Did Christ have the beatific vision from the moment of the Incarnation? It’s been a point of contention in the past several decades.
First, we must define our terms. What is the beatific vision? It is the immediate, directly intuited vision, knowledge, or possession of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the passive intellect as a gift of God’s grace to the blessed in heaven.
What do we mean by immediate vision or knowledge? Immediate means apart from any of what St. Thomas Aquinas calls “phantasms,” images, or even concepts whereby we come to know God indirectly or by analogy.
What do we mean by vision? The Church does not mean seeing with eyeballs. It means comprehension with the intellect, in the same way a physics student who studies earnestly comes to understand the answer to an equation. He says, “Now I see!”
Similarly, when we say the blessed “possess” God—to use the physics student analogy again—he may also say, “I got it!” It’s in this sense of comprehending something that we would say in popular parlance to the one who comprehends, “You own it, dude. It’s yours!”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way:
Because of his transcendence, God cannot be seen as he is, unless he himself opens up his mystery to man’s immediate contemplation and gives him the capacity for it. The Church calls this contemplation of God in his heavenly glory “the beatific vision” (1028).
And Pope Benedict XII defined infallibly in 1334:
These souls [in heaven] have seen and see the divine essence with an intuitive vision and even face to face, without the mediation of any creature by way of object of vision; rather the divine essence immediately manifests itself to them, plainly, clearly and openly, and in this vision they enjoy the divine essence.
The Church teaches that Christ had the beatific vision from the moment of his conception But in recent years a disturbing number of Catholics from very different points along the theological spectrum of belief have denied this crucial truth.
In 2007, liberation theology proponent Fr. Jon Sobrino, S.J., became well-known for his denial of this teaching when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) examined his books Jesus the Liberator and Christ the Liberator and found them wanting. But perhaps more disturbing than Fr. Sobrino’s example are the instances of disbelief in this Church teaching one can find peppered here and there in works that are otherwise orthodox.
Contrary to a considerable amount of popular sentiment, the Church is quite clear in its teaching that Christ had the beatific vision from the moment of his conception. Though it has not been the object of an infallible declaration, it is at the very least the teaching of the ordinary Magisterium that requires religious assent of the intellect and will and cannot be licitly denied publicly. Let’s look at some recent examples of the clear teaching of the Church.
Pope Pius XII, in his 1956 encyclical on devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Haurietis Aquas, writes:
The Heart of the incarnate Word . . . is . . . the symbol of that burning love which, infused into his soul, enriches the human will of Christ and enlightens and governs its acts by the most perfect knowledge derived both from the beatific vision and that which is directly infused.
The same pontiff, in his 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis, says:
But this most loving knowledge of our divine Redeemer, of which we were the object from the first moment of his Incarnation, exceeds 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, and in that vision all the members of his Mystical Body.
In more recent magisterial statements, the phrase “beatific vision” has not been employed; rather, you’ll find phrases such as “a clear vision” or “immediate vision.” But this is not a change in the essence of the teaching, as some infer. The Magisterium of the Church has told us as much.
It is, it seems, the Magisterium emphasizing that there is a difference in Christ’s experience of the beatific vision before and after Calvary. And that seems rather obvious. Though Jesus received the beatific vision, as Pope Pius XII says, from the moment of his Incarnation, he did not allow the ancillary effects of the beatific vision to penetrate his lower faculties—that is, his emotions and physical body.
This is the essence of the kenosis (Greek, “emptying”) of Philippians 2:5-10. Jesus chose freely to keep from his experience of his human nature the fruits of the beatific vision—that, for example, the Blessed Mother enjoys now in heaven. This would include such gifts as glory, subtility, agility, and impassibility, as well as the emotional consolation and elation of the blessed in heaven. These belonged to Jesus by right because he possessed God in the beatific vision.
But Jesus chose to empty himself of these gifts and more in the Incarnation so that he might become one with humanity in our wayfaring state and so merit our salvation. In short, Christ had to be both “comprehensor” and “viator”—that is, both possessor of the beatific vision and a wayfarer in order to fulfill his mission. Which seems to be a contradiction. But it is not.
The heart of the matter
Pope St. John Paul II gives an example of a nuanced use of terms when speaking of Christ possessing the beatific vision that many do not understand in the terms’ proper context. Describing the passion and death of Our Lord, John Paul II said:
It is the soul of Jesus that enters into the fullness of the beatific vision in the bosom of the Trinity (in Italian, 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, the word fullness (pienezza) is omitted, which has led some to wrongly believe John Paul II was contradicting the earlier teaching of the Church, (as well as his own later teaching) and saying Jesus did not have the beatific vision until he died on the cross. This is not so.
It is understandable if you read the English translation that leaves out the word fullness. But if you read these words properly translated, there is an enormous difference: “It is the soul of Jesus that enters into the fullness of the beatific vision in the bosom of the Trinity,” not that he enters into the possession of the beatific vision. Big difference!
Christ would not have possessed the fullness of the beatific vision before his death on Calvary because he did not allow the full fruits of the beatific vision to flow into his human nature. Again, he had to be in a “wayfaring state” in order to merit our salvation. In other words, he had to overcome obstacles inherent in a wayfarer that are not in one who possesses all of the fruits of the beatific vision (such as the gift of impassibility). In short, he had to be able to suffer and die for him to be able to win the victory over suffering and death.
The Catechism’s teaching
Another indicator that Pope St. John Paul II was not denying the earlier teaching of the Church came in the teachings he promulgated after the General Audience of December 1988. First, we find this in the Catechism he promulgated in 1997:
“The human nature of God’s Son, not by itself but by its union with the Word, knew and showed forth in itself everything that pertains to God.” Such is first of all the case with the intimate and immediate knowledge that the Son of God made man has of his Father (473).
Notice the Catechism says Jesus’ “human nature” had “immediate” knowledge of his Father and italicizes this next phrase as a matter of emphasis: “not by itself but by its union with the Word.” This language goes to the heart of what it means to possess God in the beatific vision. For Christ, it means that he had it from the moment of his conception. We are talking about a reality that flows necessarily from the hypostatic union, or the combination of divine and human natures in the single person of Christ.
The first sentence of this passage is a quote from St. Maximus the Confessor teaching that Christ had the beatific vision from his mother’s womb. In his human nature and from the moment of his Incarnation, Jesus possessed the “immediate knowledge” that comes through the beatific vision of God, or by its union with the Word. Remember: the union of Christ’s human nature and the Word—the hypostatic union—occurred at the moment of the Incarnation of our Lord.
Thus, the great mysteries of the Incarnation and the hypostatic union are the sources of Christ’s knowing and showing forth in his human nature “everything that pertains to God”—including “the . . . immediate knowledge that the Son of God made man has of his Father.”
We who are not the Savior possess a faith in God necessarily mediated through images, precisely because we don’t have beatific knowledge of God. We can know the truth of God only through images and by analogy. Christ’s human knowledge of God was immediate by virtue of the hypostatic union from which it necessarily follows that Christ had the beatific vision.
More from Pope St. John Paul II
A second magisterial example of this teaching from Pope John Paul II is found in his apostolic letter of Jan. 6, 2001. Therein he puts an end to any notion that he denied Christ had the beatific vision, making it clear that even at the darkest moment in his earthly life—on the cross—our Savior possessed the beatific vision of God in his human soul:
At the very moment when he identifies with our sin, “abandoned” by the Father, he “abandons” himself into the hands of the Father. His 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. More than an experience of physical pain, his Passion is an agonizing suffering of the soul. Theological tradition has not failed to ask how Jesus could possibly experience at one and the same time his profound unity with the Father, by its very nature a source of joy and happiness, and an agony that goes all the way to his final cry of abandonment. The simultaneous presence of these two seemingly irreconcilable aspects is rooted in the fathomless depths of the hypostatic union (Novo Millenio Ineunte, “The Beginning of the New Millenium,” 26).
Notice Jesus “sees the Father and rejoices fully in him” even in the midst of the ineffable pain of the cross. Moreover, this beatific vision is the source of both the joy Christ possessed by virtue of his immediate knowledge of his Father and of the pain that enabled Christ, in his human nature, to be able to comprehend and experience the full weight of the sin he was called to bear.
More from the Magisterium
On Nov. 26, 2006, the CDF issued what is called a “notification” concerning the two books I mentioned above written by Fr. Jon Sobrino, S.J., Jesus the Liberator and Christ the Liberator. Both books contain manifold grave errors concerning multiple points of theology deemed contrary to the Catholic faith.
Among the six major errors or categories of errors the CDF identified was Fr. Sobrino’s denial of Christ having the beatific vision (category No. 5). He claimed Christ had faith rather than knowledge and as such taught Christ to be purely an exemplar of faith for us, even up to giving us the ultimate example of faith on the cross. The document cites Sobrino’s own words and then declares:
These citations do not clearly show the unique singularity of the filial relationship of Jesus with the Father; indeed, they tend to exclude it. Considering the whole of the New Testament, it is not possible to sustain that Jesus was “a believer like ourselves.” The Gospel of John speaks of Jesus’ “vision” of the Father: “Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father” (John 6:46). This unique and singular intimacy between Jesus and the Father is equally evident in the synoptic Gospels.
The CDF also cited John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known (revealed him).” These texts and the CDF’s commentary make clear that Jesus had the beatific vision from the perspective both of Christ “seeing” the Father and “revealing” him. The idea is you have to “see” to “reveal.”
And then the CDF cites Matthew 11:27: “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Here, Scripture reveals Christ to have knowledge rather than faith.
Throughout this notification, the CDF makes clear the Church’s teaching that Christ had the beatific vision from the moment of his conception. But in the process, it also makes clear that the change in language used in more recent magisterial documents does not represent a contradiction. And even more, according to the CDF, this understanding is necessarily connected to our soteriology:
The filial and messianic consciousness of Jesus is the direct consequence of his ontology as Son of God made man. If Jesus were a believer like ourselves, albeit in an exemplary manner, he would not be able to be the true Revealer showing us the face of the Father. This point has an evident connection . . . with . . . what will be said . . . below concerning the salvific value that Jesus attributed to his death. For Fr. Sobrino, in fact, the unique character of the mediation and revelation of Jesus disappears: he is thus reduced to the condition of “revealer” that we can attribute to the prophets and mystics.
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” (quoting Mystici Corporis, 75).
. . . 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” (quoting CCC 473).
The CDF is telling us that Pope St. John Paul II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church “likewise” teach that Jesus Christ had the beatific vision from the moment of his conception.
And then we have this, continuing with the CDF notification:
The relationship between Jesus and God is not correctly expressed by saying Jesus was a believer like us. On the contrary, it is precisely the intimacy and the direct and immediate knowledge which he has of the Father that allows Jesus to reveal to men the mystery of divine love. Only in this way can Jesus bring us into divine love (V).
To put it simply, Jesus needed the beatific vision in order to fulfill the revelation we have received concerning who the Savior is and how he saves.