Thursday, April 1, 2010

Olive Oil

No, that would be Olive Oyl! But on to the serious stuff (I won't make a joke involving the "unctuousness" of bishops, though I could.)

The Pope's homily at the Chrism Mass today, available here, though disappointingly devoid of any reference to the scandal, the year for priests, etc. (though there is still the Mass of the Lord's Supper, so we'll see), was still very good and was all about the sacramental oils.

Specifically, the Pope kept emphasizing olive oil specifically. To me, this is very good news. It perhaps signals that we are moving away from Paul VI's (gravely doubtful) permission to use "oils" other than olive, which doesn't even make sense in Latin where olea (olive) and oleum (oil) are etymologically bound up together.

The Pope's homily discusses how while water is universal and represents God's universal salvific will available to all people, the elements of wheat bread, grape wine, and olive oil are specific to Christianity's historical origin in the Mediterranean, where God came into a specific time and specific place. Though, from what I've read, varieties of grape and wheat are also found all over the world, nevertheless this is especially true of the olive.

There seems to have been a "universalizing" tendency after Vatican II to make Catholicism into this generic religion (with a generic "United Nations" committee liturgy), here the Pope reminds us (as he also did in "The Spirit of the Liturgy") that it is based on a concrete historical reality, a specific place and specific time.

The Church, while catholic, is always local in its instantiation. This is another reason to regret the Roman Rite being stripped of all the "quirks" of its peculiarly Roman elements (stational churches, vestigial ceremonies related to the papal court, etc). Proposing that local churches develop their own peculiar local elements instead of just piggybacking on Rome is one thing (and a very good thing, and done more in the Middle Ages)...but simply dropping all signs of particular local individuality in favor of some generic rational "international" liturgy made to look like it happened in a historical vacuum, has been a disaster. We are not angels; it turns out that when you strip away everything particular about yourself, all the concrete details of your particular history and specific choices...there is hardly any "generic" substance left.

One of the greatest disasters in this vein, for it affects the validity of sacraments, have been attempts to "adapt" the matter of the sacraments to other cultures. Hence you'll hear of some places approving rice hosts or some such thing. One issue that has not been addressed yet, as far as I know (but which perhaps with this homily the Pope is hinting he will address soon?) is Paul VI's approval, in the Latin Rite, for "oils" other than olive to be used for the sacraments (ie, vegetable and fruit oils). This is a permission that has been thankfully little used, but it raises in my mind grave doubts.

As the Pope pointed out in his homily (and as Aquinas describes in the Summa)...just as there is a specific necessary symbolism to wheat and grape for the bread and wine, there is specific symbolism to the olive for the oil, some of which relates to biblical events or parables like (as the Pope discusses), Noah's dove bringing back an olive branch and Christ's agony on the Mount of Olives (Aquinas also adds the evergreen nature of the olive tree, which is not necessarily true of other vegetables).

The Pope speaks of the "four elements" on which the sacramental world is built, which I think have some correspondence to the four classical elements, water being water, wheat being earth, wine being air, and oil being fire. Aquinas describes how oil is merely "potential fire" and that, while the Apostles may have miraculously called down
actual tongues of fire directly on those whom they Confirmed (through the laying-on of hands), the Church after the miracles of the Apostolic Age had to use "potential fire" (ie, oil).

I am convinced that other "oils" invalidate the sacraments, Paul VI's permission notwithstanding. It wasn't an infallible ex cathedra decree, it was extended to the Latin Rite only (and was therefore given in his role as Latin Rite Patriarch, not as universal Pope). And it was a passive permission; if he had issued an ex cathedra statement saying, "We declare and define that non-olive oils are valid matter for the sacraments," we'd be forced to believe it, but he did no such thing. There are examples in the past of Popes giving permission for abbots who were not bishops to ordain, and this doesn't contradict infallibility because these were not universal teachings, but specific erroneous permissions, just as the permission to the Latin Rite only is not the same as a decree covered by infallibility.

Now, I doubt this Pope will dare to say all this. Even I, put in that awkward position, might just let sleeping dogs lie since the permission has apparently not been used very often (and the sacraments requiring oil are not strictly speaking essential for salvation). Can you imagine the chaos that could be caused by telling people that their confirmation might have been invalid and trying to sort out which places used non-olive products and then conditionally re-confirming all those people, etc!? It would be a mess. Though I think the Holy Spirit has fortunately stopped the permission from being used to any wide extent.

But, I think what he may do, is just quietly revoke the permission for non-olive "oils" without any judgment on their validity right away, and then (hopefully) a few years down the line they'll discretely establish that olive oil, specifically, is necessary for validity, once it has already become a non-issue in practice. This may be what his homily was hinting at.


Carolyn said...

I agree (I think) in principal with most of this post, but I'm curious about your statement:

"Hence you'll hear of some places approving rice hosts or some such thing."

I'm not fully versed in the symbolism of the wheat, nor am I totally familiar with the "some such thing" to which you are referring... but what about people who cannot consume wheat for legitimate reasons? For example, my daughter (who has not had her First Communion) is on a GFCFSF diet, so a wheat host is out of the question. They tell me that the Real Presence is also fully in both species, but she has also likely inherited my allergy to sulphites, which means no wine.

So what then? And I don't buy the whole song-and-dance of "this is her cross to bear", because I somehow fail to believe little children have such big crosses. Would a person never be allowed to take the Real Presence because of health issues? For her entire life? Because someone is hung up over the symbolism of wheat?

I have a keen interest in traditions, and keeping ourselves grounded in our roots as Catholics. However, I think there are times when we need to be a *little* flexible. At the end of the day, do we really know whether or not Christ cares what grain the Host is made of?

A Sinner said...

It's difficult, but that is clearly defined doctrine.

They make very-low gluten hosts, and have ways of giving even just a tiny drop of the Precious Blood, but if even that is too much, I don't know.

Who Am I said...

This reminds me of an argument I had just yesterday with a Traditionalists. They accused me of being politically correct for arguing that there are SOME things which indeed SHOULD be contextualized in the context of The Faith. I argued that one DOES NOT have to compromise the message to be culturally relevant to a group. Not EVERYTHING is universal to every group across the globe and as such that is the TRADITIONAL understanding of ORGANIC development. But alas, many conflate those things which CAN be contextualized as being unchangeable for the most absurd of reasons. It doesn't take anything away from The Faith's UNIVERSAL character, but rather reaffirms it. Mind you, this had nothing to do with The Sacraments, but iconography that could be employed for this reason or that other reason.