Today is the first post of a series explaining the Roman Catholic church. We will begin with the sacraments to see the process of salvation. The sacraments make up the greater part of worship in Roman Catholicism so understanding these is key to understanding Rome. How many are there and what are they?
(All quoted material has numbers before it. The numbers direct you to the exact place in the catechism. )
The Seven Sacraments of the Church
Christ instituted the sacraments of the new law. There are seven: Baptism, Confirmation (or Chrismation), the Eucharist, Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony. The seven sacraments touch all the stages and all the important moments of Christian life: they give birth and increase, healing and mission to the Christians life of faith. There is thus a certain resemblance between the stages of natural life and the stages of the spiritual life.
There are three types of sacraments: Sacraments of initiation, sacraments of healing, and sacraments of service. We will walk through these individually starting with…
The Sacraments of Christian Initiation
The sacraments of Christian initiation–Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist–lay the foundations of every Christian life. “The sharing in the divine nature given to men through the grace of Christ bears a certain likeness to the origin, development, and nourishing of natural life. The faithful are born anew by Baptism, strengthened by the sacrament of Confirmation, and receive in the Eucharist the food of eternal life. By means of these sacraments of Christian initiation, they thus receive in increasing measure the treasures of the divine life and advance toward the perfection of charity.”
Already we can see a theme that characterizes Roman theology. The visible reality is directly tied to the spiritual reality and you cannot separate the two. This is one of the greatest differences between Rome and Protestants to note because it is often a cause of confusion. For example, when talking about the “body of Christ” a protestant will think about the invisible universal collection of believers that make up the church. However, to a Roman Catholic the invisible church is also the visible church, they are directly connected. (That explanation found in the teaching of Catholic Apologist Dr. Lawrence Feingold). Keep that in mind when going through this first sacrament of Baptism.
The Sacrament of Baptism
Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), 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 in the word.”
This is a doctrine known as baptismal regeneration. Regeneration is the word commonly used for the “born again” experience that Christ speaks of in John 3. It is the conversion of the believer where they are given a new heart and become an entirely new creation in Christ. Generally protestants believe that regeneration happens during conversion of the heart with faith. However, to the Roman Catholic, regeneration is directly tied to physical water baptism. (To note, Lutherans also hold to baptismal regeneration although not to the extent that Roman Catholics take it to)
This section on baptism shows the works oriented nature of Rome’s gospel. It is fundamentally bound with the material and thus good works become the basis of our salvation.
The Necessity of Baptism
The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them. Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are “reborn of water and the Spirit.” God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.
Here, speaking of water baptism, Rome says it is “necessary for salvation.” If that wasn’t clear enough we often see the true nature when answering what may be loopholes in the system. What do you do if someone dies before receiving water baptism?
For catechumens who die before their Baptism, their explicit desire to receive it, together with repentance for their sins, and charity, assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament.
It is amazing that Faith is not even mentioned in the requirements for assurance of salvation, though repentance is thrown in there. The notable sentence is, “salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament.” That is an important line. If you can’t receive it physically, then your fervent desire to have it is what gives you the same salvation. Here they are urging people to have faith, however it is not faith in Christ’s ability to save, but faith in the power of baptism to save. If that wasn’t clear enough here is the summary at the end of the chapter.
Baptism is birth into the new life in Christ. In accordance with the Lord’s will, it is necessary for salvation, as is the Church herself, which we enter by Baptism.
Again, keeping in mind that the physical is tied to the spiritual that is a chilling statement. While baptism is necessary for salvation, in Roman theology, it is not the end. In fact, you have not received the Holy Spirit yet. Baptism only begins the process of salvation which will continue through the rest of your life (and does not end until all temporary punishment has been payed off in purgatory). While baptism “is surely valid and efficacious” confirmation is required because, “Christian initiation remains incomplete” (paragraph 1306). The second step is confirmation where you receive the Holy Spirit by your confirming the act of baptism with the “Church.”
The Sacrament of Confirmation
Baptism, the Eucharist, and the sacrament of Confirmation together constitute the “sacraments of Christian initiation,” whose unity must be safeguarded. It must be explained to the faithful that the reception of the sacrament of Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace. For “by the sacrament of Confirmation, [the baptized] are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit. Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed.
A key phrase in the above statement is in saying that confirmation is “necessary for the completion of baptismal grace.” While you were regenerated in baptism, God’s grace for salvation and true regeneration is not completed until you confirm it through the church with the laying on of hands and anointing with oil (paragraphs 1293-1296).
Confirmation perfects Baptismal grace; it is the sacrament which gives the Holy Spirit in order to root us more deeply in the filiation, incorporate us more firmly into Christ, strengthen our bond with the Church, associate us more closely with her mission, and help us bear witness to the Christian faith in words accompanied by deeds. (also found in paragraphs 1294- 1296)
Here the saving grace of God is continually placed onto that which is physical in nature, turning the free gift into a work done. In the next post we will follow with the conclusion of initiation, the Eucharist. This is the “source and summit” of the Church’s activity. Everything revolves around this and so it is important to understand.
There are two things that should be clear to any Protestant. One, this process being defined looks nothing like what we find in the bible. While baptismal regeneration may have a better biblical case (though I still think it is wrong), the idea of confirmation is nowhere taught in the didactic portions of scripture (the epistles). This shows something that will be covered in future posts, the nature of authority in the Catholic church is very different than in Protestantism. We hold to Sola Scriptura, which means “Scripture alone” is the sole authority. In Roman Catholicism both scripture, and church tradition are authoritative, with the latter being more primary because it is the church that interprets scripture.