Sacraments: Channels of Divine Grace
by John 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
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 Sacrament.
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
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.
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.
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
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 reinterpreted 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
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
predetermined 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
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 dear. 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 preChristian 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
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.
Pope John Paul II introduces the 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
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
In Pope John Paul II's masterful encyclical, , 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
This article was taken from the May/June 1996 issue of "The
Catholic Faith". Published bi-monthly for 24.95 a year by
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