Friday, March 6, 2015

Ask Tony: What if a priest were to bless the entire ocean?

Blessing of the Sea, Whitstable.
(© 2010 Matt S., via
So there's this question making the rounds that, on first glance, simply confuses Catholic priests with clerics from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™:

what if a catholic priest were to just bless the entire ocean would it turn the entire thing into holy water or do priests have an effective blessing range? does that range increase based on your level? can the pope bless the entire ocean?

The obvious first response is to ask in return, "Why would any priest want to turn the whole ocean into holy water?" Holy water is confected (the proper term) for specific liturgical purposes; none has yet been found or even thought of that would require every drop in every ocean be consecrated. Priests, generally speaking, don't perform sacred rituals just to satisfy curiosity or scratch an itch. The obvious second response is, "How would the blessing of a Catholic priest differ from that of an Orthodox, or Anglican, or Lutheran priest?" Catholic priests are not the only ones who bless water; so why the question is asked specifically of Catholic priests is itself a question worth pondering ... just not one I'm going to ponder now.

Having cleared that crap out of the way ....

First, let's discuss what holy water is, and what it is not. Holy water is called a sacramental, that is, a sacred sign "by which effects, especially spiritual effects, are signified in some imitation of the sacraments and are obtained through the intercession of the Church." (Code of Canon Law 1166) Sacramentals, generally speaking, weren't instituted by Christ but rather by the Church, in aid of carrying out its mission. (Cf. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 349) While the ritual of blessing may create an ontological change in the water, giving it spiritual influence, the liturgical point is to reserve the water for sacred purposes; holy water isn't supposed to be used for cooking, or washing your dirty clothes, or as a substitute for your hypertension medication.

Second, a blessing is not a shotgun or a crossbow: it doesn't have a "range" or "area of effect". What gets done on the immaterial/spiritual plane isn't performed by the blessing itself, or by the priest offering it, but by God Himself, to the extent God desires it done. It's traditional for items to be brought to the priest for blessings; on the other hand, a blessing via live radio or television (or Internet stream) blesses everyone who hears it. Since God is the one who is performing the actual mechanics of blessing, priests technically can bless at a distance, just as Christ performed a couple of his cures at a distance during his earthly ministry (e.g., Matthew 8:5-13; Mark 7:25-29).

Now, as the picture shows, there is such a thing as a "blessing of the sea", an old tradition in some Catholic fishing communities. The blessing essentially asks God for a good yield of fish and safety for the fishermen for the coming year. In this respect, it isn't much different from any other blessing a priest might call for during the year: it has no power to compel God's intervention in Nature, but rather seeks to request it, recalling to mind that His will, not ours, be done (Matthew 6:10).

What's the takeaway here? The takeaway is that liturgical rituals aren't magical spells, and were never intended to be such; this is true not just of Christian liturgy but of all religions which have worship rituals. Games like AD&D, fantasy role-playing games, may have "religious" characters which cast certain kinds of spell that mimic liturgical action; however, that is an adaptation to game theory, and isn't meant to reflect real religion.
Real religion doesn't seek to control the universe or any supernatural powers. Necromancy, divination, magic, demonology — these do seek such control, and as such are the very opposite of religion.