Questions Answered – February 2024

Intentions in Jesus’ Moral Teaching

Question: A Christian teacher states that the Sermon on the Mount contradicts the classic division of sin into mortal and venial. It does this by giving greater and greater punishment for lesser and lesser sins. Can you explain this?

Answer: To answer this question, it is important to see the difference between the Old and New Law. The former is contained in the Ten Commandments, the latter in the Sermon on the Mount.

The Old Law was given to Moses and expressed the deeds which contradicted the natural or divinely revealed law. It was arranged in order by the primacy of those deeds to the integration of the human person in relationship to God. Thus deeds which regarded God (the virtue of religion) were first in order and those regarding the good the neighbor were treated in order after that (life, procreation, property, and the good name). Motivation or intention is not addressed in the Decalogue, though it is addressed in only sections in the Law and the Prophets such as Deuteronomy. This latter text regarding the love of God was so sacred the Jews would recite it constantly. Christ added love of neighbor to it from Numbers.

The Old Law is not abrogated by Christ, so the commandments and the distinction between mortal and venial sin remains in force. However, now that Christ has come and redemption is accomplished, the New Law includes what is found in the Prophets. Christ has not come to abolish the commandments but to lead them to perfection by including the requirement of a right intention in the New Law. The Old Law restrained the hand; the New Law the hand and the heart. This is the meaning to the emphasis of the Sermon on the Mount on the proper motivation. It reflects a line from Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot: “The last temptation is the final treason/ to do the right then for the wrong reason.” Intention is just as important as action for moral perfection. One does not exclude the other, but both must be right. Otherwise an action has a good end but a wrong means or a good means but a wrong end.

Since intention is so important for moral perfection, and the supreme good in the New Law is the love of God, it may seem that the teaching of Christ does away with the different goods and their various punishments. After the enumeration of the general integrity and disorder of deeds in the New Testament, Jesus applies this to the various commandments and gives examples of the correct intention. For example, anger leads to murder, lust to adultery and so on. Therefore the argument that emphasizing the intention is at the expense of the object simply will not hold.

How Does Jesus’ Suffering Redeem Us?

Question: What is the proper way to explain the suffering of God in atonement for sin on earth? This cannot be applied to the souls in hell or the fallen angels. Why not?

Answer: The Son of God came to earth to atone for our sins by an act of perfect obedience to reverse the sin of disobedience of Adam to the commandment given by God in the Garden. The reversal of this sin involves both the resolution of fault and that of punishment. Evil of fault happens when the will loves a good which is contrary to the order which God has placed in the world, contrary to the order of the world taught by either the natural or the divine law. Evil of punishment is the resulting disorder in the soul which is denied God’s love as a result of the sin and divine justice and order in the soul can only be resolved when restitution is made for this. The Original sin involves both, and to atone for the sin, both must be resolved for man to be returned to the order of grace within.

Christ must take some punishment we suffer in himself to satisfy the justice of God. There are four punishments for the Original Sin which correspond to the lack of justice due to God. There are: ignorance in the intellect, malice in the will, concupiscence in the passions, and suffering and death in the body. Whatever Christ assumes from wounded nature, it is obvious that angels cannot participate in it as they do not have a common nature, so there can be no sin of nature. Christ assumes only what promotes his mission, and since a part of the atonement is perfect obedience, assuming three of the punishment (ignorance, concupiscence, and malice) would compromise that. So he could only assume the non-moral punishments of suffering and death. An angel cannot be a part of this since angels have no bodies.

Christ must also atone for the fault of the sin by his perfect obedience, which is an essential part of the atonement. He does this by assuming a human free will and actually obeying unto death. It is obvious that this means he must at one and the same time be a pilgrim and one who has arrived at the destination of the journey: heaven. Being a pilgrim allows him to freely obey in the face of this punishment; being one who understands means he cannot sin. Those in hell have permanently arrived at their final end so they cannot benefit from the atonement. So Jesus assumes a human nature with allows him as a divine person to obey in our place by taking on himself suffering and death and obey. Angels who have fallen cannot benefit from this, first, because they do not have a common nature, and second, because they have already arrived at their final destiny. In their first choice of God or self the angels enter heaven or hell. In hell freedom and nature eternally disagree; in heaven they agree. Christ atones for both evil and fault in the Passion.

A final feature of the atonement is that after Jesus atones for both punishment and fault, he must as God send the Holy Spirit to dwell in those who benefit from his atonement but was lost though Adam’s sin.

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.
375 NE Clackamas St.
Portland, OR 97232
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  1. I love how you explain in your answer to the question, How Does Jesus’ Suffering Redeem Us? I have not heard it put so succinctly and beautifully. This is a wonderful help for me. Thank you.

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