In answering the question, “Do I really need the sacraments?”, it helps to not only analyze what is meant by a sacrament, both historically, theologically, and today, but what is also encompassed in the word “need.”
What does it mean to need something? One can say that a need is an act, substance, or situation that is essential for life. During his discussion of the sacraments, Ratzinger noted that early man identified “creation sacraments” which “do not actually proceed from the spiritual dimension of man but, rather, proceed from his biological nature.”1 Birth, death, food, and sexual relations would qualify as the biological needs or creation sacraments.
But then, we can go a step further. By defining needs in such a way actually imparts a god-like quality to a human being. If a human being completely has a grasp of his or her needs, then there is no need for God? We know for a fact that this is not the case. We do not have a full grasp of anything: our past, our present or our future. Thus, the word “need” takes on a deeper meaning on two levels. First, we have needs that transcend the physical or biological needs mentioned earlier. Second, we have needs that we don’t realize but which are revealed by and through God. Ratzinger describes this evolution into the recognition of “other” needs in this way: “The communion of the mind with the body, however, includes being immersed into the unity of the cosmic stream of life and thus expresses a fundamental interconnectedness of al those beings who are privileged to be called human: this is the starting point of that deep-seated community which the Bible suggests when it ca.ls all mankind a single Adam.”2
Thus, when we consider the question of why do we need the sacraments, we much approach such a question from the perspective that we don’t necessarily have complete knowledge of our needs. Needs are physical, emotional, spiritual, and more. However, what we lack in full understanding of our needs, God has in infinite supply. God knows our needs, and not only that, God knows the best way to satisfy those needs which not only quench the short-term, human desire, but also orient the soul toward a great communion with God and with each other.
This description of needs is easier said than fully understood, precisely because of our humanity. We seek an understanding on human terms which often leads to the question of why do we really need the sacraments. Pieper points out in In Search of the Sacred that man has consistently pushed aside philosophy to the extent that the “search for knowledge, in the words of the young Rudolf Carnap, would in fact be nothing else but “physics.”3 What this implies is that as man continues to develop, an understanding of the sacraments and the need for them becomes harder because man tries to determine this need based on “physics” or human understanding alone.
Thus, in order to understand the sacraments, we must understand that God is constantly reaching to us, because he knows exactly what we need, and yet, as human beings, we consistently fail to seek this understanding but rather solve the worlds problems on our own terms, through our own human understanding. Sacraments were made precisely to bring us closer to God without the burden of trying to “solve the problem” or even figure out “how it works.” As noted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sacraments are “perceptible signs (words and actions) accessible to our human nature. By the action of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit they make present efficaciously the grace that they signify.”4
We are called to be in communion with God and with each other. If God meant for each person to live the faith in isolation, there would be not be a need for sacraments or at the very least, they would take on a much different form. As it is, sacraments accomplish communion at both levels: communion with God and communion with each other. As Pieper notes: “a sacred action requires celebration”. 5 In relation to Mass, for example, we see that worship together is sacramental while worshiping alone is not.
The reason we need the sacraments is not as a means of salvation. We are saved through Christ by his grace alone. But Christianity is not just a faith but a calling. We are charged with building the Body of Christ. Through the sacraments we are not only reminded of God’s love, we receive that grace through a celebration with others. The sacraments are truly food for the soul.