“The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1131
“Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3)
Ever since the Protestant Reformation (and occasionally before it), the debate has raged as to whether sacraments are mere signs. Does baptism effect something in our salvation, or is it merely a public symbol of something that happens independent of the sacrament? Is the Eucharist really the body and blood of Jesus Christ, or is it it a symbolic reminder of what he did for us on the cross?
We Roman Catholics come down firmly on the side of the sacraments being real, and so it might seem strange to see the Catholic Catechism refer to sacraments as signs. And what does it mean for sacraments to be “efficacious signs?”
We Catholics are comfortable calling baptism and the Eucharist signs, because the real debate isn’t between whether sacraments are signs or not, but about whose signs they are.
When human beings create signs, we usually establish an artificial connection between one thing and another. We agree, for example, that a red octagon will signify a place where cars need to stop, but there is no necessary connection between red octagons and stopping. Our signs are thus of limited effectiveness, serving only to communicate certain ideas within a shared cultural context. If, as many Protestants think, sacraments are signs in this sense, they they are an entirely humanly generated and humanly directed action. God’s act was dying on the cross for us, our act is to signify and stimulate our faith in this reality through certain symbolic acts (baptism and Eucharist).
For Catholics, however, sacraments are not human signs, but divine ones. And we know this about the signs of God—they are always effective. We most often talk about this in terms of the word of God, but words are just one kind of sign. What God speaks or signs, God accomplishes. So take baptism for example, when we say baptism is regenerative, we are not saying that baptism is not a symbol, but it is a symbol in the sense of being a sure word of God, and being a word of God it is something we can, in faith, rely upon.
As St. John Chrystostom said of the Eucharist, Jesus declared, “‘This is my body,’ and made it so by his word” (Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew). Clearly the Eucharist is a sign, but it’s a sign of which Jesus says “is my body.” Jesus who is God, whose words are effective. And sure enough St. Paul, meditating on these words, says that through the cup and bread we participate in the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
This is what separates Catholic understanding (along with Orthodox and high Protestant traditions) from many of the Protestant traditions. We don’t believe the sacraments are real and effective as some kind of magic performed by human beings. We believe they are real and effective because they are acts of God in which we participate by his grace. As such, they are sings that actually accomplish what they signify. We thus approach them with confidence and faith to receive the grace God has promised to give.