The Sacraments are NOT Magic – Part II

Following on my last blog post The Sacraments are NOT Magic, I received an excellent question from a reader, and it warranted being shared:


Thank you for your blog post about the sacraments not being magic. I have a further question for you. What about infant baptism? We believe that it is the faith of the parents, godparents and the Church that stands in for the faith of the infant. However, isn't this also somewhat of a "magical" thinking approach when we think that baptism is completed when the RITE of infant baptism is completed?


No one who has raised children will say that their child has been transformed in Christ as they enter their "terrible twos!" Rather it seems to me that the full grace of the sacrament of baptism is given but lays dormant, like a seed in the ground awaiting Spring, until the free will of the individual is engaged and the grace of Baptism is appropriated through the person hearing the initial proclamation of the Gospel and coming to salvific faith - the "first and fundamental conversion."


What are your thoughts and is there support for this view in St. Thomas?


This is an excellent question! There are a few things to sort through. First is the distinction between sacramental character and grace: Those sacraments that are only received once (Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Orders) impart both grace and character - while the sacraments that we receive more than once (Eucharist, Anointing of the Sick, etc) only impart grace. So your question of infant Baptism seems to be related in part to this. The character (the Catechism calls this an indelible mark - CCC #1121) marks a person's soul and conforms them to Christ the high priest. Likewise the grace can serve some specific effect (ex: remedy for sin, cause of sanctification, etc).

Second we must distinguish between the "virtus fidei" (virtue of faith) and "actus fidei" (the act of faith). What does this mean? Perhaps it would be best to go straight to the source.  In the Summa Aquinas asks, "Whether lifeless faith can become living, or living faith, lifeless?" (ST II-II, q4, a4).  In this section of the Summa we learn an important thing about faith, namely that it is a supernatural virtue given to us by God.  Remember, a virtue is a habitual disposition to the good (God).  This is crucial for us to understand the distinction between what is called "the virtue of faith" and "the act of faith."


It is not as though these are two separate "things" that we receive - both of them are ways of describing one reality: faith.  When we say "the virtue of faith" we are talking about a gift given to us by God that gives us a capacity to believe.  Aquinas says that faith resides in the intellect: "Now, to believe is immediately an act of the intellect, because the object of that act is 'the true,' which pertains properly to the intellect" (ST II-II, q4, a2).


When we say the "act of faith" what we are referring to is that by an act of the will, a person is moved to assent to belief in God. In other words, they make an explicit, personal, free choice to believe. The person realizes some truth about God (in their intellect) which moves them (by their will) to make an explicit act of faith. Thus the "virtue of faith" and the "act of faith" are both related to the exact same gift (Faith), but the latter refers to the person making a conscious choice.


Regarding infant baptism, Aquinas also gives us another helpful principle: "Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur" (Whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver). If you apply this principle to infants, the mode of the infant receiving the sacrament of Baptism is one in which they are not able to make the act of faith - likewise they are certainly not opposing the virtue of faith being received. They do, in fact, receive the virtue of faith and as the person reaches the age of reason they grow in their ability to respond to that grace. The hope is that someday they will be moved to an explicit act of faith, which allows them to live a more adult faith. This happens primarily through the family, whom we believe are responsible for helping to cultivate their child's faith.


Have a blessed Lent!