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Outward signs of inward grace, instituted by Christ for our sanctification

The seven sacraments are baptism, confirmation, Holy Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, orders, and matrimony. The encyclopedia entry below dives deep into all of the sacraments, explaining their nature, their origin, their number, and much more.

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Sacraments, outward signs of inward grace, instituted by Christ for our sanctification (Catechismus concil. Trident., II, n. 4, ex S. August “De catechizandis rudibus”). The subject may be treated under the following headings: (I) The necessity and the nature of a sacramental system. (II) The nature of the sacraments of the new law. (III) The origin (cause) of the sacraments. (IV) The number of the sacraments. (V) The effects of the sacraments. (VI) The minister of the sacraments. (VII) The recipient (subject) of the sacraments.


(1) In what sense necessary

Almighty God can and does give grace to men in answer to their internal aspirations and prayers without the use of any external sign or ceremony. This will always be possible, because God, grace, and the soul are spiritual beings. God is not restricted to the use of material, visible symbols in dealing with men; the sacraments are not necessary in the sense that they could not have been dispensed with. But, if it be shown that God has appointed external, visible ceremonies as the means by which certain graces are to be conferred on men, then in order to obtain those graces it will be necessary for men to make use of those Divinely appointed means. This truth theologians express by saying that the sacraments are necessary, not absolutely but only hypothetically, i.e., in the supposition that if we wish to obtain a certain supernatural end we must use the supernatural means appointed for obtaining that end. In this sense the Council of Trent (Sess. VII, can. 4) declared heretical those who assert that the sacraments of the New Law are superfluous and not necessary, although all are not necessary for each individual. It is the teaching of the Catholic Church and of Christians in general that, whilst God was nowise bound to make use of external ceremonies as symbols of things spiritual and sacred, it has pleased Him to do so, and this is the ordinary and most suitable manner of dealing with men. Writers on the sacraments refer to this as the necessitas convenientiae, the necessity of suitableness. It is not really a necessity, but the most appropriate manner of dealing with creatures that are at the same time spiritual and corporeal. In this assertion all Christians are united: it is only when we come to consider the nature of the sacramental signs that Protestants (except some Anglicans) differ from Catholics. “To sacraments considered merely as outward forms, pictorial representations or symbolic acts, there is generally no objection”, wrote Dr. Morgan Dix (“The Sacramental System”, New York, 1902 p. 46). “Of sacramental doctrine this may be truly said that it is co-extensive with historic Christianity. Of this there is no reasonable doubt, as regards the very ancient days, of which St. Chrysostom’s treatise on the priesthood and St. Cyril’s catechetical lectures may be taken as characteristic documents. Nor was it otherwise with the more conservative of the reformed bodies of the sixteenth century. Martin Luther‘s Catechism, the Augsburg, and later the Westminster, Confessions are strongly sacramental in their tone, putting to shame the degenerate followers of those who compiled them” (ibid., p. 7, 8).

(2) Why the sacramental system is most appropriate

The reasons underlying a sacramental system are as follows: (a) Taking the word “sacrament” in its broadest sense, as the sign of something sacred and hidden (the Greek word is “mystery”), we can say that the whole world is a vast sacramental system, in that material things are unto men the signs of things spiritual and sacred, even of the Divinity. “The heavens shew forth the glory of God, and the firmament declareth the work of his hands” (Ps. xviii, 2). “The invisible things of him [i.e. God], from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity” (Rom., i, 20). (b) The redemption of man was not accomplished in an invisible manner. God renewed, through the Patriarchs and the Prophets, the promise of salvation made to the first man; external symbols were used to express faith in the promised Redeemer: “all these things happened to them [the Israelites] in figure” (I Cor., x, 11; Heb., x, 1). “So we also, when we were children, were serving under the elements of the world. But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent his Son, made of a woman” (Gal., iv, 3, 4). The Incarnation took place because God dealt with men in the manner that was best suited to their nature. (c) The Church established by the Savior was to be a visible organization (see Church: The Visibility of the Church): consequently it should have external ceremonies and symbols of things sacred. (d) The principal reason for a sacramental system is found in man. It is the nature of man, writes St. Thomas (III, Q. lxi, a. 1), to be led by things corporeal and sense-perceptible to things spiritual and intelligible; now Divine Providence provides for everything in accordance with its nature (secundum modum suae conditionis); therefore it was fitting that Divine Wisdom should provide means of salvation for men in the form of certain corporeal and sensible signs which are called sacraments. (For other reasons see Catech. Conc. Trid., II, n. 14.)

(3) Existence of sacred symbols
(a) No sacraments in state of innocence

According to St. Thomas (I. c., a. 2) and theologians generally there were no sacraments before Adam sinned, i.e., in the state of original justice. Man‘s dignity was so great that he was raised above the natural condition of human nature. His mind was subject to God; his lower faculties were subject to the higher part of his mind; his body was subject to his soul; it would have been against the dignity of that state had he been dependent, for the acquisition of knowledge or of Divine grace, on anything beneath him, i.e. corporeal things. For this reason the majority of theologians hold that no sacraments would have been instituted even if that state had lasted for a long time.

(b) Sacraments of the law of nature

Apart from what was or might have been in that extraordinary state, the use of sacred symbols is universal. St. Augustine says that every religion, true or false, has its visible signs or sacraments. “In nullum nomen religionis, seu verum seu falsum, coadunari homines possunt, nisi aliquo signaculorum seu sacramentorum visibilium consortio colligantur” (Cont. Faust., XIX, xi). Commentators on the Scriptures and theologians almost unanimously assert that there were sacraments under the law of nature and under the Mosaic Law, as there are sacraments of greater dignity under the Law of Christ. Under the law of nature—so called not to exclude supernatural revelation but because at that time there existed no written supernatural law—salvation was granted through faith in the promised Redeemer, and men expressed that faith by some external signs. What those signs should be God did not determine, leaving this to the people, most probably to the leaders or heads of families, who were guided in their choice by an interior inspiration of the Holy Ghost. This is the conception of St. Thomas, who says that, as under the law of nature (when there was no written law), men were guided by interior inspiration in worshiping God, so also they determined what signs should be used in the external acts of worship (III, Q. lx, a. 5, ad 3um). Afterwards, however, as it was necessary to give a written law: (a) because the law of nature had been obscured by sin, and (b) because it was time to give a more explicit knowledge of the grace of Christ, then also it became necessary to determine what external signs should be used as sacraments (ibid., and Q. lxi, a. 3, ad 2um). This was not necessary immediately after the Fall, by reason of the fullness of faith and knowledge imparted to Adam. But about the time of Abraham, when faith had been weakened, many had fallen into idolatry, and the light of reason had been obscured by indulgence of the passions even unto the commission of sins against nature, God intervened and appointed as a sign of faith the rite of circumcision (Gen., xvii; St. Thomas, III, Q. lxx, a. 2, ad mum; see Circumcision).

The vast majority of theologians teach that this ceremony was a sacrament and that it was instituted as a remedy for original sin; consequently that it conferred grace, not indeed of itself (ex opere operato), but by reason of the faith in Christ which it expressed. “In circumcisione conferebatur gratia, non ex virtute circumcisionis, sed ex virtute fidei passionis Christi futurae, cujus signum erat circumcisio—quia scilicet justitia erat ex fide significata, non ex circumcisione significante” (St. Thomas, III, Q. lxx, a. 4). Certainly it was at least a sign of something sacred, and it was appointed and determined by God himself as a sign of faith and as a mark by which the faithful were distinguished from unbelievers. It was not, however, the only sign of faith used under the law of nature. It is incredible, writes St. Augustine, that before circumcision there was no sacrament for the relief (justification) of children, although for some good reason the Scriptures do not tell us what that sacrament was (Cont. Jul., III, xi). The sacrifice of Melchisedech, the sacrifice of the friends of Job the various tithes and oblations for the service of God are mentioned by St. Thomas (III, Q. lxi, a. 3, ad 3um; Q. lxv, a. 1, ad 7um) as external observances which may be considered as the sacred signs of that time, prefiguring future sacred institutions: hence, he adds, they may be called sacraments of the law of nature.

(c) Sacraments of the Mosaic Law

As the time for Christ’s coming drew nearer, in order that the Israelites might be better instructed God spoke to Moses, revealing to him in detail the sacred signs and ceremonies by which they were to manifest more explicitly their faith in the future Redeemer. Those signs and ceremonies were the sacraments of the Mosaic Law, “which are compared to the sacraments which were before the law as something determined to something undetermined, because before the law it had not been determined what signs men should use” (St. Thomas, III, Q. lxi, a. 3, ad 2um). With the Angelic Doctor (I-II, Q. cii, a. 5) theologians usually divide the sacraments of this period into three classes: (I) The ceremonies by which men were made and signed as worshipers or ministers of God. Thus we have (a) circumcision, instituted in the time of Abraham (Gen., xvii), renewed in the time of Moses (Lev., xii, 3) for all the people; and (b) the sacred rites by which the Levitical priests were consecrated. (2) The ceremonies which consisted in the use of things pertaining to the service of God, i.e. (a) the paschal lamb for all the people, and (b) the loaves of proposition for the ministers. (3) The ceremonies of purification from legal contamination, i.e. (a) for the people, various expiations, (b) for the priests, the washing of hands and feet, the shaving of the head, etc. St. Augustine says the sacraments of the Old Law were abolished because they had been fulfilled (cf. Matt., v, 17), and others have been instituted which are more efficacious, more useful, easier to administer and to receive, fewer in number (“virtute majora, utilitate meliora, actu faciliora, numero pauciora”, Cont. Faust., XIX, xiii). The Council of Trent condemns those who say that there is no difference except in the outward rite between the sacraments of the Old Law and those of the New Law (Sess. VII, can. ii). The Decree for the Armenians, published by order of the Council of Florence, says that the sacraments of the Old Law did not confer grace, but only prefigured the grace which was to be given by the Passion of Christ. This means that they did not give grace of themselves (i.e. ex opere operato) but only by reason of the faith in Christ which they represented—”ex fide significata, non ex circumcisione significante” (St. Thomas, loc. cit.).


(1) Definition of a sacrament

The sacraments thus far considered were merely signs of sacred things. According to the teaching of the Catholic Church, accepted today by many Episcopalians, the sacraments of the Christian dispensation are not mere signs; they do not merely signify Divine grace, but in virtue of their Divine institution, they cause that grace in the souls of men. “Signum sacro sanctum efficax gratiae”—a sacrosanct sign producing grace, is a good, succinct definition of a sacrament of the New Law. Sacrament, in its broadest acceptation, may be defined as an external sign of something sacred. In the twelfth century Peter Lombard (d. 1164), known as the Master of the Sentences, author of the first manual of systematized theology, gave an accurate definition of a sacrament of the New Law: A sacrament is in such a manner an outward sign of inward grace that it bears its image (i.e. signifies or represents it) and is its cause—”Sacramentum proprie dicitur quod ita signum est gratiae Dei, et invisibilis gratiae forma, ut ipsius imaginem gerat et causa existat” (IV Sent., d. I, n. 2). This definition was adopted and perfected by the medieval Scholastics. From St. Thomas we have the short but very expressive definition: The sign of a sacred thing in so far as it sanctifies men—”Signum rei sacrae in quantum est sanctificans homines” (III, Q. lx, a. 2).

All the creatures of the universe proclaim something sacred, namely, the wisdom and the goodness of God, as they are sacred in themselves, not as they are sacred things sanctifying men, hence they cannot be called sacraments in the sense in which we speak of sacraments (ibid., ad turn). The Council of Trent includes the substance of these two definitions in the following: “Symbolum rei sacrae, et invisibilis gratiae forma visibilis, sanctificandi vim habens”—A symbol of something sacred, a visible form of invisible grace, having the power of sanctifying (Sess. XIII, cap. 3). The “Catechism of the Council of Trent” gives a more complete definition: Something perceptible by the senses which by Divine institution has the power both to signify and to effect sanctity and justice (II, n. 2). Catholic catechisms in English usually have the following: An outward sign of inward grace, a sacred and mysterious sign or ceremony, ordained by Christ, by which grace is conveyed to our souls. Anglican and Episcopalian theologies and catechisms give definitions which Catholics could accept (see, e.g. Mortimer, “Catholic Faith and Practice”, New York, 1905, part I, p. 120).

In every sacrament three things are necessary: the outward sign; the inward grace; Divine institution. A sign stands for and represents something else, either naturally, as smoke represents fire, or by the choice of an intelligent being, as the red cross indicates an ambulance. Sacraments do not naturally signify grace; they do so because they have been chosen by God to signify mysterious effects. Yet they are not altogether arbitrary, because in some cases, if not in all, the ceremonies performed have a quasi-natural connection with the effect to be produced. Thus, pouring water on the head of a child readily brings to mind the interior purification of the soul. The word “sacrament” (sacramentum), even as used by profane Latin writers, signified something sacred, viz., the oath by which soldiers were bound, or the money deposited by litigants in a contest. In the writings of the Fathers of the Church the word was used to signify something sacred and mysterious, and where the Latins use sacramentum the Greeks use Greek: musterion (mystery). The sacred and mysterious thing signified is Divine grace, which is the formal cause of our justification (see Grace), but with it we must associate the Passion of Christ (efficient and meritorious cause) and the end (final cause) of our sanctification, viz., eternal life. The significance of the sacraments according to theologians (e.g. St. Thomas, III, Q. Ix, a. 3) and the Roman Catechism (II, n. 13) extends to these three sacred things, of which one is past, one present, and one future. The three are aptly expressed in St. Thomas’s beautiful antiphon on the Eucharist: “O sacrum convivium, in quo Christus sumitur, recolitur memoria passionis ejus, mens impletur gratia, et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur—O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of the passion is recalled, the soul is filled with grace, and a pledge of future life is given to us”.

(2) Errors of Protestants

Protestants generally hold that the sacraments are signs of something sacred (grace and faith), but deny that they really cause Divine grace. Episcopalians, however, and Anglicans, especially the Ritualists, hold with Catholics that the sacraments are “effectual signs” of grace. In article XXV of the Westminster Confession we read: “Sacraments ordained of God be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses and effectual signs of grace and God‘s good will towards us by which He doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken but strengthen and confirm our faith in Him” (cf. art. XXVII). “The Zwinglian theory”, writes Morgan Dix (op. cit., p. 73), “that sacraments are nothing but memorials of Christ and badges of Christian profession, is one that can by no possible jugglery with the English tongue be reconciled with the formularies of our church.” Mortimer adopts and explains the Catholic formula “ex opere operato” (loc. cit., p. 122). Luther and his early followers rejected this conception of the sacraments. They do not cause grace, but are merely “signs and testimonies of God‘s good will towards us” (Augsburg Confessions); they excite faith, and faith (fiduciary) causes justification. Calvinists and Presbyterians hold substantially the same doctrine. Zwinglius lowered still further the dignity of the sacraments, making them signs not of God‘s fidelity but of our fidelity. By receiving the sacraments we manifest faith in Christ: they are merely the badges of our profession and the pledges of our fidelity. Fundamentally all these errors arise from Luther’s newly-invented theory of righteousness, i.e. the doctrine of justification by faith alone (see Grace). If man is to be sanctified not by an interior renovation through grace which will blot out his sins, but by an extrinsic imputation through the merits of Christ, which will cover his soul as a cloak, there is no place for signs that cause grace, and those used can have no other purpose than to excite faith in the Savior. Luther’s convenient doctrine on justification was not adopted by all his followers and it is not baldly and boldly proclaimed by all Protestants today: nevertheless they accept its consequences affecting the true notion of the sacraments.

(3) Catholic Doctrine

Against all innovators the Council of Trent declared: “If any one say that the sacraments of the New Law do not contain the grace which they signify, or that they do not confer grace on those who place no obstacle to the same, let him be anathema” (Sess. viii, can. vi). “If any one say that grace is not conferred by the sacraments ex opere operato, but that faith in God‘s promises is alone sufficient for obtaining grace, let him be anathema” (ibid., can. viii; cf. can. iv, v, vii). The phrase “exopere operato”, for which there is no equivalent in English, probably was used for the first time by Peter of Poitiers (d. 1205), and afterwards by Innocent III (d. 1216; de myst. missae, III, v), and by St. Thomas (d. 1274; IV Sent., dist. 1, Q. i, a. 5). It was happily invented to express a truth that had always been taught and had been introduced without objection. It is not an elegant formula but, as St. Augustine remarks (In Ps. cxxxviii): It is better that grammarians should object than that the people should not understand. “Ex opere operato”, i.e. by virtue of the action, means that the efficacy of the action of the sacraments does not depend on anything human, but solely on the will of God as expressed by Christ’s institution and promise. “Ex opere operantis”, i.e. by reason of the agent, would mean that the action of the sacraments depended on the worthiness either of the minister or of the recipient (see Pourrat, “Theology of the Sacraments”, tr., St. Louis, 1910, 162 sqq.). Protestants cannot in good faith object to the phrase as if it meant that the mere outward ceremony, apart from God‘s action, causes grace. It is well known that Catholics teach that the sacraments are only the instrumental, not the principal, causes of grace. Neither can it be claimed that the phrase adopted by the council does away with all dispositions necessary on the part of the recipient, the sacraments acting like infallible charms causing grace in those who are ill-disposed or in grievous sin. The fathers of the council were careful to note that there must be no obstacle to grace on the part of the recipients, who must receive them rite, i.e. rightly and worthily; and they declare it a calumny to assert that they require no previous dispositions (Sess. XIV, de poenit., cap. 4). Dispositions are required to prepare the subject, but they are a condition (conditio sine qua non), not the causes, of the grace conferred. In this case the sacraments differ from the sacramentals, which may cause grace ex opere operantis, i.e. by reason of the prayers of the Church or the good, pious sentiments of those who use them (see Sacramentals).

(4) Proofs of the Catholic Doctrine

In examining proofs of the Catholic doctrine it must be borne in mind that our rule of faith is not simply Scripture, but Scripture and tradition.

(a) In Sacred Scripture we find expressions which clearly indicate that the sacraments are more than mere signs of grace and faith: “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John, iii, 5); “He saved us, by the laver of regeneration, and renovation of the Holy Ghost” (Tit., iii, 5); “Then they laid their hands upon them, and they received the Holy Ghost” (Acts, viii, 17); “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life. For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed” (John, vi, 55, 56). These and similar expressions (see articles on each sacrament) are, to say the least, very much exaggerated if they do not mean that the sacramental ceremony is in some sense the cause of the grace conferred.

(b) Tradition clearly indicates the sense in which they have been interpreted in the Church. From the numerous expressions used by the Fathers we select the following: “The Holy Ghost comes down from heaven and hovers over the waters, sanctifying them of Himself, and thus they imbibe the power of sanctifying” (Tertullian, De bapt., c. iv.). “Baptism is the expiation of sins, the remission of crimes, the cause of renovation and regeneration” (St. Gregory of Nyssa, “Orat. in Bapt.”). “Explain to me the manner of nativity in the flesh and I will explain to you the regeneration of the soul….Throughout, by Divine power and efficacy, it is incomprehensible: no reasoning, no art can explain it” (ibid.). “He that passes through the fountain [baptism] shall not die but rises to new life” (St. Ambrose, De sacr., I, iv). “Whence this great power of water”, exclaims St. Augustine, “that it touches the body and cleanses the soul?” (Tr. 80 in Joann). “Baptism“, writes the same Father, “consists not in the merits of those by whom it is administered, nor of those to whom it is administered, but in its own sanctity and truth, on account of Him who instituted it” (Cont. Cres., IV). The doctrine solemnly defined by the Council of Trent had been announced in previous councils, notably at Constantinople (381; Symb. Fid.), at Mileve (416; can. ii) in the Second Council of Orange (529; can. xv); and in the Council of Florence (1439; Deer. pro. Armen., see Denzinger-Bannwart, nn. 86, 102, 200, 695). The early Anglican Church held fast to the true doctrine: “Baptism is not only a sign of profession and a mark of difference, whereby christened men are discerned from those that be not christened, but is also a sign of regeneration or New-Birth, whereby as by an instrument they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the church” (Art. XXVII).

(c) Theological Argument.—The Westminster Confession adds: “The Baptism of children is in any wise to be retained in the church as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.” If baptism does not confer grace ex opere operato, but simply excites faith, then we may ask: (1) Of what use would this be if the language used be not understood by the recipient, i.e. an infant or an adult that does not understand Latin? In such cases it might be more beneficial to the bystanders than to the one baptized. (2) In what does the baptism of Christ surpass the baptism of John, for the latter could excite faith? Why were those baptized by the baptism of John rebaptized with the baptism of Christ? (Acts, xix). (3) How can it be said that baptism is strictly necessary for salvation since faith can be excited and expressed in many other ways? Finally Episcopalians and Anglicans of today would not revert to the doctrine of grace ex opere operato unless they were convinced that the ancient faith was warranted by Scripture and Tradition.

(5) Matter and Form of the Sacraments

Scholastic writers of the thirteenth century introduced into their explanations of the sacraments terms which were derived from the philosophy of Aristotle. William of Auxerre (d. 1223) was the first to apply to them the words matter (materia) and form (forma). As in physical bodies, so also in the sacramental rite we find two elements, one undetermined, which is called the matter, the other determining, called the form. For instance, water may be used for drinking, or for cooling or cleansing the body, but the words pronounced by the minister when he pours water on the head of the child, with the intention of doing what the Church does, determines the meaning of the act, so that it signifies the purification of the soul by grace. The matter and form (the res et verba) make up the external rite, which has its special significance and efficacy from the institution of Christ. The words are the more important element in the composition, because men express their thoughts and intentions principally by words. “Verba inter homines obtinuerunt principatum significandi” (St. Augustine, “De doct. christ.”, II, iii; St. Thomas, III, Q. Ix, a. 6). It must not be supposed that the things used for the acts performed, for they are included in the res, remarks St. Thomas (loc. cit., ad 2um) have no significance. They too may be symbolical, e.g. anointing the body with oil relates to health; but their significance is clearly determined by the words. “In all the compounds of matter and form the determining element is the form” (St. Thomas, loc. cit., a. 7).

The terminology was somewhat new, the doctrine was old: the same truth had been expressed in former times in different words. Sometimes the form of the sacrament meant the whole external rite (St. Augustine, “De pecc. et men”, xxxiv; Conc. Milev., De bapt.). What we call the matter and form were referred to as “mystic symbols”; “the sign and the thing invisible”; “the word and the element” (St. Augustine, tr. 80 in Joann.). The new terminology immediately found favor. It was solemnly ratified by being used in the Decree for the Armenians, which was added to the Decrees of the Council of Florence, yet has not the value of a conciliar definition (see Denzinger-Bannwart, 695; Hurter, “Theol. dog. comp.”, I, 441; Pourrat, op. cit., p. 51). The Council of Trent used the words matter and form (Sess. XIV, cap. ii, iii, can. iv), but did not define that the sacramental rite was composed of these two elements. Leo XIII, in the “Apostolicae Curae” (September 13, 1896) made the Scholastic theory the basis of his declaration, and pronounced ordinations performed according to the ancient Anglican rite invalid, owing to a defect in the form used and a lack of the necessary intention on the part of the ministers. The hylomorphistic theory furnishes a very apt comparison and sheds much light on our conception of the external ceremony. Nevertheless our knowledge of the sacraments is not dependent on this Scholastic terminology, and the comparison must not be carried too far. The attempt to verify the comparison (of sacraments to a body) in all details of the sacramental rite will lead to confusing subtilities or to singular opinions, e.g., Melchior Cano‘s (De locis theol., VIII, v, 3) opinion as to the minister of matrimony (see Marriage; cf. Pourrat, op. cit., ii).


It might now be asked: in how far was it necessary that the matter and form of the sacraments should have been determined by Christ?

(1) Power of God

The Council of Trent defined that the seven sacraments of the New Law were instituted by Christ (Sess. VII, can. i). This settles the question of fact for all Catholics. Reason tells us that all sacraments must come originally from God. Since they are the signs of sacred things in as far as by these sacred things men are sanctified (St. Thomas, III, Q. lx, a. 2 c. et ad I); since the external rite (matter and form) of itself cannot give grace, it is evident that all sacraments properly so called must originate in Divine appointment. “Since the sanctification of man is in the power of God who sanctifies”, writes St. Thomas (loc. cit., a. 5), “it is not in the competency of man to choose the things by which he is to be sanctified, but this must be determined by Divine institution”. Add to this that grace is, in some sense, a participation of the Divine nature (see Grace) and our doctrine becomes unassailable: God alone can decree that by exterior ceremonies men shall be partakers of His nature.

(2) Power of Christ

God alone is the principal cause of the sacraments. He alone authoritatively and by innate power can give to external material rites the power to confer grace on men. Christ as God, equally with the Father, possessed this principal, authoritative, innate power. As man He had another power which St. Thomas calls “the power of the principal ministry” or “the power of excellence” (III, Q. lxiv, a. 3). “Christ produced the interior effects of the sacraments by meriting them and by effecting them….The passion of Christ is the cause of our justification meritoriously and effectively, not as the principal agent and authoritatively, but as an instrument, inasmuch as His Humanity was the instrument of His Divinity” (ibid.; cf. III, Q. xiii, aa. 1, 3). There is theological truth as well as piety in the old maxim: “From the side of Christ dying on the cross flowed the sacraments by which the Church was saved” (Gloss. Ord. in Rom. 5; St. Thomas, III, Q. lxii, a. 5). The principal efficient cause of grace is God, to Whom the Humanity of Christ is as a conjoined instrument, the sacraments being instruments not joined to the Divinity (by hypostatic union): therefore the saving power of the sacraments passes from the Divinity of Christ, through His Humanity into the sacraments (St. Thomas, loc. cit.). One who weighs well all these words will understand why Catholics have great reverence for the sacraments. Christ’s power of excellence consists in four things: (1) Sacraments have their efficacy from His merits and sufferings; (2) they are sanctified and they sanctify in His name; (3) He could and He did institute the sacraments; (4) He could produce the effects of the sacraments without the external ceremony (St. Thomas, Q. lxiv, a. 3). Christ could have communicated this power of excellence to men: this was not absolutely impossible (ibid., a. 4). But, (I) had He done so men could not have possessed it with the same perfection as Christ: “He would have remained the head of the Church principally, others secondarily” (ibid., ad 3). (2) Christ did not communicate this power, and this for the good of the faithful: (a) that they might place their hope in God and not in men; (b) that there might not be different sacraments, giving rise to divisions in the Church (ibid., ad 1). This second reason is mentioned by St. Paul (I Cor., i, 12, 13): “every one of you saith: I indeed am of Paul; and I am of Apollo; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul then crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

(3) Immediate or Mediate Institution

The Council of Trent did not define explicitly and formally that all the sacraments were instituted immediately by Christ. Before the council great theologians, e.g. Peter Lombard (IV Sent., d. xxiii), Hugh of St. Victor (De sac., II, ii), Alexander of Hales (Summa, IV, Q. xxiv, 1) held that some sacraments were instituted by the Apostles, using power that had been given to them by Jesus Christ. Doubts were raised especially about confirmation and extreme unction. St. Thomas rejects the opinion that confirmation was instituted by the Apostles. It was instituted by Christ, he holds, when he promised to send the Paraclete, although it was never administered whilst He was on earth, because the fullness of the Holy Ghost was not to be given until after the Ascension: “Christus instituit hoc sacramentum, non exhibendo, sed promittendo” (III, Q. lxii, a. 1, ad 1um). The Council of Trent defined that the sacrament of Extreme Unction was instituted by Christ and promulgated by St. James (Sess. XIV, can. i). Some theologians, e.g. Becanus, Bellarmine, Vasquez, Gonet, etc. thought the words of the council (Sess. VII, can. i) were explicit enough to make the immediate institution of all the sacraments by Christ a matter of defined faith. They are opposed by Soto (a theologian of the council) Estius, Gotti, Tournely, Berti, and a host of others, so that now nearly all theologians unite in saying: it is theologically certain, but not defined (de fide) that Christ immediately instituted all the sacraments of the New Law. In the Decree “Lamentabili”, July 3, 1907, Pius X condemned twelve propositions of the Modernists, who would attribute the origin of the sacraments to some species of evolution or development. The first sweeping proposition is this: “The sacraments had their origin in this that the Apostles, persuaded and moved by circumstances and events, interpreted some idea and intention of Christ” (Denzinger-Bannwart, 2040). Then follow eleven propositions relating to each of the sacraments in order (ibid., 2041-51). These propositions deny that Christ immediately instituted the sacraments, and some seem to deny even their mediate institution by the Savior.

(4) What does Immediate Institution Imply? Power of the Church

Granting that Christ immediately instituted all the sacraments, it does not necessarily follow that personally He determined all the details of the sacred ceremony, prescribing minutely every iota relating to the matter and the form to be used. It is sufficient (even for immediate institution) to say: Christ determined what special graces were to be conferred by means of external rites: for some sacraments (e.g. baptism, the Eucharist) He determined minutely (in specie) the matter and form: for others He determined only in a general way (in genere) that there should be an external ceremony, by which special graces were to be conferred, leaving to the Apostles or to the Church the power to determine whatever He had not determined, e.g. to prescribe the matter and form of the Sacraments of Confirmation and Holy Orders. The Council of Trent (Sess. XXI, cap. ii) declared that the Church had not the power to change the “substance” of the sacraments. She would not be claiming power to alter the substance of the sacraments if she used her Divinely given authority to determine more precisely the matter and form in so far as they had not been determined by Christ. This theory (which is not modern) had been adopted by theologians: by it we can solve historical difficulties relating, principally, to confirmation and Holy orders.

(5) May we then say that Christ instituted some sacraments in an implicit state?

That Christ was satisfied to lay down the essential principles from which, after a more or less protracted development, would come forth the fully developed sacraments? This is an application of Newman’s theory of development, according to Pourrat (op. cit., p. 300), who proposes two other formulae; Christ instituted all the sacraments immediately, but did not himself give them all to the Church fully constituted; or Jesus instituted immediately and explicitly baptism and Holy Eucharist: He instituted immediately but implicitly the five other sacraments (loc. cit., p. 301). Pourrat himself thinks the latter formula too absolute. Theologians probably will consider it rather dangerous, and at least “male sonans”. If it be taken to mean more than the old expression, Christ determined in genere only the matter and the form of some sacraments, it grants too much to development. If it means nothing more than the expression hitherto in use, what is gained by admitting a formula which easily might be misunderstood?


(1) Catholic Doctrine: Eastern and Western Churches

The Council of Trent solemnly defined that there are seven sacraments of the New Law, truly and properly so called, viz., baptism, confirmation, Holy Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, orders, and matrimony. The same enumeration had been made in the Decree for the Armenians by the Council of Florence (1439), in the Profession of Faith of Michael Palaeologus, offered to Gregory X in the Council of Lyons (1274) and in the council held at London, in 1227, under Otto, legate of the Holy See. According to some writers Otto of Bamberg (1139), the Apostle of Pomerania, was the first who clearly adopted the number seven (see Tanquerey, “De sacr.”). Most probably this honor belongs to Peter Lombard (d. 1164) who in his fourth Book of Sentences (d. i, n, 2) defines a sacrament as a sacred sign which not only signifies but also causes grace, and then (d. n. 1) enumerates the seven sacraments. It is worthy of note that, although the great Scholastics rejected many of his theological opinions (list given in app. to Migne edition, Paris, 1841), this definition and enumeration were at once universally accepted, proof positive that he did not introduce a new doctrine, but merely expressed in a convenient and precise formula what had always been held in the Church. Just as many doctrines were believed, but not always accurately expressed, until the condemnation of heresies or the development of religious knowledge called forth a neat and precise formula, so also the sacraments were accepted and used by the Church for centuries before Aristotelean philosophy, applied to the systematic explanation of Christian doctrine, furnished the accurate definition and enumeration of Peter Lombard. The earlier Christians were more concerned with the use of sacred rites than with scientific formulae, being like the pious author of the “Imitation of Christ“, who wrote: “I had rather feel compunction than know its definition” (I, i).

Thus time was required, not for the development of the sacraments—except in so far as the Church may have determined what was left under her control by Jesus Christ—but for the growth of knowledge of the sacraments. For many centuries all signs of sacred things were called sacraments, and the enumeration of these signs was somewhat arbitrary. Our seven sacraments were all mentioned in the Sacred Scriptures, and we find all of them mentioned here and there by the Fathers (see Theology; and articles on each sacrament). After the ninth century, writers began to draw a distinction between sacraments in a general sense and sacraments properly so called. The ill-fated Abelard (“Introd. ad Theol.”, I, i, and in the “Sic et Non”) and Hugh of St. Victor (De sacr., I, part 9, chap. viii; cf. Pourrat, op. cit., pp. 34, 35) prepared the way for Peter Lombard, who proposed the precise formula which the Church accepted. Thenceforward until the time of the so-called Reformation the Eastern Church joined with the Latin Church in saying: by sacraments proper we understand efficacious sacred signs, i.e. ceremonies which by Divine ordinance signify, contain and confer grace; and they are seven in number. In the history of conferences and councils held to effect the reunion of the Greek with the Latin Church, we find no record of objections made to the doctrine of seven sacraments. On the contrary, about 1576, when the Reformers of Wittenberg, anxious to draw the Eastern Churches into their errors, sent a Greek translation of the Augsburg Confession to Jeremias, Patriarch of Constantinople, he replied: “The mysteries received in this same Catholic Church of orthodox Christians, and the sacred ceremonies, are seven in number—just seven and no more” (Pourrat, op. cit., p. 289). The consensus of the Greek and Latin Churches on this subject is clearly shown by Arcadius, “De con. ecc. occident. et orient. in sept. sacr. administr.” (1619); Goar (q.v.) in his “Euchologion” by Martène (q.v.) in his work “De antiquis ecclesiae ritibus”, by Renaudot in his “Perpétuité de la foi sur sacraments” (1711), and this agreement of the two Churches furnishes recent writers (Episcopalians) with a strong argument in support of their appeal for the acceptance of seven sacraments (cf. Tanquerey, “De sacr.”, i, 24; Pourrat, op. cit., pp. 84, 85).

(2) Protestant Errors

Luther’s capital errors, viz. private interpretation of the Scriptures, and justification by faith alone, logically led to a rejection of the Catholic doctrine on the sacraments (see Martin Luther; Grace). Gladly would he have swept them all away, but the words of Scripture were too convincing and the Augsburg Confession retained three as “having the command of God and the promise of the grace of the New Testament“. These three, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and penance were admitted by Luther and also by Cranmer in his “Catechism” (see Dix, “op. cit.”, p. 79). Henry VIII protested against Luther’s innovations and received the title “Defender of the Faith” as a reward for publishing the “Assertio septem sacramentorum” (recently reedited by Rev. Louis O’Donovan, New York, 1908). Followers of Luther’s principles surpassed their leader in opposition to the sacraments. Once granted that they were merely “signs and testimonies of God‘s good will towards us”, the reason for great reverence was gone. Some rejected all sacraments, since God‘s good will could be manifested without these external signs. Confession (penance) was soon dropped from the list of those retained. The Anabaptists rejected infant baptism, since the ceremony could not excite faith in children. Protestants generally retained two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the latter being reduced by the denial of the Real Presence to a mere commemorative service. After the first fervor of destruction there was a reaction. Lutherans retained a ceremony of confirmation and ordination. Cranmer retained three sacraments, yet we find in the Westminster Confession: “There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ Our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord. Those five commonly called sacraments, that is to say Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction, are not to be counted for sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures but yet have not like nature of sacraments with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God” (art. XXV). The Wittenberg theologians, by way of compromise, had shown a willingness to make such a distinction, in a second letter to the Patriarch of Constantinople, but the Greeks would have no compromise (Pourrat, loc. cit., 290).

For more than two centuries the Church of England theoretically recognized only two “sacraments of the Gospel” yet permitted, or tolerated other five rites. In practice these five “lesser sacraments” were neglected, especially penance and extreme unction. Anglicans of the nineteenth century would have gladly altered or abolished the twenty-fifth article. There has been a strong desire, dating chiefly from the Tractarian Movement, and the days of Pusey, Newman, Lyddon, etc. to reintroduce all of the sacraments. Many Episcopalians and Anglicans today make heroic efforts to show that the twenty-fifth article repudiated the lesser sacraments only in so far as they had “grown of the corrupt following of the Apostles, and were administered `more Romamensium'”, after the Roman fashion. Thus Morgan Dix reminded his contemporaries that the first book of Edward VI allowed “auricular and secret confession to the priest”, who could give absolution, as well as “ghostly counsel, advice, and comfort”, but did not make the practice obligatory: therefore the sacrament of Absolution is not to be “obtruded upon men’s consciences as a matter necessary to salvation” (op. cit., pp. 99, 101, 102, 103). He cites authorities who state that “one cannot doubt that a sacramental use of anointing the sick has been from the beginning”, and adds, “There are not wanting, among the bishops of the American Church, some who concur in deploring the loss of this primitive ordinance and predicting its restoration among us at some propitious time” (ibid., p. 105). At a convention of Episcopalians held at Cincinnati, in 1910, unsuccessful effort was made to obtain approbation for the practice of anointing the sick. High Church pastors and curates, especially in England, frequently are in conflict with their bishops because the former use all the ancient rites. Add to this the assertion made by Mortimer (op. cit., I, 122) that all the sacraments cause grace ex opere operato, and we see that “advanced” Anglicans are returning to the doctrine and the practices of the Old Church. Whether and in how far their position can be reconciled with the twenty-fifth article, is a question which they must settle. Assuredly their wanderings and gropings after the truth prove the necessity of having on earth an infallible interpreter of God‘s word.

(3) Division and Comparison of the Sacraments

(a) All sacraments were instituted for the spiritual good of the recipients; but five, viz. baptism, confirmation, penance, the Eucharist, and extreme unction, primarily benefit the individual in his private character, whilst the other two, orders and matrimony, primarily affect man as a social being, and sanctify him in the fulfillment of his duties toward the Church and society. By baptism we are born again, confirmation makes us strong, perfect Christians and soldiers. The Eucharist furnishes our daily spiritual food. Penance heals the soul wounded by sin. Extreme unction removes the last remnant of human frailty, and prepares the soul for eternal life, orders supplies ministers to the Church of God. Matrimony gives the graces necessary for those who are to rear children in the love and fear of God, members of the Church militant, future citizens of heaven. This is St. Thomas’s explanation of the fitness of the number seven (III, Q. lv, a. 1). He gives other explanations offered by the Schoolmen (see Pourrat, op. cit., pp. 177, sqq.) but does not bind himself to any of them. In fact the only really sufficient reason for the existence of seven sacraments, and no more, is the will of Christ: there are seven because He instituted seven. The explanation and adaptions of theologians serve only to excite our admiration and gratitude, by showing how wisely and beneficiently God has provided for our spiritual needs in these seven efficacious sings of grace.

(b) Baptism and penance are called “sacraments of the dead”, because they give life, through sanctifying grace then called “first grace”, to those who are spiritually dead by reason of original or actual sin. The other five are “sacraments of the living”, because their reception presupposes, at least ordinarily, that the recipient is in the state of grace, and they give “second grace”, i.e. increase of sanctifying Grace (q.v.). Nevertheless, since the sacraments always give some grace when there is no obstacle in the recipient, it may happen in cases explained by theologians that “second grace” is conferred by a sacrament of the dead, e.g. when one who has only venial sins to confess receives absolution and that “first grace” is conferred by a sacrament of the living (see St. Thomas, III, Q. lxxii, a. 7 ad 2 urn; III, Q. lxxix, a. 3). Concerning extreme unction St. James explicitly states that through it the recipient may be freed from his sins: “If he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him” ( James, v. 15).

(c) Comparison in dignity and necessity.—The Council of Trent declared that the sacraments are not all equal in dignity; also that none are superfluous, although all are not necessary for each individual (Sess. VII, can. 3, 4). The Eucharist is the first in dignity, because it contains Christ in person, whilst in the other sacraments grace is conferred by an instrumental virtue derived from Christ (St. Thomas, III, Q. lvi, a. 3). To this reason St. Thomas adds another, viz., that the Eucharist is as the end to which the other sacraments tend, a center around which they revolve (loc. cit.). Baptism is always first in necessity; Holy orders comes next after the Eucharist in the order of dignity, confirmation being between these two. Penance and extreme unction could not have a first place because they presuppose defects (sins). Of the two penance is the first in necessity: extreme unction completes the work of penance and prepares souls for heaven. Matrimony has not such an important social work as orders (loc. cit., ad 1 urn). If we consider necessity alone—the Eucharist being left out as our daily bread and God‘s greatest gift—three are simply and strictly necessary, baptism for all, penance for those who fall into mortal sin after receiving baptism, orders for the Church. The others are not so strictly necessary. Confirmation completes the work of baptism; extreme unction completes the work of penance; matrimony sanctifies the procreation and education of children, which is not so important nor so necessary as the sanctification of ministers of the Church (St. Thomas, loc. cit., a, 4).

(d) Episcopalians and Anglicans distinguish two great sacraments and five lesser sacraments because the latter “have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained by God” (art. XXV). Then they should be classed among the sacramentals since God alone can be the author of a sacrament (see above III). On this point the language of the twenty-fifth article (“commonly called sacraments”) is more logical and straightforward than the terminology of recent Anglican writers. The Anglican Catechism calls baptism and Eucharist sacraments “generally (i.e. universally) necessary for salvation”. Mortimer justly remarks that this expression is not “entirely accurate”, because the Eucharist is not generally necessary to salvation in the same sense as Baptism (op. cit., I, 127). The other five he adds are placed in a lower class because, “they are not necessary to salvation in the same sense as the two other sacraments, since they are not necessary for everyone” (loc. cit., 128). Verily this is interpretation extraordinary; yet we should be grateful since it is more respectful than saying that those five are “such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures” (art. XXV.). Confusion and uncertainty will be avoided by accepting the declaration of the Council of Trent (above.)


(1) Catholic Doctrine

(a) The principle effect of the sacrament is a two-fold grace: (1) the grace of the sacrament which is “first grace”, produced by the sacraments of the dead, or “second grace”, produced by the sacraments of the living (supra, IV, 3, b): (2) The sacramental grace, i.e., the special grace needed to attain the end of each sacrament. Most probably it is not a new habitual gift, but a special vigor or efficacy in the sanctifying grace conferred, including on the part of God, a promise, and on the part of man a permanent right to the assistance needed in order to act in accordance with the obligations incurred, e.g., to live as a good Christian, a good priest, a good husband or wife (cf. Pourrat, op. cit., 199; St. Thomas, III, Q. lxii, a. 2).

(b) Three sacraments, baptism, confirmation, and orders, besides grace, produce in the soul a character, i.e. an indelible spiritual mark by which some are consecrated as servants of God, some as soldiers, some as ministers. Since it is an indelible mark, the sacraments which impress a character can not be received more than once (Conc. Trid., sess. VII, can. 9; see Character).

(2) How the Sacraments cause Grace

Theological controversies. Few questions have been so hotly controverted as this one relative to the manner in which the sacraments cause grace (St. Thomas, IV, Sent., d. 1, Q. 4, a 1.). (a) All admit that the sacraments of the New Law cause grace ex opere operato, not ex opere operantis (supra, II, 2, 3). (b) All admit that God alone can be the principal cause of grace (supra 3, I). (c) All admit that Christ as man, had a special power over the sacraments (supra, 3, 2). (d) All admit that the sacraments are, in some sense, the instrumental causes either of grace itself or of something else which will be a “title exigent of grace” (infra e). The principal cause is one which produces an effect by a power which it has by reason of its own nature or by an inherent faculty. An instrumental cause produces an effect, not by its own power, but by a power which it receives from the principal agent. When a carpenter makes a table, he is the principal cause, his tools are the instrumental causes. God alone can cause grace as the principal cause; sacraments can be no more than his instruments “for they are applied to men by Divine ordinance to cause grace in them” (St. Thomas, III, Q. lxii, a. 1). No theologian of today defends Occasionalism (see Cause) i.e. the system which taught that the sacraments caused grace by a kind of concomitance, they being not real causes but the causae sine quibus non: their reception being merely the occasion of conferring grace. This opinion, according to Pourrat (op. cit., 167), was defended by St. Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, Durandus, Occam, and all the Nominalists, and “enjoyed a real success until the time of the Council of Trent, when it was transformed into the modern system of moral causality”. St. Thomas (loc. cit., III, Q. lxii, aa. 1, 4; and “Quodlibeta”, 12, a. 14), and others rejected it on the ground that it reduced the sacraments to the condition of mere signs.

(e) In solving the problem the next step was the introduction of the system of dispositive instrumental causality, explained by Alexander of Hales (Summa theol., IV, Q. v, membr. 4), adopted and perfected by St. Thomas (IV Sent., d. 1, i, a. 4), defended by many theologians down to the sixteenth century, and revived in our days by Father Billot, S.J. (“De eccl. sacram.”, I, Rome, 1900, pp. 96 sq., 107 sq.). For controversy on this subject, see “Irish Eccles. Record”, November, 1899; “Amer. Eccl. Review”, May and June, 1900, January and May, 1901. According to this theory the sacraments do not efficiently and immediately cause grace itself, but they cause ex opere operato and instrumentally, a something else—the character (in some cases) or a spiritual ornament or form—which will be a “disposition” entitling the soul to grace (“dispositio exigitiva gratiae”; “titulus exigitivus gratiae”, Billot, loc. cit.). It must be admitted that this theory would be most convenient in explaining “reviviscence” of the sacraments (infra, VII, c). Against it the following objections are made: (a) From the time of the Council of Trent down to recent times little was heard of this system. (b) The “ornament”, or “disposition”, entitling the soul to grace is not well explained, hence explains very little. (g) Since this “disposition” must be something spiritual and of the supernatural order, and the sacraments can cause it, why can they not cause the grace itself? (d) In his “Summa theologica” St. Thomas does not mention this dispositive causality: hence we may reasonably believe that he abandoned it (for controversy, see reviews sup. cit.).

(f) Since the time of the Council of Trent theologians almost unanimously have taught that the sacraments are the efficient instrumental cause of grace itself. The definition of the Council of Trent, that the sacraments “contain the grace which they signify”, that they “confer grace ex opere operato” (Secs. VII, can. 6, 8), seemed to justify the assertion, which was not contested until quite recently. Yet the end of the controversy had not come. What was the nature of that causality? Did it belong to the physical or to the moral order? A physical cause really and immediately produces its effects, either as the principal agent or as the instrument used, as when a sculptor uses a chisel to carve a statue. A moral cause is one which moves or entreats a physical cause to act. It also can be principal or instrumental, e.g., a bishop who in person successfully pleads for the liberation of a prisoner is the principal moral cause, a letter sent by him would be the instrumental moral cause, of the freedom granted. The expressions used by St. Thomas seem clearly to indicate that the sacraments act after the manner of physical causes. He says that there is in the sacraments a virtue productive of grace (III, Q. lxii, a. 4) and he answers objections against attributing such power to a corporeal instrument by simply stating that such power is not inherent in them and does not reside in them permanently, but is in them only so far and so long as they are instruments in the hands of Almighty God (loc. cit., ad lum and 3um). Cajetan, Suarez, and a host of other great theologians defend this system, which is usually termed Thomistic. The language of the Scripture, the expressions of the Fathers, the Decrees of the councils, they say, are so strong that nothing short of an impossibility will justify a denial of this dignity to the sacraments of the New Law. Many facts must be admitted which we cannot fully explain. The body of man acts on his spiritual soul; fire acts, in some way, on souls and on angels. The strings of a harp, remarks Cajetan (In III, Q. lxii) touched by an unskilled hand, produce nothing but sounds: touched by the hands of a skillful musician they give forth beautiful melodies. Why cannot the sacraments, as instruments in the hands of God, produce grace?

Many grave theologians were not convinced by these arguments, and another school, improperly called the Scotistic, headed by Melchior Cano, De Lugo, and Vasquez, embracing later Henno, Tournely, Franzelin, and others, adopted the system of instrumental moral causality. The principal moral cause of grace is the Passion of Christ. The sacraments are instruments which move or entreat God effectively and infallibly to give his grace to those who receive them with proper dispositions, because, says Melchior Cano, “the price of the blood of Jesus Christ is communicated to them” (see Pourrat, op. cit., 192, 193). This system was further developed by Franzelin, who looks upon the sacraments as being morally an act of Christ (loc. cit., p. 194). The Thomists and Suarez object to this system: (a) Since the sacraments (i.e. the external rites) have no intrinsic value, they do not, according to this explanation, exert any genuine causality; they do not really cause grace, God alone causes the grace: the sacraments do not operate to produce it; they are only signs or occasions of conferring it. (b) The Fathers saw something mysterious and inexplicable in the sacraments. In this system wonders cease or are, at least, so much reduced that the expressions used by the Fathers seem altogether out of place. (g) This theory does not sufficiently distinguish, in efficacy, the sacraments of the Gospel from the sacraments of the Old Law (cf. Billuart, “Summa St. Thom”, ed. Lequette, tome VI, p. 137). Nevertheless, because it avoids certain difficulties and obscurities of the physical causality theory, the system of moral causality has found many defenders, and today if we consider numbers alone, it has authority in its favor.

Recently both of these systems have been vigorously attacked by Father Billot (op. cit., 107 sq.), who proposes a new explanation. He revives the old theory that the sacraments do not immediately cause grace itself, but a disposition or title to grace (supra e). This disposition is produced by the sacraments, neither physically nor morally, but imperatively. Sacraments are practical signs of an intentional order: they manifest God‘s intention to give spiritual benefits; this manifestation of the Divine intention is a title exigent of grace (op. cit., 59 sq., 123 sq.; Pourrat, op. cit., 194; Cronin in reviews, sup. cit.). Father Billot defends his opinions with remarkable acumen. Patrons of the physical causality gratefully note his attack against the moral causality, but object to the new explanation, that the imperative or the intentional causality, as distinct from the action of signs, occasions, moral or physical instruments (a) is conceived with difficulty and (b) does not make the sacraments (i.e. the external, Divinely appointed ceremonies) the real cause of grace. Theologians are perfectly free to dispute and differ as to the manner of instrumental causality. Lis est adhuc sub judice.


(1) It was altogether fitting that the ministration of the sacraments be given, not to the angels, but to men. The efficacy of the sacraments comes from the Passion of Christ, hence from Christ as a man; men, not angels, are like unto Christ in His human nature. Miraculously God might send a good angel to administer a sacrament (St. Thomas, III, Q. lxiv, a. 7). (2) For administering Baptism validly no special ordination is required. Any one, even a pagan, can baptize, provided that he use the proper matter and pronounce the words of the essential form, with the intention of doing what the Church does (Decr. pro Armen., Denzinger-Bannwart, 696). Only bishops, priests, and in some cases, deacons may confer baptism solemnly (see Baptism). It is now held as certain that in matrimony the contracting parties are the ministers of the sacrament, because they make the contract and the sacrament is the contract raised by Christ to the dignity of a sacrament (cf. Leo XIII, Encycl. “Arcanum“, 10 Febr., 1880; see ). For the validity of the other five sacraments the minister must be duly ordained. The Council of Trent anathematized those who said that all Christians could administer all the sacraments (Sess. VII, can. 10). Only bishops can confer sacred orders (Council of Trent, sess. XXIII, can. 7). Ordinarily only a bishop can give confirmation (see Confirmation). The priestly order is required for the valid administration of penance and extreme unction (Conc. Trid., sess. XIV, can. 10, can. 4). As to the Eucharist, those only who have priestly orders can consecrate, i.e. change bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Consecration presupposed, any one can distribute the Eucharistic species but, outside of very extraordinary circumstances this can be lawfully done only by bishops, priests, or (in some cases) deacons. (3) The care of all those sacred rites has been given to the Church of Christ. Heretical or schismatical ministers can administer the sacraments validly if they have valid orders, but their ministrations are sinful (see Billot, op. cit., thesis 16). Good faith would excuse the recipients from sin, and in cases of necessity the Church grants the jurisdiction necessary for penance and extreme unction (see Excommunication : V, EFFECTS OF EXCOMMUNICATION).

(4) Due reverence for the sacraments requires the minister to be in a state of grace: one who solemnly and officially administers a sacrament, being himself in a state of mortal sin, would certainly be guilty of a sacrilege (cf. St. Thomas, III, Q. lxiv, a. 6). Some hold that this sacrilege is committed even when the minister does not act officially or confer the sacrament solemnly. But from the controversy between St. Augustine and the Donatists (q.v.) in the fourth century and especially from the controversy between St. Stephen and St. Cyprian (q.v.) in the third century, we know that personal holiness or the state of grace in the minister is not a prerequisite for the valid administration of the sacrament. This has been solemnly defined in several general councils including the Council of Trent (Sess. VII, can. 12, ibid., de bapt., can. 4). The reason is that the sacraments have their efficacy by Divine institution and through the merits of Christ. Unworthy ministers, validly conferring the sacraments, cannot impede the efficacy of signs ordained by Christ to produce grace ex opere operato (cf. St. Thomas, III, Q. lxiv, aa. 5, 9). The knowledge of this truth, which follows logically from the true conception of a sacrament, gives comfort to the faithful, and it should increase, rather than diminish, reverence for those sacred rites and confidence in their efficacy. No one can give, in his own name, that which he does not possess; but a bank cashier, not possessing 2000 dollars in his own name, could write a draft worth 2,000,000 dollars by reason of the wealth of the bank which he is authorized to represent. Christ left to His Church a vast treasure purchased by His merits and sufferings: the sacraments are as credentials entitling their holders to a share in this treasure. On this subject the Anglican Church has retained the true doctrine, which is neatly proved in article XXVI of the Westminster Confession: “Although in the visible church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil hath the chief authority in the ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by His commission and authority, we may use their ministry both in hearing the Word of God and in receiving the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness nor the grace of God‘s gifts from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be administered by evil men” (cf. Billuart, de sacram., d. 5, a. 3, sol. obj.)

(5) Intention of the Minister.—(a) To be a minister of the sacraments under and with Christ, a man must act as a man, i.e. as a rational being; hence it is absolutely necessary that he have the intention of doing what the Church does. This was declared by Eugene IV in 1439 (Denzinger-Bannwart, 695) and was solemnly defined in the Council of Trent (Sess. VII, can. II). The anathema of Trent was aimed at the innovators of the sixteenth century. From their fundamental error that the sacraments were signs of faith, or signs that excited faith, it followed logically that their effect in no wise depended on the intention of the minister. Men are to be “ministers of Christ, and the dispensers of the mysteries of God” (I Cor., iv, 1), and this they would not be without the intention, for it is by the intention, says St. Thomas (III, Q. lxiv, a. 8, ad lum) that a man subjects and unites himself to the principal agent (Christ). Moreover, by rationally pronouncing the words of the form, the minister must determine what is not sufficiently determined or expressed by the matter applied, e.g. the significance of pouring water on the head of the child (St. Thomas, loc. cit., a. 8). One who is demented, drunk, asleep, or in a stupor that prevents a rational act, one who goes through the external ceremony in mockery, mimicry, or in a play, does not act as a rational minister, hence cannot administer a sacrament. (b) The necessary object and qualities of the intention required in the minister of the sacrament are explained in the article Intention. Pourrat (op. cit., ch. 7) gives a history of all controversies on this subject. Whatever may be said speculatively about the opinion of Ambrosius Catherinus (see Lancelot Politi) who advocated the sufficiency of an external intention in the minister, it may not be followed in practice, because, outside of cases of necessity, no one may follow a probable opinion against one that is safer, when there is question of something required for the validity of a sacrament (Innoc. XI, 1679; Denzinger-Bannwart, 1151).

(6) Attention in the minister.—Attention is an act of the intellect, viz. the application of the mind to what is being done. Voluntary distraction in one administering a sacrament would be sinful. The sin would however not be grave, unless (a) there be danger of making a serious mistake, or (b) according to the common opinion, the distraction be admitted in consecrating the Eucharistic species. Attention on the part of the minister is not necessary for the valid administration of a sacrament, because in virtue of the intention, which is presupposed, he can act in a rational manner, notwithstanding the distraction.


When all conditions required by Divine and ecclesiastical law are complied with, the sacrament is received validly and licitly. If all conditions required for the essential rite are observed, on the part of the minister, the recipient, the matter and form, but some non-essential condition is not complied with by the recipient, the sacrament is received validly but not licitly; and if the condition willfully neglected be grave, grace is not then conferred by the ceremony. Thus baptized persons contracting matrimony whilst they are in the state of mortal sin would be validly (i.e. really) married, but would not then receive sanctifying grace.

(1) Conditions for Valid Reception

(a) The previous reception of baptism (by water) is an essential condition for the valid reception of any other sacrament. Only citizens and members of the Church can come under her influence as such; baptism is the door by which we enter the Church and thereby become members of a mystical body united to Christ our head (Catech. Trid., de bapt., nn. 5, 52). (b) In adults, for the valid reception of any sacrament except the Eucharist, it is necessary that they have the intention of receiving it. The sacraments impose obligations and confer grace: Christ does not wish to impose those obligations or confer grace without the consent of man. The Eucharist is excepted because, in whatever state the recipient may be, it is always the body and blood of Christ (see Intention; cf. Pourrat, op. cit., 392). (c) For attention, see supra, VI, 6. By the intention man submits himself to the operation of the sacraments which produce their effects ex opere operato, hence attention is not necessary for the valid reception of the sacraments. One who might be distracted, even voluntarily, during the conferring, e.g. of baptism, would receive the sacrament validly. It must be carefully noted, however, that in the case of matrimony the contracting parties are the ministers as well as the recipients of the sacraments; and in the sacrament of Penance, the acts of the penitent, contrition, confession, and willingness to accept a penance in satisfaction, constitute the proximate matter of the sacraments, according to the commonly received opinion. Hence in those cases such attention is required as is necessary for the valid application of the matter and form.

(2) Conditions for the Licit Reception

(a) For the licit reception, besides the intention and the attention, in adults there is required (1) for the sacraments of the dead, supernatural attrition, which presupposes acts of faith, hope, and repentence (see Attrition (or imperfect contrition) and Justification); (2) for the sacraments of the living the state of grace. Knowingly to receive a sacrament of the living whilst one is in the state of mortal sin would be a sacrilege. (b) For the licit reception it is also necessary to observe all that is prescribed by Divine or ecclesiastical law, e.g. as to time, place, the minister, etc. As the Church alone has the care of the sacraments and generally her duly appointed agents alone have the right to administer them, except baptism in some cases, and matrimony (supra VI, 2), it is a general law that application for the sacraments should be made to worthy and duly appointed ministers. (For exceptions see Excommunication.)

(3) Reviviscence of the Sacraments

Much attention has been given by theologians, especially recently, to the revival of effects which were impeded at the time when a sacrament was received. The question arises whenever a sacrament is received validly but unworthily, i.e. with an obstacle which prevents the infusion of Divine grace. The obstacle (mortal sin) is positive, when it is known and voluntary, or negative, when it is involuntary by reason of ignorance or good faith. One who thus receives a sacrament is said to receive it feignedly, or falsely (ficte), because by the very act of receiving it he pretends to be properly disposed; and the sacrament is said to be validum sed informe,—valid, but lacking its proper form, i.e. grace or charity (see Love). Can such a person recover or receive the effects of the sacraments? The term reviviscence (reviviscentia) is not used by St. Thomas in reference to the sacraments and it is not strictly correct because the effects in question being impeded by the obstacle, were not once “living” (cf. Billot, op. cit., 98, note). The expression which he uses (III, Q, lxix, a. 10), viz., obtaining the effects after the obstacle has been removed, is more accurate, though not so convenient as the newer term.

(a) Theologians generally hold that the question does not apply to penance and the Holy Eucharist. If the penitent be not sufficiently disposed to receive grace at the time he confesses his sins the sacrament is not validly received because the acts of the penitent are a necessary part of the matter of this sacrament, or a necessary condition for its reception. One who unworthily receives the Eucharist can derive no benefit from that sacrament unless, perhaps, he repent of his sins and sacrilege before the sacred species have been destroyed. Cases that may occur relate to the five other sacraments. (b) It is certain and admitted by all, that if baptism be received by an adult who is in the state of mortal sin, he can afterwards receive the graces of the sacrament, viz. when the obstacle is removed by contrition or by the sacrament of Penance. On the one hand the sacraments always produce grace unless there be an obstacle; on the other hand those graces are necessary, and yet the sacrament can not be repeated. St. Thomas (III. Q, lxix, a. 10) and theologians find a special reason for the conferring of the effects of baptism (when the “fiction” has been removed) in the permanent character which is impressed by the sacrament validly administered. Reasoning from analogy they hold the same with regard to confirmation and Holy orders, noting however that the graces to be received are not so necessary as those conferred by baptism.

(c) The doctrine is not so certain when applied to matrimony and extreme unction. But since the graces impeded are very important though not strictly necessary, and since matrimony cannot be received again whilst both contracting parties are living, and extreme unction cannot be repeated whilst the same danger of death lasts, theologians adopt as more probable the opinion which holds that God will grant the graces of those sacraments when the obstacle is removed. The “reviviscence” of the effects of sacraments received validly but with an obstacle to grace at the time of their reception, is urged as a strong argument against the system of the physical causality of grace (supra, V, 2), especially by Billot (op. cit., thesis, VII, 116, 126). For his own system he claims the merit of establishing an invariable mode of causality, namely, that in every case by the sacrament validly received there is conferred a “title exigent of grace ‘. If there be no obstacle the grace is conferred then and there: if there be an obstacle the “title” remains calling for the grace which will be conferred as soon as the obstacle is removed (op. cit., th. VI, VII). To this his opponents reply that exceptional cases might well call for an exceptional mode of causality. In the case of three sacraments the character sufficiently explains the revival of effects (cf. St. Thomas, III, Q. 66, a. 1; Q. 3, Q. 66, a. lxix, aa. 9, 10). The doctrine as applied to extreme unction and matrimony, is not certain enough to furnish a strong argument for or against any system (see “Irish. Theol. Record”; “Amer. Eccl. Review”, cited above V, 2). Future efforts of theologians may dispel the obscurity and uncertainty now prevailing in this interesting chapter.


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