There are some unsettling words in the Gospel, words that remind us that we should live in “fear and trembling.” We are told that at the end of time (every moment brings us closer to it) there will be such confusion as to seduce even the elect.
It is upsetting indeed to be told that the best among us can become the prey of grave confusions. The genius of both Church scholars Origen and Tertullian did not prevent them from erring. The call of the hour is to become aware of the domains in which confusion is most widespread.
One of them is the most lovable word “compassion.” It is an arch-Christian word – representing the good shepherd who leaves all his sheep to look for the one that has gone astray. Christ died to redeem sinners that are, through their sins, cut off from God.
Pharisaism, one possible response to sin, is a perennial temptation for believers; the ruthless condemnation of the sinner because of his sin. (Alas, there are diseases, whether intellectual or moral, that are chronic, and even though they seem to be eliminated, they usually remain dormant, until the next epidemic catches us unprepared.)
Yet on the other hand – and in reaction to Pharisaism – the later half of the 20th century will go down in history as a period when even some elect fell into confusion. The word “compassion” became the alfa et omega of authentic Christianity. Condemnation under any form was condemned as harsh and unloving. The anathema was anathematized.
But thanks to the “baptized genius” of St. Augustine – one of the great treasures of Christianity – we are given a key that helps us to combine an ardent love for God’s truth and a loving attitude toward heretics who reject dogmas and sinners who are affected by deadly moral diseases.
The saint wrote “Interficere errorem; diligere errantem” which means, “kill the error; love the one who errs.” Kill is not an equivocal word. It cannot possibly be misread: it means war until the enemy is dead.
How dangerous it is to be mild on both heresy and sin because of a distorted “compassion” for the heresiarch and the sinner. To reject and trample upon revealed truth is something so grave that, from the very beginning of the Church, the word “anathema sit” has been repeatedly used. A heresy is a slap in the face of Christ who declared Himself to be The Truth. To wallow in grave sins is so grave that apart from the offense of God, it is also the deadliest enemy of the sinner. The intensity and purity of our love for the latter, can be measured by our abomination of his sin. I recall that years ago, Professor Jerome Lejeune told me, with a fierce expression on his face: “You cannot imagine how I hate disease.” His passionate love for his patients was powerfully expressed in these words.
It is because every Christian has a strict duty of charity to love the sinner, that he should abhor the sin. Rape, sadism, pornography, heresy are odious, and to look for some good “behind them” is to fall prey to a very serious intellectual confusion. Why did Christ say about those “who scandalize little ones” that it would be better for them to have a millstone put around their neck, and thrown into the sea?
Because the gravity of this sin is such that it calls for the fearful condemnation that Christ gives. He certainly did not look for the “good behind the evil,” because there is none to be found. What was the “good” hidden behind Judas' betrayal? No word in the New Testament is as fearful as the words of Christ: “it would have been better for him had he not been born.” Every time we read those words I tremble. Existence is such a great good, but Christ tells us that there are cases when not to exist is preferable.
Those who “charitably” assume that we must look for the good behind the evil, probably wish to say that in spite of the horrendous crime committed by the sinner, the latter still is a child of God made to His image and likeness, that as long as he lives, he has a chance of finding his way back through repentance. Never should a sinner be identified with his sin. He is not sin. Even though his sinning has abominably stained his immortal soul, he is not beyond redemption, filthy as his sin may be. As long as he lives, healing is possible. To identify the sinner with his sin is typical of revolting Pharisaism.
But to be soft on the sin because of one's concern for the sinner, is a subtle way of sinning against charity. Christian love of neighbors commands us to pray for sinners. More than that, we should be willing to sacrifice and suffer for them. One of the admirable expressions of Christian love (which we often forget) is that day and night there are religious both males and females in monasteries who spend their lives in penance and suffering for those whose lives threatens their eternal welfare. How many will be saved at the moment of death, thanks to the sufferings of a totally unknown little nun who offered her sacrifices and sorrows for him, even though not knowing him. This is the glorious beauty of the love that Christ came on earth to teach us.
Two more remarks are called for. Those of us who have parents or relatives or friends who have committed odious crimes, will inevitably look for some redeeming features in their character. I recall that when I read that Hitler cried when his mother died, it gave me some degree of comfort. May this expression of authentic love have helped him at the moment of death to beg for mercy.
It should also be mentioned that God, who is Love itself, can in His loving omnipotence, use evil to lead to some good. In other words, there is such a thing as a FELIX CULPA sung on Good Friday: “Happy fault that has given us such a Redeemer.” But it would be the climax of arrogant perversion to commit a grave sin, while saying to God, that it was His Business to transform it into something beneficial.
This is a very serious topic. May these brief remarks shed some modest light on a dangerous confusion.
*This essay is based on Dietrich von Hildebrand’s book, Situation Ethics, Chapter IX: The Christian Attitude Toward Sinners.