I was disturbed to read Father Kenneth Doyle’s response to a question on whether or not Christ’s death was necessary to atone for human sin (“Question Corner,” p. 9 of your Sept. 10, 2022 issue). While the discomfort the reader expresses in their question is understandable, Father Doyle’s treatment of the question is problematic, as it misrepresents several venerable theologians, misstates the parable of the prodigal son, disregards numerous instances of St. Paul’s affirmation of this teaching, and instead affirms the opinion of a contemporary theologian whose views on many other fronts are heretical.
A disclaimer: while a) I disagree vehemently with Father Doyle’s assertion that we are not compelled as Christians to believe that God the Father willed the suffering of his son, and b) I find his answer, in general, to be scandalous to the faithful, I bear him no ill will, and I do not attribute to him any malice or ill intent. My intention here is to present and defend what has long been the orthodox position on this question.
The claim Father Doyle attributes to St. Anselm that “the sacrificial death of Jesus was necessary to restore humanity’s communion with the Father” is one of the central claims of Christianity. St. Paul states so explicitly in Chapter 3 of his letter to the Romans: “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (RSV). Again in Chapter 4: “It [justification through faith] will be reckoned to us who believe in him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” (RSV). And again in Chapter 5, verse 10: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (RSV) There are numerous other examples to be cited from the Scriptures, but I’ll leave it at that.
With respect to St. Thomas Aquinas’ thought on the matter, he clearly and explicitly affirms the salvific, expiatory, and satisfactory atonement of the Passion of our Lord in Question 49 of the Third Part of his Summa Theologiae. In Article 3, he writes, “I answer that, through Christ’s Passion, we have been delivered from the debt of punishment [for sin] in two ways,” and goes on to describe those two ways. In Article 4, he writes, “I answer that Christ’sPassion is in two ways the cause of our reconciliation to God,” and goes on to describe the two ways. Whatever his critique of Anselm’s theory of atonement, Aquinas in no way rejects the teaching that Christ’s passion and death were necessary for our reconciliation to the Father. Rather, he repeatedly and emphatically affirms that very teaching.
To be clear, one need not agree with St. Anselm’s theory of how Christ’s suffering and death paid the debt of sin in order to affirm that it did so and that God the Father willed it to be so, which the Church has repeatedly and unequivocally done.
To obscure or reject this teaching is to neuter Christ’s suffering and death, forsaking Christianity for the safe, comforting spiritualism Christian Smith has dubbed “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” It might feel good to believe that human sin (and especially one’s own sin) is no serious matter. That it is of no eternal consequence. That it requires not the bloody sacrifice of the Cross but only a little of our own effort at “being a good person.” However, the Christ of the gospels is known more for His difficult truths than for merely making us feel good. Let us not be among those who leave him, saying, “This is a hard saying; who can hear it?” Rather, let our faith keep us close to him, trusting his words even when they cause discomfort.
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