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§ 97. The Seven Sacraments.


Mediaeval Christianity was intensely sacramental, sacerdotal and hierarchical. The ideas of priest, sacrifice, and altar are closely connected. The sacraments were regarded as the channels of all grace and the chief food of the soul. They accompanied human life from the cradle to the grave. The child was saluted into this world by the sacrament of baptism; the old man was provided with the viaticum on his journey to the other world.

The chief sacraments were baptism and the eucharist. Baptism was regarded as the sacrament of the new birth which opens the door to the kingdom of heaven the eucharist as the sacrament of sanctification which maintains and nourishes the new life.

Beyond these two sacraments several other rites were dignified with that name, but there was no agreement as to the number before the scholastic period. The Latin sacramentum, like the Greek mystery (of which it is the translation in the Vulgate), was long used in a loose and indefinite way for sacred and mysterious doctrines and rites. Rabanus Maurus and Paschasius Radbertus count four sacraments, Dionysius Areopagita, six; Damiani, as many as twelve. By the authority chiefly of Peter the Lombard and Thomas Aquinas the sacred number seven was at last determined upon, and justified by various analogies with the number of virtues, and the number of sins, and the necessities of human life.506506    Otto, bishop of Bamberg (between 1139 and 1189), is usually reported to have introduced the seven sacraments among the Pomeranians whom he had converted to Christianity, but the discourse on which this tradition rests is of doubtful genuineness. The scholastic number seven was confirmed by the Council of Florence (the Greek delegates assenting), and by the Council of Trent which anathematizes all who teach more or less, Sess. VII. can. I. The Protestant churches admit only two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, because these alone are especially commanded by Christ to be observed. Yet ordination and marriage, and in some churches confirmation also, are retained as solemn religious ceremonies.

But seven sacraments existed as sacred rites long before the church was agreed on the number. We find them with only slight variations independently among the Greeks under the name of “mysteries” as well as among the Latins. They are, besides baptism and the eucharist (which is a sacrifice as well as a sacrament): confirmation, penance (confession and absolution), marriage, ordination, and extreme unction.

Confirmation was closely connected with baptism as a sort of supplement. It assumed a more independent character in the case of baptized infants and took place later. It may be performed in the Greek church by any priest, in the Latin only by the bishop.507507    The Lutheran church retains confirmation by the minister, the Anglican church by the bishop.

Penance was deemed necessary for sins after baptism.508508    See above, § 87.

Ordination is the sacrament of the hierarchy and indispensable for the government of the church.

Marriage lies at the basis of the family and society in church and state, and was most closely and jealously guarded by the church against facility of divorce, against mixed marriages, and marriages between near relatives.

Extreme unction with prayer (first mentioned among the sacraments by a synod of Pavia in 850, and by Damiani) was the viaticum for the departure into the other world, and based on the direction of St. James 5:14, 15 (Comp. Mark 6:13; 16:18). At first it was applied in every sickness, by layman as well as priest, as a medical cure and as a substitute for amulets and forms of incantation; but the Latin church afterwards confined it to of extreme danger.

The efficacy of the sacrament was defined by the scholastic term ex opere operato, that is, the sacrament has its intended effect by virtue of its institution and inherent power, independently of the moral character of the priest and of the recipient, provided only that it be performed in the prescribed manner and with the proper intention and provided that the recipient throw no obstacle in the way.509509    Here, too, the Protestant (at least the Reformed) confessions differ from the Roman Catholic by requiring faith in active exercise as a condition of receiving the benefit of the sacrament. In the case of infant baptism the faith of the parents or responsible guardians is taken into account. Without such faith the sacrament would be wasted and profaned.

Three of the Sacraments, namely baptism, confirmation, and ordination, have in addition the effect of conferring an indelible character.510510    Character indelebilis Once baptized always baptized, though the benefit may be forfeited for ever; once ordained always ordained, though a priest may be deposed and excommunicated.



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