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God’s harsh and dreadful love

Catholicism seems to be entering a new “Humanae Vitae moment” – a moment in which public dissent from authoritative teaching about ancient and settled Catholic truth tears new wounds in the Mystical Body of Christ.

Detail from "Resurrection" ("Воскресение", c.1892) by Mikhail Nesterov [Wikipedia]

The Paschal Triduum this year seemed like a return from exile: Holy Thursday’s Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, in church; Good Friday’s Commemoration of the Lord’s Passion, in church; Saturday evening’s Easter Vigil, in church – what a blessing. Thanking God, I could only be aware of those for whom the exile continues, whether because of the pandemic or, like my friend Jimmy Lai, because of unjust imprisonment for the cause of Christ and freedom in Hong Kong. May their exile end soon.

In his 2010 Easter message, Pope Benedict XVI noted that the “new Passover” Christians celebrate at Easter – the passing-over of the Lord Jesus from death to a superabundant form of life – replicates in important respects the form of Israel’s Passover, which the Church remembers at the Easter Vigil by reading Exodus 14:15-15:1. Yes, Easter changed everything, in that it revealed in a definitive way what God intended for humanity “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1) – and nothing could be the same after that revelation of the power of divine love. Still, Benedict taught, it’s important to remember that “Easter does not work magic. Just as the Israelites found the desert awaiting them on the far side of the Red Sea, so the Church, after the Resurrection, always finds history filled with joy and hope, grief and anguish. And yet this history is changed, it is marked by a new and eternal covenant, it is truly open to the future.”

That is why, the pope concluded, the people of the Church, having met the Risen Lord, can continue their pilgrimage of conversion and mission with confidence and hope. Because of Easter, Christians are the people who know how the world’s story is going to turn out – not in cosmic entropy, but in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb who was slain, as the Church is reminded as it reads the Book of Revelation during Eastertide. Knowing that, the Church carries the life-transforming message of the Risen Lord into the future, singing (as Pope Benedict put it), “the song that is ever ancient and yet ever new: ‘Let us sing to the Lord, glorious his triumph!’”

It will be well to keep that Easter confidence and hope in mind if, as may be happening, Catholicism is entering a new “Humanae Vitae moment” – a moment in which public dissent from authoritative teaching about ancient and settled Catholic truth tears new wounds in the Mystical Body of Christ.

This is 2021, not 1968, and there are differences between this Catholic moment and that one. In 1968, dissenting bishops and theologians said, more or less openly, that Paul VI got it wrong theologically in affirming the Church’s ethic of human love: that the natural rhythms of biology are the morally appropriate way to regulate fertility. In 2021, dissident bishops and theologians are claiming that the re-affirmation of the obvious by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – that the Church cannot bless same-sex unions liturgically because those relationships are “intrinsically disordered” (as the Catechism puts it)  – is insensitive, inhospitable, hurtful, coldly abstract. That the CDF got it wrong is the subtext of dissent; but dissent was primarily expressed in psychological rather than theological categories, not least by bishops in countries where such “blessings” are performed.

This is not an improvement.

Pondering the assault on CDF and the now-typical confusions that ensued when various Vatican commentators tried to walk back the papal endorsement of the congregation’s statement, it struck me that “progressive” Catholicism seems to have forgotten Dorothy Day’s claim that divine love is “a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” I was also reminded of a passage from a letter that Flannery O’Connor wrote to her friend Betty Hester in 1955:

“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally…. [Thus] there are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive. Witness the dark night of the soul in individual saints. Right now the whole world seems to be going through a dark night of the soul.”

That the journey to Easter always passes through Good Friday is an annual reminder that the divine love burning its way through history is harsh and dreadful as well as compassionate and merciful. Losing our grip on what Dorothy Day and Flannery O’Connor understood reduces Christianity to sentimentality. That is why all of us, sinners that we are, must pray daily, “Lord, have mercy.”


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About George Weigel 335 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

6 Comments

  1. Today, the faithful Catholic must discern, within the Church, both Judas and the Christ.

    Evidently the pope has recently issued a new version of the ‘Our Father’ which does not align with scripture.

  2. The 1962 Roman Missal reads Exodus 12:1-11 on Good Friday and sums the Lesson thus: “The children of Israel are to sacrifice the Paschal Lamb; the Israelites will put the Lamb of God to death on the Cross.”

    Genesis 1:1-31 and 2:1-2 as well as selected verses from Genesis 14 and 15 are read at the Easter Vigil.

    The Novus Ordo has abridged the Word of God, to its detriment.

  3. I should think so. Struck by the caption painting to an ancient manuscript I chanced upon titled The Godless Confusion and the God of Justice (Carl Olson 7.27.13) I sensed the dreadful. Not the writing itself rather the image portrayed. Not grasping the depiction of angels and a very distraught man I Googled and came up with Marc Chagall’s The Descent Toward Sodom. Unfortunately, haven’t we arrived where angels once dared. Talk of darkness. Lot offered the Sodomites his own daughters to spare the angels the offer refused. Olson’s manuscript still legible begins with, According to atheist Richard Dawkins in his best-selling book The God Delusion, the God of the Old Testament is “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak”. God can be very unpleasant for the unrepentant sodomite who would violate angels real and analogously. And not just Sodomites. Garden variety hypocrites too are on the list. This night we’ve entered is ontologically dreadful. Meaning an interval of calamitous perversity to unending flames of Hell. “That is why all of us, sinners that we are, must pray daily, Lord, have mercy.” Indeed.

    • I wonder if the offer of Lot’s virgin daughters was also a way of establishing how disordered the people of Sodom were? In Genesis 19:4-5 it says:
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      4 But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; 5 and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.”
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      The answer to Abraham’s question was that there were no righteous in Sodom. They were convicted by their own behavior of attempted angelic gang rape.

      • GregB your question, I wonder if the offer of Lot’s virgin daughters was also a way of establishing how disordered the people of Sodom were? relates to whether we may choose a lesser evil. It deserves response here. To begin,the principle of double effect taken from Saint Thomas Aquinas relates to self defense and inadvertently killing an assailant. It does not permit a choice to commit evil. Double effect applied in medical ethics determines a proportional ‘physical’ evil such as amputation of a foot to prevent further infection to save the patient’s life. Double effect is misunderstood to allow permission of a ‘moral’ evil. For example a hysterectomy to save a woman’s life is not a moral evil rather a physical evil. If on the other hand a woman had a hysterectomy solely to avoid children then it’s a moral evil. We may never intentionally commit a moral evil. Are there exceptions? Let’s first establish that the object of an act must always be good. Although If we examine this in context of voting for legislation that ‘allows’ evil but nevertheless limits the greater evil of an opposing bill it is permissible. “St. Thomas Aquinas enunciated this principle in the Summa Theologiae, where he noted that the object of the will’s choice is the possible good, not the impossible good (ST 1a2ae 13, 5). Applying this principle, Blessed Pope John Paul II taught in Evangelium Vitae (73) that it is legitimate for a legislator to vote for a more restrictive law regarding abortion over a less restrictive law” (NCR). As to Lot’s offer of his daughters to the Sodomites to prevent the greater evil of sodomy, my response is that Lot was not obliged to cooperate in an evil that is not similar to a congressman in voting on a bill to permit a lesser evil rather than a greater. For example, Lot’s offer would not limit the ongoing immoral acts of the Sodomites, and the violation of his virgin daughters is itself an unacceptable injustice that simply increases their immorality. Your view of the disordered morality of the Sodomites is correct, although Lot and his family was an exception, not perfect but nevertheless much better than the others in Sodom.

        • My point is more along the line of Romans 1:26-27:
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          26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

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