200th post – reflections on expressing faith and devotion in the liturgy

This post is the 200th post on this blog, and mostly coincidentally, there have been to date a total of 400 comments on 80 of those posts — thank you to all who have contributed to various discussions!

I have noticed in celebrating liturgy myself, and observing it celebrated in various places, that celebrating the Mass and other sacraments with actual, evidenced faith and devotion, and showing noticeably attention to the meaning of what one is saying, is a significant factor in disposing persons to participate in the liturgy with their hearts and minds, and to gain the most fruit from it. Although the celebration of the Eucharist, as a sacrament efficacious ex opere operato, when validly celebrated confers grace regardless of the holiness or devotion of the priest celebrating it, more grace is received according as the recipient is better disposed to receive it. And the manifestation of the priest's celebrating Mass with faith and devotion contributes a great deal to helping the persons attending the Mass to be disposed to celebrate well and receive the grace of the Mass. Unfortunately many priests give the impression of just getting through with the job of reciting their parts, at any rate, do not clearly manifest faith in and awe for the mysteries they celebrate. This is not a judgment or even an opinion about their habitual or even hidden actual faith with which they celebrate, but only about its visibility or lack thereof.

On this general point there might even be some general agreement between those who favor traditional celebration of the liturgy in Latin (preferably according to the usus antiquior), and those who favor the celebration of the liturgy in the vernacular and with practices that more readily allow the manifestation of personal faith and devotion (e.g., the use of free formulations where they are allowed, as they can more readily manifest actual personal faith than formulations given in advance can). The disagreement regarding this point, I think, mostly concerns one of two things:

(1) There is disagreement concerning the relative importance of the liturgy's disposing the people attending liturgy to acts of faith and devotion in comparison with its objective suitability to express the mystery being celebrated; some would hold that the objective suitability is much more important, and therefore adaptions, including almost all of the changes made in developing the Novus Ordo of the Mass, are at best tolerable for the sake of persons indisposed to appreciate the traditional Latin Mass; others would hold that the suitability of the liturgy to dispose the people present to partake with their mind and heart is by far the most important thing.

(2) There is disagreement regarding the way in which faith and devotion is best or most surely manifested. Some are of the opinion that actual faith and devotion is manifested precisely in the observance of relatively detailed rubrics such as those prescribed for the Traditional Latin Mass; the idea seems to be that only genuine and actual devotion will keep someone carefully following all of those rubrics rather than sloppily or carelessly celebrating the Mass. Others are of the opinion that actual faith and devotion is manifested especially through gestures, facial expressions, tones of voice, and the like; that though faith and devotion are not emotions, they are especially revealed in a manner quite similar to other emotions, through tone of voice and body language.

I have a lot of sympathy for the positions taken on both sides of these issues, and do not simply side with one over the other. It would not be possibly for me to do so honestly, and in any case my more greater concern is to help those on either side of such disagreements to better appreciate the true and valid points of those on the opposite side.

What occasioned these reflections now was my attending an ordination where the bishop towards the end of his homily remarked that it is ineffective to proclaim the Good News, the Gospel, with joyless faces. Yet, he himself did not really show joy in his face at any point of the liturgy, not even while speaking about the Church's joy on the occasion, but was formal and stiff, except where he showed vigor and sternness in attacking ignorance and errors regarding the priesthood that were prevalent in the late 60s, when he entered the seminary, and are still present today. The dissonance at that point between his statements about joy and the lack of joy on his face was so great it was somewhat humorous, though still somewhat saddening.

Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ!

We have a saying, “familiarity breeds contempt.” We see this in the gospel story for today. Many of the Jews, upon hearing Jesus's claim that he came down from heaven, that he is the true bread, the bread of life, that one who eats of him will never hunger, found this claim hard to believe. After all, they knew his parents. He had been born and grew up like everyone else. How can he claim to have come down from heaven? “He is just one of us, and he claims to be someone special?”

To anyone looking only at what can be seen and touched, to those not yet ready to believe Jesus's testimony to things unseen, it could scarcely be different. The hearers could not see Christ's divinity, could not see that he was God. They saw him as a man, and were not ready to believe anything more, despite having seen the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. So of course they are shocked by his claim to have come down from heaven, to be equal and one with the Father, to be God, the source of life for all of us!

It is a matter of something altogether different, something we cannot see, touch, or grasp, something that is above human knowledge and comprehension! Only through the gift of faith, when one is enlightened by the heavenly Father in the Holy Spirit, can one accept Jesus's words, go beyond what is visible to the eyes, believe in his divinity.

So also only in faith do we have access to the mystery of this bread. Jesus calls himself “the living bread that came down from heaven.” We need food that not only gives us strength of body, keeps us alive here on earth, but food that strengthens us for eternal life, keeps us for life forever. The Lord makes an amazing, a tremendous promise, one that we may and should accept as it stands: “whoever eats this bread will live forever.” We heard in the first reading about the wonderful power of the food the Lord provided for Elijah. This food strengthened him for a journey of forty days in the desert. This power of the food God gives, to strengthen him for forty days, is only a sign and indication of the much more marvelous power of this bread of life, the Eucharist, which strengths not for forty days, but for life forever, for eternal life.

In the Eucharist Christ gives us himself totally. He comes to us and becomes our bread, our food for that life with God that never ends. Christ's love overcame death. He who is united in faith and love with Christ, will live forever, soul and body, according to the Lord's promise: "I will raise him on the last day."

But even when we have made this step of faith, when we believe Christ's words and Christ's promise, that it is truly HIM we receive in the Eucharist, who comes to us as food, gives us eternal life, we can in other ways fall into the pitfall of “familiarity breeds contempt”. We go to Mass and receive Communion again and again; that is a very good and important thing. Still, there is a danger of it becoming a matter of routine, something we do just because it's our habit, or just because that's how we were brought up, or just because everyone else goes up to receive Communion. We can kind of forget our wonder at the marvel of this mystery, the awesomeness of receiving Jesus Christ, man and God, as food for us under the appearance of bread. Each time we receive the Eucharist, we should strive to receive with the freshness, the devotion, and preparedness of a child who receives Holy Communion for the first time, who has prepared himself a year long to receive, and who was waited with longing for the great day.

Preparing ourselves well to receive Holy Communion with love and devotion makes a great difference to what Christ can do for us and in us. If we receive Christ in Holy Communion without preparing ourselves to receive him worthily, without giving him a second thought, without using the occasion to talk with him, thank him, ask him for what we need, it is no surprise if Holy Communion does not seem to bring much change in our lives, to give us this marvelous nourishment and strength to go through difficult times, to make us better and more loving persons.

How can we receive this heavenly bread well, Christ himself, and allow him to work within us? We can receive our Lord not only with our mouths under the appearance of bread, but also prepare a home for him, the bread of life, within our hearts. When we await and receive a very dear guest, we do everything we can to make things nice and pleasant for him. He is not a matter of indifference to us; we see to him, are there for him.

It is like this with preparing ourselves for and receiving Holy Communion: we want to make ourselves conscious of who it is, whom we are privileged to receive under the appearance of bread – Christ, our Lord and God! We want to approach HIM with joy and with faith, show him by our faith and love that he is important to us, that Holy Communion is truly Communion with Him, our Lord, and Communion with all brothers and sisters in Him.

Another important way of preparing ourselves for Holy Communion is by occasionally or even regularly receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We are all in need of God's grace and mercy. Anyone who says or thinks he is without sin is merely fooling himself. But entrusting ourselves to the love of God, accepting his saving hand, we can always begin anew on the way with Christ to eternal life.

In his love God has entrusted us with great treasures, treasure we are called and invited to discover and appreciate more and more deeply. Jesus Christ gave his life on the cross out of love for us; in the Resurrection his love conquered death and gave us eternal life; and in his love he speaks to us these words: “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

Priestly Motto

“The greatest of these is love!” (1 Cor 13:13)

Each Christian has his or her own gifts and vocation in the Church. But it is love alone that gives life to our vocation and makes it bear fruit. This verse, which I have chosen as a motto for my priestly min­istry, designates the priesthood as a service of love, a ministry springing from love and aiming at love. As a priest I am called to make visible the saving love of Christ in the Christian community, to accompany and assist all in living their vocation to love.

Priestly Ordination

On the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, June 15, 2012, I was ordained to the priesthood by  Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, together with five other men, in St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna.

6 new priests, with cardinal Schönborn and the rectors and religious superior.

More photos and downloads are available at www.priesterweihe.at.

Please say a prayer in thanksgiving for the grace of this vocation, and that the Lord make us holy and good instruments of his work!

"For many" or "for all"? Pope Benedict on the Translation of "pro multis"

Pope Benedict XVI wrote to the German Bishops explaining why the liturgical text "pro multis" is to be translated as "for many" (für viele) rather than "for all" (für alle), and giving guidelines for the catechesis that should prepare priests and laity for the revised translation.

This translation is made from the German text on the German Bishops' Conference website.

April 24, 2012: letter of Pope Benedict XVI to the members of the German Bishop's Conference, on the Question of the Translation of the Words spoken over the Chalice.

Pope Benedict wrote a letter dated April 14, 2012 to the member of the German Bishops' Conference. In this letter he takes up the matter of the appropriate way to translation the words pronounced over the chalice in the Eucharistic Prayer of the Holy Mass. The Bishops' Permanent Council discussed this letter on April 23, 2012. We here make public the text of the Holy Father's letter.

Your Excellency!

Venerable, dear Archbishop!

During your visit on 15 March 2012 you let me know that regarding the translation of the words “pro multis” in the canon of the Mass, there remains no consensus among the bishops of the German speaking regions. Apparently there is a danger that in the soon to be expected publication of the new edition of the “Gotteslob”, some parts of the German speaking regions want to maintain the translation “for all”, even though the German Bishops’ Conference had agreed to use “for many”, as was desired by the Holy See. I promised you to express myself in writing about this serious matter to head off such a division in the heart of our prayer. The letter which I hereby send through you to the members of the German Bishops’ Conference, I will also have sent to the other bishops of the German speaking regions.

Let me first speak briefly about the origin of the problem. In the 1960s, when the Roman Missal was to be translated into German under the responsibility of the bishops, there was an exegetical consensus that the words “the many” and “many” in Is. 53, 11 and following was a Hebrew expression signifying the totality, “all”. According to this view, the word “many” in the accounts of Matthew and Mark was a Semitism, and must be translated as “all”. This understanding was also applied to the actual Latin text that was to be translated, the “pro multis” of which refers back, by way of the Gospel accounts, to Is. 53, and therefore must by translated as “for all”. This exegetical consensus has since that time crumbled; it no longer exists. In the German translation of Sacred Scripture the account of the Last Supper says: “This is my Blood, the Blood of the Covenant,  which is shed for many” (Mark 14:24, cf. Matt. 26:28). This indicates something very important: The rendering of “pro multis” with “for all” was not merely a translation, but an interpretation, which certainly was and remains an interpretation with arguments in its favor, but which is an interpretation and not just a translation.

This mingling of translation and interpretation belongs in hindsight to the principles that immediately after the Council guided the translation of the liturgical books into the vernacular. One was conscious of how removed the Bible and the liturgical texts were from the language and thought of modern man, so that even when translated they would have to remain to a great extent incomprehensible to those taking part in the liturgy. In this new attempt the sacred texts would be opened up in translation to the participants of the liturgy and yet would remain very remote from their world, indeed, their remoteness would now be even more visible. Thus it seemed not only justified, but even obligatory to mingle interpretation with translation and so to shorten the way to the people whose hearts and minds were to be reached by these words.

To a certain degree the principle of translating original texts according to their meaning, not necessarily a word-for-word translation, remains justified. Since I frequently have to pray the liturgical prayers in various languages, I notice that one can often hardly find any common meaning between the various translations, and the common text that underlies them is often only distantly discernible. Into these translations have crept banalisations that are real losses. Thus over the years it has become ever clearly to me, also personally, that the principle of non-literal but structural equivalence as a translation guideline has its limits. Following such insights, the instruction on translation, Liturgiam authenticam, published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on 28 March 2001, once more brought to the fore the principle of literal equivalence, though of course without dictating a one-sided verbalism. The important insight that lies at the root of this instruction consists in the above-mentioned distinction between translation and interpretation. This is necessary both in regard to the Word of Scripture and in regard to the liturgical texts. One the one hand, the sacred Word should, as far as possible, be presented as itself, including its foreignness and the questions it bears in it; on the other hand, the Church has been given the task of interpreting – within the limits of our own understanding – so that the message which the Lord has meant for us may come to us. The most sensitive translation cannot replace interpretation: it belongs to the structure of Revelation that the Word of God is read in the interpreting community of the Church, that faithfulness and making now present are united. The Word must be there as itself, in its own form, which may be strange to us; interpretation must be measured by its faithfulness to the Word itself, but at the same time must make that Word accessible to the modern hearer.

In this context the Holy See has decided that in the new translation of the Missal the words “pro multis” must be translated as such and not immediately interpreted. The simple translation “for many” must replace the interpretative rendering “for all”. In this context I want to point out that in both Matthew and in Mark there is no article: not “for the many”, but “for many”. If this decision is, as I hope, quite understandable from the perspective of the fundamental relationship of translation and interpretation, I am still aware that it presents an enormous challenge for all who have the task of interpreting the Word of God in the Church. For regular patrons of the church this almost inevitably appears as a rupture at the heart of what is holy. They will ask: did Christ not die for all? Has the Church changed her teaching? Can and may she do so? Is this indicative of a reaction destructive to the heritage of the Council? We all know, through the experience of the last fifty years, how deeply the changes of liturgical forms and texts affects the souls of the people; how much must a change in the text on such a central point affect the people? Since this is so, when in view of the difference between translation and interpretation a decision was made for the translation “many”, at the same time it was decided that a thorough catechesis must precede the use of this translation in the individual language regions, a catechesis in which the bishops must make clear to their priests, and through them to their faithful, what the issue is really about. This preceding catechesis is the basic prerequisite before the new translation comes into force. As far as I know, such a catechesis has till now not been made in the German speaking region. The intention of my letter, dear brothers, is to ask you most urgently to develop such a catechesis, to discuss it with the priests, and at the same time make it available to the faithful.

In such a catechesis one must first very briefly explain why after the Council the word “many” was translated in the Missal by “all”: to unambiguously express the universality of the salvation that comes from Jesus, as he willed it. This leads of course immediately to the question: If Jesus died for all, why did he say “for many” at the Last Supper? And why do we stick to these institutional words of Jesus? To this we must add that Jesus, according to Matthew and Mark, said “for many”, but according to Luke and St. Paul he said “for you”. This apparently narrows the circle even more. But this is exactly the point from which we can arrive at the solution. The disciples know that the mission of Jesus extends beyond them and their circle, that he came to gather together the scattered children of God from all the world (cf. Joh. 11:52). This “for you” makes the mission of Jesus very concrete for those present. They are not some anonymous elements of a vast totality, but everyone knows that the Lord died precisely for me, for us. “For you” reaches into the past and into the future; I have been named very personally; we, who are here gathered, are known and loved as such by Jesus. In this way, “for you” is not a narrowing of the mission, but a way of making it concrete, that is valid for every community that celebrates the Eucharist, that unites itself concretely to the love of Jesus. the Roman Canon united the two Biblical readings in the words of consecration, saying accordingly: “for you and for many”. During the reform of the liturgy, this formulation was then adopted for all the Eucharistic prayers.

But now once again: Why “for many”? Did the Lord not die for all? That Jesus Christ, as the Son of God made man, is the man for all men, the new Adam, belongs to the fundamental certainties of our faith. I would like to call to mind just three passages in Scripture indicative of this: God delivered his Son “up for us all,” Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans (Rom. 8:32). “One man died for all,” he says in the Second Letter to the Corinthians about the death of Jesus (2 Cor. 5:14). Jesus has “offered himself as a ransom for all”, it is said in the First Letter to Timothy (1 Tim 2:6). But even more then must we ask again: If this is clearly so, why does the Eucharistic Prayer say “for many”? Well, the Church adopted this formulation from the institution narrative of the New Testament. She says it thus out of respect for the Word of Jesus, to remain faithful to him even in his very words. Respect for the Word of Jesus is the reason for the formulation of the Eucharistic Prayer. But then we ask: why did Jesus say it this way himself? The true reason for that is that Jesus, in this way, showed himself as the servant of God of Isaiah 53, identified Himself as the form that the word of the prophet was awaiting. Respect of the Church for Jesus’ Word, Jesus's fidelity to the word of the “Scripture”, this double faithfulness is the concrete basis for the formulation “for many”. We join in this chain of reverent fidelity by the literal translation of the words of Scripture.

As we have seen, that the “for you” in the Lucan-Pauline tradition does not narrow, but rather makes concrete, so we can now recognize that the dialectic of “many” – “all” has its own significance. “All” moves on the ontological level – the being and action of Jesus includes all of mankind, past, present and future. But in fact, historically in the concrete community of those who celebrate the Eucharist, he comes only to “many”. In this way we can see an threefold significance in the relationship of “many” and “all”. Firstly, it should mean for us, who are allowed to sit at his table, surprise, joy and gratitude, that he has called me, that I may be with Him and may know Him. “Thanks be to the Lord, who has called me out of mercy into His Church…” [From a hymn of the “Gotteslob”] Then, secondly, this is also a responsibility. How the Lord reaches the others – “all” – in his own way remains ultimately a mystery. But without a doubt it is a responsibility to be called by him directly to his table, so that I may hear: for you, for me has he suffered. The many bear responsibility for all. The community of the many must be the light on the candlestick, the city on the mountain, leaven for all. This is a calling that concerns everyone personally. The many, who we are, must be conscious of their mission to be responsible for the whole. Finally, a third aspect may be added. In modern society we have the feeling that we are not at all “many”, but very few – a small swarm that is becoming ever smaller. But no – we are “many”: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues,” the Revelation of John says (Rev. 7:9). We are many and we stand for all. In this way both words, “many” and “all”, belong together and stand in relationship to each other in responsibility and promise.

Your Excellency, beloved brother bishops! With all this I wanted to indicate the basic content of the catechesis, with which priests and laity should be prepared as soon as possible for the new translation. I hope that all this can serve a more profound celebration together of the Eucharist and thus enter into the great task that lies before us in the “Year of Faith”. I hope that the catechesis will soon be presented and thus become part of the liturgical renewal for which the Council worked from its very first session.

With an Easter blessing, I remain in the Lord,


Benedictus PP XVI.

First Priestly Blessing

It is commonly held that a priest can offer a "first blessing" for the entire first year as a new priest. Sometimes it is said that there is a plenary indulgence attached to receiving a blessing from a priest within the first year after his ordination to the priesthood. I have been looking for the origin and basis of this tradition, but haven't found much. Maybe one or another of my readers know something about this.

The two questions I have are: first, is the notion that there is something special attached to a priest's blessing within his first year of priesthood based on (1) a pious tradition, (2) some liturgical tradition, or (3) a determination made by some pope?

Second, what is that "something special" that is attached to the blessing of a new priest within the first year of ordination (if not an indulgence)?

Summer Theology Program in Italy, 2012 – UPDATED

A slight change has been made to the dates of the second summer program run by the Saint Albert the Great Center for Scholastic Studies. The program will take place again in Norcia, Italy,  from June 18 to June 30, 2012.

The theme this Summer is biblical theology, focusing on the Gospels. Selections from commentaries by St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, and Joseph Ratzinger aim to lead to a deeper understanding of the Word of God and provide a starting point for discussion. Some lectures will be given on topics such as biblical inspiration, the use of the bible in the liturgy, and lectio divina. Again, a disputation in the scholastic style will be held during the program.

Holy Mass, the sung Latin Benedictine office with the monks, spiritual guidance and confessions are all readily available, and a number of optional excursions are offered.

Those who have or can make the time, and can afford the €675 (at the moment under $900 USD — covers tuition, room, and half-board, i.e., a light breakfast and a multi-course Italian dinner each day) plus the transportation to and from Norcia, are highly encouraged to consider this academic and spiritual program.

For much more detailed information, see the description of the program on the Center's own website.

Homily for Sts. Cyril and Methodius

St. Cyrill and St. Methodius are the patron saints of the parish Church where I am live and am assigned as a deacon. We celebrated their feast as a solemnity last Sunday. The readings were Acts 13:46-49 (Paul and Barnabas saying that after rejection by the Jews, they turn to the Gentiles, since Christ has charged them to spread the Gospel to all peoples) and Luke 10:1-9 (the sending of the 72 disciples).

Today Jesus speaks in the Gospel about a harvest. Who of you (children) has harvested fruit or vegetables from the tree or vine? (Children name various fruits they've harvested.) There are many good fruits and vegetables one can harvest and enjoy. Do you know what happens to the fruit if no one harvests it? (It spoils.) Yes, first it gets a bit overripe and doesn't taste as good, then it rots and you can't eat it any more, it's no good, at least not for us, maybe bugs and worms still enjoy it.

Something like that can happen with persons, too. It's sad, but sometimes good things in people spoil and are lost, because no one recognized them, helped these persons to harvest and preserve them. There is a lot hidden within everyone. But it is to be brought out, and one needs help for that. Not everyone can already read when they are three years old. They need someone to help them learn to read. We need people, too, to help us learn to love, to have faith, to trust.

Jesus knows this situation. He says, „The harvest is great, but the workers are few.“ He doesn't mean the harvest of fruits and vegetables, but the harvest of love, trust, faith, hope. Seeds of these beautiful, wonderful things are present among men. But they have to unfold, to grow, and one has to make them one's own. Otherwise they are dry up and perhaps vanish. Jesus wants everyone to be a loving person, a believing person, one who can hope and trust even when bad things happen. But Jesus sees a problem. There are few people to help make this happen, few workers. He gives us two answers to this problem. He says „Pray that the Father send workers for the harvest.“ Our Father knows what we need, and he can see to it that the people we and others need are there for us. And he says to his disciples, “You go! Go tell the people what I told you, God is with them. He is very close to them.” He sends them out. The disciples were happy with Jesus, happy to listen to him and to his message. But they should share this happiness with others, too. Jesus gives them some advice on how they can do this more effectively. They shouldn't carry too much around with them, so that they can travel more freely from one place to another to carry the message, so that they don't have to worry constantly about their money and other possessions. They shouldn't constantly move about trying to find the best place. When someone invites them into their home, they should stay there for some time and preach the good news.

But it wasn't only those persons, who saw Jesus and spoke with him, who went out and told about him. Again and again there have been such men. Our church gets its name from two such men: Cyrill and Methodius. They were brothers, who after public life and work entered a monastery to devote themselves to prayer and contemplation, to spend time with Jesus, like the disciples did. And this was a beautiful and lovely thing to do with their lives. But a request came from the Slavic people: “Many have come to us and told us of Jesus andhis teaching. But we couldn't understand them very well. We need people who will talk to us in a way they we can understand, people who are familiar with our language, our customs and ways of doing things.” The two brothers were asked to go there and to instruct the Slavs in the Christian faith, and they accepted this mission. They considered it important that Christian faith, the bible, and the liturgy not come across as something altogether foreign forced on the people, did not want to say to them, in effect “There's our faith. If you can make anything of it, well and good. If not, we can't do anything more for you.” They put much effort into translating expressions of faith and the liturgy so that it was understandable for the people. To that end they invented an alphabet for the language. Our alphabet, the Roman alphabet, was less suited, since the sounds are so different. In this way they made Christ's message, always one and the same, the message of faith, love, and responsibility, understandable for the people there.

When we look at the Cross, we see to its right and left many cards that all say the same thing, peace, but in many different languages. In the upper-left corner, the third from the top, it is written in the Cyrillic alphabet that Cyril and Methodius invented. Christ's Gospel has to be translated into the languages of the people. But for Cyrill and Methodius, as for us, it wasn't and isn't only a matter of speaking the right language such as Italian, German, English, Slavic. It is also a matter of so speaking about the faith, so celebrating it, and so living it, as to better help people to be drawn to it and to understand it. Let us pray that, through the intercession of these two patron saints, God grant us, as a parish and as individuals, the grace to witness to, to speak about, and to live our Christian faith, which we have ourselves heard and received, so as to bring others to Christ. Amen.

Sophie's Choice

Sophie's choice, described in William Styron's novel by that name, has become a textbook example of a (moral) dilemma.

Sophie, a polish Catholic, is arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Auschwitz death camp. She is there given a choice: one of her children will be spared the gas chamber if she chooses which one; otherwise both will be gassed to death. She screams in torment that she cannot make such a choice, pleading that she cannot do so. As the order is given for both children to be taken to the gas chamber, she suddenly does choose. Thinking that her older and stronger son has a better chance of surviving the camp, she in agonizing pain says that they can take her younger daughter. Two years later, haunted by the guilt of this choice, Sophie commits suicide. (Narrative summarized and slightly adapted from the novel)

The following accounts seem to me to sum up the evaluations I have encountered.

1. Sophie did wrong because she chose between the lives of her children.

According to the Talmud, if an enemy comes and demands that you choose someone to hand over to him to be put to death, with the threat that you will otherwise all be killed, you may not do so, but must all be willing to die instead of choosing someone to die. But if the enemy demands a particular person, then according to Rabbi Yohanan you may deliver up that person, even if that person is not guilty of a crime deserving death. Here the understanding seems to be that by making a choice whereby one person dies and other lives, one is making oneself master of life and death, an authority that belongs to God alone.

According to this principle, Sophie acted wrongly in choosing which one of her children would live.

2. Sophie did wrong because she consented to the unjust death of one of her children
Sophie did wrong because she consented to the death of one of her children as a means to saving the other one. According to this view, what Sophie did would have been wrong even if there was no choice between children, even if, for example, she was told, "if you tell me, 'take the girl', I'll just take her to the gas chamber, otherwise I'll take both."

In regard to this argument, we should note that while Sophie was told to choose which one of her children she wanted to be allowed to live, she expressed her choice by telling them which one of her children they could take to the gas chamber. This seems to indicate that she wasn't perceiving a significant difference between these two ways of choosing, either because she didn't consider there to be a significant difference between the two, or just because in her anguish she wasn't thinking clearly about it. Nonetheless, one might argue that in principle it would actually be okay to choose which child to live, but not which child to die.

3. Sophie did wrong because she was dispositive or instrumental in the death of one her children.

Sophie did wrong because by her choice and words she was instrumental in determining which of her children was killed. This claim differs from claim 2 in that it regards not so much the interior act of the will, consent to unjust death, as the external act chosen (telling the Nazis to take the girl), and the outcome to which it leads.

4. Sophie did wrong because she consented to her captor's will to murder one of her children.

5. Sophie did wrong because she materially cooperated with her captor's evil will, making use of that evil will to achieve good.

6. Sophie acted rightly, making a reasonable choice and taking a reasonable means to save the life of one of her children.

7. Sophie may have done wrong or may have done right, depending on what she was thinking and willing in regard to the situation.

8. Sophie did not do right or wrong. The choice was outside the bounds of morality.

These accounts arguably represent all basic possible moral evaluations of the choice: if the choice is wrong, it is so either because the choice between her two children as such is wrong, or because there is formal consent or material contribution to a grave evil, where that evil is understood either as the death of her child, or as the Nazi's moral evil in willing the murder of a child. If it was not wrong, than it was either right, was potentially right or wrong, or the distinction between right and wrong was inapplicable.

So, which of these accounts is correct? Was Sophie right to feel guilty? Did she do wrong? Did she do right?