Dr. Alice von Hildebrand Revelation and curiosity

Editor's note: Dr. Alice von Hildebrand adds to the debate with Christopher West over Theology of the Body. She addresses his words that Mary ejected a bloody placenta after she gave birth to Jesus.

Recently I had the privilege of spending a full hour with Francis, Cardinal Arinze. In the course of our talk, he shared with me a thought of such value that I wish to communicate it to truth-hungry Catholics and other Christians. This is almost a quote: "God, in His loving wisdom, has revealed to us what we need know for our salvation. But He said nothing to satisfy our curiosity."

Obviously, the cardinal was not referring to the laudable "curiosity" of scientists eager, through their God-given reason, to penetrate more deeply into the natural mysteries of the material universe, a universe of such beauty and greatness that, if properly read, it should lead to the Creator of all this glory. This awesome beauty has nevertheless all the marks of metaphysical fragility; it cannot explain or justify its existence, as St. Augustine writes in his "Confessions" (X 6). Overwhelmed by the beauty of the universe, he questioned various creatures, the moon and the stars: they all answered. "Seek further" and they joyfully confessed: "He made us."

The magnificence of the material universe - awesome as it is - is ear-marked by impermanence, contingency, metaphysical frailty, and mortality. This is confirmed by St. Peter who writes: "...the earth and  the works that are upon it will be burned up" (Second Epistle3-10). There is, however, one exception; the souls of all the human creatures that women have brought into the world.

Cardinal Arinze was clearly referring to the temptation of many contemporaries to turn their attention mostly to questions which cannot be answered on this earth, and moreover need not be answered. This craving to pry into mysteries that the human mind is incapable of penetrating can have a double danger: the first being that one spends so much time and energy upon offering interesting speculations, that too little time is left for the contemplation of what has been revealed and should be our daily food. It took St. Teresa of Avila a full hour to meditate on the Our Father. Sometimes as a reward, God grants privileged souls a mystical grace that for a brief moment, lifts the veil and reveals "the secrets of the King." These graces are rarely granted. When referring to these supernatural experiences these privileged souls will tell us that no human word can adequately express what they have been deigned to perceive.

It is not by accident that the greatest theologians are also great saints.

This "harmless" and understandable curiosity rampant today (after all, is one not entitled to ask questions?) can have another serious consequence. Revelation being silent on certain issues, the impatient questioner, eager to find an answer at all cost, might, unwittingly, be tempted to become "creative" and will fall from the supernatural to the purely natural.

Living in a society that has apostatized, it is particularly dangerous to forget the abyss separating the supernatural from nature. We are told that after Christ’s miraculous birth, Mary ejected a bleeding placenta. Referring to a similar remark about what happened in Bethlehem, Father Groeschel once interrupted the speaker and asked: WERE YOU THERE? We cannot know whether or not this happened. We need not know it.

That a virgin could give birth and remain a virgin would never have crossed man’s mind. It is a fact inaccessible to human reason. It has a divine seal: it is mysterious, miraculous, can only be known by revelation, accepted on faith. It calls for trembling adoration, the only adequate response.

In man’s craving to penetrate behind the "veil" and know what is in no way necessary for our salvation, many are tempted - unwittingly - to cross the abyss separating the supernatural from the purely natural. Admirable as a birth is, as awesome as is the order and beauty of the universe, a "star studded sky," planets, animals, flowers, sunsets etc, this can just as well be perceived by an atheist like Dawkins. The greatness of the material universe evokes in us such a sense of wonder and awe that it explains the never dying temptation to deify the world.

But there is nothing supernatural about a placenta; there is nothing miraculous, there is nothing inaccessible to reason. There is no need of revelation; there is no need for faith. Any scientist, any medical doctor, any atheist knows that a woman after giving birth, ejects a placenta. This is true of all female mammals as well as human mothers. Any pagan knows this. We certainly do not need a supernatural revelation to be aware of this fact. Any great scientist is rightly awed by the beauty of nature. And he should be. But this is a domain accessible to reason. We need neither faith nor revelation to gain this knowledge. A bleeding placenta does not call for silent adoration. Assuming that I am shocked by the word "bleeding," some critics remind me "that there also was blood on Calvary. What is so shocking about this?" But they leave out the essential: The greatest crime in the history of mankind, Christ’s crucifixion, is certainly not miraculous. We do not need faith to be informed of this historical fact. A man scourged, and crucified inevitably bleeds. What would be miraculous is that there would be no bleeding.

Without any transition, we are brought down from the supernatural to the purely natural. That the supernatural is under siege is greatly due to the works of the famous Jesuit paleontologist, Father Teilhard de Chardin. In l949, he gave a talk at Fordham University. Father Gagnon, S.J. was president. After the talk, Father Gagnon thanked the speaker and added; "I have noticed that during your speech, Professor (Dietrich) von Hildebrand was fidgeting in his seat. I assume that he would like to make a comment." There ensued a very lively debate. At one point the famous Jesuit exclaimed: "You are clearly a disciple of St. Augustine: the great culprit who introduced the fatal distinction between nature and super nature."

That a son of St. Ignatius should implicitly deny that there is a chasm between what can be known only through revelation, and accepted on faith, and what human reason can discover by man’s mind, is worrisome. Years ago, my husband said to me that one of the greatest dangers menacing Christians today, is either to deny the supernatural altogether, or to reduce it to nature. The diagnosis was correct.

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