1. The Modern Aversion to a Theology of Atonement
The Church’s Scripture, doctrine, and worship all sanction the faith-conviction that Christ by his Passion and death atoned for sin, once for all. Yet in spite of this threefold sanctioning, the idea that the Cross is a work of atonement1 has largely fallen out of favor. Among theologians, one can detect an unmistakable reserve—even embarrassment—with regard to the idea. And things are not hugely different in the world of parish faith formation. On most occasions when the Scripture readings at Mass testify expressly to the atoning purpose of Christ’s Cross, the priest or deacon proves masterful in avoiding the subject.
Benedict XVI is aware of this tendency and challenges it in his masterwork, Jesus of Nazareth. He observes, “The idea that God allowed the forgiveness of sins to cost him the death of his Son” is seen as theologically repugnant. One reason for this, according to Benedict, is “the trivialization of evil.”2 We seem to have a very small estimate of human guilt, the menace of sin, and the damage it causes. We presume that we sinners know all about sin. After all, we are its perpetrators. Insofar as the trivialization of evil holds sway, the message that Christ’s Passion and death is a work of atonement cannot but strike us as an overreaction on God’s part.
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1. We shall start with a fairly general notion of atonement as “a way of eliminating sin.” See Norbert Hoffmann, “Atonement and the Spirituality of the Sacred Heart,” in Faith in Christ and the Worship of Christ (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 146n25.
2. Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 159.