Commentary on the Instruction

Commentary on the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum

Prof. Michael Schulz
Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the Faculty of Catholic Theology of the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität, Bonn

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the frequent recurrence in the Document of the word "sacrifice", which was supposed to prove that it employed superseded, integralist and anti-ecumenical theology.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 Instruction.

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 this be?

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 relationships.

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 foundation.

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. Rom 7:15).

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 of himself.

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.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
22 September 2004, page 10

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