Statues, Symbols, Sacraments

The current wave of toppling public statues can be a good teaching moment.

When teaching sacramental theology, e.g. unpacking Real Presence, it’s a challenge to explain to students that symbols are real, that “just a symbol” is an impoverished worldview that does not do justice to what human beings are, to how we think and perceive and value and relate to one another.

Statues are symbols. And they’re real. Try saying, in this overheated moment, that “it’s just a statue” and it “doesn’t matter” whether he owned slaves or mistreated natives, that “the reality is the same” whether the “mere statue” remains or not.

 I think I have a point of entry for my undergrad Christian Worship class this fall. Transubstantiation, here we come.


  1. What the toppling of most statues indicates, though, is something more like iconoclasm: we do not want what these symbols represent. And that is indeed a useful way to discuss the Protestant deconstruction of Catholic worship, where the symbolic dimension tends to be stripped to its bare minimum and signs of reverence are taken away lest “idolatry” creep in.

    1. Yes, but that’s a somewhat distinct issue and not necessarily related to my larger point, which is that having or not having or leaving or tearing down statues very much puts us in the realm of symbols which are very real and powerful. Statutes, like sacraments, are both reflective of reality and affect reality. “Expressive and constitutive” is the handy tag, oft-repeated in sacramental theology classes.

      “Protestant deconstruction of Catholic worship” is a polemical and anti-ecumenical statement, and not adequate to the complex historical reality. Or to the spirit of Vatican II. And for at least a hundred years now, Catholics and Protestants have moving toward convergence on the potency and desirability of signs and symbols and sacraments.

      I try to remember, from within my deep Catholic commitments, that all sides have a piece of the truth, but the truth on any side can become distorted and overemphasized and idolatrous. Let’s learn from each other, keep renewing and purifying our own traditions, and keep working and praying for even more of the great unity we already have.


      1. The controversy over the preservation or destruction of statues is an important reminder of the significance of symbols and signs in the life of faith. While the sacraments have physical reality as an integral component, the sacraments are actions rather than physical objects. Eucharist is a verb.
        You write that “Protestant deconstruction of Catholic worship” is a polemical and anti-ecumenical statement, and not adequate to the complex historical reality. Perhaps you might expand on this a little.
        It may be polemical if we take it as a value statement. From a Catholic perspective it could be anti-ecumenical if it is understood as a rejection of such deconstruction. From a Protestant perspective it could be anti-ecumenical if it is understood as approving of such deconstruction.
        It can, however, be understood in a historical fashion as referring to acts which took place. One sees this, for example, in how religious artwork in churches was destroyed or defaced in the Reformation in England. We have similar “deconstruction” in France following the 1789 Revolution. Nor must we forget anti-Protestant “deconstruction” in predominantly Catholic countries.
        We find deconstruction of Catholic worship in legislation in London’s Test Act of 1673 (the long title of which is “An act for preventing dangers which may happen from popish recusants”). It required any person undertaking office to take an Oath of supremacy and allegiance, and to receive the sacrament (Communion) according to the rites of the Church of England within three months, and to take an Oath: “I, N, do declare that I do believe that there is not any transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, or in the elements of the bread and wine, at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever.”
        Not much ecumenical there! It turns Church of England worship into a political weapon.

  2. That fact that “mere” symbols are both real and impactful, doesn’t seem to change the fact that they fall short of what we mean when discussing the Sacraments.

    From a Catholic perspective for example we have lots of symbols (statues, icons, crosses, bibles, buildings etc), whose existence and destruction we feel very deeply, and which can can carry our identities is very important ways. The *are* real. And yet in comparison with the Sacraments, they remain mere symbols.

    1. The problem is – what do we mean by ‘real?’

      Does ‘substance’ mean now what it meant in 1215AD?

      What are contemporary RC’s trying to mean by speaking of ‘symbol?’

      What is the ‘more’ implied in the difference between ‘mere symbol’ and ‘symbol?’

      And what exactly is the difference supposed to be between ‘symbol’ and ‘sacrament?’


      1. Alan,

        We might think about it by comparing the Eucharist to say a “Fumi-e”, the images of Christ Japanese people were compelled to step on as a way of denying Jesus (i.e. like in the movie/book Silence by Shūsaku Endō).

        The Fumi-e represents Christ – Indeed it symbolised him to such a degree that some Japanese Christians would die rather than dishonouring it in the way demanded.

        And yet the Fumi-e is still a “mere” symbol as compared to the Eucharist. The Fumi-e represents Christ, perhaps as fully as a human object can despite their often crude design, but it is not Christ. And in that respect the Eucharist is *more*, as compared to any mere symbol, even one for which we might die for.

        And we can of course play semantic games, but that is the essential distinction we are required to be able to make. Between the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and his merely symbolic presence in a Fumi-e, an icon, a crucifix, a book of the Gospels etc, despite of the undeniable value of those sacred symbols. Symbols indeed which we would not dare to call “mere” as compared to almost anything else.

      2. So, what does the Real Presence mean to me? I will start by acknowledging that my explanation will probably lead to me having to sign the same Confession of Faith as was Berengar of Tours.
        In thinking about the Real Presence, I have to start by imagining myself, and all my friends, in Plato’s Cave, where we are all limited for our entire lives, to see shadows flickering across the wall and hearing echoes from within and without the cave. We never realize that fullness of the reality of that which casts the shadows on the wall, it is beyond our senses and understanding. Our beliefs are thus constrained by our experience.
        Next, I had to look beyond the churches time honored, but insufficient for me, understanding of what Archbishop Etienne describes as “Christ is truly present in our midst: body, blood, soul, and divinity”. My understanding of “body and blood” just does not work to help me understand the Real Presence.
        I imagine how one of St. Thomas Aquinas’ favorite philosophers, Aristotle, might have approached this and not try to use the matter and form of what we know as bread and wine.
        I would say that at The Last Supper, Jesus, “perfectly”, “completely” and “exactly as he intended”, changed the substance of the bread and wine into the divine substance of his body and blood (transubstantiation), without changing the form or matter of the bread. The “substance” of the divine being an aspect of the reality that is hidden from me here, watching the shadows on the wall. The form, bread in any shape, and matter, wheaten flour, are just accidents that remain after the substance of the divine comes into these gifts.
        The Wedding Feast at Cana demonstrates that, when he so desired, Jesus could and would change matter with perfection (the finest wine from ordinary well water, the matter changed from water to wine.)
        Five loaves likewise demonstrated his command over the form, changing the finite into the abundant.
        It appears to me that it was Jesus’ will that only the substance (an aspect that my life…

      3. darn! This didn’t all fit in my previous post…

        (an aspect that my life in the cave has not given me the tools to fully grasp) changed without affecting the form or matter.

      4. If you click on Edit, you can add material to something you just posted if you ran out of space; but the Edit facility only lasts for a certain length of time and then switches off.

  3. Thanks, Jeana, for that great link.

    The Sacraments are able to effectuate–bring about–that which they symbolize. So they both symbolize forgiveness and eternal salvation, and other things; and bring this all to fruition. They realize, make real, what they symbolically represent, in one event. And so we love and revere them with special fervor.

    In a much reduced way, a stop sign can do this too: people actually stop their cars when they read the sign. Of course, there are limits to human made symbols. Humans can’t bring about salvation on their own by making a sign.

    A statue that symbolizes a racist past can effect racism in the present. It can be a prop towards making racism real in society. It ‘may’ legitimize and so bring about the very thing it symbolizes. “May”, but unlike the Eucharist, it also may fail. So might a stop sign. But its presence legitimizes a racism that otherwise might be forgotten.

    “Take, Lord, all my freedom, my memory….” etc. (Ignatian Suscipe.) Take my memory for cleansing, no doubt.

    I think Anthony has it exactly right.

  4. Fr. Ruff – I guess we saw the removal of an image within the last year or so, during the Synod on the Amazon, when the Pachamama image was removed from a church and tossed into the river. To be sure, this example sits a good deal closer to the institution of the church than removing a statue of Robert E Lee or Thomas Jefferson from a town square does.

    I am not sure what the Pachamama incident says about sacramentality. I assume the image was removed for reasons (well-founded or not) of purity – of wishing to purify a space which was perceived by the iconoclasts (if one may call them that) to have been profaned. There is some sort of connection between some sacraments (baptism, Eucharist) and purification. Do you think there was a sacramental “angle” to the Pachamama incident?

    1. Oh for sure, I think the (supposedly) Pachamama incident displays very strongly how real symbols are. Symbols and the destruction of symbols means a lot to people, on all sides of issues, right or left, conservative or liberal. That’s the point. The point (in the first instance) is not that the public statues should or should not stay, or that the so-called Pachamama is or isn’t appropriate for a Catholic church. The point is that the symbols are a powerful and real, that the represent and make present all sorts of strongly-held worldviews.

      1. Thanks for that explanation, it makes perfect sense. The question of athletes kneeling or standing during the National Anthem is another example, I suppose – another symbol which is real and that represents and makes present different strongly-held worldviews.

  5. When I taught sacraments, I threatened to flunk any student who dared to say “only a symbol” in my (very real) presence.
    Of course, it didn’t help when the priest at Sunday mass would use the phrase in his homily. As in, “it’s not just a symbol, it’s the Real Presence of Christ” (var: “Protestants believe Communion is only a symbol”).
    The real power of the priesthood is to utterly wreck, with one sentence, something the lay college professor has taken great pains to build and explain in class.

    1. When I was a member of the Anglican Communion, I semi-regularly had more evangelical inclined people get mad at me for believing the Eucharist was anything more than a mere symbol or memorial.

      In being ecumenical, we need to be careful to not erase people and views in other communities which we find less convenient, which can happen from more than one direction.

      1. For sure we should be sensitive to all people – but those people have a rather impoverished understanding of their own tradition, if not a misunderstanding, and they are seemingly unaware of the theological scholarship and ecumenical dialogue done by many leading lights in their church for at least a century now. It’s not about erasing, it’s about gentling moving everyone in all traditions toward the available possibilities of convergence, agreement, reconciliation, reunion. I believe this is the Lord’s work. As Catholics, are work is to renew our own tradition, and then explore how to share it with others.

      2. Father,

        It is a mistake to denigrate these individuals as misunderstanding their tradition. We instead have to acknowledge that they *represent a tradition* within Protestantism, with its own sophisticated scholarly and popular understandings of itself. As I say, the fact that it isn’t the part of Protestant thought we find more amenable, doesn’t justify us looking down or erasing them from our understanding of these communities.

        It also has to be acknowledged that the various strains of thought within Protestantism are painfully aware of being divided by common language. Within Anglicanism for example, both high and low church theologians can happily say together for example the Nicene Creed in good conscience, and yet feel the need to loudly proclaim they could never accept the meanings each other give it.

        Accordingly, if we are to be ecumenically sensitive, we can no longer try to sidestep our differences with the kind of semantic convergences which once seemed to hold ecumenical promise in decades past. That approach now too often recalls painful failures of unity within the many denominations with whom we wish to dialogue, and as such is far more likely to give offense, than it is to facilitate any reconciliation.

  6. This is n area in which I have been doing research. The modern meaning of symbol in English is the opposite of the meaning in Latin and ?Greek. Now the word is an antonym for reality. For the ancients it referred to something that verified the presence of a reality. The worst example of this fallacy is in Paul Viv’s encyclical on the Eucharist where he quotes Theodore of Mopsuestia to make his point: “Jesus did not say “This is the symbol of my body” but this is my body.” The problem is that elsewhere in the same work the bishop does say–along with many other Fathers–that it is a symbol. In the passage quoted he is pointing out that eating the bread really does make one encounter the presence of Jesus. It is clear even in Aquinas that, if the sacraments are not symbols, then they are not real.

    1. Michael,

      To be fair, I don’t think anyone of importance would deny the Sacraments are *also* symbols. Is the the idea that they are *merely or primarily* symbols which raises objections.

      In which case, Theodore overall point would seem to support a level of discomfort with speaking of the Sacraments only or primarily as symbols, because they are also much more than that.

      1. I am sorry to point this out, but you are still thinking in English. Rahner created the word “Realsymbol” to express in German the point that the reality is made present by the symbol.

      2. Michael,

        When we choose to write in English, the English meaning of words tends to be what we are required to use. 😉

        But to the extent you agree the normally understood meaning of symbol in English doesn’t correspond to the idea we wish to communicate, it would seem a very good argument for avoiding the use of symbol as the relevant term in English (the position will obviously be different in other languages).

        Further even if we choose to transfer Rahner’s “Realsymbol” terminology to English, which some have done in the past, it would seem it could still validly be opposed to the concept of a “mere symbol” (or however that might be expressed in German etc), which is the inadequate concept which we are required to reject.

        Now I know Rahner wanted in some sense to collapse these distinctions, but I think the requirements of dialogue mean he can’t be followed in this regard. “Mere symbol” is a real and intelligible view of the Sacraments held by a tradition with evangelical Protestantism, and can’t be respectful addressed if we limit ourselves to semantic issues.

      3. Scott,

        Thanks for everything you’ve written. I think you’ve made your point.

        I think the best hope for ecumenical convergence is to present our renewed understanding of real symbols and why we Catholics don’t think symbols can ever be “mere,” and then see whether evangelicals (who are certainly capable of understanding that terms in theological discourse, like every other field, can have meanings other than their on-the-street-usage) come to soften their objections to what they thought our position was, and even whether they would enrich and modify their own understanding. But their response is up to them, not us. I hear you saying that all this has already failed, and you wish to defend evangelicals holding to their “mere symbol” understanding – not because you agree with them, but because you seem to value that their beliefs are incompatible with ours. I haven’t heard you say what your proposal is for greater reconciliation or convergence or whether you long for greater convergence.

        So that’s where it’s at. Let’s leave it there. I’d like to close this conversational thread.


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