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Ex opere operato

March 9, 2015

[In which I fiddle with High Modernist and neo-Thomist aesthetics.]

This entertaining article compares different approaches to literary criticism to different varieties of Christian theology. Alas, its reigning metaphor is somewhat inexact. The article assumes that the literary work should be put in parallel with the Bible, but this obviously nonsense; not only do theologians never write the Bible, no one writes the Bible nowadays. No one has for almost two thousand years. Rather, literary works should be compared to the sacraments; only certain people, namely poets/priests, can write/perform them, and only certain other people, namely critics/theologians, have a proper understanding of what is going on what they do so.

The comparison to Protestantism would still hold: a literary Protestant would be one who says that everyone can read and write; everyone is a priest and theologian of literature, not just the published authors and the tenured professors. But we would also gain access to a number of analogies with various heresies, most interestingly, in my view, with the Donatists.

Donatists (=followers of Donatus) were, in brief, 4th-century North African Christians who refused to recognize the legitimacy of certain Catholic bishops because those bishops had been ordained by “traditores”–i.e. Christians who had, during the persecutions under Diocletian, sacrificed to pagan idols rather than undergo martyrdom. Refusing to recognize bishops, by itself, would just make the Donatists schismatics, but they elevated their reason for not doing so into a theological principle–sacraments, they claimed, were only valid if performed by persons of sufficiently “worthiness”–a position soon deemed heretical. It’s easy to see why the Catholics wouldn’t accept this; as they pointed out, “the validity of the sacraments and of other such acts cannot be made to depend on the worthiness of the one administering them, for in that case all Christians would be in constant doubt regarding the validity of their own baptism or of the communion of which they had partaken.” A church with such a theology could never be confident in its own status as a Christian community. The resulting controversy (in which St. Augustine, as it happens, played a central role) led to the formulation of the principle ex opere operato: the work (the sacrament) has its efficacy through the causal power, not of the one performing it, but of the work itself, which is performed in persona Christi. (For more than you want to know about this topic, see St. Thomas, Summa theologica III.64.)


The analogy to literature is obvious. Does the artwork gain its (aesthetic) efficacy through the power of the one writing it, or through the power of the work itself? What I call literary Donatists say the former: they believe that a work of art can only be good (aesthetically) if its creator is good (morally, one presumes). This position leads to such things as paying more attention to the artist’s life than to his work. The opposing position is held by literary Catholics, and, not coincidentally, by many actual Catholics; it can be found in the aesthetic philosophy of Jacques Maritain, and, through him, after crossbreeding in interesting ways with the High Modernist doctrine of poetic impersonality, it finds its way into the writing of such diverse writers as David Jones and Flannery O’Connor. This position leads to an insistence that the artwork should be seen as if created by an anonymous craftsman.


The obvious question, of course, is why works of art should be compared to sacraments at all. Two objections come to mind.

First, isn’t it just another way of secretly asserting the hidden priesthood of all poets? Some sacraments can be performed by anyone, but the ones everyone has in mind in these discussions–communion and ordination–are reserved for a select few. But artistic creation is not reserved for a select few; anyone can do it, or, more precisely, no one can do it, but it still sometimes gets done.

Second, isn’t the point of ex opere operato that what the ministers are thinking doesn’t matter so long as they’re saying the words properly, such that they’re interchangeable with Christ, who does have the right intention? Which means all valid sacramental actions look identical? That’s a far cry from the world of artistic creation, in which even the most traditional creators never make things exactly the way their predecessors did.

Perhaps the better theological analogy for artistic creation is not consecration, but thaumaturgy. Works of art are like miracles: any given one (artwork, miracle) need not much resemble another; there are no known techniques for bringing one about; yet certain people (poets, saints) seem to have it happen to them often, and we think this to have something to do with their holiness, in the case of saints, and in the case of poets, their–well–their something. Hence our tendency to write Lives of the Saints and of the Poets, and to obsess over whether they were “authentic” in their faith, in their artistry. This even though–as the saints know well, the poets less well–what really matters isn’t the thaumaturge, but the wonders he performs, and what those wonders signify.Hey look, its impersonality again. And, of course, sacraments are a special kind of miracle.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 9, 2015 10:00 pm

    This is a fascinating analogy. I’m uncomfortable with limiting art to the priest-poet, but I love the idea of poems being like sacraments. This seems to have so much potential for the question of whether or not poetry does anything. Could poetry be efficacious in an analogous way to sacraments? I know I feel changed by reading. Thank you for this post. It has given me a lot to think about.

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