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  • The Propassiones of Christ, His Fullness of Grace, and His Moral Exemplarity according to St. Thomas Aquinas1
  • Barrett H. Turner


While reading St. Thomas Aquinas's treatment of the passions of Christ's soul in the tertia pars, one may be surprised to encounter a term not previously mentioned in the Summa theologiae [ST]. The term is propassio. Derived from St. Jerome's exegesis of Christ's sorrow in the Garden of Gethsemane, the term originally signified a sort of half-passion or first movement of a stifled passion. Perhaps baffled by this Stoic infiltration into Thomas's discussion of the passions, few scholars link Thomas's treatment of Christ's experience of propassio to the moral exemplarity of Christ and thus to moral theology. Even Craig Steven Titus's article discerning "the quality of Christ's passions and their relevance for Christian ethics" does not relate the propassiones of Christ to moral theology, despite giving a brief (and slightly mistaken) exposition of this aspect of Christ's affectivity.2 Perhaps the general reason for this lack of connection [End Page 201] between Christ's propassiones and his moral exemplarity is that Christ's virtuous experience of propassio seems a function of his unique status as the God-Man, and is therefore not a model or ideal for other humans. For this reason, other scholars have raised doubts about the coherence of Thomas's affirmation both of the exemplarity of Christ's virtuous passions and also of the unique features of Christ's humanity. That Christ possessed the Beatific Vision and that he moved all the parts of his soul only insofar as he willed by divine dispensation "introduces significant discontinuities between Christ's affectivity and ours," as Nicholas Lombardo posits.3 In other words, the exemplarity of Christ for man is lost when Christ's humanity is elevated in the hypostatic union to a state beyond all reach.

This article aims to strengthen the link between Thomas's doctrine of Christ's moral exemplarity for the baptized and his treatment of Christ's unique humanity by looking at the term propassio as it is applied to Christ and to other men. Thomas' reliance on Jerome's terminology gives the concept of propassio an alien air, liable to dismissal as Thomas's convoluted attempt to retain a Stoic term out of respect for Jerome. Yet Thomas elevates the term propassio from its Stoic provenance to become a term for describing an essential facet of Christ's fully virtuous human affectivity: that Christ's passions, even when intense, never deflected his soul from its ordination to God the Father. As we will see, propassio is an integral part of every virtuous passion, and this is why all of Christ's passions are propassiones. My contention is that the fullness of grace, along with the fullness of virtue and gifts, in the human soul of Christ is a sufficient cause of his experience of the passions as propassiones. Furthermore, propassiones serve as a normative ideal for the justified, thereby linking Christ's perfected humanity to his moral exemplarity for his members. His soul is both instrumental and exemplary cause of our salvation, insofar as he both [End Page 202] confers grace and shows how to live by it. At the same time, the experience of even the just in this life will entail discontinuities with Christ's experience of the passions, on account of the continued presence of the fomes peccati. Even here, however, Thomas assumes that the emotions of the justified will become more conformed to Christ over time, even if never fully attaining the ideal of Christ's exclusive experience of what I will call fully virtuous propassiones. This discontinuity between Christ and his members arises on account of the unruly first motions of passions attributable to the fomes, even if such first motions do not deflect reason and thereby remain propassiones in a less virtuous sense. In this way, the life of virtue by grace enables the just to experience only propassiones, either in the partially virtuous sense of an incomplete passion from an illicit object or passions that anticipate reason (antecedent passion) or even in...


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