Will Our Sacramental Deprivation Make us Rethink the Necessity of the Church and Her Sacraments?

Lifesite News reported on an initiative of some prominent lay Catholics who are seeking to restore the sacramental and liturgical life of the faithful, which has been suspended due to the COVID-19 phenomenon. The initiative consists of a petition in the form of an Open Letter, found at the website, We Are An Easter People, that any of the faithful may now sign.

It is my hope that our present sacramental destitution, as highlighted in this letter, will give the Catholic faithful an renewed appreciation of the Church’s sacraments and their necessity — not only for themselves, but for those presently outside of the Catholic fold.

Below are some highlights from the letter that are deserving of attention in light of the points I would like to make below (underlined and bold emphasis mine, except where otherwise noted):

Bishops, we your faithful flock, implore you to do everything you can to make the sacraments more available to us during this crisis.

Something is terribly wrong with a culture that allows abortion clinics and liquor stores to remain open but shuts down places of worship. …

1. Find ways that you and your priests can provide the Anointing of the Sick, especially to those at risk of dyingClick here for some ideas. …

3. Demand that civil authorities recognize religious services as essential services….

We must use the means Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and His Holy Catholic Church have provided us to combat the evils of this world. The Bishops, our Spiritual Fathers, must take active and public roles in bringing to our wounded world, the sacramental graces needed to survive the COVID 19 pandemic.

Elsewhere on the We Are An Easter People website, we find this:

The sacraments are the spiritual “Personal Protective Equipment” of Catholics. They enable us to work in the field hospital of the sick and dying. [Bold in original. The field hospital metaphor is a favorite of Pope Francis.]

During the COVID 19 pandemic, Catholics are being deprived of what is central to our Faith—the sacraments. The sacraments are gifts of inestimable value: They open up for us the gates of Heaven and bestow upon us graces that enable us to be loving disciples of Christ our Savior.

Dramatically driving the point home to its readers, the site declares, right on its main page:

Fellow Catholics, we must urge our bishops to make all the sacraments as available as possible during this COVID-19 pandemic!  It is not an exaggeration to say that the health of the world and the salvation of souls depends upon it.

In Church Militant’s coverage of this initiative, we find some additional points worthy of consideration:

A growing host of Catholic leaders are recognizing the mortal danger of cutting the sacraments off from the faithful and are urging bishops to restore them immediately. …

Merely being dispensed from Mass is not a solution that satisfies the souls of the faithful, she [Dr. Janet Smith] pointed out. …

“All disciples are commanded by Jesus Himself to baptize, as baptism is the foundation and first sacrament of the Church, to continue on in His person the sanctification of all peoples, at all times and in every age,” he [an unnamed “local priest”] said. [That same priest also referenced Our Lord’s command to the Apostles to baptize in Matt. 28:19.] …

Focus on these words again and let the full force of their meaning hit you: “essential services… being deprived of what is essential to our Faith — the sacraments… they open for us the gates of heaven… the salvation of souls depends upon it… the mortal danger of cutting the sacraments off from the faithful… baptism is the foundation and first sacrament…”

Good points, all. Understandably and quite rationally, the Catholic faithful are alternately sorrowful, angry, outraged, and otherwise upset by being deprived of the sacraments of the Church. They are, after all, “the means Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and His Holy Catholic Church have provided us to combat the evils of this world” as well as those of our corrupt flesh and the demons who beset us with temptation. They are also among the principal means by which we attain to that union with God we call sanctification.

The faithful who signed this letter are making their appeal to the Catholic bishops. I make an appeal to the faithful as well as to all the bishops and lower clergy of the Church: Please realize that in this deprivation we now experience of the Church’s sacraments, there is an image of what non-Catholics live their whole lives, for they are without the saving sacraments of the Church. While non-Catholic Christians, depending on the denomination, have certain valid sacraments available in their communions, think of the Jew, the Muslim, the Hindu, etc. They are even more deprived than we are now of God’s saving sacraments. Why should we pity ourselves more than we pity them?

Liberal Catholics are quite content to have recourse to theories about how non-Catholics, who are objectively in need of the Church and her divinely appointed means of salvation, may be saved by various extra-sacramental and extra-ecclesial means. Sadly, even some who call themselves “traditional Catholics” are actually liberal because they accept this nonsense. Of these liberal Catholics, many are probably now in anguish of soul because they themselves cannot receive the sacraments. What that translates to is this: Being deprived of sacraments is theoretically acceptable and salvific for others, but it’s darned intolerable when you’re the poor bloke suffering it.

When life without the sacraments is a present fact, it is no longer a mere matter of theory, something consigned to speculation in theological texts; it is real, it is existential. Moreover, it’s not someone else who is without God’s sacraments — some theoretical native on a desert island, or an invincibly ignorant person out there somewhere — but it’s real people; worse, it’s US!

The much maligned Father Leonard Feeney verbally chastised Liberal Catholics for so liberally granting salvation to all sorts of non-Catholics by means of a vaguely defined “perfect act of Love,” an act that is somehow accomplished without supernatural Faith, without knowledge of the sacraments, and without any contact with the Incarnational economy of salvation God Himself established. Here are some of Father Feeney’s words on this point, from Bread of Life:

This man the Catholic Liberals talk about seems to be outfitted to make a perfect act of love of God without any of the sacraments! Not only are the Liberals getting rid of Baptism; they are getting rid of the whole sacramental order.

The Council of Trent, when treating of the Sacraments, anathematizes in most solemn canons those who say: (1) that the Sacraments of the New Law are not necessary for salvation; (2) that one can even get into a state of justification without at least a resolve to receive them; (3) that they are all of equal dignity and necessity; (4) that their purpose is mere support of Faith.

You do not have Faith by saying you have Faith! You do not have love by saying you have love! You cannot love God if you do not love Jesus. And you cannot love Jesus if you do not know Him through His great gifts, His Sacraments. If you do not know Him, I defy you to make a perfect act of love. You are calling it perfect love, and at the same time you are refusing that which poured out of the heart of Jesus: Blood and water. You are refusing the Blood of the Eucharist and the water of Baptism. To call that love is a blasphemy!

In real time, I’m writing these lines on Holy Thursday, on which morning the bishop of each diocese blesses the oil of the sick, the chrism, and the oil of catechumens, and on which night the Church solemnly commemorates Our Lord’s institution both of the Holy Eucharist and of the sacrament of Holy Orders. It is exceedingly sorrowful that perhaps the majority of the Catholic faithful worldwide will not be able today to receive the Eucharist from the hands of priests ordained to confect and distribute It. It is terrifying and outrageous that, in some dioceses, bishops have forbidden priests to use the oil of the sick in Extreme Unction or the oil of catechumens and chrism in administering the Rite of Baptism — or even, in some disgraceful cases, to exercise their unique priestly power to absolve sacramentally. On this day, so liturgically full of sacramental commemorations and preparations, we are so deprived of the sacraments.

But as we consider this situation of our own sad alienation, our thoughts should go to those whose life is characterized by a perpetual absence of these life-giving channels of grace. Their state is like that of the Ephesians prior to their conversion, to whom Saint Paul wrote:

[Y]ou were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the conversation of Israel, and strangers to the testament, having no hope of the promise, and without God in this world. —Eph. 2:12

Is it not charity on our parts to want to extricate the sacrament-less from this sad state? Is not striving to do so the very mission of the Church? And is it not therefore a sin against charity to promise these poor people that they do not need the Faith, the Church, or her sacraments?

Ours is not a religion purely of the spirit. We are not angels; our spiritual souls animate flesh of the sort that Jesus assumed in the Incarnation. For this reason, He chose as the principal channels of divine grace seven sacraments, each directly instituted by Our Lord Himself during His earthly sojourn, and all but one of which has the stuff of this earth, some corporeal reality, as its “matter”: water, chrism, bread, wine, etc.1 These are not mere comforting symbols of the divine benevolence, or kindly expressions of religious sentiment; they are, rather, external signs that effect the grace they signify. They are life-giving realities, each carried out by Our Lord Jesus Christ the High Priest through the agency of His chosen ministers in Holy Orders.

As we lament our alienation from the Church’s holy mysteries, and as we identify with Jesus on the Cross — “O God my God, look upon me: why hast thou forsaken me?” (Ps. 21:2) — let all the members of Christ’s Mystical Body resolve to be generous in inviting others to partake of the sacraments fruitfully by entering into that same Body, the Catholic Church, wherein alone they may be profitably received.

Surely, we can all fault ourselves for some lack of zeal on this point, and surely God will reward our renewed efforts.

  1. Penance has what is called a “quasi-matter,” consisting of the acts of the penitent: contrition, confession, and satisfaction.