Jesus Christ: portrait by Ariel Agemian, based on the image on the Shroud of Turin. [Flickr / CC BY 2.0 license]
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I have recently written four posts having to do with the film, The Young Messiah, and the larger (rather important) theological question of Jesus’ knowledge and consciousness:
Young Messiah Denies Christological Certainties [3-12-16]
Jesus Always Knew He Was God (Young Messiah) [3-14-16]
Young Messiah, Dramatic License, & Biblical Theology [3-18-16]
Jesus’ Self-Knowledge & the Magisterium (w J. Akin) [3-22-16]
The latter was mostly devoted to my reply to fellow Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin’s piece, “The Magisterium and the Human Knowledge of Christ” (The Catholic World Report, 3-18-16). Our disagreements are not as great as some might think at first glance, and I certainly have only the highest respect for Jimmy’s work as an apologist, and his insights in anything that he writes.
Jimmy and I agree that the film contains a “serious theological error”: that Jesus had no idea that He was God at the age of seven. This was, of course, my primary (and almost only) objection to the film. Hence, Jimmy wrote in reply to my comments under his article, in the same combox:
Certainly one can maintain that the film is in error in depicting Christ not being sure of his divine identity at age seven. . . . I believe he did know it, . . .
Whatever disagreements we may still have are related to the fine points of Jesus’ knowledge, and particularly whether He possessed the Beatific Vision while on earth (and what the Catholic magisterium teaches about same, and the relative level of authority of such teaching).
It is usually assumed that if Jesus possessed the Beatific Vision during His earthly life, that this would include knowledge of His own Divinity, by the nature of the case. Thus, those who deny the former, often also deny the latter, though I don’t think it necessarily follows logically (the latter being only a portion of the former).
The bulk of Jimmy’s fascinating article had to do with what he argues are changing emphases in the Church, as indicated by somewhat different terminology. So, for example, the magisterium refers (more often in the last 60 years) to the “vision” of Jesus rather than the “Beatific Vision.” The latter “traditional” terminology reached, according to Jimmy, a “magisterial high-water mark” with Ven. Pope Pius XII, in his Mystici Corporis (75)  and Haurietis Aquas (56) . He contends that “the Magisterium subsequently took a different tack.”
I agree that the way the issue was talked about has changed a bit, but I don’t think any essential change has occurred in the doctrine itself (regardless of how many [non-magisterial] theologians seem to think so). Nothing has been reversed by the magisterium. It’s a consistent development of the same notions and ideas. That was my argument: particularly in the last paper above, in which I traced the latest developments in the papal reigns of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict.
One particular argument that Jimmy made was his contention that Pope St. John Paul II stated that Jesus received the Beatific Vision after death; therefore, He must not have had it before that time. Jimmy stated (my italics and bolding added presently):
The claim Jesus enjoyed the beatific vision in this life always faced a challenge in that the beatific vision involves a supreme joy in which every tear is wiped away, “neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
How could Jesus enjoy this vision and still endure the sufferings of this life, and particularly the anguish of his Passion? . . .
This may have been one of the factors that led John Paul II to articulate a different understanding, according to which he spoke of the soul of Jesus entering into the beatific vision after death—just as we do:
Through the ineffable mystery of death the soul of the Son came to enjoy the glory of the Father in the communion of the Spirit. … The evangelist John says that Jesus “gave up his spirit” (Jn 19:30). Matthew says “he gave up the spirit” (Mt 27:50). Mark and Luke say that “he breathed his last” (Mk 15:37; Lk 23:46). Jesus’ soul entered into the beatific vision in the bosom of the Trinity. (General Audience, December 7, 1988)
Commenting on Jesus’ “descent into hell,” the Pontiff remarked that Jesus was “buried in the tomb as regards the body, but glorified in his soul, which had been admitted to the fullness of the beatific vision of God” and that “with the entrance of Christ’s soul into the beatific vision in the bosom of the Trinity, the ‘freeing from imprisonment’ of the just who had descended to the realm of the dead before Christ, finds its point of reference and explanation” (General Audience, January 11, 1989).
Note the emphasized “fullness” in the last paragraph. This is the key to understanding what Pope John Paul the Great meant. In my fourth paper and reply to Jimmy, I conceded that I wasn’t sure what these remarks meant. I wrote:
I don’t know what to make of Pope St. John Paul II’s statements about Jesus and the Beatific Vision. Perhaps he meant it in different senses. But in any event, there must (it seems to me) be some difference between Jesus’ possession of it while on the earth and after He died.
This was an admitted weakness or “missing piece” in my own argument. But I had overlooked the word “fullness” in Pope John Paul II’s general audience of 11 January 1989. And indeed, there is also a translation issue here (as, sadly, far too often is the case with papal statements), and my “best guess” turned out (as we shall see) to be essentially correct.
I asked my friend Robert Fastiggi, Professor of Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, to comment on some of these issues. He is exceptionally qualified in the area of dogma and levels of dogmatic authority, as an editor and translator of the latest (43rd) edition of Denzinger’s Enchiridion Symbolorum (Ignatius Press, 2012) and also of a soon-to-be-published revision of Ludwig Ott’s famous Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Dr. Fastiggi wrote in personal correspondence to me (4-4-16):
Haurietis Aquas, 56 cites St. Thomas Aquinas in ST III, q. 9 a. 1-3. It’s important to realize that St. Thomas believed that the infused knowledge received by the human mind of Christ was “proportioned to the human mind” (see ST III, q. 9 a. 3) and “the human nature” (ST III, q. 9 a. 3 ad 3). This would mean that the beatific vision possessed by Christ’s human soul was proportioned to the human nature. This type of proportioned beatific vision in the human nature would not preclude a fuller possession of the beatific vision in the human soul of Jesus after His entrance into glory. In the one general audience of John Paul II cited by Jimmy Akin, the Holy Father states how after death “it is the soul of Jesus that enters into the fullness of the beatific vision in the bosom of the Trinity” (è l’anima di Gesu che entra nella pienezza della visione beatifica in seno alla Trinità) [General Audience of Dec. 7, 1988] Unfortunately, in the English translation of this papal address cited by Akin the word “fullness” (pienezza) is omitted (though it is present in the translation of the Jan. 11, 1989 address).
So, I would be on the side of those who hold that Jesus possessed the beatific vision while dying on the Cross. This beatific vision, however, now seems to be described by the Magisterium as Jesus’ “intimate and immediate knowledge” of the Father. According to the Nov. 26, 2006 Notification of the CDF this “somewhat different terminology” does not contradict what Pius XII taught about the beatific vision of Christ in 1943.
The same mistake is present in the English version of this talk on the Holy See website as well. Dr. Fastiggi has shown from the Italian original that the crucial qualifier “fullness” (pienezza in Italian) is oddly omitted. I’ve observed such inexplicable errors many times in my defenses of Pope Francis. Too often, bad translations create the very “controversies” that I as an apologist have to deal with and explain to a confused Catholic public. But it hardly makes sense to criticize the Holy Father for something he didn’t even say in the first place!
We’ve seen how the general audience of 11 January 1989 contains the word “fullness.” But note that the same address includes the qualifier “fullness” in one instance but not in the other similar statement of the same notion. This is important in that it shows that a qualified, particular sense of the Beatific Vision (a “fullness” of same) is intended, whether the qualifier is there or not. As with the Bible, we must interpret popes and the magisterium as coherent wholes: interpreting less clear statements with relatively more plain or explicit ones on the same topic.
Jimmy cited an EWTN posting of this general audience, taken from the L’Osservatore Romano Weekly Edition in English. The Holy See website version is the same, insofar as it includes the word “fullness” in one instance but not the other.
I shall now cite most of the rest of Dr. Fastiggi’s letter to me (with his permission):
With regard to Jimmy Akin’s article, I think he’s correct that some recent papal statements have approached the question of the human knowledge of Christ in a somewhat different language than the Holy Office in 1918 and Pius XII. The tendency now is to speak in terms of Jesus’ “intimate and immediate knowledge of his Father.” This is the language used by the CDF in its Nov. 26, 2006 Notification on some works of Jon Sobrino, S.J.This Notification was approved for publication by Pope Benedict XVI, and it is certainly magisterial. I am attaching the document with a few parts of n. 6 and n. 8 highlighted. You’ll see that in n. 8 what Pius XII taught in Mystici Corporis, 75 about Christ’s enjoyment of the beatific vision from the first moment of the Incarnation is cited and upheld. So, it does not seem that the Magisterium has distanced itself from this position. The CDF believes this teaching continues to be affirmed by St. John Paul II and the CCC using “somewhat different terminology.”
I highlighted part of n.6 of the 2006 CDF document because it affirms the continued importance of the Council of Chalcedon and the “communication of idioms” which derives from Chalcedon’s teaching, and it helps to clear up some earlier Patristic statements. The communication of idioms means that all the properties of the divine and human natures may, with equal validity, be applied to the one Person of the Incarnate Word in the concrete. Thus, it is certainly proper to say that the baby Jesus knew all things because, in His one Person, the divine and human natures have come together “without confusion or change, without division or separation” (D-H, 302). In the same way, when Jesus was in agony on the Cross, all the properties of the divine nature were present in His concrete Person, including omniscience. If we understand the beatific vision as “an intimate and immediate knowledge of the Father” then this “vision” was certainly present to Jesus on the Cross. The CDF, in its 2006 Notification sees this type of knowledge as another way of describing the “beatific vision” affirmed by Pius XII in Mystici Corporis, 75.
It’s important to understand that the subject of the beatific vision affirmed by Mystici Corporis, 75 is the concrete Person of the Incarnate Word. Pius XII, in this passage, does not claim that this vision was derived from the human nature of Christ. The human nature of Christ, however, was never separated from the concrete Person of the Incarnate Word. The human nature, moreover, was distinct from but never separated from the divine nature in Christ. It was the Person of Jesus that had this beatific knowledge not His human nature per se. Exactly how Christ’s human knowledge and divine knowledge coexisted in His one divine Person remains something of a mystery. Following Chalcedon, however, we must believe that they coexisted (and continue to exist) without confusion or change, without division or separation.
I have posted below the portions of the 2006 magisterial document, Notification on Jon Sobrino, that Dr. Fastiggi highlighted, as of particular relevance to this discussion:
6. Another difficulty with the Christological view of Father Sobrino arises from an insufficient comprehension of the communicatio idiomatum, which he describes in the following way: “the limited human is predicated of God, but the unlimited divine is not predicated of Jesus” (Christ the Liberator, 223, cf. 332-333).
In reality, the phrase communicatio idiomatum, that is, the possibility of referring the properties of divinity to humanity and vice versa, is the immediate consequence of the unity of the person of Christ “in two natures” affirmed by the Council of Chalcedon.
[ . . . ]
Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God, enjoys an intimate and immediate knowledge of his Father, a “vision” that certainly goes beyond the vision of faith. The hypostatic union and Jesus’ mission of revelation and redemption require the vision of the Father and the knowledge of his plan of salvation. This is what is indicated in the Gospel texts cited above.
Various recent magisterial texts have expressed this doctrine: “But the knowledge and love of our Divine Redeemer, of which we were the object from the first moment of His Incarnation, exceed all that the human intellect can hope to grasp. For hardly was He conceived in the womb of the Mother of God when He began to enjoy the Beatific Vision”.
Though in somewhat different terminology, Pope John Paul II insists on this vision of the Father: “His [Jesus’] eyes remain fixed on the Father. Precisely because of the knowledge and experience of the Father which he alone has, even at this moment of darkness he sees clearly the gravity of sin and suffers because of it. He alone, who sees the Father and rejoices fully in him, can understand completely what it means to resist the Father’s love by sin”.
Likewise, the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the immediate knowledge which Jesus has of the Father: “Such is first of all the case with the intimate and immediate knowledge that the Son of God made man has of his Father”. “By its union to the divine wisdom in the person of the Word incarnate, Christ enjoyed in his human knowledge the fullness of understanding of the eternal plans he had come to reveal”.
 Pius XII, Encyclical Letter Mystici Corporis, 75: AAS (1943) 230; DH 3812.
 John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, 26: AAS 93 (2001), 266-309.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 473.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 474.
I had made the same argument from this document (in far less sophisticated lay apologist terms!) in my fourth post above:
If we look closely at how the 2006 CDF document makes its arguments, and the connections between the ideas, I think it upholds the classical traditional understanding. The document refers to this “vision” and then in the next paragraph states, “Various recent magisterial texts have expressed this doctrine” [my emphasis], and then it cites Mystici Corporis, talking about the Beatific Vision from Jesus’ conception. Is that not an equation of the two concepts? Seems so to me, by grammar and logic.*Then the next sentence is, “Though in somewhat different terminology, Pope John Paul II insists on this vision of the Father . . .” Again, it seems that the logic and connections continue: the “vision” referenced is the same as the Beatific Vision, which is the same as what Pope St. John Paul II insists upon, though “in somewhat different terminology” [for the Beatific Vision]. Is there another way to plausibly interpret this sequence?
After quoting John Paul II, it then states [my emphasis again], “Likewise, the Catechism of the Catholic Church . . .” It’s talking about the same concept all the way through, and since it is equated with Beatific Vision, the entire section is intended (so it seems to me) to make synonymous the “vision” and the Beatific Vision. The example given of a magisterial text expressing the doctrine is Mystici Corporis: thus defining what it is that is being discussed. If indeed the document and the Church and magisterium were trying to move away from that interpretation, then that quote would, I submit, be the very last one to use in that place.
Dr. Fastiggi wrote in further correspondence, on 4-5-16:
If the beatific vision is understood as an immediate vision of the divine essence (Denz.-H, 1000, 1305) then it’s difficult to understand how Jesus could have been deprived of this vision without going against Chalcedon. That would mean that the angels possessed the beatific vision while the Incarnate Word of God did not. I think that our Lord’s pain was actually intensified during his passion because He had this immediate vision of the divine essence as well as omniscence. He was able to see all the human sins and atrocities for which He was offering his sacrifice. At the very least we must give religious submission of will and intellect to what the Church teaches about this matter (cf. LG, 25)–even though the mystery remains.
All is well. I don’t see that the Church has essentially changed any of its magisterial teachings with regard to the knowledge of Jesus. Some theologians (in the last 60 years or so) may deny what the magisterium teaches, but that is a deficiency on their part, not the Church’s.
The Young Messiah contains serious theological error. Our Lord Jesus always knew Who He was, not only at age seven but from conception: being God in the Flesh and in possession of a Divine Nature as well as a human nature. Otherwise, we have (among many other things) the absurdity of the preborn John the Baptist knowing Who Jesus was, while Jesus Himself supposedly didn’t.