|The problem of the 'anti-sacrificial reflex'
After the publication of the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum,
I happened to hear some comments on it on the radio. The dominant tone was
rather negative. An "anti-Roman reflex" prevailed as a "conditioned
reflex" (an anti-ecumenical mindset, clericalism, the distance of lay
people, contempt for the local Church, etc.).
One journalist insistently criticized the frequent recurrence in the
Document of the word "sacrifice", which was supposed to prove that it
employed superseded, integralist and anti-ecumenical theology. He saw this
theological foundation as the cause of all the problems in the
The significance of 'sacrifice'
Actually, it is possible to accept this observation without sharing the
journalist's opinion. A simple statistic demonstrates the recurrence of
the word "sacrifice" ("sacrificial", "victim"): it appears more than 20
times. The Document refers to the "Sacrifice of the Altar" (n. 4), the
Sacrifice of the Mass (cf. nn. 16, 129) and to the "Eucharistic Sacrifice"
(nn. 31, 38, 42, 48, 50, 110, 134, 172).
In this context, the doctrinal Instruction (Redemptionis Sacramentum,
n. 38), taken from Pope John Paul II's Encyclical Ecclesia de
Eucharistia, is important: "The constant teaching of the Church on the
nature of the Eucharist, not only as a meal but also and pre-eminently as
a Sacrifice, is therefore rightly understood to be one of the principal
keys to the full participation of all the faithful in so great a Sacrament
[nn. 1218]. 'Stripped of its sacrificial meaning, the mystery is
celebrated as if its meaning and importance were simply that of a
fraternal banquet' [n. 10]".
The citation highlights the close connection between the theology of
the Eucharist as a sacrifice and the criteria for the Eucharistic
celebration; this reveals the theological and dogmatic foundation of the
law and norms of the Church.
How could this theological basis of the Instruction, the understanding
of the Eucharist as a sacrifice, fail to be appreciated? Is it because
"sacrifice" is considered to be an anti-ecumenical word?
It is of course well known that various members of the Ecclesial
Communities born from the Protestant Reformation do not readily accept
this conception of the Eucharist. In their opinion, the danger that the
one sacrifice of Christ might be obscured still exists.
On the other hand, ecumenical documents show that the Protestant side
has recognized the Catholic intention of not wanting to minimize the
merits of Christ or his sacrifice on the Cross.
The sacrifice celebrated by the Church makes the sacrifice of Christ on
the Cross truly and actually present; it does not claim to add something
to this sacrifice, which would otherwise turn out to be incomplete and
would not guarantee objective redemption. The sacrificial celebration of
the Eucharist is a celebration of Christ's sacrifice.
The title and the preamble of the Instruction already stress that the
Eucharist is accepted and celebrated as a sacrament of redemption that is
fulfilled in the sacrificial death and the Resurrection of Jesus, Our Lord
and the eternal High Priest.
An 'anti-sacrificial reflex'
Despite these explanations, an "antisacrificial reflex" lingers in the
understanding of the Eucharist, even among a number of Catholics. How can
Perhaps the idea of the expiatory sacrifice of Christ, sacramentally
present in the Eucharist, refers to an often wrongly interpreted theology
of gratification, (an angry, cruel God who would demand the blood of his
only Son to placate his anger at sinful humanity).
I think, however, that at a deeper level it is the inability of modern
and postmodern man to accept the idea of a God who is not limited to
building a world as a "self-sufficient mechanism", but acts in human
history. This is a deist outlook that prevents sensitivity to the reality
that Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar calls "the theodrama".
For a deist mentality, the relationship between God and man remains
static: the God who built the world has imbued nature with his law,
according to which man must and can live, and that's that. The world and
man are realities closed in on themselves that exclude any divine action.
All categories that indicate a "drama" or interaction between divine
freedom and human freedom
revelation, sanctifying grace, sin, redemption, justification, salvation
lose their meaning. No one imagines that created reality can be modified
and experienced in different ways.
Human as being-in-relationship
If it is true, as the Jesuit Karl Rahner says, that man is a
transcendent being, then the reality we experience depends on our concrete
relationship with God.
For the Book of Genesis and for St Paul it is certain that human life
is always changed by and permeated with both original grace and the burden
of Adam's sin or the redeeming power of Christ. Although man remains
essentially the same being, man's concrete world depends on his
relationship with God.
The death experienced by man the sinner therefore amounts to "the wages
of sin" (Rom 6:23), whereas all things work for the good of those who love
God (cf. Rom 8:28), even in suffering and in death.
The fact that positive relationships, indeed, friendship and love,
change the world in which man lives is already part of a common human
experience. Life lived in isolation is different from life lived in living
Thus, reference points exist for understanding a vision of human
reality that takes the historical-salvific form seriously, in other words,
the importance of the concrete relationship with God.
A realistic vision of man in his world shows his need for divine action
in a redemptive key: "for when man looks into his own heart he finds that
he is drawn towards what is wrong and sunk in many evils.... Man finds
that he is unable of himself to overcome the assaults of evil
successfully, so that everyone feels as though bound by chains" (Gaudium
et Spes, n. 13).
In the deist or modern vision, this problem of man is not seen in the
light of his concrete relationship with God; rather, what is featured is
the "animal remnant" in the human being who comes from the animal kingdom.
Therefore, the assertion that a single redemptive intervention on God's
part can succeed in transforming this situation of alienation and sin
easily acquires, for all who share the deist viewpoint, an integralist
aspect, and the same judgment is passed on a sacramental sign that makes
the redeeming act present. The celebration of a sign which corresponds to
a vague community sentiment appears to be more acceptable.
Yet, deep reflection is missing on the crucial problem, that is, on the
human inability to overcome evil, which is also an obstacle to a truly
human coexistence. This is why, for the deist mind, even the Lutheran
understanding of the Last Supper as a promise of pardon for sins is no
easier to accept.
Indeed, what history of salvation means in this perspective is
incomprehensible: "effective" signs, such as the Church, the common
priesthood, the sacramental ministry, the sacraments, would have no
Any attempt, therefore, to take them seriously, even with regard to the
external form of their celebration, appears to the deist as a doctrinal
exaggeration and a manifestation of narrow-mindedness.
The same is true of problems regarding the comprehension of the
transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of
Christ: they express the same spiritual foundation.
It is impossible to believe from a deist viewpoint that God can truly
and essentially change something in this world so that man himself may
change. It seems easier to reduce the changing of the bread and wine to a
subjective level (to the meaning "for me"); a reduction of this kind
"frees" one from the "fundamentalist" difficulty of believing in divine
action in reality itself.
A God who cares and acts
For the convinced Christian it becomes necessary to make an important
theological and spiritual effort to witness on the personal and
intellectual level that divine freedom acts in the world and is addressed
to human freedom for the purpose of building a history of salvation.
Who could truly prove, on the basis of rational argument, that God
cannot act in human history? To exclude this possibility would mean
limiting God. A limited God, confined to his heaven, is no longer an
absolute and true God.
According to Anselm of Aosta, we truly think of God only if we think of
God as "something of which it is impossible to imagine anything greater",
which implies admitting the possibility that God acts in human history. A
deist God, therefore, is no longer an unlimited and true God.
Anyone who thinks truly of God and admits his involvement in history
cannot exclude that God seeks human cooperation in his work of salvation.
This cooperation, desired and made possible by God, expresses the
liberation of human freedom, fettered by the history of evil, and
consequently whose human capacity for doing good has been weakened (cf.
The sacrifice becomes the crowning point of human freedom that fully
corresponds to the divine work of redemption: it is an act of the
self-giving of human freedom as a satisfactory response to God's offering
In the first place, it is the human freedom of the Incarnate Son in
which his sacrificial gift of himself to God becomes a matchless reality.
Hence, it changes man's situation in relation to God: there comes a
point in human history at which divine freedom and human freedom are
actually and personally united in the divine Logos of the eternal Father.
Every human being can participate in this fundamental change through
the Sacrament of the Altar, which makes this sacrificial act of Christ
present. Such participation necessarily assumes a form of self-giving,
that is, sacrifice, in the following of the Crucified One (cf. Joseph
Ratzinger, 40 Jahre Liturgiekonstitution 'Sacrosanctum Concilium',
in: Liturgisches Jahrbuch 53 [2003) 213f.).
In this way, we respond to the act of redemption actually present in
the Sacrament of Redemption; its liturgical celebration demands respect
over and above any form of trivialization, which is only right and is what
the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum justifiably requires.