Sunday, January 28, 2024

The Lord Weighs the Heart

In the aftermath of Fiducia supplicans, I think one of the greatest tragedies we are witnessing is the obfuscation of the way grace draws us despite our weaknesses. There are two aspects to this obfuscation, the first relating to our real capacity to obstruct grace, the second relating to the ability of grace to reach us despite our sins. We will consider each in turn.

I. Our Real Capacity to Obstruct Grace

When we pray for grace, we are asking for God to render assistance to us in some way: perhaps by resisting a temptation, or by growing in a virtue, or for a favorable outcome for some affair, or for someone else. Since grace is the very participation in the life of God Himself (CCC 1997), God only gives us grace for purposes that facilitate drawing closer to Him. This is why you cannot ask for grace for objectively evil actions, and why prayers offered for evil intentions are not efficacious. "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions" (Jas. 4:3). St. Paul warns that even the Eucharist itself—the source and summit of our faith—will be of no help if we receive it amiss (cf. 1 Cor. 11:30).

This is an important principle, as it implies that we can choke off the conduit of grace by our sins. It is entirely possible that our evil deeds can constrict the flow of grace to such a degree that we harden our hearts against God's mercy. As St. Thomas says, "they alone are deprived of grace who set up an impediment to grace in themselves" (Summa Contra Gentiles, 3:159). We can become obstinate ("stiff-necked," in the words of the Scriptures), with hearts unregenerate, conscience dulled, and hearts corrupted. While God never ceases to call us to repentance, we can neglect the promptings of the Holy Spirit to such a degree that we commit the "unpardonable sin" and die outside of grace (cf. Mark 3:31).

This obstruction of grace is thus a real possibility, and Sacred Scripture gives numerous admonitions of what can cause it, all relating to willfully persisting in sin and error.

It is here that I feel defenses of Fiducia supplicans are troubling, because they focus dispropotionately on God's free gift of grace while neglecting the fact that we are fully capable of closing ourselves off to God's help by willfully impeding the work of grace. This is why the argument that Traditionalists object to blessings being given to "sinners" is a strawman; we do not object that "sinners" receive the aid of the Church—every single one of us is a sinner and we all need help. The issue, rather, centers on this matter of willfulness or obstinacy, of blessing people who willfully persist in sin, obstinately refuse to amend their lives, and reflect this obstinance publicly. It would be one thing if such persons were asking for a blessing as part of an act of penance, as we all do when we say, "Bless me father, for I have sinned." But we do not see this; rather, we see a kind of blanket acceptance of every behavior and manner of living as just another step along the journey with God. Essentially, it is the idea that our movement is only ever in one direction—towards God, never away from God. The Church's task becomes to enlighten people about where they are already going rather than attempt to correct an otherwise errant course.

As I do not want to get bogged down in a discussion about what Fiducia does or does not say or imply, I will simply say that my critique applies not to a text but to a general attitude held by those who are always lauding the path of accompaniment. This attitude does no service to the couple living in sin. If anything, it communicates that grace is cheap, and it severs the causal relationship between our actions and the grace we are able to appropriate. The whole concept of being properly disposed to grace is thrown out the window. In this view, grace is simply dumped on humanity without any reference to human action whatsoever. 

II. The Ability of Grace to Reach Us Despite Our Sin

This is a very dangerous idea. And in response to it, I have seen some Traditionalists adopting what I consider to be an opposing error. One thing that has consistently frustrated me about Traditional Catholicism over the years is its tendency to identify itself simply by opposition to whatever the prevailing nonsense is. If the progressives are affirming X, then Trads impuslively say -X, and when the libs argue Y, the Trads argue -Y, treating every disputed question like a simple dichotomy. I have seen this, too, on the matter of grace for sinners, where the above position is taken and simply flipped on its head: instead of arguing that God gives grace regardless of our actions, they act as if the flow of grace is entirely contingent upon our actions. In other words, they have become the caricatures Pope Francis thinks we are.

There can be a kind of Jansenist strain in Traditionalist thought, a temptation to look at problems around us and see them as fundamentally incompatible with the grace of God. We may see a man who is abusing recreational drugs, or a woman dressed immodestly, or an abortion rights advocate, and wonder, "How is it possible that the grace of God could work with people who are making such objectively wicked decisions?" We may come to feel that the sphere of activity where God's grace is operative is constantly shrinking, perhaps almost non-existent. We can come to view grace as something that is always a response to us instead of something we respond to.

In 2021, I authored a piece called "Crises of Faith: Operation of Grace," wherein I addressed the objection of people who abandon the faith because grace does not seem operative in peoples' lives. I said:

As I've reflected on this over the years, I've come to see it this way: people generally do the best that they can with the knowledge and gifts they have available to them. It is easy for me to say, "If you really had grace, you should have done X or Y in a given situation." But I can't evaluate a person's objective state on the spectrum of grace. Perhaps someone's behavior to me was a little off-putting; I don't know how much worse it would have been without grace. Maybe someone is a braggart and has always been a braggart for the last ten years you've known them, and despite all their communions and prayers, they are the same bragging fool as they've always been. Well, thank God they are the same bragging fool and not a worse one! That, too, is grace. Perhaps so-and-so comes to Mass dutifully every week, says little, contributes little, understands little, and makes little progress. But how do you know that simply maintaining this station does not require everything he has? Is not the meaning of the widow's mite parable that it's hard to judge the true value of a person's progress on mere externals?

In other words, we cannot assume that because a person's objective manner of life does not correspond to the Gospel that grace is not operative in his life. They may not be in a state of sanctifying grace, but that doesn't mean they are beyond the reach of grace. We must remember what St. Paul taught in Romans, that "Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more" (Rom. 5:20). Grace is an initiative taken by God; Christ died for us while we were still sinners (cf. Rom. 5:8). When man first sinned, God came walking in garden calling for Adam; He does not cease calling for us even now, in the midst of our iniquities. 

We must, therefore, avoid the Scylla of the progressives' cheap grace while steering clear of the Charybdis of a puritantical Catholic Jansenism. But what does the middle route look like? How can we say that objectively evil acts can close us off to God's grace while also insisting that grace can be operative in the lives of such people?

III. The Principle of Willingness

This comes down to the principle of willingness, for it is the presence or absence of a willing heart that separates the obstinate from the well-disposed. 

Most of us have had situations in our own lives where we were not living rightly, but we were doing the best we could—either because we were ignorant of anything better, or because we lacked the requisite virtues to overcome our vices despite our best efforts. For example, when I first came to Christ, I spent about two years as a Pentecostal Protestant before entering the Catholic Church. Pentecostal Protestantism is objectively a heresy and I was formally out of communion with the Church. Was grace inoperative in my life? No; on the contrary, I made great progress in virtue while simulatenously being drawn to the Catholic Church through my study. Grace was clearly working in me for such effects to be realized. One can never know for certain, but I suspect that this was due to the fact that even though I was in error, I was trying to do the best I could with the knowledge that I had. I was willing to follow the Lord's truth wherever it led me. In other words, I was wrong, but not obstinate. 

Anyone who reviews their own progress in the spiritual life will discern similar experiences: you struggled with some vice or embraced some error, but not with obstinancy; you were doing the best you could with the light you had. You were "faithful with little" so God increased your portion, that you might be "faithful with much" (Luke 16:10). You nourished the mustard seed that was dropped into the soil of your heart, and it grew into a great tree. 

When willingness is there, it creates an opening for grace to work despite the darkness we happen to be muddled in. There is a very helpful verse from 2 Corinthians that I have always kept near to my heart. St. Paul says, "For if there be first a willing mind, a gift is accepted according to what a man has, and not according to what he lacks" (1 Cor. 8:12). In other words, if we find ourself in a situation where we are trying to do good but our efforts are hindered by our own imperfections (whether we are aware of them or not), God will still work with us. We can make progress. The progress is not guaranteed, but it is possible, and God is there to help us.  It is the principle of the talents: if we invest with whatever our Lord gives us, our allotment of grace gets multiplied.

One can see how this principle of willingness permits us to make a distinction between those who are humbly trying to do the best they can with what they have, and those who know the truth but obstinately refuse to submit themselves to the yoke of the Gospel. The same-sex attracted person, tearfully penitent after a momentary lapse back into a lifestyle they're struggling to separate themselves from, is fundamentally different from a same-sex couple who boldly celebrate their union as a statement against the Church's traditional praxis. The former leaves himself open to the working of grace, the latter choke it off by their obstinance. This is the distinction that is increasingly lost in today's discussions.

Every way of a man is right in his own eyes,
but the Lord weighs the heart. (Prov. 21:3)


Anonymous said...

I read in the book, God or Nothing- that faith begins and ends with God. That faith is a grace of God, yet as a punishment for sin, faith can end. There must be some type of formula at work I imagine.

There is a phenomena of being blinded while in sin- a descriptive word I have read is "obtuse." My belief is those that rally for indulgences may be in a sinful state and are consequently obtuse.
Sinful states lend to anger against any type of resistance or percieved judgements- it is their own conscience perhaps that they rally against- so no amount of indulgence or acceptance will ever suffice.

Anonymous said...

One phenomena that always troubled me- it's off subject, yet might be related- are deacon couples and I believe their prominence is a direct threat to priestly celibacy.

When I was younger, a deacon was a young bachelor considering the religious life and his calling.

After I returned to the church decades later, deacon couples were big news.

When my mother went to church, men were on one side and women on the other , I may be alone in this opinion but I would favor a return to that.

Boniface said...


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