Presence and Absence

The Sacramentsby By Louis-Marie ChauvetLiturgical Press. 204p $29.95 (paper)

Louis-Marie Chauvet, professor of sacramental theology at the Institut Catholique in Paris, is not widely known this side of the Atlantic. His first work published in the United States, Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence, caught the eye of many sacramental theologians. However, it is not well suited for use in the classroom, nor is it easily accessible to an audience outside the academic community. The publication of The Sacraments, advertised by its publisher as a textbook version of Symbol and Sacrament, will be very much welcomed by those who admire Chauvet’s thought. Essentially, this work condenses and, more important, clarifies the more constructive and original elements of Chauvet’s work.

The Sacraments is something more than just a sacramental theology. It is indeed a systematic theology rooted in the principle of sacramentality so nicely expressed in its subtitle: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body. Note that for Chauvet body means something more than just a physical body. It also refers to a larger organization of elements that constitute human existence. This symbolic order, as Chauvet calls it, includes the bodies of language, culture, scripture and tradition, as well as the various bodies (e.g., water, oil, bread and wine, etc.) utilized in the celebration of the Christian sacraments.


According to Chauvet, the principle of sacramentality teaches us that each of these bodies potentially mediates God’s presence in the world, but not without a certain kind of absence. For this reason, he insists that the Word of God is always at the mercy of the body. This means first of all that God’s presence is at the mercy of the body because we are bodily creatures. All knowledge and experienceeven of God’s presence and revelationmust be mediated by the multiple bodies of the symbolic order. Two important consequences follow from this assertion. First, there is no direct connection with God. The desire for such a connection or the temptation of immediacy is ultimately an attempt to circumvent the body and overcome the cultural, historical and social nature of human existence. Second, absence becomes an important corollary to presence, because mediation necessarily implies an absence.

Chauvet’s attentiveness to absence brings out a second meaning of the subtitle, which acts as an important corrective to those sacramental theologies, both Catholic and Protestant, that have underemphasized the response and responsiblity of human agents in the sacraments. To say that the Word of God is at the mercy of the body implies recognition that in many instances the presence of God is partially dependent on us, who in response to God’s grace and the gift of the Spirit, embody God’s presence in our very actions. Chauvet should be commended for forging a strong link between sacraments and ethics. His book very clearly indicates that faith works, thereby overcoming the false dichotomy between faith and works that has divided the Christian community over the meaning and function of the sacraments. From Chauvet’s perspective, if God appears absent in a particular time and place, this is partly due to our failure to put faith to work in our bodies.

The Sacraments is divided into an introduction and five parts. The material in the introduction and first four parts can be found in Symbol and Sacrament, but the order of presentation and the avoidance of difficult philosophical terminology (such as Martin Heidegger’s onto-theology and Jacques Derrida’s arch-writing) make for much easier reading. The introduction critically examines two dominant sacramental models present in post-Reformation sacramental theology. The objective model, typical of pre-Vatican II Catholic theology, is always at risk of portraying the sacraments as magical instruments of salvation. The subjective model, in part a reaction to the objective model, has many forms. Chauvet is most interested in Karl Barth’s rejection of any synergistic collusion of God’s action and human action. In the name of defending God’s freedom and rejecting the idolatrous manipulation of God inherent in the objectivist model, Barth reduces the sacraments to a sign. Chauvet, however, understands both models to operate within a common conceptual framework of instrumentality. The one model sees the sacrament as an objective instrument for the production of grace and the other as an instrument of transmission in the sense of a revelatory sign that God has already bestowed the gift of sanctification on us. Note that in both models, the recipient of a sacrament is somewhat passive.

Chauvet seeks to develop an alternative model that affirms sacramental efficacy and human responsibility. He shares with Thomas Aquinas the conviction that sacraments are signs that only exist by the mode of causality and, conversely, a cause that produces its effect only by mode of a sign. However, the kinship with Thomistic theology ends there, because Chauvet grounds his approach in contemporary philosophies of language and symbol that are fundamentally critical of scholastic metaphysics. Part One articulates an anthropology indebted to the linguistic turn. Human existence is recognized to be always mediated by a body of language and culture. This opens the door to examining the elements within the language and culture of the church that mediate an existence identified as Christian. Christian sacraments are understood to be one important element of the formative body language of the Christian community. Parts Two and Three outline Chauvet’s theory of language and analyze the act of symbolization. This provides a non-instrumental framework for understanding the efficacy of the sacraments. The sacramental theology proposed here is then connected to a Trinitarian Christology, pneumatology and ecclesiology in the fourth part, while pastoral concerns are addressed in the final section of the book.

In the end, Chauvet affirms the key insights of the objectivist and subjectivist models but avoids the problems inherent in instrumental analogies. His focus on the problem of idolatry brings a set of concerns to sacramental theology not traditionally addressed by Catholic theologians. For example, Chauvet’s anthropology, indebted to certain psychoanalytic insights, assumes that there is an ever-present temptation to make God present in a fully accessible and self-serving manner. This temptation is countered by Chauvet’s appeal to the message of the cross, which has an important iconoclastic function in the Christian community. As a result The Sacraments, with its attention to presence and absence, achieves what might be called a sacramental iconoclasm, which possesses broad ecumenical appeal and resonates with contemporary philosophy and concern for praxis.

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