1. The sacraments are the supreme part of the Church’s activity. In them she offers her worship in union with our Lord to the Father. By them she confers upon her children his redemptive love, effective through the same Lord Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit (see SC 7, 9, 10, and 59). Moreover, by providing authorized ministers to carry out the performance of the sacramental acts, the Church acts visibly as Jesus’ agent (see S.t., 3, q. 64, a. 5; sup., q. 34, a. 1; S.c.g., 4, 74).
2. In addition, three of the sacraments, baptism, confirmation, and orders, are sacraments of the Church not only because they are her acts, but because they inaugurate the recipients into her offices. Thus these sacraments make certain actions of her members official actions of the Church, actions themselves involved in sacramental cooperation.
3. The sacramental character conferred by these sacraments is precisely the recipient’s permanent role in the Church, a role which ought always to be fulfilled worthily even if it is not (see DS 1609/852). While the precise differences among the three roles will be dealt with in considering these three constitutional sacraments, some preliminary indications are in order here (see S.t., 3, q. 63, aa. 1–3, 6; q. 64, a. 6).15
4. Baptism, confirmation, and holy orders all confer an identification with Jesus and a specific role in the Church by which one shares in his priesthood. The baptized share receptively, while the confirmed share in the profession of faith and apostolic work of Jesus. As for the recipients of orders, their role is further specified in that they are designated for specific ecclesial service to the scriptural word and the sacraments (see AA 6; S.t., 3, q. 63, a. 6; q. 72, a. 5).
5. Through the bishops, and thus through the priests who share in the episcopal office, Jesus himself preaches and administers the sacraments (see LG 21; PO 2). “By sacred ordination and by the mission they receive from their bishops, priests are promoted to the service of Christ, the Teacher, the Priest, and the King. They share in his ministry of unceasingly building up the Church on earth into the People of God, the Body of Christ, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit” (PO 1). Acting not simply in Jesus’ name but in the very person of Jesus, the ordained priest offers sacrifice and forgives sins by Jesus’ redemptive act (see PO 2; LG 10; S.t., 3, q. 78, a. 1; q. 82, a. 1).16
Many people think of the Church and her sacramental actions as an obstruction between Christians and God. The Church as institution, as visible society and agent through her ministers of redemption, seems to them a medium with which they should like to dispense. This is the view of Protestants faithful to the spirit of the Reformation.
However, this view is mistaken. Jesus is God, and the Church is no third something between Christians and Jesus. Rather, she is the very communion of Christians with Jesus in his Spirit, and so the Lord Jesus remains present in the Church (see LG 14).17 The Church is the very body of Jesus, and the sacraments—far from being objects which obstruct the Christian’s union with Jesus—are the means by which the Christian is incorporated into him. This great theme of Pius XII’s encyclical on the Mystical Body is reaffirmed by Vatican II (see LG 7).
True enough, the present situation in which the Christian in the body is apart from the Lord is not wholly satisfactory (see 2 Cor 5.1–9). However, to wish to dispense with the sacraments before we attain to heavenly fulfillment is to wish to abort ourselves, for the sacraments are our present vital link with Jesus, just as the umbilical cord is the unborn child’s vital link with its mother (and not an obstacle to its immediate relationship with her). Again (to change the analogy), the sacraments are the organs by which the Church, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, materially builds herself up as the body of Jesus (see Eph 4.16; also LG 8 and 11). The apostolicity of the Church establishes her structure as a visible society of human persons. It is Jesus himself who decided “that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4.11–12). Jesus enjoined that his appointed ministers should be like him in serving (see Jn 13.12–16).
Defects in the minister of the sacraments create the impression that the Church herself is an obstacle between the Christian and Jesus. But the only obstacle is the deficient minister, whose failings obstruct the very communion his work ought to serve. Still, as Trent teaches, the scandal need not be fatal. Just as one can hear the true gospel from those who proclaim it with bad motives (see Phil 1.15–18), one can receive the sacraments fruitfully from sinful ministers (see DS 1612/855). It is enough that the minister of the sacrament be validly ordained and authorized to act for the Church, and that he intend to do what the Church does (see DS 1611/854).
15. On sacramental character, see Colman E. O’Neill, O.P., Meeting Christ in the Sacraments (Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, 1964), 110–18.
16. See John Paul II, Dominicae Cenae, sec. 8, 72 AAS (1980) 127–30; L’Osservatore Romano, Eng. ed., 24 March 1980, 7.
17. See Louis Bouyer, Liturgical Piety (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1954), 178–79. Although somewhat dated by Vatican II’s implementation of many of its ideas, this work remains an excellent treatment of the liturgy as the primary element of Catholic spirituality.