Questions Answered – December 2022

The Mass as Sacrifice

Question: Why do you call the Mass a sacrifice? Does not Paul say the sacrifice of the Gentiles is a sacrifice to demons? “A broken and contrite heart O Lord thou will not despise,” I read in the psalms.

Answer: Sacrifice is an act of the virtue of religion which is a part of the virtue of justice. The virtue of justice is defined as: “the constant and perpetual will to give to another his due.” Strictly speaking, the virtue of justice perfects the ability to truly repay something which is due to another in a strict equality, quid pro quo.

This is most clearly seen in what philosophers term “commutative justice.” One takes a loaf of bread from a store and must exchange a just sum of money for it. This is a normal, everyday human action. There are some “others” who can never be repaid because there is no way we can practice strict equality towards them. These others have given us something we cannot truly return. The virtues that govern this are the virtues of piety toward parents and country and the virtue of religion toward God.

The virtue of religion is the constant a perpetual will to repay God for all he has given us. This would entail gifts such as life and grace. Even Adam before the Original Sin was bound by the virtue of religion. Catholic tradition, following Thomas Aquinas ascribes four acts necessary for the perfection of the virtue of religion: the interior acts of devotion in the will and prayer in the intellect and the exterior acts of adoration and sacrifice.

The natural law demands that all religions have a form of sacrifice which is an attempt to repay God for creation and the gift of life. In the Old Testament the Temple sacrifices became increasingly connected to not only the recognition of the Creator but the desire to be cleansed from sin. There were three offerings: the peace offering, the sin offering and the holocaust in which the victim was wholly consumed. All three of these external sacrifices were ordered to the offering of the heart to reestablish justice which is the oblation.

The ultimate and culminating sacrifice of the Old Testament is the one in which is priest and victim are the same, namely, the sacrifice and oblation of Christ on the Cross by which was are cleansed from Original Sin, grace is conferred and the Christian faithful receive nourishment for the journey to heaven, He offered his body on the Cross but this was the result of the interior offering or oblation of his heart. The mixture of obedience and love offered in atonement for Adam’s unloving disobedience is the central part of this offering, is the action of Christ the High Priest and continues in his heavenly glory.

The Roman Catechism clarifies how the Mass participates in this mystery. “As for the institution of this sacrifice, the Council of Trent removed all doubt in the matter by declaring that it was instituted by our Lord at the Last Supper. It likewise condemned anyone who would assert that there is not offered to God – in doing which Christ did on that occasion – a true and proper sacrifice, or that the offering means nothing more than that Christ gave himself to be our spiritual food.” (Roman Catechism, 3, c, 72) It is given to God alone and instituted by Christ when he said, “Do this in memory of me.”

Though prefigured in the Old Testament, in the sacrifice of the Mass, the priest is the same and the victim is the same and is a “sacrifice of propitiation.” (Roman Catechism, 3, 78) The manner of offering is different and is unbloody. This does not detract in any way from the unbloody historical sacrifice of the Cross but implements it for our own souls by deepening our participation in the act of the virtue of religion. In fact, we make Christ’s act in his human nature our own. The efficacious nature of this sacrifice extends not only to the celebrant and communicants but all the faithful, living and deceased.

Conception and Church Teaching

Question: It is time for the papacy to define de fide that it is a divinely revealed truth that the conceptus is a person from the moment it begins to be. This definition does not need the biological sciences nor the Aristotelian-Thomistic teachings to “prove” personhood of the zygote. Zygote is obviously the conceptus, a term unknown in Sacred Scripture. This whole matter is hence proposed, proclaimed, defined on divinely revealed faith alone.

Answer: In light of the abortion controversy it seems tempting to simply state that the moment of animation when God creates the human soul is the same as the moment of conception. There are good reasons from science for this because of the nature of DNA. Yet the Church has always been reticent to commit on the actual time in which the spiritual soul enters the body. In the document produced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Vitae (February 22, 1987), the Church is very impassioned about treating the embryo morally as a human being, but then states: “The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature, but it constantly reaffirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion. This teaching has not been changed and is unchangeable.” (1)

This may seem an evasion of an obvious truth. Nevertheless, the Magisterium has chosen not to make an ontological judgement on the moment of animation when the reasoning soul enters the body. The medieval explanations in this regard respect the teaching of Aristotle, who, although he was a brilliant biologist and scientist, suffered from the experimental limitations of his day. Without the ability to observe live embryos in the womb, the Aristotelians and those who followed posited a long period of time between conception and animation. This was a judgment on the nobility of the human soul which is the form of the body. It was thought that it would take some time to develop the matter into which God implanted the human soul because of the sophistication of human knowledge.

The problem was further complicated philosophically by the fact that there seemed to be a period of deanimation at death. Clinical death is not necessary the moment of metaphysical death. So it would seem to follow that clinical conception is not necessarily the exact moment of human animation. The Aristotelians thought that there was a succession of human souls in man. There was first a soul which allowed man to experience the cell like the plants, then an animal soul which further allowed the act of sensation, and then finally the human soul which was the summit of material life, which was completed in the act of intelligence.

Normally the Magisterium defines only those things which depend on faith alone, though there have been instances where the Magisterium has canonized a philosophical position, especially in morals. In the encyclical The Splendor of Truth, St. John Paul II canonized the Thomistic doctrine of natural law specifically. But this is a very rare instance, and the reason is that many philosophical teachings are open to reason alone and thus it smacks of fideism, an error which maintains that one cannot have a truth of philosophy without faith to define these things. Such it seems in the nature of human animation.

What is clear, though, is that if one holds today for progressive animation as did St. Thomas following Aristotle, that this would be for a very short period, perhaps a day or two. This is again because of the discovery of DNA. Also, the embryo must be morally treated as a human person since the beginning of the soul demands a direct act of the Creator and is very mysterious. Such is the immense value of human life that one should only err on the side of caution. If there is a question whether there is a human being present, one should presume there is. After all, the act of conception naturally terminates in animation unless artificially interrupted. One who interrupts the natural unfolding of the act of human generation commits murder subjectively.

Since this is a truth of faith open to the investigation of reason, there is no need for a formal definition on the part of the Magisterium. This is not to say that such a thing could not be done, but it generally is not necessary since reason and not faith can determine the truth.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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