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Part 3: What Happened to the Gospel of the Cross?

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Nov 16, 2014)
The following is the third of a 15-part series on Divine Mercy and Divine Justice. Read the series to date.

Here in the third part of our series on Divine Mercy and Divine Justice, I am going to cause some trouble. I am going to criticize the writings of several of the best Catholic theologians of our time. I am going to show that (no doubt, inadvertently) they have turned the clear and life-changing Gospel of the saving Death of Jesus Christ into a vague, metaphorical fog.

For example, let's look first at a book (mentioned in part one of this series) entitled Catholicism by Fr. Robert Barron. Here is what Fr. Barron has to say on page 31 about what Jesus accomplished for us by His Passion and Death:

Jesus was met by betrayal, denial, institutional corruption, violence, stupidity, deep injustice, and incomparable cruelty, but he did not respond in kind. Rather, like the scapegoat, upon whom all the sins of Israel were symbolically placed on the Day of Atonement, Jesus took upon himself the sins of the world. As he hung from the cross, he became sin, as Saint Paul would later put it, and bearing the full weight of that disorder he said, "Father forgive them, they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). Jesus on the cross drowned all the sins of the world in the infinite ocean of the divine mercy, and that is how he fought. We can see here how important it is to affirm the divinity of Jesus, for if he were only a human being, his death on the cross would be, at best, an inspiring example of dedication and courage. But as the Son of God, Jesus died a death that transfigured the world. The theological tradition has said that God the Father was pleased with the sacrifice of his Son, but we should never interpret this along sadistic lines as though the Father needed to see the suffering of his Son in order to assuage his infinite anger. The Father loved the willingness of the Son to go to the very limits of God-forsakenenss — all the way to the bottom of sin — in order to manifest the divine mercy. The Father loved the courage of his son, the non-violent warrior.

In short, according to Fr. Barron, Jesus somehow "drowned all the sins of the world in the infinite ocean of divine mercy" by suffering from them non-violently, and this death "transfigured the world" because He was willing to go to the very "bottom" of the experience of God-forsakeness in order "to manifest divine mercy." OK, but how does that work? How does the divine Son of God's patient, non-retaliatory suffering from the cruelty and injustices inflicted on Him actually accomplish all that? We are not told. After all, the Old Testament reveals much about God's patience and long-suffering — so what does Christ on the Cross "manifest" to us that God's patience and long-suffering with His wayward People Israel did not already show? Father Barron says that Jesus Christ, as the divine Son incarnate, suffers all this evil and injustice in person for us, in the flesh — well, granted, but why did He need to do that? What did His suffering in the flesh for us really accomplish, except to reiterate for us, in a more vivid way, what the Jews already knew: that the Lord is "gracious and merciful, long-suffering and abounding in steadfast love" (Ps 103)?

Father Barron further tells us that if God's "anger" (presumably His commutative Justice) needed to be "assuaged" in some way, then that would be "sadistic." So, wait: Is Divine Justice the same as sadism?

It seems to me that we have dropped down from the heights of the wisdom of St. Bernard and St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Alphonsus (which we discussed last week) into a metaphorical soup. Where is the classical Gospel message that Jesus Christ died to fulfill the demands of Divine Justice as well as to manifest His merciful love for us? Where is the traditional Catholic doctrine that God the Son manifested Divine Mercy on the Cross precisely by paying the penalty for us — making "satisfaction" to Divine Justice — in our place and for our sake?

I wish that this oversight in Fr. Barron's book was merely an isolated incident in Catholic theology today, but unfortunately it is not.

In his book Jesus the Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2003), Fr. Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap., tells us that it was not the Father's "righteous anger" that required the death of Jesus on the Cross:

Jesus' sacrifice must not be seen as placating an angry God, as if he were an offended person who demanded in justice to be propitiated and appeased. It is sin itself, in conformity with the justice of God, that has justly imposed upon humankind a debt, and it is this debt that is expiated through the death of Jesus. (pp. 111 and 115)

To be sure, if we take words such as "angry," "offended," "placating" and "appeased" as describing emotional states in God, then it would be a gross caricature of the Gospel to say that the Father's "righteous anger" needed to be cooled off somehow by the death of Jesus before He could forgive us! But that is not what the classical doctrine of the Cross said. As we discussed in part one of this series, words such as "wrath" and "anger" when applied to God are merely metaphors for His commutative justice. And Jesus cannot exactly appease an "angry God" because He is Himself God incarnate; as divine Son and Judge of the world, He is every bit as interested in fulfilling demands of Divine Justice as His heavenly Father is. Finally, Fr. Weinandy has contradicted himself here. If "sin itself, in conformity with the justice of God, has justly imposed upon humankind a debt" that must be repaid, then it must be equally true to say that God in His justice is "offended" by our sins, and that His commutative justice ought to be "propitiated" (i.e., compensated). The Gospel is that God Himself, in the person of His Son, out of His merciful love for us, accomplished precisely that on the Cross!

Sadly, this Gospel of the Cross seems to get lost in the fog even in Pope Benedict XVI's great book, Jesus of Nazareth: Volume Two. The Pope stated clearly that this book was intended to be merely a scholarly exploration, and not an exercise of his papal magisterium, much less a definitive statement of Catholic doctrine. So in offering a critique of what he wrote in that book about the Cross, I am in no way being disobedient to papal teaching authority. In any case, on pp. 231-232 he said:

In Jesus' Passion, all the filth of the world touches the infinitely pure one, the soul of Jesus Christ, and hence, the Son of God himself. While it is usually the case that anything unclean touching something clean renders it unclean, here it is the other way around: when the world, with all the injustice and cruelty that makes it unclean, comes into contact with the infinitely pure one — then he, the pure one, is the stronger. Through this contact, the filth of the world is truly absorbed, wiped out and transformed in the pain of infinite love. Because infinite good is now at hand in the man Jesus, the counterweight to all wickedness is present and active within world history, and the good is always infinitely greater than the mass of evil, however terrible it may be.

If we reflect more deeply on this insight, we find the answer to an objection that is often raised against the idea of atonement. Again and again, people say: It must be a cruel God who demands infinite atonement. Is this not a notion unworthy of God? Must we not give up the idea of atonement in order to maintain the purity of our image of God? In the [New Testament] use of the term hilasterion with reference to Jesus, it becomes evident that the real forgiveness accomplished on the Cross functions in exactly the opposite direction. The reality of evil and injustice that disfigures the world and at the same time distorts the image of God — this reality exists through our sin. It cannot simply be ignored; it must be addressed. But here it is not a case of a cruel God demanding the infinite. It is exactly the opposite: God himself becomes the locus of reconciliation, and in the person of his Son takes the suffering upon himself grants his infinite purity to the world. God himself "drinks the cup" of every horror to the dregs and thereby restores justice through the greatness of his love, which through suffering transforms the darkness.

As with Fr. Barron, the problem here is not so much with what Pope Benedict says about the Cross, but with what he does not say. He seems to push aside any idea that anything infinite — or at any rate any debt unpayable by us — is owed to God's commutative justice because of our sins. At the end of the passage Pope Benedict writes vaguely that Christ "restores justice through the greatness of his love," but according to Pope Benedict, that evidently does not mean that Christ makes satisfaction or compensation to Divine Justice because of our sins. So we can only turn to the rest of the passage to find out what Pope Benedict really does mean here.

We are told that Christ on the Cross becomes the "locus" (or the "place") of reconciliation between God and man, by "granting his infinite purity to the world" and "drinking to the dregs every horror," and thereby somehow through His suffering "transforming the darkness." No doubt all these metaphors are true in some sense — but in what sense? A person's unjust suffering — even the deepest possible unjust sufferings undergone by a divine person in human flesh — would still not seem to do much to overcome evil in the world, other than to display God's patient, forgiving nature. Where in all this is the full, classical teaching of the saints and of the Council of Trent that "Jesus Christ, by His most Holy Passion on the Cross, offered satisfaction for us to God the Father" — that is, the satisfaction both of His Father's merciful love and of His commutative justice?

I have two reasons for being especially concerned about all this.

First, if even the best Catholic theologians of our time cannot clearly express the Gospel of the Cross (and I could multiply the examples: Roch Kereszty, O.Cist., Gerald O'Collins, SJ), then the New Evangelization that the popes have been calling for over the past few decades is not going to succeed. To "evangelize" obviously includes spreading the "Good News" about what Jesus Christ has done for us. But if we cannot clearly state the Good News, then we cannot effectively share it.

The second reason is more embarrassing to me personally. I am afraid I helped to spread some of this confusion myself! ... More about 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.

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Robert Stackpole - Nov 24, 2014

Hi Judy: I think your comments are mostly right on target. The phrase "commutative justice" was defined in article #1 (its not the same as what the Church means by "social justice, for example)--but otherwise there is too much vaugue theo-babble going on about the doctrine of the Cross (the point of this article, #3 in the series). Stay tuned to articles #4 and #5 for what I hope is a clear statement and detailed defense of the classical Catholic doctrine of the Cross.

Judy K - Nov 23, 2014

I am going to stick my neck w-a-a-a-y out on this one. I have come to a conclusion that Catholic theologians have a facility of taking something relatively simple and making it unbearably complicated. In this article, Dr. Stackpole is speaking of the necessity of the sufferings of Jesus on the cross. Very simply, if a monarch is insulted or harmed by the citizen of another country, it is not sufficient for that individual to make an apology to the monarch. The monarch of the offender's country must make a public apology on the individual's behalf as well. The restitution must be made between equals. In the case of the offense make against the Sovereign God, reparation or restitution must be made by the humans who rendered the offense and by the equal of the Sovereign God, in this case, the Lord Jesus. In speaking about the New Evangelization, Dr. Stackpole states, "But if we cannot clearly state the Good News, then we cannot effectively share it." I would add to this that the Good News must be stated as simply as possible so as to reach the greatest number of people. In this case, I understand reparation and restitution, but "commutative justice" is a bit lost on me, even though I am well educated. St. John Bosco was advised by his mother to be sure to state his thoughts as if he were stating them to her a very simple and uneducated woman. Simple terminology is best. Theological jargon will not be helpful. The beautiful message will not be absorbed if the hearers or readers cannot understand it. I would like see Dr. Stackpole reword the paragraph that begins "We are told that Christ on the Cross becomes the locus..." so that it could be understood by the simplest or most uneducated of persons. We must become like little children when explaining the glorious message of the Gospel. We must be story-tellers like Jesus to effectively tell the story of the Gospel.