Veritatis Splendor Conference

Author: Fr. Peter Pilsner


by Fr. Peter Pilsner

Before we begin the study of our next section, I think it will help us to call to mind one of the great truths of our faith that is forgotten in our modern day -- that grace makes it possible for human beings to do things that they could never do without it. Grace, a sharing in the life of God, has a real effect on human living and acting. It may seem like a simple thing to say, but I think that it is very necessary. A great number of people today, who wish to be better or happier than they are, are much quicker to turn to psychology and self-help philosophies than they are to prayer, the sacraments, and other means of growing in the grace of God.

Let me give an example of what I mean when I say that grace helps us to do what we otherwise could not. St. Augustine in his great work, "The Confessions," tells the story of his conversion to Christianity. In one part he writes about a time in his life when he deeply longed to repent of his sins and be baptized, but could not bring himself to do it. It was not so much that he lacked faith, but that there was in his life one habitual sin that he could not let go of. We don't know for sure what the sin was, but it troubled him deeply. One day when he was full of sorrow over his moral weakness, he went outside of his house, found a place where he could be alone, and began to weep. As he laid there crying in despair he heard a voice say over and over, "Tolle et lege! Tolle et lege!" that is, "Take and read." He was confused, because the voice sounded like that of a child, but he knew of no children's game in which the players said, "Take and read." So he picked up a copy of St. Paul's letter to the Romans, which he had taken with him, and read the first lines his eyes fell upon -- chapter 13, verses 13-14: "Not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh." After he finished reading, he knew that God had given him the strength to renounce his sin, and returned to the house full of peace and joy.

A question: Why was it that before his experience under the tree he was not able to give up his sin, but afterwards he was? The answer: It was an occasion of grace. During those brief moments, God gave him a spiritual power to do something he couldn't do before. (In this instance Augustine received what is called "actual grace." See the Catechism, par. 2000.) This principle, that grace can give human beings the power to do what they cannot do without it, has been at work throughout the history of salvation. For example, consider the state of the first two human beings in the Garden of Eden, prior to the fall. When God first created Adam and Eve he gave them to each other, so that "the two [would] become one flesh," and he commanded them to "increase and multiply." So, in accord with God's plan and command, they lived in perfect peace and harmony, and treated each other with love and respect in every aspect of their lives, including sexual intercourse. What made it possible for them to be so perfectly united, to love so selflessly, to co-exist so peacefully and harmoniously? The power of God's grace! But what happened when they lost God's grace by sin? They COULD no longer so coexist. Their human wills, lacking grace, no longer had the power to love God or one another so perfectly and unselfishly. Thus, as Genesis (chapter 3 to 12) tells us, humanity, deprived of grace, went from bad to worse.

We can well imagine then the spiritual state of humanity by the time of Moses. Hundreds of thousands of years (maybe millions...any anthropologists out there who can help me out?) had passed since the days of Adam and Eve. Every person born into the world was in a state of original sin, not possessing the grace of God. The children of Abraham were living in Egypt, surrounded by a pagan people who practiced fortune telling, communicating with the dead, and ritual prostitution. The Jewish people were distinct by reason of nationality and social position, but in their beliefs and personal practices they had probably become very like the pagan people who lived around them.

Then, they were led by Moses into the desert to Mount Siani, where they entered into a covenant with God. According to this covenant, God, for His part, would be their God, and would care for them as His people. What would their part of the covenant be? They had to keep the commandments of the law given to them by God.

The people of Israel throughout the rest of their history learned two important lessons as they tried to hold up their end of the covenant. One was that this law which they had received from God was truly perfect and wise. They often praised God in the Psalms for giving them this law. (See Psalm 19:8-11.) The other thing they learned was that the law, particularly the ten commandments, was very difficult to keep, indeed, nearly impossible. Try as they did, they would fail. Then, to make things worse, they would ignore the reprimands of the prophets, and God would have to punish them in order to bring them to their senses. Then they would renew their resolve to keep the law. But again they would grow lax, and fail again, and deserve to be punished again. And thus they came to understand that the moral perfection demanded by the commandments of the law was something they would never be able to attain, unless God Himself came to help them. (Refer to CCC, 1963.)

And God did. God himself, in the person of the Son, became a member of the human race, and died on the cross in order to make up for the sin of Adam and Eve. Once original sin was atoned for, God restored to humanity the gift of grace (given individually through the sacrament of baptism.) With the coming of grace, it became possible for human beings to keep the commandments of God, even to the degree of perfection called for by Jesus in his sermon on the Mount.

Now, we turn to VS

VS>>"With God all things are possible" (MT 19:26)

22. The conclusion of Jesus' conversation with the rich young man is very poignant: "When the young man heard this, he went away sorrowful, for he had many possessions" (Mt 19:22). Not only the rich man but the disciples themselves are taken aback by Jesus' call to discipleship, the demands of which transcend human aspirations and abilities: "When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, 'Then who can be saved?"' (Mt 19:25). "But the Master refers them to God's power:" "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Mt 19:26).

FP>> Here we see the principles discussed above at work. Jesus made a great demand on the young man, who then went away sad. Then, according to the Gospel of Mark:

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" The disciples were amazed at his words. So Jesus again said to them in reply, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through [the] eye of [a] needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, "Then who can be saved?" (Mark 10:23-26)

What is Jesus response? "Jesus looked at them and said, 'For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.'" It is as if He is saying, "For, man, by the strength of his own natural powers, it is impossible. But God can make it possible for him, by giving him grace."

VS>> In the same chapter of Matthew's Gospel (19:3-10), Jesus, interpreting the Mosaic Law on marriage, rejects the right of divorce, appealing to a "beginning" more fundamental and more authoritative than the Law of Moses: God's original plan for mankind, a plan which man after sin has no longer been able to live up to: "For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so" (Mt 19:8). Jesus' appeal to the "beginning" dismays the disciples, who remark: "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry" (Mt 19:10). And Jesus, referring specifically to the charism of celibacy "for the Kingdom of Heaven" (Mt 19:12), but stating a general rule, indicates the new and surprising possibility opened up to man by God's grace. "He said to them: 'Not everyone can accept this saying, but only those to whom it is given"' (Mt 19:11).

FP>> Here, it seems, the Holy Father is illustrating his point by giving an example, taken from the very same chapter of the Gospel of Matthew as the story of the rich young man. Here Jesus is involved in a debate with the Parisees:

Some Pharisees approached him, and tested him, saying, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?" He said in reply, "Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator "made them male and female' and said, "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate." They said to him, "Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss [her]?" He said to them, "Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery."

Here the Pharisees are trying to get Jesus to state his opinion on a controversial question -- what are the grounds for divorce? They take it for granted that divorce is possible. Jesus surprises them by saying that there are NO grounds for divorce. The Pharisees, to counter, appeal to the highest authority they can -- Moses. HE allowed divorce. Jesus's response is very revealing. He states that Moses allowed divorce "Because of the hardness of your hearts." One might put it this way: "Moses allowed divorce because you, having been born in a state of original sin and lacking sanctifying grace, were not capable of remaining married until death." Then Jesus adds, "But from the beginning, it was not so." Again, to elaborate on Jesus's words (presumptious, isn't it?): "When God created man and woman, He intended that they enter into a permanent covenant of marriage, and, in the state of original justice (before original sin) he had given them the grace to carry his intentions out." Thus Jesus wins the rabinnical argument by appealing to an authority higher than Moses -- God Himself, Who laid down laws in creation that predated the covenant of Mount Sinai. However, one question remains: if the Jewish people, living in a post-original-sin world, lacked grace, and so had to be allowed to divorce, why is Jesus taking divorce away? The answer is, in terms of verse 26, "With God all things are possible." In other words, Jesus can take divorce away because He, by dying on the cross, will win for humanity the gift of God's grace. This gift, communicated to the faithful though the sacraments baptism and holy matrimony, will make it possible for husbands and wives to live in a faithful, monogamous union, just as God had always intended it to be from the beginning of creation. Jesus' sacrificial death will bring about a new order of grace in the world, the "Kingdom of God," in which marriage will be stregthened by God's grace, and return to what God intended it to be "in the beginnng."

In the second sentence below, in your mind replace the words "a gift received" with "God's grace." Or, perhaps, "the power of the Holy Spirit."

VS>> To imitate and live out the love of Christ is not possible for man by his own strength alone. He becomes "capable of this love only by virtue of a gift received." As the Lord Jesus receives the love of his Father, so he in turn freely communicates that love to his disciples: "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love" (Jn 15:9). "Christ's gift is his Spirit," whose first "fruit" (cf. Gal 5:22) is charity: "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us" (Rom 5:5). Saint Augustine asks: "Does love bring about the keeping of the commandments, or does the keeping of the commandments bring about love?" And he answers: "But who can doubt that love comes first? For the one who does not love has no reason for keeping the commandments".[29]

FP>> There are many ways to describe the mysterious reality of grace. We could call it, "the life of God within us," or "a sharing in God's life," or "God Himself, living and acting within us," or even, "The Holy Spirit, dwelling in us as in a temple," or again, "The love of God, which has been poured into our hearts." The Holy Father uses many of these descriptions. (Amazing, isn't it? The spiritual realities of our faith are so profound that they can be described in a hundred different ways, and their meaning never be exhausted!) Here he makes the connection between love, the Holy Spirit, and the virtue of charity. The Father loves the Son, and the Son loves us with an analogous love. "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you." Christ gives us his love, and at the same time gives us the "gift of his love," the Holy Spirit, Who in the Blessed Trinity IS the bond of love between the Father and the Son. When we receive the Holy Spirit, He gives us the gift, or we could say, the "fruit" of charity. This charity is our human love, strengthened and elevated by grace (we could also say, by the Holy Spirit) having God for its object. Because Jesus has, by his gift, made our hearts so loving, we are able to keep the commandments.

VS>> 23. "The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death" (Rom 8:2). With these words the Apostle Paul invites us to consider in the perspective of the history of salvation, which reaches its fulfilment in Christ, "the relationship between the (Old) Law and grace (the New Law)." He recognizes the pedagogic function of the Law, which, by enabling sinful man to take stock of his own powerlessness and by stripping him of the presumption of his self-sufficiency, leads him to ask for and to receive "life in the Spirit". Only in this new life is it possible to carry out God's commandments. Indeed, it is through faith in Christ that we have been made righteous (cf. Rom 3:28): the "righteousness" which the Law demands, but is unable to give, is found by every believer to be revealed and granted by the Lord Jesus. Once again it is Saint Augustine who admirably sums up this Pauline dialectic of law and grace: "The law was given that grace might be sought; and grace was given, that the law might be fulfilled".[30] Love and life according to the Gospel cannot be thought of first and foremost as a kind of precept, because what they demand is beyond man's abilities. They are possible only as the result of a gift of God who heals, restores and transforms the human heart by his grace: "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (Jn 1:17). The promise of eternal life is thus linked to the gift of grace, and the gift of the Spirit which we have received is even now the "guarantee of our inheritance" (Eph 1:14).

FP>> In the above paragraph, the Holy Father, drawing upon St. Paul and St. Augustine, explains what we discussed earlier about the relationship between law and grace. In the "perspective of the history of salvation" the law had a "pedagogic" or "teaching" purpose. It revealed to the people of Israel their own moral weakness and the need of a Savior.

VS >> 24. And so we find revealed the authentic and original aspect of the commandment of love and of the perfection to which it is ordered: we are speaking of a "possibility opened up to man exclusively by grace," by the gift of God, by his love. On the other hand, precisely the awareness of having received the gift, of possessing in Jesus Christ the love of God, generates and sustains "the free response" of a full love for God and the brethren, as the Apostle John insistently reminds us in his first Letter: "Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love... Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.. . We love, because he first loved us" (1 Jn 4:7-8,11,19). This inseparable connection between the Lord's grace and human freedom, between gift and task, has been expressed in simple yet profound words by Saint Augustine in his prayer: "Da quod iubes et iube quod vis" (grant what you command and command what you will).[31]

FP>> God's grace does not turn us into saints automatically. It does not work like magic. Nor does it overpower our will. It acts on the will like the wind on a sailboat. If the wind blows stronger, the boat can move faster, but it is the captain who sets the course. In a like way, grace can strengthen the will, but each person must freely choose the course of his actions, and the course of his life. Another way of putting it is that our free will must COOPERATE with God's grace, and choose to do what grace gives it the strength to do.

VS>> "The gift does not lessen but reinforces the moral demands of love:" "This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another just as he has commanded us" (1 Jn 3:32). One can "abide" in love only by keeping the commandments, as Jesus states: "If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love" (Jn 15:10).

FP>> Once again the Holy Father reminds us of the absurdity of the idea that a person can break a commandment in the name of love. On the contrary, love, strenthened by grace, makes us able both to keep the commandments and go beyond them. If we do so, we will remain in union with Christ. If not, if we break the commandments, then we will be resisting grace, acting contrary to love, and harming our friendship with Christ.

VS>> Going to the heart of the moral message of Jesus and the preaching of the Apostles, and summing up in a remarkable way the great tradition of the Fathers of the East and West, and of Saint Augustine in particular,[32] Saint Thomas was able to write that "the New Law is the grace of the Holy Spirit given through faith in Christ."[33] The external precepts also mentioned in the Gospel dispose one for this grace or produce its effects in one's life. Indeed, the New Law is not content to say what must be done, but also gives the power to "do what is true" (cf. Jn 3:21). Saint John Chrysostom likewise observed that the New Law was promulgated at the descent of the Holy Spirit from heaven on the day of Pentecost, and that the Apostles "did not come down from the mountain carrying, like Moses, tablets of stone in their hands; but they came down carrying the Holy Spirit in their hearts...having become by his grace a living law, a living book".[34]

FP>> "The New Law is...grace." It might sound confusing at first. In our common understanding of law, law is something imposed from without. Grace is the life of God within. How can the two be the same?

When we say that Jesus has given us "The New Law," we do not mean that Jesus has simply added to the ten commandments. True, he has given some very clear teaching on how to live the commandments more perfectly, for example, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Mt 5:27-28)." But even if we gathered all such sayings together, they still would not make up the "New Law."

Why? Because Jesus did far more for us than teach. He suffered and died to win for us the gift of grace. Grace changes and transforms us. It makes us into a new kind of people. the kind who would do on their own the very same things that are commanded by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Thus a person who does not look at a woman with lust is resisting temptation not only because he is trying to put into the practice the words of Jesus, but in addition because grace is changing him into the kind of person who is pure in his thoughts and attitudes.

Thus the words "New Law" have a double aspect. They refer to the teaching of Jesus, and also to the grace of Jesus. One can say that they are the same, because grace - charity - the Holy Spirit, makes us into the kind of people who are naturally happy doing what Jesus teaches them in the Gospel that they should do.

I think the Catechism says it better than I:

1966 The New Law is the grace of the Holy Spirit given to the faithful through faith in Christ. It works through charity; it uses the Sermon on the Mount to teach us what must be done and makes use of the sacraments to give us the grace to do it.