Thursday, July 13, 2006

Take a Little Piece of My Heart, Baby...

Name the singer of this post's title, and win the prize...

I'd like to say a word about relics.

Recently, I was listening to an archive episode of Catholic Answers: Live. It was the second hour from June 20th, with Karl Keating as the answer guy. I don't presume to improve upon the answers given by Karl during the show. But I was struck by the fact that three callers during the hour-long episode inquired about relics in some way. I know that this is an area of Catholic devotional life (with many laudable P.O.D. practices, too) that has been very poorly taught since the Council. The three questions on the show reveal a central part of the problem, and while Karl did answer the questions, I think he answered them, in a sense, too specifically. That is, I don't think that one could infer from from his answers the general principles which govern our use of relics in devotion. And so, I figured I'd throw my own two cents onto the web, just in case some random "googler" happens to stumble accross my blog searching for such a thing.

One can hardly forget the Decameron account of St. Lawrence' finger and the feather from the wing of the Archangel. There's a lot of misinformation going about regarding relics - even among Catholics.

The callers to the radio show asked questions about things like the veneration of the Ark of the Covenant which the Church in Ethiopia claims to possess; the proper way to venerate a relic when it is presented (may one genuflect, for example); and what the difference is between the scattering of relics throughout the world for veneration and the scattering of cremains from the deck of a Carnival cruise ship.

Everyone knows someone who has a relic of the True Cross. Many fewer know someone who have documentation of such fact. Some ostensariums can be found displaying the evaporation of the Blessed Mother's breast milk. How anyone ever came upon this substance, is not as easily shown.

And then there's the fancy words like ex opere operato versus opere operatis which may be easily translated, but not so easily understood in application.

Well, the fact is that relics are an important part of our Catholic heritage and have great precedent, Biblically (in Acts of the Apostles) but most especially in the accounts of the early Christian martyrs. Since the early days of the Church, Saints' bodies and belongings have been passed on to disciples for veneration. So, why must I inter Aunt Jenny while John Newman or Theresa of Avila can go on resting above ground, while bits and pieces of them get passed around on E-bay?

First of all, the sale of relics is a gross sin of simony, and the persons in charge of such transactions on E-bay are certainly not gaining the merits that are offered to those who properly use and venerate relics. But in principle, the passing around of these objects in a good thing, when done reverently. Frequently, an argument against cremation is to relate it somehow to the Resurrection of the Body, which is probably where people begin to conflate the issue of cremation with the obtaining of relics. This logic is really rather poor. The soul is going to have no problem reuiniting with the body in the end of time - the entire substance will be changed into the glorified body anyhow, and who knows exactly what goes on there? Jesus was passing through doors and stuff after His resurrection - so certainly our Resurrected flesh will be able to make it up from the bottom of the ocean or the inside of a worm or wherever else it had made its way before the big event. No, the difference in the case of cremation doesn't relate much really to the final fate of the body - it has to do with our understanding of the dignity of the human person. The body is not just some empty carcass, an object. A person is body and soul. The separation which occurs at death is a temporary one. The body still "belongs" to the person. But it has been rent from the soul. This is a very important point, theologically. Christ, the Person, still "owned" the body in the grave during the separation of His human soul from the flesh. That flesh he reclaimed, recreated, and redeemed, resurrecting to glory on the third day. The same is destined for us. It is not a matter of practicality that bids us not cast our remains into the sea or into a volcano. It is rather that doing such represents a callousness and lack of appreciation for the redemption wrought by Jesus in our flesh. If the mere "disposal" of these remains in a nonconventional way were wrong, then the martyrs who were devoured by beasts would be sinners. But allowing their bodies to be eaten by lions and bears was not out of disregard for the body - it was actually out of a higher respect. They saw in their bodies and in the ability to suffer pains and torment an opportunity for closer union with the crucified Lord. Does the man who wishes to be mixed with mulch for his beloved garden seek the same sort of unity with the Resurrected Christ?

Alright, but what about after these relics are distributed? What then? How do we "merit" anything by their "use?" What is their "use?" How do they work?

Well, in the simplest terms, they work the same way as the sacraments. Now, this has probably set off all sorts of theological alarms in most of your minds. But I said, "in the simplest terms" - of course there is a great difference to go along with this simple similarity. What I mean is that God wills them to occasion the transmission of grace, allbeit in a very different way than He wills such through the Sacraments. My point is simply that, while there is this great distinction, there is (I think) a more important similarity. We do, after all them "sacramentals" - and that is because, in the broad sense of the word, they work "sacramentally." The Church, and Her whole life, is in this broad sense, sacramental.

Now, speaking in broad terms is something that a lot of people don't like in theological conversation. But it has its merits. See, the usual conversation about the operation of sacramentals begins with a distinction between ex opere operato (liberally: from the working of the work) and ex opere operantis (liberally: from the working of the worker). And, don't get me wrong - this is a good, and crucial, distinction. Farbeit from me to criticize a teaching from Trent. My beef is with how apologists might sometimes mislead people in their use of this distinction.

Sacraments work. Period. The agent is not the "cause" of the transmission of grace. An unholy priest can confect the Eucharist. Anyone can baptize. They just work. THESE work "ex opere operato" - or, as the Compendium puts it, "by the very fact that the action is performed" because Christ is the actor and guarantor. If we can stretch our minds a little bit, we can see how the "distinction" of ex opere operato does not, here, strictly rule out the operantis - because the agent is REALLY Christ. The human agents cannot interrupt what Christ enacts in these signs. They really do transmit, then, what they signify.

Sacramentals, on the other hand, depend for their efficacy on the "agent" performing the action. This is where I split hairs. Because, in a sense, Christ is here, too, the agent. And here, too, because of His agency, sacramentals will "work." But they do not contain and transmit the grace they signify it. Christ works in the "occasion" of sacramentals, if you will. Now, this leads to some confusion usually which is why I want to apply a bit of caution. After everything we just said about the body and our view of it, I'm still not necessarily justified to keep a piece of my Aunt Jenny in a little clasp around my neck for veneration. If we leave the distinction at "ex opere operantis," then the question becomes "does the object itself matter at all?" Was the friar in the Decameron justified for his frauds, since the disposition of the people is what matters when is comes to relics? Doesn't there at least have to be a reasonable likelihood that an object is the thing it is said to be? Why not honor Aunt Jenny in a reliquary?

Sacramentals do work "sacramentally" through the Church. The distribution of grace through the occasions of sacramentals like relics is a part of the Church's ministry, but it is a much different guarantee. With relics, there is a guarantee that they may work in the recieving of graces - not like the sacraments, which we know will work. And the grace they communicate is different. It is, with relics, an increase in grace, as opposed to the infinite sanctifying grace divied out in the Sacraments.

The question from the radio show I haven't said anything about if "how" we venerate relics. In fact, some readers may have been cringing throughout even at my use of the word "venerate" here. "Don't we venerate only objects associated with the Lord, like the Cross?" Well, the Compendium uses venerate. Here, our language lags a bit. As with other tricky words like "adore" and "worship" and "honor" and "glorify" there is wiggle room. It doesn't matter, semantically, as long as it's sorted out in our heads. If we understand that we give a different sort of worship (i.e., dulia) to relics and sacramentals than the sort we give to Sacraments and to God (i.e., latria), we're in good shape. It doesn't really do to go around speaking Greek in our normal parlance. But I think most of us have an innate sense about this. If you feel leary about how low you bow or whether you kiss directly of by way of your hand - well, then, go with your gut. As with all devotionals, the use of relics must be grounded on good theological principle. Rooted in "one Lord, one faith, one baptism," you probably won't stray too far from acceptible practice. And anything you feel really scrupulous about, just don't do - unless you're told to, in which case further investigation might be in order.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, Joe G.!

Thanks for pointing out the obvious which is no longer obvious to anyone...and the common-sensical to the not-so-common-sensical anymore. Devotion without Sacred Tradition is the "stalking" of Jesus (usually to acquire something from Him). Sacred Tradition without devotion is a wonderful cookbook with an empty cupboard. And, Janis Joplin made the song famous; Faith Hill revived it as she started her career in cross-over-country pop.
Peace. -- Ged.

7/13/06, 11:24 PM  
Blogger JMT said...

I am so sad that Ged. got here w/ the answer before me. You know how much I love Janis Joplin!

7/14/06, 12:51 AM  

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