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The Sacraments: Divine Channels of Grace

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of understanding what we mean by the sacraments as channels of divine grace. We might almost say that Christianity is divided into two classes: those who believe that Christ instituted the sacraments as instruments of His grace and those who do not. In the sixteenth century, six whole nations separated from Catholic unity because their leaders no longer believed in what we Catholics call the seven sacraments.

This is also part of the crisis in the Christian world today. There are those who still believe that Christ instituted seven channels of His grace, and those who may use the word "sacrament" but no longer believe either in the sacraments as communicators of grace or the Church's authority over the sacraments. We may even say that the future of Christianity depends on professed Christians understanding - and I mean understanding - the necessity of the sacraments for reaching eternal life.

Our focus in this article will be on one word, "understanding." We ask ourselves three questions: Why did Christ institute seven sacramental channels of grace? How are these channels of grace being undermined in some professedly Catholic circles today?What is our consequent duty as teachers of the true faith?

Why the Sacraments

God became man in order to bring the human race to join the Holy Trinity in a heavenly eternity. Our destiny is to return to the God from whom we came to share in His own perfect happiness that He enjoys. But this same God gave us a free will that we are to use, according to His will, in order to reach the celestial home where He is waiting for us.

The most fundamental condition that we are to fulfill is to be in His friendship when He calls us from time into eternity. Another name for this divine friendship is the possession of sanctifying grace. Having destined us for heavenly beatitude, in sheer justice, He provided us with the means of attaining what we call the Beatific Vision.

On these terms, the sacraments are the principal ways that we can obtain the supernatural life, without which no one can be saved. It is also through the sacraments that we grow in this life of grace, as it is also the sacraments that provide us with a means of restoring the life of God's friendship that we may have lost through grave sin. We see immediately that Christ instituted the sacraments to give us the grace we need to reach heaven, to grow in His grace and thus earn a greater happiness in eternity, and regain His friendship if we have lost it through our disobedience to His will.

The moment we say that the sacraments are channels of divine grace, we assume that we come into this world without the grace needed to reach heaven. It is not our purpose here to explore the mysterious providence of God in allowing so many people not to receive the sacraments which Christ instituted. There is such a thing as not receiving the sacraments actually but only in desire. Nevertheless, the basic principle remains, the sacraments are the means which Christ provided for the salvation of the human family. Immediately certain conclusions follow. Each of the seven sacraments has its own divinely intended purpose.


We need first of all, to receive a share in the divine life. Christ instituted the Sacrament of Baptism in order to provide us with a share in His own divinity. When Christ told Nicodemus that he must be reborn of water and the Holy Spirit, He meant this literally. He presumed that we have a principle of natural life for the body which is the human soul. What He revealed to the wondering Nicodemus, however, was that we are also to have an above - natural principle of life for the soul. St. Augustine called it the soul of the soul. But whatever name you give the source of life for the human spirit, we dare not question that Christ provided the means of obtaining this life. The basic means is the Sacrament of Baptism. The Savior could not have been clearer. When Nicodemus pressed Him on what all of this means, Jesus used the strongest language at His command. He said, "Unless you are reborn of water and the Holy Spirit, you shall not reach the kingdom of heaven."

The Holy Eucharist and Penance

Once He told us that we need baptism to receive the life of grace in our souls, Christ made sure that we also know how to preserve this life to the dawn of eternity. Three chapters later, in St. John's Gospel, the Savior told His startled listeners that they needed to receive His flesh and blood to keep spiritually alive. No less than we need food and drink to sustain our natural lives, so we need the food and drink of the Holy Eucharist to stay alive in His grace. Again, He used the strongest language possible, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you." Baptism is necessary to obtain a share in the life of God. The Eucharist is equally necessary to remain spiritually alive. Christ foresaw that His followers would sin and even lose the divine life. He therefore provided the means for restoring this life in the Sacrament of Penance, which He instituted on Easter Sunday night.

Holy Orders

The Church which Christ founded is a visible reality. It is no mere abstraction or a poetic society of believers or the predestined. During His visible stay on earth, He was Himself the channel of the graces that He gave those who believed in His name. But Christ's mission of communicating grace was to continue after His return to heavenly glory. That is why He made sure that the Church He founded would continue the work He had begun. That is why at the Last Supper, He instituted two sacraments, the Holy Eucharist, and the priesthood which would ensure His continued bodily presence on earth and His communication of the fruits of Calvary through the sacrifice of the Mass.

Holy Matrimony

Most of Christ's followers would be married. As He told the startled Pharisees, those who believed in Him would be expected to remain "two in one flesh" for the rest of their lives. No more polygamy, or a writ of divorce with the right to remarry. Lifelong monogamy would be an imperative for those who called themselves Christians. Clearly, Christ had to give His married followers the superhuman grace they would need to remain faithful to His teaching. Matrimony, therefore, had to become a sacrament if Christians were to live an impossibly human life in the married state.


Throughout the Gospels, Jesus made no secret of the strength His followers would need to remain firm in their faith. That is why He gave them the Sacrament of Confirmation. Over the centuries, it has been called the sacrament of spiritual strengthening. In our day, it is being seen as the sacrament of martyrdom. As He told the disciples, on the day of His Ascension, we are to witness to Him, literally be His "martyrs" (from the Greek word for witnesses) even to the ends of the earth.

Anointing of the Sick

As our bodies approach the end of their days, our souls need the help that only Christ can give to enter eternity with peaceful confidence in God's mercy. That is why we have the Sacrament of Anointing. As only priests would know, people who are facing bodily death need extraordinary assistance from the Savior. This sacrament, we may say, completes the work that Christ began when we were baptized.

Catholic Sacraments Undermined

Over the centuries of the Church's history, the sacraments have been one of the principal targets of what we now call dissenters but what more accurately are heretics who deny one or more of the cardinal mysteries of the Catholic faith. Already in the time of Christ, many of His disciples left the Master because they would not accept His teaching on the Real Presence of the living Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. For the next fifteen centuries, one after another of the sacraments instituted by Christ was either openly denied or so re-interpreted as to leave nothing but the name. Finally in the sixteenth century, an avalanche of anti-sacramentalism broke loose in one formerly Catholic country after another.

It was only logical, therefore, that the Council of Trent issued the following condemnation, "If anyone says that the sacraments of the New Law are more or less than seven, namely: Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Order, and Matrimony; or even that any of these seven is not truly and properly a sacrament, let him be anathema."

Needless to say, the followers of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Crammer did not change their minds. Their underlying reason for rejecting the sacraments was the more fundamental premise of absolute predestination. Those will reach heaven who have been pre-determined to be saved. The very meaning of "grace" was changed. Instead of being a free gift of God's mercy, that we are to accept and cooperate with, grace was re-defined as the selective mercy of God which those receive who are destined to be saved.

Even more basic than the theory of absolute predestination was the denial of a supernatural life. Man was never elevated to a share in the divine life. On these terms, there could be no question of receiving the supernatural life through Baptism, or restoring this life through Penance, or nourishing this life through the Holy Eucharist. Even when the word "sacrament" might be used, a large part of world Christianity, outside of Roman Catholicism, no longer believes either that Christ instituted the sacraments or that we need them for our salvation.

However, a new phenomenon has entered Christian history in our day. A growing number of still professed Catholic writers are re-interpreting the Church's teaching on the sacraments with a license and a devastating consequence that has no counterpart in the last half millennium. I will never forget the conference I attended of the Midwestern Theological Society. The keynote speaker was Richard McBrien. Through one hour of learned discourse, he gave the audience one reason after another why the Catholic priesthood was not a sacrament instituted by Our Lord at the Last Supper. It was a later second century innovation. A logical consequence of this position is to question whether Christ had instituted any of the sacraments.

One of the most prestigious universities on the east coast is currently teaching a course which identifies the supernatural with mythology. In fact, more than one dictionary describes the supernatural as the unreal or the fanciful.

We cannot overstate the widespread elimination of faith in the sacraments as channels of divine grace in some still nominally Catholic circles. The widespread desecration of the Holy Eucharist as the sacrament of Christ's physical presence now on earth through the Sacrament of the Eucharist; the massive departure from the priesthood of so many men who had received the Sacrament of Orders; the nationwide, in our country, and the worldwide internationally drop in confession; the closing of over one hundred parishes in just two dioceses in a few years; the epidemic of annulments of persons who putatively received the Sacrament of Matrimony: all of these are symptomatic of a plague of sacramental error that threatens to undermine the Catholic Church in one so-called developed country after another.

We are now reading books and magazines, and hearing of classes and lectures that threaten the very essence of our sacramental faith. As we read these publications and listen to these talks, one thing becomes clear. There is a massive loss of faith not only in the sacraments but in the supernatural life which the sacraments are to confer and strengthen in our lives. We are being told that the sacraments were not instituted by Christ but invented by Christians over a period of several centuries. What we call the sacraments, it is said, goes back to the ancient religions of pre-Christian times. The rituals that we call sacraments today are simply a continuation of what all the religions celebrated long before Christianity was born. Every sacrament of Catholic Christianity is being traced to its pre-Christian history. Washing with water, breaking and sharing of bread, the pouring and drinking of wine, anointing with oil, laying on of hands to bless and ordain, calling down divine power, pronouncing words of forgiveness, all of these are as ancient as religious history and were practiced long before the word sacrament was even used in religious discourse.

On these grounds, it would be not only mistaken but deceptive to associate and, much less, identify the sacraments with the ritual of the Catholic Church. To speak of the Church founded by Christ as the universal sacrament of salvation is at best a misnomer and at worst a blasphemy. Christ had no claim, we are told, on our human destiny. Nor does the Church He is said to have founded have any monopoly on the goodness of God.

Those who deny the divine origin of the Christian sacraments appeal to such geniuses as Karl Rahner. Building on his premises, they claim it is impossible to say that God's grace depends on the Church which Christ founded. The Church, people are told, has no rules or regulations, no imperatives, no prohibitions. It is emphatically not the clergy, nor the sacramental ritual, nor the worship by the people in sacramental celebration. All of these are adjuncts or, if you wish, superfluous additions to what Christianity really is. It is the living event of God's presence. It is people, no matter what their religious beliefs or practices may be, who constitute "The People Of God." They have been touched by God, are loved by Him and belong to Him, regardless of what religion they profess or even no religion at all.

On these terms the "sacraments" are not channels of divine grace. Bread and wine, oil and water, sex and prayer, are themselves the expressions of authentic Christianity.

Behind this reassessment of the sacraments, the new theologians are appealing to what they call the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. They are heartened by the use of names like "liturgy" and "eucharist" and "eucharistic celebration" as substitutes for the supposedly outdated word, "Mass." They do not hesitate to accuse Catholics of seeing a magical significance in the number of sacraments. They take comfort in the widespread practice of "general absolution" instead of making a private confession of one's sins to the priest.

Our Responsibility

Pope John Paul II introduces the Catechism of the Catholic Church by declaring, "Guarding the deposit of faith is the mission which the Lord entrusted to His Church and which she fulfills in every age."

As believing Christians, loyal to the Vicar of Christ, our first responsibility is to guard the deposit of faith in the sacraments which Christ became man to give us the grace we need to reach eternal life. This guarding of the sacramental faith carries with it a number of grave obligations.

We cannot begin to guard our faith unless we understand what we believe. In Christ's parable of the good seed which fell on different kinds of ground, the first infertile soil was the pathway. The seed fell on the hard ground and the birds of the air came along and picked up the seed. This, we are told, is what happens to those who have been given the true Faith but fail to understand what they believe. The result is tragedy. The devil comes along and steals the Faith from the hearts of once professed believers.

Ours is the most academically educated age of human history. The five million Americans on college campuses every year are only a symbol of the widespread growth in knowledge in our day. But this growth in secular knowledge will not only do no good. It will destroy the faith of once believing Catholics if they have not used their minds to grow in grasping what they believe. They must grow in understanding the meaning of their faith. They must grow in the clarity of mind in seeing the subtle distinctions hidden behind their faith. They must grow in the certitude of what they profess to believe. They must grow in knowing how to defend this faith in the face of opposition that is sweeping across the Catholic world like a demonic hurricane.

But understanding the Faith is not enough. The sacraments will become for them, what they have become for so many others, unless they put their faith into daily practice. We believe that the sacrament of the Eucharist, as sacrifice, communion and presence is nothing less than Jesus Christ alive and active on earth to provide us with the light and strength we need, especially to practice that charity by which we are recognized as His disciples. To remain faithful Catholics in today's self-intoxicated world we must expect to practice heroic generosity and heroic patience, which are impossible without the superhuman strength that only Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist can give us.

We asked what is our duty as teachers of the true faith in an atmosphere that is clouded to the point of blindness on the meaning of the sacraments. We shall be as faithful teachers of the true Faith as we are courageous in explaining this faith, without compromise and without fear of the consequences. To teach the Catholic Faith on the sacraments can literally mean living a martyr's life.

In Pope John Paul II's masterful encyclical, The Splendor of Truth, we are told to understand the Faith, as it has been entrusted by Christ to His Church, and proclaim this faith with heroic courage even at the cost of martyrdom.

When Christ told us, "Without me you can do nothing," He meant this literally. Without the grace which He gives through the sacraments which He instituted, we cannot hope to remain Christians or Catholics or, least of all, channels of His wisdom to those whom we are instructing in the one true Faith on which depends the salvation of the world.

Father John Hardon, S.J., is Executive Editor of The Catholic Faith.

Copyright © 2003 by Inter Mirifica

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