Outward Signs in the Catholic Religion

by Susan Peterson

Augustine was the first to speak of sacraments being signs of grace. The phrase most used in Catholic literature is, "Sacraments are outward signs of inward grace, instituted by Christ for our sanctification." This belief in outward signs acknowledges that human beings are embodied creatures. They live in a world of touch, sound and taste. Consequently, they best express their faith in terms of physical signs and actions.

History of the Phrase

The phrase "outward signs of inward grace" dates back to Peter Lombard, a 12th-century Catholic theologian, known as the Master of the Sentences. He said that the outward sign was both a symbol of the inner grace and also its cause. His phrase and the theology behind it were adopted by Thomas Aquinas and the medieval scholastics, the authors of much of the classic theology of the church. The Council of Trent later declared that these signs have the power to sanctify, or to convey grace to human souls.

Sacraments

The Roman Catholic Church recognizes seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation (or Chrismation), the Eucharist, Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony. The sacraments mark important stages in people's lives. They are outward signs of God's grace in the lives of those who partake of these sacraments. The outward sign of the sacrament of baptism, for example, involves pouring water over the candidate's head. The inward grace of baptism is regeneration and renewal. Through baptism, sins are forgiven and the candidate becomes an adopted child of God.

Sacramentals

Sacramentals, according to the "Catechism of the Catholic Church," are "sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments." They include blessings, incense, pilgrimages, holy images and statues, rosaries, the sign of the cross and other actions and objects. Their purpose of sacramentals is to focus the devotion of the faithful. They are outward signs of the prayers of the people. As such, they are the visible evidence of the people entrusting their lives to God, and God hearing and answering prayer.

Other Outward Signs

In a looser sense of the term, other everyday actions can be outward signs. Michael Leach, author of "Why Stay Catholic?," suggests in his 2012 article in the "National Catholic Reporter" that hugs might be an outward sign of an inward grace. He says that they convey "unity and loving regard." He also speaks of their ability to heal the spirit.

About the Author

Susan Peterson is the author of five books, including "Western Herbs for Martial Artists and Contact Athletes" and "Clare: A Novel." She holds a Ph.D. in text theory from the University of Texas at Arlington and is an avid cook and gardener.

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