Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Eucharistic Consecration in Sign Language

Some of my colleagues are well aware that I am in the middle of my M.Th. thesis, The Sacramental Validity of the Eucharistic Form in Sign Language. Even though I am a systematician by training, I've decided to approach a question of sacramental theology from the perspective of systematics, or more precisely, systematics and dogmatics.

My basic question is this: Would the Words of Institution, a.k.a. the "Consecration", be efficacious if they are proclaimed in sign language rather than spoken language?

When I studed canon law last year, my professor invited me to investigate whether the Code of Canon Law considers hearing loss to be an impediment to Holy Orders. In a classroom discussion that ensued when the professor raised the question, one student insisted that the voice of the consecration was necessary, and that the breath emanating from the celebrant saying the Words of Institution touching the bread and wine were in and of themselves efficacious. There seems to be a general assumption among many Catholics that this is the case.

This notion seems to arise from a reductionist understanding of "matter" and "form" in the sacraments. If the "form" is requisite for a valid celebration of the sacraments, it follows that the form can only take place audibly and vocally. The implication is that speaking audibly the sacramental form is an imperative of positive divine law.

I disagree.

Here, I would like to outline a few specific arguments in favour of the sacramental validity of the Eucharistic Form in sign langauge.
  1. The hylomorphic theory of the sacraments, i.e., that each sacrament consists of both "matter" and "form," has never been taught infallibly by the magisterium. As magisterium, only the Synod of Rome (1059, 1071) and the Council of Trent, Session XIII (1551) come close to defining the range of the Eucharistic Form; in the case of the Synod of Rome, the consecration is said to be effected by "the mystery of the sacred prayer and the words of the Redeemer" (Denzinger 700); the Council of Trent speaks of the words of Christ, i.e., the "Words of Institution" as being efficacious (Denzinger 1637, 1642). According to Yves Congar, Francis Sullivan, Richard Gaillardetz, Joseph De Guille, and other experts in the area of magisterium, the "Decree to the Armenians" Exsultate Deo (Denzinger 1320) is in fact not an act of an infallible magisterium, and so it cannot be recruited to argue that the hylomorphic theory has been defined as either a dogma or definitive doctrine. At most, it remains a probable theological opinion and one that should not necessarily be dismissed but examined rather more closely.

  2. St Thomas Aquinas, following St Augustine (Tractaus LXX super Ioannem, 3) states specifically: "the word operates in the sacraments 'not because it is spoken,' i.e. not by the outward sound of the voice, 'but because it is believed' in accordance with the sense of the words which is held by faith. And this sense is indeed the same for all, though the same words as to their sound be not used by all. Consequently no matter in what language this sense is expressed, the sacrament is complete" (Summa theologiae IIIa, q. 60, art. 7, ad 1). The Angelic Doctor thus informs us that the power of the words is not inhered by the voice or the sound it makes, but rather to the belief they convey. Hence the intention of the minister.

  3. The locus of the efficaciousness of the Words of Institution is not, as St Thomas says, in the audible or vocal quality, but rather in the ministerial intention they manifest. St Thomas makes this explicit connexion between the "form" and the "intention": "[...] the sacraments require the intention of the minister" (S.th. IIIa, q. 60, art. 8, sed contra). Subsequently, he says: "When a thing is indifferent to many uses, it must needs be determined to one, if that one has to be effected. Now those things which are done in the sacraments, can be done with various intent; for instance, washing with water, which is done in baptism, may be ordained to bodily cleanliness, to the health of the body, to amusement, and many other similar things. Consequently, it needs to be determined to one purpose, i.e. the sacramental effect, by the intention of him who washes. And this intention is expressed by the words which are pronounced in the sacraments; for instance the words, 'I baptize thee in the name of the Father,' etc" (respondeo).

  4. Though there is an intrinsic connexion between the sacramental forms in general and the Eucharistic Form in particular, the connexion between the form and the effect of the form is purely analogous. The forms do not bear a causality to the effect of the Eucharistic Mystery, but speak analogously of the Mystery taking place. For example, when one staning next to a tree says, "This is a tree," that person is speaking of the analogy between the word "tree" and the referential tree itself. Whereas in six out of seven sacraments, the form begins with a verb, sometimes in the active voice (e.g. "I baptize you..."), sometimes in the passive voice (e.g. "Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit). In the case of the Eucharist, we have the only sacrament whose form begins with a demonstrative pronoun: "This is my Body; This is my Blood." It appears that the notion of analogous language takes place in a unique way in the celebration of the Eucharistic Mystery, because whereas the sacramental action of baptism or absolution offers a grace that is momentary, the Eucharistic Form indicates a grace that remains even after the rite is complete--namely the Real Presence. Again, any efficacy to the sacramental forms, and especially to the Eucharistic Form, cannot be assigned to a physical causality but rather to an analogous causality. This is especially the case when one considers God to be the principal cause of the sacraments.

  5. The sacramental economy is sharply distinguished from magic or superstition in that the forms do not physically cause but rather proclaim. Hence there is a seamlessness between the Church's munera sanctificandi and the munera docendi. The forms, including the Eucharistic Form, proclaims the faith fo the Church. As such, whether they are spoken or signed is besides the point, because they serve to proclaim the Church's faith.

  6. Beginning with Fr Thomas Coughlin in 1977, the Holy See has generously offered its support for Deaf candidates to the presbyterate. When the late H.Em. +John Cardinal O'Connor sought permission from the Congregation for Catholic Education to establish a priestly formation programme for Deaf seminarians, the question of not being able to voice the Words of Institution was never raised. To this day, the prospects of a silent but signed Consecration is considered by the Holy See to be a non-issue.

These are my basic arguments for the sacramental validity of the Eucharistic Form in sign langauge. In constructing my argument, however, I will be dividing my thesis into two major parts, the "Dogmatic Way" and the "Systematic Way." The dogmatic part will trace the evolution of the theology of the Consecration from Sacred Scripture and the Fathers of the Church through the acts of the magisterium, especially the Council of Trent and the Eleventh Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. The systematic way will attempt to reconstruct, in logical order rather than historical sequence, the constituent parts of the theology of Consecration, especially by re-visiting parts of Scripture often not taken into consideration in Eucharistic theology, and to engage the more speculative questions of analogy, intention, and language.

Your prayers on behalf of this research project would be much apprecaited. And your comments/feedback are encouraged so as to stimulate discussion.

For those interested, there are two excellent articles by the incomparable Dr Edward Peters on the question of ASL in the liturgy here and here.

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