Aquinas and Trent: Part 5

Apr 6th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts, Featured Articles

In this fifth post in this series, I examine what St. Thomas Aquinas says about the third of the three effects of sin, namely, debt of punishment. Why does sin cause a debt of punishment? Is the debt the same for mortal and venial sins? Is sin the punishment for sin? Does the debt remain after we stop sinning? Can one person be punished for another’s sins?

The Last Judgment (1446-52)
Rogier van der Weyden

St. Thomas Aquinas on the Effects of Sin: Debt of Punishment

The first of the three effects of sin examined by St. Thomas is corruption of the good of human nature. This corruption diminishes our natural inclination to virtue, which inclination is itself rooted in our fundamental nature as rational animals as we saw in Part 3. The stain of sin, which we discussed in Part 4, is a deprivation of the comeliness that fills the soul when it is rightly ordered both to reason and to God by sanctifying grace. The third effect of sin is the debt of punishment, to which we now turn.

The Debt of Punishment is an Effect of Sin

In the first article of Question 87 of Pars Prima Secundae of his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas argues that the debt of punishment is an effect of sin. He writes:

Now it is evident that all things contained in an order, are, in a manner, one, in relation to the principle of that order. Consequently, whatever rises up against an order, is put down by that order or by the principle thereof. And because sin is an inordinate act, it is evident that whoever sins, commits an offense against an order: wherefore he is put down, in consequence, by that same order, which repression is punishment.1

A random set of objects is not an ordered whole; nor is it an actual unity. But the members of an order are all, in a certain sense, actually one, in relation to the principle or head of that order. Consider, as an example, the relation of the members of a religious order, the Dominicans, to the head of their order. The members of the Dominican order are one in that order precisely insofar as they are rightly related to the head of the Dominican order. Now any order is ordered (i.e. designed) to preserve its unity in relation to the principle to which it is ordered. But for that reason, when something within an order rises up against the order, thereby threatening the unity of that order, the offender is put down [deprimatur] by the order or by the principle of that order. Furthermore, sin is, by definition, an inordinate act, i.e. an action against the divinely established order of justice in which man exists, and whose principle and head is God. St. Augustine defined sin as “a word, deed, or desire, contrary to the eternal law.”2 In this order, i.e. the eternal law, the human will is to be conformed to the divine will. Therefore, because sin is an action against this Divine order, and because the offender against an order is put down by the order or by the principle of that order, it follows that sin is put down by this Divine order and by God as the principle of this order. This pushing down against sin, by this order and by God as the principle of this order, is in essence what punishment [poena] is.

Aquinas then shows that there is a threefold punishment for wrongdoing, because man lives simultaneously in three orders: the order of his own reason, the order of human government (both of the household and of the state), and the Divine government according to the eternal law. He writes:

Accordingly, man can be punished with a threefold punishment corresponding to the three orders to which the human will is subject. In the first place a man’s nature is subjected to the order of his own reason; secondly, it is subjected to the order of another man who governs him either in spiritual or in temporal matters, as a member either of the state or of the household; thirdly, it is subjected to the universal order of the Divine government. Now each of these orders is disturbed by sin, for the sinner acts against his reason, and against human and Divine law. Wherefore he incurs a threefold punishment; one, inflicted by himself, viz. remorse of conscience; another, inflicted by man; and a third, inflicted by God.3

Regarding the first order, the remorse of conscience is the punishment that one’s own reason inflicts upon oneself, as punishment for acting against the order of reason. Regarding the second order, punishment by human government takes place under a court of human law, for actions in violation of the political order governed by that human law. And regarding the third order, God inflicts punishment on man for actions contrary to the universal order of the Divine government according to the eternal law. This divine punishment is the punishment relevant to our purpose in this series. Not every action contrary to reason is contrary to human law (i.e. the law promulgated and enforced by the state), because the human law does not extend to all violations of reason, but only to those more serious violations of justice, primarily those ‘horizontal’ injustices between neighbor and neighbor.4 But when we know the right thing to do, and do not do it, we act not only against reason, but also against the divine order in which our reason participates according to the mode of its nature. In doing so, we sin.5 Therefore punishment by God is due to man for sin, and in this way debt of punishment is an effect of sin.

Sin as the Punishment of Sin

Why not say that God does not punish sinners, but that they punish themselves, according to the dictum: sin is the punishment of sin? In Article 2, Aquinas explains that in one respect sin cannot be the punishment of sin, and in another respect sin is the punishment of sin. He writes:

We may speak of sin in two ways: first, in its essence, as such; secondly, as to that which is accidental thereto. Sin as such can nowise be the punishment of another. Because sin considered in its essence is something proceeding from the will, for it is from this that it derives the character of guilt. Whereas punishment is essentially something against the will, as stated in the I, 48, 5. Consequently it is evident that sin regarded in its essence can nowise be the punishment of sin.6

As mentioned above, the essence of sin, according to Aquinas, is a voluntary act (i.e. word, deed, or desire) contrary to the eternal law.7 If the act is not voluntary, then the act cannot be a sin. A sinful act must therefore proceed from the will, because only if an act proceeds from the will [voluntas] can that act be voluntary. But for that reason, by its very nature punishment for sin must in some sense be contrary to the will of the sinner [De ratione autem poenae est quod sit contra voluntatem], otherwise punishment would not differ from reward. Therefore, because sin is essentially voluntary, and because punishment for sin must be contrary to the will, it follows that sin in its essence cannot be the punishment of sin. But then Aquinas writes:

On the other hand, sin can be the punishment of sin accidentally in three ways. First, when one sin is the cause of another, by removing an impediment thereto. For passions, temptations of the devil, and the like are causes of sin, but are impeded by the help of Divine grace which is withdrawn on account of sin. Wherefore since the withdrawal of grace is a punishment, and is from God, as stated above (Question 79, Article 3), the result is that the sin which ensues from this is also a punishment accidentally. It is in this sense that the Apostle speaks (Romans 1:24) when he says: “Wherefore God gave them up to the desires of their heart,” i.e. to their passions; because, to wit, when men are deprived of the help of Divine grace, they are overcome by their passions. In this way sin is always said to be the punishment of a preceding sin. Secondly, by reason of the substance of the act, which is such as to cause pain, whether it be an interior act, as is clearly the case with anger or envy, or an exterior act, as is the case with one who endures considerable trouble and loss in order to achieve a sinful act, according to Wisdom 5:7: “We wearied ourselves in the way of iniquity.” Thirdly, on the part of the effect, so that one sin is said to be a punishment by reason of its effect. In the last two ways, a sin is a punishment not only in respect of a preceding sin, but also with regard to itself.8

Here Aquinas uses the essence-accident distinction to explain that although in its essence sin cannot be the punisment of sin, yet accidentally, sin can be the punishment of sin in three ways. First, when Divine grace is withdrawn on account of sin, this removes the impediment to further sins, and in this way the punishment consisting in the removal of Divine grace has the foreseen but accidental effect of allowing the resulting sins. Second, the very substance of the sinful act [substantiae actus] is such as to cause affliction [afflictionem inducit], whether interiorly or exteriorly, to the sinner. Third, the effects of sin can be a punishment of the sin. In each of these three ways, something contrary to the will is inflicted upon the will, and so in each of these three ways, sin is [accidentally] punishment for sin.

Mortal Sin Incurs a Debt of Eternal Punishment

In Article 3, Aquinas argues that mortal sin incurs a debt of eternal punishment. He writes:

As stated above (Article 1), sin incurs a debt of punishment through disturbing an order. But the effect remains so long as the cause remains. Wherefore so long as the disturbance of the order remains the debt of punishment must needs remain also. Now disturbance of an order is sometimes reparable, sometimes irreparable: because a defect which destroys the principle is irreparable, whereas if the principle be saved, defects can be repaired by virtue of that principle. For instance, if the principle of sight be destroyed, sight cannot be restored except by Divine power; whereas, if the principle of sight be preserved, while there arise certain impediments to the use of sight, these can be remedied by nature or by art. Now in every order there is a principle whereby one takes part in that order. Consequently if a sin destroys the principle of the order whereby man’s will is subject to God, the disorder will be such as to be considered in itself, irreparable, although it is possible to repair it by the power of God. Now the principle of this order is the last end, to which man adheres by charity. Therefore whatever sins turn man away from God, so as to destroy charity, considered in themselves, incur a debt of eternal punishment.

First, he reminds us of what he has already stated in the first article, namely, that sin incurs a debt of punishment [reatum poenae] through turning against [pervertit] an order. For that reason, the debt of punishment must remain so long as the cause of that debt remains. In other words, so long as the sinner is turned against the order in which God has created him, the sinner is incurring the debt of punishment by that order and by God as the principle of that order.

Second, Aquinas distinguishes between reparable and irreparable disruptions of an order. Those that destroy the principle [subtrahitur principium] of the order are irreparable, while those that do not destroy it are reparable. Here he is not using the term ‘principle’ [principium] to refer to the order’s head per se, but rather to that whereby a member of the order takes part in that order [per quod aliquis fit particeps illius ordinis] in relation to the head of the order. Now, the order in question here is the third of the three orders discussed above, namely, the order whereby man’s will is subject to God as man’s ultimate end [ultimus finis]. God is man’s ultimate end, and the supernatural virtue of charity is that by which man adheres [inhaeret] to God as his last end. Therefore, it follows that whatever sins turn man away from God so as to destroy charity, by their very nature incur a debt of eternal punishment. But mortal sins are those that destroy charity and turn man away from God. So it follows that mortal sins incur a debt of eternal punishment.

The Twofold Nature of Mortal Sin and Its Twofold Punishment

In Article 4 Aquinas explains the twofold nature of mortal sin and hence the twofold punishment due for mortal sin. 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.9

First Aquinas states that the punishment of sin is proportionate to the sin [poena proportionatur peccato]. Aquinas has already established elsewhere that sins are not all equal in their gravity; some are worse than others.10 Therefore, because sin is against an order, as explained in the first article, and because sins are not all equal in gravity, therefore the punishment due to sin for the restoration of order within that order must be proportionate to the gravity of the sin.

Second, Aquinas then claims that [mortal] sin by its very nature has a twofold movement. Every mortal sin includes both a turning away from God in some respect, and an inordinate (i.e. contrary to the established order) turning toward some finite created good. These two aspects of mortal sin entail that in the commission of any mortal sin, the sinner acts against the given order in two ways: one infinite and the other finite. And therefore there are two punishments due for any mortal sin.

Consider first the infinite way in which mortal sin violates the divine order. In turning away from God, whom he ought to love above all else, the sinner chooses not to give to the eternal God His rightful due as Head of the established order. Mortal sin is infinite precisely in this respect, that it is against the infinite God. Because the nature of the sin determines the punishment due for the sin, and because the due punishment for an infinite sin is an infinite punishment, therefore the due punishment for this voluntary turning away from the eternal God is the eternal loss of God.11

Consider next the finite way in which mortal sin violates the divine order. In the very same act of mortal sin, the sinner has not only turned away from God, but also inordinately turned toward some finite mutable good. Mortal sin is finite in this respect. Only a finite punishment is due for a finite act. Therefore, the due punishment for turning inordinately to some mutable good is the “pain of sense”, which is finite. The distinction between these two debts of punishment, one infinite, and one finite, is the basis for the distinction between eternal punishment and temporal punishment, and thus between forgiveness of sin, which is absolution of our eternal debt of punishment by the merits of Christ, and reduction or elimination of our debt of temporal punishment. I have discussed this distinction and its implications in more detail here.

Some Sins do not Incur the Debt of Eternal Punishment

In Article 5 Aquinas argues that there are some sins (i.e. venial sins) that do not incur the debt of eternal punishment.

As stated above (Article 3), a sin incurs a debt of eternal punishment, in so far as it causes an irreparable disorder in the order of Divine justice, through being contrary to the very principle of that order, viz. the last end. Now it is evident that in some sins there is disorder indeed, but such as not to involve contrariety in respect of the last end, but only in respect of things referable to the end, in so far as one is too much or too little intent on them without prejudicing the order to the last end: as, for instance, when a man is too fond of some temporal thing, yet would not offend God for its sake, by breaking one of His commandments. Consequently such sins do not incur everlasting, but only temporal punishment.12

Aquinas has already distinguished above between reparable and irreparable disruptions of an order, the distinction being based on whether or not they destroy that by which a member of the order is united to the head of the order. In the order of divine justice, those sins that destroy charity cause an irreparable disorder, and incur eternal punishment, as we saw above. Here Aquinas claims that some sins are not in themselves contrary to the last end, i.e. God. The disorder in these sins is not contrariety to the last end per se, but only to the perfection of those acts directed to that end. As an example, Aquinas describes a man who is too fond of some temporal thing, but would not offend God for the sake of this temporal thing. Because these sins are not contrary to the last end per se, they do not incur everlasting, but only temporal punishment.13

The Debt of Punishment Remains after Sin

In Article 6 Aquinas argues that the debt of punishment remains after sin. Aquinas writes:

Two things may be considered in sin: the guilty act, and the consequent stain. Now it is evident that in all actual sins, when the act of sin has ceased, the guilt remains; because the act of sin makes man deserving of punishment, in so far as he transgresses the order of Divine justice, to which he cannot return except he pay some sort of penal compensation, which restores him to the equality of justice; so that, according to the order of Divine justice, he who has been too indulgent to his will, by transgressing God’s commandments, suffers, either willingly or unwillingly, something contrary to what he would wish. This restoration of the equality of justice by penal compensation is also to be observed in injuries done to one’s fellow men. Consequently it is evident that when the sinful or injurious act has ceased there still remains the debt of punishment.14

Aquinas first makes a distinction between the guilty act [actus culpae] and the consequent stain [macula sequens]. Regarding the guilty act, Aquinas states that the guilt [reatus] of an act remains after the sinful act has ceased. ‘Guilt’ should be understood here not as a subjective feeling, but as something objective, namely, a debt of punishment. The one who has transgressed the order of Divine justice cannot return to the ordered state within that order of Divine justice without paying some sort of penal compensation [recompensationem poenae], which restores him to the “equality of justice” [aequalitatem iustitiae]. Therefore, until such a debt of punishment has been paid, the debt remains even after the sinful act has ceased.

But does the debt of temporal punishment also remain after the stain on the soul has been removed? In other words, when the sinner repents, and turns back to God in love, does the debt of temporal punishment still remain? Aquinas writes:

But if we speak of the removal of sin as to the stain, it is evident that the stain of sin cannot be removed from the soul, without the soul being united to God, since it was through being separated from Him that it suffered the loss of its brightness, in which the stain consists, as stated above (Question 86, Article 1). Now man is united to God by his will. Wherefore the stain of sin cannot be removed from man, unless his will accept the order of Divine justice, that is to say, unless either of his own accord he take upon himself the punishment of his past sin, or bear patiently the punishment which God inflicts on him; and in both ways punishment avails for satisfaction. Now when punishment is satisfactory, it loses somewhat of the nature of punishment: for the nature of punishment is to be against the will; and although satisfactory punishment, absolutely speaking, is against the will, nevertheless in this particular case and for this particular purpose, it is voluntary. Consequently it is voluntary simply, but involuntary in a certain respect, as we have explained when speaking of the voluntary and the involuntary (6, 6). We must, therefore, say that, when the stain of sin has been removed, there may remain a debt of punishment, not indeed of punishment simply, but of satisfactory punishment.15

According to Aquinas, the stain of sin is not removed without the soul being united to God, as explained in Part 4. Man is united to God by his will [Coniungitur autem homo Deo per voluntatem], when man, by his will, turns to God in charity, grace preceeding. But when the will of man is turned to God in charity, then of course the will of man also embraces the order of Divine justice, for no one can love God without loving the order of Divine justice. So it follows that the stain of sin cannot be removed unless the will of man embraces the order of Divine justice. The penitent may embrace the order of Divine justice in two ways: either by taking upon himself the temporal punishment of his past sin, or by patiently bearing the punishment that God has inflicted upon him. In both of these ways, says Aquinas, the punishment has the nature of satisfaction [poena rationem satisfactionis habet]. By this he means that the punishment is no longer merely a downward action pushing down against the offender, but has also become an upward act from the penitent to the head of the order in order to make reparation for offenses against the order.

When punishment is satisfactory, says Aquinas, it loses something of the nature of punishment, because the nature of punishment [poena], as explained above, is to be against the will of the one being punished. The penitent who freely embraces his punishment, out of love for God, makes the punishment to be, in one sense, what he himself wills. And in that way the punishment loses something of the nature of punishment. Absolutely considered, the punishment is still against the will of the penitent, because insofar as it is painful it is against the natural inclination of his will. Yet inasmuch as the penitent embraces this punishment voluntarily, out of love for God, he transforms it into satisfaction. Now Aquinas answers the question: Does the debt of [temporal] punishment remain after the stain on the soul has been removed? He answers that when the stain of sin has been removed, there may remain a debt of [temporal] punishment, not of punishment simpliciter, but of satisfaction.

On Being Punished for Another’s Sins

In Articles 7 Aquinas explains the way in which someone can and cannot be punished for another’s sins. He writes:

As already stated (6), punishment can be considered in two ways–simply, and as being satisfactory. A satisfactory punishment is, in a way, voluntary. And since those who differ as to the debt of punishment, may be one in will by the union of love, it happens that one who has not sinned, bears willingly the punishment for another: thus even in human affairs we see men take the debts of another upon themselves. If, however, we speak of punishment simply, in respect of its being something penal, it has always a relation to a sin in the one punished.16

Aquinas refers back to the previous article, and states that punishment can be considered in two ways: either simply [simpliciter], or, when voluntarily embraced to make reparation, as satisfactory. Satisfactory punishment, as explained above, is voluntary insofar as the person suffering this punishment freely embraces it in order to make reparation for offenses against the order. Then Aquinas writes a beautiful line showing how punishment as satisfaction can be born voluntarily by another through love. He says, “And since those who differ in debt of punishment, may be one in will by the union of love [esse unum secundum voluntatem unione amoris], it happens that one who has not sinned, bears willingly the punishment for another [poenam voluntarius pro alio portat].” To illustrate, Aquinas refers to human affairs, where men take on the debts of another, out of friendship. But Aquinas explains that if we are speaking of punishment simpliciter, in the sense of that which has the nature of punishment, this is always directed to the guilty person.

Lord Jesus, let us come to see what we owed for our offenses against you, and what you have done for us, in love, in your Passion. By your suffering for us, draw us into perfect unity with one another, as those who love much. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The next post in this series can be found here.

  1. Summa Theologiae I-II Q.87 a.1 co. []
  2. Contra Faust. xxii, 27 []
  3. Summa Theologiae I-II Q.87 a.1 co. []
  4. In Summa Theologiae I-II Q.96 a.2 Aquinas writes, “Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.” []
  5. See Summa Theologiae I-II Q.91 a.2 co., and James 4:17 []
  6. Summa Theologiae I-II Q.87 a.2 co. []
  7. Summa Theologiae I-II Q.71 a.6 co. []
  8. Summa Theologiae I-II Q.87 a.2 co. []
  9. Summa Theologiae I-II Q.87 a.4 co. []
  10. Summa Theologiae I-II Q.73 a.2 []
  11. In rejecting God for some finite good, the sinner’s due punishment is in one sense what he wants, for he has freely chosen to reject God. But in another, deeper sense, this punishment is not what he wants, otherwise it would not be punishment. In what sense is separation from God not what the sinner wants? By his primary nature as a rational being, he is ordered to God as his ultimate end. Nothing else can satisfy him. This is why the primary punishment [poena] of hell is the loss of God. []
  12. Summa Theologiae I-II Q.87 a.5 co. []
  13. See also Summa Theologiae II-II Q.24 a.10 []
  14. Summa Theologiae I-II Q.87 a.6 co. []
  15. Summa Theologiae I-II Q.87 a.6 co. []
  16. Summa Theologiae I-II Q.87 a.7 co. []
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2 comments
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  1. This is a very important topic, because it gets into how sin can be punished AND/OR satisfied.
    This is important because a key pillar in Sola Fide is the doctrine of Penal Substitution in which Protestants believe Jesus took the equivalent punishment your sins deserved, most especially being (temporarily) damned to hell in the sinner’s place.

    There are plenty of proofs for this, but here are two quotes from two respected Reformed theologians:

    Martin Luther: So then, gaze at the heavenly picture of Christ, who descended into hell for your sake and was forsaken by God as one eternally damned when he spoke the words on the cross, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!” – “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In that picture your hell is defeated and your uncertain election is made sure. (“Treatise on Preparing to Die.”)

    RC Sproul in a huge Reformed Conference last year said this to conclude his hour long atonement lecture (available online): ““It is as if Jesus heard the words ‘God damn you’ because that’s what it meant to be cursed, to be damned, to be under the anathema of the Father.”

    I’m doing a Penal Substitution debate right now, and I encourage Catholics (and Protestants) to realize the differences between Satisfaction and Penal Substitution. I base my thoughts and arguments primarily on the Summa (though don’t quote him that much explicitly). St Thomas does not allow for Penal Substitution.

    http://catholicdefense.googlepages.com/psdebate

  2. Thanks Nick. It looks like you have put a lot of work into this discussion with TF. The distinction between penal substitution and satisfaction is a very important difference between Reformed and Catholic theologies of the atonement. Hopefully we’ll have an article about that subject here at CTC at some point later this year. I hope to write about Aquinas’ theology of the atonement shortly.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

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