Joseph MARTOS. Deconstructing Sacramental Theology and Reconstructing Catholic Ritual. Eugene, Oregon: Resource Publications, 2015. pp. 309. $36.00 pb. ISBN: 978-1-4982-2179-5. Reviewed by Dolores L. CHRISTIE, University Heights, OH 44118.


Baptism leaves no magic mark–think Harry Potter–nor does it protect infants from Limbo. Eucharist was not always defined as godly flesh or bloodless sacrifice. Church ministry began as recognition of responsibility rather than possession of powers. Martos, perhaps one of today’s most knowledgeable sacramental scholars, demonstrates that so much of what we take for granted about sacraments is the precipitation of assumptions proper to past cultural and pastoral contexts. He debunks the reification of Catholic rituals as “outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace,” offering a corrective lens through which to view sacraments in the future.

The early chapters of the book are technical. Martos leaves no historical or documentary stone unturned. The first two chapters consider the construct of scholastic theology, doctrinal statements about sacraments, and what the author calls “the naive development of sacramental theology.” No longer grounded in primal communities of faith, sacraments became things “administered” and “received.” This part of the book is tough, some have said “dense.” Perhaps a better word is “rich.” The author is careful to summarize frequently and to use examples to help explain some of the more complex ideas.

Chapter 3, although perhaps too long, deconstructs the understanding of each of the sacraments in scripture and through the various historical periods. The author respectfully considers technical terms–we have all struggled in sacramental theology class with sacramentum et res, transubstantiation, substantia, for example–as they were understood in historical context. The New Testament neither described or theologized rituals to any degree. Early theology was pastoral, concerned with community practice. As theological reflection and documentary evidence increased, so did the expansion of a-historical thinking.

As we move into the future, it is important to realize that the significance of sacraments must flow from the real world in which they are ritualized. Symbols do not self define. The deepest congruence of understanding of what they celebrate will be found in communities that share experiences, ideas, and beliefs. As they point to the divine, symbols derive their meaning from the context. Modern sacramental theology must abandon the notion of a received permanence–sacraments as a thing. As the author notes when suggesting a different approach to sacraments, even fundamentalists differ on their understanding of particular biblical passages.

There is so much information in this book that a short review cannot begin to summarize its content. We skip through the patristics, chat with Augustine and other church fathers, stand in puzzlement at the thoughts of later theologians. Nevertheless Martos leads us to insight into changes that have occurred as the church evolved from a cottage industry to the religion of the empire. We begin to understand why the sacraments have scant meaning today. We conclude with the author that mechanistic definitions of the sacraments must be rejected.

 This book is not for sissies. It should be read by pastors, especially by seminary professors, and by others who teach or who wish to understand the evolution of sacramental theology. For the reader who wishes to avoid the details of theological development, the book concludes with a thorough summary of the author’s argument and of the earlier chapters. An index might have been included.

 Our notion of the signs we celebrate and live is not nearly that of those who walked with Jesus. We will be heartened–or perhaps frightened–by the proposal the meaning of “sacrament” is a slippery concept. The book is one of careful scholarship, observation of what is current and in need of correction, and above all a book of hope. And that is good.