Alice von Hildebrand

Alice von Hildebrand

Alice von Hildebrand was a philosopher, lecturer, and an author, whose works included: The Privilege of Being a Woman (Ignatius Press, 2002), The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (Ignatius Press, 2000), a biography of her late husband, Man and Woman: A Divine Invention (Ignatius Press, 2010), and Memoirs of a Happy Failure, with John Henry Crosby (Saint Benedict Press, 2014). In 2004, Von Hildebrand started the Von Hildebrand Project with the disciples of her husband, dedicated to making the witness and thought of her husband known. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory by Pope Francis in 2013. Her life and works made important contributions to the understanding of the feminine genius, the role of the laity, and the vocation of marriage. She died on January 14, 2022.

Articles by Alice von Hildebrand

The mystery of paradoxes

Dec 18, 2013 / 00:00 am

A careful reading of the New Testament will inevitably make the reader wonder that one and the same book offers seemingly contradictory views of God. Our Savior and King is presented as the Good Pastor who abandons 99 percent of his sheep in search of the lost one. He has no peace until He finds it and brings it back to the fold. This is love indeed. We are further told that there is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends. This is precisely what Christ did in dying for us on the Cross. In the very same book, however we read, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire...” (Matt. 25:41)  These are words that make one tremble. They are matched in severity with the words Christ uttered about the traitor: “it would have been better for this man, had he not be born.” (Matt. 26-24) He also said: “...whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned into the depth of the sea.” (Matt. 18:6) How can the Evangelium – the Good News – be darkened by such menaces? How is love compatible with eternal punishment?  These are grave questions that should be addressed.What the Holy Script is teaching us becomes luminous only when we read it (as Kierkegaard urges us to do) “on our knees.” That is, with humble receptivity and trembling reverence. With this basic attitude failing, it is tempting indeed to put the Holy Book “on trial” and command it to “justify” itself. That being the case, every word will inevitably be distorted and caricatured. Was it not Lichtenberger who wrote that when a gorilla looks into a mirror, he will see a gorilla? When a radical atheist reads the Bible, he will see what he himself has projected into the Holy Script. This might explain why so many “brilliant minds” have been experts at misreading it. Bertrand Russell comes to mind. Once reverence is eliminated, “free spirits” have a field day misinterpreting the divine message by squeezing it into secular corsets. All heresies were the “children” of “brilliant minds” whose talents being poisoned by pride, inevitably gave birth to grave errors, and opened the door wide to all the vagaries that the human mind is talented at producing.The question we should raise is the following: is the Bible (the New Testament in this case,) full of contradictions, or does it present us with paradoxes?Every single human being made to God’s image and likeness and therefore a “person”, can claim to be a “metaphysical aristocrat.” But it is also true that some men chose to abdicate their noble title by “resenting” the fact that they are not God, and turning against the “giver of all gifts.” In so doing, they joined the ugly crown at Calvary screaming, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” and freely “renounced” their dignity as God’s children.God could have denied free will to all his creatures – and thereby “forced” them by their very existence and without any collaboration, to glorify Him as Creator. But God – being Love itself – wanted to be freely loved, and chose to “take the risk” of creating persons, that is to say creatures necessarily endowed with free will. These creature-persons both adore and love their Creator by choice, (for a “forced” love is no love at all) or can freely choose to echo Lucifer and declare with him, “I shall not serve.” It was Kierkegaard, I believe, who wrote that only an immensely perfect and powerful  God would venture to give existence to persons capable of choosing rebellion in “waging” war on their Creator to whom they owe their very being. St. Peter urged us: “to live as free men, yet not using your freedom as a pretext for evil, but as servants of God.” (1Peter 2:16) These words should be the object of our daily meditation. The misuse of the admirable gift of free will is a mysterium iniquitatis.Once we realize this, the apparent “contradictions” found in the Holy Book, take a radically different character.Logical contradictions should be thrown out of court: it makes no sense whatever to claim that one and the same proposition can be both true and false at the same time. Yet – and this should not surprise us – some “geniuses” have chosen to challenge this luminous truth by proclaiming that the rejection of contradictions is symptomatic of a certain “narrow mindedness.” I have Suzuki in mind, a very famous Yoga teacher. Father Henry van Straelen – a Catholic missionary who spent half of his long life in the Far East – wrote that this “brilliant mind” defended the thesis that two plus two is four is one possibility among others: for example, it could also be three or five. (See Henry van Straelen, S.VD: Le Zen Demystifie, p. 94)If a high school kid would defend this view, he would flunk his test. But once a person has gained the reputation of being a genius, most people will kowtow to him in awe. (Suzuki claimed…) In such cases, any “dialogue” (often assumed today to give us a golden key to clear any “misunderstandings”), becomes meaningless. If the principle of contradiction is challenged, further discussion is a waste of time.  Whereas truths can neither contradict each other, nor “compete” with one another, (for all truths harmonize), they can complement each other. The claim that there is only one God is enriched by revelation informing us that the one true God is a Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. To say that God is infinite love does not exclude His being infinitely just and therefore “obliged” to punish his rebellious creatures.I hope to shed some modest light on paradoxes; that is statements which, while seemingly conflicting, are in facts two facets of the same truth.To say that man is a creature made to God’s image and likeness informs us that he has been given a high metaphysical rank: way above all impersonal creatures. Between man and mammals – in spite of all their striking “similarities” gleefully underlined by Darwin and his disciples – there is a metaphysical abyss separating persons from non-persons. The first are “traces” of God; the second are “images” of God. (St. Bonaventure, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum). This is confirmed by God’s words to our first parents in giving them dominion over all other material creatures: the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, and every living thing that moves over the earth. (Gen. 1:28) This fact does not preclude the possibility that man by his own fault, can stain his royal vestment. St. Anselm of Canterbury, referring to the damage that original sin has done to the human soul writes: “O hard and terrible fate! Alas, what has he lost and what has he found?…He has lost the blessedness for which he was made, and has found the misery for which he was not made.” (Proslogion,  Chapter I)He is now a vile sinner desperately in need of redemption. And yet, God’s infinite love is still ready to go in search of the lost sheep, and when found to bring him back to the fold. That God’s infinite mercifulness is always offered is magnificently expressed in Dante’s Purgatory. He writes referring to Manfredi: “Orribil furon li peccati miei; ma la bonta infinita ha si gran braccia che prende cio che si rivolge a lei…” (III 121,123 – Horrible were my sins, but Infinite Bounty has arms of an embrace so broad that it accepts whoever turn to it.) All sinful man need do is to utter the words: “Forgive me, O Lord.”Puzzling as these “radically” opposite truths are (love and punishment) – yet anyone “receptive” to the divine message will see that they essentially belong together.It is the duty of our pastors, from the Pope down, to remind us that God’s infinite love can, alas, be rejected by rambunctious creatures who resent not being God, and yet also remind them that as long as they live, they are lovingly sought by the Good Pastor. Gueranger puts it well; “in a few days Thou art coming to us to clothe our misery with the garment of your mercy.” (Advent, p. 13) Forgiveness and mercy are always offered but alas, as C.S. Lewis put it, the doors of hell are locked “from the inside.” The sinner, misusing his freedom, can reject the loving forgiveness of the very God who waits for him with open arms.God is infinite love and yet infinitely just; he “cannot” force his creatures to love him. Indeed, a “forced marriage” is an invalid one. When commenting on the Gospels, it is crucial for any loving pastor to complement the texts full of mercy with those which remind us that as long as we live, we are “in danger”, “for the devil  like a roaring lion is always on the lookout for someone to devour.” (1Peter, 4:8). Gueranger writes: “The day will come when Thou wilt disperse the spiritual and voluntary darkness of men with the awful light of Thy Justice.” The word “awful” should be underlined, for indeed, it is terrible to fall into the Hands of the Living God. It is worth mentioning that the Little Flower when referring to Heaven tells us that it is the place where there is “perfect justice.” We would expect her to say, “It is the place where Love reigns supreme.” This remark is worth meditating upon.Yet in the course of the last fifty years, I do not recall any homily reminding us that sin is something terrible. Not only does it offend God, but it also deeply wounds the sinner. The “tendency” today is to “water down” the divine message, so that it does not “upset” modern man and make him run away from the Church. I even know a priest who was reprehended by his bishop for having mentioned “hell” in his homily. It “shocked” some parishioners!  On a secular plane, what would we say of a medical doctor who never warns his patients that certain diseases are contagious and teaches them how to protect themselves from these deadly poisons?  Preventive medicine is crucial for many of our ailments are self caused.How many priests today “dare” condemn abortion, homosexuality, or same-sex “marriage” – sins of such gravity that, years ago, “they were not even mentioned among Christians”? Their claim is that it simply “does not harmonize” with the “climate of the time” which propagates the good news that “it is practically impossible to commit a mortal sin” as one priest claims. In that case, it makes no sense to inform us that God is infinitely compassionate and forgiving … for in fact there is nothing to forgive. Why make such fuss about peccadilloes, minor lapses and human foibles? On the other hand, as I wrote above, it would also be not only wrong but gravely misleading to thunder how sinful and repulsive a sinner man is, without mentioning God’s infinite loving mercy. Jansenism and Calvinism, under their various forms, are abominable deformations of the Gospel.Both love and justice belong so essentially together that to mention only one of them, is bound to lead either to permissiveness (“God is so good, he does not mind the weaknesses of his children”), or to despair. This was Judas’ sin, and led him to take his life.Indeed it is true that where sin abounds, so does God’s mercy, but this mercy must be asked for.Why have so many of our pastors forgotten that it is the abysmal betrayal of Adam and Eve that has motivated an infinitely loving God to sacrifice His beloved son in order to save us? If their sin was not an abomination, God’s offer to sacrifice his only son to save humanity would be sheer sadism and madness combined.Another crucial, but “forgotten”, truth is that in weighing the gravity of a sin, two things should be kept in mind: first, the hierarchy of evils; some sins are more grievous than others. Theft is condemned in the 5th commandment, but it is “trumped” by murder. One can in principle return the property stolen. The murderer cannot bring his victim back to life. But it is also crucial (is it ever mentioned?) that the gravity of the offense also depends upon the dignity of the person offended. Cruelty toward animals is morally evil. But to torture a child is much worse because he is a person. This leads me to a key insight: any offense of God, the Infinitely Holy, the Infinitely Good, the Infinitely Perfect One, is of such gravity that Christ alone, being the second Person of the Holy Trinity, could properly atone for the sin of our First Parents. Once again, the “climate” of the time makes us forget how fearful their sin was. We have lost sight of who God is (let us recall the priest who in his Sunday homily, referred to God “as the nice guy upstairs”). That a “well meaning” priest (for subjectively he probably wished to convince the people in the pews that God is not to be feared: he is essentially a jolly good fellow, who loves his children even when they are dirty) can make such a remark must make the angels sob. The Bible tells us explicitly that “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom”. (Proverbs, 9-10)  Indeed, the same Holy Book tells us that “we cannot see God and live.” In my youth, the parishioners would have risen up in protest had the homilist make such a vulgar remark about a God adored by the Seraphins murmuring: “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus.” Once again our anti-culture (as Dietrich von Hildebrand dubbed it) likes to remind us that God as creator, has linked certain activities with intense pleasure. Would it not be “ungrateful” not to fully appreciate these “gifts”? Is it clearly “unfair” to blame men for enjoying them to the full? God Himself has granted freedom to some of His creatures: in doing so, He clearly gave them “freedom of choice.” The obvious consequence it is therefore that a woman has a right to decide whether or not she will keep “the blob of tissue” developing in her womb. Moreover, an unwelcome child will be a neglected and unhappy child. Is it not “cruel” to give birth to someone unwanted? Christian morality, as taught in manuals, leaves no room for “compassion.” We have now progressed enough to practice this form of love by making abortion legally available to everyone. It should also be luminous that we should “help” crippled, diseased and elderly people – who neither contribute to the good of society nor enjoy life – to have a “dignified” death by assisted suicide.Indeed, the Ten Commandments should be rewritten according to the demands of the time. This “new” morality is a much more “human” morality, and will finally liberate people from unbearable burdens that stale traditions have crippled them with.Why should we object to same-sex “marriage”, if some people can only find “self-fulfillment” in such relationships? Does not God wish his children to be happy? Or is He a sadist punishing them if they – having freedom of choice – make an abundant use of the pleasures that God Himself has related to food, drink or “sex” under any form. Whatever makes an individual happy should be endorsed.  We live in a word characterized by total confusion; evil deeds, moral perversions traditionally condemned, are now viewed with “compassion” and those who uphold not only divine teaching, but the natural moral law (so clearly perceived by Plato when he condemned homosexuality – see Laws, Book VIII) are accused of being pharisaical and lacking in Christian charity. Years ago, a colleague of mine – a committed Communist – sent a letter to the New York Archdiocese explaining why he had left the Church upon discovering that “she was not a Church of love.” Apparently the Gulags were. Moral perversions are propagated by the news media, cleverly hijacked by the Evil one, accusing those who oppose the same-sex “marriage” of “imposing their views on other persons.” Radical moral relativism has the peculiarity of generously embracing all opinions, except the true one.This sad state of affair should not surprise us: St. Matthew warned us that at the end of time there will be a confusion of such dimension as to seduce “even the elect.” (Matt. 24) What is particularly confusing is that “well intentioned” people can spread misleading messages. A typical confusion is the one between ontological “evil” and moral “evil.” When God created the world, He declared that “it was very good.” He was clearly referring to the value and dignity of existence. Every single creature He brought into existence, be it a small gnat, had some of this ontological dignity. Had it not been created (obviously God could have brought many more beings into existence) those not created would not have caused an evil, but just “an absence of”, it would have been just an “absence of.” A non-existing insect is clearly not an evil.But it is a serious philosophical error to apply this to moral evil; for moral evil is not just “an absence of moral goodness,” but it is, alas, a fearful reality. A priest once told my husband that a lady confessed that “she did not love her husband enough.” Puzzled by this remark, the priest questioned her further, and found out that she had been living in adultery for months. Indeed, adultery was “a lack of love.” The great St. Augustine has shared with us a truth of key importance. He wrote: Interficere errorem; diligere errantem. (“Kill the error; love the erring one.”) Wage merciless war on the fearful reality of the sin; but love the sinner. There is nothing “redeemable” in pornography; there is nothing redeemable in sadism, in rape, in sexual perversions. They are evil and must be not only defeated but, if possible, annihilated. To look for “good” behind pornography is to fall prey to a very grave confusion. But Christian charity commands us to look anxiously for some redeeming feature in the pornographer. To put it plainly:  Kill Playboy; lovingly look for some positive trait in Hugh Hefner, the unfortunate father of this filthy magazine. Today love for the pornographer (a tragic figure) tempts some well intentioned people to look for the good “behind pornography.” This vice is a product of hell, and has nothing to do with God’s beautiful creation. Love for the pornographer is best shown by fighting the filth that endangers his immortal soul.One grace we should all beg us for is the grace of “seeing.” The climate of the time has spread so many dark clouds over our minds that we truly need divine help to distinguish between truth and its diabolical counterfeits.  From confusion, deliver us, O Lord.

A touch of metaphysical humor

Dec 3, 2013 / 00:00 am

“Freedom of choice” has conquered the heart of modern man. To him it signifies liberation from all mediaeval taboos which, for centuries, have burdened men’s conscience and prevented them from growing wings.One of its most eloquent advocates  is Nancy Pelosi whose philosophical formation being very – let us say, anemic – interprets it to mean that every woman has a right to either keep the child growing in her womb or eliminate this unwelcome guest. When Adam and Eve chose to disobey God’s commands, they were indeed using their “freedom of choice” with the results that we know. When Cain killed Abel, he indeed had a choice: to respect his brother’s life or to use violence to bring him to the tomb. When a father gives his teenage son a knife for his birthday, the boy has indeed freedom of choice: either to improve his mechanical skills, or to plunge it into the heart of a school mate who defeated him in a tennis match.More examples are not needed to make us aware of the huge field of abuses to which the discovery of this “divine secular right” can lead. To some modern men’s distress and grief, there are things however which are “imposed” upon us and therefore in which we are deprived of this birthright, to decide by ourselves, a few examples are called for:  We do not choose our parents; we do not choose when and where we were born; we do not choose our physical appearance … and we do not choose our sex.It is this latter “infringement” upon our freedom of choice that will retain my attention. One thing is certain: we are born either male or female and had no say whatever in this matter which, after all, is not unimportant. This leads me to a humorous question: (I say humorous when I should rather stupid): If, seconds before conception, God had asked us: would you rather be a boy or a girl, I wonder what most people would have chosen. Before making a choice, we should wisely examine the pros and cons of our possible decision; this is difficult to do before one exists! It is conceivable that many people would choose to be males – ie the “strong sex” that the noble St. Francis of Sales even calls “the more excellent” sex without giving us any argument. He was in fact just echoing Aristotle who claimed that the superiority of the male sex is due to the fact that man is active; woman is only “passive.” With due respect to one of the great philosophical giants that the world  has produced, I nevertheless dare accuse Aristotle of failing to distinguish between  “passive” – clearly inferior to “active” – with “receptive” which is the glory of “creatures.” (Indeed, “what do you have that you have not received”?) Any preference  given to the male sex echoes the basic premises of feminists like Simone de Beauvoir who  writes that woman is not a “being”;  she is only a “becoming”;  moreover that she is “disgusted” with her own body,  that she “produces nothing” (for to give birth is “nothing)” and more of  such nonsense, ad nauseam.Not having her “fame” (and not wishing to have it for very valid reasons), I nevertheless dare challenge her. It is my claim that there are very convincing reasons for choosing to be born a woman.My arguments do not aim at convincing my “philosophical enemy” for the obvious reason that I shall base my arguments on the Bible which she rejects as a pack of myths. I, on the contrary, happen to believe that it is a sacred book, and that to reject its message, far from being a sign of wisdom, is indicative of very grave intellectual flaws. Failure to open our minds and hearts to its message will lead to our own doom.God created man (homo) to his image and likeness, making it clear that male and female have the very same metaphysical dignity. He decided, however, to create them male and female i.e.  homo vir and homo mulier: a male human person and a female human person. Unfortunately in English the word homo applies to both a human person and to the human male which is open to confusion. Can a reverent reading of this sacred book offer us facts which would justify my claim that the female sex is in fact the privileged one?I am not a Biblical scholar, and I will just follow the text as given in translations acknowledged to be valid. The Sacred Text tells us that Adam was created first: this is one of the “powerful” arguments that feminists use. Eve was just an “after thought.” To be man is to be a male; the female is a sort of appendix. But it could also be argued that the final copy comes after the rough draft and that would give Eve priority. Long years of teaching have taught me that the best way to refute a stupidity is by trumping it by another one.None of the animals that God had created were worthy companions for a human person, and man being a person is made for communion, (“it is not good for man to be alone“).  God decided to create Eve – a female person. Whereas Adam’s body was made from the slime of the earth, (not a very aristocratic origin), Eve’s body was taken from the body of a human person made to God’s image and likeness.  This is definitely a nobler origin. We are told that Adam was put in a deep sleep and upon waking, saw Eve. His response was enchantment … “flesh of my flesh; bone of my bone.” (Gen 2:23) For her sake he will leave father and mother and join his wife. (Of course, for good reasons, this does not apply to Him who came directly out of God’s hands. It is not said, however, that the woman will leave her father and mother). Adam’s enchantment climaxed when he proclaimed his wife to “the mother of the living.” Can one imagine a more glorious title? A sacred book declares solemnly that Woman and Life are so intimately linked that they should never be separated. Then comes the tragedy of original sin. St. Augustine – one of the greatest luminaries of the Church – being human can, like Aristotle, make misleading statements. He wrote that the Serpent addressed himself to Eve because “being the weaker,” she would be easier to conquer, that is to “defeat.” I, on the contrary, believe that he addressed himself to Eve because being very sly, he knew that she had an enormous influence on her husband, and that once conquered, he would sheepishly follow suit. He is indeed the first of a long dynasty of wimps. It is deeply meaningful that whereas both are severely punished, her personal punishment is particularly harsh. That is, it is related to the very domain which is her glory: to give life. The privilege, however, is not taken from her, but she will have to pay for it: this is why in the Bible, while referring to very severe suffering, we often find the words, “like a woman in labor.” Moreover, God also solemnly declared that there will be an enmity between the Serpent and the woman: “he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Gen. 3:16). But this is not yet the end of this dramatic story.Referring to Cain’s birth, Eve exclaims, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” (Gen. 4:1)  Adam is not even mentioned. I can vividly imagine Adam in the background, murmuring sheepishly: “Afterall, she knows I am the father; why does she ‘forget’ to mention my role?”  Of course, Eve knows that, but being a budding theologian she also knows that his role, while crucial, is short lived and totally secondary compared to her role as mother. She also knows that in procreation, God has the crucial role. I just wrote that Eve, unwittingly – without a degree – is a theologian. She knows intuitively that a human person has a soul: neither the semen nor the egg has this privilege. They are both pre-given and placed by God in the body. But the person – made to God’s image and likeness – is granted personhood by receiving a soul and the human person starts existing the very moment that God Himself creates the soul (neither father nor mother have anything to do with it) and places it in the female body. This implies that God “touches” the female body, and whatever God touches is “sacred.” This should shed light on the mystery and dignity of the female body and explains why St. Paul insists that it calls for “veiling.” Once again, it is thanks to feminists’ ignorance that many women in the wake of Vatican II, interpreted by the media have given up the beautiful tradition of having women enter Churches veiled. We have lost sense for mystery, for sacredness and this might explain why our society is not only sick but in many ways “comatose.” A society that has lost the sense of the sacred is a society which has chosen death. But the role of women in the world, in the family, in the Church is not over. God in His infinite goodness has promised man a savior: and this savior was to be born of a woman. Isaiah writes: “A virgin shall conceive, and she shall bear a son and his name will be Emmanuel, God among us.” (7:14)We know through Revelation that this Virgin’s name is Mary, that she is the daughter of Joachim and Anna, and that she was born unstained by original sin. Indeed, it would be unconceivable that the second Person of the Trinity should be placed in a stained cradle, for that is the proper name for a womb: the cradle of life.This fact should fill women with awe: for they too share the anatomy of the Blessed one among all women; they too are granted the costly privilege of giving life; they too have breasts whose generous milk keeps new born alive.  If only little girls were made aware of the sacred dignity of their body, the would shun with horror “modern fashions” which aim at degrading this mystery. In due time, Mary gave birth to a son who by sacrificing his life, re opened for sinful man the doors of Paradise – on the condition that accepting His holy teaching, he follows the path joyfully chosen by Mary who said that “she was the handmaid of the Lord”.In giving birth to Jesus, Mary who, as woman, is the mother of the living gave birth to Him who was to declare himself to be “Life Itself.” No founder of any religion has ever dared to make such a claim. No one of them has declared himself to be The Truth. Indeed, Christ is clearly the Priest par excellence – the one interceding to God for the salvation of sinful man. There is only one Priest: Christ. And this priest has no earthly father, but has an earthly mother. This again, should make women tremble at their dignity. It also reveals to them in a glorious light that their mission is to be mothers of priests. This is a powerful argument against the priesthood of women. How I wish that on Thanksgiving Day, all women would join hands and sing to God a hymn of gratitude for having made them to be women. “If they only knew the gift of God” as Christ said to the Samaritan woman, and would understand that unless they “rediscover” the beauty of their mission as “mothers of the living” and refrain from choosing to murder  a “child of God” in the cradle God has given them, they should realize that the world is inevitably heading for disaster.It is my firm conviction that the role of women in the world, in society, in the family, in marriage is so crucial that the legalization of abortion is Satan’s greatest victory since original sin. He has managed to rupture the bond between women and the living.Ezekiel tells us “lex peribit a sacerdote.”  Indeed priests play a crucial role in human life. I could image that if he were alive today, he would write: lex peribit a mulieribus. Indeed it is a privilege to share the sex of the most beautiful of all of God’s creatures: she is, while metaphysically inferior to angels (who are purely spiritual persons), their queen: Regina Angelorum.  The choice offered to women is: either Daughters of Eve … or Daughters of Mary. May the Blessed one among women open our eyes and echo her words of the Angel; Ecce ancilla Domini.

The art of accepting, or rejecting, help (part II)

Nov 6, 2013 / 00:00 am

Reflecting on rejecting requests for help leads me to a different question: when should help be requested? And how should it be requested?Dickens’ genius is best expressed in his sketching of “characters” and personalities. In this context, one that immediately comes of mind is Harold Skimpole in Bleak House.  He is introduced by one of his benefactors, Mr.  Jarndyce: “he is grown up – he is at least as old as I am – but in simplicity and freshness, and enthusiasm, and a fine guileless inaptitude for all worldly affairs, he is a perfect child.” (p. 82) Finding himself deeply in debt, and threatened to be thrown in jail, he manages to find young people who have very little money to pay his creditor. That to do so is for them a sacrifice does not even cross his mind. “…you see me utterly incapable of helping myself and entirely in your hands! I only ask to be free.” (p. 90) Not only does not Mr. Skimpole feel indebted toward his benefactors, but he artfully turns the situation around and rhapsodizes about the blessing of being able to help others. If only they would realize how fortunate they are! It must be an exhilarating feeling which, alas, he is deprived of being chronically insolvent. How Harold Skimpole envies such people! What a marvelous feeling is must be to guarantee other people’s freedom. He, Harold Skimpole, has such a love of nature and butterflies. How awful would it be if he were deprived of this joy! In fact, he feels himself to be the benefactor of those who have helped him. One needs Dickens’ genius to sketch this as powerfully as he does. Even though some might contest that Mr. Skimpole is an invention of Charles Dickens’s imagination, I am tempted to challenge their view.  In the course of my long life, I have known several people who manage to live very comfortably and satisfy all their hobbies with very little work (they never have a steady job) or, at times, no work at all. Man is a most inventive being when it comes to satisfy his wishes. It is indeed more pleasant to be taken care of and enjoy life, than to have to sweat and toil to pay for one’s daily bread.Psychologists might refer to Mr. Skimpole as a typical case of “infantilism,” but the fact is that some of us choose to remain a child and thereby appeal to other persons’ pity and kindness. In this field, there is certainly a large gamut of degrees, but that some people are artists at plucking the cords of tender human hearts, cannot be denied. In fact, “infantile” people know instinctively how unwise it would be to turn for help to those who “consider it to be insulting” to receive a request. Such people are “in shock” when asked to do so. Some may think, “Are they out of their mind? I have no obligation toward them; I hardly know them. They are not even one of my relatives. I shall make it clear to them that ‘solicitors are prohibited.’” I recall that during the war, a young soldier in England sent a telegram to an acquaintance in New York. The content was: “I could use more money.” The prompt reply was: “I could too.” Even though the refusal might have been justified, the promptness of the reply proved that the person in question had some practice in the art of turning down requests.Who would dream of asking Harpagon (the “hero” in Moliere’s masterpiece, “L’Avare”) for money? According to a servant, this nauseating vice was so deeply ingrained in him that instead of saying; “Je vous donne le bon jour” – “I ‘give’ you good morning” – he says, “Je vous prete le bon jour” – “I ‘lend’ you good morning.” Moliere’s genius makes vices grotesque.  This type of avariciousness is still more dramatically depicted in Honore de Balzac’s “Eugenie Grandet” which is about a father whose vicious avariciousness ruins the life of his wife and daughter. Great literature is often more instructive and illuminating than a text book on the seven capital sins.Let us go back to our friend Skimpole who does not like to work, and is a genius at finding ways to go through life “unharmed” by this unpleasant burden.    We might vindicate Harold Skimpole in recalling that there are types of work which are back breaking, badly paid and often health hazardous. Alas, millions of people accept the job because it is better than starving.We are then reminded of the Biblical words God spoke to Adam, “In the sweat of your face, you shall eat bread.” (Gen 3. 19) Escape from this daily torment justifies one’s desire to find well paying and rewarding jobs. How many dream of emigrating to the U.S. where, alas, money is often tragically confused with happiness.There also are people who have the well-earned reputation of never turning down a request, legitimate or illegitimate. If such people are not formed by Christian wisdom, they will inevitably be the victims of all sorts of scams.  “Professionals” in this field also have their own list of possible victims.Leaving this case aside, let us now raise the following question; knowing that some people are incredibly kind hearted and are likely never to turn down a request, is it always legitimate to solicit their help? A detour is called for.Whereas technology keeps “improving,” alas, the same thing cannot be said of social mores. Each age has its “virtues” and its vices. One cannot claim a priori, that because we have “progressed” in many domains; the same is true of ethics. Granted that some past aberration have been corrected, we cannot claim that our ethical standard today is, ipso facto, higher than the one of the previous generations. Sadly enough, while we can become more “clear sighted” in one domain, we can suffer from moral blindness in others. Let me be more specific. Stupid racial prejudices (for they truly deserve to be called such) have now rightly been condemned and “officially” abolished in so far as moral evils can be totally eliminated by laws. Who would dream today to refuse a black family to rent an apartment in a building inhabited by white people? The abysmal stupidity of judging people according to the color of their skin, is now “officially” not only acknowledged, but moreover, condemned by law.Does it mean that this evil is totally eradicated? The answer is that man, wounded by original sin, must always remain vigilant. Most diseases are chronic and while remaining dormant for a while, will “resurge” if given a chance to do so.We are definitely more “socially conscious” that our grandparents were. Today, it would be inconceivable that rich people who have live-in servants would not guarantee that they have running water and a toilet. Yet, in the early 20th century, it often was the case. Today it would plainly be unacceptable and moreover, there is a very good chance that helpers would request their own television. Who can, today, live without one?I know of a very rich lady born in the late 19th century whose house was heated, except for the servants’ quarters. “Why in the world would they need heat?” The point I am trying to make is that, unfortunately, “moral improvements” in one domain do not prevent other ethical domains to be shamefully neglected. In past ages, it was a matter of course that the younger generation had a feeling of respect and awe for elderly people. Their “white hair” guaranteed their being respected and looked up to. One only need read books about Indian tribes: they were under the authority and guidance of “elders” who were always consulted when a grave decision had to be taken. They were respectfully looked up to. Today, it is so far from being the case that most people dye their hair as soon as some of them turned gray. It is almost “shameful” to be getting old and therefore this “disgrace” must be “hidden.” I personally recall my love for my grandmother’s white hair; I thought it was beautiful.In the past a person over forty or fifty was assumed to be better qualified to give a wise advice than one just out of college. Experience is something precious that textbooks do not and cannot teach. Today because of our ingrained materialism, young people are more highly valued than older ones. They are “dynamic”and will bring “new ideas.” The past is past and should be buried. The young symbolize health, strength, and invention. Old categories ought to be replaced. Everything should be new. Obviously if one values a person according to his physical strength, if “materialism” in all its various forms is the dominant philosophy of the day, old persons are “useless” – good enough to be  relegated to a home where they will inevitably  sit on the death-bench.  As a matter of fact, assisted suicide is an act of “compassion”; an important dimension of this “virtue” was overlooked in the past. Today we have “progressed” and clearly perceive that when a person’s life has run its course, when his possibilities of benefiting society have been exhausted, it is “charitable” and kind to put him to sleep, without having to undergo the agonizing business of dying. One should die “with dignity.” The person has a “right” to decide when and how he will leave this planet. The noble “virtue of compassion” has been hijacked by materialism.Nourished in and by what Dietrich von Hildebrand dubbed our “anti-culture”, young people have been fed on a disastrous philosophical diet, claiming that the value of a person is to be gauged by his “productivity.” “Tell me how much you produce; I will tell you who you are.” Far from being looked up to, an old person is looked down upon as an unproductive member of society. Inevitably it makes young people assume that elderly and old people have nothing to teach them. Place them in front of computers you will immediately perceive how “intellectually deficient” they are.  As human strength inevitably decreases with age, and as persons tend to live longer and longer, the elderly will become an unbearable burden for the younger generation who will have to provide for their ever increasing medical needs. The logical consequence is that for the “good of society,” they should be eliminated. Not only are they useless, but they no longer enjoy life anyway. This is the “ethical” and “logical” justification of assisted suicide.In one of my classes at Hunter, I recall making a distinction between “scholarship” and “wisdom.” I asked my students whether they knew scholars. Practically all of them raised their hands: “My professor of history just published a book with hundreds and hundreds of footnotes and quotations. I was deeply impressed by his incredible knowledge.”Then I raised another question: “Do you know a wise person, someone whose judgment you would trust then facing grave personal decisions, someone who knows ‘how to live?’” Deadly silence. All of a sudden, a tiny girl from Puerto Rico raised her hand and said shyly, “My old grandmother is someone I fully trust. She left school in the third grade but always seems to know what life is all about. She is the one I turn to when in need. Years ago, I had a cleaning woman who, though not particularly efficient, was a gem of a person. I enjoyed talking to her, and was always enchanted by her remarks; everything was “sound.” At one point, I said to her: “Alberta, I much enjoy talking to you. Everything you say is so wise.” She cut me short and said, “You see, Mrs. Von Hildebrand, I have not been ruined by ‘education.’ I left school in the third grade.” How many of our students leave college, deprived of the crumbs of wisdom they had then they entered these places of “higher learning?” According to Msgr. Heyde, chairman of the Newman Club at Hunter, 65 percent of persons of Catholic faith studying in this noble place of “higher learning” lost their faith by their senior year, having been illuminated by scholarship to distinguish between facts and “myths.” Let me be more concrete. When I was a child in Belgium most people did not have cars (and  were spared the curse of traffic jams); public transportation was the normal way of going to work. Trolley cars and buses were inevitably overcrowded. Yet I cannot recall that young or middle age people did not immediately get up and yield their seat to elderly people or mothers with young children.  It was a matter of course, and ingrained in education.This is rarely the case in our “democratic” society: one man, one vote. No one is superior to another (except then he is younger and more productive).This introduction leads me back to my previous query: when should help be requested and when it is improper to do so? The result of our analysis will shed light on the “moral state” that Dietrich von Hildebrand called – as mentioned above – “our anti culture.”Let us imagine the following scenario. An elderly person (and today elderly mostly refers to people over eighty) has the well deserved reputation of being generous and kind-hearted. One will never see the sign on her door: “Do not disturb.” A young person (whom she hardly knows) accompanied by a friend (she does not know at all) asks her to be her guests for several days. This would enable them to go sight-seeing in New York with minimal expenses.Am I wrong in asserting that never would have people of my generation dare make such a request. I purposely say “dare” because the fact that they even thought of it, betrays a grave lack of reverence for “white hair” when the person in question has them. Before making such a request they should sincerely have asked themselves whether the burden placed on an elderly person might not be out of proportion with the subjective advantage of saving money? Have they asked themselves the question:  “what actually is old age?”In fact, it is chronic fatigue, weakness, arthritis which makes opening a can difficult, lack of balance, short-time memory, which means to have to do something three times before succeeding. I am of course referring to “healthy” old people. One of the tacit rules of ethics is that to avoid placing objective “evils” on others should have precedence over subjective interest.  They should meditate on the wise Spanish proverb: : “ En viaje largo, paja pesa”.  But  for these young people their personal interest is so much in the forefront of their consciousness that it does not even occur to them that an additional task, small as it seems to them,  can be very exhausting for people close to ninety.  My diagnosis  is that they are afflicted by a disease that I shall dub: “selfish lack of imagination.”Young people often want to “see the world” to have seen everything before they are twenty five.But today, “to have a good time with no expense has psychological priority for many members of the young generation. The conclusion that I would like to draw is that wise educators should “re teach” the younger generation that age calls for respect.Dietrich von Hildebrand was right when he wrote: Reverence is the mother of all virtues. It is a virtue which is sadly lacking today, and is even expressed in the attitude of many Catholics in Churches where the Blessed Sacrament is present.To show respect for “white hair” might be a first step to regain reverence for the “sacred.”Editor's note: This is the second of Dr. von Hildebrand's reflections on charity. To read the first entry please click here.

The art of accepting, or rejecting, help

Oct 29, 2013 / 00:00 am

One of the remarkable contributions that Soren Kierkegaard has made to philosophy is his analysis of despair, “The Sickness Unto Death.” The great Danish thinker has diagnosed a spiritual and psychological disease affecting innumerable modern men; a disease of such gravity that only God’s grace can heal it. Clearly, he is making a subtle reference to Lazarus’ sickness – which was not “unto death” (John: 11-4) – and warns us that spiritual and psychological sicknesses are much graver than physical ones. Indeed, we should “revertere ad Dominum” (return to the Lord) – in whom alone salvation is to be found.  In the book just referred to, Kierkegaard sketches the case of a man whose despair takes the diabolical form of revolt. His “sickness unto death” is that, while despairing and yet knowing that (divine) help is available, he turns it down with hatred. He won’t accept help. He writes, “And as for asking help from any other - no, that he will not do for all the world; rather than seek help he would prefer to be himself - with all the tortures of hell, if so it must be.” (p. 205)To refuse desperately needed help when available and offered is one of the most pathetic manifestations of pride – the capital sin par excellence, being the one of Lucifer: “non serviam.”Refusing help in all its various forms could be the topic of a book. In the modest frame work of this article, I shall limit myself to some prominent cases.To place the problem in proper perspective, we should realize that a needy person is in a position of “inferiority” and “weakness.” He cannot “do it on his own” and faces the following alternative: either to beg for help, or to face possible disaster. Irrational as it sounds, there are people who would  prefer starving to death rather than humbly turn to others.The pagan form of this tragic attitude was powerfully formulated by Stoic philosophers: they proudly assert that they do not and cannot possibly need help. They have above such contingencies, nothing can shake them, nothing can move them, nothing can defeat them. They are “above” all these signs of weakness. There are also more subtle cases of refusing help.Even though the people I will refer to might be exceptions, I have met some in the course of my long life. I am referring to home bound people who actually resent the offer given by “outsiders,” while imposing crushing burdens on their own family. They do not want a kind neighbor to do their shopping, or bring them pre-cooked food. Their craving for self sufficiency is such that they prefer to suffer hardships than ask for help or say thank you. The very word chokes in their throat.  Refusing help on principle, far from being a form of “refined charity” (“I do not want to be a burden for others”), is nothing but ugly pride. To say “thank you” (to acknowledge that one is “indebted”) exasperates them to such an extent that this very thought gives them a bitter taste in their mouth.Human beings can also have a double motivation. First (this is usually in the forefront of their consciousness) they truly do not want to be a burden to others: they fear to inconvenience friends and neighbors, but simultaneously – at the back of their consciousness – these same persons are “allergic” to being indebted. “If someone helps me, it places me in his debt,” and most people hate to be “debtors.” It makes them feel “uncomfortable.” It “scratches” their self image of being someone noble and generous who can hold his head high.Indeed, we like to play a “noble” role on the human theater. Winning is enjoyable; defeat is not.There are also those who do accept help, and even manage to say “thank you,” but while doing so, they are planning how they can best “revenge themselves” by  giving the helper a magnificent gift, totally out of proportion with the help given. Then the roles are reversed; the giver becomes the debtor. Such subtleties are worth mentioning, because they reveal the complexity of the human psyche.    There are also those who flatly refuse help from friends even though the latter would be happy to do so, but they look for paid help. In such cases, the “help” being remunerated does not deserve a thank you.  It is a business deal.To refuse to ask help from close friends, or share one’s problems with them, has been admirably castigated by a Frenchman of the 16th century, Jean de Rotrou. He writes: “L’ami qui souffre seul fait une injure a l’autre,” or “The friend who suffers alone offends the other.”It belongs to the very essence of love and friendship that the lover or the friend wants to share either the joys or the sorrows of his friend. “Your joys are my joys; your crosses are my crosses” is an arch word of true love.I recall reading an article by a well known writer who, for a while, had caught “the feminist virus.” She relates that once traveling by train a gentleman offered to take down her suitcase. She promptly replied, “I do not need your help; I am as strong as you are.” Years later while witnessing the heroism of firemen on 9/11, and having in the mean time been “purged” of the sickness alluded to (for it is one), she deplored her attitude. How grateful a woman should be when a man holds the door for her or carries her suitcase and proves that he is conscious of the noble mission given to the male sex to help and to protect those who are weaker.Asking for helpThis is another Christian “art” that few know how to master. We all know people who, feeling themselves very important, do not hesitate to ask for help, but their way of doing it is in fact a subtle command. “Of course, I assume that you would be happy to do me a small favor.”This attitude is far removed from Christian humility and eliminates ab ovo the sweet burden of gratitude.There are also those who do ask for help, but do so in such a cunning fashion that one is reminded that previously they have been the beneficiaries of your help and generosity. In other words, their helping you should be experienced as the paying back of a long overdue debt.There are also people who are willing to help you when asked but who subtly (or not so subtly), make you understand that you should realize that the help given is a “one time deal.” Another request would not only be unwelcome, but will be rejected.  “Please, do not ring my bell again”. Such people can make it difficult to say a very warm “thank you.”Christianity – this great teacher of how to love – also tells us the proper response we should give when one’s humble request is turned down. Far from being irritated and angry, murmuring to ourselves,  “That was no big deal for them; they have nothing to do anyway; they are rich, etc.” we will accept the rejection and  make a point of recalling past situations when they too have flatly refused to play the Good Samaritan. Moreover, they will say a loving prayer for their “brother” whose heart has not yet been melted by Christ’s love.Some have a valid excuse for turning down a request, but one cannot help but feel that they were grateful for having found one. They could then sincerely say:  “I would have loved to but…” In fact one feels that they thank their “good luck” for having escaped from an unpleasant task. Among the very many gems of Christian wisdom that St. Francis of Sales has left us, one deserves our special attention: the “art” of saying “no.” He who is deep “in the red” has no choice but to say “no” when someone asks him for financial help. In such cases, the gentle saint just referred to gives us a golden advice. The refusal should be done so lovingly that even though help is not and cannot be given, the love in which it is expressed in the refusal is itself a gift. The “music” of the “no” is so sweet that it will inevitably warm one‘s heart. “How I wish I could help you; alas, I cannot do it this time, but you should feel that I deeply regret it. I hope that next time you are in need, you will give me the joy of turning to me again.” A “loving no” is such a sweet gift that it richly compensates for the fact that one “is still left in the cold.”  On the other hand, a “sour yes” pours vinegar on the request granted.Editor's note: This is the first half of Dr. von Hildebrand's reflection on charity. To read the second half, please click here.

A simple suggestion: cosmetic asceticism

Sep 27, 2013 / 00:00 am

Pope Francis – this great lover of poverty – keeps reminding his sheep that penance should play an important role in Christian life. This advice should be taken very seriously. Modern man seems to be allergic to the very word. The “American dream” is to succeed in making life easier, more pleasant and more comfortable. Pain killers (sold by the billions) aim at controlling the slightest discomfort, be it a mild headache or the drilling of a tooth for sixty seconds. Gadgets are daily invented to make our lives more enjoyable, and come closer to “self-fulfillment.” Fast food restaurants guarantee that the slightest craving for food and drink can be instantly satisfied. Why suffer hunger and thirst?  One’s physical appearance seems to be, for many people (not only teenage girls), a top priority. Numerous flyers keep singing the virtues of a “wonder cream,” a new make-up product, an amazing eyeliner pencil, etc. These “miracle” products guarantee that winkles will disappear and that one’s face will be rejuvenated. The traces of shameful “old age” will magically disappear. Anyone can finally have the face he would have chosen had he been asked. We are psychologically trained to forget that this body of ours – even though an essential part of our being a human person – will one day be eaten by worms which, we can  assume, do not care whether this now rotting corpse used cosmetics or not. All ashes have the same taste.  Innumerable products promise their users a “perfect” figure. “Eat all you want and lose weight” is likely to win many customers. These “miracle” products are advertised all over. Cleverly they promise a free sample to the first hundred callers. Advertising techniques inspired by “famous psychologists,” are not only a science; they are an art specializing in catching customers, and thereby guaranteeing rich profits.Television anchors never wear the same outfit twice. No one (except those living in a palace) would have enough closet space to keep hundreds of dresses and suits. How is Mother Angelica’s popularity to be explained, she who, for very good reasons, keeps wearing the same habit? Clearly she has something special to offer than fashion cannot provide.      Far be it from me to claim that we should not make the best of the physical appearance that God Himself has chosen for us.  It was, I believe, St. Francis de Sales who claimed that pious women should also be “well dressed,” but by that he is clearly referring to clothing of good taste that respects the dignity, beauty and mystery of the “fairer sex.” The way a woman dresses tells us much about her “philosophy” of life. To go back to our Holy Father: it is crucial, as His Holiness Pope Francis keeps reminding us, that penance should be re introduced in Christian life, but many of us assume that this refers exclusively to food, drink and sleep, which are necessities in human life: except when privileged by a miracle, we need some food, some liquid, some rest.  But “penance” should also be extended to things which are in no way needed to satisfy the legitimate cravings of Brother Ass. Maybe our decadent world should urgently be reminded that one cannot constantly lament over “social injustices” (a fearful reality), adopt extreme leftist views, and simultaneously – proud of being socially minded – spend millions of dollars on beauty products. Before buying expensive make up, it might be a good idea to calculate briefly how many people could be fed by giving the corresponding amount to the Missionaries of Charity – to mention but one of the very many organizations dedicating themselves to feeding the hungry.Our “brave new world” is daily tempting us to buy things we do not need (“It’s a one life time chance!”)  or to spend much of our hard-earned money on products which promise much, but rarely live up to their promise. As a matter of fact, sometimes they make us look worse. These products are outrageously expensive: a small amount of “miracle cream” can easily cost more than several days of groceries for a whole family.Moreover, the use of cosmetics is “addictive”.  One notices that TV stars inevitably keep increasing the amount of make-up they use in order to obtain the same effect over and over. We all know that more and more pain killers are needed in order to control the same degree of pain – the same applies to all addiction – and it certainly is true of cosmetics.Am I right in suspecting that if Pope Francis gently but “daringly” invited Christian women to practice “cosmetic asceticism” – that is, to the amount of money spent monthly on beauty products, and then give half of this amount to starving people in Sudan – his budding popularity as a disciple of the beloved St. Francis, would be severely damaged?  I recall that a student of mine – a refugee from Cuba at the time of the Castro revolution – who had  for years been totally cut off from her beloved sister was finally was her able to contact her. The student’s first question was, “What do you most urgently need?” Knowing that there was a serious food shortage in the “paradise for workers” that Castro was supposed to have created; she assumed that her sister would request cereals and other non perishables. To her amazement, the latter begged her to send her beauty products. My student was stunned and so was I when she shared this information with me.  It is a tragic misreading of the words of Christ to Satan; “Man does not live from bread alone.”The conclusion we can draw is that the sanity of a society is to be judged according to its proper hierarchy of values. If priority is given to lipstick, creams and powders over bread and water, we have good reasons to be concerned about our mental sanity.

The Burden of Creaturehood

Sep 4, 2013 / 00:00 am

To create (that is, to bring a being into existence from “nothing”) is a concept that could never have entered a man’s head. It is through the Bible and the Bible alone that we have become acquainted with it.Genesis tells us explicitly that God first created the world and then created man to His image and likeness. To come into existence from “nothing” is indeed most amazing. It  differs radically from concepts such as “growth”; “development”; “evolution.”To be “created” is an unfathomable, unimaginable gift; a gift that defies logic: how can being come from “nothing?” The young G.K Chesterton whose religious education was clearly defective, was vaguely aware of it when speaking about the gift of “existing” and our duty to say thank you. He was wondering to whom this “thank you” should be addressed. He also wrote some moving lines about the “baby unborn”... promising every virtue if he might only have the experience of life.” (Autobiography, 91)   These lines should be written at the entrance of every abortion clinic.The recipient of the gift of life should be aware of two facts:First; existence is an unmerited gift. It is not something that is our due. This awareness necessarily carries with it the strict moral obligation to be grateful to the Giver. Moreover, this gift carries with it another obligation:  namely, to obey the commands of the Giver of this gift. “Noblesse oblige” as the French say. The beneficiary of existence should never lose sight of his metaphysical situation: he is privileged to exist and this very privilege places him in a position of metaphysical “indebtedness.” He should never lose sight of his situation: to be a creature means to be dependent. Evil breeds evil. Lucifer, having openly refused to acknowledge God’s “right” to impose duties upon him by uttering the words, “Non serviam,”, was bound to try to recruit other persons to join his camp and revolt against his being “only” a creature. Upon finding out that God had created a metaphysically “despicable” being called man, made up of soul and body, the Evil one had no difficulty convincing himself that because of his superiority over him – being a pure spirit – it would be an easy task to convince this “low rank” creature, that is a member of the metaphysical proletariat, to join his army of rebels.Knowing that our first parents had been forbidden by their Creator to eat the fruit of one specific tree in the Garden of Eden, and had warned them that if they disobeyed, they would be punished by death, the father of lies and deviousness, cleverly approached Eve with an apparently innocent question, “Why can’t you eat of the fruit of that tree?” After all, is it not legitimate to raise questions?Allowing herself to “forget” her creature hood – instead of saying to the tempter, “Vade retro, Satana!” Eve engaged in a conversation in which her deadly enemy easily gained the upper hand. He convinced the vain creature that disobeying God’s command, far from leading to death, would make her (and her husband) “like unto God.” In plain language: by eating the forbidden fruit, man was to overcome the limits of creature hood, and become God’s equal. He would then be “free,” that is, he would be entitled to existence and be metaphysically, supremely independent. He would no longer need to bow, to humiliate himself and to say “thank you.” Gratitude will then become meaningless and moreover, man would then taste the sweetness of being liberated from the heavy chains of obedience. A logical consequence of this rebellious metaphysical attitude also finds its expression in Cain’s murder of Abel. Let us recall that it took place long before God Himself gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai: one of them being “Thou shall not kill.” When God severely reproached Cain for his crime, the latter did not reply: “Moses has not yet given us he Tables of the Law; therefore I did not disobey any command.” It is clear that the law forbidding murder – now dubbed the natural (moral) law – was from the very moment of man’s creation, clearly written in his heart. He did not need to be “told.” He knew it; it clearly was an act of rebellion. The punishment was immediate:  “When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength.” (Gen. 4:12)   The earth now rebelled against man’s effort to cultivate it – a well deserved punishment for his having rebelled against his Creator.The metaphysical foolishness of wanting to be God by one’s own power had now taken root in the dark cavern of man’s rebellious heart. At times, it might seem to be dormant, but the disease is chronic and bound to reappear in the course of time.God, however, did not abandon his sinful creature and revealed Himself to Abraham – the father of the Chosen people. They were given the Old Testament which, in due time, was fulfilled in the New; the Good news of redemption was given to sinful humanity. It blossomed in Christianity and produced rich fruits of holiness. Men were given hope and the promise that if they joyfully received this divine message and obeyed its holy teaching, they would, one day, be reunited with their Creator. This is heaven indeed.Thanks to this blessed teaching, man now had the help necessary to overcome the rebellious tendency dormant in him. Indeed, “ask and you will receive,” “Without me you can do nothing” is complemented by St. Paul’s words: “I can do all things in Him that strengthens me.”     Thanks to the blood of the martyrs, Faith conquered the near East, and most of Europe. The period dubbed the “Dark Ages” (let us remember that one can be blinded by darkness, but also by light) was a blessed period during which man’s religious and spiritual life grew wings. The very word “truth” made souls beat faster – echoing St. Augustine’s words, “Truth, truth, how did the very marrow of my bones yearn for you when I heard them utter your name.” (Confessions, III,6) Europe was graced with innumerable works of art still admired today by people of all races. The “Dark Ages” gave us a Dante – this king of theological poetry – who has yet to be dethroned. Moreover, and this is a truth unknown to most of us, it also saved a budding science. Father Stanley Jaki has eloquently shown in his book, Christ: the Savior of Science - (Gateway Editions, l988), that this branch of knowledge – still-born in both China and the Muslim world – was, in Medieval Europe, given the proper ground for its growth. For matter was also God’s gift to man. Faith, far from blinding him to its mysteries, was in fact helpful to unveil its treasures.But as the discoveries of science are the work of reason (not of faith – for atheists could be great scientists) the Devil immediately perceived that he was given another opportunity of re awakening man’s metaphysical ambition: to become independent of his Creator.The blessed teaching of the Church, reminding man constantly of his creature-hood and his obligation of gratitude and obedience to God, became seriously challenged. Whereas both theology and philosophy have periods of glory and then of decline, science goes from discovery to discovery, and is indeed “progressing” in the positive sense of this very ambiguous term. For most of us, the word “progress” has a magical attraction: it is naively assumed that it guarantees improvement upon improvement, victory upon victory. When fully developed, it will inevitably lead to another earthly paradise: poverty, sickness and death will be eliminated. In the course of the last sixty years, science seems to be realizing this dream of the  proud human heart: for it has “progressed” by leaps and bonds, and totally changed the face of the world in which we live. A child born today will start playing with computers when hardly out of his playpen, (recently in the elevator I saw a young child playing with a toy computer). On the other hand, elderly people struggle to learn the tricks of modern technology. The feats accomplished in this domain make children laugh at the limits of Jules Verne’s superb imagination. How tempting for the younger generation to feel “superior” to the “old one” who had neither air planes, nor computers, nor television, nor iPod's.  A diploma in computer science guarantees a brilliant job for kids out of school, who are pathetically ignorant of literature, history and especially of the Bible. Abysmal ignorance “married” to technological mastery, is not a bad definition of the intellectual level of those graduating today from schools and universities. The progress made in surgery defies description: a defective heart can now be “replaced” by a new one coming from an unknown “donor.” Landing on the moon in the sixties now seems a very minor accomplishment for those aiming at landing on Mars.  By clicking on the right key, anyone can see events taking place thousands of miles away. Children have “encyclopedic information” at their finger tips. For a child of five, these inventions are toys, while alas, reduce personal contacts to an absolute minimum. They assume that they hold the world in their hands. They have the snug pride of Wagner, in Goethe’s Faust marveling at “what amazing things we have achieved.” (Better translation: “Und wie wir’s dann zuletzt so herrlich weit gebracht”; verse 573)Inevitably the young generation will be tempted to “deify” man: the “creator” of these prodigies of technique. One of the most ominous inventions was the making of the atomic bomb in the early forties. Now, a single such “perfected” bomb can annihilate a country, and possibly a whole continent. This is “power” indeed. What will remain is dust and ashes, and, some claim, cockroaches.  St. Peter predicted that one day the whole world will be destroyed by fire. This is indeed technologically possible. Man is now “entitled” to exclaim, “We are therefore masters of life, because we can annihilate it.” In Dostoevsky’s prophetic and fearful book, The Possessed (or The Demons) one of the “heroes”, Kirillov, carefully plans his suicide, convinced that by this act, freely chosen, he will become God. Millions of people have committed suicide, but they did it “out of fear.” He, Kirillov, will take his life to prove that “he has overcome fear” and consequently will become God. He males it clear that his decision is motivated by “insubordination”; he is asserting his “independence.”  As the same author powerfully puts it, the God-man will be replaced by the man-God.  Kirillov did not choose to exist: it was “imposed” upon him. But he has the power of ending his life and deciding by himself the precise moment of his death. This is a “privilege” that no one can take away from him. To destroy, to annihilate, had to find some sort of philosophical formulation. “Nothingness” had now acquired some sort of metaphysical dignity. Not surprisingly, it found its expression in a book entitled: “Being and Nothingness.” The very title guaranteed its being a best seller, quite independently of whether people understood its message. Man’s future is glorious. He can now dream of a time when he will be able to say, “be” and then bring someone or something into existence.As mentioned above, the evil one – who never sleeps – perceived that the phenomenal development just alluded to, was giving him another chance of recapturing the world into his evil nets, by rekindling man’s ambition to become God without God. He convinced man that his scientific discoveries, conquered by unaided reason (some great scientists are atheists), were be exclusively credited to man’s genius. The Creator had no part in these scientific marvels. His help was not needed for empirical discoveries and still less for amazing technological progress. All machines are man-made; whereas Catholic culture was inspired by the beauty of God’s nature (St. Augustine wrote that the universe spoke of God through its beauty, Confessions, X.6), machines have no exemplary cause in God. They are master pieces of clever ugliness. They were and are truly man’s own inventions. Indeed, if one goes to a factory, (deafened by noise) and witnesses these impersonal monsters producing whatever will “facilitate” man’s life at a maximum speed, it is obvious that they are not reflecting God’s creation. Atheism does not grow on farms; factories provide an ideal ground for it. They are truly man’s inventions, and in no way “traces” of the Creator of the Universe. St. Bonaventure tells us that a blade of grass suffices to prove God’s existence. But machines cannot make such a claim. They were not  “given”; they were the fruits of hard research. Modern man proudly claims that scientific discoveries (as opposed to revelation) depend exclusively upon human intelligence and human efforts. Its discoveries fed man’s never-sleeping pride. Forgetting that man’s talents were also God’s gifts, modern man is tempted to attribute its “genius” exclusively to himself. He is on his way to become God. Moreover, the world left us by the Dark Ages: is riddled with problems that the “age of faith” has not only failed to solve, but has, in fact, “created.” Believers are fed on myths, on vague promises, on a long list of prohibitions, threatening those who defend their “freedom of choice” by eternal punishments. No progress is possible in such a world. Faith (intellectual food for numbskulls) should be systematically eliminated; the most efficient way of doing it is by “ridiculing” it and showing its radical incompatibility with modern science. Man’s reason, when liberated from paralyzing taboos, will solve all problems. It needs no help. We are now promised a “new world order”; a world in which justice will prevail; a world where, sickness, deformities, and ultimately death will be “conquered.” A defective baby can be identified soon after its conception and be “charitably” eliminated by abortion. Love of humanity commands us to prevent unwanted children from being born: how cruel to force into earthly existence beings bound to be unhappy and unloved!  Millions of elderly people (who only vegetate and cannot contribute to progress) can now be the beneficiaries of “scientific compassion” by assisted suicide. Such beings are obstacles to the realization of a man’s new world in which everyone will find “self fulfillment.” Not only are these mummies kept artificially alive, meaningless economic burdens – money can be put to better uses – but to keep them in existence is nothing but refined cruelty, a form of sadism, that should be prohibited by law, and severely punished when disobeyed. To choose when to end one’s life is a birth right of every individual. Reason commands us to eliminate the weak, the useless, the sickly, the stupid. Man is now finally “The Lord of the World.” This scientific king pledges that he will wage war on these self created evils – a sad remnant of the Dark Ages.Let us summarize these thoughts: for centuries, man erroneously attributed to God all sorts of admirable perfections which, in fact, were his by birthrights. This has been strikingly formulated by Feuerbach in his book: The Essence of Christianity.” Man is the glorious and great one; all “divine” perfections are his dowry. Finally, he became conscious of the fact that he no longer needed to go on his knees and implore the help and good will of an imaginary divinity. He has all the tools in his hand to create an earthly paradise. The time is ripe for a “brave new world” – a step closer to the earthly paradise that we have lost. Ethics is to be re defined; we have mentioned sadism; masochism is to fight against tendencies deeply implanted in a person’s biological nature. Let people freely choose what satisfies them. The Brave New World should condemn as criminals those who insist upon calling “sinful” the satisfaction of one’s desires. New laws should condemn those who publicly expostulate against and dare denounce masturbation, homosexuality and same-sex marriage.  Truly “humane” laws will finally free humanity from the unbearable burden imposed on them by barbarous and meaningless traditions.   Mount Sinai, a mountain in Arabia, was supposed to be the place where God’s commandments were given to Moses. The Jewish people perceived the thundering and lightning and were terrified. We see that “fear” was the method used to intimidate men. No such method is now needed; scientific reasoning does not need psychological tricks to be accepted: its information is truly “the good news.” We therefore need to formulate new commandments.Thou shall not allow crippled, defective, deformed beings to be born. Thou shall not challenge woman's right to choose to give birth or not. Thou shall not condemn other people’s life style because they differ from our own. Thou shall not keep alive old, crippled and people affected by an incurable disease, or by dementia. Thou shall not object to experimentation on fetuses claiming these tissues to be human beings. The good of “humanity’ should be our guide in such decisions. Thou shall not object to any organ transplant, even though this transplant necessitates the death of the donor. Thou shall not object to the inborn right of human beings to choose their own sex: to “impose” it on anyone is to infringe upon man’s freedom; his right is to decide what he happens to prefer. Recently in England, parents refused to fill out a questionnaire asking them the sex of their child. The answer was unequivocal: “We let the choice up to ‘it.’” This is an “admirable” example of people who truly respect man’s freedom.Is it not inconceivable that in the near future, it will be possible to make “cosmetic” surgery in the womb, to guarantee that people will have the face of their parents’ choice. It is indeed “unfair” that one’s physical appearance be imposed on one, and not freely chosen. Cosmetic surgery has, according to Dr. Phil, conquered the hearts of many high school students. This is only the beginning of a fairy world in which everyone will choose not only the size of her breast, but her (or) his own face. Is it not a crying act of injustice that very few people are pleased by their physical appearance?  Science will accomplish these miracles: it is all a question of time. But the atheistic scientist seems to forget that time is a very mysterious reality; only the present is ours, but every single second dies as soon as it is born. (St. Augustine, Book X) Nobody can know how much “time” is still granted him. The Gospel reminds us of this.  Will “time” be given man to realize his rebellious dreams? For we know neither the day nor the hour. St. Peter tells us that the Lord will come like a thief and that this earth of ours will be totally destroyed by fire. (2 Peter 3:10) Woe to those who are not ready for His second coming.

A plea: Back to Socratic paganism

Jul 26, 2013 / 00:00 am

In the wake of Vatican II, the Church found herself in a state of turmoil. Everything was challenged; everything was put up for grabs. The media gleefully spread the great news that Vatican II had finally “liberated” man from burdensome, old fashioned traditions that had become meaningless for “modern man”, hampering his religious and intellectual “growth.”The confusion that Christ has predicted about the end of time seemed to be realized. A friend happened to tell my husband, “I am afraid that we are going back to paganism.” I shall never forget his speedy reply: “We cannot go back to paganism; the pagan world lived ante lucem; those who have received the light of revelation and reject it, are not and cannot be ‘pagans’ – they are ‘apostates.’ And apostasy is worse than paganism.”There comes a moment in life when one deplores being right. Dietrich von Hildebrand had reasons to be. The modest article will try to prove it.Greece’s glory is that it gave birth to philosophy. When Thales raised the question, “Where do things come from?” He was clearly turning away from pragmatic concerns – that is, those related to guarantee survival. His mind was focusing on questions that every man – worthy to be called one – raises when facing death. His theme was to shed some light on the mystery of human existence. He was looking for meaning.Unsatisfactory as his answer was, (all things come from water), he deserves our praise. From this moment on, budding philosophers tried to find better answers. Upon reaching the 5th Century B.C., Athens entered into the most glorious period of her history. Within a few years, she gave us a Pericles, a Sophocles, a Euripides, (already preceded by Aeschylus), a Phidias, and, last but not least, it was the cradle of an extraordinary man – Socrates – one of the noblest figures of the “pagan” world.Kierkegaard always refers to him as the “wise, old man of Greece.” He fully deserves this eulogy. If philosophy is “the love of wisdom”, the history of philosophy proves that to claim to be a philosopher in no way guarantees that one is wise. Indeed, some famous (not to be confused with great) thinkers were and are responsible for many of the woes plaguing our world today. Precisely because philosophy aims at giving us a key to the meaning of human existence, if and when philosophers derail, (as many have) the results are disastrous and poison the whole of society.Even though the overwhelming majority of men will never read a page of Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Darwin, Marx, Heidegger, to mention but a few, in some mysterious ways, their ideas are the very air that we breathe today and because they are contaminated by error, the consequences are serious indeed. Nietzsche’s ideal of the Superman and Marx’s promise to create a “paradise for the workers” – a prelude to the Gulag Archipelago – shed light on the gravity of the moral and intellectual sickness affecting our “monde casse” (broken world) as Gabriel Marcel characterizes the world in which we live today.How devastating ideas can be has been admirably sketched by Chesterton in his book, The Man Who Was Thursday: “We say that the dangerous criminal is the educated criminal. We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them. … philosophers despise marriage as marriage … philosophers hate life itself, their own as much as other people’s.” (P. 81 ff); Ignatius Press Edition).To claim that “all ideas should be welcome” in the modern world – (after all, they are “only” ideas and therefore cannot be dangerous) – is a risky mixture of stupidity and ignorance, a very dangerous concoction. When a classmate of mine at Manhattanville, Mother Betty McCormack became president of the College in the ‘60s, on the very day of her inauguration she proudly proclaimed that, “From now on, all ideas will be welcome at Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart.” She kept her word. Is today this “famous” Catholic college still Catholic?When Socrates was condemned to death – an “adequate” punishment for “corrupting” the Athenian youth by challenging the “spirit of the time” which was glorifying money, power and success – he was clearly swimming against the tide, and in so doing was putting to shame the majority of his contemporaries.In his great dialogue, Phaedo, Plato eulogized him with the following words: “… and this was the end, Echecrates, of the wisest and the best man I have ever known.”What is admirable is how peacefully Socrates responded to his unjust condemnation, convinced as he was that, “It is better to suffer injustice than to commit it.” (Gorgias, 469) He died, his soul untainted by moral evil. Those who voted for his death were those to be pitied.In one of the early Platonic dialogues, Euthyphro, Socrates gives us a golden key to his approach to philosophy. He tells us that his one and exclusive interest was to know the truth. (XVIII) This claim deserves our full attention. Indeed, Socrates’ exclusive interest in knowing Truth guaranteed that he was “unified.” In the Republic, Plato tells us that one of the key aims of education was to “unify the child in the good.” The overwhelming majority of men have a large spectrum of interests (money making, fame, power, sports, hobbies, intellectual or artistic concerns) and run from one thing to another, ending up being “split” personalities. Modern psychologists have coined a word for it: “bipolar personalities). In our society, their name is “legion.” Socrates realized that “one thing alone is necessary”: to know truth, for this knowledge is indispensable in order to live a life worthy of the human being. The greatness of “the wise, old man of Greece” was that he remained faithful to his aim and died for it.Truth is a word of such dignity and it should fill us with awe. Centuries later, this passionate interest in Truth was echoed by St. Augustine who wrote in his Confessions: “Truth, O Truth, how did the very marrow of my bones yearn for you when I heard them mention your name.” It is not a subjective “opinion” which by definition is someone’s opinion; it is not a clever guessing, it is not something relative to an individual or to a society. It is an objective reality (ultimately a person), offered to all without exception, but perceived only by those willing to open their heart to it and live it. This was Socrates’ position, and it justifies the words of Kierkegaard (The Point of View for my Work as an Author) when, after giving expression to his love for this wise Greek, he added that even though he knew that Socrates was not a Christian (for very obvious reasons), he was now convinced “that he had become one.” Indeed, we are told in the Psalms that God is close to all those who seek Him in truth. (Ps. 144) Socrates’ solemn declaration that he cared only for the truth, seems to be a premonition of Christ’s words to Martha: “one thing alone is necessary”.These golden words uttered some 26 centuries ago, would strike the majority of our contemporaries are meaningless. Fed since grammar school on the contaminated milk of relativism, the very word “truth” irritates their ear drum. As one of my colleagues at Hunter College, said when I “dared” suggest that the truth should be the key concern in philosophy, “whose truth are you referring to?” There was little sense telling him that if truth is valid only for the person who utters is, it cannot possibly be true. It would just have triggered nothing but sniggering.One of the big lies cleverly propagated in our society is that a precondition for universal peace and harmony is that people refrain from proclaiming that they know “the truth,” and consequently, feel entitled to force their views on others, thereby not only causing wars and conflicts, but also depriving others of their “freedom of thought.”A wise Spanish proverb states, “La mentira y la torta, gorda” – both the lie and the cake should be big. When Hitler proudly proclaimed that “on the road to National Socialism, not a drop of blood had been shed”, his hysterical declaration was received with thundering applause. Small lies are easily detected; big ones are usually accepted whole sale, on the ground that they could not possibly have been invented.Socrates perceived that a society steeped in relativism where each individual has “his own truth” is hopelessly divided.He who “sees” a truth and has accepted to live it (for truth is demanding) inevitably perceives that this truth is not his; it is offered to all men. Those privileged to see it have, therefore, a “missionary vocation.”This noble thinker teaches us that only the one who lives up to what philosophy should be devoted to, namely Truth, deserves the noble title of Philosopher. Even though he had no access to the Bible, he knew by experience that “there are two horses in the human soul: one who is obedient; one who is rebellious, kicks and bites.” (Phaedrus) Inevitably the word “truth” is taboo to those who claim their right to decide by and for themselves what truth is. To be told that there is something called truth and that it has such a dignity that everyone should accept it, is viewed as challenging man’s “freedom of choice.” What about his “divine” right to make up his own mind and decide for himself what is congenial to his wishes and purposes? The words of Lucifer, “Non serviam”, echo deeply in our decadent society. As a matter of fact, the very word “truth” triggers panic in secular universities and panic easily degenerates into hatred for those who have “disturbed” the peace. I speak from experience.Already in the 8th century B.C., the prophet Amos wrote the following words: “…they abhor the one who speaks the truth.” (5:10)Yet, Socrates’ position is unshakeable: there is something called truth, the valid perception of a reality independent of our volatile human mind, something of such power and dignity that if it can be challenged and attacked, it can never be refuted. (Gorgias, 473) It is not more true when accepted; it is not “less true” when rejected, but gloriously and invincibly existing, it calls for a due response on our part. We ought to see it, respect it and live it.One of the overwhelming gifts of Christianity was the revelation that Truth is not just a valid, abstract statement, but a Person. For Christ said, “I am the Truth.” No other founder of a religion has dared make such a claim. If Christ is right; He is God. If He is lying, He is the worst mad man the world has produced, even though it has produced quite a few.Once we recognize that Truth is incarnated in a Person, the only adequate response is “adoration” – the religious act par excellence.As mentioned above, Socrates understood that the person blessed to see a truth has a duty to share it with others. This is why Plato in his Republic (Book VII) tells us that when the “philosopher,” having escaped from the dark den of ignorance, discovers “reality,” and is overwhelmed with joy upon entering into the true world, the world of light and beauty, he nevertheless freely chooses to go back to this spiritual jail to share the “good news” of his discovery with his fellow prisoners. The glorious reality he perceived is not his. It is meant to be shared with all people. The response of the prisoners to “the good news” was both shocking and tragic; they decided that this troublesome preacher deserved death.By its essence, truth cannot be the privilege of the elite – a claim shared by all sects that arrogantly pretend that only the “chosen” ones “deserve” to know it. All secret societies are based on a similar conviction and their members gloat over their superiority. To be convinced that one belongs to the elite is the hook used to attract those of modest endowment craving for greatness.One key purpose of education is precisely to be conscious of the noble mission of sharing truth. That is, give to the younger generation the treasures that a person has been privileged to see either by inheritance or by perception. Socrates also saw that intellectual talents alone do not satisfy the requirements of a true education. Moral education should go hand in hand with it. Hence the importance granted to the virtue of reverence in Platonic writings. Praising the Athens of the 5th Century, he tells us that “reverence was our queen and mistress,”(Laws, 698) – intimating the fact that in the 4th Century, this key virtue was no longer prominent. Indeed, it had opted to go on the path heading to decadence. He urges us to have a deep reverence for antiquity and tradition. (Laws, 798) This reverence should be manifested not only toward “truth” but also toward one’s parents. In his last work, the Laws, (931) Plato tells us that he who honors his older parents, pleases the gods. Not only does he make it clear that there is an intimate bond between religion and morality, but moreover, his claim echoes the Fourth Commandment that he had not been privileged to receive.In his Memorabilia, Xenophon relates that one of Socrates’ sons complained to his father about his mother who irritated him by her nagging. Socrates’ reply should be mentioned in every single grammar school of the world. He told the boy that he should never forget that his mother had suffered much to bring him into the world, and therefore that he was deeply indebted toward her. Gratitude is also a key virtue and a forgotten one. Many of our contemporaries choke on the words “thank you.”Are these two virtues given pride of place in our society? I fear that most children never hear them mentioned. Efficiency is the one “virtue” praised to the skies. It is indeed a virtue, (i.e. strength), but definitely not a moral virtue.If this response of gratitude and reverence is required toward our parents, what should be said of man’s attitude toward God? Once again, Plato has eloquent words on the subject: “The awe which I always feel…about the names of the gods is more than human – it exceeds all other fear.” (Philebus, 576)Expressing his grief at the rampant atheism gaining ground in the Athens of the 4th Century, Plato advises us to repress our anger, and remind the offender that “he is a creature of a day” (Laws, 923)…foolish fellow, that “he is his own god…”)( 921). In fact, modern atheism does not eliminate religion; it just proclaims that man is God. If the very frail and imperfect creature named man is truly God, it seems to me that this view would justify atheism!Plato stands firmly in defense of marriage and tells us “that no one shall venture to touch any person … except his wedded wife…” (Laws, 841) He strongly condemns incestuous relationships which are “…unholy, hated of God and most infamous…”(838) To my knowledge, no one in antiquity has been as eloquent as Plato in his condemnation of homosexuality. He urges us to “abolish altogether the connection of men with men” which is “against nature” and threatens the very foundation of any sound society. He remarks wisely that by the word “love” people can refer to things which are essentially different, and should be distinguished. Bestial pleasure has such an attraction for some that they suffer defeat. Indeed, Plato had made it clear that victory over pleasure should be one of the main aims of education. He sadly acknowledges that it is almost impossible to eliminate this perversion just referred to, but urges those caught in its deadly nets “to conceal” their vice.Many are those who (purposely) refer to Plato’s symposium to claim that he, in fact, condones homosexuality. Any honest and intelligent reading of the dialogue would reject this interpretation. This dialogue is a “drama” in which six speakers expound their ideas on love. Not surprisingly, they have different and conflicting views. The final speech is given by Socrates at the end of which Alcibiades tells us explicitly that, being young and handsome and spending the night with Socrates, he clearly made himself “available,” but he ends by telling us that he got out of bed the next morning untouched.It cannot be denied that this vice “contra naturam” had ravaged Greek society but it never was legalized. To “modern man” the Greek society had not “progressed” enough. The word “progress” just means to be going forward. But the salvation of those who move toward an abyss can only be to “regress.” This should be a clarion call for us today.In our “advanced” society, pornography is not longer “under the counter,” but prominently displayed wherever one goes. Indeed, “why not?” But wisdom teaches us that we deserve to be condemned by the nature of the questions that we dare raise. For some questions should never be raised because they betray the depraved outlook of the questioner. Why can’t spit in my neighbor’s face? It would be fun to see his reaction. Why can’t I marry my lovely mistress? Why can’t I play sex games with toddlers? It is so much fun to watch their reaction, etc.To raise such questions is an implicit condemnation of the person who raises them. Indeed, Jeremiah was right, “men no longer know how to blush” – for there is a “shame” which is the due response to things and actions that are shameful.Today, any “why not?” is given a place. Indeed, everyone should be given boundless freedom to ask the questions that happen to cross his mind.Let us not forget that the Serpent brought Eve to sin by raising a question that should never have been raised for it implicitly denied God‘s right to give commands to His creatures.Let us again turn to the “wise, old man of Greece” and ask him to teach us, as he taught Plato, how to philosophize. The name of his disciple will echo through the centuries, because the truths that he has unveiled and shared with us, being true, are above time. Truth never ages.The conclusion that we can draw is that the word “paganism” can refer either to any society which without any fault of its own, did not know the “good news” of the Gospel. But this did not deprive truth-lovers of their “longing” for answers. Indeed, if sin has weakened man’s moral perception, it certainly has not totally erased its message from the wounded human heart. God Himself has imprinted it into man’s soul. Socrates and his spiritual son, Plato, are living proofs that it is still perceptible to men of “longing.” There are indeed certain truths – mostly moral truths – which have been darkened by original sin; in such cases, reason needs to be “baptized” by faith to “see” what has been stained by sin. By making this claim I am in no way implying that faith should dictate the answer. I mean that it teaches man intellectual humility – the golden key which protects him from innumerable errors.By pagan, one can also refer to a disgraceful moral decadence that led both Athens and Rome to their self destruction. What a caveat for our contemporary world.Let me conclude with words borrowed from Gabriel Marcel, the talented French philosopher who reflecting upon the broken world that we have referred to above, tells us the modern world needs “une cure de Platonism.”

Love and suffering: paradox of love

Jun 17, 2013 / 00:00 am

Dedicated to Lee and Margaret MatherneThere is one thing we all long for: to love and to be loved. There is one thing that we all dread: suffering. The title of this article should therefore puzzle its readers. It seems to imply some sort of contradiction. My purpose is to show that it is one of the many enlightening paradoxes of Christianity: on this earth, the two are deeply and inevitably linked.Until it starts loving the human heart hibernates. This affective response (sanctioned by the will) is a response to the beauty of another person that has shaken our heart from its slumber. It is such a powerful “wake up call” that all of a sudden “all things are new.” He who has never loved has never truly lived. The overwhelming joy that is linked to this awakening has two paradoxical effects. One of them is that the newborn lover gains the certitude that man has been made for immortality. (Wisdom 2: 23) It is inconceivable that what the lover experiences in truly loving should be evanescent; like a flower that blossoms, enchants us by its beauty … and soon fades and dies. We live in a transient world where things are born and die. The sunrise is followed by a sunset; the joy of a new birth is followed by the grief of death. This is why it is overwhelming indeed to gain the absolute, unshakeable certainty that what is experienced in loving victoriously conquers death. This has been beautifully expressed in one of Gabriel Marcel’s plays, “Le Mort de Demain,” in which the key character exclaims: “Toi, tu ne mourras pas.” (“Thou, thou shalt not die.”)This overwhelming experience is mysteriously linked to another one: the moment we love, we discover a facet of suffering totally unknown to us until then. For falling in love reveals to us in a flash the fragility of man’s metaphysical situation. We have been given the grace of perceiving the beauty of one of God’s creatures, – each one of them a pale reflection of His infinite beauty – and suddenly we realize that, hard as we try,  we, “creatures of a day” (Plato,  Laws, XI, 923) cannot protect the loved one. Human life is so fragile that – to quote Pascal – “Une vapeur, une goutte d’eau suffit pour le tuer” (A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him). We gain a dolorous awareness that being as weak as we are, we cannot guard the loved one, hard as we try. We realize that this precious being is infinitely fragile. This is inevitably a source of profound suffering. The loved being whose beauty has wounded our heart is frailty itself, and we realize that, ardently as we wish to, we are ourselves too weak and too helpless to shelter him in this threatening and treacherous world where dangers are constantly lurking. The famous poem of John Keats, “When I have fears lest I should cease to be” could be reformulated: “When I have fears lest Thou shouldst cease to be.” This inevitably brings another threatening thought into our minds: if the loved one were to die, would I longer wish to live? Why should I desire to remain in this world which has buried his remains? Once again, Gabriel Marcel – whose very special gift is his “intellectual sensitivity” (which shields him from the danger of heartless abstractionism) expressed this thought in these powerful words; “your death is my death.” I know people who tragically believe that by committing suicide, they will be re united with their loved one, thereby cutting themselves off from the hope of being reunited with him in eternity where all tears shall be dried.Inevitably this awareness is the source of deep suffering. We all know mothers who live in a constant state of panic. This very panic can, in fact, hurt the very person whom she wishes to protect. The secularist world in which we live offers an “ideal” solution called “life insurance”. All we need do is to sign a contract requesting our paying a monthly fee to gain the guarantee that whether we die or whether the loved one dies, there will be some financial compensation. This should give us a feeling of “security.” This is a huge and attractive lie.  A life insurance does not and cannot guarantee “life.” It only offers a pitiful (if useful) “financial compensation” – a sad substitute indeed.The problem is so grave that it has arrested the attention of some great minds. Sixth centuries before Christ, Buddha’s great concern has been to eliminate suffering from human life, for it makes it both threatening and unbearable.  “He who has one hundred loves has one hundred sufferings” … all the way down to “he who has one love, has one suffering” with the inevitable consequence that he who does not love escapes from suffering. To let oneself be attached to anything is punished by pain and anguish. Once we are liberated from the burden of upsetting emotions, we are “free” and on our way to illumination. The soul then enjoys perfect “calm.” Be it mentioned that “calm” is radically different from what the Christians call peace. The first means that we are “concern” free. It is negative. Peace – as witnessed in the lives of saints – is a response to the overwhelming assurance that God is a God of love. This faith gives the believer a joyful peace – a response to God’s goodness – linked to an ardent desire to live in front of His loving gaze, embraced by His love. St. Therese of Lisieux, while undergoing agonizing trials, wrote in her autobiography that, nevertheless in the very depth of her soul, she felt a deep peace. The tempest was only on the surface of her soul. Another tempting way of escape is Stoicism. Animated by pride, the Stoic refuses to acknowledge that anything, whatever its nature, can upset him: he is above emotions typical of fragile and insecure people. He is the strong one, the unconquerable one. The price he has to pay, however, is to opt for a heart of stone while despising a heart of flesh. Like the God of Aristotle, nothing can conceivably shake him or affect him. But are either seasoned Buddhists or efficient Stoics ever fully alive? Dante might also have them mind when he wrote about the inner state of those men “che mai non fur vivi” (“wretches who never were alive,” Inferno, III, 64). Indeed, those who have never loved have never woken up from a deadly slumber.These two “philosophies” are at the antipodes of the blessed Christian solution, in which suffering is given a deep meaning.  Should this surprise us upon realizing that it is the only religion in which God’s love is so overwhelming that He sent his beloved Son to save his treacherous creatures from eternal damnation. Based on the stronghold of faith, the Christian has the firm certainly that God and our sweet mother Mary, do love our beloved one more and better than we possibly can. In eternity, we shall see that any authentic human love is, in fact, a partaking of the Divine Love for the loved one. To go through life in a state of panic because of our helplessness to protect those we love, is a grave lack of faith. The believer’s confidence in God’s love for the beloved should be the very “lining” of his soul. How many of us are tempted to forget that each human being, from the very moment of its conception, is confided to an individual guardian angel, who watches lovingly over him? This is, I believe, the only way of baptizing the suffering linked to the fear linked to human love: relate our love to Him Who is Love.Death is inevitable but we know neither the day nor the hour, with the interesting difference that the “space” where our soul will leave our body is already there, waiting for us to come at a particular moment when God will cut short our days. Death is the moment when “space” and “time” meet. Within seconds, we shall leave this world and enter into the mystery of eternity.How meaningful that Christ tells us repeatedly: “Watch and pray.”However, the link between love and suffering is still deeper. The very moment that we fall in love we also become conscious that the sufferings of the loved one – whatever their nature – become our own.  It is inconceivable that when a loved one suffers, we “protect” ourselves from these sufferings, put on blinders so that his pains shall not disturb our inner calm. As mentioned above, suffering is indeed man’s arch fear.When the loved one suffers, the lover wants to suffer with him. His sufferings are our sufferings; his pains are our pains; his death is our own death. This has, once again, been poignantly expressed by Gabriel Marcel. As ever sin brings about its own punishment, one of the terrible curses of shutting one’s heart from loving from fear of being “wounded”, and discover how very weak and vulnerable we are, is to opt for a heart of stone instead of a heart of flesh. Once again this approach is the very antithesis of Christianity.These mysterious paradoxes are the warp and woof of a religion based on God’s love for his creatures. The lover not only wants to suffer with the loved one; moreover, he would resent it if the latter concealed his sufferings – of whatever kind – to “shield” him from suffering. Understandable as it is, the lover should realize that the beloved wants to drink the chalice with the one who has conquered his heart.This has been powerfully expressed by a relatively little known French poet: Jean de Rotrou: “L’ami qui souffre seul fait un injure a l’autre” ("He who chooses to suffer alone, offends his friend." Venceslas). This is a precious thought. There might, however, be one exception. Let us assume that the beloved is himself very ill, and that the news that the one is loved is also facing dreadful trials of whatever nature, would not give him “le coup de grace.” Then delay would be legitimate. The crucial thing is to know that the one we love wants to share our trials – that he is spiritually “there.”One thing is certain: one can measure the depth of love by the willingness to suffer with the beloved.The Gospels make it luminously clear: the flight of eleven of the apostles when Christ was arrested was a sad proof of how imperfect their love was. It is to the honor of the holy women that nothing, absolutely nothing, could have prevented them from following Christ to Golgotha. Could they help Him? No.Their love was proven by the fact that they were there. We are told that Mary, His mother, was standing at the foot of the Cross.  That she, all pure, all holy, should share in his agonizing pains, must have been for the Savior Himself more agonizing that the nails in his hands and feet. He loved her above all creatures, from the very moment of His conception  and the sublimity of the bond uniting them is of such nature that we shall need to grow new organs to be able to fully appreciate its divine quality.  I repeat: to see her suffer with him must have been possibly the most refined of all conceivable sufferings. He wanted to spare her, yet this was the price she had to pay for her “fiat” – her acceptance of becoming His mother was mysteriously linked to her full acceptance of the crucifixion that in the course of time, she would endure with him.This should, once again, make it abundantly clear that on this earth, love and suffering are intimately bound.But the climax of the depth of this bond is fully revealed in the words of Christ at the last supper. “There is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends.” At age five, I had a first inkling of this truth. I was deadly sick with double pneumonia at a time when antibiotics were unknown. Small as I was, I was conscious that I was close to death. I recall as clearly as it were yesterday, that my anxious mother bent over my little white wooden bed, and murmured; “Darling, how I wish I could suffer this for you.” I was so weak that I did not even open my eyes; I did not say “thank you” but, once again, I recall with incredible clarity that I said to myself: “Don’t ever forget this. This is true love.” I have not forgotten.This experience was duplicated when more than once friends came to me shattered by grief, having just learned that one of their children had a chronic disease which today, has no cure. They said to me sobbing: “How I wish I could take it from him.” This implies a consciousness of what an unfathomable gift that life is.A society, like ours, which has opted for death is doomed; it has sealed its own demise. In his autobiography, G. K Chesterton writes the following words:  “Thus, among the juvenile verses I began to write about this time was one called ‘The Babe Unborn’ which imagined the uncreated creature crying out for existence and promising every virtue if he might only have the experience of life.” (p. 91) He also tells us that he was immensely grateful for existing, without knowing to whom his thanks should be addressed. At that time, he was a “young” unbeliever. That murder has been legalized in our society (that is, to give a place to “other people’s murder”) means that it has dug its own grave.Every dogma of the Catholic Church is a gem of divine love, but the resurrection of the body is nothing short of overwhelming. That the handful of dust to which our body will soon be reduced after death, will one day rise and be re united to the soul from which it has been possibly separated for thousands of years, is a token of the immensity of God‘s creative love. Adoration alone can respond adequately to the Creator’s infinite love.In Catholicism, we find all the credentials required by a true religion: it gives meaning to suffering, defeats death, and unites truth, holiness, beauty and life. Blessed are those who perceive the message and respond with a joyful self donation. This was done through the centuries by the saints.

St. Francis of Sales and Christopher West

May 30, 2013 / 00:00 am

“The devil rescues people from chastity by saying; 'You have become a puritan'” (C.S. Lewis, The Screw Tape Letters, p. 55). Anyone acquainted with the history of philosophy would be baffled by Christopher West’s presentation of stoicism. He writes: “The stoic tries to avoid the pain of desiring more than this life has to offer by choosing not to want so much, by shutting desire down” (Fill These Hearts, p. 33). His views sway considerably from the traditional understanding of stoic philosophy. For the authentic stoic fights against all affections, all emotions, not because he fears that their “promise” may not be fulfilled, but because he views them as enemies of his sovereign freedom that can be achieved only by being above the ups and downs of our emotional life. Nothing, absolutely nothing, should disturb his “peace.” This philosophy finds its most powerful expression in the words of Horace: Si fractus illabatur orbis, impavidum ferient ruinae – “If the round sky should crack and fall upon him, the wreck will strike him fearless still” (Ode VII, 3-7). West is free to “re-baptize” the word “stoicism,” but he should warn his readers that he is considerably swaying from its historical meaning. One could refer to stoicism as the pitiful victory of pride over concupiscence. St. John tells us clearly that both vices threaten fallen man. They are his fearful enemies, but pride – that we share with Lucifer (Non serviam) – is the worse of the two. This fact should not make us overlook the daily threat of concupiscence that brings millions of us to committing grave sins. Alas, in man both vices are often happily “married.” According to West, there are three types of people: The already alluded to Stoic, the addict, and the mystic. The addict, who yields constantly to his cravings, will one day discover that he has become a slave, having lost his moral freedom. Tragically, he can also be enslaved by purely artificial cravings. No one is born with a desire to puff on a cigarette, but once a person has started smoking, and found it to be “fashionable” or “relaxing,” he can soon become so dependent on tobacco that without it, he is “paralyzed” and incapable of doing any work. I was told of a parish priest who never delivered a homily: after reading the Gospel, his craving for cigarette was such that he asked the deacon to step into the pulpit. He hurriedly left the church, and to put his body at peace went into the yard for the duration of the sermon to smoke. He then completed the Holy sacrifice of the Mass. The third category is the mystics. “ … for  the mystic the true pleasures of this world are a welcome but only dim foreshadowing of the ecstasy that awaits us in the world to come.” … “When properly understood, these true pleasures sharpen our longing for the delights of the eternal banquet that will be ours in eternity” (Fill These Hearts, p. 32). Clearly, the author is taking the same liberty with the word “mystics” that he has taken with the word “stoic.” According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, mysticism is a “direct union of the human soul with the Divinity” – an extraordinary privilege which is a foretaste of the beatific vision. For a brief, ecstatic moment, the veil of faith is lifted. These extraordinary graces are granted to very few people, and they are in no way required for holiness. In his Confessions, (Book IX, Chapter X)  St. Augustine relates  that, shortly after his conversion when he was still at the foot of the mountain he was granted,together with his beloved mother, taste of the sublime sweetness of beatitude. This overwhelming delight granted to both simultaneously (an exceptional case, I believe) gave them a foretaste of the beatific union, radically transcending the most overwhelming human experience. Indeed, “no eye has seen nor ear heard nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2-9). St. Paul could not be clearer; no human satisfaction, however overwhelming, can give us a faint idea of what the beatific vision will be. Once we have had a taste of beatitude, all human joys lose their savor. Why does St. Paul exclaim:“Who will deliver me of this body of death?”  We find similar expressions in St. Teresa of Avila’s biography. Once she had a brief taste of heavenly joys, human life as we know it on this earth became inevitably a sort of spiritual torture. To have a mystical experience is therefore a “croce e delizia” – an overwhelming joy linked to the grief of being still in this vale of tears. Not only are mystical experiences (which need in no way be essentially linked to phenomena like levitation) granted to very few people, but they are in no way necessary for holiness. Whereas, and this should be underlined, all of us are called to holiness, very few are given mystical graces. To claim that “we all called to be mystics,” is, once again, to deviate from the traditional meaning of the word. That we are all called to holiness is clearly stated in Christ’s words: “be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.” West justifies this claim by telling us that “…the deliciousness of a meal and the sadness that it is over does its job: to awake my hope in and what my appetite for the life to which I’m destined…where the banquet never ends.” (p.32) He writes that he is referring to “true joys.” But the problem is that this word is loaded with equivocations. This becomes clear whenhe refers to the satisfaction that our palate experiences while eating a delicious meal.  Following the teaching of St. Thomas, let us makedistinctions. It might be worthwhile to compare his approach with the one of St. Francis of Sales. This great saint, being philosophically trained, distinguishes between pleasures that attract us because of the satisfaction they give us, and those (should they be called “pleasures”?) that fill us with joy and give us a taste of happiness because they possess an inner value and beauty that motivates our response. Unless this distinction is clearly made, we open the door to innumerable equivocations. Moreover, St. Francis of Sales tells us that what he calls “carnal” pleasures (plaisirs charnels) always entail a certain danger for fallen man. Even though God Himself has chosen to link certain bodily activities to pleasurable sensations, but because of original sin (rarely mentioned by West) they are potentially linked to venial sins. (Introduction to the Devout Life, chapter XXXIX). The Bishop of Geneva is alluding to the fact that the intensity of carnal pleasures caneasily take precedence upon its essential theme: in the case of marriage, the loving self donation to one’s spouse.  This is why he wrote: “There is no union so precious and so fruitful between husband and wife as that of holy devotion in which they should mutually lead and sustain each other” (Chapter XXXVIII) The same great saint also wrote:  that “marriage is honorable in all its parts” (Ibid). These are not the words of a "puritan" who looks down upon the flesh. They flow from the pen of a profoundly humble person who never loses sight of the fact that, as long as live in this vale of tears, we should always be spiritually alert, and realize that our enemy the Devil who never sleeps, can hijack every situation and make us trip and fall.  Any confessor will tell us that sins against the sixth commandment are rarely unmentioned in the Confessional, for “sin lies at the door of pleasure.” What a difference between the pleasure we experience while eating a delicious meal, and “our sadness” that it is over, and our being moved to tears by a magnificent sunset, perceived through our eyes, while the latter do not “feel” any pleasure at all. The joy that chaste spouses experience in their self-donation to the other is to be distinguished from the carnal pleasure felt in this union. The first is a faint foretaste of eternal joys. The second strikes mystics as “ordure” (dung) and slime to those who have had a brief foretaste ofeternal joys. (Treatise of the Love of God, V; 8). His teaching is luminous; they are legitimate carnal pleasures, but because of original sin, they are connected with the potential danger of gaining precedence over the joy of being united to the beloved.  St. Francis refers to the crucial distinction that St.Augustine makes between things that should be used and those that should be enjoyed. Carnal pleasures should not be isolated. St. Francis makes this clearby telling us that marriage is holy in all its parts is one thing; that it is not easy for fallen man to truly live it in all its perfections is another.  Speaking about the pleasure of the palate, (and subtly referring to all carnal pleasures) St. Francis writes,  “Persons of honor never think of eating, but when they sit down at table and after dinner wash their hands and their mouth that they may neither keep the taste nor the scent of what they have been eating.” This is definitely a different approach from the one telling us that a person is sad that a good meal is over. The teaching of St. Francis is luminous: all carnal joys should be baptized by gratitude; their enjoyment should never be our main concern. This king of spiritual directors hints at the fact that it is not easy for fallen man to taste carnal pleasures and avoid pitfalls which are linked to them. In his Introduction to the Devout Life addressed to Philothea (a woman), he advises married women (many of his spiritual daughters were grandes dames, inevitably leading a social life), to take the discipline twice a week.  The message is clear: being married, and enjoying the legitimate delights of the great sacrament they received, they should never lose sight of the fact that the enjoyment of carnal pleasure, because of our wounded nature, needs to be constantly purified. It might be more difficult to do so than to abstain from these pleasures altogether, as is the case of people who consecrated their virginity to God.  Let us think of great saints who were married. I choose two example among very many. St. Thomas More, married twice, was the father of four children. He wore a hair shirt, and took the discipline. The same is true of St. Frances of Rome, married for forty years.  In their humility, these great saints remained keenly aware that as long as we live, pleasure needs to be “baptized” and “re-baptized.” Let us not forget that the forbidden fruit was a delight to the eye and promised to be good to the taste. Are carnal pleasures evil? No. But, St. Francis tells us that they call for a “caveat.” The devil like a roaring lion is always on the look out to devour us. How easily can one convince oneself that self-donation is one’s main motivation, while in fact “omnis homo mendax” (every man is a liar).  A test can make this clear: when abstinence is called for because of circumstances. How does a spouse respond to such situations? With ill grace, or joyfully embracing this sacrifice, with the realization that common sacrifices joyfully accepted are the cement of great human love. In fact, routine is the great enemy of beautiful marital exchanges. It is deeply meaningful that Luther ridicules ascetic practices which he abolished with the consequences that we know. After Vatican II, several religious orders followed his advice; alas how many of their members today betray the wisdom of their founder. I have been told that in some Jesuit houses, there is a cocktail hour before dinner. On the other hand, new and flourishing religious orders (and thank God there are several) reintroduced discipline, hair shirts, and severe fasting. Simone de Beauvoir refers to such practices as “masochism.” Indeed, there is such a thing as perverse masochism which aims at sexual satisfaction. Satan always aims at aping God. Right as West is in claiming that ascetic practices can be abused (see The Heart of the Gospel, p. 256) this should not blind us to the fact that no saint has ever reached holiness without asceticism. The Little Flower tells us that the practice of the “discipline” often brought tears to her eyes.   It is always recommended that these practices are done with the approval of wise spiritual direction. St. Francis of Sales can truly be proclaimed king of the spiritual directors. One of the marks of French spirituality is the talent to communicate a sensitive message with such noble subtlety that while luminously clear, it avoids the pitfall of using coarse and vulgar language to make sure that “one’s message is properly communicated.” St. Francis - animated by his profound faith, appeals to what is best and deepest in the human soul, and by his loving trust that as long as we live, the image of God, while badly stained, is still there, he awakened innumerable human souls to their calling to grow wings. He ends the chapter on married love with the words: “I have now said all that I wish to say, and have sufficiently implied, without saying it, that which I was unwilling to say” (Chapter XXXIX). What a precious advice for us “modern” folk. What a spiritual wake-up call to make us realize that we should re-learn to speak the languages of angels.

Refused to be defeated

Apr 19, 2013 / 00:00 am

On April 20, Mother Angelica will celebrate her 90thbirthday. She was born defeated. That is, the child of an unhappy marriage.When she was still a child her father left her mother. The latter helpless anddistraught was incapable of coping with this tragic situation. She and hersmall daughter lived in utter poverty. How devastating for an alert little girl to realize at an early age,that she was the fruit of a marriage that should not have taken place. Her existencewas not “justified,” for all of us know deep down that the marital embraceshould be an expression of love. Later she was granted the grace of defeatingdefeat. Like St. Francis of Assisi she will declare God to be her father.Although going to a Catholic school, she was not given the lovingattention she needed for many of the nuns did not understand the plight of achild of divorcees. Her life was dim indeed. But one day, as she miraculouslyescaped from a deadly accident, she understood that God loved her and had givenher life for a reason. She decided to become a nun even though she had toovercome the opposition of her mother who heavily depended upon her.A convent of Poor Clares in Ohio accepted her, even thoughshe did not have much to offer: neither an outstanding education, nor anymoney.She was given menial tasks. Once while cleaning a parlor,her foot got caught in the cord of the vacuum. She fell backwards, and theearly prognostic was bleak indeed: it seemed that she would be crippled forlife. (For more on this, read Raymond Arroyo’s outstanding book). God had hisplans, and even though she had to wear braces and walk on crutches, shedefeated defeat once again. She lived a “normal” nun’s life. That went on forquite a while, and then she felt the calling to found a Poor Clare Convent in theDeep South, in Alabama where the percentage of Catholics is minimal. She had toconvince her superior who understandably raised many objections. One of themwas money. But refusing to be defeated, Mother Angelica – apart from makingfish flies – invented all sorts of modest means of earning the sum needed forthis wild project. Once again, she won. As a matter of fact, she achievedanother amazing victory; her mother entered the monastery and joined the tinycommunity. Nothing at this point would make one suspect that Irondale,outside of Birmingham, was going to become the birth place of the largestCatholic TV station in the world. Realizing the crucial importance of the newsmedia for evangelization, Mother had conceived another plan: to build one. Any“sane” person would question the nun’s sanity. Not only she was penniless, butknew nothing about television. Who was she anyway? The nuns were living fromhand to mouth. The money box was always empty. But why fear when one loves aCreator who is all powerful and all loving? Indeed, did not St. Paul say: “Ican do all things in Him that strengthens me”? One thing is to read thesewords. Another is to live them. These were not vague promises. She put God tothe test: huge debts did not worry her. All she and her nuns had to do was todouble their confidence in God, make sacrifices and pray, pray, pray.Every step of the way she encounters obstacles, and to hergrief many of them coming from the Clergy: who was she to undertake a projectconfided to them? She did not have the education required. She was engaging hermonastery in a mad plan bound to end in failure.All these highly “reasonable” arguments overlooked onecrucial factor: God often confided his most cherished mission to those whoknowing to be weak, put all their confidence in Him. Indeed, Mother Angelicabelonged to the “weak” sex, but the strength of the latter is precisely thatacknowledging its weakness, it puts all its confidence in Him for whom “nothingis impossible.” Indeed, God has “exalted” the weak, and made a Woman the Queenof Angels, who – according to St. Bernard – the devil fears more than GodHimself. For to be defeated by the “weak” sex is humiliating indeed.Supernaturally speaking, it might be that the weak sex (to which life wasconfided) is the privileged one.The foundation of EWTN was for Mother Angelica the way ofthe Cross. She did not advertise her sufferings. Her appearance was one of joyand confidence. But she knew that blood was and is the price required by Godfor martyrdom.The pattern remained the same: defeats, disappointments,suffering, difficulties from all sides. The end result was always anotherdefeat of defeats.The last one was when a stroke deprived her of her power ofspeech which she had used so eloquently for years, reaching millions andmillions of hungry souls, often deprived of the most elementary knowledge oftheir faith. Now God chose to reduce her to silence.  But it is my deep conviction that with Hisgrace, she has once again defeated this terrible defeat: the joyful acceptanceof her forced silence is a victory of such dimension that it guarantees thesurvival of her great work.

Benedict and Dietrich

Mar 5, 2013 / 00:00 am

When, after fifteen years of voluntary exile, Dietrich von Hildebrand managed to come back to his beloved Munich in 1948, there was much excitement in his family, numerous friends, and many dedicated students.  They all knew that he had voluntarily left Germany “refusing to live in a country led by a criminal.” They probably knew that he had been “fired” from the University of Munich for his “impure” blood (having  declared himself non-Aryan in solidarity with a persecuted people, justifying his claim on the ground that his paternal grandmother was of Jewish origin, even though baptized Protestant as a child).But no one knew (or could know) that he had been condemned to death (in abstentia) by Hitler accusing him of treason; they did not know that he had been deprived of his German citizenship. They did not know that he had been declared “Hitler’s enemy one” in Austria, by the German Ambassador, Franz von Papen.  His name was taboo in Germany. This went so far then when Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote what is probably his greatest book, "Transformation in Christ," the Swiss Publisher, Benziger, refused to publish his manuscript unless he adopted a nom de plume: Peter Ott. Otherwise, the book would be prohibited in Germany and they would lose money. He complied. It is only after the war that the book was reprinted under his name. In the late 40s, the book was translated into English and has remained in print ever since. This highly popular Catholic thinker was finally back In Munich and a talk was organized by his friends.It was well attended. Among the invitees was a very young priest, aged 21, named Josef Ratzinger, assistant pastor in a lovely Baroque Church, Heilig Blut, where Dietrich von Hildebrand had attended Mass every single day from his conversion in 1914, until he left Nazi Germany in 1933.  (It was the Church where a few years later, we were married).This young priest had probably heard rumors about Dietrich von Hildebrand, but could not have known much about him.Clever people who are talented at advertising themselves might have chosen as title of their talk, “My heroic fight against Nazism.”  It would have been a unique chance of publicly qualifying himself as a hero. Typically, Dietrich von Hildebrand did not even consider it as a possibility. Hitler was dead; Nazism was dead. What was the sense of beating a dead horse?He chose as title: “The Role of Beauty in man’s religious life.” This title had much attraction for the young priest.  Fed on the remarkable Baroque Culture of Bavaria, acquainted as a small child with the incredible musical treasures that Germany had given to the world and coming from his musical family, the very word “beauty” resounded in his soul.The talk found in him a very appreciative audience. He remembered it many years later when I asked him to write a preface to my biography of Dietrich von Hildebrand: “The Soul of a Lion.”Whereas Fr. Ratzinger knew who Dietrich was, the latter might have had a vague recollection of a very young priest who attended his talk in 1948 as they never had any further personal contact.Some fourteen years later, Vatican II started. One name that soon became prominent was the name of a young theologian, Josef Ratzinger, chosen as Peritus by the Archbishop of Munich.  The young theologian was already well-known for his scholarship and brilliant intellectual gifts. Clearly he was a rising star on the intellectual firmament of Germany.It is my recollection that my husband soon showed some concern about his views.  I do not recall whether Dietrich ever mentioned Fr. Ratzinger by name, but one thing is certain; he feared that the young Peritus’ liberal views might undermine the sacred tradition of the Church.One day, however, he joyously told me: Fr. Ratzinger seems to have found his footing. The young Peritus had given a talk in Bamberg in which he proved himself to be deeply rooted in the holy tradition of the Church.  It is worth mentioning that this change of course was not to the taste of the liberal Archbishop Dopfner of Munich.  After the Bamberg talk, he took the young theologian aside and asked him what had happened to him? Was he not changing his views? (see “Milestones” by Josef Cardinal Ratzinger). The answer of the young theologian was that he had now clearly perceived the dangers that the interpretation of the Council spread by the news media presented to the Holy Tradition of the Church.Much concerned about these trends, Dietrich von Hildebrand had abandoned the writing of his momentous memoirs (some 5000 pages of handwritten manuscript which, alas, he never completed) to devote his pen in defense of orthodoxy and tradition. In hindsight, it is clear that the “rising” theological star in Germany became acquainted with these works. “The Trojan Horse in the City of God” was a best seller in his country.The call of the hour was to make clear that the contributions of Vatican II were to be inserted in the Holy tradition of the Catholic Church. The word “change” is equivocal: for there is such a thing as “The Development of Doctrine” – admirably highlighted by Cardinal Newman – and there is a change which is a rosy word for “betrayal.” It was urgent to distinguish between the two. “Change” instead of meaning “enrichment” could actually mean “destruction.” A blossoming of a bud into a flower is a “change”; so is a cancerous growth. The two had to be clearly differentiated.I am convinced that the exceptionally talented young theologian (soon to become a Bishop, then a Cardinal, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during most of the Pontificate of JPII) saw this at his mission. From this moment on, there was a deep spiritual and intellectual bond between him and Dietrich von Hildebrand.It might explain why – armed only with my name – I had no difficulty whatsoever in obtaining three private audiences with the Cardinal; in 1984 and 1985 when I taught at the Thomas More Institute and again in 1994. Finally, I had the incredible blessing of gaining a private audience with Benedict XVI on March 26, 2007 shortly before the proclamation that any priest wishing to say the traditional Latin Mass no longer needed to request the permission of his Bishop. Already in 1984, I had begged His Eminence to help restore the practice of this Holy tradition; a repeat of the request I had made to JPII in January 1980 when I was honored by a private audience with the “young” Pope (he had been in office only for fifteen months).The question worth raising is, how could I be so favored, when it is well known how very difficult it is to obtain an audience with the top members of the Curia, let alone an audience with Peter’s Successor?May I offer the following suggestion: there is an exceptional “affinity” between this great Pope Emeritus who, alas, has stepped down, and Dietrich von Hildebrand whose philosophical contributions are being finally “discovered’” thanks to the work of a young man, John Henry Crosby, who has devoted his life to the translation, publication and re-printing of von Hildebrand’s very many books, articles and manuscripts.Practically unknown in Germany thanks to Hitler, Dietrich von Hildebrand’s message is now being spread in the United States.All this is mostly made possible by the moral and intellectual support given him by Benedict XVI. The latter writes in the Preface to my book, “The Soul of a Lion”: “I am personally convinced that, when, at some time in the future, the intellectual history of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century is written, the name of Dietrich von Hildebrand will be most prominent among the figures of our time.”  This praise coming from the pen of a man who, apart from the key role that he has played in the Church,  will go down in history  as one of the most brilliant minds that God has given His Bride, is praise indeed. What do I mean by “the affinity” between this great Pontiff and my husband?It could easily be the topic of a whole book. I shall limit myself to some key similarities, a minor one being their link to Catholic Bavaria where Benedict was born and raised, and where Dietrich spent close to thirty years of his adventurous life. The two men had radically different backgrounds: one the son of a famous sculptor, born and raised in Italy (which marked him deeply); the other, the son of a policeman, coming from a humble family deeply marked by a profound faith. The young Josef was a cradle Catholic, baptized on the very day of his birth while Dietrich was a convert whose ardent love for the Church was one of the most prominent features of his personality.Both men shared a great love for Baroque culture, visibly expressing the glorious joy of Catholicism and complementing the awesome greatness of Gothic architecture, and a deep musical background. But their spiritual affinity goes much deeper: it also marked their religious, spiritual, and intellectual kinship.When one reads “Milestone” by Cardinal Ratzinger, one is struck that as a young student he had a special love for St. Augustine and his disciples. It is not surprising that he wrote his Dissertation on St. Bonaventure.  There are several great traditions in the Catholic Church: each one has its value, its special message. Our gratitude to all of them should be great, but it is legitimate for an individual thinker to be particularly indebted to one of them. Both Benedict and Dietrich  acknowledge their special love and devotion to one of the glories of Catholicism: St. Augustine.In his Memoirs, when speaking of the Bishop of Hippo, Dietrich, “explodes in a song of gratitude toward him.”Quotes such as, “Fecisti nos ad te, Domine, et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te,” (Thou hast made us for Thyself, Lord, and our heart is restless until it rest Thee, Confessions, I, 1) or "Sero te amavi, pulchritudo tam antiqua et tam nova, sero te amavi! et ecce intus eras et ego foris, et ibi te quaerebam" (Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient and ever new! Late have I loved you! And, behold, you were within me, and I out of myself, and there I searched for you, X, 27) or “Da quo jubes et jube quod vis” (Give what you command, and command what you will, X, 29), deeply resounded in their souls.This is a theme that should be developed, and a tempting title for a Ph.D. dissertation.  In this context, must limit myself to mentioning it.Moreover, both Benedict and Dietrich resisted the tendency found in many of our contemporaries to assume that the period in which they live is superior to the past. Maritain dubs it “Chronolatry.” Indeed, modern man, inebriated by the mind-boggling scientific discoveries of the last century, is tempted to speak disparagingly of the Dark Ages – forgetting that one can be “blinded” by both a lack of light or by too brilliant a one. Indeed modern science has advanced by leaps and bounds. But is this also true of our human, cultural and moral development? Are we “better human beings” that were our ancestors?  Do we still have the sense of reverence to which Plato attributes the greatness of Athens in the 5th century B.C.?Can we say that modern architecture, sculpture, painting and music are more “beautiful,” more uplifting, than those preceding us? For beauty, as Plato saw twenty five centuries ago, makes wings grow to our soul. Modern cities, on the contrary, are bound to depress anyone who has eyes to see.Both Benedict XVI and Dietrich have emphasized the crucial role of Beauty in evangelization. The magnificent artistic accomplishments of Catholic culture have been a powerful help in knowing and deepening our faith. I myself can testify the blessing it has been for me to be born and raised in a Catholic country, rich in magnificent Churches, decorated by sculptures and paintings making faith alive.What I have learned through these masterpieces cannot be put in words. This is why both thinkers have been “apostles of beauty” - I.e. true Beauty “that makes wings grow to the soul.” Alas, today, the word Beauty has also been infected by relativism; in fact, it has been hijacked. Whatever is “exciting”, “fun”, and awakens in us emotions of a very doubtful nature, is dubbed “beautiful.” Both thinkers stand not only for the objectivity of truth but also for the objectivity of beauty.  God is not only Truth itself, but also Goodness itself and Beauty itself.Anyone entering the Cathedral of Chartres is struck by awe: this is indeed a sacred place, made by human hands, inspired by faith and a trembling reverence. Not long ago, I was invited to give a talk in Cleveland. The monks who invited me used to have a venerable old church, but because it needed huge repairs which (they claimed) were too expensive, decided to built a new Church. I requested to be brought there for a moment of recollection. I was in for a shock: I entered a huge room which I assumed to the gym: it was shamefully ugly. How can young people brought to such a place learn reverence: “take off your shoes; this is holy ground.” The same can be said of much of “modern music.” Granted that it is “dynamic”, “deafening”, and aiming at shaking bored modern men from their slumber, one thing is certain; it certainly does not invite us to adoration. The wise old man of Greece (as Kierkegaard called Socrates), wishing to know himself, raises the question: “Is he a monster … or creature of a gentler and simple sort, to whom Nature has given a diviner and lowlier destiny?” (Phaedrus; 230).The answer is that since original sin, we are both: a thesis developed in the same dialogue when Plato refers to a charioteer who has two horses; the obedient one and the rebellious one who kicks and hates being guided. Both Benedict and Dietrich knew that there is an art (I.e. beauty made visible and audible) that appeals to the gentle and reverent creature in us, and another one that definitely feeds the “monster” – characterized by irreverence and hunger of violent sensations which cut us off from our depth. But the word “art” has been hijacked by the Evil one: now “art” is applied to any visible and audible “creation” without making any distinction between uplifting, noble, or blasphemous, pornographic, irreverent.  Anyone who denies the word “art” to such productions is immediately accused of “narrowness” or being “puritanical” – apparently one of the most dangerous sicknesses menacing our society. This was already diagnosed by the genius of C.S.Lewis who writes:  “In modern Christian writings … I see few of the old warnings about Worldly Vanities, the Choice of Friends, and the Value of Time. All that your patient would probably classify as ‘Puritanism’ – and may I remark in passing that the value we have given to that word is one of the really solid triumphs of the last hundred years? By it we rescue annually thousands of humans from temperance, chastity, and sobriety of life.” (“Screwtape Letters,” 54-55) Inspired by the same wisdom, he writes further: “The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers where there is a flood …” (Ibid, 129). We are constantly warmed of the deadly danger of Puritanism and anyone spending a half hour in malls cannot – if he is sane – blame our society for encouraging this dangerous heresy. (p.s. Man is, since original sin, so prone to error that all moral and intellectual diseases will never be totally eradicated; they have become chronic. When combated and apparently defeated, they may be dormant for a while, but as soon as given a chance, they will “reappear.”This deep sense for the crucial importance of visible and audible perceptions (for man is both body and soul) is linked to the respect for tradition that both men share so deeply. This explains their love for use of the Latin language in the Liturgy. Let us recall that Vatican II, far from abolishing this sacred tongue, only permitted that the vernacular be used in certain parts of the Liturgy (Epistle and Gospel).  Overnight, it was brutally abolished, and today very many priests cannot not recite the “Pater Noster” in that tongue – something which innumerable Italian peasants without any high school education knew by heart. The universal use of the Latin tongue was a glorious victory of a sacred language over the Tower of Babel.  How wise was the Enemy in convincing many liberals that in fact, this “strange and foreign” idiom discouraged people from attending religious services, even though all missals were printed with both Latin and the vernacular.  How uplifting it was when years ago, my husband and I attended Mass in Constantinople, Tunis and Bogota and heard the beloved words, “Introibo ad altare Dei …”Those who have eyes must acknowledge that what has taken place in the course of the last fifty years is a massive attack on tradition and on the sacred. Why were communion rails (some of them having a great artistic value) brutally destroyed, even though there was not a single word in Vatican II demanding this “iconoclasm”? Obviously, once again, we weaken our sense of awe, reverence for the Sacredness of the Eucharist, for in our culture “kneeling” has always been an expression of adoration. How many times in the Gospels, when people were touched by Christ’s holiness, knelt in front of Him?  Today, as soon as most Americans (known to be poor linguists) leave their country, they will attend Mass (if they do) not understanding a single word of the Divine service. The Enemy understood but too well that religious nationalism was going to be nurtured as soon as this sacred language (which being “dead” prevented it from being infected by slang and vulgarities) is abolished. To refer to God as “the nice guy upstairs” would have been inconceivable years ago.Both Benedict XVI and Dietrich are ardent lovers of the Gregorian chant: not only because it connects us with the tradition of the Church from Gregory the Great on, but also because it is “sacred” music – that is, a music whose very substance is a prayer, a sursum corda. The great Pope Emeritus tried at every occasion to re connect the faithful with this holy tradition.  Indeed, there is no period in history that does not have its flaws. It is sheer illusion – and a lie propagated by “liberal” politicians – that new laws will guarantee the creation of a paradise on this earth (or, according to Lenin: “a paradise for the workers” – another word for Gulag).But, on the other hand, each period, in very different degrees, might give us a message that we should be grateful to accept. Our debt to Plato and Aristotle is immense. But simultaneously both St. Augustine (a Platonist at heart) and St. Thomas (a disciple of Aristotle) aimed at correcting the flaws inevitably found in thinkers who lived ante lucem.Wisdom is to be found in the words of St. Paul: “test all things; keep what is good.” There are plenty of men who call themselves “lovers of wisdom,” but not very many who are “wise.” Let us make this distinction: they are those who gratefully embrace “the golden cord of tradition” as Plato called it, carefully endorsing its “gifts” and rejecting its weaknesses.But there still are more bonds that deeply unite both thinkers that deserve our attention. Both men wage a relentless war on “dictatorial relativism.” Dietrich von Hildebrand, who was 38 years older than Benedict XVI, diagnosed it as one of the greatest dangers menacing the 20th century (see “The Dethronement of Truth in The New Tower of Babel,” Kennedy, 1953).Benedict XVI wisely adds “dictatorial” to this dethronement because, not satisfied by sapping the foundation of any universally valid knowledge, he points to the fact that we have  “progressed” one step further on the road leading to moral and intellectual disaster. We are alluding to the right, now claimed by relativism, to condemn (and possibly to take to court) those who say that there is an objective truth and to condemn certain actions as being intrinsically evil and therefore constituting a grave danger for any sane society. To claim that a condemnation of homosexuality (recall the Story of Sodom and Gomorrah) is homophobic, is a case in point. This is what Benedict means by dictatorial. It is “imposed” on society by means of new laws which, as unfortunately many laws in human history, are immoral and unjust.The natural law is offered to all men of good will. One must marvel at the riches of Plato’s ethical insights – he who was a pagan – warns us how dangerous it is to prefer oneself to the Truth. He fully deserves the glorious title of a preparer of the ways of Christ. This noble and truth-thirsty thinker knew how tempting it is for man to declare himself to be “the measure of all things.” This perennial and vicious error which, often refuted, goes underground and re appears periodically in the history of mankind. Since original sin, intellectual diseases are “chronic.”That Truth should be king and master in all our intellectual pursuits is what is being challenged today under the banner of “dictatorial relativism”; a relativism which is taught to children in grammar school, and imposed upon us in the most authoritative manner. Woe to the man who condemns sexual perversions; woe to the man who claims that to kill a human person in the womb is a crime!This “authoritarianism” is also spreading in all philosophical branches and consequently in theology.Far from claiming that Benedict XVI and Dietrich are the only thinkers who diagnosed the danger and opposed it, my only claim that both of them are deeply united in their fight against it.The deep intellectual bond existing between Benedict XVI and Dietrich is best expressed in their views on the relations existing between faith and reason. This is a huge topic. I will limit myself to a few remarks. Both thinkers claim that there is perfect harmony between them, but in order for this harmony to become luminous a few remarks are called for.Two dangers are to be fought against: rationalism and fideism. The first arrogantly claims that reason gives us a key to all problems.  Inevitably, it condemns the supernatural and all mysteries. They are easily eliminated; they are “myths” that any intelligent man should discard as irrelevant.  Myths are accepted by “numbskulls” – people who have remained stuck in the Dark Ages. This stand teaches us that intellectual pride inevitably leads to intellectual stupidity.Fideism, on the other hand, claims that faith and faith alone will give answers to all our queries, and inevitably disparages reason as invalid. The Lutheran dogma:  sola fides was bound to lead to this error.Any sound, intelligent person must acknowledge that reason has its limits: and that there are, “more things between heaven and earth that are those contained in your philosophy,” as Shakespeare wisely put in Hamlet’s mouth. Blaise Pascal, was also fully aware of the limit of reason, wrote, “The last proceeding of reason is to recognize that there is an infinity of things which are beyond it.”And further, “There is nothing so conformable to reason as this disavowal of reason.”That reason has its limitations should not make deny that within its radius, it is capable of reaching certitude. This is proven by its access for “veritates aeternae” that all men can perceive. This is a justification of the natural moral law that can be perceived by all men who are truth-thirsty. I say “can” because all those who have watched the vicious attacks waged on Honorable Clarence Thomas to oppose his elevation to the Supreme Court, on the ground that he defended the universal validity of this law, must acknowledge that clearly some people suffer from intellectual blindness.Throughout my long and very challenging career teaching philosophy at the City University, the thesis that “what is true for you is not true for me” is an argument that I have heard ad nauseam. Of often have I heard, “I do not see what you claim to true.” Indeed, I believed them; they did not see. To challenge them was simple: all I needed do was to ask them “Do I not see because there is nothing to be seen, or because I need corrective lenses?”I recall that one student violently objecting to my claim that the natural law is objective, happened to be wearing glasses. I told her to take off her glasses, and then showed the class a small object I had in my pocket book. I asked her whether she could tell me what I was holding in my hand. The answer as expected was no.  “Put on your glasses,” I told her. All of a sudden, she could see.Human reason is valid, but two things must be kept in mind: it has limits. Rationalism is nothing but intellectual pride. Eritis sicut dii (you shall all be gods). Moreover, reason has been affected by original sin. There are “truths” that are luminous, and yet not perceived by many men. The reason is obvious: these truths are what I shall dub “sensitive truths”, that is truths which are bound to affect our personal life. They are mostly referring to ethics. Since original sin, man does not like to obey, to be told what to do or what he should abstain from.These truths inevitably become darkened by man’s refusal to live them. Once again, my students became my teachers. I recall a very “lively” (dramatic) class in which a student challenged my arguments in favor of the immortality of the soul. He fought with a sort of ardor as if he were fighting for his very life. At one point, he “unveiled” the reasons for his opposition. He said to me, “The worst thing that could happen to me would be if you could convince me of the immortality of soul; then I would be held responsible for my lifestyle.”Any conflict between faith and reason will inevitably arise as soon as reason arrogantly claims that it can answer all questions. If a philosopher declares that to him the mysteries of faith are luminous, we can be certain that he will deny them by reducing them to myths.Philosophy should not meddle in a domain in which it is totally incompetent. This “panic” when facing the word “truth” is an inheritance of original sin.  Centuries ago, Tertullian wrote: “Cum odio sui coepit veritas.  Simul atque apparuit, inimica est” (The first reaction to truth is hatred. The moment it appears it is treated as an enemy, Apologeticus  vi . 3).Does this mean that there is no connection between faith and reason? Definitely not. First of all, just as grace presupposes nature, sound theology presupposes a sound philosophy, and when theologians go off the bend, one can be fairly certain that they are disciples of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche or Heidegger.  This is bound to affect theology based on faith.On the other hand,  faith offers remedies to reason afflicted by the wounds of original sin. This wound is “pride” and thanks to faith, man is offered a cure for this moral and “intellectual” sickness, namely, humility. Authentic Catholic philosophy is “baptized reason,” that is say, it is not theology, it is a philosophy that has been healed (see “The Soul of a Lion”, 133, for Dietrich von Hildebrand’s opposition to the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception and then acceptance of it as an act of humility – a condition for his entering the Church and then within weeks, becoming its ardent defender). Credo ut intelligam (I believe so that I may understand) was the remedy.Benedict is a great theologian and he fully endorses the views propounded by Dietrich because the truths perceived by the latter do not come “from him” but “through him,” and are therefore “catholic,” that is, universal, and offered to all men. Human beings are given the choice: accept them, and prefer truth to themselves; or reject them, preferring themselves to truth.Any theology based on a wrong philosophy is bound to lead to innumerable aberrations leading to heresies, and poisoned scholarship.Benedict XVI is well acquainted with all the works of Dietrich von Hildebrand. Many key works of the latter have not been translated into English, but this is no problem for Benedict.It is my claim that the two men have a very deep affinity; religious, spiritual, intellectual and cultural.  That both have a deep appreciation of baroque Catholic culture which has enriched Bavaria for centuries, a culture celebrating the joyous glory of our faith, creates a bond between them. But their affinity goes much deeper.They are both rooted in the Augustinian tradition. In his “Memoirs,” Dietrich von Hildebrand has deeply moving lines about his discovery of St. Augustine: he explodes in words such as; “How am I to thank you, you who has opened to me.” Let us read “Milestone,” and the young Ratzinger expresses his love for him and for St. Bonaventure. Not surprisingly, he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on him. This remark should not be interpreted as a critique of other great traditions in the intellectual history of the Catholic Church. But indicates a certain orientation, a certain sensitivity to certain aspects of our faith which are less clearly highlighted in other traditions.  We need not go into details – that would be another long article – but any reader who has any amount of philosophical culture will get my point. Let us limit ourselves to the role of the heart, and the role of beauty so prominent in the Bishop of Hippo.“Late have I loved Thee; O Beauty ever ancient and ever new, late have I loved thee …”“Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in thee.”“Give what You command and command what You will.”These words move the deepest cords of our heart; they are illuminating, but they are simultaneously prayers.Both men have a very profound understanding for the value of tradition.  The history of the Church is a golden cord that links us to the very beginning: the Annunciation and the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, to His death, Resurrection, Ascension, to the birth of the Church; Peter being his first head; the admirable continuity of its doctrine, in spite of persecutions, betrayals, and sorrows.Both were deeply conscious that, due to the perverse influence of the News Media, the message of Vatican II was – at times in a very subtle way – trying to cut the umbilical cord linking us to the past, and thereby threatening the very life of the Church. The turmoil which took place after this Council, the betrayals, the heresies spread in the name of “renewal,” was a clarion call for those granted with powerful and humble minds, to step on the stage, and denounce the gravity of these aberrations. Both men responded to the call and once again, followed St. Augustine; “Interfice errorem; diligere erratum” (Kill the sin; love the sinner). The love for the erring person is to be measured by our hatred, yes hatred, of his error.Both men had the same conviction that Catholic culture (which was being systematically destroyed by liberal iconoclasm) had to be restored. It was crucial to expose young people to visual and auditory beauty – that is true beauty which is coming from above, and the message of which is “Sursum corda,” (lift up your hearts) as opposed to so-called “modern” culture which tends to flatter the dark sides of our fallen nature, as already remarked by Plato in book IV of the “Republic.” Let us beware to wake us the “monster” that lies dormant in us.How very sad that Benedict and Dietrich never had a chance of having a tete-a-tete exchanging their love for Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Hayn, Haendel, Schubert and their “children”; touching cords in the human soul that invite man to gratitude, to adoration, and purify him from the black spots that daily life throws on all of us. It was Dietrich von Hildebrand’s deep conviction that the so-called modern culture was in fact an anti-culture, and that the Devil and his ilk was the conduct of this diabolical symphony.A very special bond between the two men was their conviction that there is not and cannot be a disharmony between faith and reason. This is a longer chapter that calls for some explanation.Let me concentrate on one point which is of crucial importance:Both Benedict XVI and DvH were much concerned about the relationship between faith and reason.  Both realized the danger of fideism and also the arrogant claim that faith if for numbskulls still stuck in the Middle Ages. Both defended the rights of reason, and the glory of faith. To claim that reason can give a true answer to all questions leads to rationalism:  and it is typical of rationalists that they deny the existence of problems that they cannot answer.Both thinkers underlined that reason is capable of reaching truth, but it does not mean that it has a key to all truths.There are truths that are above reason, not against reason; this is the domain of mystery.

Thank you, Benedict XVI

Feb 26, 2013 / 00:00 am

The world woke up to the news that on Feb. 28 at 8 p.m. the Throne of Peter will be vacant. The response was shock, and amazement. Indeed, the Pope is close to his 86th birthday, but his mind is still so brilliant that inevitably people ask themselves: why should he not only resign, but also renounce the title of Peter’s successor? His state of health is so much better than the one of John Paul II the last three years of his life. The rumor ran at the time that several bishops and cardinals (mostly Germans) urged him, to step down. He decided to remain in control until the very end. Did Benedict XVI consider this to be a mistake that he did not want to duplicate? The fact remains; very soon he will once again be Cardinal Ratzinger. We must trust that each one faithfully the particular call addressed to him. For those of us who have met him personally, the decision might not be as surprising as it inevitably was to the man on the street.Four times, I have been privileged to have an audience with this great Prince of the Church. Twice in the eighties when I was in Rome for a longer period of time; once in the mid nineties, and finally, in a blessed private audience on March 26, 2007. When I requested these audiences, I had a particular purpose. In the wake of Vatican II, the Church went through a period of such turmoil and confusion that talking to a top notch member of the Curia was a balm. I need not go into details: many nuns (whose glory for centuries had been to be the great educators of Catholic youth – both boys and girls) left their convents in droves. Clown masses were celebrated and the “silence” of many bishops was deafening.One started hearing heretical sermons on Sundays. The Chaplain at Manhattanville College of Sacred Heart, prohibited the celebration of the Tridentine Mass on the ground that “he objected to the theology of that Mass” – a Mass that had been heard by the saints for centuries. Another priest referred to God “as the nice guy upstairs” – something which edges on blasphemy. I heard one referring to Christ being found in the Temple as “a nasty brat.” Some bishops declared that those who attended a Tridentine Mass on Sunday did not fulfill their Sunday obligation. The Angels must have cried.I made a point of mentioning some of these to His Eminence. His facial expression could easily be read: immense grief, but it also convinced me that he was fully acquainted with what was going on. The smoke of Satan had penetrated into the Church. He said very little, but at the end of the audience, he uttered a few words reminding me that “the gates of Hell shall never prevail.” Indeed, grave as the situation was, God will always have the last word. I left full of gratitude: he suffered with us, but he also trusted in God’s providence and help.In each of these privileged moments, I told him how many devout Catholics were grieved and troubled by the massive attacks made by many “progressives” on the Traditional Mass: the Mass which not long ago was heard by a St. Therese of Lisieux. One thing was to challenge the validity of the Novus Ordo - something which unfortunately had taken place – quite another was to deplore that a sacred tradition going back to the very beginning of the Church, was being now treated as  unacceptable to “modern man.”I humbly urged him to do whatever was in his power to save this treasure of spirituality. Once again, I noticed that he was a man of few words; but I knew that he listened, and I was convinced that he took my repeated plea very seriously.The last time, I had the privilege of seeing him was the climax of our various meetings; together with the Founder of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy project, John Henry Crosby, we obtained a private audience with the now Pope Benedict XVI on March 26, 2007. My dear friend Patricia Lynch was also present when we received His Holiness’ blessing. Apart from requesting His support in fighting, “by the publication of the works of Dietrich von Hildebrand, I once again requested his support for the Tridentine Mass.  With a sweet and radiant smile, he said to me, “Very soon, indeed very soon.” Some 100 days later, to my joy and immense gratitude, he granted an indult to all priests wishing to say Mass following the traditional liturgy.These various encounters left me with very strong impressions about the personality of this remarkable man. One thing is certain: he is definitely not the sort of Prelate who enjoys the limelight. People are born with very different temperaments. Some are charismatic by nature; have no difficulty to face large crowds; as a matter of fact, once they step on the stage, their very presence communicates a joy and a dynamism which guarantees their popularity. John Paul II (who when a young man had been on the stage) possessed this remarkable talent. His very presence arouses enthusiasm.One thing is certain: Benedict XVI was not a politician. I am personally convinced that he did not want to be elected, and that like Pius X he accepted this glorious burden under the Cross.He could have turned it down. Benedict XVI is shy: For him these endless meetings and encounters with “famous” personalities, heads of states, etc. were clearly nothing like penance. But it is my personal conviction that he knew he could transmit a message that completed the one of his predecessor.More than the latter, he had an extraordinary sense for the sacred value of tradition – the golden cord linking us to the past, as Plato put it. He felt keenly that “modern man,” inebriated by his mind-boggling technological discoveries, was losing sight of a precious heritage that is never old  because rooted in eternity. His superb artistic background – particularly in music – (a domain in which he certainly has not only a remarkable knowledge, but also a talent as a pianist) – made him aware that “modern culture” was in fact an anti-culture, and that a society in which the youth is fed on Rock and Roll was being given a subtle poison. In the Republic, now close to 25 centuries ago, Plato mentioned that “decadence begins in music. This is certainly what took place immediately after the end of World War II. Truth when cut off from Beauty tends to become abstract; it must be “incarnated.” From its very beginning Christian art, which has blossomed so magnificently in Europe, has taught the faith to millions of little children. Much of modern youth is fed on ugliness; and the Devil is its incarnation.The vicious attacks on the sacred Tridentine Mass, the horrible architecture of some “modern” churches, sometimes copying a gym, the deafening noise (called music), the lack of reverence in religious ceremonies, were things which Benedict XVI clearly perceived were preventing young people from finding their way to their Mother the Church and perceiving the loving tenderness of Her message. He whose background in the beautiful baroque Catholic culture of Bavaria, had fed him on sacred beauty since his very baptism heard a call: make them aware of the unity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty; all incarnated in the Catholic Church through Christ.It is also my personal conviction that JPII was conscious that his close collaborator possessed insights of crucial importance that complemented his own: they were a team, and this team had to be kept alive. This explains to my mind, why every time Cardinal Ratzinger offered his resignation as head of the Congregation for the Faith, the Pope wisely turned a deaf ear to his request. That the Cardinal repeated his request proves, on the other hand, how eager he was to leave Rome and go back to his beloved Bavaria. Let us thank JPII for perceiving that his close collaborator’s sufferings were to bring rich fruits for the Church. Their collaboration was crucial. Ratzinger’s exceptional intellectual talents were – for a while – put “in parenthesis.” They were not lost; they were blossoming in secret. I am convinced that now that as soon as Benedict XVI will again use the name Cardinal Ratzinger, he will share with us insights that only suffering can “water.” No doubt his name will go down in history as one of the very many great minds that God with which God has blessed his Church from the very beginning.From the moment the future Pope left his beloved Regensburg until Feb. 28, 2013, he accepted a mission which was not of his own choosing.  Let me repeat emphatically: He did not like the limelight.  He was never tempted by ambition. He did it in obedience, but an act of obedience which was to him, a subtle form of crucifixion. When one studies the history of the Church, one thing is striking: the amazing variety of personalities and also the high percentage of Popes who were canonized. Something remarkable when one thinks that to be in a position of authority exposes people to all sorts of temptations. To be pope places one on a pinnacle of glory, and a very deep prayer life and much divine grace are both needed not to be flattered by this humanly “glorious” position. The greatest Popes never pursued this honor; they accepted it, but never played the political game on order to step into the shoes of Peter. There were many good Popes, faithfully fulfilling their function as Pastors of the Universal Church. Finally there was a very small percentage of unworthy popes and even bad popes, who ruthlessly tried to “grab” the Tiara to satisfy their pride.  Some were great sinners: let us remember that Judas – one of the twelve – betrayed Christ. But his treason did not prevent the birth of the Holy Catholic Church. But one thing is certain: in spite of treason and sinfulness, the Bark of Peter survived the most terrible storms and always will.When elected almost eight years ago, Benedict accepted the “crown of thorns” in obedience, convinced that he had a mission to perform. I suspect that even then he had firmly decided to step down as soon as what he could contribute to the Church, was accomplished: to strengthen the holy cord of tradition, to give us back the treasure of the Tridentine Mass and to further true ecumenism by opening the door of Holy Church to Anglicans distressed by what was happening in their community.The Pope’s schedule would exhaust a much younger “politician.” One thing is clear: this momentous decision was not the fruit of a sudden impulse, but on the contrary one of long hours of prayer and suffering. Just as he accepted the Papacy in 2005, he now gained the conviction that “God was telling him, ‘well done, faithful servant.’” While grieving deeply that he is stepping down, the call of the hour is to thank him, and to promise that all his sheep will keep praying for someone who has been a blessing for the Church.

Habit: a walker or a jail

Feb 13, 2013 / 00:00 am

When reading the Rule of St. Benedict, one is struck by the order and discipline he advocates. Whether prayer, work or rest: every single activity of a monk is given its precise time in the monastic schedule and he is taught to respect it.We all know that some very talented people never achieve much because they are so disorganized, so undisciplined that all their rich gifts never blossom. On the other hand, we all know that many mediocre people occupy high positions. This might be explained by two facts: they know how to organize their day and moreover have learned how to play the “political game”, I.e. how to be politically correct. This might shed some light on a naughty remark of – I believe – Chesterton marveling at the mediocrity of many of our “leaders.” Why do all founders of religious orders insist upon having a rule? The answer is obvious: because we need guidance and direction; otherwise we are tempted to run from one thing to another, and achieve nothing. On the other hand, being given man’s propensity to become a slave to anything that he does, it is worth remarking that this precious discipline can, for some, become a jail. Life is full of surprises, and always challenges us to face new situations. Once again, it is remarkable that a St. Benedict has foreseen this, and his severity about observing the Rule (the moment the bell rings, a monk must immediately abandon whatever he is doing, even in a “crucial” moment) is counter balanced by an equal readiness to follow the “thema Christi” – that is to say to break this holy routine when there a “call” to do so. The same great Saint writes that when a guest appears at an unaccustomed hour, immediately some monks appointed to this task, should turn their full attention to this call. He has become “wax” in the divine hands, and is for ever ready to “shift gears” when he hears a Divine Call. Christ said to Peter, and a bit later to James and John, who were repairing their fishers’ nets, “Follow me,” and without a moment’s hesitation, they did.   In monastic language: this is holy freedom. Total fidelity to the Rule and simultaneously full readiness to change course, if circumstances indicated that it is what Christ wishes us to do. Medical emergencies or tragedies (such as a fire) call for immediate attention. It would be monstrous is someone, instead of coming to the help of someone who has a heart attack, would insist upon first finishing to clean the dishes.This is stressed several times in the Holy Rule: “nihil sibi a Christo carius” (Chapter V). “Speak, O Lord, thy servant listens.” Total readiness to turn to urgent calls is typical of the holy flexibility is of saints; in them habits never become a jail.  St. Francis once ordered his monks to have a meal at an unusual hour because one them was actually starving. Monastic rules are “walkers” giving us much needed support on our way to holiness. But they should never become jails.  In fact a holy monk, having grown wings, can fly whenever God calls him.In popular language, those for whom habits has become a jail are dubbed “old maids” or “bachelors.”  It certainly applies to many unmarried people who have never been challenged to share their life with another person – something which often is not easy – and get terribly upset when they have to change course. They lose their peace and easily become psychologically unbalanced. Any change in schedule (be it doctor’s appointment) or an accidental lateness of a visitor, or a change of date legitimized by unforeseeable circumstances,  has such an upsetting effect on them that they manifest their displeasure in very sour terms. We all know people who are chronically unreliable. It is neither pleasant nor easy to deal with them because it is very difficult to achieve anything worthwhile on a sandy ground. Indeed, order, organization, discipline are “virtues” which mean “strengths”; they should never become “chains.” But these virtues are not by themselves “moral virtues.” They might be useful tools, but to possess them does not guarantee that their possessor is a morally good man.We all deplore the efficiency of the Nazi staff in organizing the nets catching Jews to send them to death camps. The huge maps of Gulags in the Soviet Union were based on a gigantic organization.  How one wished they had been less efficient. Efficiency is not holiness, but baptized efficiency is typical of all saints.Let us strive for this holy freedom which enables us – weak and imperfect creatures – to hear God’s voice, and to joyfully respond to His Call. Mary became the mother of the Savior, the moment she uttered the words:  “I am the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to Thy word.” From, this moment on, she started on a radically new course that would lead her to the foot of the Cross.   She is and should remain our model.

Should moderation be canonized?

Feb 5, 2013 / 00:00 am

Aristotle’s sense of the concrete sheds light on many problems of human existence. He remarks wisely that we all can err by going to extremes: there is a “too much”, there is a “too little.” Common sense tells us that these excesses should be avoided. The soup can be unbearably salty or totally tasteless.  A sound can be too loud and deafens us, or it can be too weak, and remain unperceived.  The list is endless, but the couple of examples given prove that Aristotle has a valid point. Excesses should be avoided. Practical wisdom tells us that there is a middle ground which is sound and reasonable. My concern is the following:  can common sense wisdom shed light on ethical problems?  Is virtue a “middle ground” and “vice” some sort of excess? This is the famous Mesotes theory offered us by The Philosopher (as St. Thomas calls him) in his Nicomachean Ethics. The term “nihil nimis” (nothing in excess) sounds like harmonious music to the human ear. “Don’t exaggerate,” always aim at the golden mean. Any excess is to be anathematized. The “good” man is therefore also the wise man who finds the right middle, and adjusts his conduct to it.But wisdom also teaches us that we should carefully refrain from “over extending” a truth in the sense of applying it to domains which have a very different structure.Not surprisingly Aristotle did extend this valuable insight to the ethical sphere: avariciousness is an excess. A miser sits on his bag of gold; any money spent breaks his heart.  A prodigal person, on the contrary, cannot keep a penny in his pocket. This was the case with Chesterton, as he himself confessed.Both positions are “unreasonable” and for this reason are be rejected, but are they immoral and equally immoral? Who would not prefer Chesterton to Mr. Grandet in Balzac’s famous novel? Is prodigality to be condemned as much as it is “opposite?” Reason tells us that we should aim at the middle: spend when necessary; save when necessary. This is definitely sound economics, but is it a virtue?  Is reasonability a key to ethics? If that were the case, we should consult a talented accountant to be our guide in many of our moral decisions. It is true that there are definitely cases when “unreasonable” (spending wildly and letting one‘s children starve) is definitely immoral.But does not ethics require more than common sense? Father Copleston remarks that this “virtue” plays an important role in Aristotle‘s ethics, but the question we dare raise is: can’t it also be a recipe for mediocrity? Why is it said in the Apocalypse that those who are neither hot nor cold, “will be spewed out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16) and Dante makes an explicit reference to those who, “mai non fur vivi” (Canto 3): those who “play safe” and never commit themselves to any truth. It might be the recipe of “successful” politicians. In other words, should we unconditionally endorse Aristotle’s Mesotes theory? That virtue is a mean between two extremes: excess and defect? That we should move toward the center? But is the crucial moral question: too much or too little? Is it not rather a question of what we ought to do in a given situation independently of our subjective wishes? The avaricious man does not spend when spending is called for because his “heart” is in his money. His motivation is dictated by what Dietrich von Hildebrand dubbed, “the merely subjectively satisfying.” But the very same is true of the prodigal. He enjoys spending and he does not sit on his gold because giving it away is “fun.” Both men have the same identical motivation, but having different temperaments (today people would say “genes”) they make “opposite” decisions. They are “twins.” It should be luminous that the crucial question is whether a person is motivated by what he subjectively enjoys, or whether he is responding to a moral call. Let us apply this approach to other types of “excess”:  prudishness and pornography. They are opposites; but are they both to be rejected because in one case “one covers too much” and in the other, “one covers too little?” But in fact ethics tells us that both prudishness and pornography are both poisoned. The first by the Calvinistic conviction that original sin has so totally corrupted our nature, that everything in man is depraved and very particularly a sphere where innumerable men trip and fall as our Lady told the little children at Fatima. Pornography is detestable because the pornographer looks at a mysterious sphere (a divine invention) with Satanic glasses.  Lucifer loves filth.Both should be abhorred and rejected; it is definitely not a question of “finding a middle ground.” Which is worse? In this context, I will refrain from discussing it, even though it might be worth doing.  Prudishness offends a divine invention; pornography throws dirt on it. The right attitude will be found by asking: what was the Divine plan in creating man “male and female.” The question of “unveiling” then receives a radically different sense. When is unveiling called for and when is veiling called for? The answer to the first question is when with God’s permission having received the Sacrament of Marriage, the spouses, in trembling reverence, gratefully unveil themselves and generously give themselves to their loved one.  Then unveiling is the theme: when St. Elizabeth of Hungary gave herself to her beloved spouse, we can imagine how the angels rejoiced:  this unveiling was in “conspectu Dei” and glorified God. This is true of all saintly marriages, and there are many in the Church. Veiling is called for when the situation makes it clear that this secret is to be kept. Would it be proper for nuns to be in bikinis? The theme is then to protect the secrets of the King.We now see how inadequate and misleading it is the question of “too much” or “too little.” The one question that we ought to raise is, “What ought we to do in this particular situation? What is God expecting from us – independently of our subjective wishes? When facing a starving person, there is a clear call to help him generously. But to feel noble and generous in giving a most expensive gift to George Soros would trigger our laughter. In other words, the ethical question is, “What is the call of the moment?” In Christian terms, “What is the theme of Christ?”  When St. Francis chose “lady poverty” and gave everything away he certainly was not motivated by prodigality, but responding to a divine call to follow the One who chose to be born in a stable.  From the point of view of the “mesotes,” he was highly unreasonable. He stood in front of nothing. But why? Because of his burning love of Christ that he wanted to follow. To a secular mind, saints are shockingly unreasonable. “It is all well and good to be a good Christian,” they will tell us, “but to wear a coat in tatters and eat the left over from a garbage bin, is plainly an exaggeration.” A secular mind might reason that a prostitute should change her “life style” which ultimately is unhealthy and will not be beneficial to her. But at the same time they will strongly  object to Mary Magdalene’s way of repenting : was it not a bit too extravagant? Alas, this question was raised by the Apostles.But can one love God too much?  Can one be too humble or too charitable?  Flat footed reasonability sounds so convincing. It is the guide line of successful politicians. Yet, the saints while giving everything to God felt subjectively that they have given nothing. It is worth mentioning that this truth was already intuited by Plato, “a preparer of the ways of Christ.”In one of Plato’s dialogues, Phaedrus, Socrates listens to a friend who shares with him the content of a discourse of a man who claimed that love is a sort of “madness”: the lover loses his head for the loved one, and inevitably will harm himself. The non-lover on the contrary, keeps his sanity, and will wisely use a relationship to his advantage, so that he will come out “the winner.” At first Socrates seems to agree with this thesis, but then he “hears his voice” and realizes that he has gone off track. He cannot take another step: he must first correct the erroneous view he had adopted. He now tells us that there are two very different types of madness. There is a sort of madness that militates against reason. But there is also a divine madness which even though not following the “prudent” dictates of reason, transcends reason.  Man then grows wings and is given to perceive that there are things of such greatness and beauty that they are worth giving everything to attain them. To trample on reason leads to disaster. To grow wings and go beyond reason is the road to all great things.We are told in the Gospel that when a man finds a pearl of great price, he sells whatever he possesses in order to acquire it. This is the holy madness of the saints.Let him hear, he who has ears to hear.

Intellectual pitfalls

Jan 18, 2013 / 00:00 am

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 meiMa la bonta divina ha si gran bracciaChe 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.

The discrimination virus

Jan 7, 2013 / 00:00 am

Dedicated to Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke.St. Therese of Lisieux, an “illiterate” doctor of the Church, wrote some surprising things. One of them is that, “Heaven is the place where there is perfect justice.” One would expect her to say “love” or “charity.” She purposely writes: “justice.”If there if something firmly implanted in the human soul (already found in little children) it is the craving for justice, and the feeling of revolt when one is unjustly treated. At age five I was once punished by a teacher for something I had not done. I recall my indignant response, “This should not be.” But it was. This noble craving is definitely a proof that there is a “natural law” implanted in the souls of all human beings, persons made to God’s image and likeness. Alas, we live in a world of “injustice,” and in spite of laudable plans to correct it; it is sheer illusion to assume that human efforts alone will ever succeed. One “injustice” is “abolished” and immediately replaced by another one. Perfect justice can never be realized by human laws, in spite of the shallow promises of politicians.A cynical Spanish proverb expresses this well: “Laws are like nets that catch gnats, and let the hawk go free.”This does not mean that we should not strive for justice, but we should not forget both original sin, and the fact that God alone is the perfectly Just one, whose help we desperately need.In creating man, God has done a very daring thing: He made him body (material, visible, sense perceived, etc) and soul (spiritual).I say an act of daring – a truly divine invention – because at first sight was it “wise” to unite so closely two metaphysical realities radically different? This justifies the words of Pascal: “Man is the most amazing being in nature.”But divine “daring” goes further. In Genesis, God declared that He created man (homo) to His image and likeness: “male and female He created them.” Clearly homo (translated in English as Man) included both sexes. Vir in Latin refers exclusively to the male; mulier to the woman. It is luminous that they have identical metaphysical dignity; they equally share the honor to be made to God’s image and likeness. But they are different, that is complementary.  Each possesses qualities which are to benefit the opposite sex. The difference is not only biological (as often assumed in our confused society). It is also spiritual, religious, intellectual, and affective and obviously finds its expression in the biological sphere. Man and Woman are clearly made for each other, are meant to enrich and complete each other.This was taken for granted by any “sane” society, but starting with the French revolution, elementary truths started being questioned in the name of “progress.” This was well stated by Nietzsche who, “when absent minded,” could say very profound things. He wrote that prior to the French revolution, women had much less authority but much more influence. Clearly influence is more crucial than authority which is essentially limited to the sphere of actions. Influence goes much deeper: it can help change and improve (or harm) a person’s being.For centuries, the word “discrimination” was used to refer to positive qualities, such as refinement, taste, judgment or discernment. That was the primary meaning of the term. But slowly but surely the primary meaning was replaced by tainted with injustice, prejudice or unfairness. This meaning became so prevalent that today that to be “discriminating” is censured severely. The law now condemns “discrimination.” To challenge the “morality” of homosexuality is censured by “homophobic.”Once this step was taken, it gained currency to such an extent that it triggered a plethora of lawsuits, to the delight of lawyers who were clearly the beneficiaries. If a person received a pink slip, it was to be explained by “discrimination”; because one was a female, because of the color of one’s skin, because of the shape of one’s nose, because of one’s sexual preferences. The list was endless and is constantly getting longer. I was told that many are the executives that rather pay a “compensation” to the plaintiff (however unjust his claim is ) than to get involved in a lengthy law suit which, in the long run, is not only more costly but is paralyzing: the paper work involved can cripple a  company.  Carpe diem; women started making the “brilliant” discovery that they were “metaphysically mistreated” from the very beginning of Genesis. This notion was spread first through literature (let us recall Ibsen’s The Doll’s House) and then found its advocates in talented females such as Simone de Beauvoir. Her best-selling book, The Second Sex (followed by a whole series of writings of the same ilk) share one basic thesis; the  female talents have been crushed in the bud by a male dominated society. This explains why women have not produced a Homer, a Dante, a Shakespeare, a Beethoven etc. the moment has come to declare that they will no longer accept this state of inferiority. Clearly maternity is the one unjust burden that has been imposed on them. They should now be given the basic human right of choosing whether or not they want to give life. Any other option should be granted: contraception, and if inefficient, abortion. Soon the world will benefit from female contributions to the “progress” of humanity. Indeed, a brave new world is opening, liberated from old mediaeval taboos. Not surprisingly our Holy Father Benedict XVI has diagnosed the “feminist revolution” as one of the key factors that has contributed to the moral decadence of our society.  Once an “artist” insists upon playing an instrument for which he is not qualified, it ruins the best orchestras. This long and fascinating theme is, however, not our topic. We suggest that we look at the question from a “male” point of view, and question whether this “discrimination virus” which has infected the female sex, should not also be applied to the male one.In other words, we are raising the question whether the moment has not come for the male sex to finally discover how unfairly they have been treated in the Bible.All we need do is to read Genesis. It tells us that Adam’s body was formed from the “slime” of the earth – not a very “aristocratic” origin. The one of Eve, however, was taken from the body of Adam - that is a person made to God’s image and likeness. Which one of us would be give preference to her origin?Moreover, when Adam waking up from his sleep saw Eve, his response is one of joy: “bone of my bones; flesh of my flesh.” No word is, as far as we know, spoken by Eve when she saw her husband, even though being a woman, I cannot help but think that she was impressed by the beauty of his masculinity.We are told that “man will leave his father and mother” (obviously this does not apply to the first man) and cleave to his wife. We are not told that she will leave her family. This is mysterious, but a fact.  Adam calls her “the mother of the living.” He is not given the title of “father of the living.” This sheds light on the fact that the Serpent addresses himself to Eve, not to Adam. The great St. Augustine claims that it was because being the weaker, she was easier to defeat. I dare challenge this claim. I rather believe that the Evil one, being a murderer from the beginning, hated the one called “mother of the living,” for being a murderer from the beginning, he hates life. This gives us a key to the history of salvation; the duel between Satan and the Woman.  The serpent defeats her, and her punishment is more severe than the one of the husband; they both share the fearful fact of death, of hard work, but she is particularly affected in the very domain which is her glory: to give birth.  From this moment on, Eve’s beautiful vocation – to give life – will be linked to severe pains. Often in the Old Testament when referring to great suffering, an explicit reference is made to “a woman in labor.”Socrates, lecturing one of his sons, on his duty to respect his mother reminds him that “she has suffered to bring you into the world.” Obviously procreation is very different for the father and the mother.  When a man tells me proudly that he has fourteen children, my reply is “I congratulate your wife.” I do not think that to be a father one hundred times deserves particular eulogy.Particularly amazing is Eve’s remark when she gives birth to Cain: She explains, with God’s help “I have brought a man into the world.” (Genesis, 4:1)  Adam is not even mentioned. One wonders whether he did not sheepishly whisper to his wife: “I also had some role to play in this birth.” If he did, Genesis does not mention it. One thing is clear: a mother’s relationship to her child is much closer than the one to its father. His role is paradoxical: both crucial and yet very modest. Referring to this undeniable fact, Chesterton starts doubting of the equality of the sexes. (What is Wrong with the World). The sacred bond between mother and child is not only essential, but pre-given. Paternity must be “conquered.” If an unworthy father abandons his child, we are less shocked and grieved than if a mother does. This is why God’s words: “Even if you mother would abandon you, I shall not do so” are not only so consoling, but also so revealing. This leads us to an obvious conclusion: the day the Evil one convinced some very foolish women that motherhood was some sort of “curse,” crushing female talents in the bud, he achieved his greatest victory since original sin.  He who is a murderer from the beginning defeated “mothers of the living.” The whole drama of redemptions takes place between the Evil one and the Woman.  But this is not the end of the Biblical story. God, in his infinite goodness and mercy, decides to send man a savior. In his own good time, He created a little girl, who from the very moment of her conception was tota pulchra, in no way affected by original sin. This young female was offered to become the mother of the Savior. After expressing her amazement at this divine offer, and reminding the divine messenger that she is a Virgin, she is guaranteed that her virginity will be preserved; she will be covered by the Holy Spirit. Her answer is: “Be it done to me according to Thy word.” In this very moment, the greatest event in history took place:  she conceives the Savior, He who was to declare solemnly that He Was Life itself. Eve was honored by the title: mother of the living. Mary gives birth to Life Itself.Jesus – God and man – has therefore an earthly mother and no earthly father: the male sex is granted no role whatever in this earthshaking even. Is he not discriminated against?  Indeed, Christ, the One Priest, has a mother, but no human father. In fact there is only one priest.  And this priest has a mother: it is therefore clear that a woman’s mission is to be the mother of priests. The conclusion is luminous: one cannot be mother and son. This is why women are excluded from the priesthood. The two charismas: mother and priesthood are complementary, but incompatible.

Moral erosion

Dec 13, 2012 / 00:00 am

While fighting both Nazism and Communism in Vienna in the years 1933 to 1934, Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote an article, the truth of which is more needed today than eighty years ago. He refers to a progressive erosion of our moral sense. What horrified people at one time, no longer has the same effect after a few years. People get used to brutality, to racism, to injustice, to the public display of pornography. Their strong response when these evils start raising their heads is replaced by remarks such as “We live in an unjust and imperfect world,” but, “we should be compassionate.” However, the moral call to oppose these iniquities no longer resounds in them. Once this stage is reached, the moment is ripe for more violations of the natural law: the key is to introduce changes gradually and convince the public that there are insignificant. It was, I believe, Luther who told his followers that changes in the Holy Mass should be introduced slowly, one at a time. Too sudden a change would alert people to the danger.Let me be more concrete; when divorce was legalized, therefore shaking the very foundation of any sound society based on marriage and the family, people were shocked. But after a while divorce inevitably spread like wild fire. Why seek reconciliation, a better modus vivendi, when the state offers an easy solution: radical separation with the possibility of another marriage that might be more “fulfilling.” After all, is it not man’s right to “pursue happiness”? The percentage of divorces was bound to keep increasing. Once the very foundation of society was shattered, time was ripe for the next step: contraception. Up to 1930 Protestants were radically opposed to it. To the horror of the Catholic world, the Lambeth Conference in England declared that contraception was legitimate in certain cases.  Once again it could be foreseen that as soon as “a slit of the door was opened,” this moral aberration would gain more and more adherents and this in spite of the solemn teaching of the Catholic Church which remained faithful to the natural and divine moral teaching. Some Catholics caught the disease and started endorsing this immoral practice, claiming that love between the spouses justified it. The desire for union had absolute priority. They started denying that the union of love between the spouses was necessarily bound to their openness to procreation. The essential bond between love and fruitfulness was simply willfully ignored. Every sin brings about its own punishment; inevitably pleasure became the dominating motivation of the spouses.  But whereas love unites, pleasure carries in its very nature the germs of separation.  However, contraception does not always work.  If, in spite of “precautions,” when a wife finds herself pregnant, abortion seems to be a legitimate means of solving the problem. This view had, of course, been long endorsed and practiced in “affairs” between the sexes outside of marriage. A huge campaign backed up by the news media finally convinced very many people that abortion was legitimate and even called for. An unwanted child was a doomed child; it indeed was “more loving” to prevent it from entering into a world that would reject it. After all, an unborn something is not a human being: it is a fetus, it is a sort of “tumor” that had invaded a woman’s womb and had no right to encumber it. Moreover, abortion was widely practiced, and unless it had a legal protection, innumerable women would pay with their lives for falling into the hands of quacks that were charging high fees, while not being properly qualified.Roe vs. Wade finalized the deal on Jan. 22, 1972. It was legalized and therefore “morally” acceptable. Legal became identified with moral. The moment that “love” (in whatever meaning) was cut off from procreation, those in favor of same-sex unions saw that their hour had come. Up to that time, their practices had been kept secret. Lamenting the fact that this practice could not be totally eliminated, Plato, in the third century B.C. urged its adherents to “keep it concealed.” (The Laws, Book VIII) There always has been and always will be homosexuality, but there is a world of difference, between its contra naturam practices implicitly and explicitly condemned by “society,” and an open declaration that homosexuality was only doing – in its own way – what was now recognized to be fully legitimate: namely union at the exclusion of procreation. That gay couples cannot procreate was always the argument used to oppose their life style. In fact, they were ahead of their time: now the overwhelming majority of people fully acknowledge the meaningfulness of union at the exclusion of procreation. Love fully justified these practices which Plato calls “against nature.”  He wisely insists that the word “love” is an equivocal term, and that, alas, the craving for such unions is to be explained by what he calls “unbridled lust.” (Laws, 418)  Feminism played the devil’s game: how unfair that the “weaker sex” has been denied a role in society because they were “tied” by KKK (the German for Kueche, Kinder, Kirche – Kitchen, Children, Church) and could not develop their rich talents, depriving the modern world of crucial female contributions to “progress.” Homosexuality gained popularity. How unfair it has been to condemn the practice simply because it was not our cup of tea. People have different tastes, and individual preferences should be respected in a democratic society. Whether in heterosexual or homosexual relationships, union was sought as an expression of love. Who is to determine the particular form that it should take?From there, the time was ripe for the claim that same sex couples, too, had a right to get married. Why not? At first the majority of people were horrified, but with the help of news media and clever propaganda it inevitably became an acceptable claim. Several states put homosexual “marriages” on their agenda, and year after year more of them honored this type of “love union.” The final blow was given when the President of the United States publicly endorsed their claim.  Had something similar ever taken place in the history of the world?  A century ago, millions and millions of U.S. citizens would have raised their voice in protest.  The moment was “ripe” and President Obama knew so well that he made this proclamation the very year he was hoping to be re-elected.  He knew he was “safe.”Mother’s Day and Father’s Day was abolished in many places as “discriminatory” and more and more children found out that they had two daddies and two mommies. Once again, the popularity of this moral perversion opened the door to the endorsement of more diabolical suggestions.  Why should elderly people afflicted by incurable diseases that cost “society’ huge amount of money be kept alive? Was it a sound “social practice” to waste time, money and energies on hopeless cases? Would it not be more “charitable” to let them die “with dignity?” Only those who have never worked in hospitals truly know how agonizing the last months, weeks and hours of a person is who is afflicted by cancer.  Assisted suicide is a solution which has all the marks of “compassion,” kindness, and pity. Euthanasia, severely condemned and rejected years ago, is now perfectly acceptable. It is legalized in many countries, including what used to be Catholic Belgium. Let us recall the case of the husband who won his case in front of the Courts, which allowed him to let his wife starve to death. We can raise the question of whether giving her a lethal injection would have been more “compassionate.” Starvation is well known to be a refined form of torture.Our brave new world puts all its hope in “science” - which will prove to be our savior of the world. Through its constant mind-boggling discoveries it will inevitably lead one day to an earthly paradise, where sickness and death are ostracized from the human vocabulary. Man will gain “immortality” by his own genius, as prophesized by one of my Hunter students years ago.  Already little children are taught that scientific proofs alone give us certainly. The words “scientific” and “scholarly” are now received with the awe that the word “saint” had in the Middle Ages. It is the “holy” calling of politicians and people in leading positions to encourage “research.” They are hopelessly behind the time. This has led to an enthusiastic endorsement of embryonic stem cell research. It is “immoral’ to impede progress.One cannot help but raise the question: Why doesn’t the news media advertise that the placenta, ejected from a mother’s body after birth, can and does lead to amazing cures?  It is to be thrown out, and yet “science” is showing how beneficial it can be.When abortion was declared legal, it was at first limited to the first months of pregnancy. Once again, the door was opened and the date was extended further and further until finally it was legitimized until the final month. Better than that: there were cases where the safer way of delivery was “partial birth abortion”: when the baby was half out of its mother’s body and when his skull was squashed. Once people head down a slippery slope, their trajectory can be predicted with “scientific” accuracy. Soon everything, absolutely everything, become acceptable, if it is presented as “scientific” and would lead to the benefit of society.  The First Commandment should yield the pride of place it has enjoyed since Mount Sinai and be replaced by “social concerns.” The moral decay has become so radical that the moment is ripe to make suggestions, namely that “scientists’ praising the nutritive value of a tiny baby start a campaign to convince the court that abortion should be delayed until the sixth and seven months, and then performed. Our society is “re cycling” concerned: once a baby is fully formed, it is indeed a pity – in a world in which so many people are on food stamps, and not properly nourished, to “waste’ a rich harvest of delicious protein that a baby’s aborted baby can provide. What about having a special section in new healthcare programs to guarantee that special butchers would be trained to used these inert little bodies and offer them free to those in need. Abortion has then a double positive effect: save the mother’s life and feed the hungry.Some might exclaim in horror: this is cannibalism. The counter argument is obvious: That would be true if a human being were killed for the exclusive purpose of eating its flesh. But this is not the case: first of all, the unborn baby has been denied being a “human being.” Moreover, it is killed for a noble purpose: save the life of the mother.  At this point, it seems not only very “socially minded” but highly reasonable that the young flesh of aborted babies should be “recycled” and given to those who cannot afford expensive steaks.Why not? Is this suggestion an impossibility? It is only a small step further on the road of radical moral erosion. Now Dietrich von Hildebrand’s words shortly before his death ring true: “Hitler won the war.”

Rip van Winkle's nightmare

Nov 1, 2012 / 00:00 am

Many years ago, one of my professors at Fordham told me, “I mostly judge students' philosophical talents not by the answers they give but by the questions they raise.”Recently this remark sprung up from the “caverns” of my memory, and I appreciate its wisdom a lot more now than when I first heard it.We all have landed in a complex and mysterious world, and inevitably, having a rational mind, we are bound to raise questions about the why and wherefore of our existence.Who am I? Why am I on this earth? What is truth? What is morally good and  morally evil? What are the things which matter most?  Tragically enough, one can also raise meaningless and unnecessary questions, or questions which, if ever answered, do not shed light on the purpose and meaning of human life. Why am I five foot and five inches tall and not five foot and eight inches? Why do I have brown eyes and not blue eyes like my father? Why was I born in Belgium and not in China? An answer to these questions would certainly not help me to have a better understanding of the mystery of human existence.The great thinkers throughout the ages – and by great I do not mean famous but wise – are those who have raised key questions, and tried to shed some light on them. Our debt to Plato, to mention but one name, is immense: his key interest was, “What is truth?” His teacher and mentor, Socrates, convinced him that this should be our great concern, (“I am interested in nothing but the truth”). Philosophy is the “love of wisdom” and there is an essential bond between “wisdom” and “truth.” Alas, not all people “labeled” philosophers have been lovers of wisdom. They like to wear the “cap” of philosophers, but certainly do not deserve to be called wise. This is alas, often the case, and for diverse reasons, one of them is their being more concerned about showing off their “cleverness” than about seeking truth. Moreover, there are truths which are definitely not of their own liking and therefore are cleverly challenged.Just as there is a hierarchy of truths, there is also a hierarchy of errors, and last but not least, a hierarchy of stupidities. It is a topic worth investigating into.There are unnecessary questions, but there are also inane questions which make us worry about the sanity of the person raising them. Suppose that someone asks: why can't two and two make five? We would be taken aback; if by two we mean two, and by four we mean four, the answer is self evident. Yet, reading a book of the great missionary, Father Henry van Straalen (who spent half of his life in the Far East), this very question was raised by a “famous man”, named Suzuki, a teacher of Zen Yoga. The latter told the missionary how erroneous it is to see logic as an indispensable tool in human life. Precisely referring to two and two is four, the same oriental thinker claims that for some people two and two could be three or five. “One might refuse to accept this fact, but fact it remains.” (See Zen Demystifie, H. van Straalen, S.V.D. Beauchesne, p. 94). To limit two plus two to a single answer is, a bit “narrow minded.”If the fundamental laws of logic and thrown out of court, one wonders whether any intellectual exchange is meaningful. Alas, this inanity can also penetrate into the key domain of ethics: the question of moral good and moral evil. That people can disagree about what Dietrich von Hildebrand calls, “The merely subjectively satisfying,” – something the importance of which depends exclusively upon my subjective likes and dislikes – disagreements are to be expected being given the very nature of pleasure. One person likes Coca Cola; another would dub it a “cultural sin.” There are also “goods for the person” that all men share: they refer to what benefits the development of the human person.But when it comes to the very core of ethics: moral good and evil, we touch upon a domain in which there “should be” harmony between human beings, for all of them have the same destiny: to know and love God, and enjoy Him forever in heaven – if they have obeyed the divine laws given through Revelation or inscribed in the human heart.Once this “natural” law is challenged, and rejected, we find ourselves in a world of moral chaos which is bound to end in disaster.To make this more concrete let us imagine the following scenario: Rip van Winkle, after waking up for a while, did go back to sleep. This time, it is a much longer one. He wakes up today, after having been asleep for over a hundred years. Let us put in parenthesis the overwhelming experience of finding himself in a world of mind boggling technological discoveries which have radically revolutionized man’s daily life. Electricity, radio, television, supersonic air planes, trips to the moon, the internet, computers, iPods. Not only is the list endless, but practically every single day, a new invention is sold to a public fascinated by progress and the tacit assumption that one day, man will be God. Prayers had some justification at a time when man was helpless toward the forces of nature. Now “science” has proven how right Feuerbach was when he claimed that what man called God was a human projection of all the admirable talents that were lying in his nature. Clearly the last century has proven that all that was needed for man to become god, was a bit more time.Poor Rip, deafened by noise, confused by the wild succession of images on television set, decides to look a place where sanity is hopefully still respected. The answer seems simple: colleges and universities. As a matter of fact, on the walls of one of them, it is written that, “We are on the side of truth.” Being interested in science, he enters a classroom where zoology was the topic: on that particularly day, it was devoted to pigs. The professor was certainly a “scholar”: every possible feature of these much maligned animals was at the tip of his fingers. He clearly was an “expert” on pigs. Toward the end of the class, he became more and more eloquent and informed his students that the weight of a pig’s brain is exactly the same as the one of the normal human person. Just before the bell rang, he drew the conclusion: this should prove that we have absolutely no right to declare human beings superiors to animals. The information I have shared with you proves it. It is sheer prejudice on the part of humans to declare their superiority.This was another blow for poor Rip, and upon leaving the classroom he shared his concern with a fellow student. The latter looked at him with surprise: don’t you know that we now have progressed much farther: a famous professor has now convinced us that a healthy monkey is much superior to a crippled human being. The obvious conclusion is that to kill the monkey would be a crime. To get rid of a “misfit” is in fact, an act of charity; why burden the parents with a sick child? Why burden society with endless medical expenses?Rip was discouraged but he refused to give up hope, and reasoned that a zoologist, proficient as he might be, is after all not qualified to teach ethics. He now enters the department of philosophy, and sits in another class dedicated to good and evil. Alas, Rip was in for another depressing surprise. It did not take long for the professor to convince his students that what we call the moral law is what is dictated by the particular society in which we live. We should refrain from passing moral judgments on societies whose moral code differs from ours. The conclusion was crystal clear; it is sheer arrogance to claim that we know what is good and evil, and then impose it on other people. The future of the world, universal peace depends upon our broadening our outlook and accepting other people’s “lifestyle.” The greatness of modern man is that he has finally liberated himself from the narrow shackles imposed upon us by the “dark ages.” The future is bright: we are now free.In desperation, Rip now enters the department of religion, and attends a course called “Comparative Religions.” Once again, religion is interpreted as an expression of a particularly culture; hence, its different ceremonies, its different beliefs. They are all valid for a particular people, and one of the great progresses advanced by Biblical scholarship is to have demystified the Bible, and shown convincingly that miracles were popular ways to expounding particular religious views. Thanks to scholarship we have finally we have finally gained an objective and scientific approach to the Bible.Now Rip is totally shattered. He leaves a place of high learning, and hope to recover by taking a strong cup of Starbucks coffee. He happens to sit next to two men discussing the imminent elections in the United States. The incumbent president is highly praised: not only does he favor the “rights of women over their bodies,” but he has no objection to late term abortion, and even to partial birth abortion. Rip hears for the first time, that the doctor delivering a baby is entitled to kill the baby when it is half out of his mother’s womb. The same president is praised for having recently fully endorsed same sex “marriage” as recognizing the rights that everyone has to follow his own lifestyle. One thing leads to another: embryonic cell research and euthanasia are defended; it is man’s right to experiment on living tissues to guarantee “medical advances,” and every person has a right to choose the moment of his death.Now Rip is close to collapse. The world he had landed in is an insane asylum. But being trained by his Christian education to try to be charitable, he prefers to come to the conclusion: “I did not wake up; I clearly am having a nightmare.”

The Supernatural on trial

Oct 22, 2012 / 00:00 am

If asked to diagnose the present situation of Roman Catholics in the United States, the first word that comes to mind is: their abysmal ignorance of fundamental Catholic dogmas, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Redemptive value of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, the Holy Mass and the real presence of Christ is in the Eucharist. One is bound to be deeply grieved by young people’s ignorance. I have kept my high school text book entitled “Christian Religion,” a 439 page book (without the footnotes) fairly large format,  relatively small print. At the age of sixteen, I knew the content of this work, divided in three parts; doctrine, moral teaching, and sacraments.Not only had my father convinced me that to know one’s faith was the most important thing in life, but I was convinced of its truth: this doctrine truly came from above, and shed light on the meaning of our fragile human existence. The most important thing was to adore, love and serve God in this life, to die in the state of grace, and then enjoy the beatific vision forever and ever. I believed the content of the Credo, and was aware of all the key heresies that have plagued the Church from the beginning – heresies that keep reappearing in the history of the Church, usually disguised under slightly different formulations.Of course, to know one’s faith did not guarantee living it. Inevitably one was bound to realize that daily life was a struggle, and that constant grace (given through the sacraments) was necessary to take the small steps necessary to assent the mountain the Lord.Constant defeats did not justify discouragement for Christ said: “ … without me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5) and “Come to me all those that are burdened and I will help you.” (Mt. 11:28) His succor was constantly needed. How uplifting was the prayer of St. Augustine: “Da quod jubes et jube quod vis.”  “Give me what you command, and then command that you will.”It clearly means, I am much too weak to fulfill your commandments, but give me your grace, your divine help and then I shall be able to “scale mountains.” St. Therese of Lisieux wrote these admirable words; “I have never been able to do anything alone.”After Vatican II, Catholic schools were bombarded with “new catechisms” that were supposed to upgrade the “old” Baltimore Catechism which has been the spiritual food of Catholic children for years. Apparently its content was no longer satisfactory for “modern youth.” The “climate” of the time was “renewal.” It became a “magic” word; everything had to be changed to be in accord with the Zeitgeist.In the frame work of this modest article, it is not possible to go into details; it should suffice to make a couple of revealing remarks.One thing that was striking in the “new” teaching was the omission of many traditional doctrines of the Church. Not to even mention some key truths of the faith inevitably deprived it of some of its pillars, and rendered the whole “building” shaky. All revealed truths are like rings in a golden chain…any break in it is a threat to the whole. Omission is dangerously subtle, because not to mention a doctrine does not necessary imply that its truth is denied. Therefore, the authors of new catechisms could not – prima facie – be accused of propagating heresies, or defending false doctrines. But silence is an insidious way of misleading the reader.Another striking characteristic of the “new catechisms” is the systematic watering down (or downright elimination) of the supernatural. Christianity stands or falls according to whether or not the supernatural is not only acknowledged but given pride of place in both doctrine and in daily life.A quote taken from the Benziger Catechism is most revealing. Referring to the episode of Jesus’ visit in Bethany in which St. Luke tells us that Martha was busy preparing the meal while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet drinking His words, at one point Martha objected to her doing the whole work alone. Mary should indeed help her.To which, Jesus responded with the sublime words: “Martha, Martha, you are concerned about many things. One thing alone is necessary; Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Lk. 10:41-42) The divine message is clear: Contemplation is above action – adoration is above “social work.”  While sleeping, the Holy Virgin still adored God because her life was totally and radically rooted in Him.  The greatest saints have learned never to stop contemplating while acting.The words just quoted coming from the mouth of the Savior are supernatural nuggets that have been the spiritual food of the saints – the holy spiritual treasure handed us from Christ, to His apostles, to the Holy Church. The supernatural not only transcends nature, but heals it from the wound inflicted upon it by original sin. The mystery of mystery: the Incarnation testifies to God’s love for his rebellious creatures that, having severed the bond uniting them to their Creator became “sick unto death.” They could not by their own power, heal the disease. They needed a Savior. The “madness” of divine love chose to send us a Savior: Christ, the Second person of the Holy Divinity. As prophesized by Isaiah 7:14, “Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be Emmanuel (God among us).” This Savior will be a man of sorrow, despised,  rejected by his own people. (Is. 53:3) Indeed, Kierkegaard has a point when he refers to God’s saving action in sacrificing His only Son, as “madness.” (“… such a doctrine could only occur to a god who has lost his wits – so must a man judge who has kept his wits.” (Sickness unto death.)  It ended at Calvary; the most abominable tragedy in the history of mankind.The way St. Luke’s text mentioned above is now presented to “modern” Catholic children should make the Angels cry.  “Jesus said: “Martha, do not worry too much about dinner; just do the best you can.”Such caricature is a form of “treason.” Not wishing to pass judgment on the unfortunate person (I fear it was a nun) who wrote these words, we must sadly acknowledge that she was “betraying” Christ’s message, a female Judas.Whereas the Savior reminds Martha that man’s greatest and holy task is to love and serve God, is it now reduced to the common sense word that every child is told when for the first time, he clumsily holds a pen, and tries to write his name. He is “warned” that the result might not be perfect, but all that is asked of him is “do his best.”Revelation is certainly not needed for this flat footed “wisdom” which is sheer blasphemy when put in the mouth of the God-man – the Savior of the world. May God have mercy on her: hopefully “she did not know what she was doing,” namely shutting the door to the supernatural, and “canonize” mediocrity and pettiness?Indeed, we did not need the Self Sacrifice of a God on Calvary to teach us “to do our best.” If the Angels cried, the evil ones must have had a diabolical laughter at the abysmal human stupidity.This is bad enough, but what is still more tragic is that we would expect the local bishop to prohibit this catechism from being used in Catholic schools and to alert all his brother bishops of the fearful danger of this attack on the supernatural. Not only should the imprimatur be denied, but words and pen should be used to condemn this apparent “innocent betrayal.” The tragedy is increased because it sounds so “harmless,” so innocuous, so common sense.We touch upon another facet of the terrible danger threatening us: religious and spiritual “insensitivity.” People are no longer shocked by such pronouncements. “I do not see anything wrong with it.” Once the sense for the supernatural has been sapped, the door is open to religious indifference. When a priest in his Sunday Homily refers to God as “the good guy upstairs,” people do not protest. “He means well,”  “Be charitable,” “He is a good, friendly man.”  But the Bible tells us that Angels prostrate themselves in front of their Creator, while uttering the words: Holy, Holy, Holy.When another pastor (that was in Europe) says in his Homily that he is getting “sick and tired” of all these mothers who come to him sobbing because their son has disappeared for several days and then was found in a nightclub, “I remind them that Jesus disappeared for three days and then was found in the Temple.” He adds, “He too was a nasty brat, but Mary did not make such a fuss.” Any comment is unnecessary, but it makes us realize of the deadly gravity of the crisis that our beloved Church is going through. That such a man was ordained a priest of the Catholic Church makes one wonders what happens in seminaries.The silence of many Bishops was deafening. I wish they would daily meditate on the words of Ezekiel 3:17-18: “I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel.” If a watchman does not warn the wicked, “... his blood I will require at your hand ...”To be in a position of authority is an honor, but one that requires moral courage and even heroism. Alas, if the three cherished apostles of Christ, Peter, James and John fell asleep in Gethsemane, we should not be overly surprised that their successors follow in their footsteps.  Let us not forget however, that all the apostles after receiving the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, became, “new men and joyfully shed their blood for Christ.” St. John had his own special type of martyrdom.But the evil fruits that sprang up in the wake of the Council (for the “enemy” sowed tars when the watchmen became somnolent) did not end there. Always again, under various forms, the same war on the supernatural was – and is – making many victims. Another text expresses the same betrayal. One again the supernatural is systematically eliminated. The following text proves it: Grammar school children are told that George Washington, Daniel Boone, Babe Ruth are praised for their remarkable accomplishments – whether as general, scout or baseball player. Then Christ is mentioned among them and we are informed that he became famous, “because he loved people so much.” Once again, this is so scandalous that one has to turn to prayer to recover one’s breath. How is it possible that a “so called” Catholic (whether priest, nun or layperson) should place on the same level military or sportive performances with the God-man who came down from Heaven to save us by dying on the Cross? How does the Savior differ from a philanthropist?  Inevitably the abyss separating the supernatural from the natural is once again flatly denied.May God have mercy on those who – while pretending to give children the holy food of Catholic doctrine – give them poisonous secular food, distort their vision, and the beautiful innate sense of God given to the little ones. Indeed, “... unless you become like one of these little children …” Would it not be better for these writers to have a millstone put around their neck?Alas, the picture is not brighter when it comes of “biblical scholarship.” That there is a valid and worthwhile Biblical scholarship has been acknowledged by Benedict XVI, but as the Devil never sleeps, there is also one which in the name of “research.” Eliminates the supernatural, and forgets – to quote Kierkegaard – that the Bible (to be properly understood) should be read on one’s knees.We are now referring to the Dutch catechism the poison of which is much more difficult to detect because it is couched in “scholarly” language, and has therefore a show of respectability. We are trained to be “awed” when hearing the words’ “scholarly” or “Biblical research.” That several Dutch bishops were infected by secularism and modernism cannot, alas, be denied. We only need refer to their purposeful vagueness on the key Christian issue of the divinity of Christ. Some of them tell us that scholarship has not yet “entirely decided” whether or not Christ had an earthly father! The perpetual virginity of Mary might have been “figurative.” Do we need say more?Let me repeat; from the very beginning, the Evil one has spread lies and heresies. Today, they are presented as “better ways” of communicating the faith that is more likely to appeal to “modern ears.” In other words, instead of adapting our “mentality’ to the Holy teaching of the Church, we are now taught that this divine message should be adapted to the ever changing vagaries of “modern man.” (Forgetting that what is “modern” today is “old fashioned” tomorrow).  How right Chesterton was when he reminded us that mysteries being mysteries have always needed an act of faith – that is, an act of intellectual humility that some Biblical scholars seem allergic to. In his Epistle to the Thessalonians, St. Paul urges us to “pray constantly.” (Thess. 5:17)  To obey this loving command is today, more urgent than ever. For we seem to have entered into apocalyptic time, a time of such confusion as to seduce even the elect, as St. Luke tells us.However, the gravity of the present situation should not make us forget for a single moment Christ’s promise: “the gates of hell shall not prevail.” Indeed, final victory is certain, but in the mean time, we are called upon to “be sober and watch” as St. Peter urges us in his First Epistle. (1Peter 5:8) Woe to those who fall asleep when the Bridegroom comes. 

A happy relationship needs sadness

Sep 26, 2012 / 00:00 am

Dear Anthony,The way you speak about marriage, I think I can say I have never see it in anyone’s marriage, least of all my parents. All my family’s marriages were bad, unhappy. So, how can I expect to be happy?  And please do not mention God!Sadness is the key to being truly happy. I guess you didn’t expect me to say that.  I’m don’t think I would have said that myself until recently. I’m not saying that a good marriage means being unhappy.  On the contrary.  Let me share something with you I recently discovered and that I’m still considering. Maybe it will help you.  (I can’t promise not to mention God, but we’ll see how it goes.)Sadness is the vehicle to happiness. I learned this recently from my good friend, Dr. Peter Damgaard-Hansen.  We were having cheesecake and coffee at the Cheesecake Factory, talking about what it means to be happy, and why so many singles feel they won’t be happy until they meet someone and get married.It’s interesting what a little cheesecake will do to a brilliant mind.  Dr. Peter, who is an expert in psychology, said (in his very inviting and charming Denmark accent), “You know, Anthony, the key to truly being happy is being allowed to feel sad.”  We both stopped eating cheesecake and looked at each other.  Then I said, “My gosh, that’s so true!”We both realized that a profound truth was said, but weren’t sure where to go with it.As we discussed it, it was clear to me that he was onto something.  Since we were deciding what he was going to talk about on our upcoming cruise this January, I told him that this has to be a part of it.  So I’m not going to try and pretend that I know anything definitive on the subject.  Come on the cruise in January if you want to hear more. ;-)But here is my early take on this idea that sadness is the key to happiness.  More specifically, being permitted to be sad is the key.  How sad it is when we are not allowed to be sad.  How painful it can be something that comes so naturally to us is considered a negative that must be overcome.We probably can’t imagine the kind of suppressed pain we harbor from the times we were made to feel guilty because we were upset over something, and someone made us feel that we should not be sad.I think this is why you tell me not to bring God into this.  You have probably heard things like “God doesn’t want you to be sad,” or “It’s all good and all God so be happy,” or maybe even, “Your sadness is making God sad.”It’s very easy to say “Don’t worry, be happy,” but it’s not natural.  When we are hurt, we feel sad.  And we need to be allowed that time to cry or get through the sadness.  A person who allows you to do that is a person who makes you happy.  We don’t exactly realize this, I don’t think, but if you think about it, it’s true.A woman who is upset and sad just wants her boy to hug her, hold her, and let her get it out, without trying to fix it.  A man who is upset and sad just wants his girl to allow him to process it without being told to “be a man” or trumping his need with her own need, forcing him to be “on” when he needs a bit of time to be “off.”The unhappy marriages in your family are likely relationships infected with lack of support, when two people don’t go through sad moments together, but rather go through it alone, without letting it out.  Unexpressed sadness creates unhappiness. It might be said that marital love is the bonding that happens through experiencing sorrows that bring you closer in solidarity, and create deep happiness.  Perhaps the enemy of marital love is happiness on-demand, where sadness is seen as a setback rather than a vehicle to happiness.When unhappiness sets in, and there is no comfort or trust in the spouse to support you in all your emotions, then you have all kinds of problems.There is a song by Meatloaf where he sings: “Will you love me forever ... will you make me happy for the rest of my life?” This is the expectation in modern dating, and it’s nothing short of delusional and out of proportion.“Will you allow me to be sad when I just need to be sad or cry?”  If you can do this for the person you love, you are a vehicle to helping them be happy.  In turn, you are happy.The lesson is this:  A happy person is one who is allowed to be sad. The person you love allows you the room and time to let you get through your sadness.  We don’t have to get the person we love to feel happy and cheerful again in order to get them back to themselves.  In their times of sadness, they are very much themselves.Allow the people you love to be openly sad.  Their sadness and tears in front of you is a great trust.  Give them their time and foster happiness.  Give them your permission to be sad, and be there with them, without judgment.  Be comfortable with sadness.It does seem impossible to be happy (truly happy) unless we have someone we love to get through our sad moments with.  God knows something about sadness that is key to happiness.Christ was sad.  He sighed and He wept.  He wept over Jerusalem, He wept at the death of His good friend, Lazarus before raising him from the dead.  He was in agony in the garden.  St. Thomas More wrote extensively about this which you can read in the book, The Sadness of Christ.Christ is always someone we can be sad in front of.  And He is always the source of happiness that is experienced as we are in communion with Him, particularly together through sharing His sorrowful passion.  We should take comfort in that and be imitators of Christ when someone we love needs to be sad.