The Second Vatican Council, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, says that «the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race» ((Lumen Gentium, 1.)). Recognizing the importance in the deepening of her very identity as Church, it was an attempt to return to the basic and most fundamental understanding of exactly what the Church is from a vision founded upon Sacred Scripture and the Fathers of the Church. In this way, the Church was able to deeply enrich the understanding she has of herself through this perspective.
The Meaning of ‘Sacrament’
Before entering into an explanation of how the Church is a sacrament and what this means, it is important to know from where the word ‘sacrament’ comes and a brief overview of the meaning of the word. As the Catechism briefly explains, the Greek word mysterion was translated into Latin using two different words: mysterium and sacramentum. Soon after, this second term took on the meaning of a visible sign of the hidden reality of salvation which was indicated by the term mysterion. «The Latin word sacramentum as a description of the saving event that takes place in the people of God also had a long history before it acquired its present significance at the Council of Trent. The word…is connected with sacrare or consecrare, and the term means a legally valid and permanent removal of a person or thing from the sphere of human law to that of divine law. Thus the oath taken by a soldier in the army is a sacramentum» ((Michael Schmaus, Dogma: The Church as Sacrament, 27.)). The first Church Father to give the Latin term sacramentum a Christian content and meaning was Tertullian, as the use in classic Latin had the meaning of “oath”. It was he who used the term with two distinct meanings, one being the idea of an oath and the other being the understanding of sacramentum as the same as ‘mystery’.
The understanding of sacrament underwent a significant development approximately 200 years later with St. Augustine. «For Augustine, a sacrament is a sacred sign, but he differentiates between the sign and the content (res) of the sign. With regard to signs the important thing to consider is not what they are but what they mean. But in order that a sign should communicate something other than its own being, it must have some resemblance to what it refers to» ((Ibid, 27)). As Tertullian and other early Church Fathers understood, sacramentum refers above all to the divine plan of salvation in its historic realization ((Juan Antonio Gil Tamayo, La Iglesia como Sacramentum Unitatis en Cipriano de Cartago, 349. Free translation.)), and if this is the case, then the sacred sign of which St. Augustine talks about is a sign of the hidden reality of salvation, realized and made present in a sacrament. It is precisely through signs that man is capable of attaining knowledge of the divine, of the reality of mystery, as he is unable to do so in a direct manner without the aid of something visible or sensible.
Given these explanations and deepened understanding of the word ‘sacrament’, the Church began to understand Christ himself as sacramentum, the sacrament of God. St. Augustine says that «the mystery (or sacrament) of God is none other than Christ» ((Gérard Philips, La Iglesia y su misterio en el Concilio Vaticano II, 98. Free translation.)). Henri de Lubac explains this by saying that that which is sacramental «is not something intermediate but something mediatory; it does not isolate, one from another, the two terms it is meant to link. It does not put a distance between them; on the contrary, it unites them by making present that which it evokes» ((Henri de Lubac, The Splendor of the Church, 202.)).
In this sense we can understand Christ as being the very sacrament of God, because it is only through Christ that man is able enter into a full communion and relationship with Him. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity, by taking on human flesh and becoming man, became the bridge between man and God, something made quite clear in St. John’s Gospel: «I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me» ((Jn 14,6)). He is the visible sign of the hidden reality of salvation that was understood by the term sacramentum in Latin theology as well as the instrument himself of salvation, the door through which we enter in order to attain salvation.
The Church as a Sacrament
In the same way as Christ is the sacrament of God, the Church is understood to truly be a sacrament, as it is in her and through her that Christ is present in the world, therefore being the only way by which man can enter into the fullness of unity with Christ and therefore come to know God. To make it clearer, Lubac says that «nobody…will attain a knowledge of the Father that will dispense him, from that point onward, from going through him who will, always and for all, be the Way and the Image of the invisible God. And the same holds good for the Church. Her whole end is to show us Christ, lead us to him, and communicate his grace to us…she exists solely to put us into relation with him» ((Lubac, 203.)). Understanding this with greater clarity, we can now enter into the Lumen Gentium with new light that is shed upon the meaning it gives as the Church being a sacrament.
Because of this return to the original and broader understanding of sacramentum which has been present since the first centuries of Christianity, the Council was able to refer to the Church as a sacrament on three occasions in the Lumen Gentium ((LG 1,9,48)). Number 9 of the Constitution says that «God gathered together as one all those who in faith look upon Jesus as the author of salvation and the source of unity and peace, and established them as the Church that for each and all it may be the visible sacrament of this saving unity» ((LG 9)). This understanding of the Church as the ‘visible sacrament of this saving unity’ that LG 9 mentions comes from a direct quote of St. Cyprian of Carthage who in the third century was another Church Father who spoke often of the Church as a sacrament. In his Epistle 64 he says quite clearly that «the Church is the unbreakable sacrament of unity» [sacramentum unitatis] ((S. Cyprian, Epist. 64, 4: PL 3, 1017.)). It is also through this understanding of the Church as sacramentum unitatis that the Second Vatican Council in the Lumen Gentium 1 is able to say that the Church is indeed the sign and instrument, the sacrament, of both the unity between God and man, and because of this unity which is the Church’s principle end, the unity between all men founded upon the former.
One of the concerns that the Second Vatican Council had upon defining the Church as a sacrament was the possibility of the confusion between the Church as a sacrament and the seven sacraments of the Church. It would be incorrect to think that the Council in some way created an eighth sacrament, making it equal to the seven sacraments which Christ instituted. The proper way of understanding this reality is that the seven sacraments find their foundation and their source in the Church, and if it were not for the Church these sacraments would not be able to exist. Michael Schmaus points out that the Church is “the source from which the seven particular sacraments, according to the will of Jesus Christ, emerge» ((Schmaus, Dogma: The Church as Sacrament, 6.)). Just as the seven sacraments of the Church were instituted by Christ as «efficacious signs of grace…by which divine life is dispensed to us» ((Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1131.)), so too was the Church itself instituted by Christ to be a human and divine institution through which all men are saved. Christ instituted the seven sacraments and desired that the Church be the only dispenser of the grace of these sacraments. It is also important to understand that the sacramentality of the Church is manifested in and through the celebration of the sacraments. As Schmaus puts it, «for as long as the world lasts it [the Church] is the presence of God mightily working and inviting mankind to dialogue with him, within a society which is hierarchically structured. This expresses the basic character of the Church’s sacramentality: all the sacramental events in the Church are an expression and fulfillment of this basic character» ((Schmaus, Dogma: The Church as Sacrament, 6.)).
Understanding the Church as a sacrament is of crucial importance for Catholics today. When the vision of the Church as a mere human institution, a hierarchical group of people, or a political body is so prominent, the comprehension of this mysterious yet real reality of the Church shows itself to be of great concern. Through this deepened understanding, Catholics will be able to grow in their faith along with an authentic love of the Church, something greatly needed in our ever secularized world and ever growing anti-Catholic culture.© 2013 – Craig Kinneberg para el Centro de Estudios Católicos – CEC