Dr. Alice von Hildebrand The wisdom of St. Francis de Sales for a troubled world

Dedicated to Bob Luddy

If anyone came to me with the following request: what is the book on spiritual life that you would recommend not only for beginners, but also for people who have already taken their first steps? Without a moment’s hesitation, I would say; Saint Francis of Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, a book published in the XVII century which, I believe, never was out of print. There is a profound reason for it: not only is it  classical, (above time and fashion), but it has a value for people of the most varied backgrounds. It is like bread: it will never be outdated.

This great saint’s message is couched in such gracious terms that he combines depth of thought, and gentle charm.

One typical temptation of beginners in spiritual life, is to feed their soul on mystical literature, such as the Dark Night of the Soul of St. John of the Cross. Its very title attracts a large number of beginners convinced that they know by personal experience what this great saint and mystic is referring to. Being spiritually immature, they easily fall prey to an exaltation that favors dangerous illusions. St. Francis of Sales’ book combines profound spiritual wisdom, with what I shall term “holy sobriety”. Such spiritual food prevents one from falling into the very many illusions which are traps set by the devil to make many people endorse spiritual fallacies and leave the safe road of humility.

All I intend to do in this brief essay is to meditate on one chapter in Book 3, which, in my personal life, I have found to be a gold mine of insights. 

It refers to our attitude toward the faults and sins of others -- a topic of crucial importance because all of us have to deal with it, and very few are aware of the only valid Christian response. Any sin calls for tears because first and foremost, it is an offense of God. Had men not sinned, Christ would not have been crucified. This should be our primary concern.

Moreover, every sin harms the sinner, and may, when grave, endanger his eternal welfare. This is another reason to “grieve”, for sorrow is the response God expects us to give. But many of us might be tempted to exclaim: “Such a deed is so abominable that never, absolutely never, would it have tempted me”. The ABCs of humility  reminds us that we are capable of the most horrible crimes were it not for the fact that God’s grace has protected us either in not allowing the Devil to tempt us, or in giving us the grace to defeat his diabolical attack.

Peter was sincere when, at the Last Supper he declared himself ready to give his life for Christ. Alas, he lacked humility and soon afterwards, scared by the remark of a maid, he denied that he knew Him. There are sins that some of us have not committed: let us humbly thank God for having given us the grace we needed.

What is the Christian attitude toward the sins of others? We should make a crucial difference between the sin and the sinner. Sin is always detestable for the reasons mentioned above. St Benedict writes in his Holy Rule that the Abbot should “oderit vitia, diligat fratres…” (Chapter 64). In his dealing with his sons, he should always remember that the sinner is God’s child – badly stained by sin, but redeemable as long as he lives. If he responded to God’s grace which is never refused, and repented, there will be greater joy in heaven than for someone who is not (or rather does not seem) in need of mercy.

Sin cannot be rehabilitated. This is made clear by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans: murderers, adulterers, thieves, blasphemers cannot enter the Kingdom of God. No one should be accused of being  “homophobic” for condemning the practice of any form of sexual perversion.

Years ago I had the privilege of meeting Jerome Lejeune - the famous French doctor - a most ardent defender of life. It was at a conference organized by Human Life International in Miami. My niece, Marie Peeters, had been his assistant for some thirteen years, and a friendly contact was soon established. In the course of the conversation, he referred to young parents who had brought him their little girl, aged six, who looked like a child of two. His great concern was to comfort them and to help the child. He had a noble, attractive French face, and then suddenly, his expression changed to one of anger, edging on rage: “If you only knew how I hate disease”. This perfectly expresses the attitude called for toward sinners; the ardor of our love for them should be proportionate to our hatred of their sin - their worst enemy.

Sin by its very nature is hateful and should be condemned. This admits of no exception. But, alas, this rightful indignation is now given a distorted interpretation as expressing a “lack of compassion”. It is cleverly hijacked by the devil who sets a trap into which many fall. Today, we are repeatedly told that it is the duty of Christians to look for what is positive and good in homosexual relationships. Yet it should be called  the cancer attacking a bond which in some case  could have developed into a noble male friendship. It is a tragic derailment. Not to condemn sin is a grave lack of charity.

Alas, more than once in the course of my long life, I have come across some people who “feel called” to be God’s detectives. They are convinced that it is their mission to unearth sins of others, and are triumphant when their suspicions are proven to be valid. “Did I not tell you that so and so was an adulterer. I ‘knew’ it; it is a domain in which I am infallible”.

How profoundly charitable is the advice of St. Francis of Sales to prohibit our “advertising” the sins of others, adding spicy details, and enjoying discussing them publicly, instead of earnestly seeking excuses that may shed a milder light not on the sin but on the sinner. Moreover, if someone tells us confidentially about his or her moral aberrations, it would indeed be a very grave sin to share this information with others.  It is a serious sin called defamation differing from slander which spreads lies, and also fully deserves to be severely censured. In fact both are cousin sins: in one case we spread lies; in the other we spread sad facts which most people need not, should not know.  Both are serious offenses against charity.  

The sins and faults of others should never be a topic of conversation; alas, some people major in it: it is entertaining, it is a superb topic for cynics who enjoy proclaiming that between virtue and vice, there is only a very minor difference. As a French cynic remarked: conversion easily languishes when the guests run out of things to criticize.

How many of us need beat their breast in this domain? How deeply meaningful that St. Teresa of Avila writes in her biography that “the absent” were safe when she was present at a conversation.

Granted that “charity” toward sin can never be justified, one’s attitude toward sinners should be radically different. Sin is the arch enemy of the sinner; let me repeat: the practice of homosexuality is the cancer menacing some potentially very beautiful friendships between either two men or two women. Let us recall the beautiful words of St. Augustine bound by a deep affection with Nebridius and the moving words he uses referring to his friend’s death.  

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The Bishop of Hippo gave us a golden key that we should always carry with us; Interficere errorem; diligere errantem. (kill the error; love the erring person). How many great sinners became great saints.  Let us recall Mary Magdalena who had been possessed by seven demons,  and  when converted, followed Christ to Golgotha. She was the one who first received the glorious news of Christ’s resurrection.

Detestable as the sinner’s sin might be, we should hope that his intentions were not as bad as they might appear to be. We should refrain from judging him, even though we should mercilessly condemn the sin. St. Augustine is, in fact, formulating the arch Christian principle taught us by the Savior who did not condemn the adulterous woman, but condemned adultery He told her: “sin no more”.

Alas, the history of the world teaches two sad facts; how often have sinners been brutally rejected because of their sin (let us recall the Scarlet Letter), or, and this is rampant today, sins are “not that bad” they might have some positive sides; in fact the practice of sodomy expresses the deep love the two men have for each other.

Our “Brave New World” is definitely sympathetic to “amorality –a child of relativism – this “new Gospel” which is finally authentic “good news”, has liberated us from the horror of Pharisaism. “Fortunately” modern man freed to the taboo of the Dark ages, has “finally” understood the authentic Christian message which is “compassion”. Any radical condemnation of sin is now viewed as a very grave lack of “love for the sinner, redolent of the harshness of the Dark ages”. The Inquisition, Anathema, the Crusades: all rotten fruits of a so-called orthodoxy. Why should adultery be condemned? There are so many reasons that seem to justify it. Moreover, as a French cynic remarked, to limit one’s “love” (meaning sex) to one single people is to deprive others of their right to pursue happiness. Why should people object to gay marriage? Circumstance Ethics has eloquently shown that it all depends upon time, place and circumstances which vary from person to person and from epoch to epoch. 

Advertisements such as “sinfully attractive” are gaining currency. Sin is in fact “lovable”. What is to be thrown into the deepest pits of hell (if there is one) is pharisaic behavior. Puritanism is the sin par excellence, and is responsible for many grave psychological problems.

This is the framework in which we shall address a baffling question: the disappointment we should experience when people that we look up to, love and admire, do or say things which conflict with their previous views. Unfortunately these cases are not infrequent and are troubling. How can one and the same person make contributions of great depth and value, and all of a sudden, communicate gravely misleading messages.

As I said, it does happen. In the framework of this brief article, I shall limit myself to very few. But it might be valuable to dedicate a whole book to this topic. No one can deny that Origen was a great and noble thinker whose message has been enriching and beautiful. Yet, he has been accused of erring in making statements which seem to indicate that he believed in universal salvation: that is, at the end of time, Christ will victoriously guarantee the salvation of all men. This is being echoed today in several noble and famous Catholic thinkers. Jacques Maritain wrote an article published posthumously in which he suggests that, once again, at the end of time, all men, all devils will be freed from hell, thanks to the love and merits of Christ. One by one, they will be drawn out of this place of hatred and despair, and be accepted in Limbo – the place where unbaptized children are now to be found.  Lucifer will be the last one to be pulled out…but the physical fire of hell will continue to burn forever, even though hell will now be empty. Any economist would object to the amazing waste of fuel!

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Be it remarked that Maritain – a most faithful son of the Church –  does not say that it will be so, but only that He who can change bread into his body at the words of consecration, could also by means of a miracle change the will of those who are condemned by their own sins. (Idees Eschatologiques, p. 26. Published dans Approches sans entraves). Hans Urs von Balthasar has been similarly interpreted by some in his book: Dare We Hope That All Men Will Be Saved? In this context, two things should be mentioned: there is a fundamental difference by making suggestions which can be seriously questioned for not being in conformity with the traditional teaching of the Church, and making a claim that a position is true, even though in disagreement with the Magisterium. This applies to the two thinkers I have just mentioned. They would definitely submit to the Church’s judgment. One of the many great blessings of Catholicism is that it has a magisterium  - blessed by infallibility.

Another great mind to whom we are very indebted is Tertullian. Alas, he too at the end of his life was accused to falling into Montanism.

No human mind, great and noble as it is infallible. Humility is the greatest protection against error. Great thinkers should, like St. Augustine, write a retractions.

Worth mentioning is a remarkable spiritual writer, Karl Adam who, in 1924 wrote a book: The Spirit of Catholicism which was immediately praised as a Catholic classic. I believe it never was out of print. But to Dietrich von Hildebrand’s profound grief he was told that, shortly after Hitler came to power in l933, Karl Adam referring to the traditional claim of the Church that grace does not destroy nature, but presupposes it (Gratia supponit naturam), he is supposed to have added the word: NATURAM GERMANICAM. Such aberrations call for tears. How is it possible that such a noble and orthodox thinker can all of sudden, after the ascension of a criminal to the Chancellorship of Germany, seem to endorse his anti- Christian racism? I do not have an answer to that question, but it should be a concern for all “intellectuals”, who, possibly because of their reputation and the accolade they keep receiving, suddenly forget that humility is the golden key indispensable when addressing supernatural question or any “sensitive” question for that matter. Whereas this most unfortunate formulation should grieve us and be rejected, this does not allow us to forget the beauty of the message he has transmitted us in his previous work.

A similar case of the one of Otto von Habsburg, the eldest son of the last the saintly Emperor of Austria. Some ten years again he told a friend of mine who visited him in Rome, that recently he was in Barcelona and upon entering a Church, possibly the Cathedral, he saw “to his great satisfaction” that there were three pictures over the altar: one of the Cross, the second the Star of David, and the third, the Crescent. “This is a hopeful sign for the future” Otto said. Alas, ecumenism easily degenerates into what my husband called “ecumenitis” that is a distorted desire to create a harmony of all religions by viewing each one of them as a segment of the truth: in fact, “we need them all to have the fullness of truth”. This is to sacrifice the word of Christ, “I am the truth” on the altar of wishy- washy relativism.

If such aberrations can take place with good and noble thinkers, what should be said about detestable philosophies and psychologies which have pervaded our colleges and universities? Because of their “brilliance’ or because they were “new” or because they appeal to our fallen nature, have gained currency and formed the mentality of millions of young people, responsible for the confusion dominating the world today. Let us think of the brilliant Nietzsche or of the eloquent Marx, or the clever Darwin, of the seducing Freud…followed by a whole army of disciples. One of the many stupidities one hears in Universities is that ideas can do no harm (except the true ones). Actions alone can be dangerous. But such claim has no basis in history; there is no revolution that had not been preceded by vicious philosophies. Let me just mention Communism, and Nazism that have done a tremendous amount of harm by cleverly injecting poison into schools and universities. The intellectual confusion prevailing today is the fruit of their “evil efficiency”. Anyone wishing to destroy a society only need aim at destroying the family and education. Once this is done, these evil doers can “rest”. 

In such cases, let us once again, quote St. Francis of Sales He writes: “Of the enemies of God and His Church we must speak openly, since in charity we are bound to give the alarm whenever the wolf is found among the sheep”. (Chapter XXIX) Silence would be interpreted as an endorsement of such heretical statements. Once again, St. Francis of Sales give us the only Catholic response: open condemnation.

Ecumenism, in the sense of a loving search for any truth found in other religions, while deploring those that are not perceived, is certainly to be welcome. Moreover it should be welcome as an opportunity to correct the totally false conceptions that other religions have of Catholicism, such as that Catholics adore the Holy Virgin, or that any statement of the pope is Ex cathedra, or that Catholicism denigrates the “intimate sphere” because it places celibacy above it. In fact, it is only consecrated virginity that is highly praised. Never has the Church showed a particular regard for bachelors and old maids.

Unfortunately, how easily does it degenerate into what DvH called “ecumenitis”, that is a systematic “dethronement of truth”, a victory of dictatorial relativism, that arrogantly declares that there is no objective truth, and that everyone is entitled to his own religious views, but none can claim to be “the truth”.

Bishop Fulton Sheen (whose life and writing are being examined for a possible canonization) has also, while Bishop of Rochester, made decisions which are troubling. I need not add my praise to the one of innumerable people who have known him, admired him, benefited from his talks and books, who looked up to him as a remarkable thinker and a very holy man, who never missed for one single day a full hour of adoration in front of the Blessed Sacrament.

But while Bishop of Rochester, he made two decisions which, should be deplored. One of them is that he gave his placet not only to introduce sex education in all Catholic schools in his diocese, but moreover, I was told, endorsed the choice of a Sex Education Program known to be one of the most “daring” offered at the time. Dietrich von Hildebrand was the first (possibly not the only first) to vociferously raise his voice again these innovations. One key reason being was that there was very little “education” and detailed “information” totally inappropriate for grammar school children. The reasons which he expounded in articles and a small booklet (with Dr. William Marra) called Sex Education: The Basic Issues (The Wanderer Press) are that the mysterious and intimate sphere of “sex” should never be an object of public discussion. The intimate parts of our body are “our secret” and should never be publicly unveiled. In God’s marvelous plan, this “unveiling” is only to be shared and unveiled in the Holy Sacrament of Matrimony when, with God’s permission the Spouse gives to her husband a key to this mysterious domain, trusting that he will approach it with trembling reverence and as an expression of spousal love. For sex is not and cannot be understood apart from the love between husband and wife.

Moreover, and this is also crucial, “sex information” (e.g. detailed biological information of the marriage act, abortion, sexual aberrations) should not be communicated to young, immature innocent children, not yet concerned about these questions. The key thought of Dietrich von Hildebrand is that sex education begins in the cradle, by teaching the key virtue of reverence which he calls “the mother of all virtues”. This reverence should dictate our attitude primarily toward God, what is Sacred, parents, tradition, what is true, good and beautiful. Information should not be given to young children not yet ready to face these serious and grave questions. It will come at the time of puberty, which differs from child to child. If a child has been trained to be reverent, he will receive these facts in trembling reverence, and will grasp both the beauty of God’s plan by making homo male and female, but also - and this is often denied today - that when abused this sphere open the door to moral filth incomparably worse than the horror of alcoholism, and drug abuse. It is precisely because this sphere is mysterious and deep that its abuse is so gravely staining the soul. All this reflects the information Rhoda Lorand, professor of education at Long Island University. She studied the sex education program endorsed by Bishop Sheen and eloquently shows how harmful sex information is when dished to small and immature children. Not because this sphere is “dirty” as many people have unfortunately claimed, but because to be properly understood a certain degree of maturity is required that children in grammar school do not have. Moreover, DvH objected to a public discussion of things which, by their very nature, and intimate and personal.

It is also to be regretted that Bishop Sheen gave the works of Teilhard de Chardin to his seminarians. The latter was definitely making the headlines at the time, and it was tempting to be “open minded” and up to date, but it is worth listening to Etienne Gilson’s warning that what he offers us is a “theology fiction” based on his unbaptized scientific enthusiasm.

It is alarming and most regrettable to see how people are attracted by novelty and blinding brilliance or by philosophies which justify  their lifestyle. 

Close to this death, when my beloved husband solemnly confided his literary bequest to me, he uttered the following words which gave me great joy:  If you ever find in my works a single sentence which is not in full harmony with the teaching of the Church, do not hesitate: burn it.

This is the attitude that all Catholic thinkers who deserve this noble title, should adopt.

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