According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC, #1116), “Sacraments are powers that come forth from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving. They are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church. They are the masterworks of God in the new and everlasting covenant.” Cardinal Henri de Lubac (Catholicism, Ignatius Press, 1988, pp. 2) notes that “since the sacraments are the means of salvation, they should be understood as instruments of unity. As they make real, renew or strengthen man’s union with Christ, by that very fact they make real, renew or strengthen his union with the Christian community. And this second aspect of the sacraments, the social aspect, is so intimately bound up with the first that it can often be said, indeed in certain cases it must be said, that it is through his union with the community that the Christian is united to Christ.” In paragraph #1118, the Catechism states that “the sacraments are ‘of the Church’ in the double sense that they are ‘by her’ and ‘for her.’ They are ‘by the Church,’ for she is the sacrament of Christ’s action at work in her through the mission of the Holy Spirit. They are ‘for the Church’ in the sense that the sacraments make the Church, since they manifest and communicate to men, above all in the Eucharist, they mystery of communion with the God who is love, One in three persons.”
In his Essential Catholic Handbook of the Sacraments (Liguori Publications, 2001, pp.17), Fr. Thomas Santa described that “contemporary sacramental theology emphasizes four essential components: the sacraments as efficacious signs of grace; celebrated by a priestly community; formed by the Holy Spirit and the Word of God; which give personal and ecclesial life to those who celebrate them.”
But what about sacramentals?
The late Fr. John Hardon, S.J., has stated that “the Church’s liturgy is primarily the sacraments, which directly confer the grace they signify. Besides the sacraments, however, there are also sacramentals. Both should be seen together, because both are sources of divine grace. But sacramentals were not immediately instituted by Christ. They were, and are, instituted by the Church, which is guided by her founder, Jesus Christ.” (The Faith, Servant Publications, 1995, pp. 141) In his Pocket Catholic Dictionary (1985, pp. 380), Fr. Hardon further differentiates between sacrament and sacramental. “Sacraments are a sensible sign, instituted by Christ, by which invisible grace and inward sanctification are communicated to the soul. The essential elements of a sacrament of the New Law are institution by Christ the God-man during his visible stay on earth, and a sensibly perceptible rite that actually confers the supernatural grace it symbolizes. Sacramentals, on the other hand, are objects or actions that the Church uses after the manner of sacraments, in order to achieve through the merits of the faithful certain effects, mainly of a supernatural nature. They differ from the sacraments in not having been instituted by Christ. Their efficacy depends not on the rite itself, as in the sacraments, but on the influence of a powerful petition; that of the person who uses them and of the Church in approving their practice.”
How do sacraments and sacramentals both express the Incarnational Principle?
St. Thomas Aquinas declared that God could redeem the world in many ways, but chose to become flesh because it was the most fitting. The Incarnational Principle, therefore, speaks to the use of a material reality which can communicate and mediate the spiritual world, thereby allowing us to know God more perfectly. In pondering this mystery, St. Gregory of Nysa wrote: “sick, our nature demanded to be healed; fallen, to be raised up; dead, to rise again. We had lost the possession of good, it was necessary for it to be given back to us.” (CCC, #457)
From a Catholic understanding, the entire mystery of the incarnation comes through the mediation of the material world. God continues to communicate himself in this way. Therefore, by joining ourselves to the sacraments and sacramentals, all of our senses work in ways that we might fully appreciate the graces flowing toward us, both individually and corporately.