An important primer on three of the Church's Divinely-Instituted Sacraments which have lately been under a shadow of undue reform.
Today, with so much confusion being sown in the Catholic Church by bishops, priests, and lay theologians concerning the true nature of the sacraments, it is necessary for Catholics to be reminded of the origin and nature of these divine gifts. The following article presents the fundamental elements of Marriage, the Eucharist, and Penance with the intention of guarding the faithful against novel and erroneous theories concerning these sacraments. Although not exhaustive, this instructional work makes clear the origin of each sacrament; their essential elements; and the purpose for which they were instituted.
Marriage is the perpetual union of a man and a woman ordained to the generation and the education of children and the mutual good of the spouses. The natural institution of marriage was raised by Christ to the dignity of a sacrament, that is to say, an efficacious sign of grace.
In doing so, Our Lord remedied the wounds inflicted on marriage by original sin and put an end to the Old Testament’s tolerance towards polygamy – which goes against the unity of marriage – and repudiation – which goes against its indissolubility. Restored to its original perfection, Christian marriage finds its model in the indissoluble union of Christ with His Church (Eph. 5:32).
Between baptized persons, the only marriage possible is sacramental marriage. Once ratified – by the consent of both parties – and consummated – by the conjugal act – no human power can dissolve it, not even that of the Vicar of Christ.1
The ecclesiastic authority can, however, intervene in order to pronounce:
- The separation of the spouses who remain bound by the conjugal bond but for whom it has become impossible to live together,
- The rupture of the conjugal bond for certain sacramental marriages that have not been consummated or certain non-sacramental marriages,
- The declaration of nullity that certifies through a judiciary trial the initial invalidity of a sacramental marriage because of an impediment, a lack of consent, or the absence of a canonical form.
The divorce and remarriage promoted by the civil laws have no incidence on the existence and permanence of sacramental marriage. He who uses these means to unite himself civilly with someone other than his legitimate spouse becomes an adulterer in the eyes of God and of the Church.
On the eve of His Passion, Jesus Christ instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist, which gives not only grace but also its Author, truly, really and substantially present under the species of bread and wine. What is more, the double consecration sacramentally reenacts the sacrifice of Calvary. Sacrament and sacrifice, the Eucharist is the summit of the sacramental order.
The Eucharist is the spiritual food of the faithful and the antidote against sin. That is why Our Lord clearly manifested His will that the faithful receive Him in Eucharistic communion: “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you” (John 6:53).
What is more, St. Paul insisted upon the necessary dispositions to receive this sacrament of the living2 fruitfully:
Therefore whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord. . . . For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself”
(I Cor. 11:27, 29).
Desirous of seeing her children communicate fruitfully, the Church has laid down the conditions to be respected in order to communicate. Two types of impediments can keep the faithful away from communion: those that result from a defect (ex defectu) and those that result from a sin (ex peccato).
The impediments ex defectu can be physical – inability to approach the minister of the Eucharist – or canonical – only one sacramental communion per day, the Eucharistic fast. The impediments ex peccato are the absence of the state of grace or of the right intention.3
Consequently, the Council of Trent distinguishes three ways of communicating:
- The sacramental communion of those who receive the Body of Christ while they are under an impediment ex peccato: this is a sacrilegious communion;
- The spiritual communion of those who, while free from any impediment ex peccato, cannot receive the sacrament because of an impediment ex defectu but desire to receive its fruit: this is a spiritual communion;
- The spiritual and sacramental communion of those who, free from all impediments of any sort, receive the sacrament and its spiritual fruit: this is a fruitful sacramental communion.
After having Himself practiced mercy towards sinners, Christ entrusted his apostles on the evening of His resurrection with the power to forgive sins: “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (John 20:23). Penance is the sacrament by which the personal sins committed after baptism are forgiven. In the case of mortal sin, it allows a return to the state of grace and reestablishes the possibility of receiving communion fruitfully.
Like the other sacraments, penance is the visible sign of an invisible grace. That is why its administration requires a minister – the priest – who applies the form – the words of absolution – to the matter – the sins accused, regretted and repaired – so that the grace of pardon may be granted to the sinner. Contrition, which has always been necessary to obtain the pardon of one’s sins, plays a primary role in the acts of the penitent. It supposes not only sorrow for past sins but also the firm resolution never to commit them again4.
Two elements can jeopardize the strength of this resolution:
- the wounds of original sin, which remain even after baptism and which we customarily designate by the generic name of concupiscence;
- the occasions of sin that are circumstances outside of the will and that solicit it to do evil. Since he cannot extinguish once and for all the embers of concupiscence, the repentant sinner must take care not to feed them by removing occasions of sin. Otherwise, his purpose of amendment is but an illusion.
A special effort is needed for the near occasions of sin that lead most people often to sin. No delay is tolerated in breaking with near and free – occasions that can be avoided easily, quickly and without great inconvenience – occasions of sin. Breaking with close but necessary occasions of sin – occasions that cannot be avoided without great difficulties – can take more time but is no less necessary for the resolution to sin no more to be firm. By taking the means with the help of grace to break with the occasion of sin, the sinner is able to evaluate himself both authenticity of his contrition and the firmness of his purpose of amendment.
- 1. “The origin of this perpetual and indissoluble strength of the marriage bond does not lie in the ecclesiastical discipline. For a consumed marriage, it is so deeply based on divine law and on natural law that such a marriage can never, for any motive whatsoever, be dissolved, not even by the Sovereign Pontiff himself, and not even if one of the spouses has violated the conjugal trust by adultery” (Pius IX, Letter Verbis exprimere, August 15, 1859, in Enseignements Pontificaux de Solesmes, Le Mariage < abbr.: EPS-M, #103); “Neither Scripture nor Tradition recognizes any faculty of the Roman Pontiff for dissolving a ratified and consummated marriage; on the contrary, the Church's constant practice shows the certain knowledge of Tradition that such a power does not exist. The forceful expressions of the Roman Pontiffs are only the faithful echo and authentic interpretation of the Church's permanent conviction. It seems quite clear then that the non-extension of the Roman Pontiff's power to ratified and consummated sacramental marriages is taught by the Church's Magisterium as a doctrine to be held definitively, even if it has not been solemnly declared by a defining act” (John Paul II, Speech to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, January 21, 2000, §8).
- 2. “These five sacraments – Confirmation, Eucharist, Extreme Unction, Holy Orders and Matrimony – are on that account called sacraments of the living, because those who receive them must be free from mortal sin, that is, already alive through sanctifying grace” (St. Pius X, Catechism, 4th part, ch. 1, §2.)
- 3. “The excommunicated and the banished, after the infliction or declaration of their penalty, and those who obstinately persist in a grave and manifest sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion” (CJC/1983, canon 915).
- 4. “Contrition, which holds the first place amongst the aforesaid acts of the penitent, is a sorrow of mind, and a detestation for sin committed, with the purpose of not sinning for the future. This movement of contrition was at all times necessary for obtaining the pardon of sins” (Council of Trent, Decree on the Sacrament of Penance, ch. 4, DH 1676).