Part 2: The Saints and the Doctrine of the Cross
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Nov 10, 2014)
The following is the second of a 15-part series on Divine Mercy and Divine Justice. Read the series to date.
In the first article in this series, I claimed that much of the Catholic world today is confused about God: Is He a God of mercy, or justice — or both? And the "default" mode for most of us is designed just to make things simpler and easier by ignoring the reality of Divine Justice altogether. I also suggested that this confusion affects everything from our understanding of the doctrines of Purgatory and Hell to the doctrine of the Cross — and even a proper understanding of the pursuit of social justice.
When in doubt, it is not a bad idea to consult the saints from ages past about such matters. After all, they were the followers of Jesus Christ who were full to overflowing with the Holy Spirit — the Spirit of Truth and Love — and they wrestled with many of the same questions that we do.
Obviously, we do not have the time and space to cover the teachings of all of the saints of ages past on all of these doctrines. Here we shall begin just by looking at what they have to teach us on the doctrine of the Cross. In short, we will turn to them for help with our first question: What did Jesus Christ actually accomplish on the Cross for our salvation, and how does it manifest both the mercy and the justice of God?
Among the early saints and Church Fathers who wrote extensively on this subject were St. Augustine, St. Bernard, and St. Anselm. But we will confine ourselves here to the work of two others: St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Alphonsus Ligouri. Saint Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, summed up and enriched the reflections of all his predecessors. Saint Alphonsus Ligouri showed how, essentially, the same teaching was being passed down 500 years later.
For a summary of the reflections of St. Thomas on the Cross, I will turn again to my book, Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press, second edition, 2009, pp. 120-128):
Saint Thomas argues that in God's nature, Divine Mercy and Divine Justice coincide: They are one in the simplicity of God's essence. God is always and everywhere just and merciful, at one and the same time. When God acts mercifully, He does not act against justice, but, in a sense, goes beyond it. In other words, God's justice always furthers His work of mercy, and never detracts from it. Aquinas writes: "The work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy and is based upon it" (ST I.21.4). ...
Humanity was certainly in a dire predicament after the fall of Adam and Eve. It is possible for sinners to have a right relationship with God restored only if they make a proper "satisfaction" to God for sin. The problem is that making satisfaction to God for sin is precisely what man, by his own power, could not do. He could not make up for sin (for the past cannot be undone, and a man has nothing "extra" in the present and future to offer to God for his past sins, since a life of perfect obedience was owed by each one of us to God our Creator anyway). Besides, man owes to God an infinite compensation for sin, since by sin he has betrayed and offended Infinite Love. Yet we have nothing infinite to offer to God to make up for our sins. Moreover, human nature, corrupted by sin, needs to be regenerated and renewed ... but again, the regeneration of the soul is beyond human power.
Given that both the satisfaction for our sins and the regeneration of our sinful souls is entirely beyond our power, the human race is desperately in need of a Savior. Of course, St. Thomas argues that God Himself is our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord. ...
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the supreme manifestation of God's mercy is the sending of His divine Son into the world to share our human nature, and to make "atonement" or "satisfaction" for our sins, meriting for us superabundant graces of regeneration and sanctification. ...
Saint Thomas states that ... God as man did for man what man by himself could not do. [He] explains: "For man to be liberated through the passion of Christ was in harmony both with his mercy and justice. With justice because by his passion Christ made satisfaction for the sin of the human race, and so man was liberated through the justice of Christ. But also with mercy, because, since man by himself could not make satisfaction for the sins of all human nature...God gave his Son to be the satisfier...and in so doing he showed a more abundant mercy than if he had forgiven sins without requiring satisfaction (ST II.1.2).
Saint Thomas obviously sees the suffering, redemptive work of Christ as fulfilling the demands of divine justice — that is, making "satisfaction" (compensation) for human sins — but at the same time as the most stupendous act of merciful love for us. This is so because God does all this for us Himself, out of nothing but sheer mercy for us in our plight, since we are unable to help ourselves. In doing so, He manifests His merciful love far more than if He had just forgiven sins by "letting bygones be bygones."...
In order to understand St. Thomas's theory of atonement, we need to be clear by what he meant in saying that Jesus Christ makes "satisfaction" for our sins. Often, St. Thomas's theory (and that of his predecessor, St. Anselm) is confused with the theory put forward by John Calvin and Martin Luther, for whom atonement meant merely a quasi-legal transaction in which Christ suffers the "retribution," "penalty," or "punishment" for sin in the place of sinners. In other words, Christ takes upon Himself what sinners deserve, and in this way He clears our debt to God's vindictive justice.
For St. Thomas, "satisfaction" does indeed involve making up our debt to God's justice for our sins. But what is "owed" is [not only a punishment consisting of suffering]. In fact, our moral debt for sin can be made up to God in a way that includes, but goes beyond, mere [penal] retribution. Our debt can be cleared by another, more comprehensive kind of reparatory or compensatory act, which St. Thomas calls "satisfaction."
Saint Thomas states numerous times that what gives saving value in God's eyes to the life and death of His incarnate Son is [not just the sufferings He underwent for us, but also] the loving obedience of the Son's sacred humanity. That is why St. Thomas can argue that our Lord began to merit our salvation even from His cradle, because even His Holy Childhood was one continuous act of loving obedience to the Father. Moreover, St. Thomas quotes with approval St. Augustine's teaching that what made Christ's Passion acceptable to the Father was the charity our of which He offered Himself up for us (See ST III. 48.3). Furthermore, it is important to note that because He is the divine Son in human flesh, all of His human acts are "theandric" (that is, acts done by a divine person through His human nature) and therefore of infinite value. Christ's loving obedience throughout His life and death are therefore not only "sufficient" to "make up" for our sins — in fact, His life and death gains "superabundant" merit. It more than makes up for our sins.
Saint Thomas sums up his view of all this in his Summa Theologiae as follows: "He atones appropriately for an offense who offers whatever the offended party equally loves, or loves more than he detested the offense. But Christ, by suffering out of love and obedience gave to God more than was required to compensate for the offences of the whole human race. First, by reason of the tremendous charity from which he suffered; second, by reason of the dignity of his life, which he gave up in atonement, for this was the life of one who was both God and man; third, on account of the extent of the passion and the sorrows suffered ... and so Christ's passion was not merely sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race (III. 48.2).
We see clearly here that in the theology of St. Thomas, Divine Mercy not only fulfills the demands of divine justice, but goes way beyond those demands, meriting an infinite ocean of graces which our Savior wants to pour out upon a lost and broken world!
Now, it should not be supposed that St. Thomas answered every possible question about Christ's saving work on the Cross, or even that every nuance of His teaching on this subject is completely clear and coherent. But the basic outlines of His thought are unmistakable: Through offering to the Father in loving obedience His whole life on earth, and especially His Passion and death on the Cross, our Savior compensated divine justice for our sins and merited not only our pardon, but also all the graces we need to be sanctified and saved.
If we move ahead in time 500 years, we find St. Alphonsus Liguori, another acclaimed "Doctor of the Church," and the leading Catholic voice of the 18th century. By and large, he taught the same doctrine:
God himself hath discovered a way of saving man, while at the same time his justice and his mercy shall both be satisfied: Justice and peace have kissed (Ps 84:11). The Son of God has himself become man ... and loading his shoulders with the burden of satisfying for mankind, he has made full compensation to the divine justice for the penalty merited by men, by the sufferings of his life and death; and thus the opposite claims of justice and of mercy have been paid. ...
For the love of man he stooped to take the lowly form of a servant, by clothing himself in human flesh, and likening himself to men; and since sin had made them vassals of the devil, he came in the form of man to redeem them, offering his sufferings and death in satisfaction to the divine justice for the punishment due to them. (Discourses for the Novena of Christmas, 3 and 4)
Elsewhere, St. Alphonsus teaches that the Son of God's sacrifice on the Cross "infinitely exceeded the satisfaction due by us for our sins to the divine justice." In other words, our Savior not only cleared our debts to divine justice and obtained our pardon, He also merited all the graces we need for the sanctification of our hearts.
If we go forward in time again, we can find essentially the same teaching in classic works of Catholic theology and apologetics, such as Karl Adam's The Son of God (1934), Fulton Sheen's The Life of Christ (1958), and F.J. Sheed's Theology and Sanity (1979). As we shall see later, we can find substantially the same teaching alluded to also in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and in the writings of St. Faustina and St. John Paul II. Unfortunately, where we will not find the gospel of the Cross clearly expressed is in the writings of many of the leading Catholic theologians today. More on that next week.
Read the series to date.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.