The key to understanding Catholicism is our attitude toward symbols. In naturally symbolic acts like sexual intercourse or animal sacrifice we find the meaning to be partly embedded in the nature of the act itself and independent of the performers’ intentions. The signification achieved is suprarational in that the performer needn’t be able to articulate fully the meaning of his act; nor need such a full articulation even be possible. The performer need only affix his assent to the given meaning of the act; he is able to “say” more than he can think. The signification of a natural symbol is also suprapersonal in that it is part of the public world rather than of the performer’s intentions, in some cases making it possible for others to affix their assent as well. Even conventional symbols display this suprapersonal nature, e.g. so that a company saluting a flag is a single act of the company itself, whereas the interior patriotic feelings of each soldier are necessarily individual and incommunicable. Thus, participation in these symbols allows a soul to transcend itself in a twofold way: beyond its nature as a limited intellect and beyond its person as a single individual.
Catholicism also contains in its essence a central dogmatic claim: that Jesus Christ, fully God and fully Man, has, by his sacrificial death and resurrection two millennia ago, freed mankind from slavery to sin and opened the possibility of communion with God as His children.
Now, I don’t expect this dogma to sound attractive or plausible or even sane on a first examination. Accepting it too easily means you probably haven’t understood it. You’ll need to have a good grasp of the key words “God”, “sacrifice”, “sin”, and “children”. Perhaps you don’t feel particularly in thrall to “sin”, or you don’t see why God has to be such a vindictive jerk about such things, or you don’t see how what happened to another person two thousand years ago could affect your spiritual state regardless. If you are a fellow Christian of the Protestant persuasion, on the other hand, you will accept the above “core Catholic dogma” as your own, but you may understand it differently, and it is possible that we can learn from each other.
To understand Christianity, one must first understand the problem it is meant to solve: alienation from God, not being His children apart from Christ’s atoning sacrifice. This alienation is conceived as both moral and ontological. The moral part is what was most often emphasized by the Latin Fathers: we are alienated from God by our sins. This is a matter of great misunderstanding between Catholics and modernists. The latter often express consternation over “Catholic guilt” while being convinced that they themselves are already basically good people, or good enough anyway. The question, though, is “good enough for what?” If one just means “good enough not to be a nuisance to the social order” then probably many people clear this low bar. However, here we’re talking about communion with God, so “good enough” must mean “pure and fit to stand in the presence of the All-Holy”. Many socially unimportant vices in my soul–the vanity, selfishness, and vengefulness restrained to petty infractions merely by social pressure and lack of opportunity– positively contradict an all-Holy presence. We often hear that God is merciful, but this cannot mean that God chooses to ignore the offense of our sins, that is, that His mercy is a mere deficiency of justice. To ignore sin would do the sinner no good, at least as far as communion with God is concerned. The impurity must be removed, the debt paid, and the sinner redeemed. This is God’s mercy.
Even apart from the moral faults of mankind, an ontological chasm separates us from God. Naturally speaking, we cannot be God’s children–even by adoption–because we are limited intellects and He is unqualified Being, subsistent Truth and Goodness, and necessarily incomprehensible to us. God cannot induct us into the distinctive goods of His own Nature, as a father by definition does with his children. At best, we might be His beloved pets. Our intellects are made for objects in the world, but God is not an object in the world (i.e. an instance of some limiting nature), making it impossible for us to genuinely conceive and relate to Him.
The religious response is to offer God a sacrifice, in which payment is offered in reparation for sins. As blood is (symbolically) the principle of life, the shedding of blood is a fit recognition that it is the sinner’s very life that is owed and vicariously offered. Meanwhile, in being consecrated to God, the blood of the victim acquires sacramental power, and through the existence of a sacred space (the temple and victim), God condescends to be treated as a part of the world, a resident of a particular place with whom transactions can be made. This arrangement, instituted by the Lord Himself in the Torah, does not involve any anthropomorphizing error about God, because the offering proceeds by way of public, suprarational signification (the symbolism of blood as life–cf. Lev. 17:11). Its participants never need imagine that they have any kind of adequate conceptual understanding of what the offering accomplishes or to Whom it is offered.
Many objections have been raised to sacrificial religion. Most recently, Rene Girard has tried to reduce the whole thing to a matter of mob pathology, an accusation the Catholic mind naturally rejects. More serious is the old Anselmian claim that no homage to God by mere men can atone for sins, because we owe all that to Him anyway. What’s more, even if we say that the sacrifices of men succeed in bringing God down to our level (allowing us to treat Him as a being in the world), they certainly don’t bring us up to His level.
Or do they? Worship may be a meritorious act, but it would seem to be a distinctly un-Godlike one. After all, assuming monotheism, who would there be for God Himself to worship? The whole experience must be alien to Him. However, in Christian orthodoxy, God is a Trinity of persons, each one eternally engaged in perfect adoration of the other two. Indeed, all of the virtues of religion–piety, gratitude, obedience–are present in exemplary form in God the Son, Who enjoys a genuinely filial relationship with God the Father. Sacrifice in the sense of self-offering to God thus belongs to God’s own inner nature, as does the communion Christianity claims He offers us.
We can now see how the sacrifice of Jesus is uniquely fitted to reconciling God and man. As the physical, suprapersonal act of a man, Christ is able to offer Himself, not just as an individual, but as Man, for all mankind. A symbolic event in the public, human world, it is a thing suited for the appropriation of other men, in a way that the eternal filial devotion of the Son for the Father, absent the Incarnation, is not. Given Christ’s humanity and divinity, though, a participation in His divine sonship is possible. As a suprarational act, Jesus’ self-offering is, while a genuinely human act, not limited in its significatory power by human concepts. It’s meaning can reach so far–indeed, given Who He is, it must reach so far–as to include the Son’s self-offering to the Father, the act that constitutes the Son’s very identity. A divine “word”–one identical to the Logos Himself–has been put in the human world for our appropriation.
Note that the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice is contained in the physical act itself, in His physical murder. Christ’s perfect interior obedience to the Father and love for us are in themselves insufficient, because without the public action (His physical execution), Christ’s interior obedience would be incommunicable, would be His alone rather than all humanity’s. Of course, Christ’s private moral goodness in allowing Himself to be tortured to death for our sakes is still very important! Given
His omnipotence, our Atonement could not have happened without his assent. Also, to be a valid sacrifice, Christ must affix His subjective assent to the act.
(Compare: consent of both partners is needed to validly consummate a marriage, but the bride and groom just thinking consensual loving thoughts about each other is itself insufficient to consummate a marriage. What is needed is the symbolic physical act of intercourse to whose meaning the participants affix their assent.) No doubt, two millennia of Christian devotion were not wrong to draw inspiration and devotion from the memory of our Savior’s love and fortitude unto death. However, we must avoid the temptation to over-spiritualize His work, lest we make the Incarnation seem pointless! The crucifixion did not happen just to teach us a lesson or to give us an example or for Jesus to win merit by His private virtue.
Given this unashamedly carnal focus, it is natural that images of Christ’s execution play so large a role in Catholic worship and devotion. Walk into a Catholic Church, and you will be confronted by crucifixes and stations of the cross. We place crucifixes on rosaries, necklaces, and holy cards. At the start and end of each prayer, we sign ourselves by the instrument of His murder. In the Blessed Sacrament, we claim to make His sacrifice our own.
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