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January 18, 2013
Intellectual pitfalls
By Alice von Hildebrand *

By Alice von Hildebrand *

Genesis informs us that when God completed creation, He saw that “it was very good.” Surprisingly enough, these luminous words can easily be misread or misinterpreted. 

God is  clearly telling us that every single being to which He has freely granted “to be” is not only benefiting from the nobility of existence, but moreover  that all these beings not only  “are” but moreover have qualities  and perfections which, according to a huge scale, reflect God’s infinite beauty. A star-studded key awakens in us a feeling of awe, but the most modest insect hidden in the grass, also speaks of God’s glory. There is no such a thing as “naked” being. Pure being is an abstraction. 

Let me repeat: All existing beings have qualities and perfections the scale of which is immense – from the awesome greatness and beauty of a star-studded sky to the modest perfection of a gnat. All of them reflect the greatness and glory of God: “Heaven and earth are filled with His Glory.”

The greatness of God’s creation teaches us one of the most fundamental metaphysical laws: exemplarism. This is one of the great merits of Plato: he saw it, even though, living ante lucem, his vision was necessarily imperfect and limited. But his insight was superbly enriched not only by St. Augustine, but very especially by the great St. Bonaventure. He tells us that all material creation – with the exception of man (homo) – are vestigia (traces) of God. Man alone, being made to God’s likeness, is his Imago. This might explain the particular love that Benedict XVI has for the great Franciscan.

Indeed whatever God brought into existence was ontologically “good,” being a reflection of its Creator. But obviously “good” does not refer to moral qualities. These can only be found in persons having free will. It makes no sense to refer to the “generosity” of mountains, or the humility of a blade of grass.

God has created billions and billions of beings. Could He have created billions more? The obvious answer is yes. Is the fact that He in His infinite wisdom, He decided to limit their number be considered an evil? Once again the obvious answer is no. That something was not created that in principle could have existed, cannot be qualified as an evil.

To use Dietrich von Hildebrand’s terminology, all existing beings created by God have ontological value. This is true even though the scale between a human person and a blade of grass is huge indeed.

All ontological values call for our respect. Moreover, one either possesses this value or one does not. One cannot be “more or less” a person and “more or less” an elephant: either one is one or one is not one.

Very different are what the same author calls qualitative values, the most prominent of which are moral values or disvalues (just or unjust) ; intellectual values, ( intelligent or stupid); and aesthetic values, (beautiful or ugly). It is obvious that moral and intellectual values can only be possessed by persons: there is no such thing as a saintly animal or a dog who is an inventive genius.

This undeniable fact opens up a new philosophical horizon:  namely the fact that whereas one cannot be more or less of a person (even though one can be a more or less perfect person), one can be more or less just, more or less intelligent, more or less beautiful. Ontological values have no opposites: the “contradictory” of an elephant is a non elephant which simply is not. It is simply “nothing.” There is no “non elephant.” Whereas moral values can be possessed to a greater or lesser degree reaching a point when the scale turns and we reach a fearful reality:  moral evil. A priest related to my husband that one day, a woman confessed that “she feared she loved her husband too little.” Puzzled, he questioned her further and found out that for months she had been living in adultery. Indeed, adultery “was too little love.”

A confusion between ontological values and qualitative values is widespread among philosophers, including Catholics, and is serious in its consequences.

As mentioned above, the non existence of a possible ontological value is sheer absence, and no evil. It is however, a dangerous equivocation to draw the conclusion that the same applies to immorality or heresy.

To assume that “moral evil’ is just a distorted good, and that therefore, there is no such thing as moral evil, its being just an absence (as darkness is lack of light) and claim moreover that moral Evil pure and simple does not exist, is misinterpreting the Divine statement in Genesis: God saw that His creation was very good and extend it to man’s actions. All the beings that God brought into existence are – in Aristotelian terminology “substances” – possessing qualities called accidents. An act of murder, rape, sadism, sodomy are not “substances” but alas, they are fearful facts. 

The act itself is a sin, and sins are  not distorted goods, but grave offenses of God, which not only separate the sinner from God, but  moreover, deeply stain the sinner’s soul, and moreover,  in most cases, wound and hurt other beings. This is why sin is a terrible reality. Original sin was so grave that it cut off man from his Creator, and created an abyss between Creator and creature that only God’s infinite goodness could span.  It would be strange indeed if God had decided to send His divine Son to earth, have Him incarnated in the womb of a Virgin and destine Him to a shameful and horrendous death, just for mending the harm done by a “distorted” good.

At this point one wishes to have the eloquence of a Cicero, inspired by the writings of St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans, in which he condemns in the strongest possible words (see Rom.1:18) all the perversions and moral abominations abhorred by the Apostle of the Gentiles, being full fledged realities, and not just distorted goods. Alas, they are fully real acts of revolt. Non serviam. In other words, sexual perversions, immorality, theft, murder, sadism, rape are totally and exclusively man’s doings, and have nothing to do with the goodness of God’s creation. These evils are committed by man alone after creation was completed. The viciousness of these acts is man’s full responsibility and can never be viewed as “an absence or distortion” of something good that God had created.

This was superbly expressed by St. Augustine, referring to moral evil that is either heresies or immoralities. He writes these golden words: Interficere errorem; digiligere errantem. What is false or morally evil is to be “killed”, destroyed, blotted out of existence. There should be neither pity nor compassion for the moral evil referred to above. They must be fought against, with every possible means. They should not be tolerated.  There are things which, St. Paul tells us, because of their evil character that “should not even be mentioned among Christians.” Today, the whole gamut of moral perversions are not only mentioned, but advertised and even praised, as the abolition of “old taboos.” Moreover, their acceptance is praised in the name of “charity” and “compassion.”  Compassion toward sinners should apparently be extended toward sins, because the two are so closely “married.” Secularists and atheists today have become “the great apostles of charity,” reminding Christians that the Gospel is a Gospel of love and forgiveness. Moreover, there is no need for forgiveness – everything is legitimate if it satisfies the person who happens to like it. The whole gamut of tastes should be respected.

Who is to decide what is right? Joe Biden tells us that being a practicing Catholic, he fully endorses the teaching of the Church condemning abortion. But being “charitable”, he has no right to impose his opinions on others. Some politicians have become “moral theologians.”

The Gospel, when read on one’s knees as recommended by Kierkegaard, tells us a very different story. Far from claiming that there is one redeeming feature in sin, it claims that certaub sins are such a abominations (offense of God) that if “anyone scandalizes one of these little ones, it would be better for him to have a millstone put around his neck and be thrown to the bottom of the sea” (Matt. 18:6; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2). 

These are fearful words. Clearly there was nothing “redeemable” in these acts. Pornography is clearly referred to by these words. Still more fearful is Judas’ betrayal. It is in referring to this traitor that Christ spoke the most fearful words uttered in the Gospel of love; “It would have been better for this man had he never been born.” The loving Savior, about to sacrifice his life for us, sinners, clearly could not see anything “positive” behind the abomination of Judas’s treason. It is a grievous error that must make the Angels cry to claim that we should look for the positive behind pornography.

This leads us to the second point: “diligere errantem.” There the divine message is very different; abominable as certain crimes are, as long as the sinner lives, not only can he repent (and this would give immense joy to Angels in heaven), but however stained and filthy (for there is such a thing as moral filth), God’s image is still in him. The Christian message is clear indeed; your love for the sinner is proportionate to your hatred of his sin. A sincere lover of a “pornographer” is the greatest enemy of pornography. In his Purgatory, Dante wrote the following words concerning Malfredi:

Orribili furon li peccati mei

Ma la bonta divina ha si gran braccia

Che prende cio, che si rivolge a lei. (iii, 121 ff)

The message is clear: there are sins which are nothing short of horrible, but God will never turn down a repentant sinner. As a matter of fact, we do not even have to implore for God’s mercy: it is always offered, but the terrible fact is that man can turn it down, preferring damnation to mercy.

Kierkegaard speaks also of this metaphysical rebellion: “… rather than seek help he would prefer to be himself – with all the tortures of hell, if it must be.”

The Christian attitude is superbly expressed in Dietrich von Hildebrand’s words. While discussing the horror of Nazis with a friend whose mother died in a concentration camp, he said, “If Hitler were dying in jail and begged for a glass of water, I would hasten to give it to him.” His friend was shocked, but he was right.

May we live up to both challenges: the hatred of the sin; the love for the sinner.

Alice von Hildebrand is a lecturer and an author, whose works include: The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) and The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (2000), a biography of her late husband. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory by Pope Francis in 2013.
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