Vigil of the Nativity and Midnight Mass
My dear friends,
I am in the fortieth year of my monastic life. Even before I entered the monastery an old monk told me that Satan always stirs up some big ado before the great feasts, especially Christmas, in order to distract us from the graces that God wants to give us when we celebrate them. This year confirms once again that the ancient enemy is just as boring as usual and always resorts to the same old tricks. At the same time, his machinations always work against him if we know how to take things in stride and counterattack.
The religious press this week was dominated by two pieces of troubling news. The first was the conviction of Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who at one time held the third most prominent position in the Roman Curia. He was found guilty of embezzlement of Church funds and condemned to five and half years of prison, a very large fine, and being permanently barred from holding public office. That’s the first time in history the Vatican court has actually convicted a cardinal.
But that shocking news, which I suspect most of you were not even aware of, was left in the shadows (was this intentional? Perhaps) thanks to the much more sensational news that came to us through the zealous new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Tucho Fernandez, and which the world press expressed in terms such as this headline from the New York Times : Pope Allows Priests to Bless Same-Sex Couples. Now, I am not going to burden you with the details of the document called Fiducia supplicans. It is available for those who care to read it. But if it interests you, do read the document itself very attentively, and do not be content with the tendentious summaries given in the media. Once you have read it, read Cardinal Muller’s critique, published just a couple days ago. His Eminence, with his usual mastery of theological concepts, demonstrates an intrinsic contradiction in the document and issues a demand for another – surprise! – clarification…. Modernist bishops immediately praised the document as being a step in the right direction, and modernist priests such as Fr Jimmy Martin made haste to publicise the “private” blessing he gave to a same-sex couple the same day the document came out. On the other side, we have seen a number of bishops, but even entire bishops’ conferences publicly denounce the practice and ban their priests from giving such blessings. Some of the bishops go so far as to clearly state that the Holy See is not walking in the truth of the Gospel on this question. All this is available in the press and you can read it if you are interested.
The reality is that it has always been possible in the Church for a priest to bless a repentant sinner or a repentant couple who have decided to change their life. It has always been possible for a priest to bless a person who, though not yet repentant, sincerely asks for the grace to obtain repentance. But what is not possible is to bless a couple living in sin and not wanting to change and asking to be blessed together because there are some things in their lives that are good. Such a blessing has always been considered as, of necessity, condoning their life together.
What I would like to reflect upon with you however and which I deem it my duty to make very clear are the underlying points of Catholic teaching that seem to be left out of the debate. The failure to teach them consistently suffices to explain why we have gotten ourselves here in the first place.
1) The first point is what Pius XII identified several decades ago as the “loss of the sense of sin”. More specifically we could speak of a loss of an abhorrence for sin. When it comes to same-sex relationships or irregular unions – what traditional Catholic terminology refers to as sodomy and adultery – but really when it comes to any sin at all, what our day and age is lacking most is the sense of sin, the abhorrence for sin. Abhorrence or disgust for sin is something that at one time was inculcated in every Catholic child by loving and faith-filled parents. Recall Blanche de Castille telling her son, the future St Louis IX, that she would rather see him dead at her feet than to know that he had committed a single mortal sin. Recall too those words of the prayer of St Ignatius in the Third Exercise of the first week of the Spiritual Exercises: “I will ask for a deep knowledge of my sins and a feeling of abhorrence for them; an understanding of the disorder of my actions, that filled with horror of them, I may amend my life and put it in order; a knowledge of the world, that filled with horror, I may put away from me all that is worldly and vain” (Sp. Ex. #63).
This abhorrence for sin is what is conspicuously absent from all the recent official documents of the Church. It leads to the logical conclusion that sodomy and adultery are only minor canonical irregularities that can somehow be ironed over and sorted out with a loving attentiveness to persons. They seem to suggest that if we have just enough pastoral love for persons, somehow the problem of sin will disappear. As if we could possibly have more pastoral love than our Blessed Lord did, when He told the adulteress: Go and sin no more! This attitude has led to what I sincerely think will one day be recognised and condemned as the heresy of pastoralism, in virtue of which pastors are inclined, if not required, to overlook ontological realities and defined dogma in favour of a vague and distorted concept of mercy, forgetting that the first mercy to a sinner is to show him his sin so as to pull him back from the way of perdition before it is too late.
2) The second point follows from the first, namely a lack of confidence in the power of grace to avoid sin in the first place. The real fiducia, the real confidence we must have is that God’s grace is so powerful that it can pull us out of sin and keep us in His grace if we correspond with the actual graces He gives us continually. It is not, and cannot be, a brazen confidence that somehow God will accept me as I am with my sins and save me without my cooperation wth grace. Such a concept is blasphemous and injurious to the Divine Majesty. Far from being part of the virtue of hope, such a false fiducia is in reality the vice of presumption.
This was essentially the error of Luther who despaired of having the grace to live a holy life, and so invented his doctrine of what is known in Latin as simul justus et peccator, that is to say, that we are sinners and holy at the same time. Because we can do nothing to obtain and stay in God’s grace, God simply covers us from the outside with His own holiness and pretends that we are holy, just as a layer of snow in winter covers a dunghill, but the dung remains under the snow. Such is in direct opposition with Catholic dogma for which a soul in God’s grace is really and truly made holy, and has every grace it needs to stay in that state if it cooperates with it through sacraments, prayer and good works.
3) That leads us to the third point which is the frequent confusion regarding use of the term sinner. One often gets the impression that there is no real difference between, for example, the humble nun striving to overcome her imperfections, the dodgy merchant who steals a bit here and there from his clients, the husband who cheats on his wife by consorting with another woman, the doctor who kills babies in order to not lose his job, and the hitman who makes a million dollars per hit. We are all sinners, they say! Well, yes, but for God’s sake, let’s define what we mean by sinner. To lump every sinner into the same category is a grave ambiguity which cannot be of God. Adultery and sodomy have always been considered to be sins of exceptional gravity, particularly offensive to the Divine Majesty. To persist in pretending that they are not and that somehow we are only dealing with a canonical technicality, cannot be of God; it can only be of Satan, the father of lies and deception.
4) The fourth point which is even more fundamental is the equally rampant heresy of universalism, that is to say, the belief – for it is a belief, it is actually the only belief of many in the Church today – that all people are going to Heaven anyway, no matter how they live, and so we might as well be nice and make life comfortable for everybody. I have developed this thought before, and will do so again, but for now on this Christmas Eve, I would simply like to remind everyone that it is not possible to be a universalist and to be a Catholic, for the simple reason that there are few errors that are so directly opposed to almost every page of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church Fathers. I would go even further and say that there is no more dangerous person on earth than a Catholic – especially if he is a prelate – who is a universalist. I would by far prefer a person with no religion and no moral compass at all, than a prelate who is convinced that no matter what people do, no matter what they do or say, they are all going to Heaven anyway. Why is that so dangerous? Quite simply, because when we are dealing with those who profess no religion we are already on our guard that there might be some moral compasses that are not there for them, nor can they hide behind a white collar or a pectoral cross. Furthermore not believing in an afterlife they must have their satisfaction here and now and are therefore quite conscious of the reality of human justice, whereas the man of faith who thinks that nothing matters because tomorrow he will be in Heaven with his victims, is capable of anything. That in itself is enough to explain the moral scandals in the Catholic clergy in recent decades; that alone is capable of explaining the tampering with Catholic dogma and morals, examples of which are given to us almost daily under the present regime. That alone is enough to explain the utter dissolution of Catholic moral theology by making the individual conscience the ultimate norm of everything. That alone explains the impasse we now find ourselves in.
It is this error of universalism which makes possible such statements as : God never condemns anyone, or God never refuses to bless those who come to Him. Really? Where did that come from? The truth is that God never condemns a soul that turns to him with sorrow for sin and a desire to amend their life. God never refuses to bless a soul that comes to Him asking for the grace to repent and change their life. Oh, but God does condemn those who reject Him by refusing to make efforts to change. He does condemn those who are so arrogant as to think that they can make up their own rules and God will allow them into Heaven anyway.
There is a frightening passage in the second book of Maccabees concerning the wicked king Antiochus who, the text says, prayed to God of whom he was not to obtain mercy (2 Mac 9:13). Weigh those terms with me for a moment: he prayed to God of whom he was not to obtain mercy. He prayed, but his prayer was not heard. He came to God for a blessing and the blessing was refused. He was condemned, even though he prayed. Why? Because his heart was not right with God.
This is why St Alphonsus Liguori, patron saint of moral theologians, was able to write: “Without doubt, God’s mercy is infinite. But the acts of this mercy, and, consequently, the graces of forgiveness, have their limits. God is merciful, therefore He is just. “I am,” said the Lord one day to Saint Bridget, “just and merciful. But sinners only regard me as merciful.” “They only want to see,” remarks Saint Basil, “only one half of God, because if He is good, he is also just”… Mercy is promised to those who fear God and not to those who abuse mercy. His mercy, cries the divine Mother in her sublime canticle, is poured out on those who fear Him (Lk 1:50). As for the stubborn, they are threatened with His justice. Now, says Saint Augustine, if God does not deceive when He promises, He does not deceive when he threatens either. Faithful in His promises, He is also faithful in His threats. It is not God, but the devil who pushes you to sin through the hope of mercy….” (Preparation for Death, Consideration 17).
But there is a final element lacking in all this, and that is the one that we will be confronted with tonight at the midnight Mass. It is one that any sincere observer will notice when contemplating the manger scene, and it is this: God loves chastity. He loves purity. When He came to earth, He came through a virginal mother and a virginal foster-father. His conception was virginal, His birth was virginal, and His own entire life will be virginal, and He will call His apostles and all their successors in the priesthood to a life of celibacy so as to be as close to the model of chaste virginity as possible. All this is right there in our faces, it is readily available for anyone with enough sincerity to open their eyes without having rainbow colour spectacles on.
My dear friends, let us have true fiducia, true confidence in our blessed Saviour. When will our Beloved come to restore all things? When will this awful nightmare be over? That we do not know, but one thing is sure and tonight will remind us all over again: the Saviour is already among us and whoever seeks Him with a true, humble, loving heart, of necessity finds Him, but never without His Mother.
That is where we want to be now and always, in Bethlehem, with the Infant God. May that grace be granted to us. If it is, it will be a truly blessed Christmas.