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Mel Gibson and Thomas Aquinas: How the Passion Works

Father Romanus Cessario Takes a Theological Look

BOSTON, Massachusetts, APRIL 9 2004 (Zenit) - If the violence in "The Passion of the Christ" seems excessive, its director may have had a valid theological reason.

So says Father Romanus Cessario, a Dominican who teaches at St. John's Seminary, Brighton, Massachusetts, in this essay on Mel Gibson's film.

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Mel Gibson and Thomas Aquinas: How the Passion Works
By Father Romanus Cessario, O.P.

No reviewer to my knowledge has suggested that Mel Gibson read the "Summa Theologiae" before setting about to direct "The Passion of the Christ."

But he must have read Question 48 of the third part of Aquinas' "Summa." There, Aquinas examines how the passion of Christ produced its effect -- its efficiency, if you will.

Efficiency is a technical, philosophical term that points us back to Aristotle's four causes, and urges us to inquire about what is responsible for something coming into being. In Aquinas' usage, "efficiently" does not connote as it does in modern English the restricted meaning of "working productively with minimum wasted effort or expense."

Modes of efficiency

The Latin word "modum" may be compared roughly to the English word "model." The five modes that Aquinas discusses in Question 48 together capture everything that the Gospels communicate about Christian salvation. These modes answer the question, "How does the passion of the Christ accomplish our salvation?" Even the most outspoken critics of Mel Gibson allow that this is the question that he too sets out to answer.

The mode of merit

When Aquinas says that "Christ by his passion merited salvation not only for himself, but for all who are his members, as well," he introduces the question of the relationship of the cross to the Church.1

Merit denotes the right to a reward. The reward of the passion of the Christ is beatific communion open to every member of the human race. According to the formula of St. Anselm, only God could merit such a grace, while only man should expend the energies to regain what he had lost. Christ is given grace not only for himself but for his members.

We thus call this grace the "capital grace" of Christ inasmuch as he remains the "caput Ecclesiae," the head of the Church. Some wonder why Christ's other merits would not have been sufficient to win for us the reward of eternal life. Aquinas replies that Christ did everything from the greatest charity, but the passion remains that "kind of work" best suited to the effects that we attribute to it.

Mel Gibson clearly constructed his film in such a way as to ensure that the viewer understands that this kind of work is ordered to an effect that transcends whatever particular persons or events may be depicted in the drama. It is the passion of "the Christ."

Like Greek drama, Gibson has cast the film so as to allow its universal significance to emerge slowly from within the consciousness of the viewer. The epic proportions of the film, emphasized by the musical accompaniment, inform the viewer with a sense of the universal and majestic.

The mode of satisfaction

Aquinas takes up a theme that has figured in Catholic theology since at least the early sixth century, but which most students now identify with the work of the 11th-century archbishop Anselm of Canterbury (c.1033-1109), "Cur Deus Homo?"

Aquinas reports the received teaching: "Christ's passion was not only sufficient but superabundant satisfaction for the sins of mankind."2 Christian satisfaction falls among the theological themes less well-studied during the post-conciliar period.

At the same time, the renewal of interest in the Eucharist as sacrifice should prompt theologians to return to this mode of Christ's passion inasmuch as it remains the lodestar for Catholic sacramental practice.

Aquinas holds that Christ's suffering was all-embracing and his pain so great on account of the dignity of his person that, in addition to other reasons, the satisfaction he offers suffices as recompense for the sins of the world, from the original sin to the last sin to be committed. While merit earns a reward on account of good works, satisfaction entails the acceptance of punishment, of difficult works.

No theme emerges with more clarity in Mel Gibson's film than that of the satisfaction of Christ. Most commentators have failed to observe that there exists a theological reason for portraying, even, as some have argued, excessively, the sufferings of Christ from the time of his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane to his final "Consummatum est."

If one allows that the scenes of punishment exceed the modesty of the Scriptures themselves, or if we follow those who ...

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