Veritatis Splendor Conference

Author: Fr. Peter Pilsner


by Fr. Peter Pilsner

I would like to begin by adding a few comments to my last post. I said there that, as pointed out by the Holy Father in VS, the ten commandments establish the "lower limit" or "starting point" of love of neighbor. In other words, love for neighbor demands that AT THE VERY LEAST you don't kill him, take his property, bear false witness against him, ect. A question: if the commandments show us the "lower limit" of love of neighbor, what is the "upper limit"? The answer: there is no upper limit! Virtues don't have an upper limit. It is impossible to be TOO charitable, TOO just, or TOO full of faith and hope. With respect to love of neighbor, there is no worry about going to extremes. Rather, there is an ideal to strive for: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." (John 15:13) "The way we came to know love was that he laid down his life for us; so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers." (1 John 3:16)

Section 14 is about the relationship between love of God and neighbor. Briefly, the Holy Father makes the following points: Love for God and love for neighbor are inseparable. One cannot love God if one does not love one's neighbor.

I would like to offer some comments for your reflection and response. If it is not possible to love our neighbor too much, it is certainly not possible to love God too much. And as great as our love for God becomes in this life, it is never a hindrance to love of neighbor. I think that this point has to be made because of what one might call the "Sister Act" mentality. In this movie Whoopie Goldberg plays a murder witness whom the police try to protect by disguising her as a nun and placing her in a Carmelite monastery. All of the nuns think she is a real Carmelite, except for the prioress. (How's that for an implausible plot?) While she is there, Whoopie Goldberg "shakes up" the place, teaching the choir to sing in a Gospel/Mo-town style, and (this is the part I want to stress) getting the nuns to break enclosure, go into the streets of the neighborhood to help people, play with children, and clean up garbage. The movie makes it seem as if "Sr. Act" has opened a whole new world to these comtempletives. She has gotten them out of their stuffy, sheltered monastery, and shown them how to really make a difference in peoples' lives.

I won't go onto the mockery, or perhaps (to give the producers of the benefit of the doubt) the complete lack of understanding of contempletive life that the movie portrayed. I want to focus on the idea (better to say, error) that if a person loves God too much, or prays too much, or focuses too much on personal holiness and the life of heaven, he might neglect to love his neighbor. For the idea is expressed in many ways, and has led to the downfall of many a priest and religious, that before the Second Vatican Council, Catholicism was too "other-worldly." People prayed too much and didn't care enough about the poor, and so now, as a remedy, people should not worry about praying so much, and focus on doing active works, caring for human needs and bringing about social justice.

Such thinking in my view reflects bad theology and a bad sense of history. True, in some cases, a person could use prayer and the life of devotion as an excuse, in order to escape his responsibilities or avoid work. (As C.S. Lewis said, name any good thing that can't be abused!) But this tells us nothing about the true value of prayer, love for God, or a supernatural outlook on life. A contempletive who prays and sacrifices is a treasure to the Church! He or she is indispensible for making the active works of the Church fruitful. And a person who is involved in the active life must be a person of intense prayer and love for God. For such a person, prayer is not an escape from active work. Rather, prayer gives him the strength and zeal to work hard, and to do his best for love of Christ.

This fact is born out in the history of the Church. A study of the lives of the saints and other people of outstanding holiness will show that they truly were "other-worldly" in their outlook, that they had an intense love for God, and, at the same time, that they were filled with love for the poor and suffering. For example, St. John Vianny, famous for hearing confessions for hour after hour, founded an orphanage next to his Church in Ars. St. John Bosco, whose motto was, "Give me souls, and take away the rest," spent his life laboring for poor and orphaned boys in the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales in Turin, and later, in many places throughout Europe. Padre Pio of our own century was renowned as a mystic, a man who lived an intense union with God. He established a hospital for spastic children. But, as our Holy Father points out, the greatest example of intense love for God and at the same time for one's neighbor is in the crucifixion of Jesus. "His mission culminates in the Cross of our Redemption, the sign of his indivisible love for the Father and for humanity." So then, there is no reason for anyone to think that love for God can ever be "to excess" or in any way lead a person to neglect his neighbor. On the contrary, true love for God, true prayer, and a longing for the life of heaven inspire people to undergo great labors out of love for their neighbor. And, I would add those who do so are keenly aware that by showing love and compassion to the suffering, they are preparing people to accept the Gospel, and to possess eternal life with God.

Now to return to the encyclical. Let me pose, shall we say, the "question of the week." Consider these two statements :

"The commandments [specifically, those of the second tablet of the decalogue] represent the basic condition of love of neighbor."

"If anyone says, 'I love God', and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 Jn 4:20).

Can anyone draw a conclusion from them, and explain why we say that when a person commits a mortal sin against any of the commandments of the second tablet, he loses the virtue of charity, and the hope of eternal union with God?

I hope the question is clear enough. A few of the lines in section 14 may be of help. I'll give a prize to anyone who gives a good answer!

Fr. Peter