The other night I was perusing through the book Handling the Word of Truth by John Pless, and ran across a brief discussion of the RC teaching known in Latin as 'ex opere operato' [Lit: "by the work working," or "from the work having worked."] This is the point that Lutherans usually cry foul regarding what we see as the blatant works righteousness of their sacramental theology. The point comes from the idea that the sacraments are supposedly "beneficial to those who receive them by virtue of 'the doing of the act," as Pless notes. "This turns the gift into a performance that merits grace - a work of human beings rather than the work of the Lord." (94)
As I read this I began to think back to a comment I heard on Relevant Radio (the RC popular radio program that specializes in conservative Catholic apologetics, among other things) in one of the sermons by Fr. Corapi. He was commenting on the doctrine of ex opere operato and how it is misunderstood, especially since the rest of the canon explaining this doctrine is often not referenced. I agree that it is easy to perpetuate old misunderstandings without even checking the original sources. And Catholics have become a lot more astute at apologetics for their faith against traditional Protestant attacks. Lutheran need to be careful to explain everything well.
So I decided then and there to do my checking. Turns out that the doctrine of ex opere operato was pontificated in the Seventh Session of the Council of Trent held on March 3, 1547. It is covered under Canon 8 under the "Canons on the Sacraments in General." The Canon reads: "If anyone says that by the sacraments of the New Law grace is not conferred ex opere operato but that faith alone in the divine promise is sufficient to obtain grace, let him be anathema." I'm beginning to see why the Lutherans were concerned.
D.K. McKim in the Ewell Evangelical Dictionary notes that this canon "opposed the view that 'grace is not conferred though the act performed, but that faith alone in the divine promise suffices for the obtaining of grace.'" It seems that the RC want to protect the efficacy of the sacrament by sidelining the role of personal faith. The intention of protecting the efficacy of the sacrament is a worthy goal. Even Lutherans acknowledge that sacraments do not depend on the piety or faith of the celebrant, but that the sacrament is conducted according to Christ's command.
For Lutherans faith does not make the sacrament, as Pless notes, "but it is by faith alone that sinners receive the gifts promised and bestowed in these sacraments." (94) Catholics, reticent about the role of faith in receiving grace, will go so far as to say that the efficacy of the sacrament is valid as long as the recipient does not place an obstacle against the sacrament's administration, such as a blatant sinful act. Or put another way, to receive the benefits one must be properly disposed (see Wikipedia on ex opera operato). All in all, I believe that Catholics would want their understanding to be seen as being pure grace.
So, is the Catholic view pure works righteousness? My view at this point is that their intent is not such, but they confuse the role and place of faith terribly. By removing faith (which is pure gift) and substituting a correct disposition (i.e. a willingness to receive the gift), they seem to tilt the sacrament in the direction of man instead of God. And in separating faith and sacrament they are in danger of making it into an act of magic which benefits as long as it is not actively resisted. Yet Paul is clear that one can eat and drink to one's spiritual health as well as to one's spiritual peril, depending on whether one comes with faith or without.
As you can see understanding Catholic doctrine is at times a complex adventure. It is far too easy to apply easy generalizations about all kinds of things without attempting to understand what they mean. This is not to downplay their errors, which are legion. But simply to say that all Catholics are works righteous worshipers of Mary would miss the mark.
It takes time to try to understand their theology, and it doesn't help that layers of Scholastic theology encrust their doctrines, making it very difficult for a Lutheran to dissect with his "word alone" scalpel. But I'm still trying.