Grace, Sacramental

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This article discusses the nature and the objective efficacy of the Sacraments, and the special questions of the efficacy of infant Baptism and reviviscence from the perspective of scholastic theology. Other theological approaches to these questions may be found in the entry sacramental theology. See also: ex opere operantis; ex opere operato; baptism of infants; reviviscence, sacramental.

Nature of Sacramental Grace

In the history of sacramental theology several opinions have been offered to explain the nature of sacramental grace. Some theologians teach that sacramental and sanctifying grace are identical; others maintain a strict and real distinction between them but explain this distinction in various ways.

Sacramental and Sanctifying Grace Really Identical. There is no distinction whatsoever between them. Although held centuries ago, this position is no longer held by any reputable theologian, for several reasons. First, it would call into serious question the wisdom of God's having instituted seven Sacraments instead of one, if they all give exactly the same kind of grace or the same grace. Moreover, it does not adequately explain the Church's official teaching that the Sacraments "are not equal to one another and that there is a diversity of worth among them" (Denz 1603).

Sacramental and Sanctifying Grace Not Really Identical. But this distinction between the two is not understood by all theologians in exactly the same way. The following variant explanations are the most common.

A Right to Actual Graces. Sacramental grace differs from common sanctifying grace insofar as it confers a right to the actual graces to be received in accordance with the demands of the Christian situation in life into which one is introduced by the reception of a particular Sacrament. This opinion was so widespread until recently that it was the one most commonly accepted by theologians. This right is something juridical, effecting nothing real in the person or his powers, not even the grace-reality or life that he receives through the Sacrament. Thus the various Sacraments would not really give a different grace or permanent Christian elevation of a peculiar kind. Rather, they would seem to give the same grace plus a juridical title to actual graces needed by the person because of his having received a Sacrament. The sacramental grace would be only this juridical title (J. de Lugo, G. Vazquez, F. Suárez, J. Gonet, D. de Soto).

Special Habitus. Another group of theologians, declaring that this explanation does not satisfy the teaching of the Council of Trent, offered another. Sacramental grace differs from common sanctifying grace insofar as it adds one or several special habitus through the intermediary of which sanctifying grace performs the acts to which the Sacraments commission a person and by which the deficiencies of the powers of the soul are partially counteracted. These additional habitus so strengthen these powers that they easily perform the acts demanded by their new sacramental status, and they formally and immediately heal the wounds inflicted on the soul by sin (J. Capreolus, B. Brazzarola, B. Leeming).

Special Mode of Sanctifying Grace. Still a third opinion claims that sacramental grace is a special mode of sanctifying grace acting as a basis or fundament for correlative actual graces to be received in view of the purposes for which the Sacrament is given. The reasoning lying behind this position is quite clear. Because the different Sacraments have different purposes for which they have been instituted and because they have a distinct signification, causality, and necessity, they seem to communicate distinct graces for their effects. Sacramental grace is distinct from sanctifying grace not as one reality is distinct from another reality, but as a reality is distinct from a peculiar mode or orientation that it has or that it assumes in order to meet new demands. Insofar as the various Sacraments make us members of Christ according to a variety of offices and commissions and functions within His Body, the Church, they confer on us those effects of this new life in Christ necessary to meet the demands of our peculiar ecclesial mission. This permanent orientation of sanctifying grace also establishes a basis or fundament, or it connotes a right to all the actual graces that will be needed to fulfill the new Christian life-situation for which we have been sacramentalized (John of St. Thomas, Salmanticenses, A. Piolanti, H. Boüessé, R. Garrigou-Lagrange, E. Schillebeeckx).

At the heart of all sacramentalism there occurs an encounter with God. But this takes place within the framework of a visible and an ecclesial action, that is, through a visible sacramental action of Christ and the Church, which is His earthly Body or Self. Grace, or communion and encounter, is made real in a liturgical action that shows both the nature of the gift and the demands that it makes on the recipient. Thus sacramental grace is the grace of the redemption, but grace in its direction and application to the seven different situations in which a Christian can find himself within the Church. Or it is the grace of redemption having a peculiar function with reference to a particular ecclesial and Christian situation of life and to a particular need of man. We might speak of grace as being modified or tailored to meet these needs. The Anointing of the Sick, for example, has as its ecclesial effect a more specific incorporation into the Church that has been given power over death. The Church's anointing gives one in serious suffering a share in the suffering of Christ and the Church. And thus the anointed has a special ecclesial status making him the object of the special prayer and solicitude of the Church.

From this it should be clear that sacramental grace is sanctifying grace itself, but as coming to us visibly in the Church in the fullness of its power, specifically ordered and aimed to meet the particular ecclesial needs of life and the special commissions of a Christian in the Church. It is because the Sacraments give positive commissions or functions within the Church that the grace they communicate is permanently oriented to receive the actual graces needed to fulfill such functions.

Of course, extrasacramental graces are also possible to man, but these are meant to grow in the recipient to a culminating pointa personal and decisive communion with God that is had through the activity of the Church. A certain grace can be present for man apart from the Sacraments, but this would seem to have some orientation toward one or other of them. It would be a kind of inchoate grace that normally reaches full development only in the Sacraments; for it is only there that communion in grace is achieved within an ecclesial context within the Church as the fullness of Christ or as His earthly Body.

Objective Efficacy of the Sacraments

The Council of Trent has defined that "the Sacraments of the New Law confer grace ex opere operato," on those who place no obstacle in the way of this grace (Denz 1606, 1608). This notion opus operatum has often been misunderstood, especially by those not of the Catholic faith. For these it means automatic conferral, such that the Sacraments are considered to possess a kind of magical force that the recipient cannot resist and that does not at all require dispositions on the part of either the minister or the recipient. This, however, is not the true Catholic position.

Ex opere operato is a technical phrase opposed to exopere operantis. It admits of an older interpretation dating especially from Trent up to recent times; and of a newer interpretation that is really not so new but is a return to the full meaning of the term. The older view limits the expression to the level of validity. So understood, ex opere operato means that the correct bringing together of the matter and form, or the action and formula or word, brings about the sacramental effect. While this mode of presenting the Catholic position is not inexact, it is incomplete. That is why the newer view is attempting to see the expression as having a very definite Christological character. It means exactly the same as "by the power of Christ and God." It means that the sacramental action as an act, done in virtue of a character, is objectively and ministerially an act of Christ, an objective celebration-in-mystery of the historical redemptive mystery of Christ. This action brings about the unmerited application of the redemption and is a work of pure mercy toward the person involved. If the bringing together of the matter and form of a Sacrament communicates grace, this happens because this action in the hands of the Church and her ministers is an act of Christ by which He works His redemption in a member of His Body, and this independently of the merits (not the dispositions) of the subject, or minister, or both.

Ex opere operantis refers to the work of the minister, or the subject of the Sacrament, or both in sacramental actions. While the dispositions of these do not play or constitute a part of the sacramental action (since this is an action of Christ and the Church), still these dispositions do have a very necessary part to play in sacramentalism considered as the actual reception of grace given through a Sacrament. A sacramental event is intended to bring about communion with Christ, and for this the religious attitude of the recipient is most important. If the sacramental action, the advent of Christ, is not personally desired and met (in keeping with the state of the recipient, of course) communion or encounter with Christ cannot occur. This implies that a Sacrament that is fully such (fruitful as well as valid) does not consist only in the visible manifestation of Christ's redemptive action or only in the visibility of the Church's will to sanctify. It must consist also in the visible expression of the recipient's personal desire for grace and his will to be sanctified. We can speak of a minimum and an optimum and intermediate grades of disposition on the part of the recipient that account for the varying degrees of encounter or fruitfulness. Moreover, there must also be some active dispositions on the part of the minister, if the Sacrament is to be effective. Here also we have a minimum and an optimum (and varying grades between) that enter in some way into the effect produced by the sacramental action. While no positive loss will necessarily occur in the case in which a minister is merely minimally disposed, still the ministration is not everything that it ought to be when the prayer of the minister is not a real personal prayer.

Efficacy of Infant Baptism. The baptism of infants has at times presented a problem, especially to some Protestant exegetes and theologians. K. Barth, for example, writes: "From the standpoint of a doctrine of baptism, infant baptism can hardly be maintained without exegetical and practical artifices and sophismsthe proof to the contrary has yet to be supplied" [The Teaching of the Church regarding Baptism (London 1959) 49]. The Church teaches that infant Baptism is profitable to children (Denz 1626), and requires that it be administered to them soon after birth since in the ordinary plan of God there is no other way open. [see baptism, sacrament of; limbo.]

The possibility of infant Baptism's being profitable stems from the fact that not all the Sacraments necessarily on all occasions suppose a psychological awareness on the part of the recipient. This does not mean that any dispensation from a condition otherwise necessary has been granted. Rather, it follows from the very nature of the symbolic action precisely as performed for one who is psychologically an infant, just as the very nature of a symbolic action performed for a conscious adult requires his response. While it is true that the dormant personality of the child is still not capable of interpersonal rational encounter, God can still love it with His preventive grace. That a child is not yet capable of a similar encounter with its mother does not mean that its mother will wait to bestow her love on the child when the latter is capable of freely returning it. She loves it and cares for it from the very first instant, and it is just this care and love that evokes a response from the child when it is capable of such. In like manner the Sacrament of Baptism produces within the child an ontological foundation (the grace of the virtues and the gifts) for encounter with God, making this encounter possible when the child has attained the maturity to achieve it. While a person must freely will and accept the divine initiative immediately, an infant is expected to do so in its own time and then to make personally its own the grace that it received previously, in a similar way as it does its own existence. The obligation for our seeing to infant Baptism stems from the social coresponsibility that all of us have for the realization of the goal of life of our fellowmen. The Church, as the earthly prolongation of the Lord and the mother of men, has this desire and aim for all, and she realizes it concretely and visibly both in the parents and in the minister of the Sacrament.

Reviviscence. As we have seen, there are two sides to sacramentality. There is first the objective sidethe ecclesial expression of God's will to link Himself with us, the opus operatum, which we discussed above. And there is the subjective sidethe individual's personal acceptance of God's grace-giving intent, at least in the case of the adult. Thus some movement toward God's approach is required (part of the opus operantis ). This movement can be of different kinds: that which is sufficient to make this approach valid (sufficient to establish the ecclesial link proper to the Sacrament), and that which is needed to make this approach fruitful (required to establish a personal link or encounter with God). reviviscence refers to those instances in which a sacramental action produces its personal link with God (sacramental grace) only some time after its ecclesial link because of an imperfect movement on the part of the recipient. While the possibility of a Sacrament's accomplishing this has never been defined, it has been taught from the time of the Church Fathers, and is universally accepted in the Church (at least in regard to some of the Sacraments). The reason is simple. If some of the Sacraments (those especially that are either absolutely or relatively unrepeatable) could not revive, impossible consequences would follow. For if a person did not receive the grace of these Sacraments at the time of their reception, he would be forever excluded from this benefit regardless of what he might do later in regard to his religious dispositions. Thus reviviscence of some kind or other seems to be almost a necessary postulate in such instances.

Bibliography: b. brazzarola, La natura della grazia sacramentale nella dottrina di San Tommaso (Grottaferrata 1941). e. doronzo, De sacramentis in genere (Milwaukee 1946). b. leeming, Principles of Sacramental Theology (new ed. Westminster, Md. 1960). h. lennerz, De sacramentis Novae Legis in genere (Rome 1950). r. r. masterson, "Sacramental Graces: Modes of Sanctifying Grace," Thomist 18 (1955) 311372. j. h. miller, Signs of Transformation in Christ (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1963). k. rahner, The Church and the Sacraments, tr. w. j. o'hara (New York 1963) e. schillebeeckx, Christ: The Sacrament of the Encounter with God (New York 1963) c. schleck, "On Sacramental Grace," University of Ottawa Review 24 (1954) 227251; "St. Thomas on the Nature of Sacramental Grace," Thomist 18 (1955) 130; 242278. c. s. sullivan, ed., Readings in Sacramental Theology (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1964). j. h. nicolas, "La Grâce sacramentelle," Revue tomiste 61 (1961) 165192, 522540.

[c. a. schleck/eds.]