Too often many Catholics, even those charged with teaching the faith, have what might be termed a Protestantized understanding of the Sacraments. Now to just leave it at Protestantized is to paint with a broom, as there are Protestants who are strongly sacramental and ecclesiological. Insofar as these Christians, who are Protestant because they are not in communion with Rome (Orthodox excluded), are sacramental, they are catholic (small "c" intended). Therefore, to clarify, given the ocean of Evangelical publishing and programming that constantly engulfs us, this Protestantized understanding is of an Evangelical variety, with Evangelical here understood in the vernacular sense.
This Evangelical variety of Protestantism puts a premium on faith, but faith improperly understood. The misunderstanding of the nature of faith is most discernible in the tendency to conflate belief and faith. The two are not at all the same thing. While belief is certainly a part of faith, it is only a part and not even the most important one.Why? The oversimplified answer is that we choose what we believe, we think and arrive at conclusions. This also reveals the thin membrane between faith and reason. To make it even more simple, we look to Jesus who makes it clear that he chooses us, we do not chose Him, over and over again throughout the Gospels (Matt 22,14; Lk 18,7; Jn 13,18; Jn 15,19).
Now, that being written, there is a sense in which faith is important to the efficacy of the Sacraments, especially as a person grows into maturity. On closer examination, this amounts to nothing more than being conscious and open to what God is already doing in and through the Sacraments. The fundamental reality being that the Sacraments are about what God does and not about what we do is borne out by the fact that we baptize infants and administer the Sacraments of Confirmation and Communion when children are 8, even confirming infants who are in danger of death. But, even at 8, children do not have a solid grasp of what it is all about. Nonetheless, the grace conferred by God in these ritual actions is at work by the power of the Holy Spirit. Grace is nothing less than God sharing divine life with us, the very life of the Blessed Trinity, which is love - agapé.
To grab a more salient example, taking a cue from the Donatist heresy which raged through North Africa during the episcopacy of St. Augustine, say a man receives, validly and licitly, Holy Orders, priestly or diaconal ordination, from a bishop by the laying on of hands. Let us say that this man is ordained a priest but does not believe anything happens in this ritual action, he lacks faith that he has been ontologically changed. Is he any less a priest? No! In this case, or any case like it, he is a priest whether he believes it or not. Will his unbelief affect his ministry? Of course it will and probably not for the better. Nonetheless, his lack of faith does not invalidate the Sacraments he celebrates, that is the Masses he says, the absolution he gives, the sick he anoints, the baptisms he administers, the marriages he witnesses. Why? Because it is Christ at work through him, even the one who lacks faith. This holds true even when a priest who lacks faith administers the Sacraments to a person who has no faith. After all, was Jesus any less Israel's Messiah because many Jews did not recognize Him as such? Likewise, is He only the Messiah, Savior, and Lord of those who recognize Him in the Sacraments?
One of the most humbling moments for me as deacon is when I administer the Sacrament of Baptism with the words, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit". The "I" who baptizes is not me, Scott Dodge, it is the Lord Jesus Christ who baptizes, using me an earthen and unworthy vessel. This reality is enough to make me fall on my face in awe and, with the prophet Isaiah, declare my unworthiness. The same in persona Christi understanding is at work when the priest, at the consecration says, "This is my Body . . .", "This is my blood . . .", or in confession, "I absolve you . . ."
To sum up, Sacraments are the means God uses to communicate grace to us. While having faith in what God is doing in and through the Sacraments certainly opens us up to receive what God is giving, our lack of faith does not and cannot negate or neutralize the fact that Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is really and truly present in the material elements- bread and wine, water, oil, the laying on of hands, the breath of consent and absolution. Christ's presence in these elements is an objective fact, it is not just real, it is reality.
As I mentioned at the beginning, keep in mind that faith and belief are not the same thing. Genuine faith, along with hope and love, is a gift from God. Only God saves and God only saves through Jesus Christ and the salvation bought by Christ with His passion, death, and resurrection is communicated effaciously through the Church, which, animated by the Holy Spirit, is Christ's very Body, through Baptism and Eucharist. As such the Church herself is the sacrament of salvation in and for the world. Besides, if what God wants to accomplish in the world is dependent on our weak and wavering faith, our imperfect understanding of the mysterium fidei, God would be one ineffective and frustrated Deity. To take the very best example of this, we look to the Exultet, sung at the Easter Vigil:
O necessary sin of Adam,
which gained for us so great a Redeemer!