Catholic theology views the sacraments as a Divinely appointed vehicle through which Christ’s grace is bestowed upon believers who reach out in faith. Based on its traditions and teachings, the Catholic Church regards the sacraments as more than mere symbols because Christ himself is the author of this system of dispensing grace. According to Kennedy (1912), sacraments, properly understood, “do not merely signify Divine grace, but in virtue of their Divine institution, they cause that grace in the souls of men.” In order to be valid, all seven sacraments must contain three vital elements, those being “the outward sign; the inward grace; [and] Divine institution,” adds Kennedy.
While the Catholic tradition teaches that the sacraments represent Christ’s chosen means of showing grace to finite men and women, getting a fuller picture of how the Church came to this understanding can be accomplished by considering factors such as what the system actually entails, the necessity of such as system in the first place, and the origin of the system.
Getting an understanding of the relationship between the sacraments and grace in the Catholic tradition requires, among other things, understanding what the system itself actually entails.
There are seven sacraments, which are regarded as special ceremonies that not only help to highlight the sacred to believers, but also provide opportunities for men and women to personally encounter the saving presence of God, according to AmericanCatholic.org (“The Seven Catholic Sacraments,” n.d.). It adds that sacraments can be properly understood to be “signs and instruments of God’s grace” (“The Seven Catholic Sacraments”). What is clear is that grace, which has been described as God’s unmerited favor towards sinful human beings, is freely available, and that the sacraments appointed by God are the Omnipotent God’s chosen means of gifting humans with this grace.
The seven sacraments, all of which provide a way for believers to become recipients of, and to benefit from, Divine grace are baptism, the Eucharist, reconciliation, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, and anointing of the sick.
For Catholics, baptism marks the initial phase of what will be a lifelong relationship with God and the Church. At whatever age people are baptized, the sacrament of baptism is “the Church’s way of celebrating and enacting the embrace of God” (“The Seven Catholic Sacraments,” n.d.). The sacrament of the Eucharist, which “is both a sacrifice and a meal” that commemorates the grace bestowed on the finite from the infinite when he “died for our sins” (“The Seven Catholic Sacraments”) helps to bring believers in closer communion with the Divine. Reconciliation, which includes “conversion, confession, and celebration,” communicates to believers “God’s unconditional forgiveness” (“The Seven Catholic Sacraments”).
Intended for mature believers who are seeking a deeper experience with God, the sacrament of confirmation is considered by the Church to be one of “the gifts of the Holy Spirit” (“The Seven Catholic Sacraments,” n.d.). The sacrament of marriage is, in addition to demonstrating the uniting of one man and one woman in a loving marital bond to the exclusion of all others, an acknowledgement of the God’s Headship. As for the sacrament of holy orders, the significance attached to it relates to the ordaining of priests who commit to bringing the faithful the sacraments through the preaching of the Gospel, and the sacrament of anointing of the sick “is a ritual of healing appropriate not only for physical but also for mental and spiritual sickness” (“The Seven Catholic Sacraments”).
Taken together as a whole, the sacraments, based on Catholic theology, can again be seen as symbols and ceremonies that the Infinite chose to provide his grace to people. Because of the ceremonies involved, believers can play a role in the sacraments process. While this does not mean that human involvement is required to make God’s grace effectual, it should be noted that human involvement allows believers to gain a deeper appreciation of the benefits of God’s saving grace.
In addition to considering what the sacramental system entails, it also helps to look at the necessity of the system in order to understand how Catholic theology views sacraments as means of grace.
Since it is known through Church doctrine that God has implemented external, observable ceremonies through which to distribute certain graces to people, then it follows that people who want to benefit from such graces will take hold of “those Divinely appointed means,” notes Kennedy (1912). In other words, people who wish to be recipients of grace from the heavenly realm must of a necessity adhere to the Divinely chosen method that was implemented for that very purpose (Kennedy). The sacraments, it can be said, are in actuality the most fitting way that the Divine can minister to “creatures that are at the same time spiritual and corporeal” (Kennedy). So the symbols and ceremonies, rather than being arbitrary, were specifically selected, even if finite minds cannot fully grasp why the seven sacraments that were selected were chosen over perhaps other potential options.
In this context, the sacraments can be seen as a gift that the Lord confers upon believers with a measure of grace sufficient for every human need. They are Christ’s grace-imbued messengers that help the faithful to believe the precepts of their doctrine, live a life that is in tune with God’s moral code, and “grow in his gift of divine life,” according to BeginningCatholic.com (“Catholic Sacraments,” n.d.).
When the Savior sacrificed his life on the cross, he essentially “paid an infinite price for an inexhaustible flow of grace” (“Catholic Sacraments,” n.d.), and this grace was sufficient to bridge the wide chasm that sin had placed between God and mankind. It is through the sacraments that individuals can receive this grace in a meaningful way. As a result, the seven sacraments can be looked at in the context of God selecting “common things from the world about us” and using these now Divine agents as “the carriers of His grace” (“Catholic Sacraments”).
What the system entails and why it is critical are key topics to consider when looking into how Catholic theology understands the sacraments as a means of grace. But a closer look as to the origin of the sacraments, though touched on previously, will unpack even more completely the enduring relevance of the sacraments to the Church.
At the Council of Trent, which was a meeting called in response to the Protestant Reformation, it was stated that the sacraments of the Church were indeed established by Christ, according to Kennedy (1912). Catholics appeal to reason in acknowledging that the sacraments must have been instituted by God. The rationale for this is that the sacraments in and of themselves have no power to bestow grace, which means that the only logical explanation would be that “all sacraments properly so called must originate in Divine appointment,” says Kennedy, if they are to truly be of any tangible benefit.
Kennedy (1912) adds the following:
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.
The aforementioned passage argues with no variance that the sacraments come directly from God, and that he selected the external rites by which to convey his grace. And this, of course is his prerogative since the grace and the sacraments are indeed his.
Christ, the Church teaches, devised seven sacraments between the time he started his public life on earth and the time he returned to heaven. He put an end to the work of creating sacraments when he went back to heaven, and the Church therefore is unable to add to or to subtract from the seven sacraments ("Catholic Sacraments").
How does Catholic Theology understand the sacraments as a means of grace? As has been discussed, the Church sees the sacraments as symbols and ceremonies through which Christ, who personally established the sacraments, dispenses his grace to believers who reach out in faith. In order for the faithful to benefit from this grace, however, they must participate in the sacraments since the sacraments are the Divinely appointed means that they must take hold of in order to receive the grace they so desperately need.
The fact that even the Church cannot add to or subtract from the sacraments should demonstrate how important these sacraments, all seven of them, are in the transfer of grace full and free to fallen human beings. Grace, full and complete, is what the sacraments provide.
Kennedy, D. (1912). Sacraments. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved November 22, 2014 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13295a.htm
The Seven Catholic Sacraments. Retrieved from http://www.americancatholic.org/features/special/default.aspx?id=29
Catholic Sacraments: Vehicles of Grace. Retrieved from http://www.beginningcatholic.com/sacraments.html