by David P. Lang

Why Matter Matters

Introduction: Symbols and Sacraments

God speaks to us human beings through symbols.

What is a symbol? A symbol is a perceptible sign that points to something beyond itself — a reality that the sign resembles in some way. The sign is some ordinary material object or physical action with which we are familiar, whereas the reality it signifies is usually more remote. But the similarity between them is sufficiently close that the sign is capable of leading us to a notion of the higher reality.

Why does God use symbols to speak to us? We are rational beings possessing a spiritual soul, but we also have physical bodies equipped with sensory organs. Therefore, all our knowledge during this life on earth naturally begins with sense perception and the objects of the senses: what we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. Our minds are not naturally attuned to direct awareness of sublime supernatural truths — too far beyond our feeble reach in their sheer brilliance. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, one of the two greatest philosophers of antiquity (the other being his teacher, Plato), compared our human minds to the eyes of bats in the brightness of daylight. This is also a major lesson in Plato’s famous allegory of the cave: we are bedazzled when, upon departing our prison of ignorance, we are compelled to gaze at the truth (which is sometimes resisted). On account of our weakness, God graciously condescends by presenting suprasensible realities to us clothed in a language fit for our fleshly level of understanding. St. Thomas Aquinas, the superlative philosopher-theologian of the late Middle Ages, stresses precisely this point. Indeed, we ourselves regularly engage in symbolic behavior: making gestures (such as handshakes), wearing uniforms connected with professional occupations, raising flags and banners, lighting candles, decorating with ribbons and wreaths, adorning with jewelry (such as wedding rings), etc. Hence, it is not surprising that we, who interact with one another through the medium of images or symbolic representations, should encounter God in a similar manner.

Which symbols does God use to teach us? God uses the harmonious splendor of the entire physical universe, with its awesomely intricate arrangement of beautiful and beneficial things, as a gigantic sign to make Himself known to us! Three Scriptural verses emphasize this truth. First, Wisdom 13:5, RSV: "For from the greatness and beauty of created things / comes a corresponding perception of their Creator." Next, Psalm 19:1, RSV: "The heavens are telling the glory of God; / and the firmament proclaims his handiwork." Finally, Romans 1:20, RSV: "Ever since the creation of the world his [God’s] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made." St. Bonaventure, a contemporary of St. Thomas Aquinas and another illustrious philosophizing theologian, is well-known for his work The Mind’s Road to God, in which he treats at length the ways God is reflected. For our relevant purposes here, God is mirrored through His "traces" in the physical universe open to our sensory experience, through His "image" impressed on our natural powers of intellect and will, and through His "image" in us elevated and purified by supernatural grace.

Thus, God’s providential dispensation has ordered the material world to the spiritual life of humanity. In particular, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity and the Word of God who incarnated Himself to redeem us (see John 1:1-14), instituted seven sacraments. Most of these contain simple, commonplace material substances having the marvelous ability to elevate our minds to the realm of divine mystery. But, again, we need to experience such visible signs on account of our natural mental difficulty in beholding spiritual truths directly, especially after the further weakening caused by Original Sin.

What exactly is a sacrament? The 1983 Code of Canon Law, Can. 840, states: "The Sacraments of the New Testament were instituted by Christ the Lord and entrusted to the Church. As actions of Christ and of the Church, they are signs and means by which faith is expressed and strengthened, worship is offered to God and our sanctification is brought about." According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (hereafter CCC), n. 1123, the sacraments are "signs [that] also instruct," which "not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects . . . also nourish, strengthen, and express it." Their purpose is to render worship to God through sanctifying individuals and building up the Body of Christ. In short, a sacrament is a symbolic rite, involving some basic physical substance or condition (its matter) along with a structure of words and actions (its form), which actually brings about the very gift that it signifies. The CCC, nn. 1127-1128, explains that the sacraments "act ex opere operato (literally: ‘by the very fact of the action’s being performed’)." In other words, so long as the proper (or valid) matter and form are employed by a sacrament’s legitimate minister acting according to the Church’s intention, the sacramental effect immediately results through the salvific power of Christ — independently of the state of righteousness of the minister. But, of course, the degree of grace conferred depends on the "disposition" of the recipient.

It is through this conjunction of matter and form that we grasp the meaning of a sacrament and what it accomplishes. We learn that, by God’s almighty power, using these humble signs as instruments, the recipient of the sacrament enters into either a different, or else a deeper, supernatural relationship with God and other people. The recipient may be empowered to carry out some new tasks that will be meritorious toward everlasting happiness in heaven. (This is what happens most notably in the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders, as well as Matrimony, but each sacrament has its own unique or special purpose.) In any case, if received worthily, every sacrament imparts to the soul the gift of an enhanced participation in God’s very own eternal Life — an increase in what is called sanctifying grace. As the first pope taught, "His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, …that through these you may…become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:3-4, RSV).

Who could be against these wonderful blessings, the sacraments? Well, certain people throughout history have been suspicious of mixing material things with spiritual realities. Some have felt that lowly material things are incapable of being used, even by God’s might, for noble spiritual purposes. Others have thought that it is beneath God’s dignity and unworthy of the human soul for our heavenward journey to be contaminated by matter. All these people have been burdened with the intellectual affliction called "gnosticism."

In fact, the atmosphere surrounding certain contemporary controversies betrays some quite convincing evidence that this ancient gnostic worldview is once again attracting numerous adherents, whether or not they are explicitly aware of its influence on their thinking. This lamentable circumstance will become more apparent in due course, once we examine the proper matters for valid celebration of the various sacraments. But for now, as a preview, we claim the following situation prevails: the lands formerly under Christendom’s yoke are currently plagued with a rampant relativism that considers the Church’s sacramental material requirements a result of mere custom and arbitrary rules subject to change — and thus a matter of indifference or irrelevance.

One of the original tenets of gnosticism is that salvation comes through secret knowledge (called gnosis), accessible only to the privileged few — rather than through public divine revelation with its open invitation addressed to all mankind. Moreover, the first gnostics, equating spirit with goodness and light, deemed matter evil and submerged in darkness. Since persons are beings capable of intellectual illumination, it logically follows from this position that matter cannot pertain to the essence of a person’s core identity. Therefore, any materiality attached to a person becomes extraneous and incidental to the superior spiritual aspect of consciousness.

This thinking may, at first glance, seem innocuous; perhaps surprisingly, however, it is actually fraught with dangerous ramifications. For if matter is unimportant, then it can be molded or disposed of at the whim of any prevalent intellectual current. Bodily conditions can be consigned to matters of mere expedience subject to the technologically crafty and politically cunning. If embraced by a large or powerful enough group, the gnostic attitude may stimulate the growth of totalitarian forces. Subsequently, the tyranny of grandiose utopian ideas and the ruthless drive to implement them may succeed at subjugating those whose physical constitution or ideological nonconformity does not measure up to the iron standards of the ruling elite. When man’s delicately woven biological and spiritual fabric is not respected, when its Creator is not reverenced, then might makes right and hell torments earth. The twentieth century witnessed on an enormous scale the emergence of some arrogantly wicked dictatorial regimes imbued with a gnostic (and often occult) worldview: Nazism, Communism, and the Sexual Revolution that spawned the Abortion Holocaust.

Even if modern neo-gnostics do not condemn matter per se as evil, nonetheless they (like their predecessors) persist in seeing various differences in the forms of matter as irrelevant for an enlightened understanding of reality. For them, in other words, human consciousness must be raised to the level where it is liberated from a narrow-minded entrapment in the confining categories of merely material distinctions, which supposedly hinder the maximization of individual aggrandizement. This self-centered, prideful attitude is a strong temptation during certain historical periods, especially our own era, when people are insisting on their autonomous right to "do their own thing" — even if their choices violate the moral and social norms traditionally believed to govern our human nature as embodied spirits.

Protestantism has long been infected with gnostic tendencies. In fairness, though, we must note that so-called "low-church" Protestantism (such as "Fundamentalism") suffers from the gnostic mentality to a graver extent than so-called "high-church" Protestantism (such as Lutheranism and Anglicanism). In fact, long ago the low-church denominations basically eliminated ritual, so their worship services are reduced to praying, singing hymns, and hearing sermons preached on Biblical passages. As a consequence of their abandonment of material symbolism and rejection of the Holy Mass (an unbloody re-presentation of Christ’s priestly sacrificial offering on Calvary), most of the sacraments (with the exceptions of Baptism and Matrimony) vanished from their multi-versions of Christianity. Actually, a certain relativism about matter affected even Lutheranism at its inception, as we shall see in Chapter 1.

By contrast, the Catholic Church has battled the periodic eruptions of gnostic ideology since the first century a.d. (for instance, Manicheanism in the early centuries, Albigensianism [or Catharism] during the Middle Ages, and nefarious revolutionary movements in more recent times). Of course, Catholicism does admit a sharp distinction between purely spiritual entities (God, angels, the human soul) and those composed of matter (the human body, animals, plants, minerals). Nevertheless, the Church refuses to erect a wall of separation between the spiritual and material realms. As we discussed earlier, the Church affirms a sacramental perspective on the physical world: material substances reflect and signify supernatural realities, some doing so in a more fitting manner than others. The Creator endowed things with definite natures to fulfill certain purposes, and so it cannot be a matter of indifference to Him what things are used as means to ends. As St. Paul succinctly put it in 1 Corinthians 15:39, NAB: "Not all bodily nature is the same." Matter matters! Indeed, God loves the way He has created material forms, according to Wisdom 11:24, RSV: "For thou lovest all things that exist and hast loathing for none of the things which thou hast made."

Thus, it is strangely ironic that the Church has been accused of being antiscientific. The opposite charge of taking the domain of biology (with its assortment of specific chemical compounds) too seriously is closer to the truth. But this charge is not completely accurate either, since matter is not all-encompassing, contrary to Marxist dogma. After all, the Church teaches (as classical philosophy likewise proves) that human beings are destined for existence beyond the grave wherein the body is corrupted. Yet, by divine omnipotence, the glorified body finally triumphs anyway in the resurrection from the dead at the end of time.

In particular, disputes over matter lie at the bottom of such seemingly unrelated issues as: (1) valid ingredients for the sacraments, (2) ordaining women priests, (3) homosexual unions, (4) artificial contraception, (5) artificial reproduction, (6) abortion, (7) euthanasia and/or assisted suicide, and (8) environmentalism and/or animal rights. The Church takes all of these human biological matters very seriously indeed — unlike certain groups of people (under the sway of gnosticism) who trivialize some of them.

This book concerns the first three items, which impinge directly on six of the seven sacraments: Baptism (Chapter 1), the Holy Eucharist (Chapter 2 and Chapter 3), Confirmation and the Anointing of the Sick (Chapter 4), Holy Orders (Chapter 5), and Matrimony (Chapter 6). The fourth, fifth, and sixth items listed are, of course, intimately related to married life, but they do not bear immediately on the valid matter of Matrimony as such. Since many comprehensive books are widely available on these topics (which, as everyone knows, have aroused much rancorous dissent in our time), any treatment of them in a book of this size would be inadequate. Hence, we declare them beyond the scope of our limited coverage, along with the topics of the seventh and eighth items (except for relegation to a brief mention in the Epilogue). In any case, even regarding the topics more extensively treated, this book does not pretend to be a scholarly dissertation on sacramental theology. Its focus, as its title implies, is restricted to the essential "material" features of the sacraments, and, in particular, to the matter required for validly bringing about (technically speaking, confecting) each sacrament.

Note that there is a big difference between validity and liceity. "Valid" means what is absolutely and intrinsically necessary for accomplishing a sacramental rite. "Licit" means what is permitted or lawful — something that can be relative, depending on circumstances. Liceity entails validity, but not conversely: a sacrament may be validly confected by including some feature that is prohibited for other reasons or by omitting some component that is required for other purposes. For instance, leavened wheat bread in the Latin Eucharistic rite is valid though illicit matter, since only unleavened wheat bread is traditionally allowed in the Western liturgy. For another example, flowing water alone is the valid matter for Baptism, but it is ordinarily illicit to neglect a subsequent anointing with chrism oil in the full baptismal ceremony.

Furthermore, the Sacrament of Penance (or Reconciliation) is not discussed at all in this book, because the "matter" involved there is sin, which (as moral evil) is not a physical substance. Indeed, as the towering genius St. Augustine has taught us, all evil (whether physical or moral) is devoid of any positive reality; instead, it is a parasitic disorder affecting with distortion and damage something (whether body or spirit) that in itself is good. Technically speaking, evil is a privation of good: a lack of some perfection that ought to be present.

Some remarks about our procedure in this book are called for. As its subtitle indicates, we intend to use both philosophy and theology. What’s the distinction between these two fields of learning? The name "philosophy" is derived from two Greek roots, which, taken together, literally mean "love of wisdom." As an area of study, philosophy is the discipline that pursues answers to the big questions of existence (concerning God and human life) via natural reason reflecting on the common observations of mankind about ourselves and the world around us. (For example, humanity, with its immemorial awareness of such notions as "moral goodness," our "desire for immortality," and the evident "design in the universe," is driven to seek deeper insights into their implications.) By contrast, theology is the science that investigates the truth of things via meditation on divine revelation accepted in the light of supernatural faith. Although philosophy and theology share a large tract of overlap in their concerns and have the same aim (to arrive at ultimate truth), their methods differ. In short, philosophy takes a "bottom-up" approach to reality, whereas theology takes a "top-down" approach.

This author is neither professional theologian nor Scripture scholar. Hence, this book was conceived and written from a philosophical viewpoint: that is to say, from the standpoint of someone who originally wondered why the properties of certain material substances make them more pertinent for symbolizing spiritual realities than the properties of other physical things. Wonder is the fundamental attitude from which all philosophical inquiry begins, according to both Plato and Aristotle.

Let us at the outset make the disclaimer, however, that unaided human reason cannot strictly prove the necessity of certain materials, while excluding others, for validly enacting (or confecting) the sacraments. We depend ultimately on positive divine revelation (as traditionally interpreted by the Church’s Magisterium) for definitive resolutions to whatever difficulties may arise. The Code of Canon Law, Can. 841, states: "Since the sacraments are the same throughout the universal Church, and belong to the divine deposit of faith, only the supreme authority in the Church can approve or define what is needed for their validity." Similarly, the CCC, n. 1125, warns: "No sacramental rite may be modified or manipulated at the will of the minister or the community."

Yet, on the other hand, logical arguments from suitability, springing both from human experience with the physical world (our knowledge of the properties of material substances) and from Sacred Scripture (which Christians accept on faith as the revealed word of God), can be articulated. (Incidentally, some synonyms for "suitable" that we will regularly employ are "apt," "appropriate," "fitting," and "conducive.") To borrow a metaphor from the opening line of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio, the conjoined efforts of reason and faith furnish us with the wings to soar to the truth. Here we obey the injunction of the first pope, who told us always to be ready with a courteous response to anyone who asks us for reasons why we hope or believe (see 1 Peter 3:15-16). We also follow the model of St. Augustine, who boldly proclaimed, "I believe in order that I might understand." And we further recall the proverbial motto of St. Anselm (another outstanding medieval philosopher-theologian): "Faith seeking to understand." The reader should appreciate that we have already been judiciously commingling the water of philosophy with the wine of theology.

Lastly, some critical information about Biblical interpretation should be brought to the reader’s attention. St. Thomas Aquinas explains that the meaning (or sense) of Scripture can be reckoned on two levels: the literal sense and the spiritual sense. The literal sense is the surface meaning of the text conveyed by the words themselves. The spiritual sense is a deeper (often hidden) meaning, in which the actual persons, things, or events mentioned (called types) in turn signify other things or events. (Again we meet with symbolism!) Now, since representations can permit historical realizations in multiple ways, there may be many valid spiritual interpretations of a single Scriptural verse. They are not arbitrary, though, because they are all based on the literal narrative; furthermore, any solidly orthodox spiritual interpretation is always taught literally somewhere else in the Bible. A typical instance of the spiritual sense is the allegorical, wherein some person, thing, or event in the Old Testament prefigures or foreshadows a corresponding fulfillment in the New Testament.

This book contains numerous Scriptural references. Although many quotations are provided in full (with the source translation designated by RSV, NAB, or D-R, or no designation if all three versions apply), in the interest of an economical presentation not all allusions are cited with their corresponding text. Hence, although it is certainly not necessary for comprehension of the book, if the reader wishes to derive the maximum benefit from it, the author advises a companion Bible ready at hand to look up some of the verses mentioned but not quoted. In this way the material in the book can serve more adequately as a springboard for meditative spiritual reading, as well as a work on apologetics. Likewise, it is unnecessary to pay much heed to the endnotes (unless overcome by intense curiosity); for the most part, they supply either source documentation or additional references (occasionally some greater elaboration for the more demanding reader’s edification).

In sum, through a careful interweaving blend of philosophy and Biblical theology, this book will attempt to explain why certain materials are eminently suited for the various sacraments, while other forms of matter are not fitting. Consequently, we will repeatedly return to the recurring theme of appropriate symbolism, by means of which God communicates to our minds and hearts subtle intimations of lofty truths that cannot be fully expressed within the natural limits of human concepts.16 The goal is to demonstrate that matter really matters and that the deadly lure of gnostic rationalization must therefore be resisted.

Excerpt from Why Matter Matters by David P. Lang. Copyright © 2002 by Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc. All rights reserved. Order here