St. Thomas Would Oppose Changing the Lord’s Prayer

Pope Francis’ pre-Christmas call for a better translation of the Lord’s Prayer was met by a number of defenses of the English translation which we all know by heart. Anthony Esolen, Lionel Yaceckzo  and Charlotte Allen, for example, have made it abundantly clear that, “and lead us not into temptation,” is a correct English translation of both the Greek and Latin texts of Matthew 6:13. This is not the end of the matter, though. For, as Esolen eloquently puts it: “The words of Jesus, as words, are clear. Their implications are profound. They are hard for us to fathom. They strike us as strange. That is as it should be. Let them stand.”

Here Esolen points to the key distinction between having a good English translation of Matthew 6:13, and having a good understanding of what our Lord teaches us to ask for in the great prayer which he gave us. For the English speaker who knows neither Greek nor Latin, having the second of these depends on having the first, but does not necessarily follow from it. Indeed, it seems that the Holy Father’s suggestion that we come up with a better translation of “et ne nos inducas in tentationem” was for the sake of ensuring that we have a correct understanding of this very petition.

The good news, though, is that it is easy enough to move from the English words, “and lead us not into temptation,” to a solid understanding of what we are praying for when we utter these words. This is easy enough, that is, if we enlist the help of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, et alii hujusmodi.

These Doctors of the Church agree that the Pater noster contains seven petitions (i.e., [1] hallowed be thy name, [2] thy kingdom come, [3] thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, [4] give us this day our daily bread, [5] forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, [6] lead us not into temptation, and [7] deliver us from evil). Both the Catechism of the Council of Trent and the Catechism of the Catholic Church confirm this reading. St. Thomas additionally notes that these petitions are exhaustive in that they refer in some way to all the goods which we may licitly desire. Moreover, the seven petitions are presented according to the order in which we ought to desire these same goods.

St. Augustine and St. Thomas divide these petitions in more than one way. For example, they divide the first three petitions off from the last four. The reason is that the hallowing of God’s name, the coming of his kingdom, and the following of his will are all things which will be fulfilled perfectly in the life of the blessed. Hence, the goods asked for in these petitions belong chiefly to eternal life, although they may be shared in to some extent during this life. The four remaining petitions, by contrast, all bear mainly on necessities of the Christian life here below.

Another more detailed division, provided by St. Thomas, distinguishes the first two petitions from the remaining five. For the first two petitions concern the very end of man, namely, the glory of God. In the first petition, we desire God’s glory in itself, whereas in the second petition we desire to share in God’s glory. Thus, St. Thomas notes that when we pray, “thy kingdom come,” we ask to come to the glory of God’s reign. In the remaining five petitions, however, we pray for things which order us to our end in one way or another. Here we may also make some subdivisions. The petitions “Thy will be done” and “give us this day our daily bread” each ask God for some positive means whereby we merit beatitude. The former expresses a desire that God move us to keep his commandments, while the latter requests from God the bodily and even sacramental aids which we need to attain our end.

This leaves petitions five, six, and seven. All three of these have in common that they ask God to remove from our lives certain obstacles or impediments to beatitude. St. Augustine points out that “forgive us our trespasses, etc.” asks for divine help against the evil of sin or fault (contra malum culpae). On the other hand, “deliver us from evil” implores divine help against the evil of punishment (contra malum poenae).

What, though, about the sixth petition? Here, according to St. Augustine, we beg God for the divine aid we need against the inclination to sin (contra inclinantia in culpam). While this seems clear enough, we may still wonder about the precise formulation of this petition. Why say, “lead us not into temptation,” as if to imply that God can and perhaps sometimes actually does lead us into temptation?

St. Thomas answers this very question in his Expositio in orationem dominicam. He writes: “Is it possible for God to lead someone into evil, since [the Lord’s Prayer] says: ‘and lead us not into temptation’? I say that God is said to lead into evil through permitting it. This occurs when, because of many sins, God withdraws his grace from a man who then falls into sin after grace has been removed. Thus, we sing in Psalm 70:9, ‘when my virtue fails, do not abandon me, O Lord!’ Now God directs man not to be led into temptation through the ardor of charity, since any charity, no matter how small, is able to resist any sin.”

From these considerations, then, we can gather both what is and what is not contained in this sixth petition. As is plain, this petition does not contain a request that God remove temptations from our lives. For, disturbing as they may be, temptations may also be greatly meritorious in the Christian life. This is attested to by James 1:12: “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him.” On the other hand, this petition does contain a plea that God not permit us to fall into the sins to which our temptations incline us. Negatively speaking, we implore God in this petition not to justly deprive us of his grace due to the multitude of our sins. Positively speaking, we beg God in this petition for the divine aid we need to overcome the inclination to sin which temptation is. More specifically, we beg our infinitely good Father in heaven to stoke in us the fire of charity that we might overcome any temptation whatsoever.

Many teachings of Christ are “hard sayings.” If the sixth petition of the Pater noster is numbered amongst these, perhaps it is so since it quotidianly reminds us of our great weakness and utter dependency on the grace of God.

David Arias

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David Arias is a husband, father of thirteen, and a professor of philosophy at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, NE. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas (Houston).

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