Questions Answered — August 2020

The Obedience of Christ

Question: Did Christ vacillate in his perfect obedience when he said, “If it is possible, let this cup pass me by”? Would this not compromise the atonement?

Answer: The atonement is a concept which is much misunderstood today. It refers to the manner in which Christ satisfies the justice of God in his reversal of the Original Sin. The justice of God involved both fault and punishment. The fault on the part of Adam and Eve consisted in their act of disobedience to the one commandment God placed on them as a recognition that the wonderful condition of grace in which they were created was not due to their merits but was a sheer grace. It therefore consisted in an act of free will which was ratified in the disobedient action. It is described as eating of the fruit of a tree in Genesis, but could have been any action.

This action of fault interrupted the order of creation and thus led to a corresponding response in which creation reflected the necessity of corresponding punishment for such an act. In the body, this was suffering and death; in the soul, the loss of grace and beginning of concupiscence. Christ as man must embrace some punishment in order to satisfy in justice for the fault and at the same time perfectly obey his Father in the face of this punishment. The only punishment which he could fittingly assume which would not compromise perfect obedience is the non-moral one of suffering and death. Had he assumed ignorance, malice, and concupiscence, these would have compromised his obedience. So he assumes suffering and death.

In the Garden of Gethsemane Christ expressed this fact: “Father, if it is possible let this cup pass me by; yet not as I will as you will.” (Matt. 26:39) Some theologians think that his prayer to have the cup of suffering pass him by represents a vacillation in his perfect obedience, which would compromise the atonement of Christ. Superficially, this might seem the case. After all, the traditional teaching on the knowledge of Jesus holds that through his divine knowledge he experienced the weight of every human sin in the history of the world at that moment in the Garden. Also, his physical suffering would be in every sense culminating in crucifixion as the necessary atonement for these sins. The weight of this fact itself led to such fear and sorrow that no one on earth has ever experienced it. “My soul is sorrowful unto death.” (Matt. 26:38)

The solution to this problem must occur on several levels. Though Jesus knew what suffering he would undergo in the future, theologians like Aquinas held that he also knew about his resurrection from the dead, which he predicted during his public ministry. No man could have freely undergone such suffering without the knowledge of the ultimate victory over death. Also, Aquinas compares the statements of Christ to a man’s reactions to a surgery performed, as it was in the Middle Ages, without anesthetic. He makes use of a distinction in the application of the will: the will as nature, the will as sense, and the choosing will.

The will as nature refers to the natural tendency of the will to desire the good of the individual, which would include one’s own survival. The will as sense would refer to the natural tendency in each man to avoid pain because of the agony it causes. The choosing will, however, occurs in the orientation of the will to the truth.

In the example of the surgery, a patient who, for example, had to undergo amputation to avoid death by gangrene certainly would not find this pleasant and something they would enjoy, but rather would shrink from such a surgery as compromising their life. With regard to the will as sense, no one would willingly embrace such a surgery because of the great pain it would cause. They would experience great fear and revulsion. Yet from the will as choice, they could fittingly and freely choose it because of the greater good involved in saving their lives.

Each level of the will is given free expression in Our Lord. Of course, in an ordinary man lacking the integrity of Christ, the passions might inordinately move him to vacillate in obedience. Christ has perfect integrity and perfect passions. He understood that the will of his Father could only be fittingly fulfilled in justice by embracing suffering and death. Yet he shrunk from this experience as painful and life-threatening. When he says, “If it is possible, let this cup pass me by,” he is speaking on the level of the will as sense and the will as nature. When he says, “But not my will but thine be done,” he is freely embracing his passion in perfect obedience, not for his own good but for the good of the whole human race, and thus reverses Adam’s imperfect disobedience.

Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain

Question: What does it mean to take the name of the Lord in vain? (Second Commandment)

Answer: The Ten Commandments express those basic virtues necessary to live a truly human life based in the powers of our souls. The first three express obligations towards God and the last seven obligations towards the neighbor. As a result, the first three call man to live the virtue of religion. The virtue of religion is a part of the virtue of justice. The virtue of justice has to do with giving rights to those who deserve them. One has a duty to recognize the rights of others. Only rational beings like man can be subjects of rights, which are based on the presence of the reasoning soul.

In addition to strict rights owed to human beings, there are those who have given us goods we can never repay and also demand in justice that we recognize their rights, though we can never repay them in strict equality. God is one such person. The virtue of religion is an attempt on the part of human beings to repay God for all he has done for them. “What shall I render to God for all he has given to me? I will take the chalice of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.” (Psalm 116: 12-13)

Religion could be defined as “the constant and perpetual will to render to God his due.” The positive expression of this virtue is contained in the Third Commandment. As with all virtues, however, there are two vices which must be addressed to live the virtue adequately. The first is an excess and the second is a defect because virtue stands in the middle between two extremes. The First Commandment forbids a misplaced religion, which occurs when a person worships someone or something as God which is not God. Superstition and idolatry are examples of this.

The Second Commandment addresses defects in the virtue of religion, which occur when one believes in the true God but does actions which do not do justice to that belief. A prime example of this occurs in taking the name of the Lord in vain, which occurs in perjury. In perjury one calls upon God as the first truth, whom he believes to be the first truth, to witness as the truth in a solemn sense to a statement that one knows to be a lie.

One takes the name of the Lord in vain, then, when one calls on His witness to a statement one knows to be false, useless, or about slight matters. Catholicism permits oaths for important matters, but to demand that God witness something which is trivial is a sin.

The name of the Lord then may be justly invoked to confirm an important truth. It may also be uttered for one’s sanctification as in the name of the Trinity when one makes the sign of the cross. God’s name may be invoked to cast out or defend us from the devil. One may also speak the name of God to confess it. One may also call upon God to help us with daily work or avoiding temptation, as in, “Our help is in the name of the Lord.”

The particular vice condemned in this commandment is called irreligion. In addition to perjury, there are a number of examples of religious defect, including tempting God, sacrilege, and simony.

Tempting God involves man putting God to the test in a presumptuous way. C.S. Lewis wrote a book called God in the Dock. In this book he sought to explain modern man’s tendency to accuse God of lack of power much as a criminal is accused in the dock in an English courtroom during his trial. An example of this would be someone who seeks to rely only on God when he can easily do a thing for himself. For instance, someone wants miraculous healing when he could take medicine. If there is no human means to cure an illness, it would not be tempting God to expect a miracle. But one cannot expect miracles to supply for one’s own lack of initiative.

Sacrilege involves the misuse of a sacred person or thing. Stealing from a Church or assaulting a priest or nun because of their calling is an example of sacrilege. This is because these people or things are dedicated to sacred use. The worst form of sacrilege is the abuse of the Blessed Sacrament, such as lack of reverence in purification of vessels or, in an extreme form, using a consecrated Host for a black mass.

Finally, simony is also contrary to the reverence one owes to God. This term comes from Simon Magus, who tried to buy the power of the Holy Spirit from the Apostles (Acts 8:18-24). One cannot put a price on anything spiritual. They must be freely given by the clergy. It is unfitting, for example, to bless religious articles until after they have been sold, lest someone think a price is placed on the blessing.

Recently there have been sad examples even in the hierarchy of people receiving benefices because they are able to bring money into the Church. The impression is given that they can buy sacred authority. The mass stipend must not be presented in such a way that someone could think it is an example of this. It is an offering made to the priest for his livelihood. One does not buy masses. Dioceses often place a suggested offering so that priests will not charge more. For those who cannot pay, no stipend should be asked.

Any office or power involving sacred authority which been acquired through simony must be given up. It would be a sin to retain something gained in this manner. Just penalties invoked by canon law also apply.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
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  1. Avatar Joan Blanchard says:

    Thank you for putting this on line. It has been most helpful . refreshing my memory on the teachings . Which have faded through the years.

  2. Thank you Fr. Mullady
    Your article is very refreshing and easy to understand. You explain with few words what we have repeated many times, even without understanding it, like name the Lord in vain or the sacrilege.
    A nice way of explaining the 10 commandments. Thank you again.