"The significance of the sacraments for the life of the Christians of the Middle Ages is impossible to exaggerate. They were not mere isolated rites; they were bound together by their common quality as signs and vehicles of divine grace. They constituted the very heart of Christianity. By means of them the channel of communication between God and man and man and God was kept open constantly. Where the sacraments were there was life and salvation; where they were wanting man was left helpless and alone. They accompanied the Christian from the cradle to the grave, sanctifying all life for him, equipping him for its duties and responsibilities, giving him grace to live as God would have him live, and when he failed bringing divine forgiveness and renewed assistance. They prepared him not only for life but also for death. Receiving the last rites of the church he could depart in peace assured of a blessed resurrection and the life eternal. What all this must have meant to the Christians of the Middle Ages anyone can imagine but only a Catholic can fully know" (McGiffert, A History of Christian Thought, 330-31).
The incarnational principle of Roman Catholicism – God draws near, communicates his presence, and imparts his saving and sanctifying grace through physical means, gestures, objects, persons, events, and other media that we experience with our senses.
N.B. The antithesis of the incarnational or sacramental principle is found in ancient Gnosticism. Also contrast sacramentalism with mysticism ...
Initially only baptism and the eucharist were acknowledged as sacraments. To these Abelard added confirmation and extreme unction. His pupils added matrimony. Robert Pullus (d. 1150) added penance and ordination. In The Sentences of Peter Lombard (book 4), these seven were given a final endorsement. They received official RC sanction at the Council of Florence in 1439 and again at Trent in 1545-63: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Marriage, Ordination, and Anointing of the Sick (or Extreme Unction). They affirm seven because "the seven sacraments touch all the stages and all the important moments of the Christian life" (CC, 1210).
Thomas Aquinas argued for an analogy between physical and spiritual life in mankind. We are born, strengthened, nourished, need recovery from illness, propagate the species, need the guidance of legitimate authority, and depart this world. The sacraments provide for each of these in the spiritual realm: we are born (again) in baptism, strengthened by confirmation, nourished by the eucharist, recover from spiritual illness by penance, propagate the species by marriage, are under the authority of the ordained clergy, and prepare for death by extreme unction.
In the patristic age there were two rival theories on the efficacy of the sacraments that focused on the role of the priest or bishop or pastor who administered them:
(1) Sacraments work ex opere operantis, or "through the work of the one who works." On this view the efficacy of the sacrament is dependent on the moral and spiritual character of the person who administers them. The believer will profit spiritually from the sacrament only if the one who administers it is himself faithful and righteous. This was the view of the Donatists.
(2) Sacraments work ex opere operato, or "through the work that is worked." On this view (championed by Augustine) the efficacy of the sacrament is not dependent on the one who administers it but on the inherent quality of the sacrament itself (see below). "The ultimate grounds of sacramental efficacy lie in Christ, whose person and benefits are conveyed by the sacraments, not in the priest himself. An immoral priest can thus be permitted to celebrate the sacraments, as the grounds of their validity do not rest in him" (McGrath, Reformation Thought, 176).
On this latter view, the sacraments contain and confer the grace they signify. They do more than teach about or point to the grace of God: they actually transmit and impart such grace. This intrinsic power of the sacrament to convey grace is analogous to the power of fire to burn. Fire burns because it is ordained by God and imbued with power to that end. Likewise, the sacraments confer grace because they possess grace-imparting efficacy as ordained by God. Such is the nature of a sacrament that when duly administered it produces a given effect. One need not look beyond the sacrament itself to account for its power. All things being equal, a burning ember will scorch the human hand. The effect follows as a matter of course. Similarly, the administration of the sacramental element is sufficient in itself to achieve the effect for which God has ordained it.
According to the Catholic Catechism,
"The sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.' From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them. . . . The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation" (CC, 1128).
[Our focus will be on three of the seven sacraments: Baptism, the Eucharist, and Penance]
"Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit, and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: 'Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water and in the word'" (CC, 1213).
Baptism is one of the three unrepeatable sacraments (along with confirmation and ordination). It supposedly communicates an indelible mark on the soul.
(1) Epiclesis – "The baptismal water is consecrated by a prayer of epiclesis . . . The Church asks God that through his Son the power of the Holy Spirit may be sent upon the water, so that those who will be baptized in it may be 'born of water and the Spirit'" (CC, 1238).
(2) Administration of the Sacrament - Ordinarily bishops, priests, and deacons administer the sacrament. "In case of necessity, anyone, even a non-baptized person, with the required intention, can baptize, by using the Trinitarian baptismal formula. The intention required is to will to do what the Church does when she baptizes. The Church finds the reason for this possibility in the universal saving will of God and the necessity of Baptism for salvation" (CC, 1256).
(3) Paedo-Baptism – "Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called. . . . The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth" (CC, 1250).
(4) The Necessity of Baptism – See CC, 1257-1261.
"God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacrament" (CC, 1257).
(5) The Effects of Baptism – Two things are accomplished. First: purification or forgiveness of sins (both original sin and all personal sins). Second: regeneration or new birth – "Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte "a new creature," an adopted son of God, who has become a "partaker of the divine nature," member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit" (CC, 1265).
Baptism also "makes us members of the Body of Christ" and "incorporates us into the Church" (CC, 1267).
(6) Biblical Texts to which RCC appeals – Mark 16:16; John 3:5; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 6:3-4; Col. 2:12; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21.