguishes sacraments from other signs by pointing to their causal efficacy: "'Sacrament' is said properly of what is so much a sign of the grace of God and so much the form of invisible grace, that it produces the image of it and stands forth as a cause" (ipsius imaginem gerat et causa exsistat).34 The Lombard's language is taken up explicitly by such older theologians as Guido of Orchelle and William of Auxerre,35 not to mention such influential Franciscan masters as Bonaventure.36 Assertions

34 Peter Lombard Sententiae 4.1.4 no. 2 (CSB 2:233).

35 See Guido de Orchellis, Tractatus de sacramentis ex eius summa de sacramentis et officiis ecclesiae, eds. D. and O. Van den Eynde (St Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute, 1953), 3—5, especially 5.10—13; and Guillelmus Altissiodorensis, Summa aurea, ed.J. Ribaillier (Paris: CNRS, and Grottaferata: CSB, 1980-1983), 4:12.15-16.

36 Bonaventura Sententiae and Breviloquium 6.1.

of sacramental causal efficacy can also be found in many of Thomas's Dominican predecessors.37

If Thomas is not the first to speak of sacraments as causes, he does give new prominence to sacramental causality when he asserts it separately and straightforwardly. In the Sentences, for example, Peter Lombard's whole treatment of sacraments is part of the "teaching about signs" (doctrina signo-rum), and so its discussions of causality are inevitably subordinated to discussions of signification.38 In Bonaventure, a lengthy review of controversies over sacramental causality ends on a note of skeptical reserve:

I do not know which [opinion] is truer; since when we speak of things that are miracles, we ought not to adhere much to reason. We thus concede that the sacraments of the New Law are causes, that they produce effects and that they dispose things, according to the loose sense of "cause" . . . and it is safe to say this. Whether they have something more, I wish neither to affirm nor to deny.39

Even Albert is careful to describe sacramental causality as a kind of material disposition, and to deny that saving grace is somehow tied to the sacraments or that they "contain" grace in any ordinary sense.40 Against this background, Thomas's steady assertions of causal efficacy in the sacraments are striking.41

The organization of the Summa, unlike that of the Lombard's Sentences, makes sacramental causality more prominent than signification. Thomas divides the common consideration of the sacraments into five topics: what they are, why they are needed, what their effects are, what their causes are, and how many of them there are (Summa 3.60 prologue). Each topic takes one Question, except for the topic of effects, which is divided between principal and secondary (3.62-63). The topic of sacramental efficacy is more highly articulated than the others from the start.

Thomas begins traditionally enough by defending the claim that sacra

37 The pertinent texts are collected by H.-D. Simonin and G. Meersseman, De sacramentorum efficientia apud theologos Ord. Prad. (Rome: Pontifical Institute Angelicum, 1936), fasc. 1:122-126.

38 Peter Lombard, Sent. 4. prol. (CSB 2:231). The large structure of the Sentences depends upon Augustine's distinctions between things to be enjoyed and things to be used, and between things and signs.

39 Bonaventura Sent. 4.1. unic. 4 at end.

40 Albert, Super libros Sententiarum 4.1.B.5 (Borgnet Opera omnia 26:18).

41 Consider the following examples from texts before Summa theol.: Scriptum Sent. 4. ad 5, "Now simply speaking a sacrament is what causes holiness"; De verit. 27.4, "it is necessary to hold that the sacraments of the New Law are in some way the cause of grace."

ments are a kind of sign. He defends it even against the objection that they cannot be signs because they are causes (3.60.1 arg. 1 and ad 1). He speaks here most broadly: "sacrament" refers to any sign of something holy that serves to sanctify those who perform or receive it appropriately (60.2). In this loose sense, "sacrament" refers not only to the rites of the Old Testament, such as the paschal lamb or priestly blessings, but also to the worship of God practiced before or beyond the special revelation recorded in Scrip-ture.42 When Thomas wants to specify Christian sacraments within the broad genus, he asserts their causal efficacy (62.1, 65.1 ad 6). To state this differently: Thomas speaks of sacraments as signs when he has in mind the whole range of human religious ritual. When he wants to restrict himself to the seven sacraments of the Christian church, he speaks of sacraments as causes.

What exactly does Thomas mean by calling them causes? He does not mean something that can be found immediately in Aristotle. At least, he does not point the reader toward Aristotle for help with the pertinent notion of cause. There are some 60 explicit citations in the two Questions on sacramental effects. Only five are to Aristotle, and he is the only pagan author mentioned.43 Two of the remaining three citations assert only that a power is a cause and that there are powers in the soul.44 The third asserts that political ministers are instruments - a maxim that Thomas applies, somewhat disingenuously, in order to bring priesthood under the account of instrumentality.45 More interestingly, he appears to avoid citing Aristotle when he could. He cites Augustine for the common Aristotelian principle that a cause is higher or nobler than its effect (62.1 arg. 2). He cites no authority whatever for a Peripatetic maxim on teleology of nature (62.2 sed contra) or for the logical teaching about the categorical difference between figure and power (63.2 arg. 1).

The absence of Aristotle is confirmed by Thomas's elaboration of an account of sacramental causality. It begins by distinguishing between a cause and a conventional sign (62.1). The sacraments are asserted to be causes "in many of the authoritative pronouncements of the saints" (62.1). They are not principal causes as much as instrumental causes. A principal cause works in virtue of its own form, and so its effects are likened to that form. An

42 For the Israelite cases, 60.2 ad 2, 60.6 ad 3; for the others, 60.5 ad 3, 61.4 ad 2, 65.1 ad 7.

43 They are 62.2 arg. 3, Metaphysics 7.3 (1043b36); 62.3 arg. 1, Physics 4.14 (212a14); 63.2 arg. 4, Metaphysics 4.12 (1019a15); 63.2 sed contra, Nicomachean Ethics 2.5 (1105b20); and 63.2, Politics 1.2 (1253b30).

44 Metaphysics 4.12 (paraphrased): "a power takes the account of a cause and principle"; Nicomachean Ethics 2.5 (quoted): "'Three things are in the soul: power, habit, and passion.'"

45 Politics 1.2 (paraphrased): "now a minister possesses the manner of an instrument."

instrumental cause does its work in virtue of the motion of some principal cause, so that the effects of an instrument are not like its form, but instead like the form of the principal cause moving it. Any instrument has two actions, of its own form and of the moving cause (62.1 ad 2). The actions are connected: the moving cause achieves its effects through the instrument's proper action.

Thomas explicitly defends the image of the moving cause working "through" an instrument when he explains how the sacraments can be said to "contain" grace (63.3). He argues by exclusion. Grace is in the sacraments not according to the likeness of species, or according to some proper and permanent form, but rather "according to an instrumental power (virtus instrumentalis), which is flowing and incomplete in the being of nature" (63.3). The puzzling last phrase is not a lapse. Thomas repeats it when he says that the grace has a "flowing and incomplete being" (esse fluens et incom-pletum) (63.3 ad 3). To say that a sacrament is an instrumental cause obliges one to say that there is "some instrumental power" in the sacrament that is "proportioned to the instrument" (63.4). The power has an incomplete being that passes from one thing to another.

It is difficult enough to imagine this power in any case, but more difficult still for the Christian sacraments. In them, physical instruments connect an immaterial being, who is cause, to a partly immaterial being, who receives a spiritual effect. The same instrumental power is found in the diverse elements of a sacrament - in its verbal formulas, prescribed actions, and material elements. Finally, the instrumental efficacy of the sacraments depends on the efficacy of the humanity of Christ, itself an instrument of his divinity (62.5). Whereas the human instrument is conjoined to its principal cause, the sacramental instruments are separated from it. To understand sacramental causality requires conceiving instruments composed of many kinds of material things or motions that receive and contain their causal power from a remote being of a different order, in order to pass that power along to beings of yet another kind.

Much ingenuity has been spent in trying to explain that Thomas cannot possibly mean any of this literally, that he must mean something more philosophically familiar. Bernard Lonergan, for example, has argued elegantly and emphatically that Thomas's causality must be spoken of generally either as a "formal content" in the agent or as a relation of dependence in the effect; it cannot be something added to the cause.46 Again, Lonergan holds that "a causally efficient influence" passing from agent to patient in

46 Bernard J. F. Lonergan, Grace and Freedom: Operative Grace in the Thought of St Thomas Aquinas, ed.J. Patout Burns (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), p. 69.

cases of efficient causation is "either a mere modus significandi [mode of signification] or else sheer imagination."47 Others have applied Lonergan's reading of Thomas on causality to Thomas on the sacraments. Thus McShane argues that a sign can become an efficient cause of grace without itself changing, without "doing" anything "in any popular sense of the word 'do.'"48 Again, "action is predicated of the agent only by extrinsic denomination."49 Unfortunately, these readings do justice neither to Thomas's language nor to his choice of topics. We should not seek to explain away important features of Thomas's texts so much as to see that he uses the sacraments to extend ordinary notions of causality. It is not sheer imagination. It is the transmutation of philosophy into theology.50

A full account of instrumental causality would include passages in which Thomas argues at length that creatures are instruments in relation to divine action or applies the notion of instrument to the humanity of Christ.51 In them, a reader can see that Thomas's notion of instrumental causality far exceeds an Aristotelian account. Thomas must elaborate an account of instruments, which Aristotle mentions only casually in his main classifications of causes.52 He goes beyond Aristotle as well by stressing the presence in the instrument of a power capable of producing effects far beyond the instrument's own nature.

The second revision of Aristotelian causality is underscored in the Summa when Thomas turns to another kind of sacramental effect. Here the reader is asked to understand that three unrepeatable sacraments - baptism, confirmation, priestly ordination - produce not only grace, but a permanent "character" in the soul of the recipient (3.63). As Thomas's scholarly glosses suggest, theological formulations defining such a "character" were rather new in Latin. His most technical definition of it is an anonymous one to be found no further back than his immediate predecessors (63.3 sed contra). He uses the notion, however newly formulated, to extend instrumental causality.

The sacramentally bestowed, permanent "character" is a spiritual power

47 Lonergan, Review of E. Iglesias, De Deo in operatione naturae vel voluntatis operante, Theological Studies 7 (1946):602-613, at p. 603.

48 Philip McShane, "On the Causality of the Sacraments," Theological Studies 24 (1963): 423-436.

49 McShane, "Causality of the Sacraments," p. 430.

50 I do not mean to suggest that there are no difficulties in Thomas's account that need further analysis. For a recent restatement of them, see Liam G. Walsh, in The Theology of Thomas Aquinas, eds. Nieuwenhove and Wawrykow, 326-364, at pp. 344-347.

51 For creatures generally, Contra gent. 3.70, De potentia 3.7, Summa theol. 1.105.5.

52 Instruments are mentioned briefly as one kind of means in Metaphysics 5.2 (1013b3), but not at all in the parallel passage in Physics 2.3.

(potestas spiritualis) that enables its possessor to participate appropriately in the worship of God (63.2, 63.4 ad 2). The power is instrumental so far as it creates "ministers" in the divine service. Becoming a minister is not simply acquiring an extrinsic attribution. It requires that something be put into the soul. This something, the "character," establishes a relation that is then signified as the minister's particular office in the service of God (63.2 ad 3). The relation remains in souls as a permanent intrinsic attribute - more permanent than normal habits of grace, which can be lost. The "character" is permanent because it participates in the permanency of its divine cause (63.5 ad 1), which is the universal priesthood of Christ (compare 63.3).

Standing back from its details, a reader can appreciate this teaching as a remarkable extension of the notion of causality. Complex events, involving words, gestures, and physical objects, can properly be said to be causes of permanent changes in the moral condition of those who participate in them. The changes enable participants to perform virtuous actions, such as the just worship of God, by which they are brought nearer their end. The recipient who performs these actions is brought closer to the vision of God, which is her highest end and profoundest desire. Thomas explicitly contrasts his account with any appeal to legal ordination or convention (62.1). He wants to assert a causal power in the sacramental instruments to produce effects that are permanent and decisively significant alterations of the powers of the soul.

The analysis of sacramental efficacy itself converts philosophy into theology. At the very least, Thomas has added another wing onto the account of causality by developing the instrumentality of events, just as he has required any full survey of causes to include sacraments. He reverses the analogy of "cause" as he did with "virtue." The richest kind of causality is the causality by which God brings rational creatures to share in divine life. We readers apprehend the causality concretely in the sacraments, which are central, rather than exceptional, for the fullest account of causes available to us.

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