The Magic of the Sacraments

One of the common criticisms leveled at Catholics by other Christians is related to the Sacraments—how can grace actually depend upon matter?  They accuse the Catholics of superstition and magic.  While the Church can defend herself readily against such an accusation by referring to the Incarnation itself as the supreme example of grace depending on matter, her example of late suggests otherwise.  There are many, including those in the highest levels of the Church, who treat the Sacraments like magic.  The Church may have received these precious gifts freely, but that doesn’t make them cheap.  We may think that by opening the Sacraments to more and more people regardless of their situation we are saving more souls, but it is exactly the opposite.  In fact it is a liberality with the Sacraments that has led to a whole-new field of evangelization—“the baptized non-believer.”

Dietrich Bonhoffer, a Lutheran pastor who was instrumental in Hitler’s ultimate demise, coined the term “cheap grace.”  Cheap grace is “the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.”  This mindset of Gratis vilis only serves to decrease the cultural relevance of the Church.  If grace is something that we can bestow upon ourselves; something that requires little more than showing up, then why do we need the Church at all?  Eventually we realize that it really doesn’t matter how often or whether we show up   When I feel like I need a refill, I will go.

Witness these recent Sacramental trends.

Baptizing Children of Same Sex Couples

In 2015, Pope Francis told priests not to withhold Baptism from anyone, especially children of same-sex couples.  He said, “With baptism, you unite the new faithful to the people of God. It is never necessary to refuse baptism to someone who asks for it.”

The instruction came even though the Code of Canon Law stipulates that there are cases where Baptism should be delayed or withheld indefinitely.  In Canon 868 it states that for an infant to be baptized licitly two things must occur.  First, “the parents, or at least one of them or the person who legitimately takes their place must consent.”  Second, there must be “a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion; if such hope is altogether lacking, the baptism is to be delayed according to the prescripts of particular law after the parents have been advised about the reason.”  To further clarify this second point as to what constitutes a founded hope, the CDF also issued the document Instruction on Infant Baptism.

Assurances must be given that the gift thus granted can grow by an authentic education in the faith and Christian life, in order to fulfill the true meaning of the sacrament.  As a rule, these assurances are to be given by the parents or close relatives, although various substitutions are possible within the Christian community. But if these assurances are not really serious there can be grounds for delaying the sacrament; and if they are certainly non-existent the sacrament should even be refused.

Is this merely outdated “law” or is there something more going on here, something to be protected?

Anointing of the Sick

According to Canon Law, the Anointing of the Sick is only to be bestowed upon those who are in reasonable danger of death and have reached the age of reason.  Its effects are to strengthen the person to face death and the forgiveness of sins.  Priests now treat it as a routine Catholic Pre-op procedure, regardless of how serious their illness is or their personal disposition.

Is this being more “inclusive” or is there a reason why this law is in place?


If you ask any DRE they will say that the majority of the “students” in the Confirmation Prep classes do not attend Mass regularly.  Once they “graduate” they are also just as likely to remain in the ranks of the unchurched.  They perform the Sacrament in the hopes that the grace will somehow “stick” if only for a few of them.

Eucharist for the “Re-married”, Confession and Matrimony

In one fell swoop these three Sacraments are included on our list.  Thanks to the ambiguity of Amoris Laetitia and a recent endorsement of the Argentine Bishops interpretation that paves the way for “some” living in irregular marriages to receive the Sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist.  Confession now forgives sins that you “can’t” express a firm purpose of amendment for and the Eucharist gives grace to a soul in an objectively sinful situation.  And the grace of the Sacrament of Matrimony is expanded to second-marriages (and even third and fourth).


In each of these cases there is a fundamental belief that the Sacraments magically bestow grace regardless of the person himself or herself.  But the Church has always understood the grace attached to the Sacraments in two dimensions.  First there is the grace attained through the sacraments ex opere operato.  This refers to the fact that the Sacraments are instrumental causes of grace.  This means that it is “from the work performed” (literal meaning of ex opere operato) alone grace is given by a Sacrament regardless of the faith of the recipient or the minister.

It is the second dimension however that is consistently ignored today and that is the grace available, ex opere operantis. This is the actual “amount” of grace received relative to the disposition of the receiver. It is this distinction that helps explain why the Eucharist contains enough grace to sanctify the world and yet the amount of grace varies from individual to individual.

It is the ex opere operantis character of sacramental grace which keeps the Sacraments from becoming magical instruments.  The Sacrament may objectively bestow grace, but only in the amount that the recipient has the capacity for.  Those who are not disposed at all, receive no sanctifying grace even though it is still present in the Sacrament.  As St. Thomas says, “whatever is received, is received according to the mode of the receiver and not according to the mode of the giver.”  The Sacraments are beautifully adapted to human nature—both universally and individually.  They do not overpower man—that would make them magic.  Instead they are truly super-natural, building upon a man’s natural condition.

Those who think they are being “pastoral” by relaxing the “laws” around the Sacrament are doing more than just treated the Sacraments like magic.  As Pope Benedict said on a number of occasions; to be pastoral does not mean to change the truth but to help the other adjust his life to the truth.  The truth is that the Sacraments may be necessary for salvation (either absolutely or relatively), but they are not sufficient.  This gift requires the proper environment to grow in and when that environment is not provided the person may be worse off than they would have otherwise been.  While Baptism leaves an indelible mark on the soul, that mark becomes a bulls-eye for the evil one when it is not protected and nourished.  Likewise with Confirmation—we put on the soldier’s uniform we should expect to get attacked by the enemy.  Our Lord seems to warn us of this when He speaks of a man, who after being cleansed of an evil spirit finds himself inhabited by seven more because his house was empty and actually ends up worse off (Mt 12:44-46).  Somebody may have told the Corinthians it was fine to go to Communion, but St. Paul says there are dangerous consequences for the person in a state of grave sin.  One may have permission to go to Communion, but that doesn’t mean they should.  Likewise, a person may wrongly assume they are in a state of grace after going to Confession.  Is this person better off than the person who knows they are in sin?

Just so we don’t think this is just Pope Francis’ problem or some liberal Priest who gives Communion to whoever shows up at the Church, we should examine ourselves and see what our own mentality is.  How often do we approach the Sacraments as if they are going to magically heal us without the hard work of repentance?  Continually confessing the same sins in the Sacrament of Confession?  Perhaps we are waiting for God to magically heal us and not actively cooperating with Him.  Receiving the Eucharist regularly and yet not gaining a further share in Christ’s virtues?  Perhaps we are not preparing ourselves well.  Timid in witnessing to the Faith?  Perhaps we are doing something to stand in the way of the grace of Confirmation.

In summary, I turn to the Catechism which reminds us:

The assembly should prepare itself to encounter its Lord and to become “a people well disposed.” The preparation of hearts is the joint work of the Holy Spirit and the assembly, especially of its ministers. The grace of the Holy Spirit seeks to awaken faith, conversion of heart, and adherence to the Father’s will. These dispositions are the precondition both for the reception of other graces conferred in the celebration itself and the fruits of new life which the celebration is intended to produce afterward (CCC 1098).

Not magic, indeed.  Paraphrasing Augustine, “God will not save us, even by the Sacraments, without us.”  Grace may be free, but it isn’t cheap.

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