"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)
Monday, February 2, 2009
St. Thomas Aquinas on Penance
NOTE: An improved version of this post is now available here. I recommend that you read the updated version. - BC
In 1273, the year before he died, St. Thomas Aquinas was in Naples working on the third part of his Summa Theologica. Having just completed the section on the Eucharist, he was in church before Matins, praying in front of the crucifix on the altar, and caught up in mystical ecstasy in the presence of Christ. Three of his brethren were there, and they heard a voice come from the image of Christ on the Cross, saying, "Thou hast written well of me, Thomas; what reward wilt thou have?" St. Thomas replied, "None other than Thyself, Lord." (1) St. Thomas continued his work in the Summa, now writing on the sacrament of penance. He completed seven questions (thirty-six pages in my edition) on this sacrament. Then on December 6, 1273, while he was celebrating Mass on the feast of Saint Nicholas, he experienced "an unusually long ecstasy". From that moment on he did not write. Father Reginald urged him to finish the Summa, but St. Thomas replied, "Reginald, I can do no more; such things [secrets] have been revealed to me that all that I have written seems to me as so much straw. Now, I await the end of my life after that of my works." (2).
In this post I will examine one of the articles within one of the seven questions that Aquinas wrote between the time that the voice spoke to him from the crucifix, and the day he laid down his pen for good. The article is Summa Theologica III Question 86 article 4, which concerns the effect of Penance, as regards the pardon of mortal sin. First I will summarize what he says in articles 1-3 of that question. Quotations from Aquinas will be in green font.
In the first article of Question 86, Aquinas asks whether all mortal sins are taken away by Penance. In other words, is the sacrament of Penance able to remove *every* [kind of] sin? His answer is 'yes, for two reasons'. First, though at death the will is confirmed [i.e. fixed or established] in its orientation toward or against God such that after death no one whose will is opposed to God can seek Penance, in this present life the will remains flexible to good and evil [cuius liberum arbitrium flexibile est ad bonum et ad malum]. Second, the power of Christ's Passion, "through which Penance produces its effect" is such that no sin can fail to be pardoned through true Penance. These two reasons together imply that in this life, true repentance always remains possible, and when repentance takes place, the power of Christ's Passion is always sufficient to pardon the sin.
In the second article, Aquinas asks whether sin can be pardoned without Penance. His answer is 'no'. He writes:
It is impossible for a mortal actual sin to be pardoned without penance, if we speak of penance as a virtue. For, as sin is an offense against God, He pardons sin in the same way as he pardons an offense committed against Him. Now an offense is directly opposed to grace, since one man is said to be offended with another, because he excludes him from his grace. Now, as stated in I-II, 110, 1, the difference between the grace of God and the grace of man, is that the latter does not cause, but presupposes true or apparent goodness in him who is graced, whereas the grace of God causes goodness in the man who is graced, because the good-will of God, which is denoted by the word "grace," is the cause of all created good. Hence it is possible for a man to pardon an offense, for which he is offended with someone, without any change in the latter's will; but it is impossible that God pardon a man for an offense, without his will being changed. Now the offense of mortal sin is due to man's will being turned away from God, through being turned to some mutable good. Consequently, for the pardon of this offense against God, it is necessary for man's will to be so changed as to turn to God and to renounce having turned to something else in the aforesaid manner, together with a purpose of amendment; all of which belongs to the nature of penance as a virtue. Therefore it is impossible for a sin to be pardoned anyone without penance as a virtue.
In order to understand this argument, we need to understand what Aquinas means by "penance as a virtue", because the sacrament of penance is not the same thing as the virtue of penance. According to Aquinas, the *sacrament* of penance was perfected by the priestly office of binding and loosing which Christ gave to the Church (cf. Matthew 18:18, John 20:23). God is able to forgive sins without the sacrament of penance, but not without the virtue of penance on the part of the penitent, for the reason explained below. The baptized penitent who knows of the sacrament of penance must at least desire the sacrament of penance, in order to be forgiven. And the sacrament of penance requires the virtue of penance on the part of the penitent.
Aquinas discusses penance as a virtue in ST III Q. 85. There he says that penance as a virtue is a species of justice. Recall that justice is the virtue of giving to each his due. And penance as a virtue is the disposition of the will (for justice is a virtue of the will) or an act of the will that aims in some sense at the destruction of one's past sins considered as offenses against God. Destruction of these offenses against God is not effected merely by ceasing to sin; some kind of compensation is necessary, to make amends for one's sins against God. Sin is a "word, deed, or desire, contrary to the eternal law" (ST I-II Q.71 a.6), and thus sin against God always involves our taking some pleasure in a word, deed or desire that deprives God of the charity, honor and obedience that He is justly due. So penance involves contrition, grieving for one's sins (think of the Old Testament examples of sackcloth and ashes), confession, satisfaction, i.e. depriving oneself of temporal pleasures, or subjecting oneself to hardship in some way, to pay back for the pleasure that one took at God's expense. Of course no one who has turned away from God can make sufficient satisfaction for that offense. Aquinas says, "wherefore in such cases, he that falls short of the other must do whatever he can. Yet this will not be sufficient simply, but only according to the acceptance of the higher one". (ST III Q.85 a.3 ad.2)
The three traditional forms of penance are fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Whereas vengeance is defined as just retribution on the part of the offended, penance is just retribution on the part of the offender, where the offended is God. Penance as a virtue is a species of justice because the penitent seeks to give to himself, in some measure, what is due to himself for his offenses against God. We can see penance as a virtue exemplified in St. Luke 18:13, when the tax collector beat his breast on account of his sins.
Given that explanation of penance as a virtue, we can now approach Aquinas's argument in ST III Q.86 a.2. There Aquinas says that an offense is directly opposed to grace, since that is just what it means to be offended with another person, to exclude him from one's grace. But there is an important difference between the grace of God and the grace of man. The grace of man does not cause, but rather presupposes either true or apparent good in him who is graced by man. The grace of God, however, causes goodness in the man who is graced by God. Thus for any man who is graced by God, that man has goodness, and that goodness was caused by God's grace. Therefore, while a man may pardon another man's offense without a change in the offender's will, it is impossible for God to pardon a man for an offense, without that man's will being changed. Since the offense of mortal sin is due to man's will being turned away from God and inordinately to some mutable good, therefore for the pardon of mortal sin, it is necessary that man's will be turned toward God and away from the inordinate love of the mutable good, with the intention of making amends for the wrongs he did to God. Since these belong to the nature of penance as a virtue, it follows that it is impossible for a sin to be pardoned anyone without his having penance as a virtue.
In the third article, Aquinas asks whether by penance one sin can be pardoned while another sin remains unpardoned. He answers that this is impossible, because, as he has shown already, without grace no sin can be forgiven (ST I-II Q.109 a.7, and I-II Q.113 a.2). But since every mortal sin is opposed to grace and excludes grace, therefore it is impossible for one mortal sin to be pardoned while another remains unpardoned, for then grace and mortal sin would be co-present, which is impossible.
Here we should briefly consider those two references, because Aquinas's argument depends on them. In ST I-II Q.109 a.7, Aquinas says the following:
Now man incurs a triple loss by sinning, as was clearly shown above (86, 1; 87, 1), viz. stain, corruption of natural good, and debt of punishment. He incurs a stain, inasmuch as he forfeits the lustre of grace through the deformity of sin. Natural good is corrupted, inasmuch as man's nature is disordered by man's will not being subject to God's; and this order being overthrown, the consequence is that the whole nature of sinful man remains disordered. Lastly, there is the debt of punishment, inasmuch as by sinning man deserves everlasting damnation. Now it is manifest that none of these three can be restored except by God. For since the lustre of grace springs from the shedding of Divine light, this lustre cannot be brought back, except God sheds His light anew: hence a habitual gift is necessary, and this is the light of grace. Likewise, the order of nature can only be restored, i.e. man's will can only be subject to God when God draws man's will to Himself, as stated above (Article 6). So, too, the guilt of eternal punishment can be remitted by God alone, against Whom the offense was committed and Who is man's Judge. And thus in order that man rise from sin there is required the help of grace, both as regards a habitual gift, and as regards the internal motion of God.
Here Aquinas recalls the three-fold loss that man incurs by sinning. Sin stains the soul, corrupts his natural good both by removing his original righteousness and weakening his inclination to virtue, and incurs the debt of punishment. None of these three losses can be restored except by the grace of God. For my discussion of Aquinas's claim that the infusion of grace is necessary for the remission of sins, see the last part of my post titled "St. Thomas Aquinas on Angels and Grace".
In article 4, Aquinas asks whether after the forgiveness of sin [remissa culpa] through the sacrament of penance, there remains any debt of punishment. Aquinas's answer is going to be "yes, there remains a debt of punishment".
But first he raises three objections to his answer. The first objection is this:
It would seem that no debt of punishment remains after the guilt has been forgiven through Penance. For when the cause is removed, the effect is removed. But the guilt is the cause of the debt of punishment: since a man deserves to be punished because he has been guilty of a sin. Therefore when the sin has been forgiven, no debt of punishment can remain.
This is a good objection, and one that many Protestants might be inclined to raise. Here's the objection: The guilt of sin is the cause of the debt of punishment. This is because of the requirement of justice, that each be given his due, as discussed above. Hence when the sin is forgiven, there should no longer be any debt of punishment. To claim that some debt of punishment remains after forgiveness of sin implies that Christ's Passion was not sufficient.
The second objection is as follows:
Further, according to the Apostle (Romans 5) the gift of Christ is more effective than the sin of Adam. Now, by sinning, man incurs at the same time guilt and the debt of punishment. Much more therefore, by the gift of grace, is the guilt forgiven and at the same time the debt of punishment remitted.
Aquinas is saying that since the gift of Christ is more effective than the sin of Adam, and since when man sins, man incurs at the same time both guilt and the debt of punishment, therefore, it would seem to follow a fortiori that by the gift of grace not only is the guilt forgiven but also the debt of punishment remitted.
The third objection is as follows:
Further, the forgiveness of sins is effected in Penance through the power of Christ's Passion, according to Romans 3:25: "Whom God hath proposed to be a propitiation, through faith in His Blood . . . for the remission of former sins." Now Christ's Passion made satisfaction sufficient for all sins, as stated above (Q48,49,79, 5). Therefore after the guilt has been pardoned, no debt of punishment remains.
The forgiveness of sins in the sacrament of Penance is effected through the power of Christ's Passion. But Christ's Passion made satisfaction sufficient for all sins. Therefore, it would seem that after the guilt of sin has been pardoned through the sacrament of Penance, no debt of punishment would remain.
Aquinas then offers the Sed contra, which appeals to authority to verify his position.
On the contrary, It is related (2 Samuel 12:13) that when David penitent had said to Nathan: "I have sinned against the Lord," Nathan said to him: "The Lord also hath taken away thy sin, thou shalt not die. Nevertheless . . . the child that is born to thee shall surely die," which was to punish him for the sin he had committed, as stated in the same place. Therefore a debt of some punishment remains after the guilt has been forgiven.
According to Aquinas, this incident recorded in the Old Testament reveals that the forgiveness of sin does not necessarily take away the debt of all punishment.
Before we turn to his Responseo, let's briefly examine what Aquinas argues in ST I-II Q.87 a.4, because it helps prepare us to understand him. There he writes:
Punishment is proportionate to sin. Now sin comprises two things. First, there is the turning away from the immutable good, which is infinite, wherefore, in this respect, sin is infinite. Secondly, there is the inordinate turning to mutable good. In this respect sin is finite, both because the mutable good itself is finite, and because the movement of turning towards it is finite, since the acts of a creature cannot be infinite. Accordingly, in so far as sin consists in turning away from something, its corresponding punishment is the "pain of loss," which also is infinite, because it is the loss of the infinite good, i.e. God. But in so far as sin turns inordinately to something, its corresponding punishment is the "pain of sense," which is also finite.
Notice that sin has a two-fold component. It involves a turning away from God in some respect, and an inordinate (i.e. disordered) turning to some finite created good. This two-fold aspect of sin means that justice is violated in two ways, in each sin. In turning away from God, the sinner has not given to the eternal God His due, for which action the just punishment is the eternal loss of God, because the nature of the sin determines the punishment of the sin, for sin is the punishment of sin. But the sinner has also turned inordinately to some finite mutable good, for which action the just punishment is the "pain of sense", which is also finite.
That helps us understand Aquinas's argument in the Responseo of ST III Q.86 a.4. There he writes:
I answer that, As stated in I-II, 87, 4, in mortal sin there are two things, namely, a turning from the immutable Good, and an inordinate turning to mutable good. Accordingly, in so far as mortal sin turns away from the immutable Good, it induces a debt of eternal punishment, so that whosoever sins against the eternal Good should be punished eternally. Again, in so far as mortal sin turns inordinately to a mutable good, it gives rise to a debt of some punishment, because the disorder of guilt is not brought back to the order of justice, except by punishment: since it is just that he who has been too indulgent to his will, should suffer something against his will, for thus will equality be restored. Hence it is written (Apocalypse 18:7): "As much as she hath glorified herself, and lived in delicacies, so much torment and sorrow give ye to her." Since, however, the turning to mutable good is finite, sin does not, in this respect, induce a debt of eternal punishment. Wherefore, if man turns inordinately to a mutable good, without turning from God, as happens in venial sins, he incurs a debt, not of eternal but of temporal punishment. Consequently when guilt is pardoned through grace, the soul ceases to be turned away from God, through being united to God by grace: so that at the same time, the debt of punishment is taken away, albeit a debt of some temporal punishment may yet remain.
I'll go through his argument step by step. First he reminds that in every mortal sin there are two turnings: a turning away from God who is the immutable Good, and an inordinate turning to some mutable good. This two-fold turning of mortal sin induces two debts of punishment, because these two turnings intrinsic to every mortal sin are not equal in their degree of injustice. The just punishment for turning away from the eternal God is eternal separation from God; this separation is called 'hell'. The literal translation is: "so that whoever against the eternal Good sins, in eternity is punished." [ut qui contra aeternum bonum peccavit, in aeternum puniatur].
But the sin of turning inordinately to some mutable, finite good also incurs a debt of punishment, "because the disorder of guilt is not brought back to the order of justice, except by punishment" [quia inordinatio culpae non reducitur ad ordinem iustitiae nisi per poenam]. Hence there must be temporal punishment, "since it is just that he who has been too indulgent to his will, should suffer something against his will, for thus will equality be restored" [iustum est enim ut qui voluntati suae plus indulsit quam debuit, contra voluntatem suam aliquid patiatur, sic enim erit aequalitas]. Justice can be violated in the short-term, as when someone commits an unjust act. But ultimately justice cannot be violated, because all violations of justice must eventually be brought back to the order of justice, and this can only be done by just punishment.
The debt of punishment for turning inordinately to some mutable, finite good is not eternal punishment, but temporal punishment, because a finite sin does not justly deserve an eternal punishment. So when a man turns inordinately to a finite good without turning away from God, as happens in venial sin, he does not incur a debt of eternal punishment but he does incur a debt of temporal punishment. (cf. I-II Q.87 a.5) Therefore, when the guilt of sin is pardoned through grace in the sacrament of penance, "the soul ceases to be turned away from God, through being united to God by grace" [tollitur aversio animae a Deo, inquantum per gratiam anima Deo coniungitur]. But, the debt of temporal punishment remains.
This is why, when we walk out of the confessional after receiving absolution from our sins, we must do some penance, as assigned to us by the priest. We are making satisfaction for the purpose of paying our debt of temporal punishment. Removing temporal punishment is also the purpose of indulgences; an indulgence removes some or all of the debt of temporal punishment. Moreover, if we die in a state of grace, but with some remaining debt of temporal punishment, our soul goes to purgatory so that through our suffering there our temporal (and finite) debt of punishment can be paid, so that with a pure heart we may enter the joy of seeing God in the Beatific Vision.
Let's consider now Aquinas's replies to the three objections raised earlier. The first objection was that the removal of the guilt of sin should also remove the debt of punishment. In reply to this objection Aquinas writes:
Mortal sin both turns away from God and turns to a created good. But, as stated in I-II, 71, 6, the turning away from God is as its form while the turning to created good is as its matter. Now if the formal element of anything be removed, the species is taken away: thus, if you take away rational, you take away the human species. Consequently mortal sin is said to be pardoned from the very fact that, by means of grace, the aversion of the mind from God is taken away together with the debt of eternal punishment: and yet the material element remains, viz. the inordinate turning to a created good, for which a debt of temporal punishment is due.
Aquinas here makes use of the distinction between the debt of eternal punishment and the debt of temporal punishment. In the pardon of mortal sin, by means of grace the aversion of the mind from God as well as the debt of eternal punishment are removed. But, the pardon of the guilt of mortal sin does not in itself remove the inordinate turning to a created good, and therefore the pardon of the guilt of mortal sin does not in itself remove the debt of temporal punishment.
The second objection was that since Christ's gift is more effective than Adam's gift, therefore, since guilt and debt of punishment were given to us by Adam, so a fortiori they should both be removed by the grace of Christ. In reply, Aquinas writes:
As stated in I-II, 109, 7,8; I-II, 111, 2, it belongs to grace to operate in man by justifying him from sin, and to co-operate with man that his work may be rightly done. Consequently the forgiveness of guilt and of the debt of eternal punishment belongs to operating grace, while the remission of the debt of temporal punishment belongs to co-operating grace, in so far as man, by bearing punishment patiently with the help of Divine grace, is released also from the debt of temporal punishment. Consequently just as the effect of operating grace precedes the effect of co-operating grace, so too, the remission of guilt and of eternal punishment precedes the complete release from temporal punishment, since both are from grace, but the former, from grace alone, the latter, from grace and free-will.
Aquinas draws upon a previous distinction between operating grace and and co-operating grace. The forgiveness of guilt and of the debt of eternal punishment belongs to operating grace, but the remission of the debt of temporal punishment belongs to co-operating grace. Then, just as the effect of operating grace precedes the effect of co-operating grace, so the remission of guilt and of eternal punishment in the sacrament of penance precedes the completion of our payment of the debt of temporal punishment.
The third objection was this: The forgiveness of sins in the sacrament of Penance is effected through the power of Christ's Passion. But Christ's Passion made satisfaction sufficient for all sins. Therefore, it would seem that after the guilt of sin has been pardoned through the sacrament of Penance, no debt of punishment would remain. In reply to this objection Aquinas writes:
Christ's Passion is of itself sufficient to remove all debt of punishment, not only eternal, but also temporal; and man is released from the debt of punishment according to the measure of his share in the power of Christ's Passion. Now in Baptism man shares the Power of Christ's Passion fully, since by water and the Spirit of Christ, he dies with Him to sin, and is born again in Him to a new life, so that, in Baptism, man receives the remission of all debt of punishment. In Penance, on the other hand, man shares in the power of Christ's Passion according to the measure of his own acts, which are the matter of Penance, as water is of Baptism, as stated above (84, 1,3). Wherefore the entire debt of punishment is not remitted at once after the first act of Penance, by which act the guilt is remitted, but only when all the acts of Penance have been completed.
Aquinas teaches that Christ's Passion is sufficient in itself to remove all debt of punishment, not only eternal but also temporal. But we are released from the debt of punishment according to the measure of our share in the power of Christ's Passion. In the sacrament of baptism, we share fully in Christ's Passion, for by water and the Spirit of Christ we die with Him and are born again to new life, and hence in baptism all debt, both eternal and temporal, is remitted. But in the sacrament of penance, we share in the Christ's Passion according to the measure of our own acts, because while in baptism the water is the matter of the sacrament, in the sacrament of penance our own acts are the matter of the sacrament. Therefore, in the sacrament of Penance the entire debt is not remitted at once, but only when all the acts of penance have been completed. (See CCC 1459-1460)
In this way temporal punishment, penance, and purgatory are all compatible with an affirmation of the forgiveness of all our past sins, and with the perfection and completion of Christ's Passion. Temporal punishment is compatible with the forgiveness of all our past sins because of the two-fold injustice in every mortal sin. Temporal punishment is compatible with the perfection and completion of Christ's Passion because of the distinction between operating grace and co-operating grace. By way of these distinctions, the saint to whom Christ had just spoken days earlier, saying, "Thou hast written well of me, Thomas", teaches us here why it is wrong to think either that we can make full satisfaction for our sins or that we do not need to make any satisfaction for our sins.