What Is the Definition of a Sacrament in the Catholic Church?

A Lesson Inspired by the Baltimore Catechism

The Last Supper, by Marten de Vos
The Last Supper, by Marten de Vos (1532-1603). Found in the collection of National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The seven sacramentsBaptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, Confession (Reconciliation or Penance), Marriage, Holy Orders, and the Anointing of the Sick (Extreme Unction or Last Rites)—are the center of Christian life in the Catholic Church. But what exactly is a sacrament?

What Does the Baltimore Catechism Say?

Question 136 of the Baltimore Catechism, found in Lesson Eleventh of the First Communion Edition and Lesson Thirteenth of the Confirmation Edition, frames the question and answer this way:

Question: What is a Sacrament?

Answer: A Sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.

Why Does a Sacrament Need an "Outward Sign"?

As the current Catechism of the Catholic Church notes (para. 1084), "'Seated at the right hand of the Father' and pouring out the Holy Spirit on his Body which is the Church, Christ now acts through the sacraments he instituted to communicate his grace." Human beings are creatures of both body and soul, but we rely primarily on our senses to help us understand the world. But since grace is a spiritual gift rather than a physical one, it is by its very nature something that we cannot see. So how are we to know that we have received God's grace?

That is where the "outward sign" of each sacrament comes in. The "words and actions" of each sacrament, along with the physical items used (bread and wine, water, oil, etc.), represent the underlying spiritual reality of the sacrament and "make present . . . the grace that they signify." These outward signs help us to understand what is happening in our souls when we receive the sacraments.

What Does It Mean to Say That the Sacraments Were "Instituted by Christ"?

Each of the seven sacraments corresponds to an action taken by Jesus Christ during His life here on earth. Jesus received baptism at the hands of John the Baptist; He blessed the marriage at Cana through the miracle of the water-made-wine; He consecrated bread and wine at the Last Supper, declared that they were His Body and Blood, and ordered his disciples to do the same; He breathed on those same disciples and gave them the gift of His Holy Spirit; etc.

When the Church administers the sacraments to the faithful, She recalls the events in Christ's life that correspond to each sacrament. Through the various sacraments, we are not only granted the graces that they signify; we are drawn into the mysteries of Christ's own life.

How Does a Sacrament Give Grace?

While the outward signs—the words and actions, the physical items—of a sacrament are necessary to help us grasp the spiritual reality of the sacrament, they can also lead to confusion. The sacraments are not magic; the words and actions aren't the equivalent of "spells." When a priest or bishop performs a sacrament, he isn't the one providing grace to the person receiving the sacrament.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes (para. 1127), in the sacraments "Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies." While the graces that we receive in each sacrament do depend on us being spiritually read to receive them, the sacraments themselves do not depend on the personal righteousness of either the priest or the person receiving the sacraments. Instead, they work "by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all" (para. 1128).