FOCUS (mar24fcs.htm)

March 24, 2004
vol 15, no. 84

A Guide to 'A Guide to the Passion'
A Critique of Catholic Exchange's book 'A Guide to the Passion'

Robert A. Sungenis, M.A.
President, Catholic Apologetics International

Editor's Note: We are delighted to present this totally Catholic response by Robert A. Sungenis to the supposedly 'Catholic' viewpoint of the answers in a book in which a consortium of authors, hoping to latch onto the gravy wagon of Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of The Christ' success, have marketed as thee answer to any questions anyone might have. The problem, as Robert points out, is that often they do not have the correct nor complete answer because they have skewered the whole concept of atonement and the propitiatory sacrifice. Such is the shallowness of the Novus Ordo mindset. Sungenis points to Trent and the early Fathers, Doctors, Saints, and Popes who have substantiated the true Catholic teaching on this most necessary point which is essential for truly understanding the why and the necessity of the degree of how much Our Lord suffered. Along with Gerry Matatics, Bob Sungenis is undoubtedly one of the leading Catholic Apologists in Traditional circles today; one who can go toe to toe with anyone in upholding the Truths and Traditions of Holy Mother Church as he proves today. We encourage you to check out his site at Catholic Apologetics International and his books and tapes which will help you in better knowing the Faith and expressing it clearly and decisively to others. Hey, souls are at stake. Leave no stone unturned. Below is his critique of the neo-Catholic work which has hitched its reins to Mel's star in trying to also justify the Vatican II take. It doesn't work and Robert shows why below. His words are in black type, excerpts from "A Guide to the Passion" are in maroon type. Most bold and italic are editor's emphasis. Our appreciation also to Gary Morella for his directing us to this outstanding critique.

It's about Atonement and the Propitiatory Sacrifice!

    " remains a fact that D’ Ambrosio’s article, and by extension the book “A Guide to the Passion,” are flawed presentations of the reason, meaning and purpose of the passion of Christ. I suggest that all the authors of this work regroup and consult the Traditional teaching on the Atonement, which was codified and made infallible by the Council of Trent. "

   Recently, Catholic Exchange published a book titled “A Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions about The Passion of the Christ,” which is a commentary on Mel Gibson’s blockbuster movie by the same title. The book was written by a consortium of authors associated with both Ascension Press and Catholic Exchange. Their names are Tom Allen, Marcellino D’Ambrosio, Matthew Pinto, Mark Shea and Paul Thigpen. I understand that this book has sold a fair number of copies, and is now in its second edition. That means a lot of people are being affected by its teaching on the Atonement.

   Someone handed the book to me yesterday and asked what I thought about it. Having written a book on the Atonement (Not By Bread Alone) and having written a recent article on Gibson’s movie “The Theological Underpinnings of The Passion of the Christ: Why did Jesus Have to Die Such an Excruciating Death”, I immediately searched the book for signs of whether the authors themselves understood the Atonement. Unfortunately, what I found was a mixture of Protestant and Catholic ideas that formed, more or less, a hybrid view of the Atonement.

   Early this morning, Catholic Exchange released an article by Marcellino D’ Ambrosio, which critiqued the Protestant concept of Christ’s passion, as well as give an outline of what the author understood as the Catholic teaching on the Atonement ( Dr. Ambrosio did a fairly decent job, but in the end his concept of the Atonement was inadequate and somewhat distorted. Moreover, he cited neither the Fathers, the Councils, the Popes or even the Catechism, and thus came up with reasons for the passion of Christ that were a little off the mark. Not surprisingly, some of the same mistakes D’ Ambrosio made are reiterated in the aforementioned book “A Guide to the Passion.” I think it is safe to assume that D’ Ambrosio is the brains behind these two publications, but the book “A Guide to the Passion” is far worse in its understanding of the passion than D’ Ambrosio’s article.

   Let me first deal with the book “A Guide to the Passion.” Our first introduction to the authors’ understanding of the reasons for Christ’s passion comes from Question 11. It reads:

    “Why did God the Father require Jesus to take upon Himself such tremendous physical and emotional suffering? God is not a harsh, overbearing Father who requires the suffering of his Son. Human beings freely created a wall between themselves and God through centuries of pride, disobedience, and selfishness. Jesus freely came into the world to perform an act of such intense humility, obedience, and love, that it would obliterate the wall (John 10:18). The forces of human sin and demonic fury collaborated to hurl at Jesus every possible punishment and torture to turn Him back from His mission. But in so doing, they unwittingly proved the perfection of His love and provided Jesus with the Cross, the very instrument of salvation.”

   The first problem with this answer is that in the very first sentence the authors begin with a false dichotomy, that is, that God could not require the suffering of his Son to accomplish the Atonement, since this would mean that God was “harsh” and “overbearing”. Unfortunately, the authors fail to understand that although it is certainly true that God is “not harsh and overbearing,” this has little to do with what He required for the Atonement. More on this later.

   The second problem with the answer is that the authors try to substantiate their premise by claiming that because human beings acted “freely” and “collaborated” with the demonic world, it was only by their desire, not God’s, that Jesus suffered such a terrible passion. The sufferings are said to be engineered by the human/demonic collaborators in an effort to tempt Jesus to give up his goal of going to the Cross. According to the authors, God had no part in designing or benefiting from his Son’s brutal sufferings.

   Not only is this view incorrect, it is self-contradictory. If, as Jesus said Himself to Peter in Matthew 16:20-21 (cf., John 18:11; Mark 9:12; Luke 17:25; 24:26, 46; Acts 3:18; 17:3; Is 53:10-12), that it was the Father’s will that the Christ “suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and be raised up on the third day,” (so much so that Jesus rebuked Peter for trying to prevent Him from going), then obviously the Father and Jesus had a plan already worked out which requires the Son’s brutal suffering and death. What the authors fail to show, at least to any respectable degree, is that God desires, plans and benefits from His Son’s suffering, and at the same time allows the suffering to be perpetrated by evil men. That is what makes God, God. (cf., Genesis 50:20; 1 Cor 3:8; Luke 22:22).

   The authors try to address the paradox, albeit unsuccessfully, when they say, “But in so doing, they unwittingly proved the perfection of His love and provided Jesus with the Cross, the very instrument of salvation.” But if the suffering and death are the “very instruments of salvation,” then it cannot be said that the Father did not require these sufferings from Jesus to effectuate the Atonement. Why would Jesus go through such suffering if the Father was not even interested in seeing it? If the quest of Jesus was only to show “the perfection of His love,” then why couldn’t Jesus have done some other heroic deed of love as opposed to subjecting Himself to a bloody and tortuous death? For example, why, if the “perfection of His love” was the only motivation, couldn’t Jesus have lived to the ripe old age of 80 years and travel the world healing people and preaching about the kingdom, and then dying a natural death? Wouldn’t that have been an equal or even better act of love? Evidently, there is something missing from the authors’ understanding of the Atonement, for they give no reason why only the suffering and death of the cross could be the supreme act of love that God would accept. In fact, the authors’ view of the Atonement seems very close to that espoused by Peter Abelard, that is, that Christ’s sufferings served as a moral example of love for the rest of mankind to follow.

   Allow me to answer this question by quoting from my essay on Gibson’s movie:

To answer the “why” of the atonement, some of the early Fathers entertained the “ransom theory” (Origen, Ambrose, Jerome). This was the concept wherein God was said to be required to pay a ransom to the devil, since the devil had won rights to the human race in the Garden of Eden. Even Augustine had one oblique reference to the theory.1 1. Origen on Romans 3:24 in PG 14, 945; PG 13, 1397; Ambrose on 1 Peter 1:18 in PL 16, 1299; an implied agreement by Jerome in PL 26, 480; Augustine in one oblique instance, De Trinitate 13, 15 (PL 42, 1029; NPNF I, vol. 3, p. 178.) As happened with Eucharistic theology (which wasn’t dogmatically defined until 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council), Atonement theology did not reach its theological plateau until the same time period. As Ludwig Ott states:

While the Fathers, in the explanation of Christ’s work of sanctification, proceed more from the contemplation of the consequences of the Redemption, and therefore stress the negative side of the Redemption, namely, the ransoming from the slavery of sin and of the devil, St. Anselm proceeds from the contemplation of the guilt of sin. This, as an insult offered to God, is infinite, and therefore demands an infinite expiation.” 2. page 187

   It was Anselm (d. 1109), in his major work, Cur Deus Homo (“Why the God-man?”), who gave us a more mature and precise understanding of the atonement – an understanding subsequently developed in the highly acclaimed Sentences of Peter Lombard (c. 1160), and the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), and which was then connected intimately to the theology of the Mass by such medieval theologians as Gabriel Biel (d. 1495), Nicholas Cusa (d. 1464), John Gerson (d. 1429) and Denis Carthusian (d. 1471). As an aside, Peter Abelard (d. 1142) advanced the theory that the cross served primarily as a moral influence over men, wherein the cross demonstrated that God punishes evil and rewards good, but Abelard wasn’t known for his orthodoxy. It was Anselm’s contention that “God owed nothing to the devil but punishment.” Anselm’s atonement theology begins from the guilt of sin. Sin is understood as an insult to God, a personal offense against Him. Because God is infinite, the sin is infinite, and “therefore demands an infinite expiation.”(3. Cur Deus Homo, ii, xix)

   Anselm also included God’s honor in the understanding of the atonement. He stated:

    “...nothing is less tolerable...than that the creature should take away from the Creator the honor due to him, and not repay what he takes away....God upholds nothing more justly that he does the honor of his own dignity.” As such, Christ’s voluntary offering to the Father “outweighs the number and greatness of all sins, and thus due reparation has been made to God’s offended honor.” (4. Cur Deus Homo, i, xiii...i, xiii...ii, xiv)

   Thomas Aquinas developed the concept, adding that the atonement served as a means of appeasing God due to the sins of mankind, allowing Him to preserve His honor and justly relent of His wrath. Aquinas writes:

    ...the passion of Christ is the cause of our reconciliation with God in a two-fold manner: in one way because it takes away sin through which men are made enemies of God...In another way through its being a sacrifice most acceptable unto God, for this is properly the effect of a sacrifice that through it God is appeased, as even man is ready to forgive an injury done unto him by accepting a gift which is offered to him...And so in the same way, what Christ suffered was so great a good that, on account of that good found in human nature, God has been appeased over all the offenses of mankind. 5. Summa Theologica III, Q. 49, Art. 4, emphasis added; See also ST 1a, 2ae, 87, 1-6; 3, 48, 2; De Veritate, 28, 2.)

   We could easily multiply examples of the appeasement motif in Scripture. Another outstanding example of how highly God regards His honor is recorded in Numbers 25. Another is 1 Chronicles 21:1-27. Read those at your leisure. Suffice it to say that when Isaiah 53:5-12 and 1 Peter 2:24 say that Christ was “beaten for our iniquities; wounded for our transgressions; and by his wounds we are healed” (the very answer that Mel Gibson gave to Diane Sawyer as to why his movie had to be so graphic), it is precisely for the purpose of appeasing the wrath of God and preserving His honor because of the horrible insult of sin against Him. Isaiah confirms this for us as he concludes Isaiah 53, words that, because I know their full theological impact, I cry over every time I read them:

Yet it was the Lord’s [God the Father] will to crush Him [Christ] and cause Him to suffer, and though the Lord makes His life a guilt offering...After the suffering of His [Christ’s] soul, He [God] will see the result of the suffering of His soul and be satisfied...For He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (6. This Hebrew text appears in Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, p. 760. The LXX renders part as Christ “seeing light” through His suffering. In the above translation, the Hebrew “nephesh” is translated both “life” and “soul.” Shaba is the normal Hebrew word for “satisfied” and is also used by Isaiah in 9:20; 44:16, and 66:11.)

   The same thing is true of the Catholic Mass, since it is a re-presentation of the cross of Calvary. As my essay states:

Against all this bluster, of course, is the Council of Trent – the greatest dogmatic council with which God has ever blessed the Catholic Church. The Council states Christ “made satisfaction for us to God the Father” (DS 799), and “Christ Jesus Who has satisfied for our sins” (DS 904), but never teaches that Christ paid a full eternal penalty for sin. Logically, if He had, then God would have no right to punish anyone in hell, since He could not, in justice, exact two eternal punishments for the same sin. The connection between the Mass and Calvary is so profound, so identical, that when one listens to Trent’s words about the Mass, he is listening to the echoes of the meaning of Calvary. Session 22, Chapter 2 put it this way:

    In this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ Who offered Himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner. Therefore, the holy Council teaches that this sacrifice is truly propitiatory, so that, if we draw near to God with an upright heart and true faith, with fear and reverence, with sorrow and repentance, through it ‘we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.’ For the Lord, appeased by this oblation, grants grace and the gift of repentance, and He pardons wrong-doings and sins, even grave ones.

   What you find at Trent is the notion of “propitiation” and “appeasement,” the very opposite of the forensic atonement offered by Luther and Calvin. For Trent, and all the Tradition prior (which Trent merely crystallized), the atonement was a personal sacrifice made voluntarily by the Son in an effort to appease the Father’s wrath against mankind, preserve His honor among angels and men, and persuade Him to once again open the doors of mercy.

   Moreover, although it is certainly true that a cessation of sin will help to reverse the offense, without a personal demonstration of sorrow, humility and sacrifice directed to the one offended, the effort to rectify cannot even begin. Personal beings first require a recognition of their worth. In a word, God must be propitiated so that sin can be expiated. Thus, the Catechism of the Council of Trent stated:

    ...that the Church might have a perpetual sacrifice, by which our sins might be expiated, and our Heavenly Father, oftentimes grievously offended by our crimes, might be turned away from wrath to mercy, from the severity of just chastisement to clemency. (7. The Roman Catechism: The Catechism of the Council of Trent, p. 255.)

   We see this same theme all over Catholic theology. In another place Trent’s Catechism states: “...our Heavenly Father, oftentimes grievously offended by our crimes, might be turned away from wrath to mercy.” (8. Ibid) Ludwig Ott reiterates the same:

    By atonement in general is understood the satisfaction of a demand. In the narrower sense it is taken to mean the reparation of an insult: satisfactio nihil aliud est quam injuriae alteri illatae compensatio (Roman Catechism, II, 5, 59). This occurs through a voluntary performance which outweighs the injustice done...Thus Christ’s atonement was, through its intrinsic value, sufficient to counterbalance the infinite insult offered to God, which is inherent in sin. (9. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, pp. 186, 188)

   Representative of many traditional Catholic theologians, M. C. D’Arcy writes:

    “Calvary was a propitiatory sacrifice. As the name implies, it is the attempt of man to placate an offended God and to give satisfaction.” (10. The Mass and Redemption, p. 43.)

The Catholic Encyclopedia adds:

    ...Redemption has reference to both God and man. On God’s part, it is the acceptation of satisfactory amends whereby the Divine honor is repaired and the Divine wrath appeased....The judicial axiom ‘honor est in honorante, injuria in injuriato’ (honor is measured by the dignity of him who receives it) shows that mortal sin bears in a way an infinite malice and that nothing short of a person possessing infinite worth is capable of making full amends for it....‘For an adequate satisfaction,’ says St. Thomas, ‘it is necessary that the act of him who satisfies should possess an infinite value and proceed from one who is both God and Man’” (ST, III, Q. 1, a. 2, ad 2um). (11. 1911 edition, vol. 12, p. 678)

    The Encyclopedia continues:

    “Satisfaction, or the payment of a debt in full, means, in the moral order, an acceptable reparation of honor offered to the person offended and, of course, implies a penal and painful work.”

   Many of the popes caught this truth as well. As representative of their consensus are the words of Pope Pius XII in Mystici Corporis:

    That He completed His work on the gibbet of the cross is the unanimous teaching of the holy Fathers...through His triumph on the cross...He won power and dominion over the His blood shed on the cross God’s anger was averted and all the Heavenly gifts...could then flow from the fountains of our Savior for the salvation of men. (13. AAS [1943], 205f, emphasis added)

   Although just in its beginning stages, many of the Fathers understood the propitiatory atonement of Christ as well. Cyril of Jerusalem states:

    For if a king were to banish certain who had given him offence, and then those who belong to them should weave a crown and offer it to him on behalf of those under punishment, would he not grant a remission of their penalties? In the same way, when we offer to Him our supplications for those who have fallen asleep, though they be sinners, weave no crown, but offer up Christ sacrificed for our sins, propitiating our merciful God for them as well as for ourselves. (14. Catechetical Lectures, 23, 10)

Augustine adds:

    But what is meant by ‘justified in His blood’?....Was it indeed so, that when God the Father was wroth with us, He saw the death of His Son for us, and was appeased towards us? Was then His Son already so far appeased towards us, that He even deigned to die for us; while the Father was still so far wroth, that except His Son died for us, He would not be appeased? (15. On the Trinity, Book XIII, Ch. 11. See also; Book IV, Ch.14. Added to these are the early liturgies of the Church, which are saturated with propitiatory language.)

   The authors of “A Guide to the Passion” get themselves into a little more trouble in Question 16:

    “But why did Jesus have to die? As we have noted, death is the just consequence of our sin, because in sinning, we turn our backs on God, the Source of our life. Jesus took the consequences of our sin – death – in our place.”

The same type of answer is given in Question 17:

    “Couldn’t God have chosen to simply declare humanity’s relationship with Him restored? Why did He choose such an extreme and bloody means of reconciling the world to Himself? ...Why was suffering necessary? To restore to us what the original humans (Adam and Eve) had lost through disobedience....Christ’s redemption for us - his taking on of the burden of sin - not only restored our relationship with God, but also taught us the true meaning of love: sacrifice.”

   These answers have all the earmarks of the Protestant concept of penal substitution. Since many of the book’s authors are former Protestants, they may be relying to a large extent on their Protestant notions of the Atonement without really investigating the Catholic view. The sentence “Jesus took the consequences of our our place,” and the clause “Christ’s redemption for us - His taking of the burden of sin...” indicates, or strongly suggests, that the authors believe the Atonement was accomplished by Christ taking upon Himself the legal punishment of death that was required for our sin, and therefore became our penal substitute, sustaining the punishment of the law in our place. You can read almost any Protestant book on the Atonement and find either very similar or identical reasoning. Our Catholic theology, however, teaches that Christ was neither our substitute, nor did He die “in our place.” Once again, I will quote from my essay on Gibson’s movie:

Having been confronted with the distorted views of Luther and Calvin, quite appropriately does the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia state:

    ...The second mistake is the tendency to treat the Passion of Christ as being literally a case of vicarious punishment. This is at best a distorted view of the truth that His atoning Sacrifice took the place of our punishment, and that He took upon Himself the sufferings and death that were due to our sins. (16. 1911 edition, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 58)

Not surprisingly, it was Luther’s misunderstanding of the atonement that led him to view the Mass – which in Catholic theology is a re-enactment of the atonement – as the greatest abomination ever perpetrated on mankind. He writes: “No other sin, manslaughter, theft, murder or adultery is so harmful as this abomination of the popish Mass.” (17. Weimer edition of Luther’s Works (WA) 15, 774, and Smalcald Articles, P. II, Art. 2.) Not surprisingly, Luther is totally adverse to the concept of appeasing God. He writes:

He who sacrifices wants to appease God. But he who wants to appease God regards him as wrathful and merciless; and he who does so does not expect grace or mercy of Him, but is afraid of His judgment and condemnation. But he who is to approach the sacrament profitably must believe and trust entirely that he has a gracious, merciful God who loves him so dearly that of His own free will He gave His greatest and dearest treasure. (18. WA 8, 517, 24f.)

Luther held that only faith alone, not suffering, moved God to act. If this is not the case, Luther says, “do we not become unsure as to whether our sacrifice is acceptable to God?” (19. WA 8, 517, 17.) It is the same reason Calvinism’s Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 80, calls the Eucharistic sacrifice “a cursed idolatry.”

   The reason the Catholic Exchange authors get themselves into trouble here is that they, unfortunately, had already eliminated the reason suffering accomplishes its goal of giving love to the Father. If, as Question 11 indicates, the sufferings of Christ, in themselves, were not directed to the Father (because, as the authors claim, God is “not a harsh, overbearing Father Who requires the suffering of His Son”), then there is really no reason for Christ to suffer, since He could have shown His love to the Father in many other ways, and had been doing so for all eternity, without, of course, having to die. What the authors don’t explain is what, precisely, makes the cross so different from every other act of love and sacrifice? If the authors believe that death is a supreme act of love (since they later quote from John 15:13: “no greater love...than he lay down his life for his friend”), that would require them to acknowledge that the death was for God to see and accept, which in turn would go against the authors’ premise that desiring such gruesome events make God a “harsh and overbearing Father.” The real problem is that, without the authors’ coming to grips with the nature of propitiation and appeasement as the essential ingredients of the Atonement, they will never adequately answer the question of why Christ had to suffer and die. We see them struggling to do so in the remainder of Question 16:

    “Love involves the total giving of self. Love can even mean ‘laying down on’s life for one’s friend’ (John 15:13). So there is transcendent meaning in sacrifice and suffering. If endured for the good of others, it is truly sanctifying and salvific.”

   Here we see that, having no knowledge that the object of suffering is an actual propitiation to, and appeasement of, the Father, the authors resort to relegating suffering to a kind of gnostic and existential category, such that suffering, in and of itself, has “transcendent meaning.” The authors create this nebulous aura around suffering because they themselves have not figured out why suffering accomplishes its goal, to whom it is directed, and how the recipient (God) benefits from the suffering. But that’s what will happen when you separate the act of suffering from the God Who is propitiated and appeased by the suffering.

   Consequently, these problems in understanding the Atonement stem from an even bigger problem in the authors’ theology, which is their distorted concept of God’s nature. If your theology has eliminated the fact that God is personally affected by intense and excruciating sacrifice, then you will begin to see sacrifice as a “transcendent” or “other-worldly” event in its own right, that is, that suffering somehow automatically produces good things, as if it was a karma-like principle. But this is not the case at all. Suffering is only as beneficial to the degree it is accepted by the person to whom it is directed. It just so happens that, because of God’s personal nature, sacrifice is the best means we have of affecting God’s outlook upon us. When sacrifice is offered, God is moved. The more intense the sacrifice, the more intensely God is moved. That is the message we obtain from Scripture and Tradition. Since Christ’s sacrifice was so intense, and his person so pure, it is a sacrifice that will affect God for all eternity.

   Lastly, I will now examine the article written singly by Marcellino D’Ambrosio on the Atonement (in maroon type). I will make comments intermittently. He writes:

    “For our sakes God made Him who did not know sin to be sin, so that in Him we might become the very holiness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Some Christians reading these words over the last few centuries have gotten the wrong idea:

    They’ve put this Scripture together with Jesus’ cry from the cross “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” Plus they’ve added to the mix the Apostle’s Creed assertion that Jesus “descended into hell.” The result is a huge misunderstanding. It goes something like this. The sin of the human race called down the punishment not only of physical death and suffering, but also spiritual death, total separation from God which is what hell is all about. Jesus bore this punishment in our place. This means that He took our sins upon Himself to the point that He actually became sinful and abhorrent to the Father. He was thus truly abandoned by God on the cross and spent three days in hell, with the rest of the damned.

    Let’s unravel this wrongheaded idea. Last week we discussed the true significance of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” This week we need to clear up the other two misunderstandings. First, there is 2 Corinthians 5:21. In Hebrew, the same word means both “sin” and “sin offering.” What Paul is really saying is not that Jesus became sinful, but that He became a sin offering. This kind of sacrifice was understood as compensation or restitution to God to make up for offending Him through sin. Honor and glory that God deserved had been withheld from Him; in the sin offering, perfect, costly animals, the most valuable possessions of the typical Israelite, were paid back to God in reparation.

As opposed to the book “A Guide to the Passion,” D’ Ambrosio has done a good job putting into laymen’s words an explanation of the differences between Protestant and Catholic concepts of the Atonement. It is refreshing to see someone who “gets it,” if you know what I mean.

   Nevertheless, we will see in his concluding paragraphs that D’ Ambrosio has not really completed the picture because, although he speaks about “compensation or restitution to God to make up for offending Him,” as well as “honor and glory that God deserved,” he does not mention the concept of propitiation and appeasement, and perhaps this is why it is absent from the book released by the Catholic Exchange, of which he is one of the principle authors. In fact, D’ Ambrosio seems to go out of his way to divorce appeasement from the essence of the Atonement.

    The Passover lamb had to be perfect, without blemish, and his bones could not be broken (that’s why Jesus legs were not broken like the two thieves, Jn 19: 32-37). Jesus did not become sinful; He was the Lamb of God Who took away the sins of the world by canceling them out through a sacrifice of overwhelming value. His self-offering was an extravagant gift. It consisted of all the love, humility, and obedience that centuries of human beings owed to God but had unjustly withheld from Him.

    The Father is not a blood-thirsty tyrant whose wrath is appeased by the suffering of Jesus. He is the loving Father in the story of the Prodigal Son who respects his son’s freedom too much to force him to stay, or to send a posse after him once his sins led him to the brink of despair. The Prodigal Son walked away in arrogance. He would himself have to travel the road back in humility.

   Now we know where the book “A Guide to the Passion” received it’s wording in the answer to Question 11: “God is not a harsh, overbearing Father who requires the suffering of his Son,” since it is almost identical to D’ Ambrosio’s words above: “The Father is not a blood-thirsty tyrant whose wrath is appeased by the suffering of Jesus.” Granted, the Father is not a blood-thirsty tyrant, but that does not in anyway suggest or prove that God’s wrath is not appeased by the blood-suffering of Jesus. As my references reveal, we have seen just the opposite in Catholic tradition. The Fathers, the medievals, the popes and the councils state, quite clearly, that the Father’s wrath was appeased by Christ’s suffering on the cross. D’ Ambrosio couldn’t be more wrong. As a result of D’ Ambrosio’s theological detour, the book released by Catholic Exchange is severely marred.

   D’Ambrosio tries to defend his “non-appeasement” thesis by appealing to the parable of the Prodigal Son and concluding that God “respects his son’s freedom too much to force him to stay.” But the Atonement is not a question about whether God “forced” Christ to go to the cross, and certainly appeasement does not carry that idea either. We all agree that Christ’s suffering and death were completely voluntary (John 10:18). In fact, the voluntary dimension is what makes the passion so worthy of the Father’s notice and that much more powerful in appeasing Him. In any case, the act of voluntary suffering does not eliminate or contradict the act of appeasement.

   The problem is that D’Ambrosio wrote the article and the book with a distorted understanding of appeasement, but this is not uncommon, since appeasement by blood sacrifice is often associated with the requirements of pagan gods who are indeed blood-thirsty tyrants that are harsh and overbearing. In reality, however, the pagan practice is merely the result of distorting the Christian practice, as is common among many other pagan ideas and practices (See Not By Bread Alone, Appendix 2: A Study of Propitiation and Expiation, pp. 309-320).

   Second, although it is correct to say that God did not legally “require” His Son to suffer, still, if the Son were to offer Himself as a sacrifice to God, both Christ and the Father knew that the only sacrifice the Father would voluntarily accept is one that entailed the brutal suffering and death of Christ. If there was another way, then Christ and the Father would surely have done it. In fact, this was the very question Christ put forth to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane (“Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me”). The answer was no, there could be no other way. God’s honor was so great and the sin of man so offensive that if a sacrifice were going to be offered to rectify the situation it had to be the intense suffering and ultimate death of Christ (not just His death), to the point where every last drop of blood that was shed was all expected and accepted by the Father to appease His wrath and preserve His honor. We have already seen the aspect of “suffering” highlighted in the passages where Christ anticipates them (cf., Matt 16:20-21; John 18:11; Mark 9:12; Luke 17:25; 24:26, 46; Acts 3:18; 17:3).

D’ Ambrosio continues:

    Adam, Eve and all of us walked away in pride. We, their sons and daughters, would have to walk back in humility. Trouble was, we couldn’t, so deeply had we been wounded by sin. So God became man and walked the road for us, though it turned out to be the way of the cross. Perfect humility. Perfect love. Perfect suffering. Relentless and undeterred by every conceivable stumbling block and snare that hell could put in its way. That is what redeemed us and paid the debt of our sins.

   Again, we see the echoes of Catholic Exchange’s book in the above words of D’ Ambrosio, but again, he falls short of the real truth of what, precisely, “redeemed us and paid the debt of our sins.” As we have seen earlier in the many quotes from Catholic tradition, it was the Son’s appeasing of the Father and the restoring of the Father’s honor by that propitiatory sacrifice, that the Father’s anger was assuaged and which would allow Him to once again look with favor upon mankind. But D’ Ambrosio will not be able to see this unless he begins to rediscover the nature of God the Father – a very personal being Who is, as Augustine and Aquinas taught, personally offended by the sins of men, and Who thus requires a supreme personal sacrifice to appease His wrath and preserve His honor.

D’ Ambrosio continues:

    But what about the phrase in the Apostle’s Creed, “He descended into hell?” The word used for hell means not the inferno of the damned (Gehenna), but the abode of the dead known as Sheol, Hades, or Limbo. The meaning of this is simple — He really died and experienced the separation of His soul from His body. It was no drill. He really died. For us. For me. It was love to the bitter end.

    So Jesus is the conquering hero, not the scapegoat. His free gift of unconquerable love is what atones for our sins. And the Father rushes out to meet Him in love clothing Him (and us) with the resurrection.

    The passion, then, is all about love. For God so loved the world that He sent His only Son who would lay down His life for not only His friends, but even for His enemies.

   Again, I’m glad to see D’ Ambrosio treat these dimensions so well. It’s not often that Catholics understand the real significance of the phrase “he descended into hell.” D’ Ambrosio is to be congratulated on that score, as well as his remarks on Christ restoring God’s honor. But it remains a fact that D’ Ambrosio’s article, and by extension the book “A Guide to the Passion,” are flawed presentations of the reason, meaning and purpose of the passion of Christ. I suggest that all the authors of this work regroup and consult the Traditional teaching on the Atonement, which was codified and made infallible by the Council of Trent.

    March 24, 2004
    vol 15, no. 84