The Difference Between a Sacrament and a Sacramental

A Lesson Inspired by the Baltimore Catechism

Our Lady of Mount Carmel
Our Lady of Mount Carmel giving the brown scapular to the Carmelite Ss. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Therese of Lisieux.

Fr. Lawrence Lew/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0/Flickr

Most of the time, when we hear the word sacramental today, it's being used as an adjective—as something related to one of the seven sacraments. But in the Catholic Church, sacramental has another meaning, as a noun, referring to objects or actions that the Church recommends to us to inspire devotion. What is the difference between a sacrament and a sacramental?

What Does the Baltimore Catechism Say?

Question 293 of the Baltimore Catechism, found in Lesson Twenty-Third of the First Communion Edition and Lesson Twenty-Seventh of the Confirmation Edition, frames the question and answer this way:

The difference between the Sacraments and the sacramentals is: 1st, The Sacraments were instituted by Jesus Christ and the sacramentals were instituted by the Church; 2nd, The Sacraments give grace of themselves when we place no obstacle in the way; the sacramentals excite in us pious dispositions, by means of which we may obtain grace.

Are the Sacramentals Merely Manmade Traditions?

Reading the answer given by the Baltimore Catechism, we may be tempted to think that sacramentals such as holy water, rosaries, statues of saints, and scapulars are mere man-made traditions, trinkets or rituals (like the Sign of the Cross) that set us Catholics apart from other Christians. Indeed, many Protestants regard the use of sacramentals as unnecessary at best and idolatrous at worst.

Like the sacraments, however, sacramentals remind us of an underlying reality that isn't obvious to the senses. The Sign of the Cross reminds us of Christ's sacrifice, but also the indelible mark that is placed on our soul in the Sacrament of Baptism. Statues and holy cards help us to imagine the lives of the saints so that we can be inspired by their example to follow Christ more faithfully.

Do We Need Sacramentals Like We Need the Sacraments?

Still, it's true that we don't need any sacramentals the way we need the sacraments. To take just the most obvious example, Baptism unites us to Christ and the Church; without it, we cannot be saved. No amount of holy water and no rosary or scapular can save us. But while sacramentals cannot save us, they aren't contrary to the sacraments, but complementary. In fact, sacramentals like holy water and the Sign of the Cross, holy oils and blessed candles, are used in the sacraments as visible signs of the graces conferred by the sacraments.

Isn't the Grace of the Sacraments Enough?

Why, though, do Catholics use sacramentals outside of the sacraments? Isn't the grace of the sacraments enough for us?

While the grace of the sacraments, derived from Christ's sacrifice on the Cross, is certainly sufficient for salvation, we can never have too much grace to help us live lives of faith and virtue. In reminding us of Christ and the saints, and in calling to mind the sacraments that we have received, sacramentals encourage us to seek the grace that God offers us every day to grow in love for Him and for our fellow man.

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Your Citation
Richert, Scott P. "The Difference Between a Sacrament and a Sacramental." Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, Richert, Scott P. (2020, August 27). The Difference Between a Sacrament and a Sacramental. Retrieved from Richert, Scott P. "The Difference Between a Sacrament and a Sacramental." Learn Religions. (accessed March 26, 2023).