As I have mentioned in previous posts, it is my firm conviction that many, if not most, Catholics, and I include clergy and laymen, theologian or otherwise, hold to some version of the Protestant notion of penal substitution when it comes to the doctrine of the Atonement wrought by Christ.
The Protestantized notion of the atonement of which I speak might be summed up in the following proposition:
"Christ suffered the full weight of punishment due in justice to all the sins of mankind."
What is wrong with that statement, you ask? Think about it. What is the punishment that sin deserves? Death; not just physical death, though, eternal death; specifically, eternal separation from God. At this point, some one will usually appeal to Christ's cry from the Cross, "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Doesn't this mean that Christ did experience separation from God, which is exactly what the punishment of Hell is? In short, No.
In his Summa theologiae St. Thomas Aquinas asks whether the pain of Christ's passion was greater than all other pains. He answers in the affirmative. However, and this must be stressed, in his reply to one of the objections Aquinas makes it clear that Christ's pain is not to be compared to the pain experienced by the damned! He writes,
The pain suffered by a separated soul belongs to a state of future damnation which exceeds every evil in this life, as the glory of the saints exceeds every good of our present existence. When we speak of Christ's pain as being maximal, we exclude all comparisons with the pain endured by a soul in the next life. (ST, III, 46, 6, ad 3).
In fact, Christ's human soul was in possession of the Beatific Vision even during the Passion, so far was it from being experiencing the separation from God which is the punishment of the damned! (ST, III, 46, 8). In the words of Ludwig Ott:
While the immediate knowledge of God, which is absolutely supernatural, is vouchsafed to other men only in the next world (in statu termini), Christ's soul possessed it in this world (in statu viae), and indeed, from the very moment of its union with the Divine Person of the Word, that is, from the Conception. Christ was therefore, as the Schoolmen say, viator simul et comprehensor, that is, at the same time a pilgrim on earth and at the destination of His earthly pilgrimage. It follows from this that He could not possess the theological virtues of faith and hope.
Some of the newer Theologians, such as H. Klee, A. Günther, J. Th. Laurent and H. Schell, denied that Christ possessed the Immediate Vision of God while on earth because they considered it to be contradictory to individual assertions of Holy Writ, and to the fact of the Passion of Christ. The modernists (A. Loisy) denied it also and maintained that the natural sense of Scriptural texts cannot be reconciled with the teaching of theologians concerning the consciousness and infallible knowledge of Christ (D 2032)...
Pope Pius XII, in the Encyclical "Mystici Corporis" (1943) declared: "Also that knowledge which is called vision, He possesses in such fulness that in breadth and clarity it far exceeds the Beatific Vision of all the saints in Heaven" ... "in virtue of the Beatific Vision which he enjoyed from the time when He was received into the womb of the mother of God, He has forever and continuously had present to Him all the members of His mystical Body and embraced them with His saving love" (D 2289). (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 162-63).
How, then, are we to understand the anguished cry of Christ from the Cross? Allow me to offer without further commentary the interpretations of some of the Church's greatest luminaries, noting especially the absence of any reference to Christ experiencing the separation from God that is the punishment of the damned:
St. Thomas Aquinas
Objection 1: It would seem that the Godhead was separated from the flesh when Christ died. For as Matthew relates (27:46), when our Lord was hanging upon the cross He cried out: "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" which words Ambrose, commenting on Lk. 23:46, explains as follows: "The man cried out when about to expire by being severed from the Godhead; for since the Godhead is immune from death, assuredly death could not be there, except life departed, for the Godhead is life." And so it seems that when Christ died, the Godhead was separated from His flesh.
Reply to Objection 1: Such forsaking is not to be referred to the dissolving of the personal union, but to this, that God the Father gave Him up to the Passion: hence there "to forsake" means simply not to protect from persecutors. or else He says there that He is forsaken, with reference to the prayer He had made: "Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass away from Me," as Augustine explains it (De Gratia Novi Test.). (ST, III, 50, 2).
Objection 1: It would seem that there was sin in Christ. For it is written (Ps. 21:2): "O God, My God . . . why hast Thou forsaken Me? Far from My salvation are the words of My sins." Now these words are said in the person of Christ Himself, as appears from His having uttered them on the cross. Therefore it would seem that in Christ there were sins.
Reply to Objection 1: As Damascene says (De Fide Orth. iii, 25), things are said of Christ, first, with reference to His natural and hypostatic property, as when it is said that God became man, and that He suffered for us; secondly, with reference to His personal and relative property, when things are said of Him in our person which nowise belong to Him of Himself. Hence, in the seven rules of Tichonius which Augustine quotes in De Doctr. Christ. iii, 31, the first regards "Our Lord and His Body," since "Christ and His Church are taken as one person." And thus Christ, speaking in the person of His members, says (Ps. 21:2): "The words of My sins" - not that there were any sins in the Head. (ST, III, 15, 1).
I answer that, As observed above, Christ suffered voluntarily out of obedience to the Father. Hence in three respects God the Father did deliver up Christ to the Passion. In the first way, because by His eternal will He preordained Christ's Passion for the deliverance of the human race, according to the words of Isaias (53:6): "The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquities of us all"; and again (Is. 53:10): "The Lord was pleased to bruise Him in infirmity." Secondly, inasmuch as, by the infusion of charity, He inspired Him with the will to suffer for us; hence we read in the same passage: "He was offered because it was His own will" (Is. 53:7). Thirdly, by not shielding Him from the Passion, but abandoning Him to His persecutors: thus we read (Mat. 27:46) that Christ, while hanging upon the cross, cried out: "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" because, to wit, He left Him to the power of His persecutors, as Augustine says (Ep. cxl). (ST, III, 47, 3).
St. John Chrysostom
Why does he speak this way, crying out, "Eli, Eli, lama sabach-thani?" That they might see that to his last breath he honors God as his Father and is no adversary of God. He spoke with the voice of Scripture, uttering a cry from the psalm. Thus even to his last hour he is found bearing witness to the sacred text. He offers this prophetic cry in Hebrew, so as to be plain and intelligible to them, and by all things Jesus shows how he is of one mind with the Father who had begotten him (The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 88.1).
It was in human voice that he cried: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" As human, therefore, he speaks on the cross, bearing with him our terrors. For amid dangers it is a very human response to think ourself abandoned (Of the Christian Faith, 2.7.56).
Out of the voice of the psalmist, which our Lord then transferred to himself, in the voice of this infirmity of ours, he spoke these words: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? He is doubtless forsaken in the sense that his plea was not directly granted. Jesus appropriates the psalmist's voice to himself, the voice of human weakness. The benefits of the old covenant had to be refused in order that we might learn to pray and hope for the benefits of the new covenant. Among those goods of the old covenant which belonged to the old Adam there is a special appetite for the prolonging of this temporal life. But this appetite itself is not interminable, for we all know that the day of death will come. Yet all of us, or nearly all, strive to postpone it, even those who believe that their life after death will be a happier one. Such force has the sweet partnership of body and soul (Letters, 140 to Honoratus 6).
In his most compassionate humanity and through his servant form we may now learn what is to be despised in this life and what is to be hoped for in eternity. In that very passion in which his proud enemies seemed most triumphant, he took on the speech of our infirmity, in which "our sinful nature was crucified with him" that the body of sin might be destroyed, and said: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" ... Thus the Psalm begins, which was sung so long ago, in prophecy of his passion and the revelation of the grace which he brought to raise up his faithful and set them free (Letters, 140 to Honoratus 5).
See this article for more on Christ's cry from the Cross.
See this article for more on Christ's cry from the Cross.