By the Rev. Bernard Iddings Bell
WHATEVER theoretical differences there may be between Catholicism and Protestantism, there is this one, great, practical difference between them, that Catholicism believes in the Sacraments as real, vital, and necessary things; and Protestantism believes in them as figurative ceremonies whose sole intent is to remind their participants of certain truths. The Catholic believes that in the Sacraments man and God come into mutual contact. Catholics may differ as to their explanations of how such contacts come to be, but they agree in maintaining the reality of those contacts. Periodically, so Catholics assert, they come into actual and real contact with God. In Baptism God touches the child and the child is nevermore quite the same child as he was before. In Confirmation the Holy Spirit touches the confirmed person. In the Eucharist we eat “the Bread of Heaven,” and, for mystic instants at least, are at one with God. And so on through the list of the seven—and maybe more—Sacraments.
The purpose of this little paper is not to argue for or against the Catholic doctrine of the Sacraments. This magazine is presumably read by people who more or less do believe that. What the author does desire to ask is this, “Of what good are the Sacraments? What are they for?”
The answer to this question depends largely upon what one thinks the Church is for on this earth. One conception of the Church is that it is a fold let down from Heaven wherein people weary of the world may retire and be cared for, where their souls may be soothed and comforted. The other conception is the true Catholic conception, the conception of the Church Militant, the conception of the Church as an army of fighters, vowed to eternal combat in the name of Christ in opposition to those forces against which He struggled when on earth, which killed Him, but not forever; against which the armies of the heavens are arrayed. According to this conception, a child by virtue of his Baptism is vowed to a manful fight against sin, the world, and the Devil, so long as he shall live. Every member of the Church on earth is pledged, according to this idea of the Church, to fight for that ideal presented by Christ when He spoke and acted on the assumption that selfishness and godliness are inevitable and eternal enemies.
It is a strange thing to observe in our generation that there are a large number of professed Catholics who look on the Church as a haven of refuge rather than as an armory for soldiers. To such—may one not justly call them “pseudo-Catholics”—the sacraments are means whereby is administered a sort of soothing syrup of consolation from God to world-troubled men. In them men and women retire from the combat of life and luxuriate in at least an attempt to enjoy heaven on earth.
The fundamental spirit back of this sort of Catholicism is just plain selfishness, sometimes combined with high-grade cowardice. It is the religion of men who are too stupid or too lazy to face the world, and so seek to dodge the world. It is the religion corresponding to that sort of patriotism which might urge a soldier to sit down in the midst of a battle and demand a pension forthwith. It is a kind of religion which would avoid obeying Our Lord’s command that those who would come after Him take up their crosses and follow Him. Christ’s Cross was the means whereby He laid down His life for his fellows. For His followers to carry their crosses means just that. There are many would-be Catholics who seek to enjoy the pleasures of the Church Triumphant while living in the realm of the Church Militant. To such persons sacramental grace means sentimental selfishness.
But that is not the truly Catholic conception of religion. The true Catholic is quite content to remain in the Church Militant until it pleases God to promote him. The real Catholic seeks not, even at the Eucharist, to get out of the world. To him the mystic unions of God and man in the Sacraments are given as free gifts of strength whereby he may have the courage and virility to go out and defy the world with its plausible lies, the flesh with its seductive inducements, and the compromise-loving Devil. To such an one the Sacraments are stores of spiritual dynamite. To the altar he goes like the soldier to his magazine, to come forth and hurl new bolts at God’s enemies.
Does the Church, which is the mystical body of Christ, exist for the sake of celebrating Sacraments, or do the Sacraments exist for the sake of enabling the Church to function properly in and upon the world? Manifestly the latter is the truth. Yet there are many parishes which seem to exist almost solely for the celebrating of the mysteries. There are parishes which wax exceedingly indignant when they are asked what earthly use they are in a militant Church, assuming, as far as one can judge, that in such celebrations and administrations lies their whole usefulness. There are many individuals who use the Church Catholic for their selfish spiritual indulgence, consuming the Bread of Heaven but never digesting it and transfusing it into good red blood. Such are not Catholics. They are parasites upon the Church.
It is the people of this sort who are the true enemies of the Catholic movement in the Church, “commonly called Protestant Episcopal.” What the world refuses to tolerate, what the Church itself is sickened by, is pseudo-Catholicity. Sentimental Catholicity, “other-worldly” Catholicity, empty ceremonial Catholicity, dilettant Catholicity, mush and milk Catholicity, these are the phases of the Catholic revival which have disgusted many a manly man and womanly woman with it all. When it shall be seen that Catholics, in the strength of their dynamite-like sacraments, are preeminently those who despise worldly prosperity, who denounce wickedness in high places, who repel the bribery of wealth, who not merely profess but practise brotherhood, who lead because they fear not, then and not till then shall the Catholic movement succeed.
Do Catholics believe that in the Sacraments men really touch God? Then in God’s Name let their lives show it, in fearlessness, in transcendental fire, in burning love, in revolutionary zeal. “By their fruits shall ye know them.”
From The Living Church, January 3, 1914, pp. 333-334.