Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Eucharistic Species in Light of Peirce's Sign Theory

Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Eucharistic Species in Light of Peirce's Sign Theory

Article excerpt

Since patristic times, Western theologians have spoken of sacraments as "signs." In the early modern period, the 1687 English-language translation of the Roman Catechism (1566) references "S. Austins Definition, which all the School Doctors after him have follow'd. A Sacrament, says he, is a sign of a Holy Thing: Yet in the same sense it is said, A Sacrament is a Visible Sign of an Invisible Grace, instituted or appointed for our Justification." (2) Instructing the pastors to explain the several parts of the definition, "that it may be the better understood," (3) the Catechism then proceeds to elaborate, with reference to Scripture and the Church Fathers, a robust analysis of sacramental signification. (4)

Although this text remains an authoritative reference through the late twentieth century, its use of sign theory is largely missing from popular catechesis. For instance, the Catechism of Christian Doctrine, commonly known as the Baltimore Catechism and used in Catholic schools in the United States from 1885 through the Second Vatican Council, famously defines sacrament as "an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace," yet does not explain what sign means, either in general or in the context of sacramental theology. (5) Likewise, the English-language translation of the Editio typica of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, while stating that "the sacraments are efficacious signs [signa] of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us," never considers the nature of signa. (6)

One might account for the omission of sign theory from the Baltimore Catechism by pointing out that its authors had in mind a broader readership than did the authors of the Roman Catechism. However, one would have difficulty justifying the lack of a definition of sign in the most recent catechism, the publication of which Pope John Paul II ordered "by virtue of [his] Apostolic Authority" with the following plea:

   Therefore, I ask all the Church's Pastors and the Christian
   faithful to receive this catechism in a spirit of communion and to
   use it assiduously in fulfilling their mission of proclaiming the
   faith and calling people to the Gospel life. This catechism is
   given to them that it may be a sure and authentic reference text
   for teaching Catholic doctrine and particularly for preparing local
   catechisms. (7)

Here the question arises: how can readers understand this "sure and authentic reference text" without a "sure and authentic" exposition of the conceptual grammars that underlie its formulations and vocabulary?

Philosophers and theologians have reflected for centuries, beginning in the ancient world and continuing into the modern period, on signification. (8) More recently, Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and American polymath Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) independently developed theories of representation that surveyed the land and prepared the ground for the modern fields of semiology and semiotics, respectively. (9) To contextualize the contributions of Saussure and Peirce, consider that professional philosophers, who distinguish primarily between Continental and analytic styles of doing philosophy, tend to associate Saussure with the Continental traditions while classifying Peirce along with William James and John Dewey not in the analytic tradition but as a cofounder of American pragmatism. (10) Philosophers then refer to Susan Haack and others who work out of Peirce as neoclassical pragmatists in order to distinguish them from Richard Rorty and the analytic school of neopragmatism.

With these distinctions in mind, consider that the various Continental traditions, each with its own concerns, methods, and thinkers of reference, have had an enormous influence on contemporary Roman Catholic theology in general and on sacramental-liturgical theology in particular, as through the writings of Karl Rahner, Louis-Marie Chauvet, John Laurance, David Power, and others. …

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