Voluntarism, a Critical Error of Our Times

Part of the reason for the mess we’re in today is a philosophy called voluntarism. Some mistake this word for volunteerism, which refers to the use of volunteers or the willingness to be a volunteer, offering one’s services in some capacity without compensation. Voluntarism is something quite different and is of the darkness.

Voluntarism is the view that the will overrules the intellect and that truth is something asserted or willed rather than discovered by the intellect and proposed to the will for obedience. Voluntarism holds that something is true because one says it is so.

Among the more extreme examples of this today is transgenderism. Although one’s sex is easily determined, most often by sight, some feel free to dismiss this evidence and simply assert that they are something else. If a man states that he is in fact female (or one of some fifty other designations) it is said to be true simply because he asserts it—and all are expected to overlook the obvious evidence to the contrary. Thus, something is true by the mere assertion of the will; something is true because one wants it to be or because one says it is.

Another less radical but more common example of voluntarism is shown in the dismissive comment “Well, that may be true for you, but it isn’t true for me.” This is subjectivism in that the determination of truth moves from the object to the subject. This philosophy holds that there is no objective truth; things are not true in themselves but rather because someone (a subject) says they are. Thus, subjectivism and voluntarism are strongly connected.

Voluntarism did not arise out of nowhere. Like many heresies and errors, it comes from a selective emphasis on one truth to the exclusion of others. The cycle of erroneous action followed by overreaction has led to today’s situation in which some people live isolated in their minds, insulated from the created world that manifests the truth of God. Bishop Robert Barron notes,

The roots of this perspective are old and tangled, stretching back at least to the Middles Ages. In that period, certain philosophers emerged, most notably John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, who argued for a maximalist understanding of God’s power. God’s free will determines, they maintained, the nature of reality in all of its dimensions…. [Even] ethical principles are valid because God says so (Arguing Religion, pp. 38-39).

Prior to this, theologians up to and including St. Thomas Aquinas held that God commands something because it is good. It is not good merely because God commands it. In this view, there are things that God, even though omnipotent, cannot do: He cannot do evil, cannot lie, cannot sin. This is because evil of any sort is a privation, a lack of something that should be present. God cannot sin because in doing so He would deny his very self; He would no longer be perfect and thus no longer omnipotent. It is a kind of linguistic fallacy to say that because God is omnipotent, He can do absolutely anything. The All-Holy One cannot will or do that which is unholy and yet remain All-Holy. He who is the Truth cannot lie and yet still be the Truth. The All-Perfect One cannot will or do that which is imperfect and yet remain All-Perfect. Thus, God’s perfect power (His omnipotence) exists in His being perfect God without privation of any sort.

Scotus, Ockham, and others, in seeking to emphasize God’s power, so exaggerated it that they distorted His very nature. They asserted that God can will whatever He wants, and the mere willing of it makes it good rather than that it is intrinsically good. In this view, right actions are right simply because God approves of them, and wrong actions are wrong merely because God disapproves of them. This is theological voluntarism. In it, God’s reason is largely eclipsed by His will. In effect, His will is arbitrary because His mind and His reasons for commanding something do not matter; all that matters is that He wills it. This is an attractive idea if you want to highlight God’s power, but I would argue that doing so overshadows God’s goodness and reasonableness. Something is not good because God commands it; He commands it because it is good. He commands reasonably; He commands what is intrinsically good and what is best for us.

Theological voluntarism had long held sway among Muslims, but in the 16th century it began to spread among Christians, mainly Protestants. It appealed to those who held to the sola scriptura premise; they were less interested in arguments from creation or natural law—it was enough that God had said something and that it was in the Bible. Who needed to demonstrate the reasonableness and goodness of what God commanded? Or so the thinking of theological voluntarism went.

How did theological voluntarism become the human voluntarism we know today? Bishop Robert Barron details the process well:

As is often the case in the history of ideas, a strong position tends to awaken an equally strong opposition, and this happened as modern philosophers went about their work. A God seen as oppressive and arbitrary in his freedom was … [in varying stages] construed … as the enemy of human flourishing. Feuerbach declared his atheism with the shout, “The ‘no’ to God is the ‘yes’ to man.”… Nietzsche extolled the Ubermensch (superman), a hero in whom the will to power is so intense that it shatters any moral and intellectual systems that would constrain it. … Sartre asserted that existence precedes essence. Human freedom comes first, and then, on its own terms posits meaning value and purpose (Arguing Religion, pp. 40-42).

Thus, in stages, human voluntarism came to replace theological voluntarism. Atheists rejected God, but not the God of ancient Christendom. They rejected a willful God, one whom they saw as oppressive, arbitrary, and willful. This was a God of power, devoid of love; this was not the God who willed in conformity with what was good and what was best for us but one who did what He pleased—it was this God who was ushered to the door.

Man triumphantly took the place of God, declaring, “I will do what I want to do, and I will decide whether it is right or wrong.” In this human voluntarism, bold assertion often overrides even the most obvious realities.  A controlling opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States stated, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 1992). A man can now “be” a woman simply because he says it is so. A Catholic leader or politician who defies Catholic teaching can say that he is a “practicing Catholic” and it is so simply because he says it is so. People speak of “the god within” or of “the god of their own understanding,” claiming the absolute right to design their own god (who just so happens to conform with what they think) and worship that god. We used to call this idolatry. This is human voluntarism. Forget reality, forget reason, forget evidence, forget revelation. Things are what one says they are. The will triumphs over all. Truth must give way to power, the power of the will.

The problem, of course, is that different people want different things. Welcome to the power struggle brought about by human volunteerism, the tyranny of relativism and subjectivism. It looks like its only going to get worse as many double down in asserting their will over everything and everyone. Every man becomes an Ubermensch, asserting and imposing his meaning, refusing to discover the reality of God’s creation and to learn from it humbly.

We who strive to remain sane in times like these can only run to the true God, our Father, who loves us. He is the Lord, who commands what is good and what is best for us. He does not merely impose His will. He is a reasonable Lord. He is Love, and He is Truth. Although He is all-powerful, He cannot lie and will not hate. He wills only the good for us. Cling to Him as never before and know that whatever He commands is good and is what is best for us.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Voluntarism, a Critical Error of Our Times

A Late Lenten Meditation on the Reality of Spiritual Warfare

Every ancient prayer manual and guide to spirituality until about fifty years ago had at least one large section devoted to what was known as Pugna Spiritualis (spiritual battle or spiritual warfare). In more recent decades, many spiritual books have downplayed or completely deleted references to spiritual battle or spiritual warfare.

Sadly, many modern approaches to faith, religion, and spirituality prefer to emphasize exclusively consoling themes rooted in self-esteem, affirmation, etc. To be sure, the authentic faith can and does offer great consolation, but the truest and deepest consolation often comes after one has persevered along the sometimes-difficult path, along the “narrow way” of the cross.

But too many today, in the name of affirmation and pseudo-self-esteem are ready to excuse, and even affirm grave moral disorders, rather than fight them. Grace and mercy are preached, but without reference to the repentance that opens the door to these gifts. Both the possibility of Hell and any consequences of sin, are absent from many modern conceptions of faith and religious practice.

Some years ago, I was approached by a rather angry woman who, having heard my sermon on the seriousness of certain sins (which were in the readings of the day), expressed great indignation that I would preach on such topics. She said, “I come to church to be consoled and have my spirits lifted, not to hear old-fashioned warnings about judgment and sins.” She felt quite a “righteous indignation,” and was most certain that I had transgressed a fundamental norm, namely, that religion exists to console, and that any challenge to one’s moral stance, (except perhaps caring for the poor), is intolerant and way out of line.

Indeed, many today have this kind of attitude: that it is their birthright not to be troubled or vexed in any way by something people might say, especially a preacher who claims to represent God! The “God they worship” would never trouble them. They will have Jesus for their consoler and best friend, but not their Lord, and certainly not their judge. And never mind the literally thousands of verses from Scripture in which Jesus himself speaks sternly and warns of sin, death, judgment, and Hell. They will have none of it, and are certain that “the Jesus they know,” would never raise his voice at them or challenge them even for a moment. Never mind that the real Jesus says to take up our cross and follow him.

With spiritual battle having been removed from many people’s spiritual landscape, the idea that the Lord would summon us to battle, or ask us to choose sides, seems strangely foreign, intolerant, and uncompassionate.

Even more dangerous, these modern conceptions not only distort Jesus, but they downplay the presence and influence of Satan. This is a very, very bad idea. Even if we cease fighting against Satan, he will never ceases his sometimes very subtle attacks on us.

Jesus called consistently for prayerful, sober vigilance against the powers of evil and sin. Like it or not, we are in a battle. Either we will soberly and vigilantly undertake the battle, or we will be conquered and led off like sheep to the slaughter.

Despite what modern spiritual approaches would like to eliminate, Christianity has been a militant religion since its inception. Jesus was exposed to every kind of danger from the beginning. Herod sought his life; Satan tried to tempt him in the desert; many enemies plotted on all sides as he worked his public ministry, misrepresenting him, levying false charges, and conspiring to sentence him to death, and eventually even succeeding though only for a moment.

And as for Jesus, so also for his mystical Body the Church: Saul, Saul why do you persecute me!? (Acts 9:4) Jesus warns us that the world would hate us (Luke 21:17; John 15:20); that in this world we would have tribulation (Jn 16:33), and that we should watch and pray lest we give way to temptation (Matt 26:41). He summons us to persevere to the end if we would be saved (Mk 13:13). Jesus rather vividly described the kind of struggle with which we live when he said From the time of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force (Matthew 11:12). Indeed, no Christian until the time that Jesus returns, can consider himself on leave or dismissed from this great spiritual battle, from this great drama that we exist in, this battle between good and evil.

Popular theme or not, we do well to remember that we are in the midst of a great cosmic and spiritual battle. And in that battle, we must be willing to choose sides and fight with the Lord for the Kingdom of God. Either we will gather with him or we will scatter. We are to fight for our own soul, and the souls of those whom we love.

In the holy week that is about to unfold, we are reminded once again of the great cosmic battle that the Lord waged, and that is still being waged in our time. Though already victorious, in his mystical Body the Church, the Lord in his faithful members still suffers violence, rejection, and ridicule. It is also for us to reclaim territory from the evil one, to take back what the devil stole from us. We are to advance the glory of God’s Kingdom through the fruits of great spiritual struggle, sacrifice, prayer, fasting, preaching, and an extensive missionary campaign to which the Lord has summoned and commissioned us.

The battle is on; the struggle is engaged! To spiritual arms one and all! Fight the good fight for the Lord.

Still not convinced we are at war? Let the Lord pull back the veil just a bit and let you look at what’s really going on. The final words of this article will not be mine; they will be the Lord’s. Here is described the cosmic battle that is responsible for most of the suffering and confusion you experience:

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.

Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born.

She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.

Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers who accuses them before our God day and night,has been hurled down. They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.”

When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent’s reach. Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth.

Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus. (Rev 12)

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Late Lenten Meditation on the Reality of Spiritual Warfare

The Ground is Level at the Foot of the Altar

There is something remarkably universal about most Catholic parishes in the U.S: our parishioners come from everywhere. The Catholic Church is two thousand years old, is a presence in every country, speaks every language, and summons every soul. The very word “catholic” means universal, and that quality is manifest. Some parishes in the Washington D.C. area look like the United Nations! So many countries and cultures are represented; dozens of languages are spoken by parishioners.

While some like to emphasize the diversity, which is indeed a great gift, I think it is more important to emphasize the unity that unlocks its power. There is a tendency today to speak of diversity in a detached way, as if it were an end in itself. Pursuit of diversity for its own sake can be a bludgeon with its demands for recognition and resources.

The various and diverse parts of the human body are only able to work together through the head. Without the head, the diverse parts cease to function and fall into decay. Each of the many spokes of a wagon wheel is only able to do its part when connected to the others through the hub at the center; otherwise they become detached and even dangerous. So, diversity needs a context; there must be something in common that unites the other diverse parts.

Scripture says,

The body is a unit, though it is comprised of many parts. And although its parts are many, they all form one body. So it is with Christ (1 Cor 12:12).

You were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Eph 4:4-5).

In our best moments, our Catholic parishes manifest a rich diversity but one that is rooted in fundamental unity and equal status before God. We come before God like blind beggars, whatever our wealth, status, or origin. We are all poor; we are wayward and needy. We are like little children whom God must watch at every moment lest we do something dangerous or foolish. Bishops shed their miters and become “me, your unworthy servant.” The clergy and the laity are before God the Father, in need of immense mercy and every good grace.

Anthony Esolen writes eloquently of God’s people kneeling before the altar:

Consider, where else [outside the Church] do the rich and the poor meet as brothers? Where does the professor break bread with the janitor? … Where does the manager of millions confess his utter poverty? Where is the mayor a minor? Where is the president a beggar? Where else does anyone hear, “Unless you become as these little children, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (cf Matt 18:3)? (Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching pp. 33-34)

Yes, at her best, the Church shows forth the truth that, whatever our race, ethnicity, or socio-economic status, the ground is level at the foot of the altar. God is not impressed with human titles and honorifics. I can assure you, dear reader, that the Lord does not call me “Monsignor.” No indeed, He calls me “Carlito” (little Charlie).

Unfortunately, the emphasis in recent years on diversity without reference to unity has influenced the Church’s thinking and liturgy. Too often we have focused on ourselves rather than God, becoming concerned with human distinctions such as language, ethnicity, race, and socio-economic status. I’d like to think that if a large number of my parishioners were Spanish-speaking, I could learn to enjoy celebrating Mass in Spanish, but I’d also like to think that we could all learn more Latin so that we have that in common whatever our native tongue. Ethnic music has its place but so does chant, which is the common heritage of every Catholic. Knowing the story of different races and ethnicities is good, but so is knowing the Scriptures and seeing them as our common story. One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.

It is hard to get diversity right if the central unifying force is neglected. Only when we all focus on the Lord and see our common status as blind beggars and needy children can our diversity bless us; without that it is too easy to use diversity to bludgeon.

Consider well, then, the great Catholic truth that the ground is level at the foot of the altar. Meditate on the beautiful picture painted by Anthony Esolen in the excerpt above: All of us facing God, kneeling before Him in need of immense grace and mercy. Rich or poor, we are all destitute before God and in need of His grace for every beat of our heart.

The song in the video below says,

God and God alone, created all these things we call our own, from the mighty to the small, the Glory in them all is God’s and God’s alone.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Ground is Level at the Foot of the Altar

The Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony

Gluttony is eating or drinking inordinately, contrary to reason. It is a sin opposed to the virtue of temperance because it is the immoderate indulgence in the delights of food or drink. Gluttony can involve more than merely eating too much. Drunkenness is also a type of gluttony because it is excessive indulgence in intoxicating drink.

A person can be excessive in what, when, how, and how much he eats. St. Thomas Aquinas and others have distinguished five ways gluttony can be manifested. One can approach food or drink:

Hastily, by eating too rapidly, gulping down food or drink. As a gift of God, food and drink should be savored and enjoyed. To fail in this regard is not only impolite when in the company of others but can also be offensive to God or to those who have prepared the meal. By hastily eating or drinking, one downplays the gift by rushing past its subtleties and delights, which require a more moderate rate of consumption to appreciate fully. Rapid consumption also tends to lead to overconsumption, whether food or drink.

Sumptuously, by demanding rich foods more so than healthier fare. For example, consuming sweets and fatty foods rather than fruits and vegetables, or expensive foods rather than more moderate ones, fine wines and liquors rather than water and juice.

Excessively, by habitually consuming too much.

Greedily, by demanding what one wants, when one wants it, and in the quantity one wants. Some are unwilling to share food or drink with others; others demand to be served first; still others insist on being served separately.

Daintily, by insisting that food be prepared to exacting standards of appearance or taste.

Yes, gluttony can be manifested in many ways, not just through excessive consumption.

St Thomas also noted these five “daughters” of gluttony:

Unseemly joy – This is best seen as a result of excessive consumption of intoxicating drink but eating too much can also lead to a levity that is beyond what is reasonable. There is an expression that is dismissive of a necessary seriousness: “Eat, drink, and be merry.” There is also the foolish saying, “Life is short; eat dessert first.”

Scurrility (foolish talking) – Long meals are often rife with gossip and silly or imprudent speech. Add alcohol and conversation can become increasingly unruly and flippant.

Uncleanness – Some are so addicted to the feast and the table that they induce vomiting to “make room” so that that they can return and consume more. Others vomit from the overconsumption itself, sometimes after having passed out.

Loquaciousness – This is similar to scurrility but refers to talking too much in general rather than the content of the speech.

Dullness of mind – Heavy food or intoxicating drink can cause sluggishness and sleepiness. Drinking too much can lower a person’s inhibitions. One seldom does good thinking after a heavy meal or a bout of excessive drinking.

While gluttony is not the most serious of sins (sins of the spirit are more consequential), gluttony can be one of the more disgraceful because of its effect on the intellect. Gluttony can become very serious in at least four ways:

First, drunkenness is a species of gluttony. The quantity of human tears shed on account of its effects demonstrate the havoc wrought.

Second, gluttony is an addiction and addictions are a serious problem.

Third, there can be a deep folly involved in gluttony by thinking that one can satisfy inner emptiness with things of this world.

Finally, gluttony is closely connected to avarice and lust.

Virtues that assist in battling gluttony – Rather than concentrating on the gluttony itself, we must turn our back on the problem and look to God as our joy and fulfillment. Gluttony is one of those sins we must crowd out with other virtues such as joy, zeal for heavenly things, gratitude, temperance, and moderation. We must gain the insight that when it comes to food and drink, “less is more”; things are best enjoyed in moderation. These can also be helpful: shame over excess, interest in physical fitness, and charity exhibited by preferring meals for the company rather than merely the food or drink.

The battle against gluttony is great in our times due to the way in which foods are prepared, the often-hidden prevalence of sugar in so many things, and the near elimination of famine in the Western world. We also live longer, are seldom sick for lengthy periods, and are able to consume food with little or no preparation time. Our bodies seem designed for occasional want of food, lengthy illness, and far more physical exertion than is common today. It seems easier to fall into gluttony in today’s world, but there are factors that may lessen guilt. Merely being overweight is not always an indication of gluttony; still, it can indicate a need to reexamine one’s diet.

 

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony

The Seven Deadly Sins: Sloth

One of the more misunderstood of the cardinal sins is sloth. Most see it merely as laziness, but there is more to it than that. Let’s take a moment and consider some aspects of this cardinal sin.

The Greek word we translate as sloth is ἀκηδία akedia (a = absence + kedos = care), meaning indifference or negligence. St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of sloth as sorrow for spiritual good. By it, we shun spiritual good as too toilsome (cf Summa Theologica II-II 35,2).

Some modern commentators describe sloth as a “don’t care” feeling. Some even say it is a kind of falling out of love with God and the things of God (cf Rev 2:4). On account of sloth, the idea of right living and the gift of a transformed humanity inspires not joy, but aversion or even disgust because it is seen as too difficult or as requiring the setting aside of currently enjoyed or sinful pleasures. Through sloth, many experience sorrow rather than joy or zeal in following God and receiving a transformed human life. They are distressed at the prospect of what might have to occur should they embrace the faith more deeply.

Sloth also tends to dismiss the power of grace, focusing instead on the “trouble” or effort involved in walking in the Christian way.

Sloth is not merely laziness; it is more properly understood as sorrow or indifference. While sloth may sometimes look like boredom and a casual laziness toward attaining spiritual good, it can also be manifested by a frantic “busyness” with worldly things so as to avoid spiritual questions or living a reflective life.

Consider, for example, a man who is a workaholic. Now suppose that this man has a wife and children. A man in this position has some very significant gifts and duties beyond his career. He is a husband, a father, and the spiritual leader of his home. He is also a disciple, one whom the Lord has summoned to a new life, to the great discovery of God, and to the deepest meaning and realities of his life. He also has the awesome responsibility to announce these truths to his wife and children. All of the duties of his vocation overwhelm and even scare him; the task seems too open-ended. He doesn’t want to reflect too much because it might summon him to ponder things he would like to avoid considering: moral questions, priorities, whether he is spending enough time with his family, whether his life is focused on the things that matter most. It’s all just too hard, too filled with uncertainty. Entering more deeply into the spiritual life is difficult. Work is easier and they call him “Sir” and do what he says.

So he buries himself in his work; this helps him to avoid prayer and reflection. Of course there’s no time for Mass or for praying with his wife and children. There’s no time for Scripture, retreats, and the like.

This man is not lazy but he is slothful. In the end, his workaholism is sloth, for it is sorrow at and aversion to the gift that the Lord offers him: to come out into the deeper waters and lower his net for a catch. In this example, the man’s sorrow for spiritual good is manifested in avoidance and is rooted in fear. Through sloth, he is not joyful at the invitation of the Lord or the Church. Instead he is sorrowful and averse to what he sees as toilsome and possibly raising uncomfortable things he would rather not think about. He does not hate God or the faith, but it is all just too much.

That said, sloth does often manifest itself as a kind of lethargy, a boredom that can’t seem to muster any interest, energy, joy, or enthusiasm for spiritual gifts. Such people may be enthusiastic about many things, but God and the faith are not among them.

Boredom seems to have increased in modern times and this fuels sloth. We are overstimulated in the modern world. The frantic pace, the endless interruptions, the abundance of entertainment, the fast-paced movies and video games all contribute. From the time we awaken until we fall into bed at the end of the day, there is almost never a moment of silence or a time when we are not being bombarded by images, often flickering and quickly changing.

This overstimulation means that when we come upon things like quiet prayer or adoration, when we are asked to listen for an extended period time, when the imagery is not changing quickly enough, we are easily bored.

Boredom feeds right into sloth. The “still, small voice of God,” the quiet of prayer, the simple reading of Scripture and the pondering of its message, the unfolding of spiritual meaning through reflection, the slower joys of normal human conversation in communal prayer and fellowship—none of these appeal to those used to a breakneck pace. Sunday, once the highlight of the week for many (due to the beauty of the liturgy and the music, the hearing of the sermon, the joy of fellowship, and the quiet of Holy Communion), is now considered boring and about as appealing as going to the dentist. Thus, sloth is fueled by the boredom our culture feels at anything going at less than full speed.

In his book Back to Virtue, Peter Kreeft says,

Sloth is a cold sin, not a hot one. But that makes it even deadlier. [For] rebellion against God is closer to him than indifference … God can more easily cool our wrath than fire our frozenness, though he can do both. Sloth is a sin of omission not commission. That too makes it deadlier, for a similar reason. To commit evil is at least to be playing the game … Sloth simply does not play God’s game, either with him or against him … It sits on the sidelines bored … Better to be hot or cold than lukewarm [p. 154].

The “daughters” of Sloth are: malice, spite, faint-heartedness, despair, sluggishness in regard to the commandments, wandering of the mind after unlawful things. For indeed, sloth can make us hate and thus have malice and spite for the good things of God. Then too there are the obvious daughters listed here which proceed from a sort of oppressive sorrow at the good things of God.

Of the Virtues that are medicine for sloth: As with envy, joy and zeal are essential. So too are Magnanimity and magnificence whereby we think great things and do them. By faith we learn to appreciate the good things of God and by charity we learn to love them.  By almsgiving we intentionally move outside our self. And, by justice we are motivated to render to God and others what is their due. 

The gift that the Lord offers us is promised in this beatitude: Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt 5:6).

We must also ask for and seek the fruits of the Holy Spirit, especially love, joy, and peace. These gifts kindle a fire of love in our hearts for God and for the gifts He offers.

Because sloth is such a deep drive, we must throw ourselves to the care of God with great humility, recognizing our poverty and seeking His miraculous grace to give us grateful, loving, and passionate hearts.

Finally, because sloth can also be caused by the feeling of being overwhelmed at the perfection of our call, we do well to consider two points:

  • We ought to meditate carefully on what our specific call is. Because we cannot do and be everything, we need to understand our own particular gifts and how God expects us to use them. Having done this, we do well to “stay in our lane.”
  • We must understand that spiritual progress grows in stages, not in one giant leap. We need not be so sorrowful or averse to the good things God offers us. As a loving Father, He leads us and forms us most often in gentle ways as one spiritual victory leads to another.

Pray for zeal, joy, hope, confidence, and a hunger for holy things. The Christian journey is meant to be a thrilling one, as we experience how God is utterly transforming us.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Seven Deadly Sins: Sloth

Counting the Cost of Condemnation

This Sunday’s Mass features the well-known Gospel of the woman caught in adultery. In it, the Lord intimates to the men of His day that the severe punishment they want to mete out to this woman may be unwise given that they themselves must prepare for their own judgment.

Before we examine the details, let’s consider a few background texts that may help us to better understand what Jesus is teaching. After each verse, I provide a brief commentary in red.

  • Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy (Matt 5:7). Notice that it is the merciful who will obtain mercy. Those who have shown proper mercy will be granted mercy on the Day of Judgment. By implication, the severe and merciless will be judged severely by the Lord.
  • Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you (Luke 6:37-38). The text clearly states that if we use a severe standard of judgment, that same strict standard will be used by the Lord when He judges us. On the other hand, if we are forgiving, merciful, and generous then we can expect a merciful, generous, and kind judgment from God.
  • Speak and act as those who are going to be judged under the law of freedom, for judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:12-13). James gives us three warnings. First, he reminds us that we are going to be judged by the Lord. Second, he intimates that because we are free, we are responsible for what we do. Third, because we are going to face this judgment, in which we will not be able to blame others for what we have freely done, we’d better realize that our judgment will be without mercy if we have not shown mercy. Conversely, if we have shown mercy then we stand a chance on our own judgment day, for mercy will triumph over strict judgment.
  • For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Mat 6:14-15). This warning seems clear enough: if we want to find forgiveness on the Day of Judgment, we had better seek the grace to forgive others.

All these texts teach the bold truth that we can influence the standard against which the Lord will measure us on the day of our judgment. The measure we use for others will be measured back to us. If we have been merciful then we will find mercy, but if we have been harsh, unbending, and unmerciful, the Lord will judge us far more strictly.

We need to be sober about this. We are storing up things for the Day of Judgment by the way we treat others. Because we are all going to need so much mercy and because we cannot endure strict standards of judgment, we should consider carefully the need to be merciful and forgiving to others. And now, on to today’s Gospel!

I. COLLABORATORS IN CONDEMNATION – The Pharisees and the teachers of the law bring forward a woman caught in the act of adultery. (There is something curious about this, though: If she was caught in the act, the man involved must also be known. Why has he not be brought forward? The Law of Moses indicates that the man should be stoned as well.)

The accusers want to “throw the book” at her. They want the strictest punishment meted out: stoning. They also hope to discredit Jesus by putting Him in what they think is a no-win situation.

In their accusatory stance, they have become collaborators with Satan. Scripture describes Satan in this way: the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God (Rev 12:10). Thus, these Pharisees, in seeking to hand her over, join Satan.

When we have been hurt in some way, many of us may wish to both accuse and demand punishment of the person before God; this is unnecessary and unwise.

It is unnecessary because Satan is already accusing them “day and night” before God. In addition, God sees and knows all things anyway!

It is unwise because by demanding harsh punishment for others we set ourselves up to judged by the same strict standard. It’s always a better policy to cry for grace and the conversion of sinners.

II. COUNTING THE COST – As God, Jesus knows the sins of all the men gathered. He must be amazed; surely, they cannot be serious in demanding such a harsh punishment for the woman knowing that the day of their own judgment awaits!

Jesus bends down and traces His finger on the ground, almost as if tracing along with the words of a book He is reading about their deeds. Some suggest that perhaps He is writing down their sins. Some liken it to the finger of God tracing the commandments on stone. Still others recall the mysterious hand in the Book of Daniel, which traces the words MENE, TEKEL, PERES on the wall, announcing doom to the Babylonian king.

Whatever the case, it isn’t good. You don’t ever want Jesus to be writing things down about you!

These Pharisees are slow to appreciate the significance of the gesture, so Jesus tries to reason with them, saying,Let him among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” Then He bends down again and continues writing on the ground.

It is almost as though Jesus were saying,

Reason with me, men. If you demand strict justice, if you insist that I “throw the book” at her, you’d better first look and see what is written about you in “the book.” If she is to be judged strictly and without mercy, then you, too, will face the same standard.

Gentlemen, there are things in the book about you—serious things. Have you counted the cost of condemning this woman? Are you sure that you want to demand that I “throw the book” at her?

Think about it, men. Think very carefully.

One by one they go away. It begins with the older men, who are presumably less rash than the younger ones (and may well have committed more sins).

The message for us is clear: we will face judgment. We need to be sober about this. We must count the cost of being unmerciful, unforgiving, and vengeful. The measure that we measure out to others will be the measure that God uses for us.

What kind of judgment are you preparing for yourself? Condemnation comes at a high cost. Are you willing to risk storing up wrath and strict justice for the day of your own judgment?

On the other hand, gentleness, compassionate correction, and merciful love will also be given to us if we show it to others. Remember your upcoming judgment. Be like the wise man, who knows he will need grace and mercy on that day because he will not be able to withstand a strict adjudication of his crimes.

III. CORRECTING WITH COMPASSION – The departure of the accusers leaves Jesus alone with the woman. Though He speaks gently, Jesus is clear: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”

This Gospel, therefore, does not make light of the woman’s sin. Jesus knows what she has done and so does she. He is clear that she must turn away from sin; she must not commit it anymore. What Jesus does set aside is the condemning “hang-’em-high” mentality that seeks the harshest measures for every situation.

Yes, we must sometimes correct sinners and mete out punishment. This is particularly true if we are a parent, a juror, or someone in a supervisory role.

Before rushing to extreme measures, however, we do well to show mercy and to attempt lesser measures first.

St. Paul has good advice: Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should gently set him right. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted (Gal 6:1).

Gentle and clear correction is the best course. More significant punishments should only be a later recourse. We must be careful not to be tempted to harshness, anger, mercilessness, and lovelessness.

OK, you get the point: count the cost. Be very careful to remember that the measure you measure out to others will be measured out to you. Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Counting the Cost of Condemnation

The Seven Deadly Sins: Envy

There is a picture of envy in the First Book of Samuel: Upon David’s return from slaying Goliath, the women sing a song praising him. Saul should rejoice with all Israel but instead he is resentful and envies David: “Saul was very angry and resentful of the song, for he thought, “They give David ten thousands, but only thousands to me. All that remains for him is the kingship.” And from that day on, Saul looked upon David with a glaring eye. Saul discussed his intention of killing David with his son Jonathan and with all his servants” (1 Sam 18:6-9). Saul’s reaction is way over the top; this is what envy does.

What is envy? Most people use the word as a synonym for jealousy, but traditionally speaking they are not the same.

When I am jealous of you, I want to possess something that you have—inordinately so. The key point is that there is something good about you, or there is something good that you have, that I want to have for myself. Jealousy is sinful when one desires something inordinately or unreasonably.

Envy’s Theological Definition – In traditional theology, envy is quite different from jealousy (cf Summa Theologiae II, IIae 36.1). Envy is sorrow, sadness, or anger at the goodness or excellence of someone else because I take it as lessening my own. The key difference is that with envy (unlike with jealousy) I do not merely want to possess for myself the good or excellence you have, I want to destroy it in you.

Notice in the reading above that Saul wants to kill David. This is because he thinks that David’s excellence makes him look less excellent, less great. Saul should rejoice in David’s gifts, for they are gifts to all Israel. David is a fine soldier and this is a blessing for everyone. The proper response to David’s excellence should be to rejoice, to be thankful to God, and where possible to imitate David’s courage and excellence. Instead, Saul sulks. He sees David as stealing the limelight and possibly even the kingdom from him. Envy rears its ugly head when Saul concludes that David must die. The good that is in David must be destroyed.

Envy is diabolical. St. Augustine called envy the diabolical sin (De catechizandis rudibus 4,8:PL 40,315-316) because it seeks to minimize, end, or destroy what is good. Scripture says, “By the envy of the Devil, death entered the world” (Wis 2:24). Seeing the excellence that Adam and Eve (made in the image of God) had, and possibly knowing of plans for the incarnation, the Devil envied Adam and Eve. Their glory lessened his—or so he thought—and so he set out to destroy the goodness in them. Envy is ugly and it is diabolical.

Examples of Envy – I remember experiencing envy in my early years. In every classroom there were always a few students who got A’s on every test. They always behaved and the teacher would sometimes praise them, saying, “Why can’t the rest of you be like Johnny and Susie?” Some hated students like this because they made them look bad. So what did some of them do? They sought to pressure the “teacher’s pets” to conform to their mediocrity. In effect, they sought to destroy the goodness or excellence in the ‘A’ students. They would taunt them with names and pelt them with spitballs. If ridicule and isolation didn’t work, sometimes they’d just plain beat them up. This is envy.

St. Thomas lists the “daughters” of Envy are: tale-bearing, detraction, schadenfreude (joy at the misfortune of others), hatred.  By these things we seek to denigrate others or reduce the esteem which they are owed. In effect I dismiss the good and destroy its influence.

Virtues that overcome envy – The proper response to observing goodness or excellence in another is joy and zeal. We should rejoice that they are blessed, because when they are blessed, we are blessed. Further, we should respond with a zeal that seeks to imitate (where possible) their goodness or excellence. Perhaps we can learn from them or from their good example. Instead, envy rejects joy and zeal, and with sorrow and anger sets out to destroy what is good. Charity too bids us to see that my neighbor and I are one, and when he is honored or blessed, so am I.

Envy can be subtle. Envy isn’t always obvious; sometimes it’s something we do almost without thinking. When there’s someone at work who is a rising star, we may engage in gossip and defamation that undermines their reputation or tarnishes their image. We may do this at times in an unreflective manner; we diminish or belittle others and their accomplishments through careless and insensitive remarks. We often do this because we need to knock others down in order to feel better about ourselves. This is envy. Sometimes we show envy passively by failing to praise or encourage others or by not calling attention to their accomplishments.

Envy concealed with a smile – Finally, there is an odd form of envy that is particularly annoying because it masquerades as sensitivity and kindness. Consider a typical youth soccer or baseball game. The children are on the field playing their hearts out. On the sidelines, a decision has been made by the coaches not to keep score. Why? Because the children’s egos might be damaged by losing. Frankly, it probably isn’t the egos of the children being protected but rather those of the parents. The fact is that the kids know the score in most cases. God forbid that on the sports field there should be winners or losers! The losers might “feel bad.” The solution is to destroy or to refuse to acknowledge the goodness and excellence in some children because it is taken to lessen that of the “losers.”

This is envy and it teaches terrible things (by omission). First, it fails to teach that there are winners and losers in life; this is a fact of life. Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose. Either way you should be gracious. Second, it fails to reward excellence, which is unjust. Excellence should be rewarded, and that reward should motivate others to strive for excellence. Much is lost when we fail to praise what is good.

Another example of this practice is at school award ceremonies at which scads of awards are given out. There are the traditional Honor Roll awards but then a plethora of made-up awards, created so that everyone “gets something.” I even witnessed an award given for the nicest smile! The problem is that when everyone is rewarded, no one is rewarded. Once again envy subtly rears its ugly head, but this time it’s wearing a smiley face. Heaven forbid that some child’s ego be bruised because he doesn’t get something; someone else’s excellence might make him look less excellent by comparison.

The bottom line is that it is envy: sorrow at someone else’s excellence because I take it to lessen my own.  Envy is ugly, even when it masquerades as kindness and fairness. It diminishes and often seeks to destroy goodness and excellence. The proper response to excellence and goodness is and should always be joy and zeal.

In the story of Snow White, the wicked queen envied Snow White, who was the fairest of them all. Considering Snow White’s beauty as a threat, the evil queen cast a spell on Snow White to remove her beauty from the scene. Envy consumed the evil queen.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Seven Deadly Sins: Envy

The Seven Deadly Sins: Anger

The deadly sin of anger is defined as the inordinate and uncontrolled feeling of hatred and wrath. Unlike righteous anger, the capital sin of anger is understood as the deep drive to cling to hateful feelings for others. This kind of anger often seeks revenge.

The consideration of anger as an experience, passion, or feeling requires some distinctions, however. Not all anger is sinful nor necessarily a deadly sin. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus manifests quite a lot of anger and issues many denunciations, often accompanied by the phrase, “Woe to you!” In this way, He spoke in much the same way as all the prophets before Him.

We live in a culture that tends to be shocked by expressions of anger; it is almost reflexively rejected as counterproductive. In some situations, though, anger is the appropriate response.

Let’s begin with some distinctions.

  • The internal experience or feeling of anger must be distinguished from its external manifestation. The internal experience of anger as a response to some external stimulus is not sinful because we cannot typically control the arising of feelings or passions. Anger usually arises out of some sense of threat. It signals to us that something is wrong, threatening, or inappropriate. Sometimes our perceptions are inaccurate, but often they are not. When they are not, anger is not only sinless, it is necessary; it alerts us to the need to respond and gives us the energy to set things right or to address a threatening situation.
  • Anger can arise for less-than-holy reasons. Some of the things we fear we should not. Some of our fears are rooted in pride or an inordinate need for status or affirmation; some come from misplaced priorities. For example, we may be excessively concerned with money, possessions, or popularity; this can trigger inordinate fear about things that should not matter so much. This fear gives rise to feeling threatened with loss or diminishment, which in turn triggers anger. We ought not to be so concerned with such things because they are rooted in pride, vanity, and materialism. In this case, the anger may have a sinful dimension. The sin, though, is more rooted in the inordinate drives than in the anger itself. Even when anger arises for the wrong reasons, it is still not an entirely voluntary response.
  • External manifestations of anger can and do sometimes have a sinful dimension, particularly when they are beyond what is reasonable. If we express anger by hurling insults or physically injuring someone, we may well have sinned. Even here, though, there can be exceptions. For example, it is appropriate at times to physically defend oneself. In addition, we live in thin-skinned times and people often take offense when they should not. Jesus did not hesitate to describe his opponents in rather “vivid” ways.

Hence, of itself, anger is not a sin. Scriptures says, Be angry but sin not (Ps 4:4). So anger is not the sin, but the expression of it may be. Further, it is possible that some of our anger springs from less-than-holy sources.

When is the external manifestation of anger appropriate? When its object is appropriate and reasonable.

For example, it is appropriate to be angry when we see injustice. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. harnessed the appropriate anger of Americans toward the injustice of racism; he focused their energy in productive ways. However, he was very careful to teach against violence and revenge. Anger did not give the civil rights protesters the right to hate. What Dr. King did was to elicit a just anger in many Americans. This anger in turn gave them the motivation to act creatively and energetically to resist injustice and effect change through non-violence.

There are, however, some who respond to injustices with violent protests and who express hatred. In such protests, anger is no longer a creative energy that summons people to call for change and justice. Rather, it is a violent anger that manifests hate and often ends in the destruction of property and/or harm to other human beings.

Anger is also appropriate and even necessary in some forms of fraternal correction. To fail to manifest some level of anger may lead to the false conclusion that the offense in question is not really all that significant. For example, if a child punches his brother in the mouth and knocks out his tooth, a parent ought to display an appropriate amount of anger in order to make it very clear that this behavior is unacceptable. Gently correcting the child in a soothing and dispassionate voice might lead to the impression that this action really wasn’t so bad. Proper anger has a way of bringing the point home and making a lasting impression. The display of anger should be at the proper level, neither excessively strong nor too weak. This of course requires a good bit of self-mastery.

What, then, is sinful anger? Jesus teaches as follows:

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell (Matt 5:21-22).

Taking the passage at face value, it would seem that Jesus condemns anger without exception. However, if that is the case then Jesus clearly broke His own rule because as we know He exhibited a lot of anger in the Gospels. What Jesus does clearly condemn here is unrighteous and wrathful anger. The two examples in this passage show the kind of anger He means. The first example is use of the term Raca, an epithet that displayed utter contempt for the recipient. Notice that Jesus links this kind of anger to murder because by using the term, the other person is so stripped of any human dignity that to murder him would be no different than killing an ox or mule. This sort of anger depersonalizes the other and disregards him as a child of God. Using the term fool has a similar, though less egregious, purpose. Hence, it would seem that the Lord is not condemning all anger but rather the anger of contempt and depersonalization. To absolutize Jesus’ teaching here to include any anger at all would seem unreasonable given Jesus’ own example, which included not a little anger.

We ought to be careful, however, before simply adopting Jesus’ angry tone ourselves. There are two reasons for this: First, Jesus was able to see into their hearts and determine the appropriate tactics; we may not always be able to do this. Second, the wider Western culture in which many of us live may not be as prepared to accept such an angry tone; it may be less effective in our setting. Prudential judgment is a necessary precursor to using such tactics.

We do well to be careful with anger, for it is an unruly passion. Above all we ought to seek the fruit of the Spirit that is meekness and to ask the Lord to give us authority over our anger and prudence in its use.

What is meekness? It is an important beatitude and fruit of the Holy Spirit that helps us to master anger. Today, we think of a meek person as one who is a bit of a pushover, easily taken advantage of. The original meaning of meekness, though, describes the vigorous virtue through which one gains authority over his anger. Aristotle defined meekness (πραΰτης – praotes) as the middle ground between being too angry and not being angry enough.

The meek person has authority over his anger and is thus able to summon its energy but control its extremes. The meek are far from weak; in fact, they show their strength in their ability to control their anger.

St. John Chrysostom said this regarding anger: He who is not angry when he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is a hotbed of many vices (Homily 11). St. Thomas Aquinas said, Consequently, lack of the passion of anger is also a vice, [for it is] a lack of movement in the will directed to punishment by the judgment of reason (Summa Theologica II, IIae 158.8).

St. Thomas also lists the “daughters” of anger as quarreling, swelling of the mind, contumely (contempt or derision), clamor, indignation and blasphemy. For indeed, sometimes anger is directed at one who we deem unworthy, and this is called “indignation.” Sometimes wrathful anger manifests a pride where our anger is rooted in obstinate opinions and superiority. And anger surely gives birth to quarreling, derisiveness, and clamor. Anger directed at God often produces blasphemy.

Of the Virtues that are medicine for anger – Clearly meekness is the chief virtue to moderate anger. Meekness is the proper middle ground between too much anger and not enough anger. Cleary the virtues associated with Charity such as love and peace along with proper fraternal correction assist in both curbing anger and directing it to useful ends. Prudence too will help direct and moderate anger especially through the foresight, circumspection, caution, counsel and discrimination proper to it. Finally humility helps alleviate the swollen mind of anger.

The sin of anger is ultimately a hateful and hurtful thing. It tends to destruction and must be mastered by meekness and patience. Perhaps it is best to end with a scriptural admonition:

Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
Fret not; it leads only to evil.
For the evildoers shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land
.(Psalm 37:8-9)

This song is from the Carmina Burana and the Latin is translated as follows:

Burning inside
with violent anger,
bitterly
I speak to my heart:
created from matter,
of the ashes of the elements,
I am like a leaf
played with by the winds.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Seven Deadly Sins: Anger