God, Death, and the New Natural Law Theory

Christopher Tollefsen has written an essay available at academia.edu titled "Does God Intend Death" in which his answer is resoundingly in the negative.  It is however in many respects--even from the view of one who considers its conclusion to be erroneous--a helpful consideration.  Rather than begin simply with the New Natural Law Theory (NNLT) doctrines of incommensurability and of its specific account of action theory--both of which are certainly involved to some degree--he begins with propositions that seem to pertain to the doctrine of God and theology.  Thus, the essay argues that it is impossible for God, who necessarily wills His own infinite goodness and for whom evil is thus outside the formality of His will--to intend death.

Of course, in Thomas's account life is a good; but in Thomas's analysis penalty is a deprivation of a natural good, contrary to the will of the one penalized, because the person through some evil merits penalty. Penalty is penalty by way of depriving of some natural good.  The real question--since God wills only good--is, "how is punishment good?"--The answer to which is, "by its vindication of justice and also by its medicinal effects".   For Thomas something that taken in itself would be evil--losing a limb--is, under the ratio of a supervening form, morally good to effectuate.  Likewise, taking life in general is bad, but consequent on the form of justice and given that a killing be part of a just sentence of death, it is morally good.  A just penalty of death is willed under the form of justice, but not by double effect:  it is morally good that the one justly deprived of life be deprived of life, howsoever much it is a physical evil; likewise, it is morally good that the surgeon remove the diseased limb, although the removal of the limb taken in itself is a physical evil.  Likewise, the judge imposes the penalty not out of hatred for the criminal, but from love of the common good, which transcends the individual good.  The common good transcends physical good.  One grants of course that there may be good prudential reasons not to impose any particular penalty, and that Evangelium Vitae proposes such reasons, but that is quite different from the persistent effort to anathematize the teaching, shared by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, regarding the essential validity of the death penalty.

Some might object that since death is a privation, God cannot directly will it. That is to say, death is a natural evil even if inflicting death may not in a given case be a moral evil. Natural evil, as all evil, is a lack of a due good, i.e., the non-existence of a good that is due or that should obtain as part of natural flourishing. God can only directly will/cause what exists. So, it might be held, God cannot directly will/cause natural evil and, hence, cannot directly will/cause death.  Respondeo dicendum est:  There is a response to be made here by way of technical metaphysics regarding the truth that no cause is ontologically or physically per se ordained to evil.  But I will let that pass here, to observe that morally speaking, physical (not moral) evil may be willed for the sake and under the ratio of moral good.  The surgeon cuts off the leg, which is a physical evil, for the sake of a good greater than the limb.  One would not wish to argue that God cannot directly choose to deprive a criminal of a stolen car, because this is a physical evil for the felon who needs transport. After all, the rebuke to injustice is of greater aid to the sinner than the physical good of which the sinner is deprived. But the same logic applies proportionately to foundational goods such as life:  God may rightly judge that some man no longer merits to live.  And indeed, God has judged this about mankind following the Fall, all of which lies under a sentence of death.  The ultimate end for the sake of which God ordains anything is finally the very ultimate Good that He is.  But in the sense of intentio that refers to the object, it is very clear that God may “intend”—as annexed to the good of just penalty—physical evil.  This is not to will evil as end, but it is to will it as part of just penalty ordered to good. The praeternatural gift of bodily immortality was withdrawn by direct divine judgment as penalty for the Fall.  Surely such immortality is a physical good, and God justly denied it to mankind after the Fall. Death as one penalty for original sin is certainly a deprivation.  Moreover, just penalty conduces to the good of the sinner insofar as it is a profound occasion and opportunity for conversion.  Although frequently cited merely for comic effect, the truth is that Samuel Johnson's famous lines are true:  ""Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Conversion attained through gazing at approaching eternity through the prison windows of time is not a utilitarian equation subordinating truth and dignity to gain:  it is the rightful subordination of all inferior goods to the extrinsic ultimate common good of the universe. 

Thus, for the sake of the manifestation of divine justice, God ordained the deprivation of bodily life.  This is at least for God to “intend” an act of justice that includes deprivation of life in its definition, which thus is “intended” (albeit it is not intended for its own sake but as included in penalty that is ordered to the manifestation of His infinite justice--because whatever God ordains is ordered to His own infinite good).  Moreover after the Fall human life—including the human life of Christ—has a moment of ordained completion at death (I leave aside here the question of the relation of the doctrine of the Assumption to the end of Mary's terrestrial life and the unique character of her death), which is not outside of the Providential order but lies wholly within divine Providence.  To consider death as something that happens to man which is not subject to Providence is to believe in a God Whom all things do not serve, and Who has not conquered death nor ordered it to the good.  It suggests the false view that death is the greatest evil—something that even pagan philosophers who glimpsed the truth of the immortality of the soul were at least capable of questioning.  Of course, one grants that evil as such serves good only accidentally.  Death comes through sin.  The penalty for sin is owing chiefly to sin itself, which God neither simply wills nor simply does not will, but permits.  Yet, given sin, God does will proportionate penalty which includes deprivation in its definition.

More weightily, Tollefsen's transposition of the basic goods account of the NNLT onto the analysis of divine decrees (which seems to occur in the denial that God may will a superordinate good in preference to a lower good and accordingly in the claim that God cannot intend a just act whose essential nature includes deprivation of a lower good) seems--with respect to the oblation of Christ--to suggest serious error. Christ Himself willed to glorify God and to obtain our redemption through offering His life on the cross, a voluntary and intended offering of His life.  Christ "lays down His life" and "takes it up again".  Clearly He can will--and intend--to lay down His life, since if He cannot intend this, He cannot intend the Eucharistic Sacrifice.  And it is also de fide that this laying down is, humanly speaking, bodily death (although not the separation of the deceased body of Christ from the supposit of the Word), which accrues to Him only by intentional obedience to the Father's willing of the redemptive sacrificial passion.  No one can take His life from Him save that He intentionally sacrifice it. Of course this is certainly not "suicide," and He was violently killed--but as Thomas argues, He willed His death. See, for example, Sth.III. q. 47, art. 1, ad 3:  

Christ at the same time suffered violence in order to die, and died, nevertheless, voluntarily; because violence was inflicted on His body, which, however, prevailed over His body only so far as He willed it.

Ad tertium dicendum quod Christus simul et violentiam passus est, ut moreretur, et tamen voluntarie mortuus fuit, quia violentia corpori eius illata est, quae tamen tantum corpori eius praevaluit quantum ipse voluit.

This is voluntary and intentional offering of His human life by Christ for a higher good (vis a vis His human nature)--indeed, a higher good prior to any choice whatsoever, since the human will of Christ conforms to the divine will precisely as superordinate.  That would seem to constitute a direct contradiction of the claim that God cannot intend deprivation, unless only the sense of "intend" as end, and not the secondary sense of intend as "object" is what is at stake.  If the former is what is meant (intention as of the end), then it seems true that the end intended by God in all external effects is His own good to which all creatures are ordered.  But this does not annul the voluntary and intentional character of the Passion and Death of Our Lord.

It is also true that for St. Thomas the governing wisdom and goodness of God is normative for all men prior to any choice whatsoever on man's part:  this is indeed definitive for Thomas's account of the natural law as nothing other than a rational participation in the eternal law.  It must be noted that the NNLT is obliged to deny this truth for multiple reasons--because of error regarding the nature and relation of speculative and practical; because of error regarding morally significant teleological hierarchy of goods prior to choice; because of error regarding the essentially theonomic and theocentric character of natural law.  What clearly involves a physical evil--deliberately relinquishing oneself unto a cruel and unjust death, a cup He prayed might pass--is in this case, as an obedient human sacrifice to the Eternal Father for the redemption of the human race, part of a freely embraced and essentially good act. 

Further, in this case, as in the quite different case of a just penalty of death (and in all cases of moral analysis), the integral nature and per se effects of the action are included in the object of the external act.  For this reason, as a justly applied penalty of death is indeed an act of justice, but essentially involves the physical evil of taking life--and so this taking of life is essential to the object of the external act; so likewise, the oblation of Christ while indeed an act of obedience to the Father for the salvation of mankind, essentially involves Christ's Passion and Death which are simply willed by Him but in this instance only indirectly caused:  His death is not a suicide, but He does will His Passion and Death.  Thus this chosen relinquishing of life to suffering and death is likewise essential to the object of the external act.  By contrast, the NNLT refusal to acknowledge that the integral nature and per se effects of chosen action are included in the object of the act seems determinative for Tollefsen's analysis. Although Christ's sacrificial offering includes in its very definition the voluntary agony on the Cross, His willed sacrifice is implicitly treated by Tollefsen as not intended.  Again, if we mean by intentio the principal sense of the term, namely the intention of the end, then one may concur:  the Passion and Death are in this sense not per se wishables and Our Lord did not choose them as such; the ultimate end is not death but everlasting life.  But if we mean intention as it pertains to the object of the external act, then clearly He chooses them, intends them in this sense, under the ratio and the species derived from the intended end, which is the Father's will and the redemption of man.  So, with respect to Tollefsen's thesis, sed contra: even now—when the Risen Christ in Heaven is impassible and can suffer no more—He by reason of His eternity can and does offer the one and the same sacrifice on the Cross (which was bodily and included suffering) in an unbloody way.  He eternally offers the one and the same oblation on the Cross.  Not only is the oblation willed, it is eternally willed.  

When Aquinas argues that God does not will death per se, what is meant is simply that no deprivation (and death is is a deprivation) is a per se object of volition, none is a per se "will-able" or "wish-able". But the case is cognate with that of the merchant with his goods in a storm.  The merchant on the vessel at sea in a storm who throws goods away out of fear lest the vessel sink, does not view losing his goods as in itself desirable:  but, for the higher good of the lives of all aboard including his own, he sacrifices them.  This is an act under fear in the case of the merchant:  whereas, in the case of Our Lord, His act was chosen despite natural aversion to suffering.  But in common is the simple willing which yet is not for something that is "per se" desirable.  Thus in Summa theologiae I-II, q. 6, art. 6, Thomas says that the merchant "simply" wills to throw away his goods although in a certain respect this is not voluntary.  Likewise, Christ "simply" and even "directly"--but not as a per se object of volition--willsto suffer the deprivations violently imposed. In a different sense of "per se", Christ does will the sacrifice "per se":  not as wishable in itself, but rather as essentially contained under the ratio of His obedience to the Father and the end of the redemption of the world. As object of the external act, Christ's Passion and Death are per se ordained to the glory of the Father and the redemption of man. His Father did not remove the cup of sorrow, but Christ's voluntary suffering and death was ordained as the sole and essential mode of redemption...  

Tollefsen's argument seems to propose that because death is not in and of itself a positive good, that it cannot be intended directly and can only be performed owing to double-effect.  If this refers to the end, then of course, God is not a deprivation and He is the end; but if we mean the object, then God does will deprivation under the form of just penalty (in the sense of intention that refers to the just penalty as object of the external act) .  Because God wills that justice be vindicated, a good that a creature has harmed through sin, and proven unworthy of, may be withdrawn, and this withdrawal is willed and intended as ordained to the good of justice.  Yet for death not to be intended simply for its own sake does not mean (as noted above) that it cannot rightly be intended as essentially included within a distinct ratio, as Christ's redemptive sacrifice is intended under the ratio of obedience to the Father and the Redemption. Likewise, the merchant who intends to throw all his goods off a ship lest the weight of them sink the ship during a storm does not intend throwing the goods off the ship as a per se wishable, but under the circumstances he does simply intend throwing them off--the act is, simply, voluntary, but only under a certain abstract respect involuntary (since the agent knows it is not something desirable in and of itself).  Just so, God does not will death as a good in itself--it is not a good in itself; but it may be simply willed by God under the ratio of justice.  Thus the lines of Scripture:  e.g., 1 Samuel, 2:6:  "The Lord killeth and maketh alive, he bringeth down to hell and bringeth back again."  By contrast, the NNLT account renders all penalty as such wrongful inasmuch as all penalty deprives of natural good; and further, it confuses physical with moral good (e.g., a just war may require many physical evils actually and virtuously intended, such as deliberate killing of enemy soldiers on the battlefield--but such physical evils may be morally necessary and justified by virtue of the transcendence of the common good). 

It is, of course, very odd that one would think that Thomas--who clearly teaches the essential justice of the death penalty--would not have seen so foundational an inference from his own premises as Tollefsen seeks to provide.  But the error in the putative inference enables us to contemplate even more clearly the profundity of the Sacrifice on the Cross, as well as the providential subordination of all physical evil and suffering to ultimate beatitude, and the transcendence of the common good (for the beatific vision shared by all the saints in glory is the ultimate common good). Surely Tollefsen is right 1)to stress that God wills His own Good essentially, and all other goods only as ordered to His own good, and 2)that God does not simply and for itself will physical evil.  It is of course impossible that God will moral evil, as He orders all things to Himself.

Tollefsen's analysis is a helpful thought experiment insofar as it engages considerations regarding the divine wisdom and will, and with commendable coherence endeavors to draw the full range of implications from the NNLT doctrine of the incommensurability of basic goods. In this way it is a genuinely profound contemplation.  Insofar as this account requires one to treat Christ's simply willed oblation as not truly intended (with the intention of the obiectum), however, this implication seems to provide yet another reason to reject the doctrine of incommensurability (both for reasons pertinent to revelation, and insofar as this teaching denies teleological commensuration).  But there are more proximate reasons for rejecting the account, since the NNLT negation of any normative hierarchy of ends prior to choice also prohibits distinguishing the inferiority of the political common good in relation to the common good of the celestial city in beatitude, or even with respect to the nature of truth as a common good.  The NNLT denial that the divine ordering wisdom and goodness are normative for man altogether prior to choice leaves scattered in its wake a great variety of distortive implications.  Prof. Tollefsen has performed a worthy service in examining the implications of the NNLT.  The effect of his labor, however, should be to confirm one in rejecting the NNLT account of incommensurability as an account incompatible with moral realism.