During the last century Roman Catholic theology experienced a "shaking of the foundations". Depending on one's point of view, the field either fell into hopeless disarray by dethroning Thomist thought as norm or reverted to a healthy and creative pluralism characteristic of earlier ages (including the one in which Thomas Aquinas himself theologized). Roman Catholic sacramental theology over the last one hundred years has likewise witnessed a transformation of the questions it asks and the resources it uses to answer them. Insights from Odo Casel's intuition that sacraments are better understood as actions than objects in his Das christliche Kultmysterium (1932); Edward Schillebeeckx's use of anthropological and phenomenological frameworks in De sacramentele Heiseconomie (1952), generating a model of (the humanity of) Jesus as Ursakrament, and the "seven sacraments" as specifications of Christ's on-going personal encounter with believers in and through the Church; and Karl Rahner's systematic reflections in Kirche und Sakramente (1961), by which the church as Grundsakrament is both locus of Christ's abiding offer of grace to the world and the fundamental context from which Christian sacramentality flows, were confirmed in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. The Council's decrees in turn unleashed changes in sacramental practice, generating further theological reflection, frequently with the assistance of the human sciences: psychology in the case of Bernard Cooke's Christian Sacraments and Christian Personality (1965), sociology for G. McCauley's The Sacraments for Secular Man (1969), political science for Juan Luis Segundo's The Sacraments Today (1971), anthropology for George Worgul's From Magic to Metaphor (1980), and communication theory for David Power's Unsearchable Riches (1984).
In 1990 Louis-Marie Chauvet's Symbole et Sacrement (Paris: Editions du Cerf) signaled a transformation in Roman Catholic sacramental theology potentially as theoretically ground-breaking and pastorally fruitful as the earlier work of Casel, Schillebeeckx, and Rahner. Consciously adopting a postmodern stance (primarily influenced by Martin Heidegger's critique of Western metaphysics), Chauvet employed modern linguistic theory as a theological tool in analyzing the nature of being and various forms of existentialist thought to critique the pre-suppositions about causality in the classic medieval Roman Catholic sacramental-theological synthesis. He sought to create not so much a theology of the sacraments as traditionally understood as to explore the adequacy and coherency of the Christian proclamation of salvation as manifest in Christian sacramental activity. As the sub-title of Symbole et Sacrement makes clear, Chauvet's interest is in "A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Experience".
The work presently under review can best be read as a popularization and pastoral application of the insights generated by Symbole et Sacrement. Once again the subtitle holds a key to the work. For Chauvet, "body" is a root image for theological thinking, fully as rich as "soma" in the Pauline literature. Perhaps surprisingly for Anglophone readers, Chauvet's "body" is not first-and-foremost the structured skeletal, organic, animate object by which humans sense, think, move, etc.; it is a set of systems by which human existence becomes possible: viz., the "corpus" of scripture, tradition, culture, language, artifacts (including foodstuffs such as bread and wine), etc.. To say that the Word of God is at the "mercy" of the body means that the saving encounter of God and humanity cannot be reduced to magic, that the Church's rites do not "produce" grace in a mechanistic, extrinsicist way, that the very act of symbolizing both reveals and conceals aspects of God, the church, and the humans ritualizing, facilitates a genuine but limited encounter between humans and the divine.
In his "Overture" to The Sacraments, Chauvet presents three theoretical models for thinking about sacraments that the author labels "objectivist" (emphasizing God's activity through sacrament to humankind/church), "subjectivist" (emphasizing God's activity through the Spirit of the Risen One on humanity/church which generates sacramental acts of recognition for what God has done), and the "Vatican II" model (emphasizing the constant interaction of God, humanity/church, and sacrament) (see the helpful diagrams on pp. xvi, xix, and xxiv). Clearly opting for the third model, he deals in Part One with language as a privileged mode of mediation between human beings and reality; the Church's "language" of scripture, sacraments, and ethics (theoretically distinguishable, but never separable) mediates the Christian worldview, establishing and reinforcing Christian identity through a shared culture. In Part Two Chauvet further explores sacraments as ritualizing and symbolizing, not so much to explicate what the sacraments and their ritual components "mean", as to demonstrate the modes by which the sacraments "embody" Christian scripture and ethics. The heart of the work appears in Part Three where the author explores the dynamics of "gift exchange" as a key to understanding the (non-mechanistic) causality of the sacraments; God in Christ through the Spirit witnessed by the scriptures offers Godself as "gift", by means of sacramental celebration this God-gift is "received", and by means of the moral life lived in conformity with the worldview disclosed by the reception of the gift the Church offers its "return gift". The surprisingly short Part Four explicates the paschal and Trinitarian dynamics of the "gift exchange" adumbrated in Part Three. Part Five concludes Chauvet's reflections by confronting the pastoral problems (endemic in France and increasingly evident in the United States) of those seeking sacraments as "rites of passage" (marriage, baptism of infants) without apparent interest in living as Christians; faithful to the processual model he offered in the Overture, Chauvet outlines the kinds of pastoral interview(s) necessary to clarify the languages operating in those making the request and those charged with ministering to them.
This concise review of The Sacraments only touches on the major themes and moves appearing in the work thout giving a sense of the erudition, insight, and pastoral savvy it encompasses. For those with the proper background, I would strongly recommend reading Chauvet's earlier works Du Symbolique au symbole (Paris: Cerf, 1979) and the English translation of Symbole et Sacrement (which actually clarifies some of the obscurities of the French original): Symbol and Sacrament (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1995). For those who do not (certainly including today's undergraduates and possibly even graduate students, seminarians, clergy, and pastoral ministers), The Sacraments is a wonderful introduction to truly ground-breaking Roman Catholic sacramental theology.