Classical Catholic Food
ALICE VON HILDEBRAND
Catholic News Agency
October 13, 2014
If anyone asked me, “What is the book on the spiritual life that you would recommend not only to beginners, but also to people who have already taken their first steps?” without a moment’s hesitation, I would say, “Saint Francis of Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life”—a book published in the seventeenth century which, I believe, has never been out of print. There is a profound reason for it: not only is it classical (above time and fashion), but it has a value for people of the most varied backgrounds. Unlike bread, it will never become stale. Moreover, this most lovable saint has the talent of couching his message in such gracious terms that he combines depth of thought and gentle charm.
One typical temptation of beginners in the spiritual life, is to feed their soul on “mystical literature,” such as the Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross. Its very title attracts a large number of beginners convinced that they know by personal experience what this great saint and mystic is referring to. Being spiritually immature, they fall into an exaltation that favors dangerous illusions. St. Francis of Sales’ book combines profound spiritual wisdom, with what I shall term “holy sobriety.” Such spiritual food prevents one from falling into the very many illusions, which are traps set by the devil, to make many people leave the safe road of humility.
My main purpose in this brief essay is to refer to one chapter in Book III, which I have found to be a gold mine of insights. Before turning to my main concern—our attitude toward the faults and sins of our neighbors—let me quote him concerning heretical views, books, and statements. St. Francis of Sales gives us the classical Catholic response. He writes: “Of the enemies of God and His Church we must need to speak openly since in charity we are bound to give the alarm whenever the wolf is found amongst the sheep” (208).
Very different should be our attitude toward the faults and sins of others, a topic of crucial importance because all of us have to deal with it, and very few are aware how treacherous the ground is.
Any sin calls for tears because it offends God. Had men not sinned, Christ would not have been crucified. This should be our primary concern. Moreover, every sin harms the sinner, and may—if grave—endanger his eternal welfare. This is another reason to “grieve”: for sorrow is the proper response that God expects from us. But we should be aware of a serious danger: this grief should not be tainted with a pharisaical note (“Thank God, I am not like him”). We should violently reject any temptation to assume that “We are superior,” that “We would never do such and such,” and so while rightly condemning the sin, fail to show loving compassion for the sinner. Yet our love for the sinner is best measured by our hatred of his sin, and our hatred of his sin should only increase our love for the sinner.
Alas, some people feel justified in hating the sinner because they rightly hate his sin. This has happened in the history of the world, and the danger is always present.
Sin cannot be rehabilitated. This is made clear by St. Paul in his epistle to the Romans: murderers, adulterers, thieves, and blasphemers cannot enter the Kingdom because of their sins. No one can be accused of being uncharitable for condemning sodomy and hating this perversion.
Years ago I had the privilege of meeting Jerome Lejeune—the famous Nobel Prize winner and a most ardent defender of life. It was at a conference organized by Human Life International in Miami. My niece, Marie Peeters, had been his assistant for some thirteen years, and a friendly contact was soon established. In the course of the conversation, he referred to young parents who had just brought him their little girl who was aged six and looked like a child of two. His great concerns were to comfort them and to help her. He had a noble, attractive French face, and then suddenly, his expression changed to one of anger, edging on rage: “If you only knew how I hate disease.”
This expressed perfectly the attitude we should adopt toward sin. Let me repeat: the ardor of our love for sinners should be proportionate to our hatred of their sin—their deadly enemy. Sin, because of its very nature, should be hated and condemned. This admits of no exception. “Perfectum odio…” (perfect hatred). But, alas, this rightful indignation is often hijacked by Lucifer—this diabolical “engineer and psychologist”—who sets a trap into which many fall: heartless condemnation of the sinner.
Let me make a short detour: we all know people who are convinced that God has given them the mission to be his “detectives.” They are always on the lookout to ferret sins committed by their neighbors, and are triumphant when their suspicions are vindicated: “Did I not tell you that such and such was an adulterer? I ‘knew’ it; it is a domain in which I can claim infallibility!”
By contrast, how beautiful—because charitable—is the advice of St. Francis of Sales who severely prohibits our “advertising” the sins of others—often adding spicy details and enjoying discussing them publicly; alas, such interchanges are never “dull.” By contrast a French cynic, Delaclos, wrote that a conversation centered on another’s virtues is likely to be short lived.
St. Francis of Sales warns us that never should we yield to this temptation. The one who truly wishes to come closer to God, not only should avoid carefully to gloat over others’ sins, but will look earnestly for attenuating circumstances that may shed a milder light on an immoral act. Moreover, if someone tells us confidentially about his or her moral aberrations, it would indeed be a very serious sin to share this information with others. To spread it is a very grave offense against charity. Alas, how many of us should beat their breast!
To be “charitable” toward sin is as inane as to have sympathy for leprosy. Much as we should detest sin, the sinner is a child of God, made in His image and likeness, who, as long as he lives, can, like the prodigal son find his way back to his father. St. Augustine gave us a golden key that we should always carry with us. He wrote: Interficere errorem; diligere errantem (Hate the error; love the erring person). Detestable as his sin is—and “interficere” (to kill) is a strong word—never can we be “excused” from loving the sinner as a child of God. Alas, the history of the world teaches two sad facts: how often have sinners been brutally rejected because of their sin (let us recall the Scarlet Letter) and sins are met with sympathy out of “love” for the sinner, as is rampant today. Our Brave New World not only anathematizes any condemnation of moral evil but presents the latter as something calling for compassionate understanding, “long overdue.” Modern psychology has shed precious light to justify sinning.
We are now facing the following paradox: the fully justified condemnation of Pharisees has given birth to a new form of the same disease: to adopt a pharisaic attitude toward Pharisees.
Justified as it was to condemn Pharisees (“I am not like other men…”) it is now fashionable to duplicate the attitude of these hateful judges in condemning mercilessly those who revile sin—accusing them of being redolent of the harshness of the “Dark ages.” To present sin in rosy colors out of a hatred for Pharisees is very much like singing the praise of cancer because of one’s hatred of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Both are hateful, and to sympathize with one because of one‘s hatred of the other is an aristocratic stupidity typical of “intellectuals.”
I recall that, as a teenager, I read the following story: very pious Catholic mother, wisely tried to teach the faith to her little boy by acquainting him with beautiful paintings representing events of our faith. One day she showed him a picture of Christians in the Coliseum given as pasture to the lions. She was eloquently praising these martyrs’ love of God and willingness to sacrifice their lives for His sake.
All of a sudden, the little one started sobbing uncontrollably. His mother, fearing that her presentation had been too dramatic for a young child, gently tried to console him. But to her shock and amazement, the boy exclaimed: “Look Mamma, there is a little lion on the left corner of the painting that has nothing to eat.”
Today, there is so much sympathy for sinners that their sin is not only presented in bright colors, but also carefully abstains from mentioning that any sin inevitably makes victims—not only the sinner, but also by harming those associated with him.
Today, we are brain-washed into believing that one cannot possibly love an adulterer without having loving sympathy for adultery. In fact, modern social sciences can give us several reasons to justify it. One could reason, as cynics are likely to do, that to “limit one’s love to one single person” is to deprive others of their right to “pursue happiness”; it is, in fact, a very subtle form of selfishness! Why should people object to gay marriage if it is that it makes some people happy? Situation Ethics has eloquently shown that it all depends upon time, place, and circumstances which vary from person to person and from epoch to epoch.
In praising a new product, advertisers have now coined the expression: “sinfully attractive.” When looked at with eyes “freed from Middle Ages’ prejudices,” sin is in fact “lovable”; this is precisely why it has such a powerful attraction. What is to be condemned to the deepest pit of hell (if there is one) is pharisaism and its offspring: Puritanism, which is clearly responsible for all sorts of psychological disorders.
This is the framework in which I shall add an appendix of minor importance: the disappointment we sometimes experience when people that we look up to, love, and admire do or say things which conflict with their fundamental views. These cases are not infrequent, and are baffling. How can one and the same person make contributions of such depth and value, and all of a sudden, communicate a misleading message?
Alas, it does happen. I shall limit myself to very few examples, but it might be a topic worth examining carefully.
I am thinking of a remarkable spiritual writer, Karl Adam, who, in 1924 wrote a great book: The Spirit of Catholicism, rightly praised as a Catholic classic. I was told it never was out of print. But to Dietrich von Hildebrand’s profound grief, shortly after Hitler came to power in 1933, Karl Adam said (or wrote) the following words. Referring to the traditional claim of the Church that, “Grace does not destroy nature, but presupposes it,” (Gratia supponit naturam) he said, “Gratia supponit naturam Germanicam” (Grace presupposes German nature). He was, thereby, giving the impression that he was endorsing one of the most idiotic stupidites of the detestable Nazi philosophy: racism.
Such aberrations call for tears. How is it possible that such a noble and orthodox thinker can, after the ascension of a criminal to the Chancellorship of Germany, give the impression that he in some way endorses his anti-Christian racism? I do not have an answer to that question, but it should be a concern for all “intellectuals,” who, possibly because of their reputation and the accolade they keep receiving, suddenly forget that humility is the golden key they should always carry when addressing crucial questions. No one would dream of calling a great and noble thinker, such as Karl Adam, an enemy of the Church, but nevertheless this one unfortunate sentence should be condemned—for silence would be interpreted as a tacit endorsement. While deploring this lapse, we should not forget the gift that he gave to the Church in 1924.
Alas, the great Origen has made some formulations open to misinterpretations; the same can be said of Tertullian. Karl Rahner, after having made some valuable contributions in his early years, misled several intellectuals when speaking about “anonymous Christianity.” Clearly it is open to very serious misinterpretations.
More recently the following remark was brought to my attention, and it grieved me deeply.
We all know the name of Karl of Austria, who has recently been declared venerable. He was a very holy man, and fully deserved this honor. His oldest son, Otto, who seemed destined to be Emperor of Austria when he was born in 1912, was raised as a devout Catholic, and no doubt, was faithfully practicing his faith. He died recently, and many are those who praised him—and rightly so. But to my deep regret, a friend of mine who saw him in Rome in September of 2004, told me that Otto had said to him: “Recently I was in Spain, and upon entering the Cathedral in Barcelona, I was pleasantly surprised to see on the altar the crucifix in the center, with the star of David on one side, and the crescent on the other side.” And he added: “This is a positive sign for the future of Europe.” What would his saintly father say about this remark? We should eagerly give Otto credit for “his good intentions,” but one fears that as he was heading the European Parliament constantly in close contact with every possible view, he yielded to the temptation to make a “political” statement about a topic which is above politics. But no faithful Catholic can acclaim the fact that the star of David, the crucifix, and the crescent should be given a place in a Catholic Church.
Ecumenism, in the sense of a loving search for all the partial truths found in other religions while deploring those that are either not perceived or denied, is to be welcome. Unfortunately, how easily does it degenerate into what Dietrich von Hildebrand called “ecumenitis,” that is, a systematic “dethronement of truth,” a victory of dictatorial relativism, that arrogantly declares that there is no objective truth, and that everyone is entitled to his own religious views, while none can claim to be “the truth.”
May “modern man” so easily confused by the Zeitgeist, pray to St. Augustine to share his passionate love of the word “wisdom” and truth (Confessions, III.iv).
For Truth alone can unite men. Error is another word for division: indeed, Satan himself acknowledged that “our name is many.”
Let us pray ardently that all men might open their heart to this luminous truth which alone can bring peace to our sick world.