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>Substantive Changes in Sacraments? by Paul J. Le Blanc from 'Women Priests'

Substantive Changes in Sacraments?

by Paul J. Le Blanc

from Women Priests , Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 216-219.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Paul J. LeBlanc holds the M.A. and the M. Div. degrees. He was at the time an associate pastor at the Church of St. Pius V in the Bronx and a member of the New York Liturgical Commission and editor of its newsletter. He also edited Liturgical Prayer and was a member of the adjunct faculty of Maryknoll Seminary, where he taught sacramental theology.

It is on the quotation from the Council of Trent that this paragraph hinges. There are two issues which can be profitably explored: first, the context of this quotation, and second, the meaning of what comprises the substance of the sacraments.


It’s tough to live polemically. It is from within the controversy over communion under both species that this statement comes, and it is to this topic, and to the question of the communion of children under the age of reason, that the entire twenty-first session of the Council of Trent was devoted. Not that communion under both species was a central issue at the start of the Reformation, but it developed into an object of controversy. The bishops at this session were open to allowing communion under both species, and many were actively in favor of it.(1) But those who opposed it framed the question in such a way as to obscure the benefits of such a practice. They contended that no greater grace is given under two species than under one. As a result, there is no necessity to receive communion under two species. The next step in the argument has to be taken carefully. It could be, ''therefore any request for communion under both species contains the seeds of heresy"; or “the discipline of the sacrament, i.e., whether communion is received under one species or the other or both, is a matter of indifference (doctrinally speaking), (2) and therefore only matters of scandal or doctrinal danger would dictate one or another of the methods.”

Through the distinction which the Council made between the substance and the discipline of sacraments, the Council was able to face the doctrinal question alone and leave the disciplinary question in the hands of the pope (Pius IV, who was known to be personally in favor of communion under both species). The Council could affirm the historical facts that communion under both species was the original and general form of communion in the early Church, that gradually the usage of receiving communion from the cup fell into disuse, and that such a change did not entail a betrayal of the will of Christ.(3) The intensity of Counter-Reformation polemics, however, did not allow the openness of the Council to be pursued in later policy. (4). The Church has had to wait until our own times, for the Second Vatican Council and the revised Order of Mass, to see the gradual reintroduction of the practice of communion under both species.(5)

Such a context raises two important points for our concern over the ordination of women. First, the scope of the debate must not be unduly narrowed. There is more to priesthood than being a leader of cult. To confine, the debate on the ordination of women exclusively to the cultic dimension of priesthood is analogous to confining the debate on the reception of communion under two species to the question of whether more grace is received under two species than under one. The activities of Jesus in the gospels are more often framed in terms of feeding, healing, teaching, preaching and exorcising than in terms of cultic presidency. Furthermore, the initial model for priests of the Christian dispensation was the presbyteral model, an institution of antiquity which was somewhat analogous to what we would call a city council—though it included religious jurisdiction too.(6) It would be important, then, for any discussion of women priests to include the wider, non-cultic dimensions of priesthood, as well as the cultic.

Second, the quality of the debate must not be allowed to take on the character of total warfare, for it is such a context which produces exaggerated claims. It would not be hard for the advocacy of the ordination of women to be presented in such urgent terms that it would be seen as the salvation of the Church (the Jesus-event lays first claim to that distinction). Nor would it be hard for the rejection of the ordination of women to be presented in such terms that the very orthodoxy of the Church depends upon it. The ordination of women is neither the greatest opportunity nor the worst heresy that the Church has ever encountered; yet if the debate gets out of hand, its effects could be felt far longer than the effects of the debate about communion under both species. The interpretation given by the Introduction to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal regarding the practice of communion under both species is instructive in this regard:

Moved by the same spirit of pastoral concern, the Second Vatican Council was able to reconsider the norm laid down by Trent about communion under both kinds. The Church teaches that the full effect of communion is received under the one species of bread; since that doctrine is rarely if ever challenged today, the council gave permission for communion to be received sometimes under both kinds.... (Number 14, italics added)

The Substance of the Sacraments

This is certainly one of the more important issues raised by the Declaration. Although the Declaration stops short of saying that the maleness of the priest is a matter of substance, it correspondingly omits to say that it is simply a matter of discipline. It is obvious that if the matter is one which concerns the substance of the sacrament, the Church would have no authority over the matter, but if the matter were simply one of discipline, it could be changed by the Church at any time.

It is my impression that the substance ot sacraments is rather more limited than we are accustomed to think. Let us look at several examples.

‘ Eucharist.’ There is far more positive scriptural warrant for the reception of Eucharist under two species (Mt 26:26-28; Mk 14:22-24; Lk 22:19-20; 1 Cor 11:23-29; Jn 6:53-57) than there is positive scriptural warrant for the maleness of the priest of the Church, yet the reception of Eucharist under two species by anyone other than the priest celebrant is not considered part of the substance of the sacrament.(7) Can we then say that the maleness of the priest is sacramentally more substantive than these positive scriptural invitations to communicate under both species?

Anointing of the Sick. The scriptural basis of this sacrament is seen as being in Mk 6:13 and Js 5:14-15. In spite of the positive precept in James, the earliest implementation of this sacrament is in the episcopal consecration of the oil (and self-administration by the laity according to their needs). It is not until Carolingian times that the first organized ritual is produced with presbyteral anointing and laying on of hands. Even so, throughout this length of time, the sacrament is still destined to the sick. From the eighth century there is a gradual change of perception from the sacrament as being destined to the sick and for their healing, to a perception of the sacrament as being destined to the dying and for their purification (i.e., preparation for death). This change of perspective is accomplished by the twelfth century. It is only with the recent revision of the sacrament (1972) that some of the original perspectivc is restored.(8)

If such a change in the purpose of the sacrament is not regarded as pertaining to the substance of the sacrament, are we to regard the maleness of the priest as being any more sacramentally substantive?

Penance. The similarity between penance and baptism is striking. The calls of John the Baptist, Jesus, and the early Church to repentance and conversion led to baptism. It was the concern about the veracity of such a conversion that led the Church to allow the possibility of only one opportunity for reconciliation after the commission of serious post-baptismal sin. Reconciliation was granted only after the completion of severe penances (including, among other things, abstention from marriage relations with one’s spouse) which were expected to be continued even after reconciliation was granted. Beginning in the sixth century, however, a new form of penance arrived on the scene, which was repeatable, and applicable to sins that were considered minor as well as major. Penances, while severe, did not continue after reconciliation. Then in the twelfth century another form—granting absolution prior to the performance of a usually minor penance—arose, along with a still different (and now defunct) form of pilgrimage penance (wherein laity with minor sins and clerics with grave and scandalous sins could confess their sins, be given a pilgrimage to undertake, and consider themselves absolved upon completion of their pilgrimage).(9)

These four widely differing forms of penance (our own familiar form— form one in the 1973 revision—arising only in the twelfth century) do not differ in substance from one another. Are we to regard the maleness of a priest as being any more sacramentally substantive?

Baptism-Confirmation. The earliest baptismal ritual we possess is that of the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus.(10) When the description of the baptismal ceremony is completed, the newly baptized is brought into the church where another imposition of hands and anointing takes place in front of the entire congregation. This is then followed by the sign of peace, some prayers (i.e., what we would call the general intercessions), and the presentation of the oblations.(11) The sense of this imposition and anointing, which is later separated from the entire ceremony as the sacrament we know as Confirmation is that of a public affirmation of the fact that this person has now been baptized and is a full member of the Church. Such a public ceremony was needed because the baptism, for the sake of modesty because of the nakedness involved, was done privately and apart from the church.

Since the substance of neither of these two sacraments has changed in the course of later developments,(12) can we regard the maleness of the priest as being any more sacramentally substantive?

A final word. Even such a cursory outline would suggest that we are not talking about an issue pertaining to the substance of the sacrament of orders but simply to its discipline. The more substantial issue is more likely to be the cultural one.


1. P. Richard, Concile de Trente in Hefele-LeClercq, Histoire des conciles, Vol. IX, Part 2 (Paris: Librairie Letouzey et Ané, 1931), p. 693.

2. It has aways been recognized that the sign value of receiving communion under two species is greater than that of one and for this reason is to be preferred. Today we would express it in terms of symbolism. Symbols are those things or actions which allow the human to enter into contact with the divine. As the quality of the symbol is enhanced, so too is human accessibility to the divine. The quality of the symbol does not increase grace, it simply facilitates our engagement in and orientation to the divine.

3. Cf. James J. Megivern, Concomitance and Communion: A Study in Eucharistic Doctrine and Practice (Fribourg: The University Press, 1963), pp. 252-254. A rather full discussion may be found in E. Dublanchy, “Communion sous les deux espèces,” Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, Vol. 111 (Paris: Letouzey, 1908), cols. 552-572.

4. In 1564, Pius IV authorized some German bishops to permit communion under both species, but he had to suppress this concession the following year.

5. Cf. The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, n. 55, the instruction Eucharisticum Mysterium (May 25, 1967), and the General Instruction to the revised (1969) Order of Mass, nos. 76 and 242.

6. André Lemaire Les ministères aux origines de l’Eglise (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1971), pp. 17-27.

7. Even the reception of communion under two species by a priest at the Mass in which he is ordained is a matter of permission. Cf. The General Instruction, no. 242.

Such a vision is possible only in a context where in point of fact, although not in theory, the Mass is seen as the act of the priest and not of the Church. When a person acts in the name of the Church, whether or not the Church is there, he soon begins to conceive of himself, for all practical purposes, as the Church.

8. Antoine Chavasse, “L’Onction des infirmes dans l’église latine du IIIe siècle à la réforme carolingienne,” Revue des sciences religieuses, Vol.XX (1940), pp.. 64-122, 290-364; Claude Ortemann, Le sacrement des malades: Histoire et signification (Lyon: Editions du Chalet, 1971).

9. A handy summary of this development may be found in the two volumes by Cyrille Vogel, Le pécheur et la pénitence dans l’Eglise ancienne (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1966) and Le pécheur et la pénitence au Moyen-Age (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1969).

10. Bernard Botte. ed., La Tradition Apostolique de saint Hippolyte; essai de reconstitution, Liturgiewissenschaftliche Quellen und Forschungen, 39 (Münster: Westfalen, 1963).

I I. Ibid., no. 21, especially pp. 50-55.

12. For a thorough treatment of this development, cf. J. D. C. Fisher, Christian Initiation: Baptism in the Medieval West, Alciun Club, 47 (London: S.P.C.K., 1965), as well as the essays and bibliography in Made, Not Born: New Perspectives on Christian Initiation and the Catechumenate from the Murphy Center for Liturgical Research (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976).

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