The sacraments are divine-human cooperative acts in which God, Jesus as glorified man, the Church acting by her minister, and the recipient join in the work of justification and sanctification. As basic human and Christian acts of the one who receives them, the sacraments give a divine character to a human life.1
A preliminary synthesis of the elements of Christian life was provided by chapters twenty-three through twenty-nine. Now this synthesis will be completed by showing how the sacraments function as organizing principles of Christian life. Thus, the consideration of the sacraments in this and the next three chapters will provide the final, unifying vision of the way of the Lord Jesus.
The present chapter considers the sacraments in general, emphasizing their relevance to the Christian moral life.2 It also treats baptism, the sacrament of entry into Christian life. The three chapters which follow discuss the sacraments of confirmation, penance, anointing, and the Eucharist as Christian moral principles which in distinct, simultaneous, but harmonious ways organize all the subsequent actions of a Christian’s life. They do not determine what is right and wrong, but they do shape a Christian life toward its perfection in this world and toward eternal fulfillment in Jesus.
The Council of Trent teaches that all true justification—that is, all sanctifying grace—begins through the sacraments, once begun increases through them, and when lost is regained through them (DS 1600/843a). This implies that even nonbelievers who are saved receive grace by some sort of relationship to the sacraments.
Trent also teaches that the sacraments are seven, no more and no less, and all were instituted by Jesus (DS 1601/844). These sacraments of Jesus differ essentially from the sacraments of the old law (DS 1602/845). They are not all equally important; some are more basic than others (DS 1603/846). Not all are necessary for each individual, but the sacraments as a whole are essential for salvation; those who do not receive them must at least somehow desire them (DS 1604/847). Faith by itself is insufficient, and the sacraments do more than merely nourish faith (DS 1605/848).
Trent further teaches that the sacraments of Jesus contain the grace which they signify and confer this grace on those who do not obstruct it (DS 1606/849). The grace received in the sacraments certainly is a gift of God, but when one receives the sacraments properly, God always gives the grace he has promised (DS 1607/850). Faith by itself is not sufficient to obtain grace, but the sacramental rite itself (properly performed and received) does confer grace (DS 1608/851).
Trent also teaches that baptism, confirmation, and holy orders imprint a character on the soul—an indelible spiritual sign—so that these three sacraments cannot be repeated (DS 1609/852). Not every Christian has the power to preach the word and to administer all the sacraments (DS 1610/853); for certain of those acts, ordination is necessary. The minister must also intend at least to do what the Church does in the sacrament (DS 1611/854). In other words, the minister of a sacrament acts for the Church; the sacrament is an action, the minister an agent authorized to do this action. The minister need not personally be holy; he can be in mortal sin without invalidating the sacramental act (DS 1612/855).
Finally, Trent teaches that the accepted and approved rites customarily used by the Catholic Church in the administration of the sacraments cannot without sin be belittled or omitted by ministers as they see fit, nor may any individual pastor (bishop) change the rites (DS 1613/856).
The sacraments are cooperative acts, designed by Jesus, which permit human persons to share with him and the Holy Spirit in their work of redemption and sanctification. By baptism a member of the fallen human family enters the new family of God and undertakes to live a life like that of Jesus. The other sacraments are principal acts of a Christian’s life; they organize the rest of life in several distinct but compatible ways.
1. For a wider treatment than I provide of sacramental theology, with a wealth of scholarship, see Bernard Leeming, S.J., Principles of Sacramental Theology (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1956).
2. A great many of the moral-canonical questions about the administration of the sacraments are clearly treated by Nicholas Halligan, O.P., The Ministry and Celebration of the Sacraments, 3 vols.; vol. 1, Sacraments of Initiation and Union: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist; vol. 2, Sacraments of Reconciliation: Penance, Anointing of the Sick; vol. 3, Sacraments of Community Renewal: Holy Orders, Matrimony (Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, 1973–74). See also Pietro Palazzini, Vita Sacramentale: I: Teologia Sacramentaria e Sacramenti dell’Iniziazione Cristiana (Rome: Paoline, 1974); II: Sacramenti della Maturitá Cristiana, vol. 1, Riconciliazione; vol. 2, Ordine Sacro e Matrimoni (Rome: Paoline, 1976).