Skip to comments.The Catechism of St. Thomas Aquinas EXPLANATION OF THE SACRAMENTS
Posted on 03/12/2009 11:48:11 AM PDT by GonzoII
We shall now consider the Sacraments of the Church. We shall treat them under one heading, since they all pertain to the effect of grace. First of all, that must be known which St. Augustine wrote in the tenth book of "The City of God": "a Sacrament is a sacred thing" or "the sign of a sacred thing." Even in the Old Law there were certain sacraments, that is, signs of a sacred thing--for example, the paschal lamb and other legal sacred signs or "sacraments" which, however, did not cause grace but only signified or indicated the grace of Christ. The Apostle calls these "sacraments" "weak and needy elements." They were needy because they did not contain grace, and they were weak because they could not confer grace. In them, as St. Augustine says, the merits of Christ brought about salvation in a more hidden manner under the cover of visible things. The Sacraments of the New Law, on the other hand, both contain grace and confer it. A Sacrament of the New Law is a visible form of invisible grace. Thus, the exterior washing which takes place when the water is poured in Baptism represents that interior cleansing which takes away sin by virtue of the Sacrament of Baptism.
There are seven Sacraments of the New Law: Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Orders, and Matrimony. The first five of these Sacraments are intended to bring about the perfection of the individual man in himself; whereas the other two, Orders and Matrimony, are so constituted that they perfect and multiply the entire Church.
THE SPIRITUAL AND THE PHYSICAL LIFE: AN ANALOGY
The spiritual life conforms to the physical life. In the physical life man is perfected in three chief ways: first, by generation, in that he is born into this world; secondly, by growth, through which he is brought up into stature and perfect strength; thirdly, by food which sustains man's life and powers. This would suffice were it not that man is attacked by illnesses, and hence, fourthly, he needs something which will bring him back to health.
This also holds true in the spiritual life. First, man needs regeneration or re-birth which is brought through the Sacrament of Baptism: "Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." Secondly, it is necessary that man develop perfect strength, which is, as it were, a spiritual growth, and this indeed comes to him in the Sacrament of Confirmation. This is like the strengthening which the Apostles received when the Holy Ghost came upon them and confirmed them. The Lord had said to them: "But stay you in the city of Jerusalem till you be endued with power from on high." The third similarity is that man must be fed with spiritual food: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you." Fourthly, man must be healed spiritually through the Sacrament of Penance: "Heal, O Lord, my soul, for I have sinned against Thee." Lastly, one is healed both in soul and in body in the Sacrament of Extreme Unction: "Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the priests of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man, and the Lord shall raise him up, and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him." Two of the Sacraments, Orders and Matrimony, are instituted for the common good of the Church. Through the Sacrament of Orders the Church is ruled and is spiritually multiplied; and through Matrimony it is increased physically in numbers.
THE SEVEN SACRAMENTS IN GENERAL
The seven Sacraments have some things which they all hold in common, and some things which are proper to each one. That which is common to all the Sacraments is that they confer grace. It is also common to all the Sacraments that a Sacrament is made up of words and physical acts. And so also Christ, who is the Author of the Sacraments, is the Word made flesh. And just as the flesh of Christ was sanctified, and has the power of sanctifying because of the Word united to itself, so also the Sacraments are made holy and have the power of sanctifying through the words which accompany the action. Thus, St. Augustine says: "The word is joined to the element, and the Sacrament is made." Now, the words by which the Sacraments are sanctified are called the form of the Sacraments; and the things which are sanctified are called the matter of the Sacraments. Water, for example, is the matter of Baptism, and the holy chrism is the matter of Confirmation.
In each Sacrament there is required a minister, who confers the Sacrament with the intention of doing that which the Church intends. If any one of these three requirements is lacking, the Sacrament is not brought into being, viz., if there is lacking the due form of the words, or if the matter is not present, or if the minister does not intend to confer the Sacrament.
The effect of the Sacrament is likewise impeded through the fault of the recipient, for example, if one feigns to receive it and with a heart unprepared to receive worthily. Such a one, although he actually receives the Sacrament, does not receive the effect of the Sacrament, that is, the grace of the Holy Spirit. "For the Holy Spirit of discipline will flee from the deceitful." On the other hand, however, there are some who never even receive sacramentally, yet who receive the effect of the Sacrament because of their devotion towards the Sacrament, which they may have in desire or in a vow.
There are some things which are characteristic of each individual Sacrament. Certain ones impress a character on the soul which is a certain spiritual sign distinct from the other Sacraments. Such are the Sacraments of Orders, Baptism, and Confirmation. The Sacraments which give a character are never repeated in the same person who has once received it. Thus, he who is baptized need never again receive this Sacrament; neither can he who has been confirmed receive Confirmation again; and one who has been ordained need never repeat his ordination. The reason is that the character which each of these Sacraments impresses is indelible.
In the other Sacraments, however, a character is not impressed on the recipient, and hence they can be repeated as far as the person is concerned, not however as far as the matter is concerned. Thus, one can frequently receive Penance, frequently receive the Eucharist, and can be anointed more than once with Extreme Unction, and likewise he can be married more than once. Yet, regarding the matter, the same Host cannot be frequently consecrated, nor ought the oil of the sick be frequently blessed.
(For "Questions for Discussion" see Chapter.)
1. "Sacramentum est sacrum signum." This is slightly different in the passage quoted in "The City of God," Book X, chapter x. See also "Epist. ii." The "Roman Catechism" ("The Sacraments in General," Chapter I, 4) seemingly follows St. Thomas here.
2. Gal., iv. 9.
3. "A Sacrament, therefore, is clearly understood to be numbered amongst those things which have been instituted as signs. It makes known to us by a certain appearance and resemblance that which God by His invisible power, accomplishes in our souls. . . . In order to explain more fully the nature of a Sacrament it should be taught that it is a thing subject to the senses which possesses, by divine institution, the power not only of signifying holiness and justice, but also to impart both to the recipient. Hence, it is easy to see that the images of the Saints, crosses, and the like, although they are signs of sacrcd things, cannot be called Sacraments. Thus, the solemn ablution of the body [in Baptism] not only signifies, but also has the power to effect a sacred thing which is worked interiorly in the soul by the invisible operation of the Holy Ghost" ("Roman Catechism," "Sacraments in General," Chapter I, 6 and 11).
4. John, iii. 5.
5. Luke, xxiv. 49.
6. John, vi. 54.
7. Ps. xl. 5.
8. James, v. 14.
9. "Why there are neither more nor less [than seven Sacraments] may be shown at least with some degree of probability from the analogy that exists between the spiritual and the physical life" ("Roman Catechism," "loc. cit.," 20).
10. "In Joan.," Tract. LXXX, 3.
11. "It should be explained that the pastor will inform the faithful that the 'sensible thing' which enters into the definition of a Sacrament as already given, although constituting but one sign, is of a twofold nature. Every Sacrament consists of two things: 'matter' which is called the element, and 'form' which is commonly called the word. . . . In order to make the meaning of the rite that is being performed easier and clearer, words had to be added to the matter. Water for example, has the quality of cooling as well as of making clean, and may e symbolic of either. In Baptism, therefore, unless the words were added, it would not be certain which meaning of the sign was intended. When the words are added, we immediately understand that the Sacrament possesses and signifies the power of cleansing. . . . Although God is the author and dispenser of the Sacraments, He nevertheless willed that they should be administered by men in His Church, not by Angels. The ministers of the Sacraments, in performing their duties, do not act in their own persons but in
that they represent Christ, and hence, be they good or bad, they validly confer the Sacraments as long as they make use of the matter and the form always observed in the Catholic Church according to the institution of Christ, and intend to do what the Church does in the administration of the Sacraments" ("Roman Catechism," "loc. cit.," 16 and 24).
12. Wis., i. 5.
13. "This character has a twofold effect. It qualifies us to receive or perform a sacred act, and distinguishes us by some mark one from another. This is seen for example, in Baptism, whose character first renders one qualified to recieve the other Sacraments, and, secondly, by it the Christian is distinguished from those who do not profess the faith" ("Roman Catechism," "loc. cit.," 31).
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