“This is the sweet mystery of life: the Sacraments.”
~Abp. Fulton J. Sheen
Cradle Catholics take it for granted that the number of sacraments is seven. It just is. “It has always been thus,” as the saying goes. But has it?
Well, not really. Or, maybe it’s better to take the lawyer’s position and say, “Both Yes and No” or “It depends.” Let me explain.
Rooted in Scripture
The Yes part of the answer is that the number has always been seven. Above all, it’s not hard to find evidence for the seven sacraments in the Bible. Here is the basic rundown (the citations below are only a selection. Many more could be added):
- Baptism: Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; John 3:1-7.
- Confirmation: Acts 19:3-6; Acts 2:1-13; Hebrews 6:2.
- Eucharist: John 6:30-71; Matthew 26-26-29; 1 Corinthians 11:24-27.
- Penance: Matthew 16:19; John 20:21-23; James 5:16.
- Anointing of the Sick (Extreme Unction): Mark 6:13: James 5:14-15.
- Holy Orders: John 20:21-23; Acts 6:3-6; 1 Timothy 3:1, 5:22.
- Matrimony: Matthew 19:4-6; Ephesians 5:31-32; Revelation 20:1-3.
In other words, the sacraments are all scripturally based, so we should never let anyone tell us that they are non-biblical “inventions” of the Catholic Church. Keep in mind that the sacraments were around from the very beginning of the Church – even before the New Testament was written! They have been guarded in the heart of the Church for twenty centuries.
In essence we are saying that sacraments are the Church’s holiest possessions – more accurately, gifts – because they are of divine origin, and we must always remember that when we receive them. They are the most sacred of all the sacred windows of our faith.
Pope St. Leo the Great said that the presence of God in this world has passed into the sacraments. They are a pretty awesome realities when you think about it.
Number Depends on Definition
Historically, the core problem for the Church was not figuring out the number. The issue was how to define a sacrament, namely, how to determine what qualified as a sacrament and what did not. And that is the No answer: if you don’t know what a sacrament is, just about anything holy can be a sacrament, and that number isn’t limited to seven.
One very clever theologian in the early middle ages, for example, thought that there were thirty sacraments! His name was Hugh of St. Victor, and please don’t blame him for his theology because he just thought that other holy things such as holy water, blessed ashes, the sign of the cross, and the taking of religious vows, among others, were also sacraments.
It was an honest mistake. We take the seven sacraments as a given, but it wasn’t always so. Such a saintly man as St. Peter Damian thought the consecration of kings was an eighth sacrament. The famous theologian, Peter Abelard, believed the number of sacraments was six, and other theologians of the day thought there were five or twelve. (Old Hugh takes the cake with thirty, however.)
This diversity of numbers came about because the Church hadn’t settled on a clear definition of a sacrament, as distinct from a random holy thing.
The issue was finally settled in the year 1213 when the Fourth Lateran Council fixed the number of sacraments at seven; the Church reaffirmed the number seven again at the Council of Florence in 1439; and then definitively at the Council of Trent (1545-63).
Now, I know what you must be thinking: “You mean it took 1,200 years to define the number of sacraments?!” I get your dilemma. It seems like the Church was a little slow on the uptake! This was not an easy matter for the Church to get right. But why, exactly, did it take so long?
An Organic Process
First of all, since the Church didn’t invent the sacraments, the full understanding of them took place through an organic process of development, which of course, like any natural process, took time.
Joseph Martos, in his book Doors to the Sacred, says that one reason it took so long is because the Church was pretty busy for a few centuries. For example:
- From the time of Christ to the Roman Emperor Constantine (313 AD) the Church was fending off one violent persecution after another. During these centuries, the Church took for granted that the sacraments had been handed on to them by the Apostles.
- The Fathers of the Church (roughly 200 to 700 AD) then spent a good deal of time on doctrinal controversies and on clarifying critical doctrines like the divinity and humanity of Christ. But they didn’t define the sacraments because these were lived realities, not disputed matters.
- After that, the Church was too busy evangelizing and converting all the pagan tribes of Europe in the centuries following the Fall of Rome (roughly 500-1000 AD). Finally,
- The Crusades happened: there were as many as eight Crusades from 1096 to 1270 AD, and, needless to say, it’s hard to write books when the majority of a nation’s youth are off conquering and defending foreign lands.
Martos goes on to say that the rise of several new religious orders in the Middle Ages, particularly the Dominicans and the Franciscans, together with the establishment of universities, led to a precise definition of what a sacrament is.
Here again we have another Catholic marvel. The great medieval universities grew out of Catholic cathedral schools: Oxford was established about 1096; University of Paris, 1150; University of Padua, 1222, among others. These centers of culture and faith systematized higher learning and allowed scholars to get into the depths of teachings that had formed the foundation of the Church’s life for a thousand years. Says Martos: