Sunday, November 30, 2014

This is not about Chesterton

There is a very interesting article on Catholic Household by Steven Drummel on the question of Chesterton's apparent issues with temperance in food and drink and how this could affect his canonization.

The article draws on the reminiscences of those closest to Chesterton, as well as some of his biographers, to document Chesterton's lifetime struggle with sobriety and moderation in his eating habits. The implication of the article is that this behavior suggests that Chesterton lacked the virtue of temperance, which consists in the moderation of the use of earthly goods.

The article was very well written and seemed well researched; I do not know whether the picture Drummel paints is true or not. But my post is not primarily about Chesterton or this particular issue. I am more interested in an argument I saw develop in the combox and what this says about the deficiencies in our contemporary attitudes about canonizations.

Upon seeing a legitimate question raised about Chesterton and the virtue of temperance, many of the Chestertonians in the combox reacted with indignation. Some said that these considerations were completely irrelevant to whether or not Chesterton was a saint; others shrugged and took the "saints aren't perfect" approach; still others argued that anyone who could write so persuasively as Chesterton and bring so many people to the Faith could not but be a saint; one guy argued that since intemperance didn't involve being uncharitable to any other people, it wasn't an issue; others reacted with anger that Chesterton's sanctity could be questioned and regarded the inquiries about his temperance as a personal attack on the late GKC.

All of these reactions, in my opinion, evidence a misguided understanding of canonization investigations and what they are meant to accomplish.

Let's forget that this is GKC for a moment; we could be talking about any person proposed for canonization. Whether or not a person was temperate in food and alcoholic consumption is not only relevant, but absolutely central to the question of sanctity. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if a person is not temperate in food and drink and the use of other created goods, there is no way they could be a saint.

Remember, a saint possesses not only natural virtue, but supernatural virtue. This means, of course, faith, hope and charity to a heroic degree, but it also means that even the saint's natural virtues are elevated and oriented towards supernatural ends.  For example, a virtuous man has formed the habit of prudence, which is the virtue of being able to identify and pursue the good in particular circumstances; i..e, of making good decisions. The saintly man, however, not only exercises natural prudence, but also demonstrates supernatural prudence; i.e., the virtue of prudence ordered towards supernatural ends, meaning exceptional discernment and good sense in spiritual matters.

Now, since supernatural virtue is a requisite of sainthood, and since grace builds on the natural virtues, it follows that a person who lacks even one of natural cardinal virtues cannot be "saintly" in the strict sense. Natural virtue is the foundation of supernatural virtue; if a natural virtue is obviously lacking, they cannot possess the supernaturalized version of that virtue which is built upon the natural. We may still have an exceptionally virtuous person, but nevertheless one with a major defect that makes it inappropriate to classify them as a saint. A person certainly cannot possess supernatural temperance if they lack even the natural virtue of temperance.

Is this being a bit too nitpicky? Absolutely not. Whether or not a person is a saint is a question of their character and conduct on the most personal level. Traditionally, this required an extraordinary degree of scrutiny by the Promotor Fidei ('Devil's Advocate'), whose job, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, was:

"...to prevent any rash decisions concerning miracles or virtues of the candidates for the honours of the altar. All documents of beatification and canonization processes must be submitted to his examination, and the difficulties and doubts he raises over the virtues and miracles are laid before the congregation and must be satisfactorily answered before any further steps can be taken in the processes. It is his duty to suggest natural explanations for alleged miracles, and even to bring forward human and selfish motives for deeds that have been accounted heroic virtues...His duty requires him to prepare in writing all possible arguments, even at times seemingly slight, against the raising of any one to the honours of the altar. The interest and honour of the Church are concerned in preventing any one from receiving those honours whose death is not juridically proved to have been "precious in the sight of God" [4]

Therefore, one cannot make the accusation that this level of examination is "nitpicking." It is absolutely in keeping with the degree of scrutiny traditionally undergone by proposed candidates for canonization to raise objections to things that are "even at times seemingly slight." I do not think the question of temperance is a slight one.

But I think at the heart of this is the misguided notion that if we support a particular person's cause, it is perfectly normal to be averse to their being scrutinized. As if, because I like and want someone to be raised to the altars, the proper response to inquiries about their personal life is aversion. This is totally backwards.

Look, there are lots of people I would like to see made saints. I will share one with you; the late Jesuit priest, Fr. John Hardon (d. 2000). I think his works could be of immense value to modern catechesis, his personal life was exemplary, and he demonstrated a spiritual wisdom and maturity that evidenced the work of grace to an exceptional degree. And his ministry has born exceptional fruit. I am one of them, though hardly exceptional.

Let me ask - for one who loves Fr. Hardon, what should my proper response be to critical inquiries about his personal character?

If I really believe Fr. Hardon is a saint, I should welcome these inquiries. If he truly is a saint, then I can have confidence that the objections will be satisfactorily answered, and my faith in his sanctity will be all the stronger. On the other hand, if scrutiny reveals that he is not a saint, then I do not want him to be raised to the altars, no matter how much I 'like' him. I want Fr. Hardon to be canonized, but only if he proves worthy of canonization. If his reputation cannot stand up to the scrutiny, then God save us from canonizing an unworthy candidate!

Would it make sense for me to get upset at questions about his character? Should I dismiss scrutiny into his life and works on the grounds that I am so moved by his writings that no investigation is needed, or that sanctity is so self-evident that any assertions to the contrary must be taken as ad hominem attacks?

If I boast that my son is the best math student in his grade, does it make sense to bristle with indignation at the suggestion that he actually be tested in math? Rather, should I not want him to be tested to we can more truthfully assess his abilities? Let our assertions be grounded in truth, not in sentiment.

I love G.K. Chesterton. His writings have moved me profoundly and have been very formative in my intellectual and spiritual development, both when I was a young man and to this day. Furthermore, I know countless souls who have similarly benefited from his works. But the writings do not the whole man make. This is about supernatural virtue, not profound writings. It does not matter whether it is Chesterton, or Cardinal Newman, Fulton Sheen, Mother Teresa or Paul VI. We should not be afraid of asking questions about these people, because ultimately we want God to be glorified, and God is glorified by true sanctity, not by papering over or dismissing valid objections.

What role do Chestertonians have to play in the investigations of GKC's sanctity? Chestertonians need to help this process by addressing and answering the sorts of inquiries posed in Mr. Drummel's article, not dismissing them. I don't know a lot about Chesterton's personal life. But let me say, if Mr. Drummel's article is accurate, then in my opinion this constitutes a serious obstacle to the canonization of GKC. Therefore, if you love GKC and want to see him raised to the altars, please answer these objections - don't make up reasons why they are not objections, or say they are irrelevant, or take them as personal attacks - but answer them. Mr. Drummel suggests Chesterton may have lacked temperance. It is your job, Chestertonians, to explain why he didn't.

One last note, addressing the "saints aren't perfect" rejoinder we hear from time to time. Agreed. Saints are not 'perfect.' They do have sin. But, while they are not perfect, a saint is someone we expect to have attained a degree of victory over their sin. While I would never argue that saints must be sinless, I would also argue that a person who has capitulated to sin in one aspect of their life should not be considered a saint. Saints are those who, while having sin like all of us, labor to attain victory over that sin. Mr. Drummel suggests that Chesterton fundamentally failed in his battle against drunkenness and gluttony, which signifies a lack of temperance. If what Drummel says is true, Chesterton did not have victory over these vices but rather succumbed to them - they even contributed to his death.

I am not arguing Chesterton is not a saint. This post isn't ultimately about him, as I have said, but about how we should respond to inquiries into men and women we think ought to be canonized. I would like to see a St. Chesterton of Beaconsfield, but more so I want us to be intellectually honest.

Chesterton would have never dismissed an argument the way I saw Chestertonians in the combox so doing; if you love Chesterton, live up to his legacy and address these objections head on. GKC deserves nothing less. Truth will prevail, and we should rejoice when it does, whatever that truth may be. It won't diminish my love of Chesterton one way or another, nor should it for you.

Related Post: History of the Devil's Advocate

22 comments:

tigga wild said...

I have created a little Servant of God Father John Hardon prayer card comprising the beatification/canonisation prayer and also his 'Daily Acceptance of Death' prayer. Would you like one?

Anonymous said...

On this question of prudence, especially being elevated to a supernatural level, what are we to make of recent saints John XXIII and JPII (and soon Paul VI it seems) when there are many questions surrounding many of their prudential decisions?

Boniface said...

Anon, probably it could be said that while they possessed prudence, they did not always exercise it in every case. Or that things they sincerely thought prudent turned out to later not be. Even if we admit some failures of prudence, it would really have to be argued that they failed in prudence in general - that is, consistently- for that objection to have weight.

Anonymous said...

What of Vatican II and opening up the Church to the world, though? It could be looked at as one decision, one instance of prudence, yet it was a monumental choice, no?

Also, even granting sincere intentions (with a given choice), doesn't the fact that said choice turns out not have to have been prudent is a failure, a lack of "exceptional discernment and good sense in spiritual matters"?

In other words, we don't judge the virtue of prudence according to sincerity, but according to whether something was in fact prudent, right?

Boniface said...

Yes, but even prudent courses of action can have unintended consequences. You are right that even they did not have many prudential failings, one would think that a failure in prudence when it matters most is very serious. I do think that the disasters that came in after Vatican II cannot be laid at the feet of John XXIII, as if he knew exactly what was going to happen. It is well attested that after the Council started - while he was on his death bed - he wanted it to be stopped.

Many in the Church - not just progressives - had been asking for a Council, even as far back as Pius XI and before. The radicalness of Vatican II was not in the fact that it was summoned as much as that John summoned it after being on the throne so briefly.

Boniface said...

Hey Anon, I accdientally deleted your last comment, but I will reproduce it here:

Though it seems to me the *most* radical aspect of Vatican II was the fact that it took an approach towards 'the world' that the Church had never taken before.

And, even granting that prudent courses of actions can have unintended consequences, that still, it seems to me, does not speak to the fact that actions are judged to be - I guess we should call it "successfully prudent" to distinguish from mere "prudent actions," actions that are prudential in nature, prior to judgment - based on how those decisions fare.

Precisely with this virtue of prudence, unintended consequences seem to be of even greater concern because of the very characteristic of the virtue in question itself. I mean, if we can explain away a monumentally bad decision as something that was prudent yet had unintended consequences, we could preserve the sincerity of the choice, but I do not see how that does much for the very prudent-ness of the decision itself.

Looked at another way, if we argue that prudence needs to be elevated by supernatural virtue so as to be fulfilled, what was supernatural about the prudence of VII? Perhaps one would argue that it was aimed at being pastoral, and so loving. But even love, supernatural love, cannot be divorced from truth, and we know from Scripture that the truth is that we are not to be open to the world, nor be conformed to it.


These are very good points. I think we need to also keep in mind God's providence, who can bring to pass whatever He wills. I think also of the resignation of St Celestine V, who was an extremely saintly man, but whose decision to resign the papacy was one of the most disastrous decisions of the medieval papacy - it led to the election of Boniface VIII, and consequently the Avignon Papacy and the western schism. It could be said this one thing Celestine was known for was extraordinarily imprudent, yet he is still considered a saint.

God's will, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

(God's Providence is a huge, complex topic I think, but I just wonder: would God wills such a thing directly?)

May I just add this that I found, referencing Fr. Hardon actually, on prudence:

http://catholicism.about.com/od/beliefsteachings/p/Prudence.htm

The author drawing on Hardon notes the importance of discerning good from evil in the successfully prudent actions. Basically what I had in mind but it helped me to see it articulated elsewhere.

Boniface said...

Thanks for the Fr. Hardon link. What a nice tie in.

As far as what God wills...who knows. I have argued in the past that God does not positively will persons in a state of grace to be possessed by demons, but others have vehemently argued that such things can be permitted by God and offered evidence of saints who were possessed by devils by the positive will of God.

If God could will such a thing, I don't see why not. If we admit we get the pastors we deserve, and that bad pastors are a punishment from God, it does not seem too far a stretch to believe that these times could be willed by God as a chastisement - in fact, I think most trads share that assessment.

Boniface said...

Tigga - I would like some of those cards! Please email at phicampiii [at] taleofmanaeth dot com.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry; I meant God willing something like VII and the opening to the world, meaning an explicit expression of God's positive will (God thinking like the Council Fathers, if you will). *That*, I don't see how God could will. But God permitting it, of course, and as a chastisement, yes, absolutely. I share the we get the pastors we deserve thinking.

But then, that takes us back to John XXIII and prudence. God could permit such imprudence as we just discussed, but then what does that say about sanctity, prudence? Saints typically save us from crises, not launch us into them.

I am not trying to detract from belief in the infallibility of canonizations. I've read your work elsewhere on it and, what can I say? I think I must submit and obey. I see no way around it. But when we get into questions like these, I have no answers. It does not make sense to me and I can sympathize with those who view recent canonizations and beatifications as 'political' gestures and statements meant to foster approval of an ideology.

Boniface said...

But chastisements can be positively willed by God, not jut permissively.

I think sometimes we can make a decision that is "good" but we are not in control of the way the outcomes of that go together with other outcomes of millions of other decisions. This question gets taken up into God's providence.

Maybe the best way to approach it is to remember 1 Cor. 13:12, "We see in a mirror dimly."

Boniface said...

But chastisements can be positively willed by God, not jut permissively.

I think sometimes we can make a decision that is "good" but we are not in control of the way the outcomes of that go together with other outcomes of millions of other decisions. This question gets taken up into God's providence.

Maybe the best way to approach it is to remember 1 Cor. 13:12, "We see in a mirror dimly."

Anonymous said...

Ok, granting that chastisements can be directly willed by God, that still does not address the situation of VII and more specifically John XXIII. He is canonized and the implication is that VII was a good for the Church. But there is a contradiction at the heart of this, I think: we say it is a chastisement on the one hand and that we get the pastors we deserve (which implicitly means not good pastors!) and then at the same time hold up John XXIII as a saint. I do not see how the two compute. John XXIII who ushered in an opening to the world is a pastor-as-punishment and also a saint? How? What positive emulation are we to take from the canonization?

Boniface said...

Heck if I know.

Again, John died in 1963, before anything had really happened. The bad things that had begun to happen, he tried to stop but was too ill. Yes, his decision made all those things possible, and I think that's where the real difficulty lies.

I will have to say that I do not know the answer to your question. This sort of quandary is why I was opposed to those canonizations to begin with.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough.

What I see as the alternative, and this is what I think many who are especially enthusiastic about VII hold, is that: 1) of course canonizations are infallible; 2) the saints of previous eras were conditioned by their times, but the Church is always growing, maturing, coming closer to fulfillment, as the Spirit gradually forms us in the Truth; 3) we cannot then simply discard older saints as examples but instead must understand them in context, which is historically bound - they were holy according to the understanding of holiness at the time; 4) we cannot pit one saint against another because of 3 and so there is in fact no contradiction; 5) this is also why Popes/modern saints can 'apologize' for the Church of the past - there was some ignorance then but we are gradually growing in our awareness and maturity and so holiness *today* demands such contrition about the past, objectively, though subjectively we can understand where those we're apologizing for may have been coming from.

Perhaps there are further implications of this 'maturity' view but those come to mind immediately. I keep in mind too that Benedict XVI seemed sympathetic to this view to some degree (if I've understood him correctly!) and I have wondered if even in naming Hildegard of Bingen a Doctor this is something of this mystical view of history and reality at play.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Wolfe of http://www.romans10seventeen.org/ has a sermon in which he shows that the bottom line on canonizations is the fact that the person died in the state of grace, and is now in heaven. That all the rest, including the devil's advocate, miracles, etc. are not required for the truth of the canonization. This is how we can have saints raised to the altars who have arguably done significant damage to the church, or been outside the usual standards of sanctity. Or, have done nothing else of note beyond a good death, like the many martyrs, for example.

While I think it is so important that the canonized be unimpeachable (I like a strong Devil's Advocate), and I disagree with some of what has been happening lately, I can accept that these men or women are in heaven, and I am happy about that. After all, canonizations are infallible. They just might not look like they once did.

For that matter, I can see a time when the Eucharist will be confected by a priest saying only the words of consecration over the proper matter, but not in the context of the mass. At least I'd admit it is possible, though not desireable, and probably sacriligeous. After all, the mass does not look like it once did either, at least not through most of the world.

Boniface said...

Titus,

I accidentally deleted your comment. I have a brand new lap top and I am not used to the layout and keep clicking on the wrong things. Please post your comment again.

I agree - nothing leading up to the canonization is infallible; only the canonization itself is infallible, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Boniface, you are being a bit naive with the idea that saints need to have an extraordinary degree of every natural virtue in order to be canonized.

St. Jerome had a severe problem with excessive irascibility.

Padre Pio was guilty of plagiarizing numerous things from Gemma Galgani in contexts which are entirely inexcusable.

Any number of other examples would be possible. Of course this doesn't excuse vicious behavior or say that it is virtuous, but the fact is that the Church judges saints overall and not on every single virtue as you claimed.

Boniface said...

Not every natural virtue, just the cardinal virtues. And that doesn't mean they can't have failings in those virtues, just not consistent failure. Jerome could be irascible, but I bet he was not irascible continually.

Anonymous said...

A question about the infallibility of canonizations:

The CDF has said that canonizations are infallible, presumably because this is necessary so that the Church doesn't honor someone who is in hell. But no one says that the Church is infallible in judging private revelations. So theoretically, the Church could be wrong about Lourdes and Fatima. So suppose that the Lady who appeared there was really a demon. In that case, wouldn't it be contrary to the Church's sanctity to celebrate a feast of Our Lady of Lourdes or Our Lady of Fatima? That would be giving honor to the demon.

So if canonizations are infallible, why not liturgical feasts regarding private revelations?

Boniface said...

Show me one saint that was habitually unjust, habitually intemperate, continually made bad decisions and entirely lacked commitment.

Boniface said...

Never thought of that and no idea. Perhaps because in such a case no direct invocation to a deceased is possible. Suppose the woman who appeared to the children was a demon. But the prayers of Our Lady of Fatima are addressed to Mary. It seems like with that there is not the possibility of a mix up such as there would be if a canonization were wrong, since in an apparition the object of the apparition is always veneration to our Lord or Lady.