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The role of the sacraments in the Christian tradition has been a source of theological conflict since the Reformation, when the reformers declared that only two sacraments were instituted by Christ: Baptism and the Eucharist. In America, debate over the meanings of the sacraments, what they conferred, and who could legitimately receive them were sources of division among the early New England Puritans and subsequently caused a number of splits within Protestantism. Today most Protestants continue to acknowledge two sacraments (called Ordinances by Baptists), although the Society of Friends, for example, does not recognize any sacramental rituals. The second half of the twentieth century has seen a greater consensus among some Protestant denominations (e.g., Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, United Church of Christ) in their understanding of the sacraments that has facilitated greater liturgical cooperation among these churches. Sacraments are a core feature of Roman Catholicism and are seen as endowing everyday life with grace. In the Catholic Church there are seven sacraments, three of which (Baptism, Holy Eucharist, and Confirmation) initiate believers into the faith tradition, two of which are sacraments of healing (Penance/Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick), and the remaining two (Matrimony and Holy Orders/Ordination) are seen, in part, as sacraments of service to others.

Sacraments involve the use of visible signs (e.g., words, actions, and material objects, including candles, bread, wine, chrism, and specific garments) to invoke what is invisible and transcendent. The celebration of the sacraments is communal and rich in symbolic evocation. As liturgical rituals, the sacraments serve to demarcate important stages in the individual life cycle and affirm individuals' integration with the larger community. For example, even when there is only a priest and one other person present, as is usually the case with the sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation or the Anointing of the Sick, the individuals participating in the enactment of the sacrament are linked symbolically with Christ and with the universal Catholic community. The celebration of other sacraments, especially Baptism, Confirmation (which imprints the gifts of the Holy Spirit on the person being confirmed), and Matrimony, require the presence of "witnesses," and the respective liturgies specifically invoke the important obligatory role of these witnesses and of other friends and family present, to maintain a nurturing community for the persons receiving the sacrament in question. In Catholic teaching, therefore, although the sacrament of Matrimony clearly has a functional role in sanctifying and maintaining a major social institution, it also has important symbolic purposes, whereby, for example, the unity of the married couple signifies the mutuality of committed relationships in general, the unity of the church with Christ, and the unity of the whole Catholic community.

Catholics' most frequent and public encounter with their sacramental heritage is through attendance at Mass and participation in Holy Eucharist (Holy Communion). The Eucharist commemorates the Last Supper that Christ had with his twelve apostles, at which his exhortation to "Do this in remembrance of me" has been interpreted by the church down through the ages as Christ's command to continue his sacred ministry on earth. The Eucharist is the core sacrament in Catholicism, and all other sacraments are linked with it. Whereas Communion in most Protestant traditions is seen as a symbolic commemoration of the Last Supper, the Catholic Church teaches that the consecration of the bread and wine by the priest during Mass changes the whole substance of the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ so that his presence is fully real in the Communion's species (doctrine of transubstantiation). Not all Catholics necessarily believe in the true corporal presence of Christ in communion, but see communion as the symbolic affirmation of communal solidarity. Nonetheless, they still value the consecration as the most sacred act in Catholicism, and receiving the Eucharist represents Catholics' demonstration of their belief in and commitment to the Catholic theological tradition. Since the Eucharist is the pinnacle of Catholic sacramentality and of Christ's presence in the world, the church encourages Catholics to partake of Communion as often as possible. In the past, most Catholics would refrain from receiving Communion if they perceived themselves to be in a state of sin, and Catholics who regularly received Communion were also frequent users of Penance (Confession). Since the 1970s, however, as part of the many changes experienced in the post–Vatican II church, there has been a significant shift in Catholics' disposition toward Confession and the Eucharist. American Catholics in particular appear to be distinctive. They are significantly more likely than European Catholics (excluding Ireland) to attend Mass on a regular basis and to receive Communion (48 percent) but not to go to Confession (only 14 percent report regular Confession). At the same time, similar to their European counterparts, American Catholics' attitudes and behavior, especially in regard to sexual morality, deviate from official church teaching. Nine of ten American Catholics, for example, believe that one can use artificial contraception, and a majority believe that a person can have an abortion, or engage in same-sex sexual relations, and still be a good Catholic. Unlike in the past, Catholics' disagreement with official church doctrine on particular issues does not prevent them from attending Mass and receiving Communion. For many Catholics, it is loyalty to the Catholic sacramental and communal tradition rather than adherence to official church teaching on sexuality and other select issues that has become the hallmark of a "good" Catholic (Hout and Greeley 1987).

Catholics' commitment to participation in the sacramental life of the church also accounts, in part, for Catholics' disagreement with the Vatican on women's ordination. The sacrament of Holy Orders (Ordination) consecrates men for the priesthood, permitting them to exercise sacred power within the church (e.g., whereas anybody with a sincere sacramental intention can, in an emergency, baptize a person or administer the Anointing of the Sick, only an ordained priest can consecrate the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ). According to official church teaching, women are excluded from the priesthood to maintain the church's constant tradition and the will and intention of Christ, who called only men to be his apostles. Women's exclusion from ordination has been challenged in recent decades by both lay Catholics and many Catholic theologians. They argue that the Vatican's reasoning contravenes both the historical role of women in the early church and scriptural narratives in which the exemplary actions of Jesus demonstrate the equality of all before God (Dillon 1999). In addition to the theological reasons favoring women priests, calls for the ordination of women have taken on greater practical urgency in recent years not only on account of the elimination of barriers against women's full participation in other institutional domains, but also due to the shortage of priests available in some areas to celebrate Mass and consecrate the Eucharist. Nonetheless, Pope John Paul II has insisted that the issue of women's ordination is theologically settled and not open to debate (unlike the celibacy requirement for priests, which is not divinely prescribed but a church law that can be rescinded at any time). In view of the symbolic importance of the Eucharist to Catholics, however, and its pivotal role in embodying Catholic sacramentality, theological and practical reasons may compel a shift in official church teaching toward a more inclusive understanding of who can be ordained.

See alsoBaptism; Communion; Marriage; Ordination; Ordination of Women; Rites of Passage; Roman Catholicism.


Dillon, Michele. Catholic Identity: Balancing Reason,Faith, and Power. 1999.

Greeley, Andrew. "Protestant and Catholic." AmericanSociological Review 54 (1989):485–502.

Hout, Michael, and Andrew Greeley. "The Center Doesn't Hold: Church Attendance in the United States, 1940–1980." American Sociological Review 52 (1987):325–345.

Schüssler Fiorenza, Francis and John P. Galvin, eds. Systematic Theology: Roman Catholic Perspectives. 1991.

Michele Dillon

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