Friday, February 02, 2024

The Eucharist as a Specification of the 'Sacraments of the Natural Law' in Aquinas (Texts)



The Eucharist as a Specification of the 'Sacraments of the Natural Law' in Aquinas

Paper presented at Ave Maria University

Aquinas Conference, Feb. 2, 2024

Francisco J. Romero Carrasquillo

St. Gregory the Great Seminary (Diocese of Lincoln)

St. Thomas’ use of the term ‘sacrament’ in the IIIa Pars is not strictly univocal, but is generic. The term describes not only the Seven Sacraments of the New Law, but also the ‘sacraments’ of the Old Law of Moses, and even the ‘sacraments of the law of nature’—a term he borrows from Hugh of St. Victor. Before the institution of the Seven Sacraments, even before the ritual prescriptions of the Old Law before Christ, the natural law itself has always inclined men to give worship to the one God and to submit to Him. Because of their hylemorphic nature, humans must show their submission to God in a corporeal way, by way of signs, so that through what they do exteriorly they may become intellectually aware of the spiritual reality that is being expressed. For Aquinas this means that the practice of religion must involve the use of some sort of natural sacramental economy. One prominent cultic precept of the natural law is that all men universally must offer sacrifice to God. The natural law prescribes this in communi without specifying what sort of object/victim must be offered, or how, or when. It only inclines us to offer a sensible thing to God as a sign of subjection and honor. Yet positive law, especially divine positive law, determines this general inclination and narrows it down to specific types of sacrifices. As is well known, the ceremonies of the New Law are a perfection of those contained in the Old Law. What is in need of greater appreciation is that the sacrifices of the Old and New Laws are determinations of that which is already prescribed universally to all men by the natural law. Throughout the Old Testament there are many instances of the Old Law specifying the natural precept to offer sacrifice. A fortiori, the Sacrifice of the Mass is a further specification and perfection of the natural law precept to offer sacrifices. By weaving together St. Thomas’ scattered texts on the issue, this paper endeavors to explain how the Eucharist is not an arbitrary imposition of the will of God upon the nascent Church, but a perfection of an inclination that God already rooted in our human nature. Rather than being something radically new in the history of salvation, the Eucharist is the perfection and fulfilment of the ‘sacraments of the natural law’, an eminent example of grace perfecting nature.


1) ST II-II.85.1c: [N}reason dictates to man that he must be subject to some superior being, on account of the defects which he senses within himself, and in regard to which he needs to be helped and directed by someone superior. And whatever this [being] may be, this is what is called ‘God’ by all. Now just as in natural things the inferior are naturally subject to the superior, so too natural reason dictates to man according to a natural inclination that he should show subjection and honor according to his own mode to that which is above man.

2) ST III.61.1c: The first of these is taken from the condition of human nature, to which it is proper to be led through corporeal and sensible things towards spiritual and intelligible things.... Thus, therefore, through the institution of the sacraments man is instructed through sensible things in a manner fitting to his nature.

3) ST I-II.95.2c: [I]t must be noted that something can be derived from the natural law in two ways: as a conclusion from principles, or as a sort of determination of commonalities. The first way is similar to the way in which, in the sciences, demonstrative conclusions are produced from principles. But the second way is similar to the way which, in the arts, general forms are determined to something specific: like the craftsman, who needs to determine the general form of a house to this or that shape. Therefore, some things are derived from the general principles of the natural law by way of conclusions; for instance, that “one ought not to kill” may be derived as a conclusion from the principle that “one ought not to harm anyone.” But some things [are derived] by way of determination; for instance, the law of nature has it that the sinner should be punished; but that he be punished with this particular punishment is a determination of the law of nature. Each of these, therefore, is found in positive human law. But those things that belong to the first way are contained in human law not as being mere positive law, but have also some of the force of natural law; whereas those things which belong to the second way have the force of human law alone.

4) ST I-II.103.1c: [W]hoever worships God must worship Him through certain determinate things that pertain to external worship. Now, the determination of divine worship pertains to ceremonies, just as the determination of those things whereby we are ordered towards our neighbor pertains to the judicial precepts.... And therefore, just as among men in general there were certain judicial [precepts], yet not instituted by the authority of divine law, but ordered by the reason of men, so also there were certain ceremonies, not determined by the authority of any law, but only according to the will and devotion of the men worshipping God.... Therefore before the Law there were certain ceremonies, yet not ceremonies of the Law, because they were not instituted by any legislation.

5) ST III.61.3 ad 2: It was also necessary that even in the Old Law there be determined certain sacraments of the faith that they had in the Messiah who was to come: these sacraments are compared to those sacraments that existed before the Law, as the determinate to the indeterminate; for before the Law it was not fixed determinately what sacraments were to be used, as it was through the Law. This was necessary both on account of the clouding of the natural law, and so that there would be a more determinate signification of the faith.

6) ST III.60.5, arg. 3: [I]n the state of the law of nature determinate things were not required in the sacraments, but were assumed through a vow, as appears in Genesis 28, where Jacob vowed that he would offer to God tithes and peace-offerings.

7) ST III.61.3 ad 2: Consequently in the old Law there was also a need for certain fixed sacraments significative of man’s faith in the future coming of Christ: which sacraments are compared to those that preceded the Law, as something determinate to that which is indeterminate: insofar as before the Law it had not been established (praefixum) what sacraments men were to use: whereas this was prescribed by the Law; and this was necessary both on account of the overclouding of the natural law, and for the clearer signification of faith.

8) ST III.60.5, arg. 3: As Augustine says (Contra Faust. 19), diverse sacraments suit different times.... And therefore, just as under the state of the law of nature men, to whom no law was given exteriorly, were moved by inward instinct alone to worship God, so also the sensible things to be used for the worship of God were determined for them by inward instinct. But later it became necessary for a law to be given exteriorly, both on account of the darkening of the Law of nature due to the sins of men and also for the sake of a more express signification of the grace of Christ, whereby the human race is sanctified. And therefore it became necessary to determine things which men were to use in the sacraments.

9) SCG 3.120: Among other things which pertain to latria, sacrifice seems to be unique, for genuflections, prostrations, and other such manifestations of honor may also be shown to men, although with a different intention than to God. But everyone agrees that sacrifice should not be offered to anyone unless he is thought to be God or unless one pretends to think so. Now, an external sacrifice is representative of a true, interior sacrifice, whereby the human mind offers itself to God. And our mind offers itself to God as to the principle of its creation, as to the author of its actions, as to the end of its beatitude. These things are found only in the highest principle of things, for it was shown above that the creating cause of the rational soul is the highest God alone; also He alone can incline the will of man to whatever He wishes, as was shown above; it is also clear from the above that the ultimate happiness of man consists solely in the enjoyment of Him. Therefore, man ought to offer sacrifice and the worship of latria to the highest God alone, and not to any other spiritual substance whatsoever.

10) SCG 3.119: Because it is connatural to humans to receive knowledge through the senses, and it is most difficult to transcend sensible things, God has provided for human beings that even among sensible things there should be made for them a commemoration of things divine, so that thereby the attention (lit, ‘intention’) of human beings may be called back towards divine things. And for this reason sensible sacrifices have been instituted, which humans offer to God, not as though God needed them, but to represent to humans the fact that they ought to offer themselves and all they have to God, as to their end, Creator, Ruler, and Lord of all.

11) ST II-II.85.1c: [T]he mode befitting to man is that he should use sensible signs in order to express anything, because he receives knowledge from sensibles. And therefore it proceeds from natural reason that man should use certain sensible things, offering them to God as a sign of the due subjection and honor, according to a similitude to those who offer certain things to their lord in recognition of his dominion. Now this pertains to the ratio of sacrifice. And therefore the offering of a sacrifice pertains to natural law.

12) ST II-II.85.1 ad 1: [S]ome things taken generally (in communi) are of natural law, but their determination is of positive law; for instance, it belongs to the natural law that evildoers should be punished, but that they should be punished with this or that punishment belongs is a matter of divine or human institution. Similarly also the offering of a sacrifice in communi belongs to the natural law, and therefore everyone agrees on this. But the determination of sacrifices comes from human or divine institution, and therefore people differ on this point.

13) In Hebr. 7, lect. 1: The ceremonial precepts of the Old Testament are determinations of the precepts of the natural law and of the moral precepts; therefore, in regard to what they had from the natural law, they were observed before the Law without any precept. For the fact that something is offered to God in recognition of His creation and dominion is natural; but that He should be offered goats and heifers is a ceremonial precept.... And this was done particularly because the main reason for rendering worship to God is to signify that whatever a man has, he received from God and that he depends on Him for his entire perfection.

14) ST II-II.85.4c: Those who are under the New or Old laws are bound to do this differently from those who are not under the law.  For those who are under the law are bound to offer determinate sacrifices according to the precepts of the law. But those who were not under the law were bound to do certain things exteriorly in God’s honor, as became those among whom they dwelt, and were not [bound to do] determinately these or those things.

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