Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
My friend Ludwig was puzzled. "I don't understand," he said, "what is meant by those who say grace is imparted through sacraments. It seems to me to involve an intolerably narrow view of grace. As a Protestant, I've always understood grace to mean unmerited favor, plain and simple. Why are sacraments needed to bestow this? Doesn't this narrow the scope of grace to those who are lucky enough to get baptized or eucharized? I thought God's love was universal."
To understand the Catholic take on this question, we have to understand what the Church is and is not thinking about when it comes to sacramentality. The Church does not propose sacraments to deny God's universal love and will to save. It does not hold that unbaptized people of good will (like the good thief crucified with Christ) are necessarily denied salvation simply because they missed out on the "magic spell" of baptism. Indeed, both the universal redemption of Christ and the possibility of salvation for each person is forcefully maintained by the Church against various Christian sects who assert that Christ has only redeemed a few or that God actively desires the damnation of certain people. Against such thinking the Church has repeatedly spoken with great force to sternly condemn any doctrine which would limit the scope of God's redemption to anything less than every last soul God has created.
Yet, lest this be taken in turn as a license for Universalism (the belief that all will necessarily be saved) the Church is also careful to point out that salvation is essentially a relationship and a relationship requires at least two to tango. Thus, if a human being will not enter into the universal redemption Christ has won... why then, that soul shall get its will. God may flood the earth with the midsummer sunlight of grace, but if a soul chooses to shut its eyes then, as Jesus observed, those darkened eyes shall make the darkness within great indeed. God will to save, but honors our freedom, even if we choose Hell.
Very well then, the question at issue with sacraments is not: "Is God's will to save universal in scope?" The Church plainly agrees that it is. But once we have answer that question, another one arises: namely, "How does God reveal and give to each individual human being his universally offered grace?" And to answer this question, the Church refers us to the primal Sacrament of Sacraments, the Incarnate Son of God. For as we shall see, all the Church's sacraments are simply extensions of his power and work in the world.
Consider then, how the gracious God who is omnipresent and omnipotent revealed himself. He could have chosen to reveal himself "directly." He could have made an end run around his Creation and ignored it by communicating his life and will directly to each human soul apart from any created means. But he didn't. How do we know? "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us."
Now this is in sharp contrast to what gobs of modern "spirituality" tells us. For such spirituality (which used to be called gnosticism) often speaks as though God is a sort of extended ether in the cosmos and that He would never sully himself with the crudeness of matter. For such "spirituality," to be spiritual is to be more or less disembodied, to dwell in the realm of intuitions and concepts and secret mental "revelations" unknown to those less Highly Evolved. To such a mindset, it is a sign of regression to barbarism or "primitive superstition" that the Christian God should employ physical means like blood sacrifice or water baptism to communicate his life and power to us. These are, for the Highly Evolved, primitive symbols used by the ignorant since they are incapable of grasping True Spirituality.
In contrast, the Christian gospel repudiates such spiritual snobbery with the surprising, yet homely, announcement that, surprisingly enough, God likes matter--a lot. So much in fact that he not only declared it "good" at the beginning of creation, but he continued to manifest himself through it right up until the time that He took upon himself a real, live physical body of matter and united himself, not only to our airy-fairy spirits but to the totality of our beings (spirit, soul and body) by becoming a real live water and protein man in Christ Jesus.
"But that was so that he could put this gross body of flesh to death on the Cross and revert back to pure spirituality, wasn't it?" No. It was so that he could rise from the dead bodily. And this bodily resurrection has vast implications. It means not only that we will live again, but that we will do so as human beings, not as disembodied spooks floating in the ether. Indeed, it ultimately means, as Paul saw, that the whole creation will be "liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God." In short, creation (the whole physical kahuna from quarks to quasars) is slated for redemption and renewal, not just our disembodied spirit.
This being the case, the Catholic faith has always taken matter seriously and recognized the reality that God not only reveals himself through it as an artist reveals himself through a poem or a painting, but he also comes to us through it as a lover imparts love through a physical kiss. He causes creation, by his grace, not merely to display, but to participate in his work of redemption as a kiss incarnates love. That is why the sacramental worldview sees more than just a symbol in a sacrament. Sacraments (by the gracious power of God, not by intrinsic "magical power") do things. They impart grace as the physical hands and breath of Christ imparted healing to the blind man and the Holy Spirit to the apostles. For they are the hands, breath, body, blood , spirit, soul and divinity of Christ. They are physical means of grace that both signify what they do and do what they signify.
"But doesn't this narrow grace to the sacraments?"
No. For God is not limited by the sacraments just as he was not limited by the physical location of Christ's human body. Just as God could heal the centurion's servant at a distance, so he can impart sacramental grace to those who are disposed to it yet who do not have the opportunity to receive the sacraments themselves (like the good thief).
But, having said this, we must remember the other side of the coin. Namely, that saying "All roads lead to Rome" is not an excuse for never going there. In other words, the wideness of God's sacramental grace and mercy (extended to those who are cut off from it by accident and circumstance) is not an excuse for those who have access to sacraments to ignore them. I mention this because I have known many Catholics who took the statement "God is not limited by the sacraments" as a declaration that any nice thing was a "sacrament" of equal importance to the Blessed Sacrament (and therefore a favorite TV show or a walk in the woods was as "sacramental" as--and interchangeable with--the Mass).
Now the Church does not deny that all things (even, heaven help us, TV) have a certain sacramental quality. "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." God's grace can and does come through all his creatures in one way or another. Similarly, I do not deny that, for a bedraggled hiker lost in the wide woods, lots of different things (nuts, berries, boiled nettles, roots, and blowfly larvae) have a certain nutritional quality which can keep him from starving to death. Yet such a menu is not likely to guarantee good nutrition, nor would any of us prefer it to a groaning banquet table set for us every day by a host of angels. Yet such a spiritual banquet is precisely what Christ offers us in the sacraments (most especially Holy Eucharist). For sacraments are the normal and major ways by which the Incarnation nourishes us, just as breakfast, lunch and dinner are the normal ways in which earthly nourishment reaches us.
The idea then, is that God's grace, though universal as sunlight, must be focused in the lens of sacrament, not to limit God, but to kindle us. Thus, as G.K. Chesterton said, the difference between the sacramental Real Presence in the Eucharist and the universal grace of God is the difference between saying "The spirit of Jehovah pervades the universe" and saying "Jesus Christ just walked into the room." Sacramentality derives, not from a desire to exclude any from the redemption of Christ, but from the odd nature of Christianity itself with its stubborn insistence that the world was saved when God, who had always been omnipotent and universal, became small and "local" so that he could touch us and call us by name. For like any real lover, God could not rest with sitting in heaven while you were far from him. He could not even be content with sending us love letters like the Law and the Prophets. Rather, he came (and comes) to us, person to person, face to face, that he might touch us. That's what grace does.