Character (in Catholic Theology)

Character indicates a special effect produced by three of the sacraments, viz. Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy orders. This special effect is called the sacramental character. The term implies a relation (as will be explained below) to a term used in the Epistle to the Hebrews (1:3) concerning the Son of God, who is there described as the Charaktèr tês hypostáseos autoû, or "figure [figura] of the Father's substance". In Protestant theology, the term character is used in another sense in treatises concerning the Blessed Trinity; the phrase "hypostatic character" being employed to signify the distinctive characteristic (or what Catholic theologians call the proprietas personalis) of each of the Three Divine Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Here we are concerned only with the sense of the word in Catholic theology, that is, with sacramental character.

Sacramental character means a special supernatural and ineffaceable mark, or seal, or distinction, impressed upon the soul by each of the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy orders; and it is by reason of this ineffaceable mark that none of these three sacraments may be administered more than once to the same person. This is express Catholic doctrine declared both in the Council of Florence (Sess. ult., Decret. Eugenii IV, §5) and in the Council of Trent (Sess. VII, can. ix, and Sess. XXIII, cap. iv and can. iv). "If any one shall say that in three sacraments, viz. Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy orders, there is not a character impressed upon the soul, that is a certain spiritual and ineffaceable mark [signum] whence these sacraments cannot be iterated, let him be anathema" (Concil. Trid. Sess. ult., can. vii). If, indeed, there be grave doubt whether any one of these sacraments has really been administered, or whether the maimer of its administration has been valid, then it may be administered in a conditional form. But if they really have been validly administered, they cannot again, without sacrilege, be conferred upon the same person. The character imparted by these sacraments is something distinct from the grace imparted by them. In common with the other sacraments, they are channels of sanctifying grace. But these three have the special prerogative of conferring both grace and a character. In consequence of the distinction between the sacramental grace and the sacramental character, it may even happen, in the reception of these sacraments, that the character is imparted and the grace withheld; the lack of proper dispositions which is sufficient to prevent the reception of the grace may not prevent the reception of the character. Thus, an adult who receives baptism without right faith and repentance but with a real intention of receiving the sacrament, obtains the character without the grace. The sacramental character, then, is not in itself a sanctifying gift; it is of a legal and official, rather than of a moral, nature. Nevertheless, normally, the character has a connection with grace. It is only accidentally, by reason of some faulty disposition in the recipient of the sacrament, that the association between the character and the grace is broken. In the Divine intention, and in the efficacy of the sacraments, the grace and the character go together; and the grace is proportioned to the special function which the character indicates. So that the character is sometimes called a sign, or mark, of grace.

The sacramental character, as we have said, is ineffaceable from the soul. This means, not that the effacement of this spiritual mark is an absolute metaphysical impossibility, but that in the established order of Divine Providence there is no cause which can destroy it in this life--neither sin, nor degradation from the ecclesiastical state, nor apostasy. This is of faith; and it is a theological opinion of great probability that the character is not effaced from the souls of the blessed in Heaven; while it is an opinion of some probability, that it is not effaced from the souls of the lost. Theology further tells us that character is a mark, sign, or badge by which the recipient is devoted to the work of worshipping God according to the ordinances of the Christian religion and Christian life; and that this is the reason why a character should be impressed by the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy orders rather than by the others. Not all of the sacraments are directly and immediately ordained for the work of Divine worship; e.g. the Sacrament of Penance only absolves from sin, restoring the sinner to his former state, but not conferring on him any special privilege or faculty. Again, among the sacraments immediately connected with the worship of God, we may distinguish between the sacrament which constitutes the very act of worship (that is the Eucharist), and those sacraments which qualify a person to take part, as an agent or recipient, in the worship. Now these last are Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy orders. The Sacrament of Orders consecrates a man to the work of Divine worship as an agent, i.e. for the conferring of the sacraments upon other persons; baptism dedicates a person to Divine worship by qualifying him to receive the other sacraments; and confirmation, which confers spiritual manhood (as distinguished from the new birth of baptism), qualifies the recipient for the duty of honouring God by professing the Christian Faith before its enemies. The sacramental character is compared by theologians to a military badge, or the insignia of an order of knighthood. Scotus illustrates it by an argument drawn from the analogy of civil society, in which he names three official ranks:

  • the royal household, or that of the chief magistrate, by whatever name he may be called;

  • the public service, e.g. the army;

  • the officers of the army.

By baptism, he says, we are enrolled in the household of Christ; by confirmation, we are made soldiers of Christ; by Holy orders, we are made officers. And as these ranks have their distinctive badges in civil society, so in the spiritual society, or Church, the ranks are distinguished in the sight of God and His angels by spiritual badges, marks, or sacramental characters. All theologians affirm that the sacramental character is not a mere external denomination; and practically all are agreed that it is a sort of quality or state made inherent in the soul. Those, such as Scotus, who say that it is a relation (to Christ) mean that it is a relation with a real fundamentum, or ground and whether we say that it is a relation having a ground in the soul, or a state or quality involving a relation, seems to signify quite the same thing, the difference being only in the expression. The category of quality being divided by Aristotelean and Scholastic philosophers into four kinds, theologians for the most part classify the sacramental character as something akin to the genus of quality called power. Theologians also tell us that the character inheres not in the very substance of the soul but in one of the rational faculties; but it is a question in dispute whether the faculty in which the character inheres as its subject be the will or the practical reason (the Scotists holding that it is the will; the Thomists, that it is the practical reason). The sacramental character or mark is the character or mark of Christ, not of the Holy Spirit, and as the Redeemer has three prerogatives, as Prophet, Priest, and King, this mark is the mark of Christ as Priest. It is a participation in His priesthood and an assimilation to it. Now, every created perfection is a shadow of some perfection of the Deity, and therefore assimilation to Christ even in His human nature is assimilation to God. And as the Son is described in the Epistle to the Hebrews as "the Character of the Father's substance", hence the sacramental character has been defined as "a distinction impressed by the Eternal Character [the Son] upon the created trinity [i.e. the soul with the intellect and the will] sealing it into a likeness (secundum imaginem consignans) unto the Trinity which creates and anew-creates (Trinitati creanti et recreanti)." For theology distinguishes in the soul

  • the natural image and likeness of God;

  • the likeness produced by sanctifying grace and faith, hope, and charity;

  • the likeness not moral, but, so to say, legal and official, produced by the sacramental character.

The doctrine of the sacramental character is one of those which have been developed, and its history is traceable with sufficient clearness. It is to be observed, however, that the doctrine rests upon the authority of the Council of Trent, and that the history is given as history, not for the purpose of invoking the authority of the primitive Church. Though first solemnly defined by the Council of Trent, it had already been officially declared in the Council of Florence; and it was the unanimous opinion of all theologians, long before the time of Wyclif, who questioned it. It was set forth with the utmost explicitness by St. Augustine in the controversies of the fifth century. He points out that all who favoured rebaptism did so because they failed to distinguish between two effects of the sacrament that is between the sanctifying gift of grace and the Holy Spirit, on the one hand, and the gift, on the other hand, which was not in itself sanctifying but which was a mark dedicating the recipient (cf. Contra Ep. Parm., II, n. 28, with Ep. xcviii ad. Bonifac.). In this controversy the doctrine of the sacramental character was but asserting itself with greater emphasis because it was (constructively) attacked. The Church was but bringing out into distinctness a doctrine held all along. For the Fathers of the fourth century habitually speak of baptism as a permanent, an everlasting, or an ineffaceable, seal; and what they say of baptism may be applied to confirmation, since the two sacraments were usually associated. They compare the seal, or mark, of baptism with the insignia of soldiers, with the mark placed by shepherds upon sheep, with circumcision, with the marking of the doorposts of the Israelites in Egypt. Such evidence as we have from the earlier ages all tends to prove that the Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries were only thinking out more explicitly what they had received from their predecessors. Thus Hippolytus contrasts the seal (or mark) of baptism, the mark given by Christ to his believers, with the mark of the beast (Hippolyt., De Christo et Antichristo, n. 6); the writer of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (see POPE ST. CLEMENT I; CLEMENTINES) calls it (c. 7, 8) the "seal impressed"; the "Pastor" of Hermas (lib. lII, Simil., IX, cc. 6, 16, 17, 31) speaks of baptism as a seal. At the end of the second century we find in the work known as "Excerpta Theodoti" (n. lxxvi), generally attributed to Clement of Alexandria, historical evidence of the existence of the doctrine. As the coin circulating in Judea in Christ's time bore the image and superscription of Cæsar, so, the writer says, does the believer obtain through Christ the name of God as an inscription, and the Holy Spirit as an image, upon his soul; as even brute animals by a mark show their owner and by a mark are distinguished, so the believing soul, which has received the seal of truth, bears the marks (stígmata) of Christ.

In the light of this traditional teaching it is possible to see some reference to this truth in the Apostolic writings. Thus St. Paul says: "Now he that confirmeth us with you in Christ, and that hath anointed us, is God: Who also hath sealed us, and given the Pledge of the Spirit in our hearts" (II Cor., 1:21-22). Here there is a distinction made between the "unction", i.e. grace, and the "sealing", or impressing of a mark (character), and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Again he says: "In whom [Christ] also believing you were signed with the holy Spirit of promise" (Ephes., 1:13), and "grieve not the holy Spirit of God: whereby you are sealed unto the day of redemption" (4:30). It is obvious, therefore, that this doctrine has been taught from the beginning, at first, indeed, without emphasis or clearness, in an obscure and only half-conscious manner, but with growing clearness; and though some theologians in the Middle Ages may have doubted whether it could be proved to be contained in the deposit of revealed truth, they did not at all doubt that it was true, or that it was a part of Catholic teaching.

M. J. Ryan.

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