The Eighth Way

all your grace are belong to us

Category: Relationality

Be Ye Reconciled: Part 3

Okay. So. This part is a pretty big task. Also, I am going to rely on the mercy of everyone reading this because there are a lot of disputed issues and pitfalls. Essentially I’ll be trying to explain Question 73 of the First Part of the Second Part of the Summa Theologiae. Synthesizing and doing justice to each article here will be a challenge.

When we want to determine the praise or blame (culpability) to assign to an action we have to wrestle with all the various circumstances that can effect human action. We can never have a perfect picture of all of these circumstances. Only God can have a perfect picture. However, we do our best. When we are considering sin and want to know how much blame should be applied to a sinful action we can look at specific things to determine how grave the sin was. This is really important for everyone to understand. Let me explain why.

When you are preparing to go to confession you generally want to determine what sins you have that are mortal so you can confess them. As I said earlier, I think this is unhelpful. Instead we should number our sins and then determine how grave they are. Thinking of sin as a disease is really helpful here. When we go see the doctor we don’t generally tell him what complaints are deadly. We tell the doctor that we are experiencing a number of problems, some worse than others. The doctor, on his part, will try to determine the degree of each complaint to prioritize treatment. So, in preparing to go to confession it is not a bad idea to think about our list of spiritual ailments. First we should treat them all as equally harmful. After all, each sin is in some way an offense against God and does damage to the Mystical Body of Christ and contributes to the general evil in the world. Then, in our preparation for the Sacrament, we should try to discover which sins cause greater harm than others. To be able to do this we need to honestly reflect on our culpability for each action. This is hard at first, but it becomes easier. So what is the criteria we should use to judge each sin? Here we turn to the Angelic Doctor.

The first question we should ask ourselves concerns who we primarily offend by the sin. Sins against God, like blasphemy, are worse than sins against human beings which are worse than sins against the other animals or other living beings. Also, there is a distinction between internal and external offenses. So, murder is worse than theft because murder offends the person directly while theft harms the person indirectly (by way of things attached to a person). This makes perfect sense, stabbing a person is worse than stealing their wallet, blasphemy is worse than destroying a holy icon. Offenses against persons is worse than things and offenses that attack a person directly are worse than those that attack him indirectly.

The second question we should ask concerns the virtue we offended in our sinful act. Virtues are placed in a ranking based on their excellence. Charity is greater than hope or faith. These theological virtues are greater than the natural virtues. This is why it is good to have a copy of the Summa Theologiae around. If you look at the so-called “Treaties on the Virtues” you will see a proposed ordering. So, the more excellent the virtue we neglected to practice the more depraved the vice.

The third question is easy. Is it a sin of the flesh or a sin of the mind. Sins of the flesh are less grave than sins of the mind. I’m reminded of a friend who was listening to me rage against the industry that is Las Vegas (I despise that place). This friend is a Monk. He quickly told me, “Gabriel, those are the sins of children. If you want to see real sins, come to the Monastery.” We laughed but he was right. Lying, gossip, or grudge holding are more grave than fornication, unjust violence, or drunkenness. The old saying is, “sins of the flesh are the least grave but more frequent, sins of the mind are the most grave but less frequent.”

The fourth question has to do with the will. Essentially the distinction here is about whether the cause of the sin was internal or external. So, the way I would put this is thus: Did I know it was a sin and still chose to do it without external motivation or was I compelled by external forces. The more one is compelled by external forces the less grave the sin.

The fifth question is a little difficult. It has to do with the circumstances that surround the action. I don’t mean circumstances in the common use of the term. I mean, what are the ways that my sins effects the world and others. There are three types. Aquinas gives a great example to demonstrate what he means by the first type. He proposes the situation where a man commits adultery. Well, if the woman he did this act with was also married then now the sin is more grave because he facilitated her committing adultery and not simply fornication. So, the relevant circumstance in this example is that the woman was also married. But, if the man didn’t know that she was married then his ignorance of that circumstance absolves him of blame for that circumstance. But, if he knew that she was married then his sin would be graver. So, this circumstance changes the nature of the sin by adding injustice against the woman’s spouse. Another circumstance would be what Aquinas calls the ratio of the sin. This is the sort of circumstance where a man sins in more ways than one by a single act. It is similar to the first kind but it is multiple instances of the same sort of sin in a single act. So, the example that Aquinas gives is the wasteful man who both gives what he ought not give to who he ought not give it. So, an example is someone who gives an inordinate amount of money to a charity thus depriving his family of some necessary goods as opposed to a man who does the same but gives the money to a criminal organization. The third type of circumstance is when the sin is just bigger. So, embezzling $100 from your company is bad but embezzling $1,000,000 is far worse. So, one way to think about this whole thing is that sins stack.

The sixth question has to do with quantity of harm. Simply, were more hurt by my sin. So, the person who commits fornication is better off than the person who commits fornication in public. This should be pretty obvious.

The seventh question is about the state of the one offended. This is similar to the first question but instead it has to do not with the objective category but with relationships. So, it is more grave to injure a saint than a sinner because he is more closely united to God. It is more grave to harm a friend than a stranger because he is more closely related to you. It is more grave to harm many people than one person because of our responsibility toward our neighbors.

The eighth and final question has to do with your own state. First, the more virtuous you are as a person the more grave the sins you commit become. Second, sinning is a lack of gratitude toward God because he is the source of all good things. Thus, the degree of ingratitude with respect to the excellence of the goods God has given you makes a sin more grave. Also, if you have a public station like a political office or you are a religious leader then your sins can be more grave than the common man. The example here is the priest who is a fornicator or the prince who commits injustices. The priest has taken a vow of chaste celibacy and the prince is the guarantor of justice. Hence in the areas of life over which a public person has command, his sins in those areas of his influence become more grave.

So these are question:Who did I sin against and how? What virtue did I neglect to practice? Was it a carnal or spiritual sin? Did I freely chose to sin or was I compelled by external factors? To what degree was I aware of circumstances that increase the gravity of my sin? How much harm did my sin cause? What is the status of the person injured with respect to God, yourself, and others? What is my state before God and man?

In my next and final post of this series I’ll tie all these things together and help provide a sure means of approaching Confession in a healthy, adult manner.

Christian Friendship

I was reflecting on the Gospel story of the men who tear through the roof to get their sick friend in to see Jesus. It’s really touching. To me it has become an image of true friendship. They work so hard to get him to Jesus without concern for any obstacle. This is what friends do for each other. Many soldiers express this depth of friendship on the battlefield. They say that the reason for fighting changes from being primarily about the mission. They primarily fight for their buddy in the foxhole. An intense common goal is, in fact, the very foundation of friendship.

The Greeks understood this. For this reason they numbered friendship as the penultimate type of love. It’s greater than eros, i.e., the love of the desirable. It’s a shift. We love the other not because of what they can give us. We love them because we share a common cause. What that common cause is defines the friendship. Pirates, for instance, have a vicious friendship. They share a common goal for the sake of whiskey, women, and cold hard cash. Many secular fraternities are little more than pirates without a ship. But a virtuous friendship is often a marvel to behold. Through it, friends are lead to a life of natural happiness.

Even greater, a Christian friendship has the goal of mutual salvation. No foxhole is greater than the spiritual one. How beautiful it is to see such a friendship. It is the building block of the Christian community and especially the Religious community. Remember, even Christ called his own disciples his friends.

Opening the Kimono

Today I’m going to venture a touch of self-disclosure. I’m not big on this. I don’t do it well. But I feel the need to expel some emotional waste from my system. To provide a bit of background I’ll say a few brief things.

I have very strong emotions – I’m a Latino. Because of this, I believe, I’ve spent a good portion of my life trying to control them through a Vulcan-like suppression of them. Since entering the Order I’ve really tried to integrate my emotions into my personality in a healthy way instead of a Spock type way. The effect of this is that my emotions will often run ahead of me. Sometimes way ahead of me. Also, because I’ve spent such a long time suppressing my emotions I don’t always recognize how I’m feeling until a day, week, month, year, or some longer time later. So, in trying to achieve emotional integration I’ve been trying to reduce this delayed emotional response. For those who can’t relate to this problem consider the analogy of a reflex response test. The doctor hits the knee with a hammer hoping for an uncontrolled reflex response – a kick. There is something wrong when the patient doesn’t kick or has a delayed response. This is how I often experience my emotions. Someone hits me with an emotional ton of bricks and I don’t realize that I’m missing a few teeth until the next day or later.

This summer I’m in a CPE program. CPE stands for Clinical Pastoral Education. The program is designed to help the student become a more pastoral person. It is a program required by one of the degrees I’m seeking. I’m fortunate because the program I’m in is considered one of the best in the nation. I can understand why. The method that is used in this program is built around experience. You are thrown into the work. Concurrently you have classes, evaluations, and direct supervisor feedback. It also involves a lot of group work among the chaplains to help each other become better pastoral care givers through honest critique.

In the last few days I’ve been present with a number of families at the death of one of their loved ones. While I’m generally comfortable with tragedy I didn’t quite realize how exhausting the sustained encounter with tragedy would have on me. It turns out that its quite a bit. I realized yesterday that a large number of people have been asking me if I was doing okay. Along with this realization I also realized that I wasn’t doing okay. I’ve pretty much reached the limits of my ability to cope. They could see my woundedness. I, however, didn’t know I was bleeding to death.

It’s fascinating to find myself at this point. But it is more fascinating that I didn’t see myself walking into the brick wall. I’ve been here before. I should know this place well. But for some reason every time I’m in this place I never recognize the decor. I don’t know why this is the case. Yet what’s awesome about all this is that now that I’m here, at the limit, I can work to transcend it. But the only way to do this is to redouble my efforts at emotional integration. This is something I think the CPE program will be able to help me do, hopefully with great success.

In the past, when I’d reached this point of emotional distress I’ve been caught off guard. I didn’t know that my shields were down with only basic life support functioning. Most often it has ended with me in some stupid situation that I would have otherwise avoided. Now, I’m finally facing the prospect of learning how to avoid this problem. I have a group of people walking to the edge with me to help fight off the dangers in that undiscovered country (yes, the StarTrek references are nauseating already, aren’t they?). Anyway, I think that I’m finally learning to recognize my emotional responses more readily. This is very exciting for me. But it is hard and exhausting. So, pray for me.

Lies & Love

Live Action is in the news again. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the controversy, I’ll summarize. Live-action believes that it’s okay to lie to your enemies in order to bring about good. Traditional Catholic ethics disagrees with this. That’s the essence of the controversy. Many people have written a lot about this so I’ll refer you to them particularly Mark Shea who I think has done a really good job of expressing the traditional argument that lying is always a sin. I want to discuss a different point about this.

Today I was reading an oldie but a goodie. The book I’m reading is called “Psychic Wholeness and Healing” by Drs. Anna Terruwe and Conrad Baars. The authors have done a very good job of combining Thomistic philosophical anthropology with contemporary psychology. I found one line particular striking. It’s basic Thomistic thought but I’ve never applied it the way in which the authors express it. On page 24 they say, “The will strives for the fulfillment of the loved being.” This is a striking statement. One of the points that I’ve always made to defend the traditional position that lying is always a sin has been from the fundamental nature of the human intellect.

The human mind is designed to discern all truth that can be known. When we lie to someone we deprive their mind of what it is made for. Feeding a persons mind with deliberate falsehood is like feeding a plant bleach. It’s destructive. It hinders the flourishing of the object. But if this concept is combined with the statement in the book, then we are faced with a much deeper problem.

To lie to someone is not simply to do violence to their mind by feeding it falsehood. Rather, it is actually a statement that we do not love that person. To love someone is to desire their highest good. If we desire the good for the other then we desire the natural flourishing of the other. But if we lie to a person then we are impeding that person. If we are deliberately impeding the flourishing of that person it means that we do not love that person’s flourishing.

By doing this, we have directed our wills not to desire the highest flourishing of the other. This is greatly problematic. The ramifications for a Christian should be obvious. Further, it is inconsistent with Catholic ethics to love the child who is probably about to die in an abortion clinic more than the person committing the evil act of the abortion. We are called to love all including our enemies. In fact, Christ implies that it’s more important to love our enemies because even the pagans love their friends. Based on this principle alone we should be very concerned about trying to bring about good through committing an evil act. Any act that violates the nature of a fundamental part of the human person is highly problematic. Being the good guys restricts our actions. We are held to a higher standard because we are upholding the good. It is unacceptable to appropriate the weapons of the enemy in order to win a battle against that enemy.

The Snow White Effect of Perfectionism

When was the last time you went to confession?

Has anyone ever asked you this? I hope so. But, most likely you’ve never even heard a priest ask you. Why? I think that it has to do with the perfectionism I wrote about here. I know this goes against conventional wisdom. But, in my experience, conventional wisdom is generally wrong. A good example is that only some people hold strong positions. Give me a break. If you have an IQ higher than a toaster (thank you Ann Coulter) then you probably hold a lot of strong opinions. Some people just share their strong positions while others pretend to not hold strong opinions while passively aggressively attacking those who don’t share their views. But, I digress. Conventional thinking wants us to believe that it is improper to ask such a private question. Once again, conventional thinking is masking the real issue.

People don’t talk about Confession because of American perfectionism. I, of course, will ask the question of people. Rarely I get an honest answer. But sometimes I do. Among the honest answers I generally get three:

  1. “I don’t have any sins to confess” (the most common answer I get from older people)
  2. “I go and nothing changes. So I don’t go anymore” (the most common answer I get from younger people)
  3. “I’m going to hell anyway …” (the answer I usually get from middle-aged people)

To get at the heart of the matter we need first to talk about the Sacrament of Confession – what it actually is and what it is not. Confession isn’t magic. Confession was not designed by our Lord to expunge our sinfulness like bleach instantly removes stains from clothing. Instead, Confession (or Penance, the name I prefer) works more like the sun. Stains are progressively removed from clothing though persistent exposure. So, we should expect the effects of the Sacrament to work similarly. Another aspect to consider is our disposition toward the sacrament. We shouldn’t go to Confession simply to have our sins forgiven. Instead, we should go to Confession simply because we love God. This difference in disposition is important. It is the difference between selfish motives and altruistic motives.

To summarize what I said about perfectionism last time there are two primary ways it can manifest itself. Either, one engages in hyper-self-reflection or no self-reflection. The first answer I usually get from people about why they don’t go to Confession is an example of the latter. It is not fundamentally important that there is no self-reflection happening in these people’s lives. What’s important is the reason for the lack of self-reflection. It is painful. In a culture that struggles with perfectionism we are become like the Witch-Queen in Snow White. When I gaze into the magic mirror I discover that I am not the fairest one in the land. Then we begin to compare ourselves to others in unrealistic ways. I am then left with seemingly two options. Either I need to pretend that I am the best or I need to destroy those who I perceive to be better than me. Because, in a perfectionist society it is unacceptable to be less than the best, the most beautiful, the smartest, the holiest, the most pius in the land. If I’m not the best then I’m worthless, I’m unlovable. But let’s leave malice aside for now. If I chose to pretend it’s safer never look into the mirror. If I never look into the mirror, I’m free to live in a sheer, self-made delusion of self-perfection. I protect my weakness with cowardice. I don’t approach Confession because it requires true self-reflection and is, therefore, terrifying.

The second response is more reasonable. But, along with treating Confession as a magical process it also misses the whole point of the Christian life. The Christian life is not fundamentally about me being perfect. The Christian life is about the love of God. When we approach the Sacrament of Penance in a selfish way we come seeking God’s mercy imperfectly. Essentially, we are testing God. We are saying that we will keep his commandments if he proves his love for us by taking away our imperfections. I groan, “if only God would remove sin x, then I could be a mystic.” “Every day I would levitate and heal the sick. “Maybe I would get that cool Stigmata thing like St. Francis.” But, doesn’t Christ say something about carrying ones own cross? I would challenge anyone to find where God ever promises to make us perfect. A brief read of the lives of the saints helps wash away the delusion that the saints were perfect people. They were jerks just like the rest of us. I think this is why Christ preaches mercy and forgiveness. Mercy and forgiveness are only needed in a land plagued with imperfect people. Instead of wanting God to remove our imperfections in Confession we might simply try to go to Confession for God’s sake and not our own sake.

Both of these last responses are rooted in the narcissism that’s inherent in a perfectionist society. But, notice, both of them are born out of despair. They are different desperate responses to the same impossible standards our society places upon each of us. This brings me to the third response I get. I don’t get it as often. It only appears, generally, after a long relationship with someone. It is the response of ultimate despair. It is the last cry of a hardened heart. Think about what’s really being said. It isn’t “I’m choosing to go to hell” it is “I’m going to hell.” Maybe put more explicitly, “God is sending me to hell …”. Yet, what is in the mind of this person is, “I’m so imperfect, so unlovable that even God hates me.” This is a very sad place to be. To feel so poorly about one’s lovability that hell is inevitable is its own sort of hell. Each time we act without mercy toward the sinner we are contributing to such a person’s hell.

But let’s not despair. The solution to this phenomenon is easy and the solution is the same for each. GO TO CONFESSION! There is no secret formula, no magic pill. Simply, go to Confession and keep going. That’s the hard part. Perseverance in going to confession is hard. As a consecrated Religious the Second Vatican Council exhorts me to go to Confession once a month. That can be hard. Do I always make it? No. Do I try? Most of the time. I love going to Confession, I hate getting to Confession. It’s silly, I know. It’s irrational and stupid but, it’s true. And, I know it’s true for many people. But regardless, we must persevere in going to Confession. If we truly desire to fight perfectionism this is the first and most powerful step we must take. It’s the beginning, middle, and final step. So, get up, put on your big kid pants, run through a good examination of conscious and get to a confessional near you.