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St. Thomas Aquinas
Explanation of the Sacraments

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The Sacraments of the Church
 
We shall now consider the Sacraments of the Church. We shall treat them 
under one heading, since they all pertain to the effect of grace. First of 
all, that must be known which St. Augustine wrote in the tenth book of "The 
City of God": "a Sacrament is a sacred thing" or "the sign of a sacred 
thing."1 Even in the Old Law there were certain sacraments, that is, signs 
of a sacred thing--for example, the paschal lamb and other legal sacred 
signs or "sacraments" which, however, did not cause grace but only 
signified or indicated the grace of Christ. The Apostle calls these 
"sacraments" "weak and needy elements."2 They were needy because they did 
not contain grace, and they were weak because they could not confer grace. 
In them, as St. Augustine says, the merits of Christ brought about 
salvation in a more hidden manner under the cover of visible things. The 
Sacraments of the New Law, on the other hand, both contain grace and confer 
it. A Sacrament of the New Law is a visible form of invisible grace. Thus, 
the exterior washing which takes place when the water is poured in Baptism 
represents that interior cleansing which takes away sin by virtue of the 
Sacrament of Baptism.3
 
There are seven Sacraments of the New Law: Baptism, Confirmation, the 
Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Orders, and Matrimony. The first five 
of these Sacraments are intended to bring about the perfection of the 
individual man in himself; whereas the other two, Orders and Matrimony, are 
so constituted that they perfect and multiply the entire Church.
 



1
. "Sacramentum est sacrum signum." This is slightly different in the 
passage quoted in "The City of God," Book X, chapter x. See also "Epist. 
ii." The "Roman Catechism" ("The Sacraments in General," Chapter I, 4) 
seemingly follows St. Thomas here.
 


2
. Gal., iv. 9.
 


3
. "A Sacrament, therefore, is clearly understood to be numbered amongst 
those things which have been instituted as signs. It makes known to us by a 
certain appearance and resemblance that which God by His invisible power, 
accomplishes in our souls. . . . In order to explain more fully the nature 
of a Sacrament it should be taught that it is a thing subject to the senses 
which possesses, by divine institution, the power not only of signifying 
holiness and justice, but also to impart both to the recipient. Hence, it 
is easy to see that the images of the Saints, crosses, and the like, 
although they are signs of sacrcd things, cannot be called Sacraments. 
Thus, the solemn ablution of the body [in Baptism] not only signifies, but 
also has the power to effect a sacred thing which is worked interiorly in 
the soul by the invisible operation of the Holy Ghost" ("Roman Catechism," 
"Sacraments in General," Chapter I, 6 and 11).
 





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