Q - Growing up in a protestant church I always heard an explanation of Our Lord's Passion that went something like this: We stood condemned to death for our sins, but the Father decided to punish Christ in our place, as a consequence, we might hope for heaven. In my search for the Church, which ended in the Catholic Church, I became acquainted with another theory: That in order to undo the pride and self exultation of sin, it was necessary that we humble ourselves, that we resist the sinful desires of the flesh, that we repent and die a sort of death, in order to make possible a new life ("Die to self" and "Live for God" being intimately related). Of course, we needed God's help to do this, but by God's help we mean that He puts into us a part of Himself (we love because he puts his love into us, we reason because he puts his reason into us etc.). It not being in the nature of God to suffer or submit or die, He became man in order to take it into his nature, and thereafter to help us do it.
It seemed to me that the first theory was more in line with Protestantism; it stressed what Christ did FOR us, and so seemed to leave our salvation already accomplished. If Christ paid it all, what need is there for us to suffer, to take up our cross and follow Him, didn't He take the cross precisely so we wouldn't have to? Isn't faith alone then enough? What need of penance or confession or good works?
The second theory rather stressed what Christ does IN us, and demanded our cooperation. Things like penance and good works were not unnecessary because of Christ, but possible because of Him. So I have thought for awhile.
To get to the question, I have been wondering lately whether I was right to reject the first theory, or whether these are not both aspects of the same mystery. Does the penal substitution of Christ for us on the cross have a place in Catholic teaching? Is it even consistent with the second theory? I was also wondering whether this is all in the realm of conjecture, or whether the Church teaches something definitive on the issue (perhaps some other explanation which I haven't considered?). I would appreciate you thoughts.
A - Thanks for the great question.
The simple answer is "yes". But, let me directly answer your questions. Before I do that, the Catechism has a great section on how Christ offers Himself to the Father on our behalf.
1 - didn't He take the cross precisely so we wouldn't have to?He took the cross so we wouldn't suffer the eternal penalty of our sins (eternal suffering), but not so we never suffer in this life. Otherwise, the cross is a complete failure, because we see Paul (and the other apostles) rejoice in his sufferings again and again.
2 - What need of penance or confession or good works?The need is found in the consequences of our sins. There is both an eternal and a temporal consequence to sin. The eternal is freed in forgiveness, but the temporal remains. If there were no temporal consequence to sin, there would be no death, suffering, etc. So, in order to pay the temporal price (notice our salvation does not depend on this) we do the outward signs of penance and good works.
An analogy that is commonly used will help. If little Jimmie accidentally hits a ball through the neighbor's window, he must both ask for forgiveness (eternal payment) as well as pay for a new window (temporal payment). Once forgiveness is asked for, given and received; it still does not pay for the new window. Our acts of penance are like the payment for the window. Of course an outward act without inward renewal does nothing for us.
The Catechism has a good sections on penance. - Interior Penance - Forms of Penance -
For a longer explanation, you can read this article: The Church Fathers on penances.
Also, here is one on merit.
3 - Does the penal substitution of Christ for us on the cross have a place in Catholic teaching?Yes. See the first link to the Catechism above.
Realize that the Catholic Church says that the penal substitution is an okay explanation, but it doesn't go far enough. In other words, that isn't all of what God has done for us. It is both/and rather than either/or. Many things are like that in the Church -
-Faith AND Works
-Action AND Contemplation
-Scripture AND Tradition
-Visible Church AND Invisible Church
This really gets into an understanding of justification. For more on how Catholics look at things here are some great articles:
Catholics and Justification by Grace Alone.
Justification by Christ Alone
Justification by Faith Alone