Friday, September 25, 2009

My M.Th. Thesis Synopsis

On 16 September 2009, I successfully defended my Master of Theology thesis, with a number of concrete suggestions for clarification.

My director asked that I produce a synopsis the assembly who attended the defence/examination, since they would not have had the opportunity to read the text of my thesis itself until it is made available in the library at Newman Theological College. Since a number of people have asked for a summary of my arguments in favour of sign language as a valid liturgical language, I have decided to post the text of the synopsis here.

The comment box is open for exchange. This topic is long overdue for serious dialogue.

This essay [= my thesis] seeks to answer a very specific question: Would the ‘Words of Consecration’ in sign language (i.e., a non-audible language) fulfill the conditions of ‘sacramental form’ of the Eucharist? Conversely: would the Eucharistic Form (= the ‘Words of Institution’) be invalidated by sign language? I conclude that, given the fact that sign language is no less a language than English, Chinese, or French, and thus cannot be excluded as a liturgical language. The effects of the Eucharistic consecration are not mitigated by the fact that sign language dispenses with morphemes.

The essay is divided into two parts, representing two different but complementary methods, the dogmatic way and the systematic way, paying close attention to the distinction outlined by Bernard Lonergan.

In the First Part, I approach the question of the ‘Words of Consecration’ from a strictly dogmatic view, since objections to sign language in the celebration of the Eucharist or, more precisely, the in the Eucharistic Form, must take into account the doctrinal pronouncements of the Church. As such I begin with the unfolding Eucharistic doctrine of the Fathers with special attention to the Cappadocians, St John Chrysostom, St Ambrose of Milan, and St Augustine, the last of who handed onto the Scholastics a peculiarly ‘Roman’ Eucharistic doctrine. Then, beginning with the first dogmatic canon (the two oaths of Berengarius of Tours), The Council of Florence, the Council of Trent, the Second Vatican Council, the ‘Decision of 17 January 2001’, and ultimately the XI Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 2005, I determine the ‘theological note’ or doctrinal certitudes of the various canons presented, whether they are a document of faith or not, and if they are, whether they be ‘dogma’ or ‘authoritative doctrine.’ My primary sources are the dogmatic canons themselves, taken from either Denzinger’s Enchiridion symbolorum (38th ed.) or Neuner and Dupuis’ The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church (7th rev. and enlarged ed.). For the Fathers I make use of de Journel’s Enchiridion patristicum.

In the Second Part, I approach the same question from a systematic view. Since ‘systematic theology’ is broader than ‘dogmatic theology’, I chose to work with IIIa of St Thomas Aquinas’ Summa theologiae, with special attention to qq. 60, 64, and 78. The crux of my retrieval of Aquinas’ sacramental theology is threefold: (1) the ‘hylemorphic theory’ of the sacraments is to be understood strictly as analogy, not equivocation; (2) the form of the sacraments or ‘Word’ derive their instrumental causality only on account of their signification, not by their sounds; (3) at the root of the sacramental Word is the intention of the minister to do as the Church does and, as such, to proclaim the Church’s faith by way of sacramental signs. A significant portion of my argument draws attention to the fact that sacramental hylemorphism has never been taught by the Magisterium; this does not warrant a rejection of the theory, but rather a more careful retrieval without losing sight, again, of the theory as analogy, not equivocation, as per Aquinas’ insistence.

In both Parts note is made of the traditional phraseology of verba consecrationis—rather than lingua consecrationis or sermones consecrationis—and thus argue that, guided by the Spirit of Truth, the nuances of doctrinal language merits attention in their interpretation. Were there is a tradition of “speech of consecration” or some similar phrase, we would have an argument in favour of the sacramental Word as necessitating morphemes and thus a serious counterargument to the sacramental validity of sign language in communicating the sacramental form. More to the point, there is a faint tradition, found in Sts John Chrysostom and Ambrose, of distinguishing the historical utterance of the Words of Institution as sermo and their sacramental repetition as verba and that if the outward sound were necessary, such conditions have been fulfilled by the historic Christ.

I conclude in favour of the sacramental validity of the Eucharistic Form in sign language, finding no substantial argument to the contrary. There is, for example, no tradition of the instrumental causality of the sound patterns or breath emanating from the minister’s pronunciation of the Words of Consecration. There is, on the other hand, a significant retrieval of the ‘sacramental Word’ as the verbum fidei and thus the celebration of the Christian sacraments as a ritualized and symbolic act of faith, especially by K. Rahner and E. Schillebeeckx. Once ‘sacramental form’ is understood as a proclamation of faith, the fact that the proclamation is to be made in language rather than mere sound emerges as the one more consonant with the Church’s received Tradition.

Since this essay is but an inaugural study, I propose several trajectories for further research. Since the hylemorphic theory of the sacraments have been ingrained in the Church’s catechetical tradition especially since the Neoscholastic movement, it is necessary to return to Aristotle’s own doctrine of matter and form (a return that will show that the hylemorphic theory of matter is actually tripartite: matter, form, and potential) and to meticulously retrace the development of sacramental hylemorphism proposed by Stephen Langton and William of Auxerre. Building on the emphasis on verba consecrationis, and since Aquinas’ own doctrine of ‘word and element’ is derived from Tractatus super Ioannem 80.3, it will be necessary to return to St Augustine of Hippo’s doctrine of language and signs. Since ‘instrumental causality’ is a complexus of actions, the relationship between the sacramental Word and its efficacy through the ministry of priests needs to be critically examined. Finally, a proper understanding of the sacramental economy, thanks to the works of Rahner and Schillebeeckx, should break down between the munera docendi and the munera sanctificandi: while there is indeed a distinction between the two, the sacraments must be understood as ‘sacraments of faith’, paying special attention to the sacramental Word as a proclamation of the Church’s faith rather than a formula of incantation or magic. Aquinas gives tremendous evidence for this by his method by not having a separate tractatus de sacramentis in his Summa theologiae but rather situating the sacramental economy within the tractaus de Incarnatione Verbi, thus intending to show the parallelism between the Incarnate Word and the sacramental Word.

It is precisely a retrieval of the sacramental economy as proclamation that gives strong warrant to the use of sign language in the celebration of the sacraments: a symbolic and ritual summons to faith addressed to a certain people in their own language, not excepting Deaf people and their native sign language.


  1. Where is your thesis?! I can't seem to find it... I'm a seminarian with the Diocese of Spokane, WA, and have a serious interest in the evangelization of the Deaf community. Through dialogue with my fellow seminarians I have found that some believe that signed Masses are not invalid, but illicit. I have heard the phrase from St. Paul's epistle quoted, "Faith comes through hearing," but I don't believe that Paul intended this to be interpreted through a literal hermaneutic. My argument against these graduate-level students is that words represent concepts, and conceptual communication does not differ whether it is verbally expressed or expressed through physical gestures. There is even a precedent set here in Spokane as a now retired priest had signed the Mass a few years ago...and there are priests on the East Coast translating the Roman Missal into ASL! I'm ranting, but, nonetheless, I would really enjoy reading your paper. Please, point me in the right direction so I may do just that! :)

  2. Dear Sir:

    Thank you for your kind words and thank you, above all, for your missionary zeal for the Deaf peoples.

    I apologise for my delay in responding as I am on travels for a conference--the Canadian Section of the International Catholic Deaf Association as underway, where I am one of the presenters. If you would kindly email me at, I would very much be delighted to begin a dialogue.

    My thesis isn't immediately available; immediately after defending my thesis, I began formation for the priesthood and was inducted into my Pastoral Year and ever since I haven't had the opportunity to have my thesis bound and deposited in the library. I have been given a parish assignment and I expect to be able to do this very soon.

    In the meantime, I would invite you to read the paper that launched me on this research project--simply click on my "Scribd" button and you will be led to one of my papers, "The Signed Eucharistic Consecration in the System of St Thomas Aquinas."

    More to follow! But please do email me.

    In Christ,


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