CounterEconomy/8 - Beyond the theology of sacrifice-merit and the commercial vision of God
by Luigino Bruni
Published in the Avvenire 23/04/2023
"The avulsion of Protestant Churches from the Catholic Church was a much deeper disaster than that of the Eastern schisms."
Giuseppe de Luca, Introduction to the Italian Archive for the history of piety
Unfortunately, the age of the Counter-Reformation also generated a dangerous view on pain, which ended up creating a lot of damage in Catholic people, especially in women.
The Bible revealed a God who was different from the natural gods to us. It did not choose to recognize the religious sentiment that already existed in the world by giving new forms to ancient fertility, death and harvest cults and rites. Instead, the Bible and later the first Christians did everything they could to save the novelty of their God. They defended and guarded him to the point of calling all other gods "idols". And every time the people of Israel produced an idol in biblical history, it did so because it could not keep up with a God that was too different and consequently wished for a "god like all other peoples", a simpler god, approachable, within their reach and of incense. Hence, the people made golden calves and the prophets destroyed them. Even the prophets knew that there was a certain mysterious presence of the one true God in the nature cults: «The heavens declare the glory of God» (Psalm 19). While they were perfectly aware of this, they were even more aware that they absolutely had to distinguish the God who came and reached to us "from heaven" from the cults that try to reach him "from the earth", or the strength of the earth would have devoured the fragile novelty from the sky. Holding the mystery of God very high furthermore served to hold our dignity very high, and for three thousand years, it has continued to repeat to us: "You are not made in the image of an idol".
However, the evolution of medieval and modern Christianity differ in part. In its encounter with the people of Europe, it often tolerated that the people continued their natural rites of the fields, that they cultivated their local spirits, and that they "baptized" the previous existing cults with Christian names. Hence, Christian Europe was born. Thus, while biblical humanism had tried to free men and women by emptying the world of all its spirits and demons, Christians left it inhabited by angels, saints and demons, hoping, perhaps in good faith, that this substitution would be enough to free human beings from the fear of death and the pain.
With Humanism and the end of the Middle Ages it became clear to many that the Roman medieval Church was in urgent need of a general reform (suffice to think of the theses of Erasmus of Rotterdam). Luther's Reformation changed and complicated these plans. The reaction of the Catholic Counter-Reformation blocked that first season of internal renewal and produced a restoration precisely on the aspects most criticized by Luther which, and here is the point, were really those most in need of a true reform. Consequently, the ancient mixed practices (the cult of saints, devotions, indulgences, vows, relics etc.) became a distinctive trait of the Catholic Church. Herein lies the root of many of our evils.
Let us have a closer look at the great theme of sacrifice. A theme that was also present in ancient religions and cults, it is part of the repertoire of natural religions. Luther fought a widespread and intense battle against the idea of seeing mass as a sacrifice: «Mass is the opposite of sacrifice» (Luther’s Collected Works, 6, 523-524). In addition, to criticizing the Eucharist as a sacrifice, Luther also refuted the ancient idea that mass was the repetition of the sacrifice of the cross. The Catholic reaction here was very strong indeed. Sacrifice became a pillar of its theology, liturgy and piety: «A true bride of Christ, who lives a life of sacrifice, is such an incredible display of superhuman beauty before God» (D. Gaspero Olmi, Lent sermon for nuns/Quaresimale per le monache, 1885, p. 12).
Thus, the cross of Christ created our crosses: «The crosses come from God. The crosses are necessary because God has established it so. True penitents are always crucified» (ibid., p. 26). Because Jesus «sacrificed his heart in Gethsemane, he sacrificed his honour in court, he sacrificed his life at Calvary» (ibid., p. 291). The following can be read in a devotional manual for women: «This is God's purpose in afflicting us: He wants affliction not only to serve to purify our past sins, but also to improve our lives» (G. Fenoglio, The real mother of a family/ La vera madre di famiglia, 1897, p. 250). The three vows taken by nuns were also understood as «the three nails» of the cross, and their virginity as a «sacrifice of the body made to the Lord» (Spiritual exercises for the Dominican nuns of the monastery of Saints James and Philip of Genoa, Rome, 1821 , p. 70). Thus, the offering of pain to God united with the sufferings of Christ, Mary and the saints became the most flourishing oikonomia in Latin countries in the era of the Counter-Reformation and with it it a crazy proliferation of the most painful forms of penance, especially in female monasteries.
How was it possible to transform the Gospel into a religion of suffering and pain? How were we able to believe the deception that Jesus’ God of Love was a "consumer of human pains", that the firstfruits he liked the most were our sufferings? The Bible, both the Old and the New Testament, was well aware of that divinities who love the blood of their children are called idols. The biblical God, the God of Jesus, is not an idol because he does not consume the pain of his sons and daughters, because he does not want to increase it but reduce it. Hosea and Jesus, who were well aware that the logic of sacrifice and that of hesed and agape are incompatible, keep repeating to us "I want mercy, not sacrifice". The biblical God does not love sacrifices because he loves us. Sacrifice is an ambivalent word even in human relationships - it is wrong for me to read your love for me as your willingness to sacrifice yourself - but it is very dangerous indeed when used to refer to our relationship with God, because we will thereby transform him into an idol.
The following can be read, once again, in the Spiritual exercises for nuns: «I have lost the merit of so many fasts, of so many mortifications... oh how unhappy I am» (ibid., p. 71). Sacrifice is in fact associated with a theology of merit, another word fought over by the Reformation (and therefore much loved by the Counter-Reformation). Sacrifices serve to create and increase merits: «But the greatest advantages for those who love this virginal virtue are reserved for the next life. Virgins will be happier in paradise» (Lent sermon for nuns, cit., p. 79). Earthly life therefore becomes a sort of eternal gymnasium where we have to suffer in training to deserve possible future victories while competing in the Elysian Fields.
From this point of view, the Counter-Reformation did not generate the idea of God as our liberator and first "Goel" (Job, Ruth), the bondsman who raised his hands to save us from the avoidable pains of the earth. That idea of God served to complicate life for men, and even more so for women. Religious life was presented as a long and constant sacrifice in order to deserve heaven, under a constant vision of hell: «Let each of you now be taken to that most painful prison, where rebellious souls are held. It will hear the screams, the yearnings and the desperate cries.
With this oh so gloomy image before your eyes, each of you will now begin to meditate…” (Spiritual exercises for nuns, cit., p. 124). Pain was encouraged because it was the "divine currency" with which to earn merit for ourselves and for others: «Among the great goods that confession produces, the first is pain. Confession being a process, where the penitent is the offender and the Priest is the judge» (ibid., p. 128). And so, the message of the gospel of reciprocal love, gratuity and compassion increasingly remained in the background of a sorrowful theology and practice, which has was never entirely become outdated. Marco, the nephew of a colleague of mine, got stuck on the day of his first confession just as he was reciting: "because by sinning I have earned your punishments".
Many of the names commonly chosen for baby girls in Catholic countries these past centuries are rather telling: Dolores, Mercedes, Addolorata, Catena, Crocifissa, and the names of female Congregations in the age of the Counter-Reformation: sisters being victimised, crucified, enslaved, humiliated... Thus, Catholics have too often experienced a God who was on the wrong side, who wanted their suffering on this side perhaps so that he could reward it on the other side. Today, Catholic theology has finally distanced itself from the theology of expiation and from the sacrificial interpretation of Christ's passion: «Otherwise there is the risk of not directing one's gaze in the right direction of the mystery of God» (Giovanni Ferretti, Rethinking sacrifice in an evangelical way/Ripensare evangelicalmente il sacrificio, 2017). The logic of sacrifice must be transformed into a logic of gift, its direct opposite because it is completely gratuitous.
In the meantime, however, the Catholic Church would also need a true purification of its memory, above all for what was allowed to happen in female monasteries and convents. We belatedly apologized to Galileo Galilei, there are tens of thousands of victims, who have been waiting too long for our collective apologies, after the solemn and heartfelt apologies of Saint John Paul II in the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, to which I here add my own. Sorrows do exist in the world and human civilization must do everything to reduce them, and God - the God revealed in Jesus Christ - is the first one to want it. When pain arrives, we need to live it in the best ethical and spiritual way possible, but never think or say that God is the one who sends it to us or likes it.
The civil and economic implications here are also considerable. The idea of meritocracy was born in the United States and was then exported everywhere. It was born in an environment of a distinct Calvinist nature, and therefore anti-merit, which secularized merit and transformed it into an economic category. However, it should not surprise us that the countries that are the most enthusiastic about meritocracy are Catholic: today's Italy has even included the word "merit" in the name of its Ministry of Education. Thus, theology based on the combination of sacrifice-merit produces a commercial vision of God and of life. The more you sacrifice, the more you will achieve. God becomes a passive accountant of debts and credits and gratuitousness-grace leaves the scene in a Pelagian world where we save ourselves by gaining merit with the currency of suffering. There is more, however.
Linking the category of merit to the idea of sacrifice has produced the idea that true virtue requires sacrifice and suffering and that true merits are what will earn us heaven or purgatory. Hence, the most valuable rewards for sacrifice are not wages, but base money.
From here, arriving at the conclusion that occupations that were largely female - such as school, healthcare, services, the work of consecrated women - should not be paid too much, because otherwise money would reduce the purity of the "sacrifice" and its true merits, was quickly done: « The fruit of riches is to despise them. The primary intention of God in granting riches is that we derive merit and interest for the next life» (G. Fenoglio, The real mother/La vera madre, cit., p. 248). The great theme of the excessive and asymmetrically distributed weight carried by women returns. In Nietzsche's The Joyful Wisdom, the madman announces, with a desperate cry, that "God is dead" and that "we have killed him". We find ourselves in a civilization that has decreed the death of God; we see examples of this every day. Nevertheless, there may be a light within this night, which I would like to express by whispering a question: What if the "dead god" was that god who was too distant from the hearts of men and women? If so, what if this death brings the dawn of a resurrection?