On 26th June this year, the Spanish priest and writer Pablo d’Ors (appointed consultor to the Pontifical Council for Culture by Pope Francis) published an essay entitled “Will anyone in the Church dare?” in the magazine Vida Nueva, because of which he has since been accused of heresy and condemned by no less than three Spanish bishops.
Let’s first take a look at the essay in question (rendered in my own, crude translation):
The sacraments of the Church now mean virtually nothing to the vast majority of those who still participate in them. A sign that no longer signifies isn’t a sign anymore, but a game of magic. Christian rites, and the symbols in which their foundations lie, have degenerated, for the majority of believers, into pure magic. Of course men and women today still need magic, that is, words and gestures that in an automatic and irrational way connect us with the transcendent. But that’s not the point.And now, for completeness’ sake, let’s look at the criticism leveled at it by José Rico Pavés, one of the three Spanish bishops who have condemned this essay as heretical (again in my own translation and only focusing on the passages that specifically address d’Ors’ text):
I argue that many of the behaviors of priests and lay people during the Eucharistic celebration are fundamentally magical, not religious. Can you imagine the apostles kneeling before the bread or Jesus collecting crumbs from a plate? These behaviors reflect our attitude towards the sacramental sign being much more magical than religious.
For them to convey meaning, signs have to be understood. The doctrine of ex opere operato, which postulates that the sacrament is effective irrespective of the understanding of the recipient, has disconnected the sign from the subject and has degenerated and objectified it. The sacraments need to be understood, at least to some extent. Otherwise, they sacramentalize nothing, which is what is happening today in our temples. Nobody understands anything. What our masses remind me of most is Beckett’s theater of the absurd.
Let’s take the example of the Eucharist, whose symbols are bread and wine. Bread is, of course, something everyday, soft and nutritious. That bread is a symbol of God means that God is something everyday, that God is soft, that God is nutritious. But if the symbol is the bread, the sign or sacrament is the broken bread, shared and eaten. So that what it is about is to break and share the bread consciously; to lift it to one’s mouth consciously; to, consciously, chew it and swallow it.
Consciously means knowing that it is not just about giving bread to others, but about be being bread for them, to turn yourself into the food that relieves their need. Eating of this Bread gives us the strength to be bread. In the same vein, the sign is not simply the wine, but the wine shared and drunk. Drinking from this Wine enables us to be wine for others. And wine is blood, that is, life: to be life for others.
And storing the Eucharist in a tabernacle, what’s that about? Have we not said that the true sign is sharing it? A proof of our mentality being magical is that we think that God is more in the tabernacle than outside it. But that ... is absurd! It is not as if he were more there than elsewhere. It is that he is there to ... show us that he is everywhere, so that we may remember it. God is everywhere, we say, but then we endeavor to put him into a box. Enclose him in a few theories we call theology and symbols that we call sacraments, but that do not sacramentalize anything.
There is only one solution: to explain everything as if it had never been explained before, because maybe that’s the situation; and it is, of course, to be all done as if for the first time, perhaps because it is the truth. We will see then, in wonder, the power of our symbols, we will save our rites, we will discover, at last, their transformative power for the human soul.
But will anyone in the Church dare? Will anyone present these symbols and rites not only as those in which the most genuine Christian identity is encoded, but as symbols and rites of universal value, suitable for everyone, Christian or not? Will someone, finally, present Christianity as a religion that includes humanism, not one that excludes it or is exclusive?
Respect for difference from other spiritual traditions must not make us lose sight of Christianity as a universal humanizing proposition. I detect in my contemporaries not only a hunger for spirituality, but a desire to recover, in an understandable and contemporary way, the religious tradition we come from. Care for silence, a sensibility that is growing, will bring with itself a care for the word and the gesture. But, will there be anyone in the Church who dares? Where will be the prophets who’ll make us understand that the only possible fidelity to the past comes from creativity and renewal in the present?
[I have] read the article by Pablo d’Ors entitled ‘Will there be anyone in the Church who dares?’ with sadness and concern. Sadness, because of finding, in so little space, such a vast number of doctrinal errors whose consequences are dramatic for Christian life. Concern, noting that the article’s author is a writer and priest, and since not long ago, a consultant to the Pontifical Council for Culture.So, here we have two texts: an essay on the popular lack of understanding of the sacraments and a call for their revival, and a refutation of that essay. But, you could ask, why should I care about a Spanish argument between a priest and a bishop? Well, I can certainly tell you why I care: because this is one of the few examples I have seen so far of a theologian accepting Pope Francis’ invitation from paragraph 49 of Evangelii Gaudium:
Without offering any proof beyond his own perception, the author affirms in a way that exudes absolute certainty that “The sacraments of the Church now mean virtually nothing to the vast majority of those who still participate in them”; he argues that “many of the behaviors of priests and lay people during the Eucharistic celebration are fundamentally magical, not religious”; and, as an argument, ask the reader whether they can imagine “the apostles kneeling before the bread or Jesus collecting crumbs from a plate” (sic); he blames the doctrine of ex opere operato for disconnecting the subject and the sign, objectifying and degenerating it; he explains the Eucharist departing from the bread as “a symbol of God”, whose meaning is “to break and share the bread consciously”, from which he deduces that the Eucharistic reservation in the tabernacle becomes meaningless, and he considers it a proof of our magical mentality to think that God is more present in the tabernacle than outside it.
The author proposes to “explain everything as if it had never been explained before,” and to present the sacraments as “symbols and rites of universal value, suitable for everyone, Christian or not” showing “Christianity as a religion that includes humanism, not one that excludes it or is exclusive”. But, he asks finally, will someone in the Church dare to implement this solution?
To find in so few lines so much nonsense results in a great weight. Does the author know what the Catholic Church means by sacrament? Does he ignore the difference versus magical rites? Does he know that the sacred character of the sacraments does not lie primarily in the meaning that we give them, but in being born of the salvific will of Christ to communicate his Life to us? Why doesn’t he mention even once the word faith and the verb to believe? Does he think that the sacraments can be understood without faith? Does he maybe not know the teaching of the Church on the permanent presence of Christ in the Eucharist, on the eucharistic reservation and worship due to this Sacrament of Love outside of the Holy Mass?
How is it possible that almost 50 years after the encyclical Mysterium Fidei (03/09/1965), the same weak proposals concerning the Eucharist and the sacraments, which were already rejected by Pope Paul VI, continue to spread today? In these times, it may be that the only thing that we need to dare is this: believing with the Church, believing in the bosom of the Church.
“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37).”When I read d’Ors’ essay, what I see is someone who is concerned for the good of the Church, who sees his “brothers and sisters [...] living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ” and who identifies an anachronistic and life-detached exposition of the sacraments as a barrier and as a source of degeneration. He perceives a perversion of the sacraments to the point of being confused with magic - not in the good way of Arthur C. Clarke’s: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, but by deforming a gift from God that builds on faith but that does not suppress reason into a mere irrational, “God-spray” gimmick. A danger that has a reminder built into the very vocabulary of magic, where the term “hocus-pocus” itself is likely a corruption of Jesus’ words at the last supper: “Hoc est corpus meum.”
d’Ors then offers readings of the Eucharist that are simple, broadly understandable and that powerfully underline its being gift, communion and source of life. He finally makes a call for a new language, a new explanation, explicit (very much like last year’s Synod on the Family), points to the latent hunger for transcendence in the world (a need also recognized by atheists) that the Church is called to sate, and closes with an exhortation to continuity through renewal (wholly in-line with Benedict XVI’s ““hermeneutic of reform”, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church”).
Yes, d’Ors is critical of the doctrine of “ex opere operato,” but he does not deny it, only attributing negative consequences to it (or - arguably - its misuse). He also speaks about God’s presence in the tabernacle pointing to His presence outside it, which is in fact in line with how the Catechism speaks about it: “God, who reveals his name as “I AM,” reveals himself as the God who is always there, present to his people in order to save them.” (§207) and - incidentally, quoting from Paul VI’s Mysterium Fidei:
“The mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as “the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend.” (St. Thomas Aquinas, STh III, 73, 3c.) In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.” (Council of Trent (1551)) “This presence is called ‘real’—by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be ‘real’ too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.” (Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei 39)” (§1374)d’Ors’ sentiment about the tabernacle pointing to God’s presence all around us is also very much along the lines of St. John Chrysostom’s homily on the Gospel of Matthew where he too warns against false formalism and where he calls for a harmony between Eucharistic adoration and - to borrow Pope Francis’ words - a care for His flesh in the poor:
“God does not want golden vessels but golden hearts. [...] Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water? What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs? What profit is there in that? Tell me: If you were to see him lacking the necessary food but were to leave him in that state and merely surround his table with gold would he be grateful to you or rather would he not be angry? What if you were to see him clad in worn-out rags and stiff from the cold, and were to forget about clothing him and instead were to set up golden columns for him, saying that you were doing it in his honour? Would he not think he was being mocked and greatly insulted?”I do not wish to dissect Bishop Pavés’ words or speculate about the motives of his choice of what to focus on or why he transferred the lack of understanding that d’Ors describes and laments among the faithful to a supposed lack of d’Ors’ understanding of Church teaching. Instead I would like to close with appreciating d’Ors’ clear desire to see the sacraments understood and brought closer to the lives of the faithful today and to extend their gifts to all, whether they be in the Church or beyond it.