Sacraments, Sacramentals, and the Sacramental Economy

1.  Some objections and answers that might clarify the Sacraments

A sacrament is “a sign that effects what it signifies, instituted by Christ to give grace.” As the Catechism puts it, in paragraph 1131, “The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.”

If a sacrament is a sign, something that “signifies,” then fundamentalism is already concerned here, for it seems that man is making an image, bringing down the spiritual into the material, and already approaching making an idol for himself. (Never mind here that God Himself, in becoming Incarnate, has already made this real with His own authority).  Rejection of the Sacraments is often an implicit (though certainly denied) rejection of the Incarnation; denial of the Sacraments demonstrates a mind that has trouble really believing that God can use matter in a sanctified way.

Now, we also see that Sacraments effect what they signify; that they confer grace.  Here, we encounter, of course, the same objection: using matter for spiritual purposes.  But this goes further.  Grace, for the fundamentalist, is merely the favor of God imputed to the Elect.  It has no intrinsic effect, in the sense of imparted righteousness as Catholics understand it, and further, it is a once for all imputation by Christ, and thus cannot be “quantified,” as they would claim Catholics must understand it.  Grace, received and lived “over time,” can have little meaning in a theology of salvation by faith alone, and certainly not within the mainstream fundamentalist belief of eternal security.

Yet according to Aquinas, since God is the author of history, historical events can signify as well as effect. For example, the parting of the Red Sea both effected salvation from Egypt for Israel and also signified salvation from sin and death through Christ. Fundamentalists resist symbolism in considering historical events, and resist “real presence” and effects when considering sacramental signs. “This is my body” they interpret as wholly symbolic, merely symbolic; yet most of the rest of Scripture they see as not symbolic at all.

Fundamentalists may agree that the Sacraments were instituted by Christ, but they usually limit these to two; the Eucharist and Baptism.  Of course, these are not understood in the same way as Catholicism understands them, as they are merely “done in obedience” to Christ by an “already completely justified person.” For them, they are an effect of “being saved,” but not a cause.

Most importantly, however, the Sacraments seem to be an introduction of Pagan ritual back into the Church.  Equating ritual with paganism and magic, they believe all ritual,  as far as religion goes, to be contrary to the “simple Gospel.”


2. – Ex opere Operato and the validity of the sacraments.


The sacraments produce grace of themselves, apart and distinct from the person conferring the sacrament. The phrase means “from the work done,” and distinguishes it from the “worker doing.” Although the phrase wasn’t widely used until the medieval period, its concept was well established by such controversies as Augustine’s rebuttal of the Donatist heresy.

The Eucharist, for example, consecrated by an ordained priest who is in the state of mortal sin, is not invalidated for that reason.  Certainly, the state of the minister has effects upon him, but the objective character of the Sacrament itself remains.  As Christ is the power and minister behind all the Sacraments, the Sacrament itself, if validly conferred, as far as the form and the matter, is valid.

A separate but important issue is whether or not the reception of the Sacrament is licit. Certain Sacraments, for example, presuppose the prior reception of others. One must be in a state of grace to receive the “living” Sacraments, that is, those besides baptism and confession.  The Eucharist, received in the state of mortal sin, would be valid, yet received illicitly, and in this case is also a sacrilege.

For a Sacrament to be valid, there are five conditions that must be met. There must be a valid minister, a valid recipient, and a proper intention.  Further, the form and the matter, particular to the Sacrament, must be correct.

The validity of the minister depends upon the Sacrament.  For most Sacraments, an ordained minister is required.  This is usually the Bishop, or a priest he has conferred this validity to.  Some Sacraments, such as baptism in an emergency, can be performed by a layperson, even a non-believer.

The recipient of the Sacrament depends on each Sacrament in particular.  By way of example, for any Sacrament besides baptism, baptism is a prerequisite. Marriage must be between two freely consenting baptized couples of opposite gender and not already married or divorced.

The minister of the Sacrament must intend the Sacrament as the Church intends it.  For example, when two people get married, they must truly intend a union for life, open to children, and faithful to one another. To not do so would invalidate the Sacrament.  In this example, we see that an annulment is sometimes given when it is recognized that a valid marriage never took place.

Valid form and matter are particular to each Sacrament, as established by the Church.  For instance, using grape juice and the words “This represents My Blood” would be both invalid matter (grape juice) and form (wrong words of consecration).

3. – Sacraments and Sacramentals


The Sacraments, numbering seven, were instituted by Christ, either explicitly or implicitly.  The Eucharist, for example, was clearly and explicitly implemented at the Last Supper. “This is My Body, do this in memory of me.”  Likewise, Jesus tells us that one must be “born of water and the Spirit,” a clear institution of Baptism.

Concerning Confirmation, for example, St. Thomas tells us:

And therefore we must hold that Christ instituted this sacrament, not by showing it but by promising it, according to the text, “If I go not, the Paraclete will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.” And this because in this sacrament the fullness of the Holy Ghost is given, which was not to be given before Christ’s resurrection and ascension, according to the text, “As yet the Spirit was not given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” (Summa Theologica III.72.1).

The New Catholic Encyclopedia remarks that this implies an implicit institution of the Sacrament, as understood by St. Thomas. There is no explicit institution that we saw in the examples above of Baptism and the Eucharist, yet it is not simply something the Church, in her authority derived from Christ, instituted on her own.

The sacramentals, by contrast, are instituted by the Church, and not directly by Christ.  By the power and authority given by Christ, Who is the same source of grace, the sacramentals dispose men to receive the benefits of the Sacraments. More will be said of them in section 4.

The Sacraments, defined explicitly as the seven we have today, were defined at the Council of Trent. They were defined as having been all instituted by Christ. This was made explicit by the Council in Session VII:


CANON I.-If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law were not all instituted by Jesus Christ, our Lord; or, that they are more, or less, than seven, to wit, Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Order, and Matrimony; or even that any one of these seven is not truly and properly a sacrament; let him be anathema.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Sacramental rites are dependent on the Church which established them, and which therefore has the right to maintain, develop, modify, or abrogate them. After Peter Lombard the use and definition of the word “sacramental” had a fixed character and was exclusively applicable to those rites presenting an external resemblance to the sacraments but not applicable to the sensible signs of Divine institution. These include such things as blessed salt, medals and scapulars.  We see evidence very early of their use.  Blessed salt is likely referred to by Augustine:

Even as a boy I had heard of eternal life promised to us through the humility of the Lord our God condescending to our pride, and I was signed with the sign of the cross, and was seasoned with His salt even from the womb of my mother, who greatly trusted in You.
                                                                                    -St. Augustine, Confessions


4. – The nature and purpose of the sacramentals.

The sacramentals, as mentioned briefly in section 2, are sacred signs bearing a resemblance to the Sacraments proper.  They were not directly instituted by Christ, but by the authority He has given the Church as intercessor, to dispose men to receive the benefits of the Sacraments.

Many of the Sacraments are received but once, while others, most importantly the Eucharist and confession, can and should be received often. However, the Christian life is such that every moment and, if possible, all things should be used for sanctification.  It is here that the Church’s use of sacramentals is important for the Christian life.

The sacramentals are many and varied, always geared towards the sanctification of those who receive and/or use them.  “They always include a prayer, often accompanied by a specific sign, such as the laying on of hands, the sign of the cross, or the sprinkling of holy water (which recalls Baptism).”(CCC 1668)

The Catechism continues: “Sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church’s prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it.” (CCC 1670) Again, they are not Sacraments instituted by Christ, but it is from the same wellspring of grace that their power flows.

Grace is certainly conferred really and truly in the reception of the Sacraments, but grace is not limited to them.  God offers His grace in many ways.  It is actual grace that leads one to want to seek God in the first place, even before conversion.  And at conversion, grace is likewise received.  “The [Sacraments and] sacramentals sanctifies almost every event of their lives with the divine grace which flows from the Paschal mystery of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. From this source all sacraments and sacramentals draw their power. There is scarcely any proper use of material things which cannot be thus directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God.” (CCC 1670)


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