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Sacraments According to Aquinas

Updated: Sep 3, 2023

Question. 60 – WHAT IS A SACRAMENT?

(1) Whether a sacrament is a kind of sign?


A thing may be called a sacrament from having a certain hidden sanctity or by having relationship to this sanctity (ST III, Q. 60, Art. 1, co.). A sacrament is a kind of sign by being the form or end, but not necessarily efficient cause of sanctity (ST III, Q. 60, Art. 1, ad. 1).

(5) Whether some determinate sensible thing is required for a sacrament?


It is not in our power to decide what should be used for our own sanctification. God has determined sensible things are to be used (ST III, Q. 60, Art. 5, co.). These things do not provide sanctification by their natural powers but by Divine institution (ST III, Q. 60, Art. 5, ad. 2).

(6) Whether signification expressed by words is necessary for a sacrament?


Since we are composed of soul and body and words are used to convey mental concepts, it is necessary to use words to understand the signification of sensible things (ST III, Q. 60, Art. 6, co.). Words are the form combined with the material of sensible actions (ST III, Q. 60, Art. 6, ad. 2).

(7) Whether determinate words are required?


Just as specific matter is required for the efficacy of the sacraments, determinate words are also required. The words determine the end of the material

(ST III, Q. 60, Art. 7, co.). The sacraments operate by the sense of the words that are believed, thus the sacrament is complete regardless of the language employed (ST III, Q. 60, Art. 7, ad. 1). This is true so long as the intended sense is maintained (ST III, Q. 60, Art. 7, ad. 3).

(8) Whether anything may be added to or subtracted from these words?

It depends

If the addition or subtraction alters the sense of the significance of the words then the sacrament would be invalid. However, if the sense is maintained then the sacrament would retain its validity (ST III, Q. 60, Art. 8, co.).


(1) Whether sacraments are necessary for man’s salvation?


God communicates his grace to us through sensible things because we are corporeal. Our wounded nature makes us subject to physical things and it is fitting that God uses these sensible things to bring us “spiritual medicine”. Finally, we are drawn toward the material, and in his mercy God works with our nature to bring about our salvation (ST III, Q. 61, Art. 1, co.).

(2) Whether they were necessary in the state that preceded sin?


In our current state, our passions and our will are not perfectly aligned. The sacraments are remedies against sin and perfect the soul. Before the fall, our higher faculties ruled the lower perfectly and we had no need to be perfected by the sacraments (ST III, Q. 61, Art. 2, co.).


(1) Whether the sacraments of the New Law are the cause of grace?

Yes and no.

The sacraments are the instrumental cause of grace, but not the principal cause. They are the form God employs to confer grace (ST III, Q. 62, Art. 1, co.).

(2) Whether sacramental grace confers anything in addition to the grace of the virtues and gifts?


The sacraments provide grace which instills in us virtues and gifts. This grace sanctifies us and helps us partake in the Divine Nature. The sacraments also give us Divine help to obtain “the end of the sacrament”. This actual grace prods us to do what we should do and the sanctifying grace makes a habitual change in our souls (ST III, Q. 62, Art. 2, co.).

(3) Whether the sacraments contain grace?


The sacraments contain grace by being a sign of grace as well as being the instrumental cause of grace (ST III, Q. 62, Art. 3, co.). The sacraments are not like a vessel that store grace, but grace passes through the sacrament to the subject (ST III, Q. 62, Art. 3, ad. 2).

(4) Whether there is any power in them for the causing of grace?


There must be an instrumental power present in the sacrament to bring about the sacramental effects. It is incomplete whereas it facilitates the passing of power from one thing to another (ST III, Q. 62, Art. 4, co.). The sacraments receive spiritual power from Christ as the principal agent. (ST III, Q. 62, Art. 4, ad. 3).

(5) Whether the sacraments derive this power from Christ's Passion?


The principal cause of grace is God. He uses Christ’s humanity as a united instrumental cause, and the sacrament itself as a separate instrumental cause. The sacraments derive their power from the Passion through which he inaugurated the Rites of the Christian religion (ST III, Q. 62, Art. 5, co).


(1) Whether by the sacraments a character is produced in the soul?


Whenever someone is given a duty, he is given a sign of that duty. In just such a way we are enlisted to spiritual service through the sacraments. We receive a certain spiritual character by means of this service (ST III, Q. 63, Art. 1, co). This character is not a sensible seal but exists to distinguish those deputed into Christ from those who are not (ST III, Q. 63, Art. 1, ad. 2).

(2) What is this character?

Worship of God consists in receiving Divine gifts or in bestowing them on others. The first is a passive power and the second is an active one. The character “signifies a certain spiritual power ordained unto... Divine worship” (ST III, Q. 63, Art. 2, co)

(3) Of whom is this character?

This character is the character of Christ. The faithful are made participants in the Priesthood of Christ by reason of the sacramental character (ST III, Q. 63, Art. 3, co). This character distinguishes the faithful as Christ’s in relation to eternal life and worship of the Church (ST III, Q. 63, Art. 3, ad. 3).

(4) What is its subject?

The soul is the subject of the character. The character is not essential to the soul but is a power of the soul (ST III, Q. 63, Art. 4, co). It is a spiritual power by which the soul is perfected which is received from outside (ST III, Q. 63, Art. 4, ad. 2).

(5) Is it indelible?


The character is a sharing in Christ’s priesthood. Since his priesthood is eternal then our participation is perpetual as long as that which is sanctified endures (ST III, Q. 63, Art. 5, co.). The character remains even after death just as the mark of military service remains after victory or the disgrace of being conquered (ST III, Q. 63, Art. 5, ad. 3).

(6) Whether every sacrament imprints a character?


All the sacraments have two purposes: remedy for sin and for Divine worship. As such, each sacrament confers grace so they may be a remedy against sin. However, Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders allow the reception or bestowing of Divine gifts (ST III, Q. 63, Art. 6, co.). It is in this deputation of reception or bestowing that the imprinted character is required (ST III, Q. 63, Art. 6, ad. 1).


(1) Whether God alone works inwardly in the sacraments?

Yes and no

God alone is the principal agent of the sacrament, but the minister is an instrumental cause. He works the extrinsic sign while the interior effect is produced by God (ST III, Q. 64, Art. 1, co.).

(2) Whether the institution of the sacraments is from God alone?


The sacraments receive their effect from God, the minister merely makes use of them and is not the source of their power (ST III, Q. 64, Art. 2, co.).

(3) Whether Christ as man had the power of producing the inward sacramental effect?

Yes, but in a different way

As a man, Christ does produce the sacramental effect, but not in the same way as his Divine nature. As a man, he helps bring about the sacramental effects by instrumentally causing justification. As God, he works the sacraments by his authority. His merit and power operate in the sacraments and they are sanctified by his name. He instituted them by giving them their power, and it is within his power to “bestow the sacramental effect without confessing the exterior sacrament” (ST III, Q. 64, Art. 3, co.).

(4) Whether He could transmit that power to others?

Yes and no

His authority of the sacrament which belongs to him as God cannot be communicated to a creature. However, he could provide his ministers the grace to provide the sacramental effect (ST III, Q. 64, Art. 4, co.)

(5) Whether the wicked can have the power of administering the sacraments?


The minister is an instrumental cause. The power of the sacrament is from the mover, who is God (ST III, Q. 64, Art. 5, co.). It is not the minister’s power or holiness that confers the sacraments, but it is Christ’s that works through them (ST III, Q. 64, Art. 5, ad. 1).

(8) Whether the minister's intention is necessary in the sacraments?


The materials of a sacrament can be put to many different kinds of use, thus, the minister must have a specific purpose in mind (ST III, Q. 64, Art. 8, co.). This remains true even if the ministers mind wanders while administering the sacrament, his initial intent to do what the Church intends is sufficient to make the sacrament valid (ST III, Q. 64, Art. 8, ad. 3).

(9) Whether right faith is required therein; so that it be impossible for an unbeliever to confer a sacrament?


The Sacraments work by the power of Christ, not the minister. Just as it is not necessary to have charity it is not necessary to have faith so long as the material, form, and intent are present (ST III, Q. 64, Art. 9, co.). It is possible to intend to do what the Church teaches, even when one does not believe what the Church teaches (ST III, Q. 64, Art. 9, ad. 1).

(10) Whether a right ("good") intention is required therein?

It depends

If the intention is such to take away from the truth of the sacrament, such as mockery, then the intention to confer the sacrament does not truly exist. However, if the minister intends to use the sacrament for a bad end, the sacrament is still valid but is gravely sinful. This is because the validity of the sacrament does not depend on the consequences (ST III, Q. 64, Art. 10, co.).

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