Leon J. Podles :: DIALOGUE

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The Disappearance of Expiation

March 6th, 2010 · 3 Comments

When I researching the book on clerical murders that I have underway, I noticed that even secular newspapers from 1900 -1920 used the words expiation in regard to punishment, especially capital punishment. Now the word expiation appears only in crossword puzzles.


The word and the concept appear to be suffering a similar fate in Catholic theology: 

According to the chairman of the Catholic bishops’ conference of Germany, the death of Jesus Christ was not a redemptive act of God to liberate human beings from the bondage of sin and open the gates of heaven. The Archbishop of Freiburg, Robert Zollitsch, known for his liberal views, publicly denied the fundamental Christian dogma of the sacrificial nature of Christ’s death in a recent interview with a German television station.

Zollitsch said that Christ “did not die for the sins of the people as if God had provided a sacrificial offering, like a scapegoat.”

Instead, Jesus had offered only “solidarity” with the poor and suffering. Zollitsch said “that is this great perspective, this tremendous solidarity.”

The interviewer asked, “You would now no longer describe it in such a way that God gave his own son, because we humans were so sinful? You would no longer describe it like this?”

Monsignor Zollitsch responded, “No.”

The loss of the sense of expiation may help explain why the hierarchy treated abusers so lightly: expiatory punishment is a forgotten concept.

Tags: Catholic Church · Moral Theology · Responsibility · repentance

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Joseph D'Hippolito // Mar 6, 2010 at 11:13 pm

    Leon, Zollitsch’s comments reflect the growing influence of Euorpean secular thought on Catholic thinking. For Zollitsch to make such public comments and *not* be reprimanded publicly by the CDF suggests more than moral turptitude in Rome. But I don’t think “the loss of expiation” explains the bishops’ (and the Popes’) behavior concerning clerical sex-abuse. Remember that St. Alphonsus Ligouri recommended that sexual abusers be castrated, and he was talking during an era when expiation was treated with far more doctrinal respect.

    As I’ve said before, the bishops’ behavior reflects the behavior of *all* entrenched bureaucracies — especially those that aren’t held accountable and view themselves as self-benighted. There’s no moral difference between these bishops and Soviet apparatchiks or Enron executives.

  • 2 Father Michael // Mar 7, 2010 at 11:40 am

    On January 14, in his column in the Catholic Herald, Quentin de la Bedoyere dealt with the dangers of ecclesial power. Citing a recent sociological study he wrote “In simple terms, the more powerful (and secure) you are, the higher the standards you are likely to enforce on the people you control, and the lower the standars you apply to yourself. In other words, power is a serious ‘occaision of sin.’” Writing as a believer in the Petrine Office and the apostolic succesion of bishops, de l Bedoyere says “it is only continual, active defense against the corruption of power which can mitigate even if it cannot entirely avoid.” The “how” of said active defense is what has me stymied.

  • 3 Joseph D'Hippolito // Mar 7, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    Father Michael, the only “continual, active defense against the corruption of power” is an effective system that holds those in power accountable for their actions. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church has misinterpreted the execution of the Petrine Office and apostolic succession as an imperial model that more reflects the Late Roman Empire than the Early Church.

    If St. Peter somehow were to return from the dead and visit our age, he would be aghast at what’s being done in his — and in Christ’s name.

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