The Sacraments”

Selection from Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P., “Thomism for the New Evangelization”


We live in an age of strange Gnostic, a-corporeal spiritualism. What does it to mean to say that you are spiritual, but not religious? It must mean something, but it cannot be good. Why? Because as human beings we don’t just inhabit bodies. We also are bodies, and religion is about being spiritual in your bodily life by worshipping God through physical actions. The traditional list of religious practices includes devotion (which is in the heart), prayer (which is in the mind), physical gestures of adoration, sacrifices, oaths, tithes, and vows. The internal life of religion, to be real and concrete, needs to move outward through the body and to be “incarnated” in liturgical prayer. All of this entails belonging to community and being committed to regular actions of liturgical prayer in that community. So religion is something you live out as an animal, a rational animal that is radically religious and made for God. 

We talk in religious life about fraternal correction. This is when one member of a religious order attempts with charity and truthfulness to make clear to another the need for moral conversion on some matter. Typically the most difficult part is being able to hear the correction when a brother comes to talk to you about a thing you need to change. And it’s a mercy if it is said well. Revealed religion is God’s fraternal correction to humanity. God is giving us normative forms of religious life by which we can live together with God and others in a community. 

In his sacramental theology, Aquinas, makes two great points that are very pertinent in this regard. One is that we are, as animals, in need of being touched by the grace of God. This is the point of the sacraments. In the seven sacraments instituted by Christ, we are receiving what is most transcendent and what is most essential to our happiness: God and life with God. In itself, the mystery of God is transcendent and evades us, but in the sacraments we receive what is most transcendent—what we most need—in the most connatural way, even directly through the senses. Not even through a book! That’s a very beautiful way to receive God (through the Scriptures), but really to touch God, that’s the sacramental life. It’s very interesting to watch a baby being baptized and to think about how Divine Life is being infused into the immaterial soul of this child by pouring water on its head. Or the Eucharist: you can hold it in your hand, you can receive it on your tongue. You are being nourished by the death of Christ; you are being nourished by the life of Christ resurrected. That is very mysterious, but it is so simple. It’s about receiving love from God in the most connatural way and then, when we receive these physical signs, grace truly acts upon us! When someone says the words of pardon over you in the sacrament of confession—when they say little words over you—Christ acts and your sins are forgiven. It’s amazing! 

So we receive God through the most connatural forms but also, secondly, this knits together the Church as a community, not a church of my own making in my own mind, but the Church that Christ founded. We live in the Church that the Apostles founded, based on the apostolic succession of the bishops and priests. Yes, the mediocre bishops and priests and the mediocre lay people. The mediocre people of God, but kept alive through this living bond of the sacraments that keeps us as a family bound together in the death and resurrection of Christ. This is a serious religion, a visible religion—one in which you can truly live, truly die, and truly attain to eternal life. Human beings put up protests and say that Catholicism is too monolithic, but deep down our human nature is made for the kinds of challenge to conversion and holiness that traditional Catholicism presents. There is no point in proposing to other people an unserious religion. And Aquinas’ sacramental vision gives you a serious religion to propose to people. The sacraments are causes of grace. God causes grace in the soul through this set of physical gestures that Christ gave the Apostles, that the Apostles gave to the Church, and that the Church brings to us.