Monday, May 9, 2011

Opus Operatum

OPUS OPERATUM. Work wrought, as though it were said that the benefit of a rite accrued ex opere operato, by virtue of the work wrought, i.e. by virtue of the due administration. The doctrine meant by the expression opus operatum was first enunciated in form by the Schoolman Duns Scotus [1] (ob. 1308), who thus wrote (as Robertson translates): "A sacrament confers grace through the virtue of the work which is wrought, so that there is not required any inward good motion such as to deserve grace, but it is enough if the receiver place no bar" in the way of its operation. [2] The doctrine thus stated makes the passive reception of a sacrament sufficient, and if it does not intentionally teach that the ordinance works mechanically like a charm, it must inevitably spread among ordinary people the perilous notion that it does. The German Schoolman Gabriel Biel (ob. 1495), taught the doctrine in no more guarded a way, though avoiding some dangerous expressions, saying that ex opere operato meant "by virtue of the very consecration, oblation, and reception, of the venerable eucharist." [3]

On March 3, 1547, the Council of Trent, in its seventh session, passed Canon 8, De Sacramentis, anathematising those who should say that "by the sacraments themselves of the new law, ex opere operato, grace is not conferred, but that faith alone in the divine promise is sufficient to obtain grace."In Edward VI.’s 42 Articles [4] of 1553 (since made 39), there occurred (Article XXVI., now XXV.) after the word "operation" this passage: "not as some say, ex opere operato, which terms, as they are strange and utterly unknown to the Holy Scripture, so do they yield a sense which savoureth of little piety but of much superstition." The Articles signed by Convocation in 1563, omitted this passage and never again mentioned the opus operatum; but even without mentioning it they clearly enough assert a view as to sacramental efficacy entirely opposed to the opus operatum theory, however expounded. Moreover, the addition of Article XXIX. in 1563 fully made up for the withdrawal of the clause referred to. On Dec. 4, 1563, ended the Council of Trent, which on Jan. 26, 1564, received papal confirmation, and its decrees then became binding.

Bishop Jewel’s Challenge Sermon at St. Paul s Cross, March 31, 1560, included among its twenty-seven points one (No. 20) on Opus Operatum, [5] and this article in the controversy which the sermon produced with Harding in 1564, 1505, was discussed at some length. Jewel, speaking of the ancient superstitions connected with the Eucharist before the terms opus operatum were invented, went on to say: "This old error our adversaries of late years have taken up and made it catholic, bearing the people in hand that their Mass itself, ex opere operato, only of itself, and because it is said, is available for the remission of their sins." [6] Harding had asserted [7] that the Challenge Sermon misrepresented the Roman doctrine, referring opus operatum to the bare act of the priest; not so, it was the work which God Himself worked by the ministry of the priest, namely, the body and blood of Christ offered in sacrifice to God, which was available "where there is no stop nor let on the behalf of the receiver." Thus, with Harding, the recipient was simply passive, just as Duns Scotus put it. Jewel, therefore, produced his authorities, successfully, as it seems to us, to make good his original point. The Reformation period, therefore (that of Trent, the 42 Articles, Jewel), was an active one in the debate on this subject, and the Roman side seems to have made then no real advance beyond the dictum of Duns Scotus, which, to the Reformers, looking to Scripture, was repellent in the extreme.

Perhaps it was the severe handling the papal Article received from them that made its exponents more cautious; for later on we find Bellarmine (ob. 1621) asserting the need of faith and repentance in the recipient; still, however, adding: "But that which actively, proximately, and instrumentally effects the grace of justification is only the external act called sacrament, and this is called opus operatum, by receiving it passively (operatum), so that it is the same thing (to say) that the sacrament confers grace ex opere operato as (to say) that it confers grace by virtue of the sacramental act itself, instituted by God for this purpose, not by the merit of the minister or the recipient."[8] If in that language there seems some degree of concession, it is more apparent than real. Bellarmine may be held the chief authority for the current Roman view, as this is expounded in Addis and Arnold’s Catholic Dictionary, where what we have given above from that writer, somewhat differently rendered, and much more of his, is quoted. See BAPTISM, GORHAM CASE.

[1] Gieseler, Text-book of Ch. Hist., vol. ii. p. 490,
n. 22 sub. fin.; Robertson, Ch. Hist., vol. vi. p. 446, ed. 1874.
[2] Scotus, Quaestiones in Lib. IV. Sententiarum, distinctio i. qusestio vi. sec. 10 sub. fin., in his Works, ed. Lyons, 1639, vol. viii. p. 125, col. 1. Sacramentum enim ex opere.
[3] Biel, Sacri Canonis missae Expositio, lectio xxvi.
fol. 50, col. 1, sub. fin., Basel, 1515; quoted in Jewel’s Works, ii. 751, Parker Society.
[4 ]To be seen in Burnet (vol. iv. p. 311, ed. Nares; vol. v. p. 314, ed. Pocock), with notes giving the later changes.
[5] Works, vol. i. pp. 21, 103 ; vol. ii. p. 749.
[6] Ibid., vol. ii. 751.
[7] Ibid., 749.
[8] De Sacramentis, lib. ii. c. 1, in Works, 1872, Naples, vol. iii. p. 87. col. 1.

Rev. Charles Hole, B.A., Trinity College, Cambridge (Wrangler), Lecturer on Ecclesiastical Hististory, King’s College, London. Author of A Manual of the Book of Common Prayer; Early Missions in the British Islands; By-Paths of English Church History, and other works.

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