The Catholic Church has seven Sacraments. But we also have sacramentals, symbols, icons, and various kinds of rituals and prayers. What makes something a Sacrament specifically – and why are there only seven?
For something to be a Sacrament is has to meet three essential criteria. If something is lacking just one of these criteria, it is not a Sacrament.
A Sacrament is an (1) outward sign and (2) means of grace (3) instituted by Christ. Let’s unpack each of these.
1) Outward Sign
All the Sacraments have outward signs, including words, gestures, and objects like water and oil. This is very important for sacraments because it makes it so we can tell when they are taking place. If a sacrament was invisible, it could be hard to know if you’ve received any!
As St. Thomas Aquinas explains in his Summa (III.60.4), human beings are physical creatures that learn things through our senses. So it makes sense that God would communicate his grace to us in a way that’s accessible to us.
So, for example, when a person is baptized, the minister pours water on their head (or fully immerse them in the water) and pronounces the words given to the Church by Jesus “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
2) Means of Grace
But the Sacraments are not merely symbols: they actually effect the spiritual realities they symbolize.
There are many powerful religious symbols in the Church (and outside of it); but if something is just a symbol, and doesn’t actually give the grace of God, then it isn’t a Sacrament.
This is important because we humans are in desperate need of God’s grace, and the Sacraments are the ordinary means by which we receive it.
3) Instituted by Christ
But many visible signs could possibly be used by God to give someone grace. But for something to be one of the seven Sacraments, it has to have been instituted by Jesus himself during his earthly ministry.
For example, the Rosary is a wonderful spiritual practice; and praying it may even be an occasion for God to give a person grace. But it is not a Sacrament because it was not instituted by Jesus.
Thus, the Sacraments are not something the Church can change or add to; rather, they are something the Church has received from Our Lord and that the Church guards, performs, and passes on.
So why are there only seven Sacraments? Because that’s the number of outward signs of grace that were instituted by Christ!