Latin: sacra res, a sacred thing

Among profane writers, the word sacrament designates a sacred thing, such as a soldier‘s oath. Theologically a sacrament is a sensible sign, instituted by Christ, to signify and produce grace. The essentials of a sacrament are:

  • an external rite
  • significative and productive of grace
  • Divine institution

Pre-Christian Sacraments

Circumcision, both in the law of nature and the Mosaic Law, is generally regarded by theologians as a sacrament, instituted by God to remit original sin; in an infant this was effected by the faith of the parents in the promised Redeemer; in an adult by the faith of the recipient. Other sacraments in the Mosaic Law are: Paschal Lamb, ordination of priests, and legal purifications. These rites did not produce grace of themselves, they roused faith and other dispositions which contributed to win from God the infusion of grace.

Sacraments of the New Law

The Council of Trent defined that Christ instituted seven sacraments:

The Greek Church and Eastern sects accept that these seven are the sacraments. Protestants generally teach that there are two sacraments of the Gospel, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and the others “have no visible sign of ceremony ordained by God.”

Christ the God-Man immediately instituted the sacraments. As God, He is the principal cause of them, since God alone can give to a material rite the power to produce grace; Christ as Man instituted them and also gives them their efficacy from His merits and death.

Efficacy of the Sacraments

Protestants teach that sacraments do not give grace; their purpose is to rouse faith, so that fiduciary faith, not the sacrament, is the medium of grace and heavenly gifts. The Council of Trent teaches that the sacraments produce grace ex opere operato, that is, from Divine institution they are instrumental causes of grace. Hence the sacramental rite, independent of the faith, merits, or worthiness of the minister, confers grace when the recipient places no obstacle. If a sacrament is received without the necessary dispositions, it gives no grace. However, theologians teach that when the evil disposition is removed, then the sacrament revives and gives grace. This doctrine is certain for Baptism, and is probable for the other sacraments, except Holy Eucharist and Penance which do not revive.

Matter and Form

The sacrament is composed of two elements

  • matter, the determinable element, and
  • form, words which determine the matter

Both together signify and produce grace. For a valid sacrament the minister must use valid matter and pronounce the essential words of the form; moreover as a rational and secondary minister, he must determine the purpose of the rite and so have at least the intention of doing what the Church does. If the sacrament is made and administered for the purpose of mockery or mimicry, the sacrament is invalid due to defective intention.

Division of the Sacraments

Baptism and Penance are called sacraments of the dead because their primary purpose is to remit sin and to confer spiritual life through sanctifying grace; the other sacraments are called sacraments of the living, because they increase grace already existing in the soul. This division is not absolute, for at times a sacrament of the dead simply gives an increase of grace; at times a sacrament of the living, e.g Extreme Unction, can remit grave sin. The noblest of the sacraments is Holy Eucharist, for it contains Christ Himself. Some sacraments are more necessary for salvation than others, thus Baptism is necessary for all; Penance for those who fall into grave post-Baptismal sin; Holy Orders to give sacred ministers to the Church.


They produce sanctifying grace or increase it and they give sacramental grace, i.e., the right to actual graces granted by God at opportune times in order that the obligations imposed by the sacrament may be faithfully fulfilled. Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders imprint a character on the soul, hence they can be received but once.


The laity, i.e., the contracting parties, are the ministers of Matrimony; a lay person can be the extraordinary minister of Baptism in the case of danger from death; outside the above, the minister must be ordained. Heretical and schismatical ministers validly ordained, can administer valid sacraments, for the efficacy of the sacraments is solely from Divine institution and the merits of Christ, and so does not depend on the faith or worthiness of the minister.


To receive the other sacraments valid Baptism is necessary. Adults must have at least an habitual intention to receive a sacrament but in Penance and Matrimony a virtual intention is required. No intention is required for infants and the perpetually insane to receive the sacraments of which they are capable. To receive the sacraments worthily, the recipient must have the requisite dispositions, i.e., supernatural attrition for the sacraments of the dead; a state of grace for the sacraments of the living.