Saturday, July 21, 2007

Why Do So Many Catholics Believe in Penal Substitution?

I am becoming ever more convinced that there is a wide spread lack of understanding amongst Catholics of the nature of the Atonement. St. Anselm, pray for us. I have heard it in homilies, I have read it in books by popular Catholic theologians and apologists, I have heard on Catholic talk radio, I have discovered it in working to prepare 8th graders for confirmation: the Protestant theory of Christ's atonement known as penal substitution. Penal substitution, simply put, is the theory that Christ was punished on the Cross with the punishment with which we deserved to be punished. Here is a great example in a work by a very popular Catholic philosopher and a Jesuit priest:

"It seems impossible for God to solve the dilemma of justice versus mercy, but we know from the Gospel account how he does it. The problem is that he cannot, it seems, do both; he must either exact the just penalty for sin - death - or not. Mercy seems a relaxation of justice, and justice a refusal of mercy. Either you punish or you don't. The laws of logic seem to prevent God from being both just and merciful at the same time... God solves this dilemma on Calvary. Full justice is done: sin is punished with the very punishment of hell itself - being forsaken of God (Mt 27:46). But mercy and forgiveness are also enacted. The trick is to give us the mercy and him the justice" (Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, p. 127).

I have seen and heard Christ's atonement described in such ways by Catholics time and time again. There are a number of gaping flaws in this Protestant theory: first, what is just about condemning an innocent man to die in another's place? And what happens to the concept of forgiveness if God does, in fact, exact the full punishment for sin, just from another party? According to this theory, God's righteous anger against us is not withheld but merely redirected. Furthermore, if Christ is supposed to suffer the punishment that we all ought to have suffered on account of sin, simply dying certainly wouldn't cut it, the punishment of sin is eternal separation from God - He would have to accept this. The authors above try to deal with this by pointing to Matthew 27:46 "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" as if this points to a real separation between Father and Son. Anyone, however, who is familiar with Trinitarian theology knows this to be absurd. The Persons of the Godhead are certainly inseparable. Even if Matthew 27:46 did indicate a separation of the Son from the Father, the punishment of sin, which He is supposedly accepting, is eternal separation from God, not a three day separation from God. Again, if Christ has actually been punished for all sins committed throughout all time by all men, what is to stop us from sinning freely? God would be unjust to punish both Christ and us for the same sin, and having alreadly punished Christ, He could not punish us. This leads swiftly into one of two places, universalism - the belief that all will be saved, or Calvinist double predestination - wherein Christ only died to save some men. This solves the problem by positing that Christ accepted the punishment only for the elect and therefore God can still punish the damned (this does still leave the elect free to sin without fear).

Why, then, do explanations like Kreeft's and Tacelli's above seem to be so widespread in popular Catholic thinking? And what is the big deal? Here is a hint: there is one more major problem with the Protestant theory of penal substitution. It leaves no room for a perpetual sacrificial propitiation for sins, i.e. the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Think about it. If Christ, in dying on the Cross, accepted the punishment then and there of all men, what need is there for a continual sacrifice, the purpose of which is to appease God's anger and assuage His wrath? None. The only sensible purpose of the Mass then would be to provide us an opportunity to receive Him sacramentally in Holy Communion (and I know many Catholics who see this as the primary, indeed the only, purpose of the Holy Mass). This, I think, goes a long way to explaining the inverted emphasis on the meal/communion aspect of the Mass over against the sacrificial aspect of the Mass. When one's understanding of the atonement is so far Protestantized as to think in terms of penal substitution, it is hard to see why the Mass should really be anything more than a Communion service.

If I could be so bold as to add another step into Fr. Z's famous plan to save the world: Understand the Atonement; Save the Liturgy; Save the World! St. Anselm, ora pro nobis!

P.S. I wrote this assuming our esteemed readership to be sufficiently familiar with Catholic theology as to know what the Catholic theory of the Atonemen, admirably explained by St. Anselm, really is. To refresh your memory, see St. Anselm's Cur Deus Homo? and the Catholic Encyclopedia.

13 comments:

Alexander said...

The only sensible purpose of the Mass then would be to provide us an opportunity to receive Him sacramentally in Holy Communion (and I know many Catholics who see this as the primary, indeed the only, purpose of the Holy Mass)

That is what I see a lot; an acceptance of the Real Presence, which is good, but no mention of the Real Sacrifice. I took a friend to a low Mass once, since he’s only gone to a few TLMs ever and mostly New Masses. He later wondered why the priest was changing his tone of voice in the prayers like into sounding sorrowful or asking for mercy, etc. I said “it is a Real Sacrifice taking place; Calvary brought to the present.”

There seems to be this concept of the Mass some have of a “celebration” where we merely receive Christ in the Eucharistic. I’ve been to some Masses that are exactly like this; it is reflected in the music and the tone of the priest’s voice.
These parishes had the priest and the literature scattered about the Church correctly explain Transubstantiation but will hardly ever talk about the Real Sacrifice.

phatcatholic said...

You've told us what the atonement is not, but you haven't told us what it is, how we should be thinking about it .... besides directing us to two lengthy works on the subject. I would greatly appreciate you telling the reader in your own words what you think is the proper way to understand the purpose and effect of Christ's work on the Cross.

Ben G said...

Boniface (or Anselm),

Can Catholics still believe in the ransom theory of the atonement, even in the belief that Satan had rights over man, and that Christ paid Satan what was therefore his due? Has this theory, which I know is very patristic, ever been condemned since St. Anselm's refutation?

I also wanted to know if this poses a problem for Catholic dogma. I made the argument to a Protestant that our doctrine of justification couldn't possibly be false, because God couldn't permit his Church to be in error for over a thousand years on the subject. And yet if the idea that Christ paid a ransom to Satan is false, and it was indeed taught by Irenaeus, Leo, Gregory, Augustine, and other important Church teachers for a thousand years (before Anselm), wouldn't this do damage to Church dogma?

God bless you all.

P.S. what happened to the awaited samples from Anselm's paper? :-)

Ben G said...

It's a pity you don't look at older blog posts.

BONIFACE said...

Dude, I totally look at these - I get a notification everytime somebody leaves a comment. I will forward this to Anselm, however.

Anonymous said...

I would also like to see an answer to Ben G's question.

BONIFACE said...

Forwarding to Anselm...

Anselm said...

Alright, Anselm here at last to chime in on Ben G.'s questions. I hope I can make it worth the wait ;)

Ad 1. As far as I know, the so-called Ransom theory of the atonement has never been the subject of any formal condemnation by the Church. From that point of view, therefore, I think that a Catholic *can* still believe in it, although one would still have to deal with st. Anselm's argument in order for it to be reasonable to do so.

Ad 2. I don't think that this poses any real difficulties for Catholic dogma since I don't think anyone would say that the precise details of the theory, with which St. Anselm rightly takes issue, were the subject of a *unanimous consenst* on the part of the fathers, and it is only to this that we are bound by Trent, Vatican I, and the Catechism (1114).

The essentials of St. Anselm's satisfaction theory of the atonement were already being taught by just as many (and some of the same) fathers as you cite. The unanimity of the fathers on this point, if you like, was in emphasizing the aspect of Christ's death as conquest over the devil and as ransom-price paid to free us from the devil. There simply was no such unanimity with regard to such further points as to whom the price was paid, or whether the devil had acquired just rights over mankind on account of man's sin. Remember too, that fine scholastic distinctions were not so widely used by the fathers, so that if some say that the devil had right of ownership over man and some say that he didn't, they might all still be made to agree with each other (and with St. Anselm) as follows: it was *right* for man to be the devil's slave, but it was not *right* for the devil to
enslave him.

Pax!

Ben said...

I know this is a long time after your original post, but I thought you might be interested in this.

I was reading St. Alphonsus' Glories of Mary, and he said, "The Eternal Father had already determined to save man who had fallen through sin, to deliver him from eternal death. At the same time, he willed that divine justice should not be deprived of a worthy satisfaction. And so he did not spare the life of his son who had already become man to redeem man, but willed that he should pay with the utmost rigour the penalty which all men deserved: 'He who has not spared even his own son, but has delivered him for us all' (Rom 8:32)".

This seems an exact statement of 'penal substitution': "Penal substitution, simply put, is the theory that Christ was punished on the Cross with the punishment with which we deserved to be punished."

Nicholas Hardesty said...

I repeat my comment from almost 3 years ago:

You've told us what the atonement is not, but you haven't told us what it is, how we should be thinking about it .... besides directing us to two lengthy works on the subject. I would greatly appreciate you telling the reader in your own words what you think is the proper way to understand the purpose and effect of Christ's work on the Cross.

BONIFACE said...

Nicholas,

I will address this in my next post. The original post was by Anselm, but I think I can answer your question. Apologies.

Nicholas Hardesty said...

Thanks! If you don't mind, leave a comment here w/ a link to your post so that I will know when it's up. I don't always remember to check back here, but I subscribe to this post so I get an email whenever someone comments on it.

BONIFACE said...

http://unamsanctamcatholicam.blogspot.com/2012/03/christs-cry-from-cross.html

This only deals with the cry from the cross, as the whole subject is a bit broad to be handled in one post.