Wednesday, August 29, 2007

You Will Know Them By Their Love

Mike Liccione has posted a nice reaction to my essay on his meditation on the narrow gate. I suspect that he and I are basically on the same page regarding the broader issues, but it seems to me that there are some finial points on which we do not quite see eye to eye. In particular, he questions my language when I referred to those who carry signs that read "God hates fags" as exhibiting the most distasteful sort of fundamentalism. He notes my terms, and then retorts by proof-texting me from St. Paul:
I find that [use of the expression "distasteful fundamentalism"] rather odd. St. Paul says [emphasis added]:
Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.
Is this a "particularly distasteful" form of "fundamentalism," no better than that exhibited by people "wearing placards that read God hates fags?" Is it really incompatible with Jesus' message of love?
I suspect that Mike is just playing coy here, because with his education and, indeed, pastoral background, he is surely aware of the difference between the sort of language that St. Paul is using (which, though not strictly technical in nature is certainly very different from the sorts of terms one finds in, say, Aristophanes, who refers to homosexuals with terms that could well be translated into English with phrases like "wide-ass" or "fudge-packer") and that deployed by the aforementioned placard-bearers.

We may begin by noting that the two contexts are very different. St. Paul is addressing his own converts, people who, one assumes, were confident of his love and concern for them, even when they happened to stumble, and even in that context he uses language that is simply descriptive, not abusive. The placard-bearers are addressing strangers who are the very people against whom they are carrying their placards, and they are addressing them in the vilest of terms, expressing thoughts that no civilized person ought to express (God does not "hate fags", even if he does hate homosexual activity). It will do no good to say, But the sin of which they are guilty is more vile than the terms used to describe it, for that is just a sophistic excuse for heaping abuse on someone whom one doesn't like or approve of. Our Lord did not say to the adulterous woman, "You whore, don't you know God hates people like you?" Indeed, of all the sinners with whom he had dealings, the only ones he treated roughly were those selling items in the Temple, and the only ones to whom he addressed deliberately abusive words were the hypocrites who deemed themselves holier than the common faithful Jew by virtue of their adherence to the letter of the Law. I think it's fair to say that your average homosexual person who is just on his way to school or work can hardly be assumed to fit into either one of those categories.

Basically, there are two ways to tell a person who engages in homosexual sex that what he is doing is wrong. You can say to him, Look, God wants what's best for you, and by virtue of the way he established the created order, what's best for you is to live your life in this way, the way described by Our Lord, and the way you're living now is not consistent with that sort of life, so whether you realize it or not you are turning away from God, almost as if a heliotropic flower were to turn away from the sun and die. Or you can say, You despicable fornicating fag, God hates you and you're going to burn in hell forever.

Perhaps there is an underlying commonality to these two messages, but I doubt it. Doctrinally, perhaps, they have a common point of reference in the moral wrongness of homosexual activity. But Mike asks whether these two ways of talking to the homosexual are really all that different. I ask the same question, but I will leave it to my reader to discern what I think the answer is.

It has become trite, perhaps, to engage in such sloganeering as "Hate the sin, love the sinner." Probably a lot of the folks at the receiving end of such dicta find them tiresome, condescending, or both. But there is a certain amount of truth to it nonetheless. It seems as plain to me as a Quaker on his day off that St. Paul does not hate homosexuals, he hates their sin, but the placard carriers give every reason to think that they hate the sinners themselves at least as much, if not more than, the sin. Given what I am about to say just below I will bracket that and admit that it is just an assumption, not something I know for sure; but my work in the philosophy of language has, perhaps, predisposed me to think of speech acts as meaningful at more than just one level. BTAIM, for all the language of wailing and gnashing of teeth one finds in the more alarmist Gospels of Mark and Matthew it is hard to escape the conclusion that the overall message is supposed to be one of good news, not bad, and that talk of being cast outside into the never ending fire is not intended to frighten or convey God's hatred of you but is merely a description of what happens when a heliotrope fails to trope towards the helios.

Someone might object at this point, Whoah there, cowboy, what are you doing? You know perfectly well that you agree with what Mike says about just about everything, this included, so why the hand-wringing bleeding heart stuff all of a sudden? In particular, you're going to make me ROTFLMAO if you try to say that you don't agree 100% with Mike about Catholics who knowingly and obstinately refuse to assent to DMT!

Well of course I agree with him about that. But again there is a tension between what he and I both assent to regarding DMT--the talking the talk part--and the pastoral side of how we go about walking the walk. On the one hand, Mike seems to have in mind especially those educated Catholics who, in some sense, "ought to know" what the teachings of the Church are, to what degree they are authoritative, and what all the ramifications are of assenting to them:
One kind [of dissenting Catholic] is the sophisticated cleric or theologian who produces finely wrought rationalizations for rejecting DMT despite having been given every tool and reason for knowing better. Such a person sets themselves up as part of a magisterium opposed to the Magisterium. It is just such people for whom the classic formula "let him be anathema" (Galatians 1:9) is meant. They are heretics; if unrepentant, they will be severely judged. And they need to hear that in one way or another.
I'm not all that sure what's supposed to happen to the other 99.999999% of dissenting Catholics, but even regarding this 0.0000001% it seems somewhat tendentious to assert, in such a broad fashion, that their reasons for rejecting DMT "despite having been given every tool and reason for knowing better" are mere rationalizations. This presupposes that they are not in earnest in their beliefs, which strikes me as a particularly hubristic presupposition to make about anyone, but especially about someone who's brain one does not personally inhabit. Granted, it is fair to assume that an intelligent person, given p and if p then q, will infer q, but it is a well known fact that plenty of really smart people fail to make even the most obvious of logical inferences for perfectly benign reasons that have nothing to do with rationalization. While it is true that such persons are duty bound to submit themselves to the teaching authority of the authentic Magisterium, I doubt very much that they see themselves as setting up the para-magisterium that Mike is talking about, even if that is, de facto, what they are doing. But the canonical definition of "mortal sin" posits three conditions that are individually necessary and jointly sufficient (CCC 1857):
For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent."
This is usually interpreted to mean that the sinner must know that his act is sinful and at the same time will said sinful act. I doubt very much that the clerics and theologians Mike has in mind see their actions in that light, hence their sin is probably only venial.

As for the remaining vast majority of folks who reject DMT for whatever reason, usually ignorance but sometimes weakness of will, all I can say is that Mike Liccione of all people ought to know that he treads on thin ice here. He has written at length and with great knowledge and insight about the Church's teaching nulla salus extra ecclesiam, and he knows better than most of us that mere ignorance of the truth of any particular DMT is not a sufficient condition for exclusion from heaven. Can ignorance explain ("explain" is different from "excuse" but in the present case it is fair to say that if genuine ignorance is the correct explanation then it is also the beginning of an excuse) the behavior of those homosexuals who steadfastly refuse to accept the Church's teaching about homosexual sex? According to Plato it can. In fact, according to Plato ignorance explains every moral failing. One can, of course, refuse to be a Platonist about morality, but to do so here would be to beg the question against the Platonist who wants to assert something about the eschaton. I don't see how a defender of the Church's position regarding sin, free will, and all the rest is automatically committed to anti-Platonism, but perhaps he is. I'll wait to see what Mike has to say on this--perhaps he will convince me to chuck the Republic and all it's lies and empty promises.

To my mind, much of the present discussion is actually a tempest in a teapot. I don't disagree with Mike that folks who openly flout DMT are irritating, but I really doubt that the central point of the narrow gate passage for the present day Church, whatever the authorial intent may have been, has much to do with such issues--which is really why I wrote as I did in the first place. Of course, writing that way from a perspective like mine is bound to let you in for some heavy teasing. John Farrell has already remarked in a comment that he suspects me of crypto-Balthasarian universalism, and I don't doubt that some of my other regular readers are snickering up their sleeves at me. But I guess where Mike and I finally part company is not so much in the doctrinal or even methodological areas, but in the pastoral. He seems to think that it's a good idea to tell people that they might burn in hell if they don't change their ways, and perhaps, in a utilitarian sense, he's right. If someone dies in a state of mortal sin, they will not attain the Beatific Vision, and for them that would be a Very Bad Thing. Personally, I wonder to what extent such a person is going to be affected by threats of burning in hell, but who knows--if that's the only way to reach them, then maybe it couldn't hurt to try it. What worries me more, however, than the prospects of saving some very tiny percentage of the sinful population by scaring the bejesus out of them with medieval stories of the torments of the various Circles of Hell, is the pastoral damage that could be done to those more thoughtful souls who will rightly see this kind of talk for what it is: coercion. Coercion is in itself immoral, and I doubt very much that Our Lord had coercion in mind when he told the parable of the narrow gate, though it is possible that some of his earliest followers (including the redactors of Mark and Matthew) were not above that sort of thing, so it is, perhaps, not wrong to say that the text can be so interpreted. Whether it ought to be so interpreted, however, is another matter.

So I'm not a crypto-Balthasarian universalist: for all I know, Hell is very crowded. But I'm not going to go around telling people that it is as a matter of pastoral policy and, quite frankly, the question of how many souls are in hell, who's going there, and why, strike me as questions that ought to be the furthest thing from the mind of a Christian. It's far better, I think, to tell them the story of the narrow gate in the context of the story of the prodigal son. The gate is narrow because it is difficult to walk the walk, not because a lot of people have failed to go through it or are in imminent danger of going through the wide gate. It is possible, after all, for an entire population to get through a gate that is only wide enough for one person, it's just a matter of time, and the forgiving father is waiting on the other side, looking for each one of us. But however many persons wind up going through the narrow gate, that is the one that we must point at, not the other one, and I really wonder what the interest in the other one is for some people. If we're allowed to speculate about the motives of certain doubting clerics and theologians, after all, why not speculate about the motives of the gate pointers, too? Justice is one thing, but it's in the hands of Our Lord, in the end, and we must trust his judgment, not our own. As a practical matter, it just seems more sensible to talk about salvation rather than damnation, hope rather than fear, love rather than hate. As Aristotle was fond of remarking, there are many ways to act viciously, but only one way to act virtuously--virtuous behavior, he said, is like the bulls-eye on a target in that it is what one ought to aim at, though it is easy to miss. Still, when the archery instructor is telling you what to do, he says "aim for the bulls-eye", he does not say "don't hit any of those circular rings, whatever you do!" A golf instructor will tell you to "get it in the hole", not "keep it from going anywhere but in the hole!" It's a matter of focus, emphasis, and direction. If the Good News is to be news about what is Good, then the "utility" of accentuating the negative is highly questionable, in my view.


Oliver said...

Not speaking of being anti-Platonist (one can move apart from a thinker's particular point of doctrine without being polemically involved against his teaching as a whole or the directive lines of it), I don't really see how we can, being christian, entirely follow Plato on this point of morality. I'll just refer you to the entire passage of Romans : 7 14-23. Paul knows what's good but find two wills competing inside him and doesn't succeed doing it.

However if I follow your moral Platonism entirely, and your correct recalling of the conditions of mortal sin, we end up saying that there's no mortal sin ever ?!? You must surely have in mind some nuances (but then are you still fully Plat. ?...).

I think - but he will make it clear himself - you're deviating the debate while suggesting Mr. Liccione is advocating the use of fear of infernal flames against people who don't follow all the Church commandments.
As I replied to your precedent post, the point is maybe that God does spue the lukewarm, that is, one pastor has to tell his flock : God wants your entire self, He wants a full commitment to Him and His will; so be prepared to obey to all He wants. So, indeed, two steps, and the necessity of specifying the different types of unobedient catholics : First, realizing that the will of God does go to that extent; second, quitting the comfort of our bad habitudes and following these commandments.

Recalling that the gate is narrow is renewing the call to conversion and make everyone to avoid the auto-justifying attitude of the non-convert : believing one is right and justified because in the whole our life is not so bad, etc. I agree, as I said before, that the point is not to be OK with the more commandments possible in a check list, but is to be lovingly commited to God's will. But here's the point : once your are convinced God's will entails that commandment, you must at least really try to obey it (and here to prompt to obey you can stretch the attractive side of the love of God and the life with Him or the threatening one, there's no point in withdrawing the teaching that without the love of God we're simply dying - of course we can try to quit altogether this half spiritual utilitarianism (and just say : obey God because you love Him), but in fact I don't think it is entirely possible. This eudaimonist quarrel is a topic in itself.).

If you're not convinced of that (the 1st step), the problem is either a problem of knowledge or of faith. I think the number of persons that in a way or another more or less willingly refuse to know such moral Church teachings are higher that you seem to think. Not a negligeable number people say : OK that's what the Church says but is it so important ?; it's just a proposition, or it's just an old-fashioned tune, and one cleric told me all that was abandoned at V II (there we see appearing the difference between heretics and followers of them). Influenced or not by such clerical discontinuity-hermeneuts, what they do is that they replace the Church by themselves as a moral guide and interpret of Christ's teachings (OK, some simple people haven't any responsability because they simply do trust that cleric to convey the voice of the Church).

Anyway, here pastorally the goal is clear : make clear the high demands of the Gospel - be perfect as your Father in heaven... While not forgeting the grace and the mercy, but themselves aimed at making us able to live and stand right and justified at the face of God and in communion with Him.

John Farrell said...

Perhaps there is an underlying commonality to these two messages, but I doubt it. Doctrinally, perhaps, they have a common point of reference in the moral wrongness of homosexual activity. But Mike asks whether these two ways of talking to the homosexual are really all that different. I ask the same question, but I will leave it to my reader to discern what I think the answer is.

Well said.

Scott Carson said...


The point you raise about Platonism is a fairly interesting one. Perhaps it was thinking along those lines that led Balthasar to defend universalism as a possibility. If you think that universalism is strictly impossible, then perhaps you would care to offer an argument to that effect? I would love to see it. I'm not saying that universalism is true, mind you, I'm just wondering what the argument against its possibility would be, and what sense we would make of prayers such as the Fatima prayer in the light of such arguments.

As for whether I've deviated from Mike's point, well, he chose the passage to comment on, and he chose the language with which to explicate it. I don't see that I've deviated in the least, I've merely reacted to what he wrote in precisely the same way that he reacted to what he read in the Gospel. It's just a meditation in reaction to something, a thought about a thought and, unless I'm some sort of psycho, which I suppose is not all that unlikely, it's a reasonable thought, a reasonable line to take given what he wrote.

Having said that, I do agree with you that God wants us to want him, and that a lukewarm faith, the sort of "more-or-less belief" that Mike criticizes, is not the ideal goal. But I disagree very strongly that the "more-or-less belief" that Mike criticizes is any more or less dangerous than any other kind of spiritual error. We all slip up, and in a very wide variety of ways, and it's not always due to a lukewarm faith--I don't see any need to single out any one particular group of people for the finger pointing. While that message may have been intended for a specific target to which a particular biblical text was aimed, as Roman Catholics, rather than fundamentalists, we don't read Scriptures in that way, i.e., we need not regard that specific target as particularly important to us even though it has clearly been important to certain segments of the Church at certain points in history. We have bigger fish to fry.

This is not to deny what you say, that "God wants your entire self". I'm sure that's quite true, and some folks are more successful than others at giving him their entire self. But I think the example I cited yesterday, Mother Teresa, is a very good one to keep in mind in that particular context. She gave every outward appearance of giving her entire self to God, but we now discover that what it meant for her to give her entire self to God was not necessarily what everyone has in mind by that expression. It may be what some people have in mind by it, but to the extent that some people were surprised to learn this fact about her it was not what everyone had in mind by it, and that is worth remembering: it is not for us to judge the degree to which our brothers and sisters are giving their entire selves to God. So it may be OK for Our Lord to talk of people failing to make it through the narrow gate, since he knows all hearts, but I continue to hold that it is distasteful for us to talk about such things.

But I must emphasize that I do agree with your overall position: we must love God with our whole hearts, to the extent that we are able, and that doing this is a very high and difficult calling not to be taken lightly. I hope no one mistakenly reads me otherwise!

Thanks very much for your comments, by the way--they are very helpful.

CrimsonCatholic said...

With all due respect, I would be even stronger than to say that the language you cited is "distasteful." I think it is wrong from a philosophical perspective; in fact, God doesn't hate them in the sense it is intended to convey.

Scripture says: "For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned" (Wisdom 11:24). St. Augustine, the original author of "Love the sinner; hate the sin," says:
He, therefore, had love toward us even when we were practising enmity against Him and working iniquity; and yet to Him it is said with perfect truth, "Thou hatest, O Lord, all workers of iniquity." Accordingly, in a wonderful and divine manner, even when He hated us, He loved us; for He hated us, in so far as we were not what He Himself had made; and because our own iniquity had not in every part consumed His work, He knew at once both how, in each of us, to hate what we had done, and to love what He had done. And this, indeed, may be understood in the case of all regarding Him to whom it is truly said, "Thou hatest nothing that You have made." For He would never have wished anything that He hated to exist, nor would anything that the Omnipotent had not wished exist at all, were it not that in what He hated there was also something that He loved. For He justly hates and reprobates vice as utterly repugnant to the principle of His procedure, yet He loves even in the persons of the vitiated what is susceptible either of His own beneficence through healing, or of His judgment by condemnation. In this way God at the same time hates nothing of what He has made; for as the Creator of natures, and not of vices, it was not He who made the evil that He hates; and of these same evils, all is good that He really does, either by mercifully healing them, or by judicially regulating them.

So I've got to disagree with Mike here; it doesn't seem right at all to speak of God "hating" the person even in respect of judicial regulation. God says that bad things will happen to people, but it seems that "God hates X" misconceives the notion that even God's punishment of sinners is out of love for them. Even on a strictly theological basis, I think there is a substantial difference between "X will not reach Heaven" and "God hates X." God hates what X has done, and God punishes X for what X has done. God hates the workers of iniquity as actually having done some act, not as a class of persons. That might seem to be straining at gnats, but I think there's a real distinction being covered up in the assertion that this is purely a matter of pastoral tone.

Oliver said...

Dr. Carson,
Thank you for taking the time to answer me so insightfully. Concerning strictly moral platonism, the problem I was raising wasn't that it lead to universalism, but that it would make mortal sin incomprehensible ! But the penitence is just made for that, and many Bible and Church language talks about sinners that were dead and then resurrected, which not only speak of baptism but of every sacramental reconciliation with God. That is : christianism takes seriously the man (and the man's will) responsability in evil. Yes, a man can, however fully knowing that a thing is bad, understanding all its consequences for the others and for himself, and nevertheless do it. That's all the drama of evil (litterature is full of it !), and I think sheer moral platonism (i.e. the conviction that all moral fouts are due to ignorance) is incompatible with christianism, and with reality.

To answer, however, your question about universalism, I fear I'll disappoint you, cause I've nothing to say against the possibility of it. In fact, to the extent to which I'm theologian... I'm rather Balthasarian (ah that insidious web leading one to confess his worst turpitudes...). His position is often caricatured; for me his principal point on this was that we can, and must, hope and pray for the salvation of all men. Of that I'm really convinced, and I don't think - but I may err, not having read all he wrote on that - he's really asserted something else on hell (it's possible that he had the conviction, impressed that he was by the revelation of the mercy of God to Adrienne von Speyr - she was more influent I think that Plato on his views on hell -, that vacuity of hell was rather probable, but he didn't ASSERT it). Alas I can't be more precise cause I don't have his texts about hell by hand.

I criticized a bit your talking about hellfire because I thought you were equating any pastoral exploitation of the risk of damnation (of moving away from God and prefering selfish love) with a medieval folkloring (Savonarole-like ?) refrain next to coercion (maybe there's a misunderstanding : of course there's no christian element in finger-pointing (mote and beam...). I'm talking about one making people representing the possibility of themselves' damnation. You're right about pertinence of such thoughts : Jesus answers to the question concerning numbers of the saved by pointing us on the more pertinent question of the means of salvation.). Maybe in fact you were objecting the pointing of one particular group as treated by damnation. I agree with you there are other spiritual traps (that concerning DMT) non less dangerous. I think that trap is to be pointed among others, but OK there's a danger, if we only mention that one, to reach a church of self-vindicated saints because obeying all the list of DMT - that is, pharisees. Remember who will be first in His Kingdom...

I agree also we should talk about the narrow gate more than about the large avenues of perdition. But neither Our Lord, in the Gospel passages we're commenting (the barren fig-tree and so), neither Our Lady (e.g. in Fatima, La Salette... - but maybe She'd use a different language today - but only maybe...) nor the Fathers, did refuse to use - pastorally - the threat of perdition, of real (second) death. And in our time we're not in danger of overemphasizing issues of hell or of speaking too much of it. That reminds me of the endless debate on desiderium naturale videndi Deum : even if you - as I do - choose the Lubacian position (that such natural desire exists), I think at first it's only present in the form of Timor Domini (maybe not coextensive with Timor iudiciorum Domini) - initium sapientiae as we know. One Mike Liccione's commentator pointed that it was the matter of the imperfect contrition needed to penitence. On that I find Bossuet helpful, Reflexions morales, § XXI. Sur la crainte de l'enfer, et sur le commencement de l'amour de Dieu.

Selon ces principes on n'a eu garde de dire que la terreur des jugements de Dieu put ne pas être salutaire et bonne, puisque « c'est, dit le concile de Trente, un don de Dieu et une impression du Saint-Esprit (3). » Mais il y a une crainte exclusive de tout amour de la justice, où l'on dit dans son cœur : « Je pécherais, si
je n'étais retenu par la vue des supplices éternels »; ce que l'on ne peut excuser de péché. C'est ce que l'auteur a expliqué par ces paroles : « Qui ne s'abstient du mal que par la crainte du châtiment, le commet dans son cœur, et est déjà coupable devant Dieu (1). » Et ailleurs encore plus expressément : « On ne cesse point d'aimer ce qu'on fuit, quand ce n'est que la crainte et la nécessité qui le font fuir (2). »
1 Matth., XXI, 46. — 2 Apoc., XVIII, 15

Rapid personal translation : One was right to say the fear of God's judgments can't be other than salutary and good, for it is, as the Trent Council (Sess XIV, cap IV) said, a gift of God and an impression of the Holy Spirit. But there is a fear excluding every love of justice, where we say in our heart : "I would sin, if I wasn't repelled by the view of eternal tourments"; which one can't exonerate of sin. That's what the author [the archibishop whose writing he's commenting on] explained by these words : "Who abstains from evil only by fear of chastisement, does commit it in his heart, and is already guilty in front of God (1)." (Mt 21 46) Elsewhere more expressly : "We don't cease to love what we flee, when it's only fear and necessity which make us fly away from it." (cf. Ap 18 15)
Bossuet continues explaining that fear however can lead to charity and, as only charity can lead to charity, love of God must be somewhat present since the beginning.

There's also, in the writings and lives of the saints, a real role played by the representation, not of one's damnation, but of collective damnation, picturing prophetically a world going nearly entirely to perdition (just now I remember Peguy's Mystery of the charity of Joan of Arc). But I'm doubtful as to the potential pastoral relevance of it...

Excuse me for the length. I'm a - young - layman so I won't try to have the last word on pastoral strategies, given also that such things are heavily relying on sensibilities. But as a last word, personally, for example, I don't see as incompatible me urging myself to love God and me recalling how helpless and grieving I am without Him.
Ostendat Dominus faciem suam tibi, et misereatur tui.

Anonymous said...

From Ludwig Ott's "Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma":

"As against Luther's assertion that contrition springing from the fear of punishment of hell makes a man a hypocrite and still more a sinner, the Council of Trent declared that this contrition "is a gift of God and a prompting of the Holy Ghost, by Whose help the penitent prepares the way to righteousness", and that it "is a true and profitable sorrow" (D 915). Thus attritio is morally good and supernatural. In many passages Holy Writ warns against sin by pointing to the Divine punishment....The Fathers also very frequently employ the fear motive...St. Augustine recommends fear of the divine punishment as means of preparing the way to the love of righteousness."

Scott Carson said...

Hi Marty

There's a difference between the state of imperfect contrition, which is of course better than no contrition at all, though obviously not as good as perfect contrition, and the means employed to produce contrition in a sinner. To employ coercion to achieve any end at all, even a good end, would be a sin, since it is never licit to do wrong, even in order to bring about a good.

CPKS said...

I think that Olivier has raised a very significant point in making Bossuet's point that attrition may drive out the enemies of charity, allowing charity to germinate in their stead.

Mike L said...


I think you pretty thoroughly misunderstood my point about homosexuality. I was taking for granted that St. Paul was not saying the equivalent of "God hates fags," and I was indicating as much by a series of rhetorical questions. Moreover, I have no interest in defending anybody's saying such a thing, and wrote to that effect before at the old Pontifications, where much of my writing has disappeared along with the blog itself. My point was just that Paul's point, in context, is that persistence in serious sin, of whatever variety, is incompatible with salvation.

Given as much, I don't think it's necessarily "coercion" to try to motivate people by pointing out that persistence in serious sin is incompatible with salvation. Even when one believes those who make that point—which, of course, one is free not to—one can come up with all sorts of rationalizations for persisting just a little bit longer, or longer still. And in any case, Jesus was not too pastorally sensitive to indicate what could happen to such people in the next life. Nor do I think he can reasonably be charged with coercion for doing so.

Our proximate disagreement is over the question how to talk to people about sin, salvation, and damnation in order to get them to listen to the truth. I believe the answer depends on whom one is talking to. In addition to Catholics who accept all the DMTs in their hearts, there are those who are sincere but struggling; and my recommendation in their regard is essentially no different from yours. We must presume good will on thier part. But I also spoke of the intellectual dissenters and those who, while not in that category, are content to be deceived by those who are. This is our ultimate disagreement: you believe good will can and ought to be generally presumed in their cases, and I don't. My subsequent post can be read as giving my reasons for thinking so.


Pontificator said...

Given that I'm pretty sure I have never been truly contrite in my life, I'm a big fan of attrition.

Scott Carson said...

Hi Fr. Al

That's interesting: what do you think are the necessary and sufficient conditions for perfect contrition?

Pontificator said...

Scott, we can assume the traditional definitions, as stated in common Catholic works: "a sorrow of soul and a hatred of sin committed, with a firm purpose of not sinning in the future." They key, as pointed out above by others, is that contrition flows from the love of God. As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it:

"The detestation of sin arise from the love of God, Who has been grievously offended, then contrition is termed perfect; if it arise from any other motive, such its loss of heaven, fear of hell, or the heinousness of guilt, then it is termed imperfect contrition, or attrition."

However defined, I do not know how anyone can know through introspection and self-evaluation whether they have ever fulfilled the conditions of true contrition. For this reason I question the pastoral utility of the contrition/attrition distinction. Perhaps its major function is simply to encourage folks to avail themselves of sacramental confession--and that, I think, is a good thing.

Scott Carson said...

Fr. Al

I agree that it's a very good idea to recommend--and have recourse to--frequent Sacramental Confession. I try to go every week, myself (Pius XII, reputedly, went every day; seems a bit much, actually, but who am I to say).

Having said that, I'm puzzled by what sounds like a rather strange epistemological claim on your part:

I do not know how anyone can know through introspection and self-evaluation whether they have ever fulfilled the conditions of true contrition.

The conditions that you yourself specified were these:

a sorrow of soul and a hatred of sin committed, with a firm purpose of not sinning in the future

with the explication from the (old) Catholic Encyclopedia:

The detestation of sin arise from the love of God, Who has been grievously offended, then contrition is termed perfect; if it arise from any other motive, such its loss of heaven, fear of hell, or the heinousness of guilt, then it is termed imperfect contrition, or attrition

I would say that these conditions appear rather easily available to introspection and self-evaluation, always bearing in mind, of course, that it is possible to be mistaken about such things. But it is possible to have genuine knowledge even about matters about which it is possible to be mistaken. I'm not sure whether you're saying you don't know how we can know such things, or you don't know how we can know such things by means of introspection and self-evaluation, or you don't know how either is possible.

We may, of course, just as easily be mistaken that our contrition is imperfect, arising from fear of hell or loss of heaven--perhaps what we take to be fear of the loss of heaven is really sorrow for having offended God, just as a parent, upon coming home to find his adolescent child drunk, may feel very angry about the drunkenness but in fact is grieving not so much that the child is drunk but that innocence has been lost.

For what it's worth, I feel virtually certain (yeah, dangerous thing to say) that my own sorrow for sin has nothing to do with either fear of hell or fear of the loss of heaven. I may, of course, be mistaken, but I may be right, and if I am right, it is knowledge gained through introspection and self-evaluation.

Oliver said...

Thanks everybody for this interessing discussion.

There was in the old days sermons, books and leaflets, about how to die well and saintly. I think it's still pastorally important to teach this, and contrition is an important theme therein : if one is in state of mortal sin and unable to find a priest, one can nevertheless avoid hell if one obtains perfect contrition. (so it may be not enough to simply fear punishment (or to feel shame) and we better learn to love God more unselfishly)

Scott Carson said...


If I'm not mistaken, the quotation from Ott above is supposed to suggest that imperfect contrition is a sufficient condition for avoiding hell, or at the very least not a hypocritical emotion and something that could conceivably serve to instruct.

I'm still not at all sure I see what it is that Mike is getting at with his group of intellectuals who are "content to be deceived" by the heretics--it seems to me that one is either genuinely deceived, in which case one's culpability is minimized, or one is only pretending to be deceived, in which case one is, well, not really deceived. This notion that such people "ought to know better" strikes me as a red herring: everyone ought to know better, since the Gospel is out there and hasn't changed in 2000 years. To suggest that the better educated or the more sensitive or whoever it is that these "clerics" and "theologians" are supposed to be are somehow immune to the vagaries of human psychology by dint of intellect alone seems too simplistic to be Mike's real suggestion, so I have to assume that I'm just missing what it is that he's driving at.

Oliver said...

Mr. Carson;

I don't see how Ott's citation implies the sufficience of attrition - without the sacrament - in order to be reconciled with God. I've always thought contrition was necessary (but I agree that's a very weak locus theologicus...); I found this (without many references, alas) in the Catholic encyclopedia (online at Newadvent), at the end of the Contrition (not Attrition) article :

Therefore he who has fallen into grievous sin must either make an act of perfect contrition or supplement the imperfect contrition by receiving the Sacrament of Penance; otherwise reconciliation with God is impossible. This obligation urges under pain of sin when there is danger of death. In danger of death, therefore, if a priest be not at hand to administer the sacrament, the sinner must make an effort to elicit an act of perfect contrition. The obligation of perfect contrition is also urgent whensoever one has to exercise some act for which a state of grace is necessary and the Sacrament of Penance is not accessible.

In fact I just had a talk with a priest about it yesterday : he said he doubted (as Mr. Liccione) that perfect contrition without the sacrement was very frequent (I replied that I hoped that the impending death could help some - I always remember St. John Mary Vianney telling the wife of a suicided to hope : one never knows what happens between the parapet and the ground), and that for him the Sacrament was made (among other things) to transform imperfect contrition into a perfect one.

As for the "content to be deceived" I fear I'll only add confusion to the problem, that I think is about the guiltily uninformed conscience. Of course there's the sheer (but guiltily : you're obliged to learn moral truth, in your heart and in the teaching of the Church) ignorance. And then... you know or feel the truth is the lectio difficilior but you choose to ignore that in fact you feel it, and you don't investigate anymore.
A kind of voluntary ignorance. A case I see very often... : you think that interdiction of communion in case of mortal sin is a outdated anteconciliar teaching (btw that doesn't help to accept the teaching about remarried divorced barred from communion - one teaching that I find hard - but true - in itself). But are you convinced of it (confirmed in that belief by a book or a conference by some progressivist - or simply by the fact that everyone every sunday 'goes to communion'...) or simply do you find expedient to believe it ? Are you in fact really aware that the discipline is still in charge but choosing to ignore it by adopting a motto like : 'Now we know that conscience has a bigger role that our predecessors thought'; or : "Before catholics belove in a God of fear, punishment and moral law; but now we enlighted postconciliar people we've come back to the real Gospel and we see God welcomes the sinner and doesn't reject it : so we can go to communion of course" (what a contradiction with a God of love that in the dark ages the Church did forbid people from it !).

Maybe you're right there's a strict alternative between being really deceived and only pretending to. I just understood that Mike L. was telling that in some cases (like, if I rightly saw what he was aiming at, the one I recalled) it was difficult to settle. But personnally I think that in many cases it is plain moral autonomism : I do what I think I must do and what I think God wants or allows me to do, and I don't see the point of searching, knowing and less still obeying, the teaching of the Church.
Sorry for length.

Scott Carson said...


You're right, I got a little ahead of myself there. I really only meant to say that imperfect contrition would be sufficient to avoid hell if it genuinely disposed one to go to Sacramental Confession, and that perfect contrition was not a necessary condition just so long as one did, in fact, receive Sacramental Absolution. That is to say, if you go to Confession having only imperfect contrition, and are absolved of your sins even though you have not yet perfect contrition, you have nevertheless met a sufficient condition for salvation. That, at least, is how I read CCC 1451. The point of Ott was, I take it, to emphasize the moral licitness of imperfect contrition as against the view held by the Lutherans.

Now, in the sort of case you imagine, where a person has convinced himself that it is licit to receive Holy Communion even when in a state of mortal sin, I think it matters very much what this person's reasoning is like. This is the sort of case I was imagining Mike having in mind, actually: the case of some intellectual (or more likely some pseudo-intellectual) who has just the sort of story to tell that you have provided for him (we are in a post-Conciliar Church now, where the emphasis is very different from what it was before, blah blah blah). I think it matters a very great deal whether this person genuinely believes this kind of thing.

This is why I referred to Mike's work on the nulla salus extra ecclesiam teaching: if we really are to believe that Lutherans or Anglicans in general can attain heaven, in spite of their heretical views, I don't see how we can avoid saying that the reason why they can be thought to possibly attain heaven is because the motivation behind their beliefs actually matters, because their beliefs are certainly not the right ones, especially regarding Confession and Communion. On this kind of a view, even Luther himself could attain heaven, because, famously, he followed his conscience, even though his conscience was not properly formed. True, our duty is only to follow a properly formed conscience, but to say that is to raise immediately the problem of how a particular person can know with certainty whether his conscience is, in fact, properly formed.

It seems to me, given what Mike has written about nulla salus, that we are faced with the possibility that the only people who do not attain heaven are those who (a) consciously choose what they know to be sin and (b) choose sin precisely because it is sin and they know it to be so, that is, they prefer it to virtue: they openly and knowingly reject God. Such folks are probably rather evil indeed, like Satan and his minions in Paradise Lost, and not at all like the Charles Currans or Richard McBriens of the world, who are merely arrogant, banal, and perhaps invincibly ignorant.

Oliver said...

Thanks for the answer. I understand and agree with what you said on attrition and on my cino-case ("it depends", as you said rightly).
I haven't read what Mike Liccione wrote about Extra ecclesiam... so I can't comment. I'll have a look.

The most interessing thing I read about going to hell was... C.S. Lewis' The Great divorce ! The problem of what happens in the moment of death is a very interesting one, but one where we must be very cautious, because we very quickly go apart from the tradition - but maybe we must.

(I'm not fixed on that topic and I'd just ask that you precise your use of "consciously choose". I think one must acknowledge - as CS Lewis - some people's soul (will and intellect) are so endamaged by the use they did of it on earth that they aren't able anymore to see what's good and what's bad (there can also be some being stuck in one's vision of religious truth and prefering it to the reality), or aren't able to choose the difficult path. A theory with growing popularity (in connection with Christ's descent into hell) is that in the mystery of death one make a special encounter with Christ that helps making the good choice - maybe not going against Lewis' intuition, again, but a bit against traditional catholic theology...)

Pontificator said...

Will attrition plus confession get you into Heaven? Once the question is put like this, confessor and penitent alike are in big trouble. The manual answer is "yes," yet I find this answer quite unsatisfactory. It seems to make salvation into a matter of fulfilling legal requirements. But all the legal requirements have been fulfilled by Christ in his life, death, and resurrection. All that matters now is friendship with Christ, the presence of supernatural charity in the human soul, and participation in the life of the Holy Trinity.

The attrition/contrition distinction is only meaningful and helpful if it leads us more deeply into Christ and his unconditional grace. So let me put it this way: what is the good news about this distinction? Does it not lie in the fact that in sacramental confession God takes our meager, half-hearted repentance and transforms it into supernatural charity?

Scott Carson said...

Fr. Al

Well, that's pretty much exactly what the CCC says, isn't it, that imperfect contrition can lead us into a deeper relationship with God and ultimately into the transformative experience of Sacramental Confession, which I think you've described very well.

Deus, qui omnipotentiam tuam parcendo maxime et miserando manifestas, gratiam tuam super nos indesinenter infunde, ut, ad tua promissa currentes, caelestium bonorum facias esse consortes.