A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


"The core Catholic claim"?

In the latest New Yorker, Adam Gopnik has a rather snarky review of a few recent works on Galileo. Towards the end, he offers an explanation of why the Church wouldnt tolerate his views at least as hypothesis:

Whatever might be said to accord faith and Copernicus, religion depends for its myth on a certain sense of scale.... Man must be at the center of a universe on a stable planet, or else the core Catholic claim that the omnipotent ruler of the cosmos could satisfy his sense of justice only by sending his son here to be tortured to death begins to seem a ittle frayed. Scale matters. If Clark Kent had never left Smallville, then the significance of Superman would be much reduced.

There could be some superficial merit in the argument about scale here: Pascal, for example, said that the eternal silence of the universes immensities terrified him. But, notice, it was the silence, not the immensities, that frightened him, and difference in scale was not the most important thing:

Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill.

But what struck me was the ignorance displayed in Gopnik's throwaway summary of the core Catholic claim which seriouslymisrepresents the core Catholic belief in redemption through the death and resurrection of Christ.Many Christians, including even many Catholics, may hold something like that view of the atonement, which in turn, of course, repels many others. Another reason for profound regret at the low level of knowledge and understanding of the faith.


Commenting Guidelines

I think what is grandiose is not the claim of the Incarnation itself, but the fact that it could only happen once. I tend to think that human beings are only one of a number of intelligent species in the universe up until this point, and the universe will continue to exist for an unimaginably long time. There could be thousand and thousands of intelligent species. And as I understand it, the Catholic belief is that God became man, the second person of the Trinity remains a man, and if there really are thousands of intelligent species, they are going to have to deal with the fact that God became man and only man. Klingons, no matter how much they may hate the human race, are going to have to worship a God who is inextricably bound up with the human race.It has been conjectured that if there are other intelligent species elsewhere in the universe, humanity may have been the only one who experienced a "Fall," and the Incarnation is a mark of shame for the human race. Humans may be the only beings that needed to be redeemed. (Isn't it believed, though, that the Fall affected everything material? If other intelligent living beings exist in the universe, isn't it believed they were affected by the Fall? Certainly there is the idea that animal life on earth was affected.)In any case, I do think the claim that God became man does indeed tend to put humanity at the center of creation. Father Komonchak has pointed out some of the ("heretical") speculations of Cardinal Ratzinger/Benedict XVI on Original Sin which would seem to me to leave other intelligent life untouched by the Fall, at least until they come in contact with humans. (I find the concept of the Fall very difficult if not impossible to accept, so I am just speculating here.)Suppose there are other intelligent species, and they find human beings as freaky looking and disgusting as we find many of the alien species in science fiction movies. How would they react to Jesus?

I have found that total and sadly unmerited confidence in his knowledge on a variety of topics is pretty much Adam Gopnik's "thing."

Mr. Nickol: You wrote: "Father Komonchak has pointed out some of the (heretical) speculations of Cardinal Ratzinger/Benedict XVI on Original Sin which would seem to me to leave other intelligent life untouched by the Fall, at least until they come in contact with humans." I'm puzzled by this. Could you please indicate where I did this? At today's papal audience, Pope Benedict discussed the creation-accounts and the notion of original sin, but the last time I looked, the text was not yet available on the Vatican website. When it does appear, I may start another thread on it. Meanwhile, let's talk about the atonement, or about the problem of scale.

I don't think this is a case of ignorance. Gopnik is being deliberately tendentious for effect. He knows very well that Catholics themselves don't "claim" that "the omnipotent ruler of the cosmos could satisfy his sense of justice only by sending his son here to be tortured to death"; he just thinks that's what the Gospel story boils down to. Strip away the obcurantism and sentimentality of the Church's own formulation, and this is what your left with: a Father who not only allows his own Son to be tortured to death when he, the Father, could prevent it, but a Father who sends his Son into this world for just that purpose. This is a rival description of the Gospel with its own long tradition, which Gopnik has often alluded to: the tradition of "freethinkers," who see through the woolly-headedness of Christian theology to its essential cruelty. You could patiently explain to Gopnik that this is not, in fact, how Christians understand themselves and their faith, but he has already read such explanations and they have no effect on how he understands Christianity.

I wonder about a human-centered universe sometimes. I always thought (as much as I thought about it at all) that the universe wouldn't be the universe without humans. But when I was last camping in Grand Teton, it felt like the Earth would be a pretty fabulous place even without us here. And I don't know what we mean when we talk about "intelligence" and why that makes us in any way special. I would like to think God cares about wolves and elk and all his other creatures, not just people. And the scale of the universe and all of its threats and dangers reaffirms for me a caring Creator. Someone once said it's like we're walking this narrow path through quicksand and all kinds of dangers are lurking everywhere, but we don't even realize it and most of the time we make it safely through life. That's God, for me.

Father Komonchak,There was a post by Lisa Fullam titled Catholicism and Evolution, and the comment of yours I am referring to is date- and time-stamped 09/03/2010 - 4:48 pm.

But what struck me was the ignorance displayed in Gopniks throwaway summary . . . ______________Sadly there is a lot of ignorance displayed in when it comes to history of the Church and Galileo (in addition to deliberate tendentiousness). Lets be clear about what really happened --Galileo was actually celebrated and congratulated by high officials of the Church for his theory, following Copernicus, that the earth revolved around the sun, and after his death, he was buried with honors in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, near the tomb of Michelangelo, and many elite Florentines. In 1611 he travelled to Rome, where he was feted by cardinals and granted a private audience by Pope Paul V, who assured him of his support and good will.It was only after Galileo, a rather headstrong person, began demanding that everyone accept the Copernican theory without actual scientific proof that he started to get into trouble. (It was not until 1838 that telescopes had progressed to the point of being able to observe the necessary stellar parallax and thereby actually prove the theory scientifically. By the way, Galileo was also zealous in his demands that people accept his theory that the planets orbit the sun in perfect circles, which Kepler and Jesuit astronomers had disproven.)Meanwhile, in addition to this belligerent insistence on accepting heliocentrism as established fact, without the accompanying scientific proof, Galileo made a much larger diplomatic error in then going beyond the realm of science and telling some Biblical scholars and theologians that they needed to reinterpret scripture. It was only after Galileo started to tell some of the theologians their business, that he knew more about theology than did they, that he began to earn the wrath of some in the Church.

From the Holy Father's catechesis today --But our question today is does it make sense in the age of science and technology, to still speak of creation? How should we understand the narratives of Genesis? The Bible is not intended as a manual of the natural sciences; it wants to help us understand the authentic and profound truth of things. The fundamental truth that the stories of Genesis reveal is that the world is not a collection of contrasting forces, but has its origin and its stability in the Logos, the eternal reason of God, who continues to sustain the universe. There is a design of the world that is born from this Reason, the Spirit Creator. Believing that this is at the basis of all things, illuminates every aspect of life and gives us the courage to face the adventure of life with confidence and hope. So the Scripture tells us that the origin of the world, our origin is not irrational or out of necessity, but reason and love and freedom. And this is the alternative: the priority of the irrational, of necessity or the priority of reason, freedom and love. We believe in this position. . . .The stories of creation in Genesis also introduce us to this mysterious area, helping us to know God's plan for man. First of all they affirm that God formed man of the dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7). This means that we are not God, we did not make ourselves, we are the earth, but it also means that we come from good soil, through the work of the Creator. Added to this is another fundamental reality: all human beings are dust, beyond the distinctions of culture and history, beyond any social difference; we are one humanity formed with the sole earth of God . Then there is a second element: the human being originates because God breathes the breath of life into the body he molded from the earth (cf. Gen 2:7). The human being is made in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen 1:26-27). And we all carry within us the breath of life from God and every human life - the Bible tells us - is under the special protection of God. This is the deepest reason for the inviolability of human dignity against any attempt to evaluate the person in accordance with utilitarian criteria or those of power. Being the image and likeness of God means that man is not closed in on himself, but has an essential reference in God.

More from the Pope today --I would like to highlight one last instruction from the stories of creation: sin begets sin and the sins of history are interlinked. This aspect pushes us to discuss that which is termed "original sin." What is the meaning of this reality, often difficult to understand? I would like to illustrate some elements. First, we must consider that no man is closed in on itself, no man can live only in and of himself; we receive life from the other and not only at birth, but every day. The human being is relational: I am myself only in you and through you, the relationship of love with the You of God and the you of others. Well, sin upsets or destroys our relationship with God, its presence destroys our relationship with God, the fundamental relationship, when we put ourselves in Gods place. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that with the first sin, man, "chose himself over and against God, against the requirements of his creaturely status and therefore against his own good."(n. 398).Once the fundamental relationship is upset, the other poles of relationships are compromised or destroyed, sin ruins everything. Now, if the relational structure of humanity is troubled from the start, every man walks into a world marked by the disturbance of this relationship, enters a world disturbed by sin, by which he is marked personally; the initial sin attacks and injures human nature (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 404-406). And man can not get out of this situation alone, he can not redeem himself alone, only the Creator can restore the right relationship. Only if the One from which we have strayed comes to us and takes us by the hand with love, can the right relationship be re-woven. This happens in Jesus Christ, who takes the exact opposite path to that of Adam, as the hymn in the second chapter of the Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians describes (2:5-11): while Adam does not recognize his being a creature and wants to put himself in the place of God, Jesus, the Son of God, is in a perfect filial relationship with the Father, he lowers himself, becomes the servant, he travels the path of love humbling himself to death on the Cross, to reorder relations with God. The Cross of Christ becomes the new Tree of Life.Dear brothers and sisters, to live by faith is to recognize the greatness of God and accept our smallness, our condition as creatures letting the Lord fill us with His love. Evil, with its load of pain and suffering, is a mystery that is illuminated by the light of faith, which gives us the certainty of being able to be freed from it, the certainty that it is good to be human.

This is from Jesus; An Experiment in Christology by Edward Schillebeeckx, which I actually read cover to cover, understanding very little. But I did understand this and find it memorable:

In a post-medieval theory of Christian redemption as penal substitution (offering a thoroughly false interpretation of Anselms doctrine of satisfaction), man really was condemned by Gods transcendent righteousness to blind submission and barren culpability: God demands the sacrifice of an innocent Jesus in order to release mankind from its guilt in the sight of God. It is just what the aeroplane hijackers do nowadays with their innocent hostages in order to expose at the bar of world opinion the guilt of society as a whole.

This is from Jesus; An Experiment in Christology by Edward Schillebeeckx, which I actually read cover to cover, understanding very little.What a tragic view he has of God who is Love. Don't worry about not understanding what he wrote -- it looks like the author didn't understand the subject either.

"... Gopniks throwaway summary of the core Catholic claim which seriously misrepresents the core Catholic belief in redemption through the death and resurrection of Christ. Many Christians, including even many Catholics, may hold something like that view of the atonement*****************Father Kopanchak, could you please briefly summarize how you explain Catholic teaching on the atonement? I (and most Catholics I know) were raised to believe precisely what Mr. Gopnik has expressed somewhat crudely - that Jesus "had" to die because in order for God to forgive humanity's sins. We say that "Jesus died for our sins", we have the "sacrifice of the mass", Jesus is the sacrificial lamb etc. The Catechism of the Catholic church essentially states what Gopnik states, but a bit more elegantly. Quotes following are from the CCCChrist's death is both the Paschal sacrifice that accomplishes the definitive redemption of men, through "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world",439 and the sacrifice of the New Covenant, which restores man to communion with God by reconciling him to God through the "blood of the covenant, which was poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins"."For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man's obedience many will be made righteous."443 By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who "makes himself an offering for sin", when "he bore the sin of many", and who "shall make many to be accounted righteous", for "he shall bear their iniquities".444 Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.445Jesus consummates his sacrifice on the cross616 It is love "to the end"446 that confers on Christ's sacrifice its value as redemption and reparation, as atonement and satisfaction. He knew and loved us all when he offered his life.447 Now "the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died."448 No man, not even the holiest, was ever able to take on himself the sins of all men and offer himself as a sacrifice for all. The existence in Christ of the divine person of the Son, who at once surpasses and embraces all human persons, and constitutes himself as the Head of all mankind, makes possible his redemptive sacrifice for all. IN BRIEF619 "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures" (I Cor 15:3).620 Our salvation flows from God's initiative of love for us, because "he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins" (I Jn 4:10). "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor 5:19).621 Jesus freely offered himself for our salvation. Beforehand, during the Last Supper, he both symbolized this offering and made it really present: "This is my body which is given for you" (Lk 22:19).622 The redemption won by Christ consists in this, that he came "to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mt 20:28), that is, he "loved [his own] to the end" (Jn 13:1), so that they might be "ransomed from the futile ways inherited from [their] fathers" (I Pt 1:18).623 By his loving obedience to the Father, "unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:8), Jesus fulfills the atoning mission (cf. Is 53:10) of the suffering Servant, who will "make many righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities" (Is 53:11; cf. Rom 5:19).

Mr. Nickol: Thanks for the reference. I had forgotten about that discussion.Schillebeeckx is right that the theory of penal substitution distorts Anselm's theory of satisfaction--and I would add, Aquinas's, too. I'd be tempted to call it post-Reformation since it was propagated especially by Protestants although it also infected a good number of Catholic orators of the modern era. Calvin thought that Christ suffered the pains of the damned, a view that Hans Urs von Balthasar, dependent in this, perhaps, on Adriana von Speyer, has attempted to revive. Bender: Schillebeeckx's paragraph describes a theory that he himself did not hold.

What a tragic view he has of God who is Love. Dont worry about not understanding what he wrote it looks like the author didnt understand the subject either.Bender, I don't know how you could misread Schillebeeckx here, even in this totally isolated paragraph. Schillebeeckx is not endorsing this theory, but condemning it in rather scathing terms. I know he was controversial, but he did not claim God was like an airplane hijacker!

It does seem to me that most Catholics believe God had planned that Jesus would be killed here, no matter how you dress it up. I like instead what Ken Overberg SJ wrote - that Jesus came here to be with us not to die for our sins, that he needn't have been murdered (Duns Scotus) ... The Incarnation: God's Gift of Love.

I think the centrality of the earth was more important than the scale of the universe in the old understanding. Certainly, it seemed a happy confirmation of our preeminent place in God's design that he had placed us at the physical center of his creation. No one had a clear idea of the size of the universe or an accurate way of measuring it until quite recently, although it was always large enough to be awesome.Still, there is a curious ambivalence in medieval thought about our central place. The rediscovered Aristotle had considered the heavens as a region of perfection in which, apart from circular motion, all is changeless. On the other hand, the earth is a place of generation and decay, coming to be and passing away, perpetual imperfection. Such a conception accorded well with a culture and a religion that preached, if they did not often practice, renunciation of this world and the setting of all one's hopes on a better world hereafter. So from his lofty vantage point in the Eighth Heaven, Dante views the earth and despises it: "It seemed so poor a thing. Highly I rate that judgement that doth low esteem the world."And yet the earth is the focus of and reason for all the mighty motion of the sky. Each sphere's "influence" bears upon it and affects the lives of men, so perilously placed between heaven and hell. The Incarnation, central event in universal history, occurred on earth, and the Redemption of Man is the point of it all. Poor as it is, the earth has the greatest significance.And the reason for this special attention is that, of all those creatures for whom there still is any hope, the earth and its principal occupant have fallen farthest into unreality, that is, farthest from God. C. S. Lewis put it this way in The Discarded Image: ", as Dante was to say more clearly than anyone else, the spatial order is the opposite of the spiritual, and the material cosmos mirrors, hence reverses, the reality, so that what is truly the rim seems to us the hub." When he gazes on the sky, medieval man is looking into reality from an outpost on the border of chaos.

If DN's postulation "that human beings are only one of a number of intelligent species in the universe up until this point" (I am not disagreeing and have found that idea intriguing for a long time), then I question this:"Catholic belief is that God became man, the second person of the Trinity remains a man, and if there really are thousands of intelligent species, they are going to have to deal with the fact that God became man and only man."I know that DN meant to say "human," but that is not my point.I ask the simple question: why so? If there are indeed "thousands of intelligent species," why are the term and conditions of God's involvement with one of those species, i.e., human beings on planet earth, relevant or necessarily binding on other species?There is absolutely no reason, if there are other intelliegent species, to hold that "... the claim that God became man does indeed tend to put humanity at the center of creation. "That is a leap of wishful thinking that has yet to be demonstrated as being true.

To clarify: I am talking about thousands of intelligent species NOT on earth, whether or not in this corner of the universe.

Bender:Re your comment: "Dont worry about not understanding what he wrote it looks like the author didnt understand the subject either."Too bad Schillebeecks is no longer with us. He might have responded with one of Ed Koch's best comeback lines: "I can explain it to you, but I cannot comprehend it for you."

Be careful, Bender: "It was only after Galileo, a rather headstrong person, began demanding that everyone accept the Copernican theory without actual scientific proof that he started to get into trouble."Absent talking about Copernican theory, what you are describing is what Christians call faith when it comes to the existence of a deity.

Scriptures certainly place humanity at the center of the universe. "You have made us a little less than the angels." "We shall judge angels." Etc. Whatever the composition of the universe, it does not take away from the wondrous visit of Jesus and his inimitable proclamation, offering the pearl of great price and the abundant spiritual life. It is always the regret that many are prevented from this great treasure by some who are false prophets.

Here is an earlier reflection on the question of God's relations with other intelligent life forms:CHRIST IN THE UNIVERSEby: Alice Meynell (1847-1922)WITH this ambiguous earthHis dealings have been told us. These abide:The signal to a maid, the human birth,The lesson, and the young Man crucified. But not a star of allThe innumerable host of stars has heardHow He administered this terrestrial ball.Our race have kept their Lords entrusted Word. Of His earth-visiting feetNone knows the secret, cherished, perilous,The terrible, shamefast, frightened, whispered, sweet,Heart-shattering secret of His way with us. No planet knows that thisOur wayside planet, carrying land and wave,Love and life multiplied, and pain and bliss,Bears, as chief treasure, one forsaken grave. Nor, in our little day,May His devices with the heavens be guessed,His pilgrimage to thread the Milky WayOr His bestowals there be manifest. But in the eternities,Doubtless we shall compare together, hearA million alien Gospels, in what guiseHe trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear. O, be prepared, my soul!To read the inconceivable, to scanThe myriad forms of God those stars unrollWhen, in our turn, we show to them a Man.("Christ in the Universe" is reprinted from The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse. Ed. Nicholson & Lee. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1917.)

I dont know how you could misread Schillebeeckx here, even in this totally isolated paragraph. Probably because I was going on your totally isolated excerpt, which I am now to understand is out of context and actually a critique -- But you did not clarify that in your excerpt.

Anne: one of my all-time favorite threads on dotC is on that subject:

The idea of a loving God torturing his only Son is certainly horrible, but it is not hard to see how such a misunderstanding could creep into Catholic belief.I don't know or, frankly, care what the Church is teaching on certain matters today, but when I was in school, ferocious men in black cassocks taught that God would punish with eternal hellfire thirteen-year-old boys (girls, too, I suppose) who entertained "impure thoughts." The hangingest judge of the Old West would have balked at that, I think. It is blasphemy and child abuse rolled into one. It excuses and even encourages human cruelty everywhere, turning God into Moloch, driving frail human beings to despair, and making it possible to belief that such an entity might even delight in his own Son's pain.And it hardly mends matters, after peddling such poison, to say, "But look here! We have the means of salvation." That's what they told Winston Smith.

Sorry. *believe* for *belief*

Thanks for the beautiful Alice Meynell poem, Katherine.It reminds me of "Jerusalem":And did those feet in ancient timeWalk upon Englands mountains green?And was the Holy Lamb of GodOn Englands pleasant pastures seen?

Ms. Chapman: I don't think I can give a capsule-statement of how I present the Atonement, and perhaps Claire's reference to an earlier discussion on this blog will help. The key, I think, lies less in what Christ suffered than in the love, fidelity, and obedience with which he endured his suffering. It is also crucial to recognize that the drama of Christ's life, death, and resurrection begins with the statement from John's Gospel: "God so loved the world." That is, God's love was the initial motivating force of Incarnation and Atonement. It's not as if Christ had to be punished in our place in order for God to love and forgive us.

Reflecting lately on the incredible emergence of the human being from the first cells of life 4+billion years ago, and reflecting also -- as we've searched for water on Mars --on signs of the possibility of life there, too -- I can readily conceive life on other planets in this vast universe. And I can conceive that remarkable passage from "life" to "soul" -- (I was "taught" by Pius XII in the 40's, that is what must be held in order to accept evolution) -- that that "passage" here -- and elsewhere in the universe -- is actually a beginning of the Incarnation. . . (at the very least, our "souls" we are more like the God we believe in than we are like the earth we came from ) A theology of sin that focuses on "Atonement" -- in its exaggerated modes -- can and does distort our belief in the reality of the God who is Love. But even the creative power of God erupting in ourselves, in the universe, does not free us from the limitations that are the consequence of our emergence from earth, limitations that are the basis of our capacity to sin . . . A teaching of Hell, and the human possibility of doing incredible evil are not contradicted by thinking like this; the possibility is located in our capacity to betray our being created in the image of God. Current attempts to integrate evolution into Christian belief in creation don't go this far . .but we're only a century or two into thinking about it; and two millenia into a profound belief in Jesus, whose tortured image marks our churches and our prayer. Holding his teaching and his end together is the principle work of 'faith" . . .it is not 'arguable'But such a "theology of evolution" is only being hinted at here and there. . . . and may come only after a longer time than the abandonment of heliocentrism.

Here' s a variant of the opening scene of the movie Vertical Limit. Rock-climbing up a cliff, three persons are on a single rope. The Father is highest up the rope, then the Son, then Man. Unfortunately the rope is dangerously frayed, is tearing, and it seems that M will fall off into the abyss; but S gives him a hand. So, in the nail-biting scene, here is S with his arms streched out, one hand holding M, one hand hanging off F. It's untenable, S's muscles are bulging, he is straining like Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger, and something has to give: F tells S to let go of him, S lets go, and S and M together plunge down to their death. But F cannot let that happen, so he scoops up S, as well as M along with him since S and M are still holding hands - S never did let go of M. Finally there's a happy ending with F, S and M now all together.

Jim McC. --The reason why some theologians say that Adam's sin affected other humans on other planets is because those theologians are Platonists.Plato thought that there is a second world of Forms -- single, eternal, perfect "whatnessses" which do not change. However, a Form can become embedded in different portions of matter, thereby yielding *many things of one kind*, things which actually *share* the one Form. Thus your form is my form, and all human beings have the same Form/Whatness -- and that includes Adam, plus all the other humans who have ever existed or will exist, no matter where. At least, that is the thinking of the extreme Platonists. I don't know whether that metaphysical explanation is an offficial Catholic teaching, but as I remember Aquinas held it. (And I wouldn't be surprised it Augustin did, which would explain its populatity with many Protestants.)

I'd love to see an analytic theologian (is there such a thing?) do analyses of the uses of "atone", "ransome", "save", and "redeem".Is the word "atone" or an equivalent used anywhere in Scripture with reference to the Crucifixion? What did the Greek word translated as "redeem' mean? Did it have some sort of commercial meaning or what?

One of the books Gopnik favorably mentions in his review is Galileo's Muse by physicist and mathematician Mark Peterson. There we learn, according to Peterson, that the Copernican controversy was a sideshow. Perhaps more important for Galileo's intellectual development were his lectures on the physical dimensions of Dante's Inferno and the implications of that structure for scaling. An interesting 14 minute youtube intro to the book's thesis is here: discussion reminds me of an observation made by the Dantista John Freccero: "The fact that Lucifer occupies the center of the cosmos should be convincing proof that a geocentric conception of the universe in the Middle Ages implied no great privilege for the human race."There are more things in Galileo's heaven and earth, Gopnik and Brecht, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

"...limitations that are the basis of our capacity to sin . ."Mary Barbara ==Hmmm. Yes, matter limits us, and our bodies can lead us to sin. But I tend to think that it is the wide choices we're capable of that are the biggest problem in attaining virtue. In other words, variety of itself is appealing, as are the various things, behaviors and experiences we are drawn to.Maybe in a primitive society, where there aren't so many choices, this would be less true. But i think that our culture with all the manufactured desires, courtesy of the ad industry among other influences, impell us to excess, including excess in sin. "Holy simplicity" hs something to do with this, i think.

Ann O.,The Greek noun translated as Lat. redemptio or Eng. redemption is apolytrosis. Its ordinary meaning is a ransoming or payment for release of prisoners taken in battle or persons subject to punishment. It occurs several places in the New Testament, but not in passages that mention the Crucifixion explicitly. The uncompounded form lytrosis is used similarly and translated the same. And the agent noun lytrotes = redemptor = redeemer (deliverer) occurs once (Acts 7:35), but referring to Moses, not to Christ.

Galileo and Hell: do the math :) ....

Anne, here's a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer that I like:"Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love onthe hard wood of the cross that everyone might come withinthe reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spiritthat we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring thosewho do not know you to the knowledge and love of you".Catholics have this, in one of the Eucharistic prayers:When we were lost and could not find the way to you, you loved us more than ever; Jesus, your Son, innocent and without sin, gave himself into our hands and was nailed to a cross. Yet before he stretched out his arms between heaven and earth in the everlasting sign of your covenant, he desired to celebrate the Paschal feast in the company of his disciples.

From the OED, under "Atone": Etymology: at one adv. in its combined form as repr. a simple idea, and 16th cent. pronunciation. Short for the phrase set or make at one; compare to back , to forward , to right , etc., and the compounds at-one-maker , at-one making , under at one adv. Assisted by the prior existence of the vb. to one v. = make one, put at one, unite, Latin unre, French unir; whence onement was used already by Wyclif. From the frequent phrases set at one or at onement, the combined atonement began to take the place of onement early in 16th cent., and atone to supplant one vb. about 1550. Atone was not admitted into the Bible in 1611, though atonement had been in since Tyndale.

" the core Catholic claim that the omnipotent ruler of the cosmos could satisfy his sense of justice only by sending his son here to be tortured to death"I detest this caricature but it is one that I find even theologians propagating. Jesus Christ died for us and with us, shared our death and the circumstances of injustice that often surround death. It is at least the height of ingratitude to caricature this as barbaric human sacrifice arranged by a cruel God."And as I understand it, the Catholic belief is that God became man, the second person of the Trinity remains a man, and if there really are thousands of intelligent species, they are going to have to deal with the fact that God became man and only man." No, Thomas Aquinas says the Word could become incarnate in several times and places. He would be the same Word in each of the incarnations.PS Blake's "Jerusalem" does not refer to such speculations but to the legend that the young Jesus was brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea.

In the late 1950's, Fr. Stanislas Lyonnet, S.J., published a number of articles, later gathered into books, on the biblical vocabulary for "sin" and "redemption." The articles are close analyses of the terms and their use in non-biblical writings and in the Old and New Testaments. In the book on redemption, he has chapters on the following vocabulary: "salvation," "liberation" (under which he discusses "redemption"), "purchase" or "acquisition," "expiation," and "sacrifice." It is a pity that these books, published in Latin but then translated into English under the tile Sin, Redemption, and Sacrifice, are not more widely known.

Joseph S,The quote you refute does not deny that Christ died for us. It refutes the belief that God demanded this as satisfaction.

Its not as if Christ had to be punished in our place in order for God to love and forgive us.*************************************************And yet, it seems that the Catholic church in its Catechism does indeed say that Christ "had" to suffer and die as "expiation", as "ransom", in order for God to refrain from damning all of humanity for all of eternity for being sinners - as quoted above. Father, you expressed sorrow and surprise that so many Catholics are "poorly" taught in the faith. But the reality is that most Catholics were (and I am guessing, still are) taught that Jesus was the "perfect" sacrifice to a God for whom "justice" demanded a sacrifice to atone for humanity's sins, in the tradition of animal sacrifice in Israeli worship. Jesus's death would end all of that. Since God is God, no ordinary human being would be of enough importance to satisfy - this sacrifice had to be a perfect human being - the son of God. This concept and the specific language of "redemption", "dying for our sins", the sacrificial "lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world", etc is repeated both literally and metaphorically in the "sacrifice" of the mass. It is not just a difference in emphasis (God of love, emphasized more after Vatican II but barely mentioned before Vatican II, and the God of "justice" - the supreme Judge - emphasized before Vatican II and increasingly today). It seems that there is a divergence between what "ordinary" Catholics are taught (and the nuances and interpretations of the language used), and what college and graduate theology students are taught. More sophisticated teaching has found ways to reinterpret the commonly understood meaning of certain scriptures, to restate the understanding of specific words that most of christianity, including the RCC, has taught about Jesus's suffering and death for a very long time. This is a positive development, but I'm not sure that it reflects the "official" teaching as written in the current CCC nor that it is taught to Catholics in the pews in addition to those in universities. I long ago dismissed what I was taught about God "demanding" Jesus's suffering and death to "redeem" humanity because if that were true, I wanted nothing to do with such a God. I haven't had time yet to read the thread Ann linked to, and probably should have done so before writing this post, but will do so later. Thanks to all who have responded to my questions and comments.

It seems that Gopnik could at least have checked with a (preferably contemporary) Catholic source to see if his depiction was accurate. Or that a fact checker at the New Yorker might have asked for a source.

It seems that there is a divergence between what ordinary Catholics are taught (and the nuances and interpretations of the language used), and what college and graduate theology students are taught. Pope Benedict XVI explained it to the International Theological Commission:"We have heard that our Lord praises the Father because He concealed the great mystery of the Son, the Trinitarian mystery, the Christological mystery, from the wise and the learned, they did not recognize him. Instead he revealed it to the little ones, the npioi, to those who are not learned, who are not very cultured. It was to them that this great mystery was revealed." We didn't know about the moons of Jupiter until 400 years ago, but some presume/pretend to comprehend what was/is in the Mind of the Creator. Nice work, if you can get it.

Ms. Chapman: I just remembered that I did try a statement some years back in Commonweal. You can find it at:

Whenever we talk about the true message of Jesus we should always remember Bernard Haring, the greatest moral theologian of the 20th century. While too many kept quiet and acquiesced Haring stood his ground is opposing the errors of Paul VI and John Paul II.

Beautiful and helpful reflection, Fr. K. ( And if anyone skipped over the link, they missed something worth tucking away for keeps.)

"The problem with the theory of penal substitution was that it tried to reduce the complex NT presentation of the death and resurrection to a single, easily intelligible scheme."It's not something that I can understand and then be done with. I find that I keep forgetting and periodically need to spend some time thinking about until it makes sense again, for a while, then I forget again. "Remind me: why exactly did Jesus have to die on a cross?"

Claire: Your question is precisely the one that St. Anselm was asking in his Cur Deus homo, although it arose long before him. He sought a necessary reason: that otherwise our rescue from sin was impossible. But long before St. Augustine had simply taken it for granted that other ways were possible, and he then set himself to explaining why none other was so fitting to our condition. And St. Thomas Aquinas followed him in this, providing in both of his great Summas multiple reasons for the incarnation and at-onement through the cross and resurrection. In 1 Cor 15:3 Paul quotes from a primitive formula that he says was the one through which the essential Gospel was handed over to him and which he had used in evangelizing the Corinthians. As J.D.G. Dunn recently pointed out, this brings us back to the very early years of Christianity. And the first sentence in this formula is that "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures." So that the association between Christ's death and dealing with our sins is a very primitive element in the Christian faith. I don't pretend that the link is easy to understand, but to neglect or downplay the link is to offer a different gospel from the one that Paul (and, he said, other apostles) preached.

Thanks to all for the vocabulary analysis and the poems. Complexity, complexity. One must look at all sorts of evidence for theological understandings of the Infinite Mysteries The theologian's project is literally endless. So far, in the West at least, all understandings of infinities of various sorts have led to contradictions, including even mathematical contradictions as well. The theological mysteries also seem to harbor insurmountable contradictions. But unlike the mathematicians who admit the problems in the foundations of math, many theologians seem unwilling to admit the contradictions implicit in their theologies, and, as Anne Chapman shows, they go on repeating old formulas and understandings of the infinite mysteries even after new undeerstandings have shown the old ones to be defective. We're left with contradictions and sometimes even denials that the contradictions exist. We are left with what theologians often call "tensions", (Logicians call them "contradictions".)Just look at the Ratzinger quote Gerelyn just provided. It's a cop out in the face of Ininite Mystery. He says that God revealed the mysteries to "the little ones" (how patronizing), to the unwise, the uneducated because they can deal with the profundities of dogma better than the educated, the 'elite" can. Hmph. I'd like to see what kind of grade Ratzinger would give to a typical farmboy with a grammar school eduction for an essay for one of his graduate courses. I say that if the "little" folks deal with the mysteries better it's because they have the humility to admit their own errors. They are indeed unlike the grand theologians who won't admit their mistakes but continue to assert obviously contradictory understandings -- only never at the same time.The theological mysteries are boundless and inexhaustible, and it's easy, very easy to get lost in them when all we have are limited human ideas. Our underestandings are simply not adequate to the job they're trying to do. I say it's best to admit our contradictions, criticize them, thoroughly and go on from there. Otherwise we end up with what Gopnik and his friends call "balderdash".JAK, will never convince me that Ratzinger , for all his great brilliance and grandfatherly concern, isn't at best highly ambivalent about the value of reasoning and the use of logic. But thank you very much for bringing up these theological questions. It's what Rome should be doing, but isn't.



About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.