Monday, October 14, 2019

"Penance and the Anointing of the Sick" by Bernhard Poschmann

The anointing of the sick is undoubtedly the sacrament with the least number of books devoted to it. As I sat down to craft my own chapter on the subject, I came across a number of references to Poschmann's monumental historical study of the sacrament, Penance and the Anointing of the Sick (1951). Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Wipf and Stock reprinted it just ten months ago!

Poschmann does, indeed, give a far-reaching historical survey of the sacrament's celebration and its theology as explained by notable theologians such as Bonaventure and Aquinas; but this only accounts for 24 of the book's 257 pages. The first 209 pages are devoted to the sacrament of penance (with another 22 devoted to indulgences).

Professor Poschmann was an esteemed German theologian, active from 1910 - 1954. I am not a novice to reading theological tomes, but this one was especially dense and could only be taken in small doses. (The last three books I reviewed were all read after I had already started this one.) Most of the Latin texts quoted in the work were not translated into English, so that was a strike against this monolingual reader.

Poschmann's work research into the sacrament of reconciliation is so wide that I honestly need a great deal more study of the source documents to be able to offer an evaluation of Poschmann's work. As I flip back through it, I see a number of question marks that I placed in the margins. I was able to come to a few conclusions:
The history of the celebration of reconciliation is more involved than the majority of readers realize.
While the effectiveness of reconciliation was never in dispute, there were different theological theories as to how the sacrament functioned.
The Council of Trent illuminated the Church's faith by offering definitive clarification regarding various elements of reconciliation.
The same can be said for the anointing of the sick.

Poschmann advances a few theories of his own regarding advances in the Church's understanding of these two sacraments and the related element of indulgences. I do not believe that these have been embraced by the Church. Professor Poschmann was a towering scholar, and his Penance and the Anointing of the Sick is the work of a lifetime, a wonderful example of historical theology. It inspires me to go back to the Catechism and re-familiarize myself with what the Church does - and does not - teach, definitively, regarding the sacraments of healing.