It's great that people are asking for Sacraments. But what spiritual value does the Sacrament in question really have when one begins to realize that it's being sought for reasons that have next to nothing to do with faith in God and discipleship to Jesus Christ? Or when it's based on the most superficial understanding of what a Sacrament entails? When the rite of Baptism is an afterthought to the big party and family reunion, and the several thousand dollars one has spent on the reception hall? When parents don't understand why they should be expected to keep coming to Mass once their child has made his First Communion? When people who haven't been into a church in years make an appointment to get married, and make the point to tell you they really can't be bothered with Sunday Mass, that they don't know if they'll raise their children in the Faith, and really they need to pin down the date and where photographers are allowed to stand? When parents bring their kids to get confirmed "in case they want to get married in the Church later on"?
I've heard all of that, and I really find it harder and harder to be scandalized anymore. In all those cases, you sit down and calmly and cheerfully begin the work of catechesis, you try to make the connection between the Sacraments and faith in Christ, between the ritual they're seeking and the normal practice of religion that it's a part of. Once in a blue moon, you see a real turn-around and a positive change of attitude that lasts even after the Sacrament in question has been given. The opportunity for evangelization has paid off. Most often, though, you begin to suspect that the people are obediently jumping through the hoops and have resigned themselves to telling Father what he wants to hear. Then they get their Sacrament and disappear until the next time they want something. The others forget the whole thing when they realize it requires something personal of them, or they go find some other parish where they can get what they want with a nice little contribution and no questions asked. I have come to understand why so many people who work in the Church are cynics, why so many priests have opted for religion without content, and why so many fundamentalist Protestants accuse us of fostering a religion of faithless works and empty rituals.
This is not about whether or not someone is worthy. None of us is worthy of grace. That's the whole point of grace: Christ gives it freely before we can deserve it, and we are free to take it or leave it. What this is about is discipleship. To ask for the Church's Sacraments is a way of saying, "I want to follow Jesus. I want to receive His grace, through this particular Sacrament He has given to His Church. I accept Him and His law upon me. And I am determined to seek to follow His Word." How can I do that, if I don't know His Word? How can I do that, if I don't know His law? How can I do that, if I don't know Him? Or, knowing Him, if I don't particularly care to follow Him? By virtue of the Sacrament given, we know that grace is poured out by God, independent of the minister's worthiness (ex opere operato, as the theologians say). But the negative disposition of the recipient can prevent the grace from having an effect, and if that is done with malice or willful negligence, it entails the sin of sacrilege.
There was a time when faith and a basic knowledge of the contents of the Faith could be presumed, and we hammered the necessity of the Sacraments into people's heads, so much so that perhaps they became automatic assumptions and fixtures in the Catholic culture. I think what's happened is that as faith and knowledge of the Faith (the difficult, personally costly part) disintegrated over the past several decades, the rituals (the easy, pretty parts) have survived as lovely cultural objects to be desired in themselves, apart from any faith commitment or understanding of what's going on. If the Faith can't be restored on as widespread a level as before, is there really any point on insisting on such a widespread administration of the Sacraments? I'm not sure of the answer myself, but it's a question I've been thinking a lot about.
Max Boot, Professional Former Republican
13 minutes ago