Ex Opere Operato

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Scholastic theology employs ex opere operato (from the work worked) to distinguish what is accomplished by the minister of a sacrament from the activity of the minister, the opus operantis (the work of the one working). This distinction was drawn in order to locate the source of the sanctifying effect in the sacramental rite itself, and not in the holiness of the minister. The Council of Trent used this terminology in its Decree on the Sacraments, Session XIII (1547), canon B: "If anyone says that grace is not conferred ex opere operato through the sacraments of the new law let that one be anathema." In the modern ecumenical context, it is worth repeating that Trent's use of ex opere operato, while it includes the idea that the efficacy of sacraments does not depend on the holiness of the minister, was primarily intended to oppose those who denied the objective mediation of grace through the sacraments of the Church. This limited use, however, was often overlooked by post-Tridentine Catholic School theology. As a result the theological content of ex opere operato was frequently equated with the valid administration of a sacrament.

Christ the Primordial Sacrament. One can begin with the idea that a sacrament, celebrated according to the prescription of the Church, is an objective, infallible offer of the grace signified. All that is needed for a "saving event" to take place is the openness on the part of an apt, and properly disposed, subject, for the reception of the sacramental grace. But this purely juridical interpretation of ex opere operato needs to be deepened theologically. Modern Catholic theologians work out the deeper dimension along the lines of thomas aquinas, who, in his later works, prefers to speak of the efficacy of the sacraments as derived "from the merit, or the passion of Christ," and who never uses ex opere operato in his Summa Theologiae. This approach is correct because a sacrament can be said to confer grace, or be efficacious, ex opere operato, only if it is an act of Christ himself, an authentic sacramental representation of the mystery of Christ's saving work, in and through the community that merits the title church of Christ (E. Schillebeeckx). However, frequently contemporary theologians are content to refer to Christ as the efficient instrumental cause of the sanctifying activity of the Father. This point of view, which stresses the downward movement of the self-communication of the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit, needs to be broadened.

Christ is not only the primordial sacrament of the divine-human love of humanity and, therefore, the personal cause of the sanctification offered in the Sacraments of the Church. He is also the primordial sacrament of the divine-human love of the Father and, therefore, the reason why the prayer of the Church finds acceptance before the Father. Evidently both of these aspects of the sacramentality of Christ are involved in sacramental celebrations, a theme that is given some consideration in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Moreover, they come into play in an order that corresponds to the sacramental activity of the Church.

Sacramental Incorporation. Sacramental celebrations signify some human and social situations into which the subject of the sacrament is being incorporated (e.g., membership in the Church through Baptism). But, for the eyes of faith, what is denoted is understood to connote a special mode of incorporation into the mystery of the Church: the life of faith in Christ. As social sacrament of salvation, the Church expresses this twofold meaning by reaching out to the subject through the symbolic gesture, and by the accompanying sacramental verbal formulas that explicitly refer to the deeper meaning of the activity. Both gesture and word express the desire of the Church for the sanctification of the subject, and are intended to evoke a corresponding desire in the subject.

As acts of the Church sacraments have an essentially epicletic orientation (see epiclesis). Some essential verbal formulas of the sacraments are explicit invocations addressed to God (e.g., ordination prayers). But even when the indicative, active form is used (e.g., "I baptize you "), as act of the Church it is only understandable as a petition before God. However, the confidence that the Church manifests is grounded on the conviction of faith that what she does serves as transparency for what Christ is doing in and through the sacramental acts of His Church. Because Christ is the head of the Church, the symbolic action represents Christ reaching out to the subject, and the sacramental word is inserted by Christ himself into His "eternal intercession" before the Father.

When one adds to this consideration the witness of faith of the traditional churches of the East and West that the realization of the sacraments, and the sanctification of the subjects of sacraments, also depend on the work of the Holy Spirit, the full meaning of the term ex opere operato is made accessible. It can be stated in this way: sacramental celebrations are efficacious ex opere operato because the symbolic actions and intercessory prayer of the Church are the representation and actualization of the twofold aspect of the sacramentality of Christ. The personal source of the correspondence between the activity of the Church and the activity of Christ is the one Holy pirit, whom Christ possesses in fullness and shares with His Church. Because the intercession of the Church, made in, with and through Christ the High Priest (sacrament of the divine-human love of the Father), in the power of the Holy Spirit, is always heard by the Father, sacramental celebrations are always the offer of the sanctifying Spirit, made by the Father through the Risen Lord (sacrament of the divine-human love of humanity), in accord with the signification of the sacramental signs instituted by Christ. Consequently, there is a sending of the Spirit by the Father through the Risen Lord to the apt subject, who is open in faith to receive the grace proper to the sacrament.

Bibliography: e. h. schillebeeckx, Christ, The Sacrament of the Encounter with God (New York 1963) 8289. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. a. flannery (Collegeville 1975) 136.

[e. j. kilmartin]