- Latin: sacrificium, sacrifice
In a less rigorous or a figurative sense, a sacrifice is any offering made to God with a view to honoring Him, such as acts of virtue, almsgiving, and prayer. In true or rigorous sense is the offering to God of a sense-perceptible substance, which is either really or symbolically destroyed, or at least transformed and withdrawn from profane use; and this offering must be made by a duly authorized person in recognition of God’s Infinite Majesty and man’s absolute dependence on Him. This definition contains generic and specific elements. By its generic element, sacrifice is an external act of the virtue of religion (by which God is honored on account of His transcendent excellence) and belongs to the cult of latria. It is clear that the external act derives all its moral value from a corresponding act of the human will. By its specific elements, sacrifice is marked off from other acts of the virtue of religion. Four constituent elements enter into its very notion and must be present in every sacrifice.
The Sacrificial Intention
This is the intention of the sacrificing minister to offer to God a sacrifice in the true sense by means of a sacrificial act (forma metaphysica sacrificii). It has for its primary object the acknowledgment of God’s Supreme Majesty and man’s entire dependence on God (finis intrinsecus) but does not, on that account, exclude such secondary intentions (finis extrinsecus) as the sacrificing minister may add of his own choice.
The Sacrificing Minister
Under the law of nature, there were private sacrifices (Abel; Abraham) for which no special authorization was needed on the part of the community. Under the same law, public sacrifices required a minister duly authorized by family or tribe. Revealed religions, Judaism and Christianity, have public sacrifices only, which are at the same time cult sacrifices. They require an authorized minister who is a priest in the proper sense of the term. Under the Old Law the priesthood was restricted to members of the tribe of Levi; under the new, priests are constituted, without alty restrictions as to descent, by the reception of the sacrament of Holy Orders, through which sacrificial power and authority are conferred on them by Christ, the eternal and sole high priest.
The Sacrificial Gift
Since sacrifice is part of the external worship of God, the gift to be offered to Him must be a physical substance: something material, sensible, living (as an animal), or non-living (as bread or wine). There are accordingly bloody and unbloody sacrifices.
The Sacrificial Act
This consists in the actual offering of the sacrificial gift to God, performed in such a way that it is the external expression of the internal intention of the minister. This external manifestation of his intention affects the gift itself, which is thereby altered or transformed or withdrawn from profane use and consecrated to God. There is a controversy among Catholic authors as to whether this change or alteration requires a physical destruction (either in the strict or an equivalent sense) or is sufficiently expressed by a moral consecration. There are no absolutely convincing arguments for either view. This much is certain: if God has instituted a sacrifice, it must possess all essential elements of a sacrifice. The formal essence (forma physica) of the sacrificial act lies in the oblation, sensibly manifested, whereby the oblation, sensibly manifested, whereby the ritual slaying or destruction or alteration is directed to God in acknowledgment of His supreme dominion. This oblation is necessary, for without it the destruction of a thing is not a sufficient expression of the sacrificial intention.
The proximate matter of the sacrifice (the destruction of the gift) and the oblation are often distinct in concept only (inasmuch as the actual slaying is directed to God), but it does not follow that, when the two are really distinct, the slaying of the sacrificial animal must be performed by the offering priest; it suffices that this be done at his command or under his direction. Sacrifices may be variously divided. Viewed in reference to the object, there are sacrifices of adoration, thanksgiving, petition, propitiation; in reference to the nature of the gift, sacrifices are either bloody or unbloody; in reference to their complete or incomplete character, they are either absolute or relative. The former are complete and perfect in themselves; the latter are preferred for their completeness and perfection to a sacrifice that is absolute. Revealed religion knows only one perfectly absolute sacrifice, that of the Cross, offered perpetually in the Mass; all others are referred to it as to their center either by a typical foreshadowing or by a mystical renewal.