Sacramental Matters

Recently I had a student ask the perennially controversial question “Why can’t women be ordained priests?” Even though this has been declared as a closed question by Pope St. John Paul II, it still recurs over and over. There are many ways to answer when this question arises, but the discussion led to something very important that we overlook about the sacraments and the Catholic faith in general:


One of the big mistakes that keeps getting made throughout the centuries is the dismissal of matter in our relationship with God. The ancient heresy of Gnosticism, along with many others like it, held the view that spirit is from God, but the material world is evil. To be sure, there is some basis in Scripture for this view. Jesus says, “That which is born of flesh is flesh. That which is born of spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6) And in another place He says, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matt 26:41).

Our own experience of concupiscent desires bears witness to this. How often have we wanted to attend to spiritual things like the soul and God but we became distracted by some kind of attraction to a bodily pleasure like food or sex or rest and the like. When this happens, we tend to think of our body and the material world as a distraction from the higher world of spirit. Even the great philosopher Plato viewed the body as simply the prison of the soul.

However, we have to always remember that God created the material world along with the spiritual world. For this reason, matter, in and of itself, is good and not evil. And it is important to remember that human beings are material as well as spiritual beings. We are not angels imprisoned in material bodies, waiting to be liberated. St. Thomas Aquinas makes clear that the human person is the union of the body and the soul together. This is why death is so terrible, because human beings are torn apart at our core. To be a soul without a body is to not be fully human.

With this in mind, we can begin to see why our relationship with God must always involve body as well as soul. In all of our other relationships, the body is essential. Your parents are not only parents because of the love they bear in the hearts, but also from the biological generation that has occurred. That is why so many adopted children, even though they are filled with love for their adoptive parents, still have a deep desire to know where they come from biologically.

When it comes to our spiritual life, it is not a good idea to completely ignore the body. Doing this ignores our essential humanity. CS Lewis once wrote, “There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.”

On the show The Big Bang Theory, when the characters Sheldon and Amy first meet, he mentions how his mother makes him go to church once a year. Amy responds “I am open to the concept of a deity, but I’m baffled by one who takes attendance.” It is a funny line, but it also shows a lack of understanding the bodily nature of spirituality. We are not called simply to pray with our minds and souls, but with our bodies. We must physically attend the mass when we are able because our bodily presence reflects our spiritual presence.

This takes us to the sacraments themselves. Notice that Our Lord gave us seven sacraments with very specific material components. He did not set us up to continue moving away from the physical. Instead, in Him, the material is elevated by the power of the spiritual. All of this is to make one very important point:

The matter matters.

If the specific matter of the sacrament did not matter, then all that would be necessary would be the intention of the heart. But that is not the case. In order to have a valid baptism you need two material expressions: liquid and words (I am excluding here the very special exceptions of baptism by desire and by blood). In order to baptize, you must have the person be touched by water and the words “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” A few years ago, there was a church in my diocese that tried being very progressive and replaced the baptismal formula with “I baptize you in the Name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier.” When our bishop found out about this, he instructed that all of those baptized in this way be contacted and informed that their baptisms were not valid. Why not?

Because the matter matters.

Returning to my discussion with my students, I asked them if I could perform a valid baptism with sand instead of water. They said now. I then asked if a priest could consecrate pizza and bear on the altar in bread and wine. They giggled, but they said of course not. The reason why is because Christ chose very specific material forms for the sacrament and the Church has always understood that the material component is essential for the efficacy of the sacrament.

This brings us to the Holy Orders. Christ chose men to be priests and only men. The Church has always understood that it has no power to ordain women, just as it has no power to consecrate pizza and bear.

Because the matter matters.

The Catholic Church has always understood this material nature of worship. That is why our traditions continue to give us experiences that fill the senses: Eucharist to eat and drink, songs to sing and hear, statues and art to dazzle the eyes, perfumed oils and incense to scent the air, the feeling of holy water on the skin to remind us of our baptismal cleansing, and so on.

It would be a mistake to reduce the sacraments to their material components, but it is equally a mistake to ignore them. The sacraments may be more than their matter, but they are never less than their matter.

God gave us this material world and our material bodies to live fully human lives. Let us never think that we have moved beyond matter, but instead remember that God came down to us and took on flesh to raise up our material world to Himself.

Because the matter matters.

Copyright 2021, WL Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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