4 Questions that Help to Explain “What is a Sacrament?” (St. Thomas Aquinas)

This is the first in a short series of posts on the Sacraments. A non-scientific straw poll among some of my friends, both converts and cradle Catholics revealed a suprising (to me) ignorance of these very basic tenets of our Faith. I hope they help you.

 Holy Spirit 

Holy Spirit

What is a sacrament? The following list explores the relationship of signs and grace in order to better understand the sacraments of Holy Mother Church. The list has taken its structure from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica III, Question 60, Articles 1-3 over the sacraments

1. Is a sacrament a kind of sign?

Yes, a sacrament is a kind of sign. If we take sign as a group or genus, then a sacrament would be particular type of sign or a species of sign. The Baltimore Catechism teaches, “a Sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.”1

2. What kind of sign is a sacrament?

St. Augustine says : “The visible sacrifice is the sacrament, i.e. the sacred sign, of the invisible sacrifice.”2

To paraphrase St. Augustine, a sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace. A sacrament is a sign that actually is what it signifies. If we consider traffic signs, like a Stop Sign, the sign signifies “stop,” but the sign itself has no “stopness” or power to actually stop. It is not “stopness.” A sacrament on the other hand is a holy and causal sign – meaning it causes that which it also signifies.

The sacrament of Baptism is a sign of our rebirth in Christ, but it is also the holy causal sign that wipes away original sin and makes us a new creature in Our Lord. Confirmation is a sign of our maturity in Christ, but is also the holy causal sign that grants us strength in Christ through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Catholic life, because it is not only a sign of Christ’s sacrifice, but is Christ himself. Each sacrament is a sign instituted by Christ to convey an actual grace to the Catholic that relates to the sign shown. As the Baltimore Catechism teaches, “There is a great likeness between the thing used in the outward sign and the grace given in each Sacrament; thus water is used for cleansing; Baptism cleanses the soul; Oil gives strength and light; Confirmation strengthens and enlightens the soul; Bread and wine nourish; the Holy Eucharist nourishes the soul.”

Pertaining to the seven sacraments properly, there is a species of a holy causal sign under the genus of sign. St. Thomas Aquinas defines them as, “the sign of a holy thing so far as it makes men holy.” The Angelic Doctor states:

Signs are given to men, to whom it is proper to discover the unknown by means of the known. Consequently a sacrament properly so called is that which is the sign of some sacred thing pertaining to man; so that properly speaking a sacrament, as considered by us now, is defined as being the “sign of a holy thing so far as it makes men holy.”

3. How are sacraments related to sanctification?

Since the sacraments exist to make men holy as visible signs of invisible grace, Aquinas addresses the question of how the sacraments are related to our sanctification. The cause of our sanctification and of all the sacraments is Jesus Christ and his Passion. The form sanctification takes in our own lives is the grace we receive and the virtues that are our habits. In this we hope to live a Christ-centered life as articulated by his one Church, the Catholic Church, and attain the end of sanctification, Eternal Life.

1. Cause of Sanctification – Christ’s Passion
2. Form of Sanctification – Grace and Virtues
3. End of Sanctification – Eternal Life

In Aquinas’ own words:

As stated above (Article 2) a sacrament properly speaking is that which is ordained to signify our sanctification. In which three things may be considered; viz. the very cause of our sanctification, which is Christ’s passion; the form of our sanctification, which is grace and the virtues; and the ultimate end of our sanctification, which is eternal life.

4. How are the sacraments related to time?

All the sacraments recall something from the past, give grace in our present time and point us toward the future glory of Heaven.

1. Reminder of the Past – Christ’s Passion
2. Indication of that which is effected – Grace
3. Foretelling of Future Glory – Eternal Life

In Aquinas’ own words:

And all these are signified by the sacraments. Consequently a sacrament is a sign that is both a reminder of the past, i.e. the passion of Christ; and an indication of that which is effected in us by Christ’s passion, i.e. grace; and a prognostic, that is, a foretelling of future glory.

  1. Baltimore Catechism Q574 []
  2. De Civ. Dei x []
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