It is Confirmation time at St. Joseph’s parish, and the catechists have been working hard, with mixed results, to prepare the young adults for this important moment in their lives. Cecilia, for example, has become much more enthusiastic about her faith and is very excited about receiving the sacrament. Jacob has been respectfully attentive in the preparation classes but hasn’t yet become fully committed. Billy, on the other hand, is much less fervent than either Cecilia or Jacob. He is predominantly motivated by the desire to keep his parents happy and has no living faith. Then there is Sandra. She isn’t antagonistic to the faith. In fact she shows signs of real interest but, unfortunately, she has become involved with Steve, a lad of twenty, and has entered into an inappropriately intimate relationship with him.
This year, the celebration will be presided over by the parish priest, Fr. Tim. Cecilia’s mother, Barbara, is a little disappointed by this development, not so much because having the bishop does add a bit of gravitas to the whole occasion, but rather because Fr. Tim seems to have lost his belief in the reality of the Sacrament of Confirmation. He intimated as much to Barbara in an unguarded moment during last year’s parish barbeque. Let’s be clear here, Barbara fully accepts that the bishop can delegate the Confirmation to Fr. Tim, since by ordination the latter has the latent power to confirm, requiring only that this power might be “unlocked” by the bishop. It is more that Barbara is worried that Fr. Tim’s lack of faith might affect the efficacy of the sacrament.
Will all the hard work of the catechists founder on the reef of Jacob’s imperfect zeal, Billy’s indifference, Sandra’s state of grave sin, and Fr. Tim’s lack of faith? Or perhaps none of this makes any difference at all since the Catechism teaches us that the sacraments have inherent power to communicate grace or, that they work ex opere operato (CCC 1128).
The Latin phrase ex opere operato means “on account of the work worked” or, more colloquially, “by the completion of the sacramental rite.” This fact is contrasted with the idea that the sacraments work ex opere operantis. This second phrase means “from the work of the worker” and would, if applied to a sacrament, imply that a sacrament has no inherent power to give grace but, rather, that grace is given because of the meritorious quality of the action of the recipient or the minister.
The Church first developed the notion of ex opere operato during a dispute with the Donatists in the fourth century. These North African heretics claimed that priests and bishops who had apostatized during the persecution of Diocletian (but who had later returned to the fold) were unable to validly administer the sacraments. This was denied by the Lateran Synod in 313 A.D. (under Pope Miltiades), which condemned the Donatist position as heretical since neither the moral state of the minister nor his lack of orthodoxy in matters of faith can block the effect of a sacrament.
Later, during the Reformation, the phrase ex opera operato was used with reference to the role of the recipient, rather than of the minister. The reformers claimed that the sacraments were merely an opportunity to profess faith in Christ, and it was on account of this faith (and not some inherent power in the sacraments) that the recipient was justified and sanctified. No, responded the Council of Trent, while faith is needed for justification (and sanctification), the sacraments themselves have the power, as tools in the hand of God, to infuse grace into the recipient.[i] This is also part of the difference between the sacraments of the New Law and those of the Old Law. In the Old Law, religious rites like circumcision did communicate grace but, being “weak and needy elements” (Gal 4:9), they only worked ex opere operantis. They did not have inherent power to give grace but, rather, they were opportunities for the Jews to manifest their faith in God (and the Messiah to come), and it was because of this faith that grace was given.
So clearly, then, we know from these two controversies that a “sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.”[ii] If this is the case, however, what is the use of all that preparation—all that catechesis? Doesn’t our Catholic intuition (a.k.a. the gift of the Holy Spirit called knowledge) tell us that surely Cecilia benefits from the sacrament more than Jacob does, and both benefit more than either Billy or Sandra?
To put all of this another way, the question before us is this: accepting that the sacraments have inherent power to give grace, nevertheless, what kind of cooperation is needed on the part of the recipient and of the minister, and what is the role of the catechist in all this?