Father Romanus Cessario Takes a Theological Look
BOSTON, Massachusetts, 8 APRIL 2004 (ZENIT).
If the violence in "The
Passion of the Christ" seems excessive, its director may have had a valid
So says Father Romanus Cessario, a Dominican who teaches at St. John's
Seminary, Brighton, Massachusetts, in this essay on Mel Gibson's film.
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Mel Gibson and Thomas Aquinas: How the Passion Works
By Father Romanus Cessario, O.P.
No reviewer to my knowledge has suggested that Mel Gibson read the "Summa
Theologiae" before setting about to direct "The Passion of the Christ."
But he must have read Question 48 of the third part of Aquinas' "Summa."
There, Aquinas examines how the passion of Christ produced its effect
efficiency, if you will.
Efficiency is a technical, philosophical term that points us back to
Aristotle's four causes, and urges us to inquire about what is responsible
for something coming into being. In Aquinas' usage, "efficiently" does not
connote as it does in modern English the restricted meaning of "working
productively with minimum wasted effort or expense."
Modes of efficiency
The Latin word "modum" may be compared roughly to the English word
"model." The five modes that Aquinas discusses in Question 48 together
capture everything that the Gospels communicate about Christian salvation.
These modes answer the question, "How does the passion of the Christ
accomplish our salvation?" Even the most outspoken critics of Mel Gibson
allow that this is the question that he too sets out to answer.
The mode of merit
When Aquinas says that "Christ by his passion merited salvation not only
for himself, but for all who are his members, as well," he introduces the
question of the relationship of the cross to the Church.1
Merit denotes the right to a reward. The reward of the passion of the
Christ is beatific communion open to every member of the human race.
According to the formula of St. Anselm, only God could merit such a grace,
while only man should expend the energies to regain what he had lost.
Christ is given grace not only for himself but for his members.
We thus call this grace the "capital grace" of Christ inasmuch as he
remains the "caput Ecclesiae," the head of the Church. Some wonder why
Christ's other merits would not have been sufficient to win for us the
reward of eternal life. Aquinas replies that Christ did everything from
the greatest charity, but the passion remains that "kind of work" best
suited to the effects that we attribute to it.
Mel Gibson clearly constructed his film in such a way as to ensure that
the viewer understands that this kind of work is ordered to an effect that
transcends whatever particular persons or events may be depicted in the
drama. It is the passion of "the Christ."
Like Greek drama, Gibson has cast the film so as to allow its universal
significance to emerge slowly from within the consciousness of the viewer.
The epic proportions of the film, emphasized by the musical accompaniment,
inform the viewer with a sense of the universal and majestic.
The mode of satisfaction
Aquinas takes up a theme that has figured in Catholic theology since at
least the early sixth century, but which most students now identify with
the work of the 11th-century archbishop Anselm of Canterbury
(c.1033-1109), "Cur Deus Homo?"
Aquinas reports the received teaching: "Christ's passion was not only
sufficient but superabundant satisfaction for the sins of mankind."2
Christian satisfaction falls among the theological themes less
well-studied during the post-conciliar period.
At the same time, the renewal of interest in the Eucharist as sacrifice
should prompt theologians to return to this mode of Christ's passion
inasmuch as it remains the lodestar for Catholic sacramental practice.
Aquinas holds that Christ's suffering was all-embracing and his pain so
great on account of the dignity of his person that, in addition to other
reasons, the satisfaction he offers suffices as recompense for the sins of
the world, from the original sin to the last sin to be committed. While
merit earns a reward on account of good works, satisfaction entails the
acceptance of punishment, of difficult works.
No theme emerges with more clarity in Mel Gibson's film than that of the
satisfaction of Christ. Most commentators have failed to observe that
there exists a theological reason for portraying, even, as some have
argued, excessively, the sufferings of Christ from the time of his arrest
in the Garden of Gethsemane to his final "Consummatum est."
If one allows that the scenes of punishment exceed the modesty of the
Scriptures themselves, or if we follow those who opine that after such
beatings and harsh treatment, no man would be able to shoulder the cross
or even walk, there is still the explanation that the artist chose this
excess for a theological reason.
A long theological tradition supports this sort of iconographical
modification: The Church asks us to ponder the price that the Savior of
the world paid. Without this meditation, one cannot embrace the full
dimensions of Catholic piety; instead, we would find ourselves moving
rapidly toward those various forms of de-sacramentalized Christianity that
focus exclusively on interior psychological states.
The mode of sacrifice
Sacrifice, writes Aquinas, "designates what men offer to God in token of
the special honor due to him, and in order to appease him."3
In his discussion of this mode, Aquinas allows St. Augustine to supply the
instruction about sacrifice, especially what the Doctor of Hippo says in
Book X of "The City of God" (chapters 5 and 6) and in his "De Trinitate."
In short, sacrifice creates unity: "in order that we might remain one with
Christ's passion works according to the mode of sacrifice because it
results, ultimately, in that union of God and man which we call beatific
vision or fellowship. How diverse the lot of those involved in bringing
about this unique sacrifice, where Christ is both victim and priest.
Aquinas replies to the objection that since those who slew Christ
perpetrated a heinous crime, they could not have accomplished something
sacred: "On the part of those who put Christ to death, the passion was a
crime; on the part of Christ, who suffered out of love, it was a
Mel Gibson portrays this theme with an exactitude that conforms not only
to the biblical accounts of the passion, but also to the theological
affirmations that have been canonized by the Church with respect to the
responsibility of those who had a hand in putting Christ to death.
No one can watch the film and come away without an awareness that there
are two kinds of persons surrounding the crucifixion scene: those who
believe that what is happening conforms to God's plan, even if they suffer
great sorrow, though not sadness; and those without comprehension of the
mystery. The latter class of persons includes, on the one hand, those with
natural human sympathies, especially exhibited in the wife of Pilate,
Claudia, and on the other, those who exhibit crass indifference,
especially the lower ranks of Roman soldiers.
The mode of redemption
The theme of redemption or ransom emerges from the biblical texts where
Christ is said to redeem us: 1 Peter 1:18f., "You know that you were
ransomed from the futile ways ... with the precious blood of a lamb," and
Galatians 3:13: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law."
Christ liberates man from both the punishment of sin itself, the bondage
or slavery that sin imposes, and from the penalty of the divine justice
that opposes all sin because God who is just cannot act against his
justice. Redemption is the opposite of slavery and punishment; "we are
freed," says Aquinas, "from both obligations."6
The Latin poet and hymn-writer Prudentius (348-c. 410) expresses this
ancient truth: "Lo, now to the faithful is opened/ The bright road to
Paradise leading;/ Man again is permitted to enter/ The garden he lost to
This effect of course is possible only because of the work of the whole
Trinity. "Christ as man therefore, is, properly speaking, the immediate
Redeemer, although the actual redemption can be attributed to the entire
Trinity as to its first cause."8
From start to finish, Mel Gibson does not shrink from including the devil
in the dramatic action of "The Passion of the Christ." The devil, "who
would even try to divert Jesus from the mission received from his Father,"
appears in androgynous guise not, in my view, as a commentary on
contemporary social mores, but to remind the viewers that the devil is "a
liar and the father of lies."9
What people believe to be the good turns out to constitute a lie about the
good of the human person. It's the oldest story in the book. In this case,
the book is Genesis. ... The passion of Christ reverses the lot of man who
had been expelled from the Garden. Christ decisively crushes the head of
Should we not recognize in the fact that Gibson places on the lips of Mary
Magdalene the question customarily reserved for the youngest son in a
Jewish family, "Why is this night ...," and that she asks the question of
Mary, Christ's Mother, a sign that the New Eve now operates. Above all
others, Mary, the New Eve, comprehends that great reversal of man's sorry
plight has been inaugurated.
The mode of efficient cause
The final article of "Summa Theologiae" IIIa q. 48 completes the
discussion of the passion by clarifying the special status of the one who
"God is the principal efficient cause of man's salvation. But," says St.
Thomas, "since Christ's humanity is the instrument of his divinity, all
Christ's acts and sufferings work instrumentally in virtue of his divinity
in bringing about man's salvation."10
Because it is impossible to represent visually what is invisible, it is
difficult if not impossible to represent Christ. Godhead remains
invisible. Saints recognize this truth. Blessed John of Fiesole, Fra
Angelico, is said to have observed, "To depict Christ, it is necessary to
live with Christ." We should take him at his eschatological word.
Mel Gibson directs Jim Caviezel in a way that, in my view, approaches
accomplishing the impossible. There are the Christs of Pasolini, of
Zeffirelli, and of Rossellini, but the Christ of Gibson captures what
these others were content to accomplish by representing a high expression
of human values.
Although I am not an art critic, it seems to me that the very excesses,
even the distortions, which some commentators have questioned, in fact aim
to show us that this man is more than human. That we have to look
elsewhere for the source of his human endurance.
Is it too much a stretch to ask whether Mel Gibson also indicates Christ's
divine nature by suggesting that he possesses infused knowledge? For
instance, when Christ designs a 16th-century European table for
first-century Palestinians? Or when without effort Christ begins to speak
with Pilate in Latin?
Some experts have wondered about the absence in the film of Greek; none to
my knowledge have conjectured that the "historical Jesus" would have had
the occasion to learn conversational Latin.
We should not leave the mode of efficiency without observing that Gibson
does not shy away from visualizing the signs of divine intervention that
the Gospels record at the moment of Christ's death.
"The Passion of the Christ" does not end with musings over the presumed
interior dispositions of Jesus' followers. The film rather concludes with
the unquestionable affirmation that this crucifixion results in events of
cosmic significance that only God can produce.
Let me conclude with a word about the relationship of Christ's passion to
Mel Gibson succeeds in a way that at once stresses the feminine character
of the Church
only women touch reverently the sacred blood, Veronica, Mary, Mary
Magdalene, and by extension, even Claudia, who supplies fresh linen for
And at the same time, he places the Virgin Mother of God, Mary Immaculate,
in what is obviously the closest personal contact with the sufferings of
her Son. She who is Mother of the Redeemer becomes by that fact mother of
all who are redeemed.
We see Mary's maternal mediation enacted on film. Gibson portrays Mary
placing "herself between her Son and mankind [remember the times that Mary
looks directly at us!] in the reality of their wants, needs and sufferings
[remember Peter at her feet]. She puts herself 'in the middle,' that is to
say she acts as a mediatrix not as an outsider, but in her position as
mother."11 The words are from Pope John Paul II. Mel Gibson captures what
the Pope writes in "Mother of the Redeemer" in a way that alone merits the
film the title "Catholic."
If we recognize that the Passion is related to the Church, then we also
recognize that it is related to the reality of the Eucharistic conversion.
There is a sense in which the whole film is about the Eucharist. The Bread
St. Jerome illustrates this truth: "Why should I not mourn, you say? Jacob
put on sackcloth for Joseph (see Genesis 37:35) ..., but he only did so
because Christ had not yet broken open the door of paradise, nor quenched
with his blood the flaming sword and the whirling of the guardian cherubim
(see Genesis 3:24; cf. Ezekiel 1:15-20). ... For, as the apostle says,
'death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned'
(Romans 5:14). But under Jesus, that is, under the Gospel of Christ, who
unlocked for us the gate of paradise, death is accompanied, not with
sorrow, but with joy."12
"The Passion of the Christ" invites its viewers to recognize that in the
eucharistized bread that the joyful Jim Caviezel offers to his
priest-disciples we discover the one source of the love that never ends.
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1 "Summa Theologiae" IIIa q. 48, art. 1.
2 "Summa Theologiae" IIIa q. 48, art. 2.
3 "Summa Theologiae" IIIa q. 48, art. 3.
4 "De Trinitate" IV, 14 (PL 42:901), cited in ibid.
5 "Summa Theologiae" IIIa q. 48, art. 3, ad 3.
6 "Summa Theologiae" IIIa q. 48, art. 4.
7 "The Poems of Prudentius," trans. Sister M. Clement Eagan, "The Fathers
of the Church," vol. 43 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America
Press, 1962), p. 77.
8 "Summa Theologiae" IIIa q. 48, art. 5.
9 See 1 John 3:8 cited in Catechism of the Catholic Church, 392; also CCC,
10 "Summa Theologiae" IIIa q. 48, art. 6.
11 Encyclical letter of John Paul II, "Mother of the Redeemer," No. 21.
12 St. Jerome, Letter 39, 4, to Paula, on the death of Blaesilla (Rome
389) in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, v. 6, pp. 51-2.