Sacramental Ecclesiology in the Loaves and Fishes


Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, ancient mosaic
(C. Osseman)

In Catholicism, there are those big-time verses that the Church has dogmatically defined as dealing with central questions of doctrine. The papacy is found at Mt 16:18 when Christ himself names Peter as the rock of the one Church he has now founded. In John 20:23, “Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven them…” is clearly the beginning of sacramental reconciliation. The Most Holy Eucharist is of course found in the Last Supper Discourses, “This is my Body, this is My Blood,” while more abstract pieces of fundamental theology are found throughout as well. For example, the ancient doctrine of original sin is seen in Rom 5:12-21, and Paul’s explanation that through one man, sin and death entered the world. Yet, I have always pondered over why there is no cut and dry passage, or passages, in Scripture that sum up the Seven Sacraments all at once.

For, clearly, although the Seven Sacraments are of supreme significance in the Catholic faith, being monstrous pillars of faith—without which Catholicism would not be Catholicism, having such paramount essentiality to the faith that a fourth of the Catholic Catechism is devoted to them—nevertheless, there is no single part of Scripture that, in a clean-cut way, implies there are seven, and only seven, sacraments. Rather, each of the seven sacraments must be fished out in various places. No central place seems to shout “there are seven and only seven Sacraments”!

But shouldn’t it be appropriate that with such monumental significance, God the Father would have left us with a mysterious revelation of the Sacraments in Scripture? Well, I believe he has! In fact, I believe that it is in one of the most obvious places, and, were that not enough, that such passages also reveal another essential component of the Sacraments: how they are related to Ecclesiology, that is, the nature of division in the Body of Christ. And what are these passages? How about none other than the loaves and fishes stories, one of which we just read this past feast of Corpus Christi, the Eucharist! Toward that end, let us work it out.

Firstly, although Catholicism already sees the Eucharist in these passages—since, as Christ fed the multitudes literally, so also does he feed us with his very self in the Holy Eucharist—should we not also consider that any time Christ gives us sanctifying grace in general, he is feeding us spiritually? For what is sanctifying grace except a spiritual “feeding” of God to us with his very life and love from the Trinity? Moreover, is it not a reality in our Catholic faith that the Sacraments are the supreme source of sanctifying grace? Therefore, what better metaphor for the Sacraments than physical food (loaves and fishes)?

Moreover, we know that the Sacraments are intimately tied to the dimension of Christian division, seeing that when certain types of Christians are separated from the One True Body of Christ, the Sacramental life can be impacted. What is more, returning again to the reality that the loaves and fishes discourses have always been seen as Eucharistic in context by the Church, let us remember that the Eucharist, being the pinnacle of all Sacramental life—in fact, the Sacrament of Sacraments—the source and summit of all Church life, is also central to that very same unity of the Body of Christ. For it is, per its sacramental title, “Holy Communion,” the ultimate sign of the unity of Christians! In fact, Christ prayed, in his epic Eucharistic prayer—as does the Church in every Eucharist prayer—for the unity of the faithful, in order that the world may believe in the Son. How much more, then, if it were possible, should the loaves and fishes Scriptural discourses reveal, again, not only the sacramental mystery, but also how such mystery is impacted by rifts in the followers of Jesus Christ. We shall see later how the analogies are absolutely perfect and appropriate. Before we dive in, however, we should first refresh ourselves on the theology in Church history concerning the Sacraments and Christian division.

To reiterate: rifts in the Body of Christ affect the sacramental nature that the separated Churches and communities retain. Moreover, from Catholic doctrine, we know that there are really only two forms of rift in the Body of Christ: schism and heresy. Furthermore, we must recall that they are related to sources of truth in Christianity that the separated parties dispute in their respective conditions, namely:

  1. Apostolic Succession in general (Bishops and Oral Tradition);
  2. The Special Apostolic Successor, Peter (the Pope).

The two forms of separation then reject either one source above, or both. More specifically, the lesser degree of separation, schism—mainly the Orthodox—rejects not all Apostolic Succession and Tradition but only the Supreme Apostolic Successor, Peter. However, Protestantism, or heresy, rejects the whole set, that is, rejects not merely Peter, but all Apostolic Succession, as well as Sacred Tradition, retaining only Scripture, at least most of it.

Naturally, we would expect that the more truth that is rejected, or sources of truth, the more sacramental life will likewise be harmed. This is indeed so. For, can we not see that the human person cannot be chopped up into pieces? Did not the Apostle to the Gentiles testify that the human Body of Christ, though many parts, is one Body, and interconnected? How much more impossible could it be that wounding the mind would have little effect on the heart, that is, that with the faculties of soul so intimately fused in wondrous union, that harming in the intellect would not affect the will! And so it is that schism, a minor wound to Christ’s Sacred Heart, so also graciously leaves the Sacramental life effectively intact, whereas the heretics have devastating consequences. Let us probe them further.

To begin with, schism, because it retains the strong stability of Apostolic Succession and Tradition, has all seven sacraments in validity. Why? Because where the Bishop is, there also is Sacramental life. The Bishop, if valid, can confer all seven sacraments, and if he still be valid, he can ordain priests, who can confect up to six of the sacraments. Indeed, our blessed “Sister in the East,” our other lung, is the lung we need to breathe as one again. Her ministers truly have Holy Orders, her Patriarchs truly succeed the Apostles, and we long for the day when her faithful can forgive Peter his sins against her, and allow him to serve her with the fullness of infallible truth! Is she fully well, though? Alas, no. For if it is true that Apostolic Succession and Tradition are like a stable earth upon which to build one’s house, keeping one from being tossed by the waves of the heretics’ errors, nevertheless, the Orthodox are a little unstable. This is because they lack the hard-core foundation, the Rock, St. Peter.

More specifically, since Peter possesses the infallible fullness of Apostolic wisdom in his single being, he has gone on with his other brothers to declare a great many things about Christ since those that were proclaimed in merely the first millennium of the Gospel. Toward that end, the Sees and Bishops of the East look with a suspicion upon Peter’s renegade mission. They debate our development of doctrine without them. So in this, they are a little unstable. In this, they are a tossed “a little bit” like heretics.

What about the heretics, or, derivatively and primarily, the Protestants? Here, the rift is far more catastrophic. They have cast aside all Apostolic Succession and the Sacred Tradition, alone which can infallibly illumine the implied meaning of Scripture texts that do not make explicit the intention of the Sacred Author, amongst other things. Consequently, without this sure charism of truth, their lot is inevitable: to confound the Scriptures ad infinitum, tossed to and fro by every wave of doctrine, by every whim and fancy unchecked by human vice and ignorance. Hence, not only do they not have the rock of Peter, neither do they even have an earth on which to build a house, as the Orthodox do. For the Orthodox have Churches, since in every one of their holy edifices, Jesus Christ is literally and truly there—Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. But where there is no Bishop, neither is there a priest, and if there is no priest, there is no literal, physical presence of Christ at the altar, and therefore no Church. Hence, though it be ecumenically painful, we really cannot say, “The Lutheran Church,” or the “Baptist Church,” or “the Church of God.” Yes, in all these, there are beautiful people, surely, who will one day see Jesus and be married to him forever, but sadly, their places of dwelling are in the end merely “ecclesial communities.”

Now, the second bad news: in reality, five sacraments absolutely require a priest, and in one case, a bishop. The Sacrament of Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick: both entail the forgiveness of sins. The ministry of reconciliation emanates from the Apostolic offices alone, so that only bishops and priests can forgive sins. In Confirmation: the fullness of spiritual gifts to enable mature perseverance in grace clearly would require that some fullness of truth and grace is manifest in the community, hence, only where the stability of apostolic succession and Tradition exists could this sacrament exist. Holy Orders, of course, exists if, and only if, valid Apostolic Succession exists. The Eucharist: only a priest can transform bread and wine into the Second Person of the Godhead. “Do this in remembrance of Me.”

However, God does not desire his lost sheep to be utterly bereft. That is why the Baptism of heretics is valid, de fide! Any person can baptize, even a catechumen, who is not yet Christian. Indeed, when a Protestant minister intends to wash away sins, and initiate the recipient into Christ’s family, using water, and the proper Trinitarian formula, a valid Baptism occurs, and if the recipient has no obstacle, it is fruitful. When it comes to the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, however, per Saint John Paul II and his perennial Theology of the Body, the priest is not the confector of the sacrament. The man and woman are the ministers of this sacrament, conferring the sacrament upon each other, first, through the vows, and then, through their bodies in an act of consummation. Hence, any validly baptized, Protestant man and woman who come together, free to marry, with the proper intentions, and no impediments to a valid marriage, who solemnly and sincerely pronounce the vows and consummate, contract a sacramental marriage even if they don’t (and they usually don’t) think it is a sacrament.

To sum up the previous overview, schismatics have all seven sacraments, they have valid Apostolic Succession and Tradition, but they are a little unstable doctrinally without Peter. Heretics have only two sacraments, Baptism and Marriage, and lack the five that require the Episcopate, that is: Confession, Anointing, Confirmation, Holy Orders, and Eucharist. They have no Apostolic Succession or Tradition, and are woefully scattered and tossed all over the ocean of doctrines, since they lack this very stability to keep them of firm mind on the Scriptures.

Now, let us return to the miraculous feedings. Firstly, it turns out that there were only two occasions in Christ’s ministry that he miraculously fed large crowds with the multiplication of loaves and fishes—already looks good, since there are only two forms of rift. Specifically, we saw that on the one occasion (recounted four times in the Gospels), Christ fed 5,000 persons with 5 loaves and 2 fish, and that on the other occasion (recounted two times in the Gospels), Christ fed 4,000 persons with 7 loaves and a “few” fish. Now, again, the sacraments feed us sanctifying grace, hence, the loaves and fishes can prefigure the sacraments, especially since there are seven—like the explicit numbers, or their conglomerate—in the loaves and fishes (7, or 5 and 2).

In addition, we can observe how loaves are made from barley, which is grown in the earth, a place of relative stability, whereas fish come from the sea, a place of chaos or lack of stability. Consequently, since the sea and earth are contrasted in the degree of stability, feeding on loaves could symbolize stability of doctrine, and feeding on fish could symbolize instability of doctrine. For example, Peter and Jesus are the rock of truth (Mt 16:18), the Church is the pillar and “ground” of the truth (1Tim 3:15), but heretics are tossed “to and fro by every wave of doctrine” (Eph 4:14 and James 1:6). Again, what is the source of stability of truth in Christendom? It is none other than, first, Apostolic Succession in general and then, in supreme form, Peter. Why? Because from that formal authoritative Succession comes Sacred Tradition, or the inspired Word of God, which provides the stability for the proper interpretation of the Written Word, Scripture, a more sure foundation to discern the true doctrines of the Apostles. Without them, there is only the “waves of chaos” in attempting to ascertain Scripture apart from Tradition, the lot of Protestants, who are all over the map doctrinally.

Therefore, the earth is a good metaphor for general Apostolic Succession, Peter is already the Rock in Mt 16:18, and the sea is a good metaphor for sola Scriptura, the doctrine of Scripture alone without Tradition. Is it any wonder, then, that heretics, who, as we have seen, lack the very stability of doctrine, the “earth” of Apostolic Succession, lose the 5 sacraments that require the “earth”, that is, 5 loaves—Confession, Eucharist, Confirmation, Holy Orders and Anointing of the Sick–and retain only 2 sacraments, Baptism and Marriage—2 fish, seeing as they can only “fish” in their instability of doctrine.

Then, similarly, the schismatics (Orthodox), who do have Apostolic Succession in general, or the “earth”, have all 7 sacraments (7 loaves), but they are a little unstable in doctrine because they lack Peter, the ultimate foundation of truth (they have a “few fish”). And now, consider a deeper implication in looking at the number in the respective crowds, the 5,000 and the 4,000. In actual history, the Apostles only left 5 Apostolic Sees, first, Peter, the Supreme See in Rome, or the West, and 4 more, those that are now in schism, the Sees of the Orthodox Churches, or the East. Note also that since Peter himself has the special charism of infallibility, being the head of the one completely true Church, the fullness of Apostolicity resides in him, even apart from the other four Sees. Hence, we can say that in a certain sense 5 is a good symbol of Peter, so that the multitudes of his children in the West are 5,000. Similarly, the other 4 Sees, as it were, of the Orthodox, symbolize almost full apostolicity, but not quite, just short of the fullness. Therefore, 4,000 is a good symbol of the East, the schismatic Orthodox.

In other words, these two sides of Christianity, the “4,000” and the “5,000”, are divided according to two poles, or kingdoms—the East and the West. That is, in the West, Peter, the fullness of Apostolicity (5,000, the fullness of all 5 Apostolic Sees), reigns, whereas in the East, the 4 Apostolic Sees reign (the 4,000). Consequently, the two feeding instances can be seen as the two primary Kingdoms in Christendom, the East and the West. The imagery fits the history perfectly, since in the East, the kingdom of 4,000, the primary division of Christians, has been in schism—Catholics divided against Orthodox, 7 loaves and a few fish. Whereas in the West, the primary division has been Heresy—Catholics divided against Protestants, 5 loaves and 2 fish.

To summarize, whereas it is not entirely certain that God intended this allegory to be present here, one has to admit that the coincidences are astounding. Hence, perhaps someday, the Church will use these passages to provide dogmatic basis to the Seven Sacraments and how they relate to the Ecclesiology. 

Application of the Theology to the Lamb and False Prophet of Apocalypse
Reading scripture in this way is admittedly an ancient and, to some, outdated method of allegory. The Church Fathers read the sacred page trusting that the Holy Spirit had embedded gems deeply within each passage. While I admit that there are some issues reading scripture this way, and knowing not many encounter scripture or preach this way today, there is still a profound corollary to this five loaves and two fish theology that I would like to suggest. Here, the Lamb of Apocalypse has 7 horns, and the false prophet, or second beast, of Revelation 13, has “2 horns, like a lamb.” The primary spiritual climate of the modern societies of former Christendom is as dark in nature as any of the greater phases of sin of God’s plan since the foundation of the world—as dark as Noah’s day, as Babel, as Egypt, as the Seleucids, as pagan Rome. It is not as widespread, but in nature, it is as dark as these. Toward that end, how might we quantify or qualify this darkness? This article attempts to give a rigorous theological, anti-sacramental, and mystical way to do this. To begin, if we are to assess what the ultimate lies of the dragon are, we must first see what the greatest truths and goods of God are, and his purpose for us.

Baptism and Marriage—Basic Sacraments Summarize the Meaning of the Christian Life
We have just seen from the loaves and fishes discourse that heretics retain only two sacraments, two fish, Baptism, and Marriage. We have to ask ourselves, is this accidental, arbitrary? Is not Christ ordered and purposeful in what he does? We should therefore expect that Baptism and Matrimony, being the only two sacraments that do not require a priest, have a special theological significance for the faith. Indeed, I feel so, which I shall now attempt to argue.

First, let us add extrapolation on the purposes of life, per the Catholic Catechism from antiquity. There are two great reasons we exist, that summarize what we are called to do. Actually, there is but one great reason we exist, which works out in two dimensions. According to Ludwig Ott’s magisterial Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, the ultimate reason God creates is to share the Divine Life, Love, and Knowledge of the Trinity with creatures, de fide. The two dimensions which this takes place are this life, and, hopefully, the next life: (1) To share in the Divine Life, Love, and Knowledge of the Trinity in this life; (2) To share in the Divine Life, Love, and Knowledge of the Trinity in the next life, in fullness and forever. The Baltimore Catechism echoes this when it teaches that we are created (1) to know, love, and serve God in this life, and (2) to be happy with him forever in the next.

Note, each set of principles are equivalent: knowing and loving God is the same as sharing in the Life, Love and Knowledge of the Trinity, since serving and loving God is only done by the presence of sanctifying grace (a finite, created participation in the Divine Life and Love the Trinity), and knowing God is to partake of the Knowledge of the Trinity. Too, we will be happy in heaven forever with God, precisely by growing in love and knowledge of God, which will never be exhausted. But how do most Christians live this out? Is it not through the foundational vocations of baptism and then marriage?

The first condition, to know, love and serve God, is the disposition of Baptism, since knowing God is faith, and love and service is good will, or repentance—the two primary dispositions that we must have for Baptism, and to remain faithful to our Baptismal vows. The second condition, to be happy with God forever in the next life, is like marriage to God, since, collectively, we shall all be caught up as the Bride who is espoused to Jesus, receiving the Divine Knowledge, Love, and Life into our inner souls, and offering praise and rejoicing back to God in an endless exchange of reckless, spiritual ecstasy, much the same as the nuptial act of man and woman, where the man penetrates the inner being of the woman, and infuses the ultimate gift of himself, the seed of life, symbolizing the spiritual life of truth and grace, and the woman, after having conceived this gift unto herself, offers back her love and brings forth new life. Hence, Baptism and Marriage summarize, in their ultimate signs, or dispositions, the two greatest principles of our reason to exist, and hence, of all that has ever been good, or will be! In other words, these two remnant sacraments for heretics truly are special: they are the basic summary of all life, of all goodness.

But then, what else can we conclude except that, if we fully deny these principles, we get the supreme lies that summarize all evil, that ever has been, or will be—in other words, the very lies of the fall themselves, perpetually recycled in every age of sin. Indeed, we see today how there lurks an anti-baptismal spirit, as the first lie of the dragon is to have no regard for the baptismal disposition—no faith, no repentance: “Believe what you want and do what you want, you will be better off, more satisfied, and there will be no consequences, whether in this life or any presumed afterlife.” There is also an anti-marital spirit, the second lie being: Don’t live for the marriage with God in the next life, but live for superficial “intercourse,” or fornication, figuratively, with the world, the counterpart to God. That is, seek not to marry the Creator in the next life, but spiritually fornicate with the Creation in this life, or materialism. Seek your fulfillment not in the uncreated goods of love, truth, beauty, and gift, but the merely brute created goods of carnal pleasures, possessions, and egotistical accomplishments.

Consider a further support of these ideas: Solomon said in Scripture “all wickedness came before Abraham was.” So then, this would seem to imply that all lies of the fall, and the practice thereof, came before Abraham was. For the two greatest stages of sin before Abraham were the wickedness of Noah’s day and the Tower of Babel. Noah’s day was clearly anti-Baptism: The world was wicked (no repentance) and had no faith (they mocked Noah’s revelation of flood). So then God baptized the world, the Flood. The Tower of Babel was anti-marriage toward God: man was gathered together as one woman, but not a spouse to God, the People of God; rather, a harlot, joining herself in selfish materialistic glory with the world, a tower, rather than seeking God’s glory and him as the spouse. So God divided them up through language confounding and married one nation, the Hebrews, his first bride.

How appropriate then, the two great first falls of man are against the basic principles of life, against the basic sacraments of all, and they were healed spiritually by those very basic sacraments’ signs. Now, in light of this theology, consider this: in the Book of Revelation, Jesus, the Lamb, has seven horns (see Rev 5:6), and the false prophet has two, “like a Lamb.” (see Rev 13:11). Biblical scholars tell us that horns are ancient symbols of power. For example, in Daniel 7 and 8, horns emanate from beasts as symbols of kings, which wield power (in Daniel 7, the great and terrible forth beast has ten horns which are later explained to be kings. In Daniel 8, the goat has a great horn that is broken, and in its place, arises four lesser horns, symbolizing Alexander’s demise in the early conquests of Greece, at which time his empire was divided among his four generals.). Similarly, in Revelation 13, the dragon and beast both wield ten horns. In light of this, we can sense some sort of power emanating from Christ in the seven horns. Now, admittedly, seven is the number of perfection, so that the symbolism could simply be, Christ has “perfect power” or is all-powerful.

On the other hand, a certain greater specificity seems warranted if we are to compare the imagery to the false prophet later in the book, seeing as this diabolical second beast is mocking, evidently, specifically two of the seven horns. Actually, the solution is immediate from common sense: where is Christ’s power greatest? In causing tornados or earthquakes? In bringing the sun to rise? Or is it rather in his salvation, his power to save. How does he save us except by grace, and what are the greatest sources of grace except the seven sacraments? Were that not enough, but have we not already developed a profound theology of the sacraments around the aspects of Christian division, even around two sacraments, like the false prophet has two horns? What did we find except that two sacraments, Baptism and Matrimony, are the only ones left to heretics, and that they even summarize all that has ever been good or will be? Did we not even find that when the same two are completely inverted, they most expectedly shew forth all that has ever been evil or will be, even the lies of the fall from the outset, the same lies regurgitated time and again throughout salvation history?

Wherefore, we have an immediate approach to the two horns of the false prophet that are like a lamb, but who speaks as a dragon. For if the Christ has said, “What father would give his child a serpent if he asked for a fish?” We can imagine the already deluded world that has tickling ears to hear what it would like to hear, to come unto the worst father of all existence, and petition him, this father of lies, for two fish: “Father, should we seek to know, love, and serve God in this life and to be married to him forever in the next as our ultimate goal here below? In asking for these two sacramental principles, these two fish, these two great laws that all men should live by—whether they be Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, deist, rationalist, Buddhist, etc—the dragon offers two counterfeit, anti-sacramental principles, two serpents!

“Surely not! Rather, believe as you wish and do as you wish. Don’t listen to God or any claimed revelation from God, whether by man or book. Decide for yourself what is true. And don’t do what God has told you to do, or what any claimed Revelation of God has told you to do. Rather, do what you want, whatever is convenient. You will be better off in all these things. And as for seeking your ultimate fulfillment in marrying God in the next life, rubbish! Rather, seek your ultimate fulfillment with this world in this life: materialism!” In this way, the dragon will have taken what two remnant sources of goodness are left to heretics, and twisted them into the ultimate heresies.

Scott Pauline About Scott Pauline

Scott is a Catholic revert, blessed to have had his story shared in This Rock Magazine in 1999. He is currently attempting to complete a book on the meaning of salvation history in light of analogies from Apocalypse, and other scriptures, and Tradition, a great portion of which can be found at: He is happily married to Linda since 2009 and resides in Portland, Oregon.