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  • Girard and the "Sacrifice of the Mass":Mimetic Theory and Eucharistic Theology
  • Anthony R. Lusvardi S.J. (bio)

It is obvious that bringing to light the founding murder completely rules out any compromise with the principle of sacrifice, or indeed with any conception of the death of Jesus as sacrifice.

—Jean-Michel Oughourlain, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World

If anyone says that a true and proper sacrifice is not offered to God in the Mass … let him be anathema.

—Council of Trent, Session 22, Canon 1

René Girard's thought has produced both admiration and unease among Catholic sacramental theologians struggling to come to grips with what his theory of scapegoating and sacrifice implies for "the holy sacrifice of the Mass." The language of sacrifice permeates the liturgy itself, official Church teaching—including the documents of Vatican II—and centuries of Eucharistic theology, so Girard's critique has the potential to upend concepts fundamental to the Church's sacramental system. Indeed, many theologians who [End Page 159] have embraced Girard have expressed unease with the Church's Eucharistic theology; some, as we shall see, have advocated replacing sacrifice as a paradigm for understanding the Eucharist with the model of a communal meal. Yet even Robert J. Daly, who more than a decade ago suggested avoiding the language of sacrifice altogether, admits that a Eucharistic theology that prescinds entirely from sacrificial language cannot "still think of itself as Catholic."1

Much of this theological unease, however, stems from claims made in Girard's early work, particularly Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, which takes a categorically negative stance toward sacrifice. In Things Hidden, for example, Girard finds himself unable to reconcile his antisacrificial position with the Letter to the Hebrews. In the years following the publication of Things Hidden, Girard's thought on sacrifice evolved, largely as a result of his engagement with Raymund Schwager.2 Girard's mature position, as spelled out in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, adds important qualifications to mimetic theory that make Girard's views possible to reconcile with traditional Catholic Eucharistic theology. Crucially, Girard clarifies his role as that of an anthropologist, not a theologian. Drawing on Schwager, he also makes a fundamental distinction between the sacrifice of others and self-sacrifice.3

With these distinctions in mind, I hope to show that mimetic theory offers a rich, though naturally limited, interpretive paradigm with the potential to deepen rather than undermine traditional Catholic Eucharistic theology. Many of the sacramental theologians who have made use of Girard's work have, unfortunately, conflated his theory with unrelated theological trends; distinguishing Girard's theory from such trends will allow us to see how his views can be reconciled with an understanding of the Mass as holy sacrifice. In fact, such an analysis suggests that Girard's theories more naturally align with the liturgical theology of Joseph Ratzinger than they do with more radically antisacrificial theologians.


Girard's thought centers on his claim that the "mimetic cycle of violence" lies at the root of all human culture.4 Like St. Augustine, Girard understands human beings to be driven by a limitless sense of desire, which ultimately fuels this cycle.5 Unlike Augustine, Girard does not deal with the ultimate source of human desire nor its ultimate end because of a methodological limitation he understands to be crucial to his project. Girard frames I See Satan as an apology for Christianity made on anthropological grounds.6 Because an apology is an [End Page 160] explanation of Christianity attempting to make the faith credible to nonbelievers, Girard cannot assume God's existence at the beginning of his argument without it becoming irreparably circular. When we come to apply Girard's insights to theology, therefore, we will have to take into account what his historical picture necessarily leaves out.

Girard's theory does not so much explain the origins of human desire as how it comes to be directed in the way it is. He points out that aside from the biological basics, human beings come with no preset list of things to desire; once our basic needs are satisfied, our...


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