On Sacrifice

The Wall Street Journal ran a brief column last week by Charlotte attorney, Mike Kerrigan, about how his Irish Catholic mom used to advise him, about any disappointment: “Offer it up!” The Journal editors headlined the piece, “My Mom’s Christian Lesson.”  But the fact that it was published at all, and (if my experience is any basis for judging) widely shared, shows that it spoke to something universal.

“There used to be a form of devotion – perhaps less practiced today but quite widespread not long ago – that included the idea of ‘offering up’ the minor daily hardships that continually strike at us like irritating ‘jabs’, thereby giving them a meaning. . . .In this way, even the small inconveniences of daily life could acquire meaning and contribute to the economy of good and of human love. Maybe we should consider whether it might be judicious to revive this practice ourselves.”

This is what Pope Benedict taught in his encyclical, Spe Salvi.

St. Thomas Aquinas, in his treatment of “sacrifice” in the Summa, gives an explanation for why this practice remains appealing, even if it has become – for our current moment and practically speaking – defunct.

The offering of sacrifice to God, he says, belongs to the law of nature:

Natural reason tells man that he is subject to a higher being, on account of the defects which he perceives in himself, and in which he needs help and direction from someone above him: and whatever this superior being may be, it is known to all under the name of God. Now just as in natural things the lower are naturally subject to the higher, so too it is a dictate of natural reason in accordance with man’s natural inclination that he should tender submission and honor, according to his mode, to that which is above man. Now the mode befitting to man is that he should employ sensible signs in order to signify anything, because he derives his knowledge from sensibles. Hence it is a dictate of natural reason that man should use certain sensibles, by offering them to God in sign of the subjection and honor due to Him, like those who make certain offerings to their lord in recognition of his authority. Now this is what we mean by a sacrifice, and consequently the offering of sacrifice is of the natural law.

(Note: Astute Catholics might judge a theory of natural law as to whether it can immediately give a good account, like this, of a general and primary obligation to offer sacrifice to God.  Whether the so-called “new natural law” can do so, for instance, is highly doubtful.)


We all feel this pull. We understand implicitly that our lives should be characterized by sacrifice and are missing something if they’re not.  Indeed, Newman makes it an argument for Catholicism, over and against Protestantism, that in the sacrifice of the Mass the Church best realizes the religious impulse that long pre-existed in paganism: “In all sacrifices it was specially required that the thing offered should be something rare, and unblemished; and in like manner in all atonements and all satisfactions, not only was the innocent taken for the guilty, but it was a point of special importance that the victim should be spotless, and the more manifest that spotlessness, the more efficacious was the sacrifice.”

Citing the great penitential psalm, “A sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit” (51:19), Aquinas says outward sacrifices are meant to be signs of a more fundamental inward sacrifice, which he calls “reverence” or “the offering to God of a devout mind.” Outward sacrifices, in the strict sense, consist in the giving up and destruction (for you) of something of value, and which in your culture signifies worship.  These are actions, Aquinas says, which would have no value, and would not be done, except to honor and display subjection to God: think of animal sacrifice.

But the acts of the various virtues, too, which should, in any case, be done, can in an extended sense count as sacrifices, if they are done for the ultimate motive of glorifying God.  This is where one would place “offer it up!” It’s an exhortation to show courage, steadfastness, equanimity, patience, or humility, but as directed to God, in an attitude that we came from him, and are returning to him, and are not our own persons. 

Virtues involving the use of the body especially show our “spiritual service of worship,” as St. Paul taught (Rom. 12:1), and as the Apostles urged the early converts in insisting that they “abstain from fornication” (Acts 15:29).

If the natural law of sacrifice is universal, does it show itself inevitably, even insofar as people fall away from God?

I am inclined to say “yes and no.”  Let’s first take the “no.” When Bill and Melinda Gates announced their divorce last week, they used this language: “After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage.”

A Christian might read this and think, “If you really were married, then God joined you together, and therefore ‘you’ cannot decide to end it on your own.”  A simple, polytheistic pagan upon hearing this might have thought: “What does your god have to say about it?”

Certainly, the notion that we all are in service to a higher God through the body seems to be lost, when God is lost.

But the “yes” arises from the worry that, when a society dethrones the true God, it puts a multitude of gods in his place – namely, our autonomous selves, each of which claims the authority to define the mystery of the universe.

So I worry that the destruction of the innocents around us, especially in their bodies – seduction, corruption, abortion, mutilation – arises not from alleged necessity, bad jurisprudence, mere social injustice, or even false ideas of liberty, but from a dark service to false gods, which must have its victims and blood.


*Image: Adoration of the Golden Calf by François Perrier, 1642 [Capitoline Museum, Rome]

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His new book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available.