Are Catholic Sacraments Magical Operations? part 1


The idea that a mere ritual confers grace sounds strange, at best, for protestant ears, if not magical. Indeed, the word “magic” is often used in complaints against the catholic sacramental system. There is no doubt that it contradicts head on the sola fide doctrine that we are saved by faith alone. Though Protestants and Catholics agree that it is the grace of God what saves, and His grace alone (sola gratia), there is no agreement about the way the believer is reached by grace. For born-again Christians it is the individual’s personal faith that is important, and that connects the believer to God. For Catholics the relationship of the believer with God is not only a private matter, but one that has both a personal and a communitarian dimension.

For Catholics spiritual life is not simply a question of “me and Jesus” – or “me and the Bible” for that matter – but something that is both personal and communitarian. The word “religion” itself, means “to re-connect” (from the Latin re-ligare) man and God, as well as the human community with God and people with one another. All these three aspects are to be found in the Catholic religion and are grounded in Baptism. The communitarian aspect of religion does not mean that we are not personally responsible for our sins, and this individual responsibility will not take away the importance a solid and visible ecclesiastic communion with fellow believers. Just as in the life of the next world, we are fully united with God, and in Him with the other born-again by the sacrament of Baptism.

The catholic doctrine and practice of the sacrament of Baptism is a good example of what divides Catholics and Evangelicals. As with many other catholic doctrines and practices many Evangelicals love to be scandalized by the catholic understanding of Baptism, denouncing it for being an empty ritual, a man made invention and the like. These, and other accusations, are just a few of those that I encountered, but behind them there are, sometimes, some seemingly strong biblical arguments, regarding both the doctrine and the practice of Baptism, that need to be addressed. Isn’t the Catholic baptism, that is supposed to work ex opere operato (by the work worked) something that resembles more a magical act than a Christian sacrament? These are questions that I had to struggle with, or at least I had to struggle to find a way to explain them to Evangelical Christians.

There is hardly a less palatable dimension of Catholicism for Evangelicals, with the possible exception of the existence of a teaching hierarchy, then the sacramental system. I remember that even years after accepting it and understanding it at an intellectual level, I had reservations against it at an emotional level. Gut feelings are more important than anyone can imagine when an Evangelical turns his or her attention towards Catholicism. As in the case of the Mass, when it comes to Baptism all seems to be false ritual, misleading at best, or charlatanry at worst. In their balanced and generally well informed refutation of Catholic doctrines and practices Norman Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie summarizes this way the Reformed/Baptist View:

While Roman Catholic theology claims that there is no salvation apart from God’s grace, their view of the sacraments tends to take away in practice what they have affirmed in principle. The Catholic view of a sacrament, unchanged by Vatican II, is that it is given “not merely as a sign but as a cause of grace.” Catholic dogma states: “If anyone shall say that the sacraments of the New Law do not contain the grace which they signify, or that they do not confer that grace on those who do not place any obstacle in the way, as though they were only outward signs of grace or justice, received through faith . . . let him be anathema.” Furthermore, it is anathema to believe that “grace is not conferred from the work which has been worked” but has come from “faith alone.” This being the case, salvation is by sacraments. God’s normative way of saving sinners is, according to Catholic dogma, through the Catholic sacramental system.

Sacraments are effective objectively, whether or not their efficacy is experienced subjectively. “Sacraments confer grace immediately, without the mediation of fiducial faith.” In order to designate the objective efficacy of a sacrament, Catholic theology coined the phrase ex opere operato (by the work that is worked); that is, “the Sacraments operate by the power of the completed sacramental rite.” The Council of Trent adopted this phrase, which the Reformers vigorously opposed, for sacraments were said to “move God to bestow the grace by their objective value. As soon as the sacramental sign is validly accomplished God bestows the grace.” This being the case, salvation is dependent on performing the works of the sacramental system. It is not really by grace alone through faith alone.  (Geisler, MacKenzie, 12. Justification)

This divide over Baptism brings to light two very different ways of reading the Bible and cannot be resolved unless the fundamental presuppositions behind the two positions are discussed. There is nothing more misunderstood by Evangelical in the entire Catholic theology and practice than the sacramental system. No wonder, since this is so different from the Evangelical interpretation of Scripture that there is no comparison with it in their own theology. In cases like this it is to be expected that false association will be made and misunderstandings will have to be overcome. The most common is the association with magical practices:

The Catholic concept of a sacrament causing grace ex opere operato (by the work that has been worked) is a mystical, if not magical, view of sacraments. It is as though they are inherently endowed with powers to produce grace in the recipient. As Ronald Nash noted of pagan rites, “The phrase ex opere operato describes the pagan belief that their sacraments had the power to give the individual the benefits of immortality in a mechanical way without his undergoing any moral or spiritual transformation. This certainly was not Paul’s view, either of salvation or of the operation of the Christian sacraments.” By contrast, sacraments “were considered to be primarily dona data, namely blessings conveyed to those who by nature were unfit to participate in the new order inaugurated by the person and work of Jesus Christ. Pagan sacraments, on the contrary, conveyed their benefits ex opere operato. ” (Robert Nash, Christianity and the Hellenic World, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1984, p. 153) (Geisler, McKenzie, 13. Sacramentalism. P. 259)

Boettner expresses the same idea more forcefully in his Roman Catholicism:

The Roman doctrine of the sacraments constitutes the most elaborate system of magic and ritual that any civilized religion ever invented, and from first to last it is designed to enhance the power and prestige of the clergy. In its fundamental ideas it is as alien to the whole spirit of Christianity and as out of harmony with modern times as the Medieval science of astrology is out of harmony with astronomy, or alchemy with chemistry. (The Mass)

To equate the catholic sacramental system with magic means that: 1. the one making this confusion doesn’t know what magic is, or 2. he doesn’t know what the catholic sacramental system is about, ore 3. both of the previous two possibilities. Also, Boettner’s generous description in the first part of the passage cited here proves nothing more than that he was not particularly knowledgeable regarding the history of religions.

It is surprising how quickly the word “magic” comes to be employed when Evangelicals talk about the catholic sacraments, despite the fact that they do not have to denounce them as such in order to reject them. Since the mother-doctrine of Protestantism from Luther onward is the sola fide doctrine, that excludes by itself the sacramental system, there is no need for such exaggerations that have no factual support. An Evangelical has only to point out the incompatibility between the “grace through faith alone” view, as they understand it, and the sacramental system (which should be an easy task) and after that to prove the former from the Bible (which is more problematic) if he wants to discard the latter. However, apologetical overkills like this one represent a certified panacea against overcoming certain prejudices and all too often are a lame excuse for avoiding a serious study of the issues involved.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with Christians not having a very clear idea about what magic is. Salvation comes without having studied such things. But when certain associations are made it would be expected that the one making the associations knows what he is talking about. Ralph Woodrow, disciple of Alexander Hislop and author of the infamous Babylon Mystery Religion, a piece of anti-catholic propaganda so ridiculous that even his author was forced to denounced it later on, makes the following remarks from personal experience:

Building on similarities while ignoring differences is an unsound practice. Atheists have long used this method in an attempt to discredit Christianity altogether, citing examples of pagans who had similar beliefs about universal floods, slain and risen saviors, virgin mothers, heavenly ascensions, holy books, and so on.

As Christians, we don’t reject prayer just because pagans pray to their gods. We don’t reject water baptism just because ancient tribes plunged into water as a religious ritual. We don’t reject the Bible just because pagans believe their writings are holy or sacred.

The Bible mentions things like kneeling in prayer, raising hands, taking off shoes on holy ground, a holy mountain, a holy place in the temple, pillars in front of the temple, offering sacrifices without blemish, a sacred ark, cities of refuge, bringing forth water from a rock, laws written on stone, fire appearing on a persons head, horses of fire, and the offering of first fruits. Yet, at one time or another, similar things were known among pagans. Does this make the Bible pagan? Of course not!

If finding a pagan parallel provides proof of paganism, the Lord Himself would be pagan. The woman called Mystery Babylon had a cup in her hand; the Lord has a cup in His hand (Ps. 75:8). Pagan kings sat on thrones and wore crowns; the Lord sits on a throne and wears a crown (Rev. 1:4; 14:14). Pagans worshiped the sun; the Lord is the „Sun of righteousness” (Mal. 4:2). Pagan gods were likened to stars; the Lord is called „the bright and Morning star” (Rev. 22:16). Pagan gods had temples dedicated to them; the Lord has a temple (Rev. 7:15). Pagans built a high tower in Babylon; the Lord is a high tower (2 Sam. 22:3). Pagans worshiped idolatrous pillars; the Lord appeared as a pillar of fire (Exod. 13: 2122). Pagan gods were pictured with wings; the Lord is pictured with wings (Ps. 91:4).

I realized that citing a similarity does not provide proof. There must be a legitimate connection.[1]

These are wise words and it is exactly what I would like to do in this post: to clarify just what magic is and what are the similarities, if any, with the catholic sacramental system.

Magic is a practice by which someone tries to influence something or someone in the visible world by manipulating invisible realities. There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of magic: incantatory and invocatory. The first one uses impersonal laws, while the second personal beings, such as spirits of various kinds and ranks. However, invocatory magic can be considered a variety of the incantatory kind, since the one practicing magic uses incantations to influence those beings.

Magic is incompatible with our modern scientific worldview because it works only if the various realities that fill the cosmos are connected according to specific patterns, that someone well versed in magical practices is supposed to learn. At the level of ordinary village witchcraft, however, the ones practicing these things have to know only the “technique”, so to speak, not the reasons why it should work.

In the West magic gained some recognition at the level of the intelligentsia only starting with the Renaissance, when many books were written on the subject. One of the most influential is the De occulta Philosophia of Cornelius Agrippa, but the short De vinculis in genere of Giordano Bruno deserves also to be mentioned. Other “classics” of the field include the Picatrix, an eleventh century Arab grimoire[2] that made a big splash in late medieval and Renaissance Europe, the De vita of Marsilio Ficino, the Del Senso delle Cose of Tommaso Campanella and Magiae Naturalis of Gianbattista della Porta. These all contain the reflections of learned men on the subject and had an important say in there time.

So, in the Renaissance magic gained some recognition, being identified in some way with the study of the natural world and its laws. The invocation of spiritual beings was not taken in consideration in them, since it contradicted the prevalent Christian sensitivities (many of the authors considering themselves to be sincere Christians). Instead they concentrate on the basic laws that connect the realities of the natural world, giving the necessary push towards the experimental sciences.

The art of invoking spiritual beings was left for less reputable writings, such as various anonymous grimoires detailing that ranks names and seals of various spiritual beings, either angelic or demonic. It is not the place here to enter in any detail concerning them, because this kind of knowledge is anything but useful for a healthy spiritual life, but some general remarks are helpful for our subject, given the nature of the accusation brought against the catholic sacramental system. All these grimoires are the product of a gross misunderstanding, produced by the reinterpretation of pre-Christian cosmologies under the influence of Christian and Jewish angelologies. Various angelic and demonic ranks are presented, as well as intermediate spiritual beings that are neither on the side of God, nor on that of Satan (a clearly unchristian idea) along with their names and seals. The one knowing their name, seal and area of interest can bind them and commission them to do various tasks. The relation between the magus and a creature like this is a power relation, in which the former should make the latter yield to his will, otherwise he himself might get in some serious trouble. The binding is done by incantation – that is, specific words uttered at specific times in specific places, as well as the seal of the spirit in question, that is a drawing corresponding to its name.

This binding techniques work only if the cosmological presuppositions behind the incantations are correct. A late development of this idea is the so called agreement with the devil that for the soul of the one who invoked him binds himself to do him various favors. This is a more rationalized form of the incantational binding, in that it does not depend on magical cosmological presuppositions, but should work independently of them, but is jut as false[3]. Whoever wants to turn to the devil for help is already a gained soul for him, so there is no sense on his part to bind himself in any way to that person. The demons are rebellious angels, not stupid ones.

Having seen what magic is in theory and practice, it is time to move on the other side of the equation and see if we can connect all these with the sacraments of the Catholic Church. A good starting point are the observations of Robert Nash relative to the ex opere operato of pagan mysteries that Geisler and MacKenzie cite to exemplify their discontent with the catholic theology of the sacraments. Let’s see them once again:

The phrase ex opere operato describes the pagan belief that their sacraments had the power to give the individual the benefits of immortality in a mechanical way without his undergoing any moral or spiritual transformation. This certainly was not Paul’s view, either of salvation or of the operation of the Christian sacraments.[4]

Indeed, the phrase ex opere operato can be taken to mean what Nash here makes it to mean. The words itself of the expression permit that. But in different contexts the same words will have a different meaning, and that is something that Geisler and MacKenzie, citing Nash in this context, conveniently forget. The rites of pre-Christian pagan religion in the West were supposed to produce their effects ex opere operato that is because of the correctness of the rite performed, but this is not the case with the catholic sacraments. In the case of the latter it is the bestowal of grace on the part of God that comes through the rite performed, but the effects in the life of the believer depend on his receiving that grace with the proper disposition. Through the sacraments the believer receives the grace necessary to amend his or her life. It is senseless to accuse Catholics of preaching a bestowal of grace separated from “any spiritual and moral transformation”. This kind of spiritual and moral transformation is impossible for men without the help of God, that is, without His grace. In fact, the spiritual and moral transformation of everybody is the effect of God’s grace, as both Catholics and Evangelicals readily agree based on the words of Our Lord: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5). For Evangelicals salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, for Catholics it is entirely through grace, since faith itself is but a gift of God, or, in other words, a particular grace. In catholic spirituality meeting the grace of God with personal faith does not make sense, ultimately. Since faith itself is a grace, bestowal of grace precedes saving faith.

(to be continued)


[1] Woodrow, Ralph, The Two Babylons, A Case Study in Poor Methodology (review The Two Babylons, or The Papal Worship by Alexander Hislop), appeared in volume 22, number 2 (2000) issue of the Christian Research Journal. Available online at http://www.equip.org/site/c.muI1LaMNJrE/b.2713769/k.B1E9/DC187.htm.

[2] Grimoire – textbook containing supposed spells and descriptions of the various ranks and names of the spiritual beings.

[3] The Renaissance magus Cornelius Agrippa was a major inspiration for Goethe’s Doctor Faustus, the classical literary example of someone that makes such a deal with the devil.

[4] Robert Nash, Christianity and the Hellenic World, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1984, p. 153, cited by Gaisler, N. and MacKenzie, R in Roman Catholics and Evangelicals, Agreements and Differences, Baker Academic, 1995, p. 259

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