Monday, November 27, 2017

Sacrament and Sacramental

This can be a confusing topic...


What is a Sacrament?  That's a fairly easy one to define as Catholic theology books and catechisms cover it quite well. One such definition we find in the Baltimore Catechism:
Q. 574. What is a Sacrament?
A. A Sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.
(Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, Lesson 13, 1891)


However, when it comes to a Sacramental, the definition is a bit harder to pin down. Using the same source as above, we find:

Q. 1052. What is a sacramental?
A. A sacramental is anything set apart or blessed by the Church to excite good thoughts and to increase devotion, and through these movements of the heart to remit venial sin.
(Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, Lesson 27, 1891)

However, the modern Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us this definition:

1667 "Holy Mother Church has, moreover, instituted sacramentals. These are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy."
(CCC 1667,  1992)

Vatican II (1963) puts it this way:

These are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments: they signify effects, particularly of a spiritual kind, which are obtained through the Church's intercession. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy.

And a more traditional view:

The sacramentals were not instituted by Our Lord, like the Sacraments, but by the Church in order to increase our respect for the latter or to give us special favors. The sacramentals do not produce grace by themselves, but they prepare our spiritual dispositions to receive it.
(Fitzgerald, n.d.)

We can take a bit of an issue with this one since some sacramentals clearly were divinely instituted (by Christ), such as the use of objects/things such as the hem of his garment was used to heal the sick (Matthew 9:20) and exorcism - while the full rite was not explicitly defined by Christ, clearly He did exorcise demons (Matthew 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-17).

Perhaps the best way to define is to go to the Latin. A Sacrament, according to the Council of Trent, the Latin phrase is: "ex opere operato." The literal translation being, "the work, worked." In other words, it is agent independent for its efficacy - it works automatically (Byrne, 1990, p. 134). Whereas with a sacramental the Latin phrase is "ex opere operantis," which literally means "from the work of the doer." In short, a Sacrament is not dependent upon the state of the recipient. If the proper matter, form and intent is used through the appropriate minister - the Sacrament happens. On the other hand, a sacramental is based on the act of the doer. Blessing ones self with holy water, for example is efficacious, but not necessarily sprinkling someone else with holy water who is not accepting of it (you can chase those "door knockers" all you want and sprinkle them with holy water - the "effect" in that case is - they get wet).

The Sacramentals - a St. John's University Film Strip


Byrne, E. F. (1990). Work, Inc.: a philosophical inquiry.
        Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

CCC 1667. (1992, October 11). Paragraph 1667. 
        Retrieved November 27, 2017,  from  
        Promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II

Fitzgerald, C. (n.d.). Don't Forget Sacramentals. 
        Retrieved November 27, 2017, from

Sacramentals - a 1960's Film Strip from St. John's 
        University, retrieved from: 

Third Plenary Council of Baltimore. (1891). BALTIMORE        CATECHISM - ON THE SACRAMENTS IN GENERAL. 
        Retrieved November 27, 2017, from    
        and from

Vatican II. (1963, December 4). SACROSANCTUM 
         CONCILIUM Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,
         Chapter III, Paragraph 60. Retrieved 
         November 27, 2017, from  
         Promulgated by Pope Paul VI


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