Seán Ó Conaill: Magisterium AI and the Inadequacy of Official Church Teaching on the Atonement

Magisterium AI, a ‘digestive’ online processor of church documents, promises to be a useful, if not infallible, point of reference for those seeking clarity on official Catholic church teaching. When asked the key question ‘Why did Jesus accept Crucifixion?‘ it produced the answer posted earlier as a comment on the Magisterium AI news item.  

I again append that answer below. If it is indeed a fair ‘digest’ of the documents referenced, it encapsulates the unsatisfactory state of official church teaching on the Atonement.

By ‘unsatisfactory’ I mean that the statement that the crucifixion was ‘a humble victory over evil and sin’, although true, is hopelessly inadequate and boring on its face. It fails to clarify how or why the crucifixion was such a victory – and therefore merely provokes further questions. Nothing that follows in the rest of the MAI response truly answers those inevitable questions. Designed essentially to be ‘safe’, this answer reduces the drama of the Gospels to verbal water-treading. 

In a contemporary culture drenched in fictional narratives of the dramatic and violent overthrow of oppressive evil this is a failure to identify the uniquely heroic nature of Jesus’s self-sacrifice –  (a) by identifying clearly the ‘evil’ that was ‘conquered’, and (b) by identifying precisely the actions of Jesus and the Father that achieved that victory.  

That there is a need for a better answer is proven even by the question raised by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, in 1997: ‘Why does he [Jesus] remain so powerless? Why does he reign only in this curiously weak way, as a crucified man, as one who failed?’ 1

Believing firmly that the answers to these questions are implicit in the Gospel narrative itself I summarise as follows:

The evil that Jesus overcame was the fear of shame (or ‘temptation to pride’) that impels all of us humans toward retaliation, when under threat of shaming by others. By trusting in the Father to vindicate him, even when under threat of torture to death, Jesus ‘overcame the world’ – i.e. the judgement of the world that misjudged him – without imitating the violence of those judges. (John 16:33)

By so doing he won not only the Father’s vindication (via the Resurrection) but the Father’s assurance to all of us of the always greater power of the Trinity, and of the always unreliable judgement of our own societies in our own time.  

We too need to overcome the fear of shame, by realising that goodness and truth can never truly be shamed, and by resisting the temptation to abusive retaliation and violence – of deed or even word – when we are misjudged, scorned or accused. To submit ourselves to the judgement of Christ Jesus – as we do in the Creed – is to overcome the fear of misjudgment or rejection by ‘the world’. 

This is what it was, and is, to ‘overcome the world’ – the challenge and adventure of the ‘imitation of Christ’.   If we miss the challenge to avoid imitation of the violence and oppression of the world we miss almost everything – but this is what an alliance with the violence of the state did to Christianity, over sixteen centuries.

And this is what it is to affirm the Creed mindfully, conscious that some day any of us could indeed be put to this same test. 

As for ‘Satan‘ this is the spirit of fear that can overwhelm us when we are surrounded by crowd violence, accusation and condemnation – the spirit that insists that we too must not be shamed and must save ourselves either by blending with the accusing crowd – as did Peter when put to the test – or by reciprocal shaming of our adversaries.  It is the spirit that tells us, as it told Peter, ‘You must not be shamed.‘  (Matt 16: 22)

This is why Jesus responded angrily to Peter when the latter advised him that he must not be crucified. Crucifixion was the ultimate shaming torture of the Roman empire – and it is the intent of the Trinity to demonstrate to all of us, through Jesus’s self-sacrifice and Resurrection, the limits of the power not only of Rome but of any oppressive power throughout the rest of human history.

This is demonstrated historically above all by the reinterpretation of the Bible that was given to enslaved African Americans to justify their enslavement. Instead, correctly, their greatest theologians came to see the God of Jesus as on their side: the Cross of Calvary was also the ‘Lynching Tree’ used by their oppressors to try to humiliate them.2

So, despite the logic of the Colosseum and the Roman imperium, and all imperialism, Might is NOT Right. Truth, love and goodness cannot truly be shamed or overthrown.  The iron logic of ‘shame or be shamed’ – the logic of imperialism and of conquest in all eras, and of the ‘cage fight’ today – is overthrown by the Cross of Christ.

It was the long alliance of state elites and church c. 312 – 1918 CE that obscured this understanding of the cross behind obscure verbiage such as God the Father’s supposed need for ‘satisfaction’ for sin, and ‘victory over evil and sin’. Such language is not wholly indefensible but it clouds the meaning of ‘Redemption’ – emptying it of its essential original meaning of ‘liberation from slavery’.  What we are enslaved by, essentially, is recurrent doubt as to our own value and the mistake of looking to others (i.e. ‘the world’, ‘the crowd’) to resolve this daily problem by telling us how great we are.  

And that is why we Irish Catholics should not go on as we are, merely bobbing up dutifully to say the Creed at weekends but without any pause, ever, for reflection and celebration of what we are affirming.  We need to become far more clearly mindful of what we are saying, if we are truly to appreciate, and share, the gift we have received.  


1 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in ‘Salt of the Earth’ – an interview recorded by Peter Seewald (Ignatius Press, 1997, p. 221 )

2 cf e.g. ‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree’, James H Cone, Orbis Books – 2013


Magisterium AI on :  Why did Jesus accept Crucifixion?’

Jesus accepted crucifixion because it was part of God’s plan for the salvation of humanity. The crucifixion was not a failure or defeat, but a humble victory over evil and sin. Jesus willingly took upon himself the suffering and death on the cross to conquer evil and to show God’s great humility and love for humanity 1.

The crucifixion of Jesus was the ultimate act of love, where he sacrificed himself out of love for all humanity. It was through his death on the cross that Jesus demonstrated the radical love of God and offered salvation to all, regardless of their condition or sinfulness 2.

Jesus’ acceptance of crucifixion also fulfilled the prophecies and scriptures, as he became the suffering servant who emptied himself, even unto death, to show his love for us 3.

By accepting crucifixion, Jesus showed us the truth about man and the truth about God. He revealed that we have all been created and redeemed by a God who sacrificed his only Son out of love 4.

In summary, Jesus accepted crucifixion as part of God’s plan for the salvation of humanity. It was an act of love, humility, and obedience to the Father’s will. Through his crucifixion, Jesus conquered evil, demonstrated God’s radical love, and offered salvation to all.


  1. General Audience of 16 April 2014
  2. General Audience of 28 September 2016: 31. Forgiveness on the Cross (cfr Lk 23:39-43)
  3. General Audience of 27 March 2013
  4. 26 March 2006: Pastoral visit to the Roman Parish of “Dio Padre Misericordioso”

Similar Posts


  1. Frank Gregg says:

    I have just 1 comment to make: whatever the understanding of Sacrifice of Jesus, it is unacceptable to suggest that it was the Father’s Will.
    What father could ever seek atonement by the murder of his son to satisfy his own need for justice?
    Francis of Assisi never accepted it nor do I.
    We are missing the purpose entirely.
    I have one son – I would offer without hesitation to die myself rather than seek the death of my son.
    On the deathbed of my wife 19 years ago I pleaded with God to exchange us and I really meant it. It is the power of Love.
    Since God is three in one, I believe that the Crucifixion involves the Trinity in some way.
    As Francis says, our faith is an evolutionary process of understanding rather than a fixed ideology.

  2. Paddy Ferry says:

    Frank, what a wonderful comment! Thank you for your sincere common sense. Of course you are completely spot on. What father indeed?

    I have quoted on this site on a number of occasions the words of the late, great Joseph Fitzmyer SJ, scripture scholar extraordinaire, from his book on Romans P. 122, and, I think, they are worth sharing again.

    “Paul never says that Christ was sacrificed for our sake. That notion enters a later theological tradition, but it is not one that can be traced directly to Paul …….The notion that Christ’s death as a sacrifice is more tributary to Hebrews and to the Deutero-Pauline Ephesians than to the uncontested Pauline letters”.
    And, let’s not forget that Paul was the first writer in the New Testament.
    (And, I do realise that in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew we are told of Jesus advising his disciples that he is to go to Jerusalem to suffer.)

    Reading that from Fr. Fitzmyer certainly stirred me from my unenlightened slumbers. I wonder why I was content to rest for so long in such an uneducated, ill-informed state.

    Whatever the reason for Jesus’s time on this earth, it surely wasn’t to ultimately die a cruel, brutal death to satisfy the need for retribution and vengeance on the part of his wrath-filled father.

    And, I think this quite rightly leads us to the ultimate question for all of us as believers: what is our understanding of the reality of the Father (God) that we claim to believe in?
    Once again, I must thank Tony Flannery for giving me the prompt to consider what my understanding is of the reality of the God that I claim to believe in.

  3. Paddy Ferry says:

    Frank, I meant to say that I, too, have a son, and two daughters, and I, also, would offer to die, without hesitation, for any of them.
    As you say, that is what love is.
    We are asked to believe in the Christian God of love. In fact, we are asked to believe that God is love.
    Well, you know, I don’t think we can have it both ways.
    Thanks, again, Frank, for your comment above.

  4. Sean O’Conaill says:

    Yes Frank – it was the Trinity who rendered the judgement of the Roman empire null, mistaken and overthrown. That was the belief of the earliest Christians, for whom that oppressive empire was ‘passing away’ – and they were right.

    What if the purpose of the crucifixion and resurrection sequence was to relativise all oppressive judgement in all eras – including the oppressive ‘Christian’ imperialism that followed logically from Constantine’s mistake in 312 – and even the dismissive judgement of current anti-Christian secularism?

    For me now the Creed is a judgement on all judgementalism – not a dogmatic recitation of too many impossible things before breakfast. That was what Christendom made of it, but Christendom has passed away too.

  5. Sean O’Conaill says:

    #2 However, Paddy, Jesus himself tells us that he gave his life ‘as a ransom for many’. (Matt 20:28)

    We need always to remember that the earliest understanding was that this ransom was paid by God to Satan the oppressor, not to God by Jesus. There is no problem with the idea of Christian sacrifice so long as we understand this as non-violent self-giving. Jesus re-defined religious sacrifice in this way, completing an evolutionary path that began with what was essentially ritual murder.

    Rarely have I heard a Catholic priest point out that Jesus completely reversed the role of the priest in ancient religion – the reason we are so conflicted about sacrifice. And yet the word ‘sacrifice’ has a recognised and commonly used application that is obviously non-violent – e.g. ‘you make sacrifices for your children at Christmas time’.

    Who would now associate such a statement with bloodshed?

    Rene Girard also denied vehemently that the Crucifixion was a sacrifice, until the theologian Raymund Schwager persuaded him of the trajectory of the evolution of the idea of sacrifice in the totality of the scriptural record. I heard Rene himself describe his earlier opinion as his greatest mistake – in London in 2004.

    And St Paul confirmed that evolution when he called on his followers to be a ‘living sacrifice’ (Romans 12) – obviously in conformity with the call to works of charity and mercy in Matthew 25, which is obviously about Christian action rather than religious liturgy.

    That God rejects blood sacrifice and reconfigures sacrifice as mercy – self-giving – in the Gospel account is therefore clear. The Resurrection of Jesus was a non-violent refutation of the judgement of Jesus’s accusers – and of all oppressive judgement in all eras – as shown by African American interpretation of the crucifixion of Jesus as evidence of divine solidarity with their own crucifixions.

  6. Tony Flannery says:

    It seems to me that when we accept the evolutionary explanation for the creation of the universe, telling us that it is billions of years in existence, and continuing to expand, and that humanity has inhabited this earth for at least one hundred and fifty thousand years, that this raises enormous questions for our theological understanding, and for Church doctrine.
    Clearly Genesis, and its account of creation, is mythological, and that includes the Adam and Eve story and original sin.
    I note that increasingly contributors to this site no longer accept the notion of Christ’s suffering and death being an expiation for the original sin, nor the idea that God would demand such a sentence from his son. I totally agree with that.
    So where does that leave us?
    Now that we have gone away from the notion of the judgmental God in the skies, what type of image can we have of God?
    If the purpose of Jesus’ coming on earth was to atone for the sin of our first parents is no longer credible, then what was the purpose of his life and how can we interpret his death and resurrection?
    And can we dare to raise the question of who was he, and what was his relationship with the divine and with the human?
    If original sin is not something we accept in its traditional format, then what about the Marian doctrines of Immaculate conception and assumption?

    I would be inclined to think that these questions, fundamental as they are, would only be the beginning. So much of our faith would have to be re-thought, and presented in a different light, with new imagery and language, and also a greater acceptance that we are dealing with profound mystery, and, as such, we can at best come to tentative understandings of the presence of the Divine in the world.
    The days of rigid, one dimensional, dogmas would have to be left behind.

  7. Liamy Mac Nally says:

    If I may reprint Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation for today…it will add to this thread. It arrives via
    The Daily Meditation sign up link is:

    Week Thirty-Six: The Franciscan Way

    At-One-Ment Not Atonement

    Franciscan alternative orthodoxy emphasized incarnation more than redemption. Franciscans did not believe that God sent Jesus to earth to die as a substitutionary atonement* for our sins. Father Richard summarizes:
    In the thirteenth century, the Franciscans and the Dominicans were the church’s debating society, as it were. We were allowed to have minority positions in those days. We invariably took opposing positions in the great debates in the universities of Paris, Cologne, and Oxford, and neither opinion was kicked out of the church at that time.
    In these debates, Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) and the Dominicans were being true to the Scriptures, the Jewish temple metaphors of sacrifice, price, and atonement. Many passages can give the impression that a ransom is required. But our Franciscan teacher, Blessed John Duns Scotus (c. 1266–1308), who founded the theological chair at Oxford, said that Jesus’ crucifixion didn’t solve any problems with God or change God’s mind about us. God’s mind didn’t need changing. Rather, Jesus was changing our mind about God!
    Duns Scotus built his argument on a New Testament understanding of the pre-existent Cosmic Christ in Colossians, Ephesians, and John’s Gospel. Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), who came forward in a moment of time so we could look upon “the One we have pierced” (John 19:37) and see God’s unconditional love—and at the same time, see what humans do to almost everything—and God’s unconditional love-response to that. [1]
    Duns Scotus firmly believed that God’s freedom had to be maintained at all costs. If God “needed” or demanded a blood sacrifice to love God’s own creation, then God was not freely loving us. Duns Scotus taught that Christ was Plan A from the very beginning (see Colossians 1:15–20; Ephesians 1:3–14; John 1:1–18). Christ wasn’t a Plan B after the first humans sinned, which is the way most people seem to understand the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Great Mystery of Incarnation was not motivated by a problem but by love.
    The Franciscan view grounds Christianity in love and freedom from the very beginning. It creates a coherent and positive spirituality, which draws us toward lives of inner depth, prayer, reconciliation, healing, and universal at-one-ment, instead of any notion of sacrifice, which implies an angry God who needs to be bought off. [2]
    On the cross, Jesus bears the consequences of hatred publicly, but in an utterly new way that consists of forgiveness and letting go. We finally call it “resurrection,” not just for Jesus’ body, but for all of history. A new and possible storyline is set forth. If God and Jesus are not hateful, violent, punitive, torturing, or vindictive, then our excuse for the same is forever taken away from us. Jesus’ entire journey told people two major things: that life could have a positive storyline, and that God was far different and far better than we ever thought. [3]

    [1] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2014), 70–71.
    [2] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Franciscan Mysticism: I AM That Which I Am Seeking (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2012). Available as MP3 download.
    [3] Rohr, Dancing Standing Still, 72–73.
    *A note on the term “substitutionary atonement”:
    Throughout Christian history, there have been multiple theories of substitutionary atonement. One of the earliest, the ransom theory, originated with Origen of Alexandria (c. 185–c. 253). Closely related to this was the Christus Victor theory. The ransom view of atonement was the dominant theory until the publication of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Human?) at the end of the eleventh century. Anselm’s satisfaction theory of atonement then became dominant until the Reformed position introduced penal substitution in the sixteenth century. This new view of substitutionary atonement emphasized punishment over satisfaction and paralleled criminal law. Today, the phrase “substitutionary atonement” is often (correctly or incorrectly) used to refer to the penal theory of atonement.

  8. Sean O’Conaill says:

    #6 Does it follow necessarily that if ‘Adam and Eve’ are not historical but allegorical characters, this allegory should not be taken seriously as a potent source of insight into an ‘original problem’ with being human – a problem that recurs in all historical eras?

    Doesn’t e.g. Vladimir Putin replicate that problem, a problem of ‘invidious comparison’ (in his case of Russia with the West) that leads through dissatisfaction and resentment to extreme violence, a repetitive darkness that defies the optimism of the secular Enlightenment that we can get to Utopia simply by agreeing on rational principles of liberty, fraternity and equality?

    In ‘The Joy of Being Wrong’ the theologian James Alison argues for a reinterpretation of Genesis that centres on our tendency towards ‘wanting what others have’ – a congenital (or ‘hard wired’?) inclination towards dissatisfaction with our own ‘being’ that arises always out of comparison with a chosen model who seems to have ‘more’.

    This approach refocuses Genesis upon the last two commandments of the decalogue – upon ‘coveting’ – rather than upon the sixth, the sexual ‘problematic’. This allows for a reexamination of the magisterial contrast between ‘sin’ as somehow an inherited tendency rather than a matter of ‘mere’ imitation.

    What if, in order to learn as quickly as we do, we inherit a predisposition to imitate, a predisposition that leads to ‘unconscious’ imitation of those who appear more ‘worth it’ than ourselves? And from there into resentment and conflict?

    And what if we are now called to become fully conscious of this unconscious predisposition – through reflection on Jesus’s refusal of mere imitation of the power-seeking and violence of his accusers?

    This would reposition the Incarnation as having to do centrally not with assuaging the wrath of God over our misuse of sex, but with addressing an acute issue of human evolution and survival that is now squarely facing the whole planet.

    Wasn’t Teilhard sure that Jesus was central to the story of Evolution, and doesn’t James Alison’s approach to ‘original sin’ provide insight into how we may now come to understand that?

    What if, through Jesus, the ‘Father’ that he believed in is attempting to free us from an evolutionary ‘bind’ that relates to all of the key issues of our time, climatic as well as social? Doesn’t this hold promise of a new approach to ‘atonement’ also, one that frees us from shame over our sexuality while affirming an obvious need for discipline in that regard also, on obvious grounds of justice?

    It is from that perspective that I now understand, and affirm, the ‘Apostles’ Creed, and the notions of Salvation and Redemption. We do need, desperately, to be freed from the dissatisfactions and resentments that threaten our very survival as a species, and there is no prospect now of a Saviour greater than the one proclaimed by the Gospel.

  9. Sean O’Conaill says:

    From Plutarch – The Life of Julius Caesar – Ch 11

    “We are told that, as he was crossing the Alps and passing by a barbarian village which had very few inhabitants and was a sorry sight, his companions asked with mirth and laughter, “Can it be that here too there are ambitious strifes for office, struggles for primacy, and mutual jealousies of power­ful men?” Whereupon Caesar said to them in all seriousness, “I would rather be first here than second at Rome.” In like manner we are told again that, in Spain, when he was at leisure and was reading from the history of Alexander, he was lost in thought for a long time, and then burst into tears. His friends were astonished, and asked the reason for his tears. “Do you not think,” said he, “it is matter for sorrow that while Alexander, at my age, was already king of so many peoples, I have as yet achieved no brilliant success?”

    Isn’t Plutarch here describing the ever-present dimension of honour and shame that surrounds us as soon as we become self-conscious? Shakespeare drew on that same author for his account of the assassination of Caesar in 44 BC, in which the leading conspirator Cassius asks Brutus if they should not both feel ashamed to tolerate Caesar’s dictatorship.

    And on and on through all who would be ‘great’ – that Alexandrian dream, through Napoleon I and Adolf Hitler to Vladimir Putin today.

    As ever, defeat for the ambitious is unthinkable because the greater the ambition – the need for honour and admiration – the greater the fear of failure and shame.

    Surely it is to this spirit of ambition and domination in all eras that the Incarnation is opposed, on behalf of all who provide ‘cannon fodder’ for it? And it springs very simply from the tiny seed of wanting what our neighbour has that we do not.

    For example, that copy of the Psalms that Finnian had that Columb did not – and the copy of that which Columb then made – causing a battle between clans and that exile on Iona?

    Time for all to see that pattern – and for cherishing and nourishing a very different seed?

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.