There But For the Grace of God Go We

Over the weekend, as I browsed my social media timelines, I found myself scrolling past what appeared to be a proliferation of sexual misconduct stories in the worlds of both politics and entertainment. In response to these stories, I also saw not a small amount of gloating, for lack of a better word, coming from people who have (rightly) looked at both Washington and Hollywood as a moral cesspool for some time.

There is nothing wrong with wanting those who are guilty of heinous crimes to be held to account — especially if there is a risk they will hurt others. But there is something in the gleefulness with which some seem to regard these allegations that makes me very uncomfortable. I am reminded of 1 Cor. 13:6, which says that charity “does not rejoice over wickedness, but rejoices with the truth”. I suppose one could argue that the reaction to the revelation of these crimes is, in fact, a kind of rejoicing in the truth. But I can’t help but view many reactions instead as a rejoicing simply in the revelation of wickedness: “See?! I knew these people were rotten to the core!”

As I sat in the confessional line on Saturday, mulling this over, my mind wandered to the image of Jesus, mysteriously writing in the sand as He was asked by the Scribes and Pharisees who pressed Him on the punishment of the woman caught in adultery. “Let him who is without sin among you,” Our Blessed Lord said to them, “be the first to cast a stone at her.” (Jn. 8:7-8)

Like every other time I’ve been there, I was in that Confession line because I am not without sin. And while my sins might not rise to the level of criminal predation, is there really any victimless sin? Do I not bring myself, shame-faced, again and again, to the mercy of that cleansing sacrament? Who among us would want the sins we share in the secrecy of the confessional to be revealed before the whole world? Who among us would want the world to make judgments about who we are as people based on the greatest failings and most ill-advised of decisions of our lives?

“In the Sacrament of Penance,” writes Pope Pius XII, “a saving medicine is offered for the members of the Church who have fallen into sin, not only to provide for their own health, but to remove from other members of the Mystical Body all danger of contagion, or rather to afford them an incentive to virtue, and the example of a virtuous act.” (Mystici Corporis [MC] 18)

In light of the reality of our sinful and fallen nature, we must be careful, I think, to limit ourselves to satisfaction when we see justice served without taking delight in the fall of the unjust man.

Most of us are, perhaps, “garden variety sinners” (as though any loss of the state of grace wouldn’t damn us just the same). And yet are we really incapable of becoming the very kinds of monsters we read about in the headlines if our sins are left unchecked? Isn’t it the case that without an active participation with God’s grace, we become victims of entropy, of concupiscence, piling vice upon vice and sin upon sin until some equal and opposite force curtails our lust for self-satisfaction? Is this understanding not at the very root of the maxim, “There but for the grace of God go I?”

“If God is not, everything is permissible.” This quote, attributed to Dostoyevsky, illuminates the other side of this reality. It is the notion that without an externally imposed and enforced morality, the only moral framework anyone can be counted upon to reliably uphold is an ultimately selfish one. We are limited to only curbing our appetites to the point we think we can get away with pursuing them without facing adverse consequences. If there is no merit in suffering — even the relatively minor privation of a legitimate good — why endure it?

I therefore struggle to see how men can ever become truly virtuous without a life open to and infused with grace. The loss of sanctifying grace through mortal sin is a supernatural reality; but even those in mortal sin receive actual grace from God that moves them to return to Him: “Men may lose charity and divine grace through sin, thus becoming incapable of supernatural merit, and yet not be deprived of all life if they hold fast to faith and Christian hope, and if, illumined from above, they are spurred on by the interior promptings of the Holy Spirit to salutary fear and are moved to prayer and penance for their sins. … Holiness begins from Christ; and Christ is its cause. For no act conducive to salvation can be performed unless it proceeds from Him as from its supernatural source. ‘Without me,’ He says, ‘you can do nothing.’ If we grieve and do penance for our sins if, with filial fear and hope, we turn again to God, it is because He is leading us.” (MC 23; 51)

There are nevertheless mysteries here to be explored. Evidence shows us that those outside of sacramental communion or devoid of belief can engage in virtuous acts. Is this, too, an example of actual grace at work? In a podcast I listened to recently, I heard the story of a Christian man named Jim Munroe whose faith was seriously faltering for various reasons, not least of which was the unexpected diagnosis of a life-threatening cancer. When Munroe was at his lowest point, he was rescued from death by a bone marrow donor who was, out of eight million people, the only perfect match – reaffirming his faith in God and in the idea that there is a divine plan for all of us. Munroe is a professional magician who devotes the first act of his show to the kind of illusions one would expect; his second act, however, is instead focused on sharing his (Protestant) faith with his audience.

After Munroe’s recovery from Leukemia, he began bringing his donor, Jennell Jenney, on stage with him at various shows. Jenney, however, began feeling increasingly uncomfortable with being used to illustrate Munroe’s message of faith. Jenney, it turns out, is a convicted atheist. The hosts of the podcast were eager to cast Jenney as an allegorical Jesus figure — Jim’s temporal savior — no doubt because of the irony this presents. And yet, despite the tension between these two figures in terms of their deeply-held beliefs (or lack thereof), their genuine love for one another as persons seemed very real, and Jenney a sympathetic and — at least in this regard — selfless figure.

I only happened upon their story by coincidence, but it once again prompted me to consider the question already on my mind: what drives a person who believes that life is ultimately without higher meaning to perform selfless and altruistic acts? What separates a Jennell Jenney from a Harvey Weinstein? Why did she choose to endure a deeply uncomfortable procedure to help a complete stranger while he sought to subject those within his sphere of influence to objectification and pure, fleshly utility?

When I put myself into the mindset of a nonbeliever, I find myself locking horns with the idea that if there are no consequences for my actions beyond those I might suffer in this life, I have no real incentive to do good from which I derive no tangible benefit. I don’t know Jenney’s deeper reasons, but I question whether if I were the atheist, how much self-indulgence would I really avoid? What good reason would I have not to simply be a hedonist, unconcerned with anything save wringing every tangible enjoyment possible from this brief existence before it was snuffed out? How much self-indulgence would it take before I began to feel entitled to those pleasures as long as I felt I could indulge in them without consequence?

I can tell you that I don’t like thinking about the kind of man I might become without the restraints of my faith, and the graces it provides.

These observations point back, once again, to the fundamental problem with the pastoral approach taken in Amoris Laetitia and similar initiatives. By seeking to diminish our concept of sin or our culpability for it, by diminishing the necessity of sacramental grace and adhering as strictly as possible to what we know of the Divine Will, they invite us to numb our consciences and deceive us into feeling free to pursue that which we desire above and beyond the more arduous and sacrificial path required by sanctity. And when we are given permission to prioritize these desires over divine teaching and the moral law, we easily risk becoming, in a very real sense, idolaters of the flesh, thus losing sight of the True God and His Will entirely.

The Epistle for yesterday, the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, drove this point home:

Brethren, be followers of me, and observe them who walk so as you have our model. For many walk, of whom I have told you often (and now tell you weeping) that they are enemies of the cross of Christ; whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame; who mind earthly things. But our conversation is in heaven, from whence also we look for the Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ, who will reform the body of our lowness, made like to the body of His glory, according to the operation whereby also He is able to subdue all things unto Himself…

We are not now, nor have we ever been, called merely to a bare minimum path; a Christianity, as it were, of lowered expectations. God calls us out of our fallen nature to higher things — to struggle and sacrifice and, ultimately, sanctification.

Nearly five hundred years ago, the Council of Trent made clear that the idea of living out the teachings of the divine law is not an unattainable goal: “If anyone says that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to observe, let him be anathema.” (Cf. canon 18 on justification.)

In Matthew 19:9, Our Lord also makes clear the stakes of divorce and remarriage in an unequivocal way: “And I say to you, that whoever puts away his wife, except for immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a woman who has been put away, commits adultery.” But it is only a few verses later in the same discourse — Matthew 19:26 — that Jesus tells us He understands how hard the teachings of divine law are, all while giving us the very understanding we need to unlock the power to do so: “And looking upon them, Jesus said to them: With men this is impossible. But with God all things are possible.”

We cannot do it without Him, so we must not do it alone.

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