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"The core Catholic claim"?

In the latest New Yorker, Adam Gopnik has a rather snarky review of a few recent works on Galileo. Towards the end, he offers an explanation of why the Church wouldnt tolerate his views at least as hypothesis:

Whatever might be said to accord faith and Copernicus, religion depends for its myth on a certain sense of scale.... Man must be at the center of a universe on a stable planet, or else the core Catholic claim that the omnipotent ruler of the cosmos could satisfy his sense of justice only by sending his son here to be tortured to death begins to seem a ittle frayed. Scale matters. If Clark Kent had never left Smallville, then the significance of Superman would be much reduced.

There could be some superficial merit in the argument about scale here: Pascal, for example, said that the eternal silence of the universes immensities terrified him. But, notice, it was the silence, not the immensities, that frightened him, and difference in scale was not the most important thing:

Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill.

But what struck me was the ignorance displayed in Gopnik's throwaway summary of the core Catholic claim which seriouslymisrepresents the core Catholic belief in redemption through the death and resurrection of Christ.Many Christians, including even many Catholics, may hold something like that view of the atonement, which in turn, of course, repels many others. Another reason for profound regret at the low level of knowledge and understanding of the faith.


Commenting Guidelines

Ann: Just to clarify. The reference to "little ones" is owed to Jesus. See Matt 11:25--"I praise you, Father, because you have hidden these things from the wise and clever but have revealed them to the little ones." So it's Jesus who's being "patronizing"?

I disagree. For Jesus to call any human "little' is one thing. For Ratzinger to do so is another. And in Gerelyn's quotation while he is indirectly referring to Jesus' remark, he is also speaking fr himself, and that is patronizing.

We disagree about that. If he wants to use Jesus' term, I don't find that any more patronizing than when Jesus used it. His words, as reported, some to me a perfect reflection of what Jesus said and meant, and it would have been a useful reminder to the members of the International Theological Commission.

Agree, Joseph. Quoting one of Jesus' most famous sayings is hardly patronizing.

Cur Deus homo has a wikipedia page, to a page about St Anselm's satisfaction view of atonement, contains an Aquinas section with the, cough, "standard Catholic understanding of atonement", for example: the atonement consisted in Christ's giving to God more "than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race." The entire article has not a single occurrence of the word "love".

I would not want to say this about Jesus, so I guess I must fault Matthew, if it is a fault. Isn't Mt. 11:25 a bit vague? Not the wise and clever vs. the little ones part, but the substance of what the Father has withheld from the first and revealed to the second group. It is identified only as "these things" and "them," and the previous verses do not seem to provide any likely antecedents. It is as if this verse was taken from somewhere else and just plopped down here. So maybe I should absolve Matthew and charge some sleepy copyist. Or is it clearer than I think?

Why don't the Catholic theologians correct the Wikipedia page? This really is an extremely important topic. Or maybe they're trying.

Ann, why don't you set to editing it yourself? You have documents to draw on. Just click on "edit" in the top right part of the page. You won't make it quite right, but you can make it better than it is, while keeping it short and simple, of course...

Hi, John:Imho, Matthew 11 is one of the clearest chapters in the gospels. If any words can be safely ascribed to Jesus, imho, they are the words of that chapter. John the Baptist was in prison, and he heard what Jesus was doing. (Working miracles.) He sent his followers to see what was going on, and Jesus gave them an earful.(Imho, Jesus is saying that little children are not fooled by hypocrites, naked emperors, etc.)I think the series on the Bible that the History Channel will be showing, starting in March, shows Jesus being dunked by John the Baptist, so maybe there will be a dramatization of the lament in Matthew 11, too. -----And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.But whereunto shall I esteem this generation to be like? It is like to children sitting in the market place.Who crying to their companions say: We have piped to you, and you have not danced: we have lamented, and you have not mourned.For John came neither eating nor drinking; and they say: He hath a devil.The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say: Behold a man that is a glutton and a wine drinker, a friend of publicans and sinners. And wisdom is justified by her children.Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein were done the most of his miracles, for that they had not done penance.Woe to thee, Chorazin! woe to thee Bethsaida! for if the works of power which have taken place in you, had taken place in Tyre and Sidon, they had long ago repented in sackcloth and ashes.But I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment, than for you.And thou Capharnaum, shalt thou be exalted up to heaven? thou shalt go down even unto hell. For if in Sodom had been wrought the miracles that have been wrought in thee, perhaps it had remained unto this day.But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.At that time Jesus answered and said: I confess to thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them to the little ones.

Claire ==I'm afraid I'd do more harm than good if I tried to edit it. Years ago I did edit the R. C. Zaehner page, but I have studied his basic theory of mysticism in some detail. I can't say the same for the theology of redemption.You do it :-) You've done a lot of reading about it, and you write particularly clearly.(Where are all these new evangelists? You'd think they'd take advantage of Wikipedia.)

Ann, those new evangelists are probably too busy re-reading the CCC. Sigh.

Mt 11:25-30 is sometimes called the "Johannine thunderbolt," because the language is more similar to that of the Fourth Gospel than to that typical of the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels. It has a parallel in Luke's Gospel, and so the scholars trace it to the famous "Q-document."

Joe,thanks for retrieving your article. It says a great deal, in a very helpful way.You write: "The reign of sin and death were absorbed by his love and forgiveness, and a frightful evil was transformed into a transcendent good, an execution became a self-sacrifice."And again: "God in his wisdom and goodness chose not to free humanity from evil by some great act of power; he chose rather that Christ encounter that evil and transform it by his love into the great good that is the salvation of the human race."What these reflections point to, for me, is that we might better think of "redemption," "atonement," "salvation" less as something Jesus did, a "transaction" of some sort, as Jesus himself: he is salvation, at-onement.A focus on the "being" of Jesus may lead to a new appreciation of the Johannine "I am" formulations and the Pauline use of "new Adam" imagery.Thus redemption is not an extrinsic imputation laid upon us, but a new possibility opened to us: to realize with God's grace the new filial existence enabled by the crucified and risen Lord.I try to indicate this approach by saying that Christ did not show the Way, he created the Way in his own body, and now we are called to become incorporate in the body of the Savior.As the quotes I transcribed from your article stress: transformation is required. Just as Christ transformed sin and evil, we must be transformed by our encounter with the person of Christ. Baptism, of course, is the beginning of transformation; and the Eucharist nourishes our ongoing "Christification."

I suspect that discomfort must always drive the explanation for Jesus' crucifixion to a certain extent. His earliest followers had to deal with the disconcerting fact that their messiah was dead. His latter-day followers must face up to the moral problems of the violence of the act and what that says about God.One thing that can be born in mind is that, at the bottom of it all, the reason Jesus had to die on the cross was because the Roman prefect said so. A lot of people die for similar reasons: someone said they had to.

Mt 11: 28-30, is a beautiful invitation by the Son who is said, in the stunning "Johannine" verses preceding it, to know the Father and be able to reveal him to those he chooses. In 28-30 Jesus says: "Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy and my burden light." This bit doesn't appear in Luke or Mark and is generally said to be Matthew's own.

Abe,isn't the "disconcerting fact" with which Jesus' earliest followers had to come to grips the dual one: the Messiah had been crucified and raised? Had he not been raised there would have been no redemption. As Paul insists to the Corinthians: you would still be in your sins.

I suspect that the resurrection narrative was a crucial tool in coming to grips with the crucifixion. But taking the resurrection for granted and viewing the situation from a canonical perspective, I would say, yes: the absence of the messiah without the messiah having done anything decisively messiah-ish would demand a new way of thinking about the function of the messiah.

Abe,what was "decisively messiah-ish" was that "he died for our sins." I grant that this was indeed "a new way of thinking about the function of the messiah." But that relates to what I suggested above: what he did was who he is. Irenaeus says: "he brought all newness, bringing himself."

Another reason for profound regret at the low level of knowledge and understanding of the faith.And not just among the "little ones". The Catechism is unclear. The vocabulary is highly specialized and coded, and words do not mean what they mean in everyday language. It's confusing. A little poking around the internet reveals a bewildering array of contradictory texts, many written by "the very cultured". I like your article very much, Fr K - it's beautiful -, but that's just one text from one person. I can roam the web and pick and choose what rings true to me, but how do I know that I'm not just selecting from a community of like-minded people, and that it's not a somewhat distorted view of the Catholic faith? Where is the Magisterium when we need it?

Claire --If you take everything Jesus says literally, then you see that He too contradicted Himself very clearly sometimes. So what to do? I say look more closely at how language works in all of its frustrating glory, and then see what we're left with. It's why I think that the contemporary understandings of the nature(s) of "language" is so important if we are to make more progress with both philosophy and theology. And that means studying the linguistic analysts and the great progress made by the psychologists in understanding how language works, Yes, this is something of a digression, but I think that Wittgenstein has been proven right in mny disciplines -- that the misuse (or strange us) of language is at the bottom of many of our intellectual problems including some in theology. Just consider how the uses of "atonement" has thrown so many people off.That is not to say that the apparent theological contradictions are not problematic. It *is* to say that apparently it is the will of God that understanding of His messages will not come easily to us. It seems that He *wants* us to struggle. As I see it, He wants the increase in understanding of His Revelations to be the work of many people, a communal project with give and take and revisions when necessary. Sigh.

As I see it, He wants the increase in understanding of His Revelations to be the work of many people, a communal project with give and take and revisions when necessary. Kind of like wikipedia...

Father Imbelli: ..."what was "decisively messiah-ish" was that he died for our sins."So, back to the same conundrum of dozens of posts back - did Jesus "have" to die for our sins in order to be messiah-ish? Isn't that what Gopnik asserts in rather more blunt language? Could not there have been a resurrection if Jesus had died in his bed of old age after a lifetime of teaching through both words and example? Was the torture and death on the cross NECESSARY for God to forgive human sin? It is possible to understand Jesus's understanding and acceptance of the likely consequences to him personally because of what he was saying and doing - consquences that could very well mean torture and death. But what does this have to do with the remission of human sin? As Fr. K noted in his essay, Martin Luther King also knew that his work could result in his personal suffering and possible death and he too accepted this possibility. I may be particularly dense, especially when compared to many of the regular posters on this board, but perhaps I am more representative of the vast majority in some ways - I still really do not see why the church continues to say that Jesus "died for our sins" and still do not understand exactly what it means by this. As Claire noted, the language is "coded", words are defined and interpreted in a multitude of ways, it's not really very clear to the average non-theologian, and non-theologians struggling with concepts quickly discover that different theologians seem to say very different things.

Robert, I think that in saying that, you more or less bring us back full circle to the starting point of this whole problem, which is Jesus' "dying for sins." I think that it's one thing to say that that is the function of the messiah when you have a couple of millennia of theology on the issue behind you, but what I was saying is that for Jesus' first followers to get there might have taken some painful searching.

Agree, Claire and Anne. Very confusing. E.g., take a look at the venerable Catholic Encyclopedia's explanation. (The article has an imprimatur from the great John Farley and a nihil obstat from somebody else.) Information about Satan and the mousetrap theory, etc. Stuff I never heard of. How come it wasn't in the Baltimore Catechism? Or in the high school religion texts? Or mentioned in theology, Christology, etc., in college? Very sad to be mired in "ignorance" along with poor Adam Gopnik, et so many alii., I liked your article, too. It reminded me of the days when even Catholics heard the occasional fire and brimstone sermon -- not from parish priests, but from visiting mission preachers (Redemptorists, usually) or from retreat masters (Jesuits, like the poor man in your anecdote). (I never heard of people being trampled to death, but in high school I heard of a priest who so moved the boys with his retreat conferences that they cried and lined up all around the gym to go to confession.)

Anne Chapman,Thank you for your patient probing questions. I think to reiterate what has several times been suggested: we are seeking some understanding of the mystery of redemption. There are different approaches that give partial insight and that can complement one another. However, there are some that do not do justice to the Gospel. So what Komonchak's article referred to as "penal substitution" does not represent Catholic teaching.I tried to move away from this by suggesting that we not think of redemption or atonement in terms of a "transaction:" something "paid" to another, but rather to focus upon the person whose vision and action transformed evil into good. That is why I singled out Komonchak's use of the language of "transformation" in his article.Here I think there is a profound connection between Eucharist and cross: the offering by Jesus of his body. It reveals his transformative intent.I suggest that it helps to come to grips with "redemption" by always considering it in relation to Eucharist.Let me suggest one further line of reflection. You ask: "was death on the cross necessary for God to forgive sin?" Does it make sense to you to ask: was death on the cross necessary for humans to realize the true magnitude of sin and what it costs God?"Thank you again for helping us ponder the mystery.

Fr Imbelli, don't you think that the current emphasis on economics, capitalism, and the dictatorship of market forces, naturally leads contemporaries to look for explanations couched in terms of a "transaction"?

Claire,I think the notion of redemption/buying back was wide-spread in the ancient world. It is a suggestive model: liberating from slavery. But pressed unilaterally it leads to "paying ransom" to God? to Satan? (the latter then caught in the "mousetrap" sprung by Christ!).And so it needs to be complemented by other approaches and finally to the discernment of the faith community, under the guidance of those who hold teaching authority.

Ms. Chapman: You asked, "Was the torture and death on the cross NECESSARY for God to forgive human sin?"I would say, No, it wasn't necessary. As both Augustine and Aquinas both said (not to mention many others), our salvation could have been accomplished in other ways. If this is true, the question becomes, "Why, then, this way?" And one then embarks on the much more difficult task of trying to find intelligibility in what need not have happened. I sometimes think that it is much easier for people who think the only intelligibility is that of the necessary, as if what is contingent, free, can't be understood. As I mentioned in an earlier post, a linkage between the death of Christ and the forgiveness of sins was made at a very early date--it had to be very early if it was already presented as the basic Gospel to St. Paul upon his conversion. Another point: A Christian, in trying to understand the faith, has to take into account all that the New Testament offers about Christ and his work. That means not leaving out the hard parts, in our discussion, the ones that I quote in my article. It is much easier simply to ignore the difficult texts, but I think the proper task of theologians is to try to take all the data into account.Still another point: In no way did God will the malice that led to the torturous death of Christ. In the whole of the passion-story, the only thing that God directly willed is the love, fidelity, and obedience of Christ. And another: These discussions often are affected by the picture-thinking that has God up there deciding beforehand that certain things would happen or not happen. In other words, we imagine God as involved in our time-sequence and time-consciousness. But there is no before and after in God. So some people fantasize: God looked down and saw Christ suffering in our place, and decided that was enough suffering, and so he decided to forgive, something he would not have been inclined to do without that suffering. It is a terrible travesty of the Good News about the God who so loved the world that he sent his only Son...

St. Thomas had a pithy statement that may help: "Non propter hoc vult Deus hoc fieri, sed Deus vult hoc fieri propter hoc." Imagine two sequential events A and B. Then the dictum means: "It is not because A happened that God willed that B happen, but God wills that B happen because A happened." In the first case, Event A would be the cause of God's willing B, something that Aquinas excluded on the grounds of God's utter transcendence of his creation--that is, that nothing created could be a cause of anything in God. The second case is a terse statement of Aquinas's basic belief that there are secondary causes, all of which are utterly dependent on God's primary causality. Thus, in the second case, A would be the genuine cause of B, and this by God's will. Applied to our discussion, this would mean that it was not because Adam sinned that God willed that the Word became flesh, but God willed that the Word become flesh because Adam sinned. Similarly, Christ's tortured death is not the cause of any change in God. "God so loved the world..."

...was death on the cross necessary for God to forgive sin?Fr. Imbelli --ISTM that our talk of "necessity" might be clarified somewhat by considering a distinction between two kinds of necessity which the Scholastics made. There are necessities due to a thing's nature, and these cannot be otherwise, e.g. the number 3 is necessarily, by its nature larger than 2 and smaller than 4. This is per se necessity, or "antecedent" necessity". Such necessities can be described as absolute or intrinsic necessities. On the other hand, there are "consequent necessities", necessities which follow from some contingent reality or state of affairs, e.g., IF you want to go to the opera, it is necessary that you buy a ticket; IF your life is to continue , it is necessary that the doctor remove remove you gangrenous leg. The word "IF" in those examples reflect a certain contingency, a non-necessity.So what does it mean to say that the cross was "necessary for God to forgive sin"? Are we asking: was it necessary because of what *He* is that He saved us? That is, was it necessary because His very nature required Him to save us? Or did He have some choice about saving us? I was taught that His nature did not require it, but His nature necessarily gave Him the option, the choice whether to save us or not, and He chose to save us. So it was not necessary due to His nature. It was not an a priori necessity as far as what He is.On the other hand, can we say that considering what *we* are (our own nature) that the cross "was necessary" for salvation? I'd say Yes, that the cross was (somehow) necessary for the simple reason that we cannot save ourselves. (This assumes that the cross is salvific, though it dons not explain "how* it saves. That's another problem.) In other words, IF we are to be saved (a contingent event) that it is necessary that God choose to save us In other words, if we consider only what God is, then the redemption was not necessary. But i we consider what *we* are (incapable of saving ourselves) then, yes, the cross was necessary . In other words, the necessity is on our side, not God's, and it is a necessity which happens only after God has chosen to save us. It's an instance of what the scholastics called "consequent necessity" -- because He made a choice, consequently something necessarily happened, we were saved.

It was not because Adam sinned that God willed that the Word became flesh, but God willed that the Word become flesh because Adam sinned. Do you mean that the following does not hold: that Adam sinned; that the resulting situation was not good, and that God, seeing that, decided to fix it by the Word becoming flesh.Do you mean that the following holds instead: that God decided that, should Adam ever sin, then the Word would become flesh - one event following the other as surely as a law of physics. Then Adam sinned. Then the rule was applied and the Word became flesh.I see that it's different, but I'm not sure it helps with anything.

Claire --It seems to me that the "necessity" of Christ's death does not involve any real metaphysical problem. But there is a metaphysical problem involved: the question whether it is *possible* that one innocent person's death can compensate for the sins of others. One might even ask if one can meaningfully frame such a question, because the question seems to assume that one person can assume the moral responsibilities of another. (Yes, questions often do make statements even as they ask questions, for instance, the classic, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" When we confuse a question about a necessity with a question about a possibility we invite confusion.

Perhaps the Father sent his Son into the world simply because he loved the men and women (and everything else) that he had made and wished by an extraordianry demonstration of that love to win us back after we had turned from him. But we, all on our own and because we are a wayward and bloody-minded species, spurned his love and killed his Son, an act that might move even a loving God to high displeasure and thoughts of retribution. But then the Son pleaded with him, for he was now one of us, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." And the Father, who could refuse nothing that the Son asked, forgave us this greatest sin, and with it all of our countless others. And blameless Father and faithful Son still love us, such as we are.

Ann writes: " In other words, the necessity is on our side, not Gods;" and I concur. That is part of what I was trying to indicate but suggesting we not think of redemption in "transactional" terms: making some sort of "payment" to God.John Prior writes: "But we, all on our own and because we are a wayward and bloody-minded species, spurned his love and killed his Son . . . And blameless Father and faithful Son still love us, such as we are." The Cross is the measure of the extent and cost of that love; and the Eucharist its sacramental continuation: both of them "necessary" to realize the human transformation required.To a fellow monk, objecting to the argument of his "Cur Deus Homo," Anselm wrote: "nondum cognovisti quanti ponderis sit peccatum" "you have not yet fathomed how terrible sin is."

Firstly thanks to everyone for the great discussion; one of the best I've ever read on CW!I strongly agree with Father K that the torture and death of Christ on a cross was certainly not "necessary" to redeem our sins. That said, Jesus did come to redeem us, however it was His choice in not only how He came, but how He redeemed. Perhaps it's easier to understand in the terms of approachability. God being God, Jesus could have easily come as King, pricked his finger, and voilia, we would have been redeemed. It was because He loved us so much, He not only wanted to show us "how much", but also, be approachable. After all, isn't it much easier to love a baby in a manger than a powerful king? Despite the humility it took for God, our Creator to introduce Himself to us as a baby in a manger, does it not also makes sense that the depth of the sufferings of His passion was also Jesus showing us just how MUCH He loved us; how MUCH He was willing to suffer for us?Something not much practiced or even know among many Catholics today, is that in His suffering, Jesus gave redemptaive value and meaning to suffering, thus, the Catholic Theology of "Redemptive Suffering." Suffering is indeed a great mystery, but via Christ (and Catholic Theology), we do get enough light shed on it to understand that all suffering united to Christ is also redemptive. Christ loved us so much that He invited us also, by uniting our sufferings with His, to participate in the redemption of sin. (see JPII's Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris or something as simple as Scott Hahn's Lighthouse CD on redemptive suffering often found in the back of most Catholic Churches). The Catholic Answer to "Why does God allow suffering" is simply "For a greater good." Look no further than the Crucifix; Deicide to redemption. If man can kill God the Creator and be redeemed, how could we not believe that our own suffering united to Christ doesn't have meaning? When in doubt, Romans 8:28: For all who love God, EVERYTHING works for the greater good.As for more intelligent life in the universe, I would suggest that question is probably outside of our own human intelligence, as some things are simply too big for the limit of the human mind. Even Aquinas, before his death, had a vision of Christ on the Cross, subsequently, never wrote another word expect to say all that he had written was "straw in comparison."If there is any take home msg. of all that has been discussed on this thread, Pope Benedict said it best last week (Bender noted it above): "Sin ruins everything."Consequently, sin needs to be redeemed on an ongoing basis, vis the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and our own "Redemptive Suffering", united to Christ and The Mass. The part that few in our almost totally secular culture get is that sin is also the cause of evil. JPII wrote in one of his last books, Mystery and Identity, that "Suffering Consumes Evil."The good news is that we can all do something about that by living the comandments and "offering up" , both big and small, all of what we "suffer", all made possible by the suffering of Jesus Christ.

Wanted to also share this from the British Poet and Mystic, Caryll Houshlander:Because Christ has changed death to life, and suffering to redemption, the suffering of those who love him will be a communion between them. All that hidden daily suffering that seems insignificant will be redeeming the world, it will be healing the wounds of the world. The acceptance of pain, of old age, of the fear of death, and of death will be our gift of Christ's love to one another; our gift of Christ's life to one another.

To all - I realize that my questions are very simplistic and I wish to thank you again for your patience. As an undergrad, I took required theology and philosophy courses - 12 hours of each. I had close to zero interest in any of them and admit to simply learning enough (without actually understanding it) to feed it back to the professors in a way that would earn an "A" on my exams. Education, like so many other things, can be wasted on the young. Ann Olivier, you are approaching defining the real problem for many: "On the other hand, can we say that considering what *we* are (our own nature) that the cross was necessary for salvation? Id say Yes, that the cross was (somehow) necessary for the simple reason that we cannot save ourselves. (THIS ASSUMES THAT THE CROSS IS SALVIFIC, THOUGH IT DOES NOT EXPLAIN HOW* IT SAVES. Thats another problem"Yes - a BIG problem. Why is the cross "salvific"? "How" does it "save"? In fact, what does it mean that humanity is "saved'? Saved from what? From a judgmental God (Gopnik)? Not from sinning that did not change because Jesus died a horrific death on the cross. Is it not likely that some people, learning of Jesus's teachings and trying to live "the way" taught by Jesus, became more aware of their own sinfulness and change(d) how they live at least a bit? Because of what Jesus TAUGHT not because he died in a particularly nasty fashion? Many of his contemporary followers began to change (be transformed) before Jesuss death. Their understanding of the nature of God and the "law" also changed because of what Jesus taught BEFORE he died. Through his death, Jesus taught that trying to live according to God's will COULD lead to nasty consequences. Clearly his acceptance of these consequences for himself was a powerful "teaching" moment. But is that what "saved" humanity from punishment for sins? Or "redeemed" us? Did God not "forgive" humanity its sins before Jesus' death? Would God have refused to forgive humanity's sins without Jesus's death? If that is true, then we're right back to Gopnik's understanding of Catholic teaching, shared by millions of Catholics and other christians.God created humanity and human nature and is omniscient which means that God knew before he created human beings that they would sin. But then there is the problem of linear time - there is no linear time in God's "world". So what does it mean to say that God knew something before something else? (I wont get into this now, but I admit to also not understanding why God perfection and completeness personified and so no need for any other beings created thinking human beings in the first place, especially knowing that their sinful natures would simply create great suffering and havoc on the earth.)I feel badly about hogging this thread with my simplistic questions. But I have never found anyone in the church who has been willing to discuss them either privately or in standard adult education at the parish level. Few parish priests seem to have given much thought to these questions, and when confronted with them, tend to dismiss the person asking them. It is stunning to find knowledgeable people online who are willing to engage with these questions. Unfortunately, taking theology courses at nearby universities is not financially feasible. After this post, I will cease and desist. I will follow up on some of the reading suggestions, but fear that they might be a bit too advanced for someone like me, without much background in theology.

Anne, your questions are not at all simplistic. I don't understand much about sin and expiation myself, but there is one sentence you wrote that struck me the wrong way. I also lack background, but that has never stopped me from speaking up, so:Through his death, Jesus taught that trying to live according to Gods will COULD lead to nasty consequences.I have never thought of that as a primary teaching. I think that teaching is secondary. What is primary?Jesus identified with us to the point where he stuck to his human condition even on the cross, instead of saving himself by some supernatural act. Through his death, he taught us that he is with us, one of us, "like us in all things but sin", committed to being fully human even when we are murderers. In no other religion is God so intimate with humans. His being so close to us opens up the possibility of us not just following his advice and his general teachings, but coming close to him, being like him, being him. He is "the way" not just by his speeches but by his own self. At least that's my primary understanding of the crucifixion.

Claire: You asked, re the quote from Aquinas I have above:"Do you mean that the following does not hold: that Adam sinned; that the resulting situation was not good, and that God, seeing that, decided to fix it by the Word becoming flesh."Yes, that does not hold. It has God watching things, seeing a development he doesn't like, and acting to fix it. It inserts God into a temporal sequence and gives him second thoughts, caused by a creature's actions."Do you mean that the following holds instead: that God decided that, should Adam ever sin, then the Word would become flesh one event following the other as surely as a law of physics. Then Adam sinned. Then the rule was applied and the Word became flesh."This, too, does not hold. It sets up a conditional possibility for which an iron-clad "law" is set out in advance, and when the possibility is verified, the law operates as surely as a law of physics. But God always acts with supreme freedom, with supreme righteousness, in accord with his supreme wisdom. He created and sustains a universe in which creaturely freedom makes sin possible, in which people sin, in which the subsequent disorder is repaired by the loving fidelity and obedience of Christ. So Christ suffered because of sin and for the sake of sinners, but God does not love and forgive us because Christ suffered.I invoked the Thomist adage against the common view that the pains Christ endured caused God to become benevolent toward sinful humanity, quieted God's anger, etc., as so many theories of the atonement seem to hold. Against this there are such powerful NT statements as 1 Jn 4:10, 19: "God loved us first and sent his Son as a propitiation for our sins"; 2 Cor 5:19: "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not holding their sins against them"; Eph 2:4-5: "God, who is rich in mercy, on account of the exceeding love by which he loved us, even when we were dead in our sings, brought us to life in Christ"; Rom 5:8: "God commends his love for us in this: that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us". Here are two paragraphs from Augustine:

Now there are people who say, "Was there no other way available to God of setting men free from the unhappiness of this mortality, that he should want his only begotten Son, God co-eternal with himself, to become man by putting on a human soul and flesh, and, having become mortal, to suffer death?" And it is not enough to rebut them by maintaining that this way God chose of setting us free through "the mediator between God and men the man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim 2:5) is good and befitting the divine dignity; we must also show, not indeed that no other possible way was available to God, since all things are equally within his power, but that there neither was nor should have been a more suitable way of curing our unhappy state. Nothing was more needed for raising our hopes and delivering the minds of mortals, disheartened by the very condition of mortality, from despairing of immortality, than a demonstration of how much value God put on us and how much he loved us. And what could be clearer and more wonderful evidence of this than that the Son of God, unchangeably good, remaining in himself what he was and receiving from us what he was not, electing to enter into partnership with our nature without detriment to his own, should first of all endure our ills without any ill deserts of his own, and then once we had been brought in this way to believe how much God loved us and to hope at last for what we had despaired of, should confer his gifts on us with a quite uncalled-for generosity, without any good deserts of ours, indeed with our ill deserts our only preparation? (De Trintiate, Bk. 13, ch. 4, 14)But what is this "justified in his blood" (Room 5:9)? What, I want to know, is the potency of this blood, that believers should be justified in it? Is it really the case that when God the Father was angry with us he saw the death of his Son on our behalf, and was reconciled to us? Does this mean that his Son was already so reconciled to us that he was even prepared to die for us, while the Father was still so angry with us that unless the Son died for us he would not be reconciled to us? And what about something the same teacher of the Gentiles [St. Paul] says elsewhere: "What are we to say to all this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how has he not also made us a gift of all things with him" (Rom 8:13)? Would the Father have not spared his own Son but handed him over for us, if he had not already been reconciled? If fact it seems, doesn't it, as if this text contradicts the former one? There the Son dies for us, and the Father is reconciled to us through his death. But if it comes to that, I observe that the Father loved us not merely before the Son died for us, but before he founded the world, as the Apostle bears witness: "As he chose us in him before the foundation of the world" (Eph 1:4). Nor does the Father's not sparing him mean that the Son was handed over for us against his will, because of Him too it is said, "Who loved me and handed himself over for me (Gal 2:20). Thus the Father and the Son and the Spirit of them both work all things together and equally and in concord. Yet the fact remains that we have been justified in the blood of Christ and reconciled to God through the death of his Son, and how that was done I shall explain here too as best I can and as fully as seems necessary. (De Trinitate, Bk 13, ch. 4, 15)

Augustine then goes on to offer his own explanation.

I'm still having trouble with your 8:22pm comment. One more attempt, then I'll give up and go enjoy the snow.You wrote: " it was not because Adam sinned that God willed that the Word became flesh, but God willed that the Word become flesh because Adam sinned. "Do you mean that the Word becoming flesh is not a consequence of Adam's sin, but that both things happened - Adam sinning, and the Word becoming flesh - and that it is a fitting way to sustain the universe because the Word becoming flesh repairs Adam's sin? That's there is no causality from one to the other, but that they fit together nicely? Like a dovetail joint: you cannot say that one side "causes" the other side to be shaped a certain way, but they fit together. Given the shape of one side, it is necessary that the other side be given the complementary shape.

Yes, that does not hold. It has God watching things, seeing a development he doesnt like, and acting to fix it. It inserts God into a temporal sequence and gives him second thoughts, caused by a creatures actions.Have to disagree, Joseph. God does watch things and he does act to fix the ones he doesn't like. He sewed garments of skin for Eve and Adam. (And presumably killed and skinned animals and tanned their hides.) He watches the sparrows fall and makes the free throws swish in.To accuse Gopnik and "many Catholics" of ignorance about "the core Catholic belief" is harsh, imho. The Jesuit who caused the stampede was ignorant?And Cardinal Farley, who studied "at the Pontifical North American College in Rome" and "was present in Rome during the whole period of the First Vatican Council," and who set his imprimatur to an article about the mousetrap theory, was ignorant? this is a "core Catholic belief," it's strange how few understand it and how poorly and inconsistently it's taught. (But for those of us who don't understand it, at least there's the consolation that the next generation will discard/forget the current theories as easily as the old ones have been discarded/forgotten.)

Here is a link to the section in which St. Thomas Aquinas addressed the question whether it was necessary for Christ to suffer (STheol III, q. 46): draw attention to this comment:

But if God had willed to free man from sin without any satisfaction, He would not have acted against justice. For a judge, while preserving justice, cannot pardon fault without penalty, if he must visit fault committed against another--for instance, against another man, or against the State, or any Prince in higher authority. But God has no one higher than Himself, for He is the sovereign and common good of the whole universe. Consequently, if He forgive sin, which has the formality of fault in that it is committed against Himself, He wrongs no one: just as anyone else, overlooking a personal trespass, without satisfaction, acts mercifully and not unjustly. And so David exclaimed when he sought mercy: "To Thee only have I sinned" (Psalm 50:6), as if to say: "Thou canst pardon me without injustice."

I'd also recommend St. Thomas's consideration of the causality of Christ's resurrection in STheol III, q. 56, art. 1-2, which you can find here: too often, discussions of Christ's redemptive work focus exclusively on his passion and death, to the neglect of his resurrection, which quite falsifies the perspectives of the NT authors.

" But then there is the problem of linear time there is no linear time in Gods world. So what does it mean to say that God knew something before something else?"Anne C. --All human descriptions of God (according to the Scholastics anyway) are at best inadequate to what He is, and our meanings of words apply only analogously to Him. Because of these differences, the Scholastics distinguished many meanings of a given word, e.g., "time".So what does it mean to say that God knew one thing at a time before he knew another thing? Well, the things are known by Him as occuring before and after each other, BUT God knows the before and after in one instant. An analogy would be seeing the beginning and end of a road from some high mountain -- the beginning and end are different points, but they can be seen from the high perspective at the same time. Though this analogy is not a perfect description of God's perfect "instant", it gives us some idea of what God's experience of time is like. They distinguished three different kinds of "time" or duration. There is 1) the linear time of this physical world, 2) the time of the spiritual world (they called it "aeveternity" in which the ordingary sequence of a, then b, then c. . . doesn't hold), and 3) the duration of God which, in Boethius' classic definition, is "the simultaneously whole and perfect possession of interminable life." This can be described as the containment of all instants in one perfect, all-inclusive "instant". Of course, the meaning of "instant" then becomes an analogous meaning relative to the "instants" of our physical time.

Gerelyn: Yes, of course, and God also has a right hand (at which Christ sits) and bowels of mercy, too.Claire: There is causality involved, but not one that goes from Event A to God to Event B, as if Event A "causes" God to send his Son for our salvation. The causality instead is horizontal: Event B occurs because Event A occurred. So, as I've seen it said: Christ suffered on account of sins (because of sins) and on behalf of sinners. And, again, the linkage between the two is not to be imagined as if so necessary that it obliges God, but rather that there are manifold reasons to help us understand why it was fitting that God save us through the Incarnation and the Death and Resurrection of Christ. To say that they "fit together" "like a dovetail joint," is perhaps not a bad way for how Augustine and Aquinas dealt with the issue, that is, not in terms of necessitating reasons but for reasons of fittingness (convenientia.

Anne -Please do keep asking your questions. I too am learning a lot from this discussion. As I see it, many Catholic teachers, including the hierarchy, don't seem to realize just how seriously many, many lay people take these theological difficulties. Some people even anguish over them. And I'm not just talking about the brainy ones. I used to teach philosophy, and I know from experience that sometimes the most profound questions and answers come from kids you might least expect them from. Still waters run deep, and often they run quietly too.So thanks again to Frs. Komonchak and Imbelli. Would that more teachers had their patience. Also, I noticed in one of the Augustine paragraphs JAK quotes above that St. A. comments that there seems to be a contradiction involved in his topic -- not a "tension" but a contradiction. No doubt Augustine's willingness to confront contradictions was one reason he made such theological progress. The current Vatican needs to learn to do that-- admit the problems!!

Ann: The engine of theological progress in the Middle Ages was the technique of the quaestio, a method by which apparent contradictions in the Scriptures or the Fathers were addressed head on. There was Abelard's famous Sic et non (Yes and No) and the pedagogical use of it in a work like Aquinas's Summa theologica. But you really see it operating in the works like Thomas's De veritate and De potentia where he will sometimes give ten or twenty arguments on the one side, Videtur quod non (It seems not), and then as many on the other hand (Sed contra), and then offer his own view, but never finishing until he has responded to the arguments with which his own position disagreed. The questions were genuine ones--this wasn't a pro forma exercise--and they arose precisely out of the fact that the scriptural and patristic authorities seemed to be saying contradictory things. I think the technique could still be very useful--I used to have beginning graduate students construct a quaestio on some contemporary issue they were interested in, and they, and I, found it very useful. One could wish that it were more in use among theologians today, and even on blogs....

"One could wish that it were more in use among theologians today, and even on blogs."Do you mean: giving five reasons why the bishops are wary of the Administration's "accommodation,"before pronouncing the "sed contra?"

Ok. It's not crystal clear, but ok.Yes, Frs I and K are patient and helpful. Thank you. It's hard to deny that, on this kind of questions, they know best better.Whenever I see Ann and Fr K agreeing on something, it makes me happy.

A few years ago, I read this article by Francesca Murphy: Brer Rabbit Christology, New Blackfriars, April 2002, Vol 83, 188-198. (It doesn't seem to be on-line. If I can ever find my copy of it, I'll try to make it available.) But it made me think that when the Fathers make use of "mousetrap" and "fish-hook" and such-like images in talking about the atonement, they should be taken to be aware of the limited nature of their images, and even of their comic use. I had never thought of that before.

Patricia: The Catholic Answer to Why does God allow suffering is simply For a greater good. - not so simple. Recall the Newtown massacre last December. Gerelyn: on the thread about circumcision, you wrote: "Claire, Im convinced youre convinced. If you werent, you wouldnt have bothered telling me you werent." In other words you think that what I say is not what I mean. Would you consider changing your mind on that? Otherwise there is no point in my engaging you on this medium. I would like it if you retracted that sentence. Sometimes I want to react to some of your comments, but then I remember what you wrote, and I refrain. It would be good to exchange opinions sometimes, but you have to be willing to believe that what I write is what I think.