Nice Guys and Good People
Some Reflections on Nature and Grace
by Philip Trower
For quite some time I have been toying with the idea of writing about an incident which happened to me in Rome in the 1980s. But for one reason and another I kept putting it off until I read an article by Prof. Alice v. Hildebrand on “Nature and Supernature” which has at last jolted me into putting my fingers to the keyboard.
The incident perfectly illustrates how important it is to have a proper knowledge of the difference between the natural and supernatural orders and how they are related.
I was walking with a Jesuit friend in the Via della Conciliazione, the wide street leading from the Tiber to St Peter’s and some distance ahead, fortunately far enough to be out of earshot, was a bishop.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
Bishop So-and-So,” my friend replied. “He’s a terrible heretic.” Then after a slight pause he added: “But he’s a nice guy all the same.”
“Father,” I said sharply. “That’s irrelevant. His being a nice guy, I mean.”
Why did I think it irrelevant? Isn’t it better that even an heretical bishop should be a nice guy rather than a nasty one?
For his own good possibly Yes. But for the common good of the Church I would say No (assuming that the man in question is in fact unsound about faith or morals). Why? Because for many of the faithful his ‘nice-guyness’ will make his deviations from orthodoxy more acceptable.
The same thing applies to the laity.
For some time now we have become accustomed to hearing members of the clergy defending demands by the laity for this or that aspect of the Church’s teaching to be changed or watered down on the grounds that the people in question are ‘good people’ or even ‘some of our best people’. Since some of ‘our best people’ want it what they want must be dogmatically all right or in process of becoming so. What do they mean by ‘our best people’? When they do not, regrettably, mean our richer or more influential sheep, they usually seem to have in mind reasonably well-educated people with agreeable personalities and good manners, at least in the normal course of things.
However what makes Prof. v. Hildebrand’s article so interesting is the way she high-lights the cause or causes of this situation.
Large numbers of the faithful seem no longer to be able to distinguish the difference between the natural and supernatural virtues and their relative importance. I once read a book by a French author who said that you can’t fully understand the Catholic faith unless you understand the Church’s teaching about nature and grace and what is happening seems to confirm it.
Natural virtues --- like truthfulness, politeness, orderliness, cleanliness, all of which our ‘best people’ have in abundance --- are certainly good in themselves. But not only are they lower in rank than the supernatural virtues, faith hope and charity. There is often very little personal merit in them if we have been brought up by good parents or have never been tested by some serious set-back. If that has been our good fortune and we are insufficiently aware how much we owe to grace, it is easy to fall into thinking we are much better people than we actually are, and that our natural virtues are a kind of permanent part of us like the faculties of sight and hearing.
This shows itself, I think, in the way we react when we hear of some particularly horrible crime. ‘How is it possible?” we say to ourselves. It is ‘inconceivable.’ We admit we are sinners. But we cannot imagine ourselves doing anything of that sort. It simply isn’t part of the way we are. But we are mistaken. While it is of course right and understandable to be horrified by crimes and serious evils, we should not let ourselves be led into thinking that under no circumstances could we have been brought into committing such evils ourselves.
I remember reading how the Cure d’Ars told a fellow priest that he once asked God to show him what he would have been like without grace. He was so appalled by what he saw that he warned the other priest never to make a similar request. God, not infrequently, it seems, gives these insights to holy people as they draw closer and closer to him so as to keep them humble
As Catholics we do not of course, like Luther, believe that human nature is totally corrupt. Only a hardened misanthrope could refuse to recognise its many good and endearing natural qualities. But at the same time we should not underestimate the extent to which, if we have no serious sins on our conscience, our state is dependent on grace more than nature, how much grace is needed to help us keep even our natural virtues in trim, or how much we owe them to our upbringing.
Taking all this into account we could say that our ‘nice-guy’ clergy and ‘best’ lay people have been under-mining each other’s faith by their over-appreciation of or over-reliance on the natural rather than the supernatural virtues. This particularly shows itself , I think, in the now wide-spread tendency to resort to natural rather than supernatural means when trying to attract the faithful back into church or reactivate their fading religious fervour. The most obvious examples of this I can think of are celebrations of the new liturgy which come as close as possible to resembling an evening at the local youth club.
To balance all this I will conclude with another incident which took place in Rome a few years later and with the same Jesuit friend.
He had invited me to lunch with him to meet a member of one of the pontifical commissions. During the meal the latter told us about some American Catholics who had recently been to see him to complain about something they wanted changed. Then with a mischievous look he added: “and forgive me for saying so but I do find that liberals are often more agreeable to deal with than conservatives.”
I was more than a little nettled. “Father”, I said hotly, “of course they’re more agreeable. They aren’t in the business of having to defend or stand up for anything. They only want mitigations and relaxations. In their situation it’s easy to be agreeable. And I’m not a conservative.”
I soothed myself interiorly by recalling a saying of Belloc’s. In any serious fight it is difficult not to get carried away and give a blow or two below the belt, but God makes allowances for this if one is trying to serve him. Nevertheless I was conscious of a certain discomfort. The cap came close to fitting.
The supernatural virtue of faith certainly requires us to defend the Church’s teachings even when necessary, as we all know, to the point of death. However there are good and less good ways of doing it. Fortitude and valour have to be exercised with charity. But charity will be more effective if it is grounded in natural virtues like patience and forbearance. The supernatural virtues must have pride of place, but their effectiveness can be weakened without the support of the natural virtues from below. As we were all once taught ‘grace builds on nature’ even it nature needs grace to reach perfection. I suppose this was the lesson I eventually learned, or conclusion I eventually drew, from this second incident.
But to return to the first incident and its implications, what we are clearly suffering from --- as has often been said over the last forty or fifty years --- is a big dose of Pelagianism, the 5th century British heresy that one can reach perfection by one’s personal will-power alone, without the help of grace. Pelagiansim not only tends to weaken our awareness of the importance of the supernatural order and the need for grace, but as a consequence tends to act as a disincentive to dependence on prayer and the use of the sacraments. If we are by nature such ‘nice guys’ and ‘good people’ (even when we dissent from authentic Church teachings) we can get along on our own most of the time, thank you. There’s no need to bother God all that much.
I am not suggesting these ideas are all clearly formulated in the minds of those who hold them or even explicitly recognised by them. They seem to operate for the most part on a subliminal level. They seep upwards into the consciousness from below, if such a use of the word seep is allowable, without the holders being fully aware of them. We also cannot say they are the only cause of the decline of faith throughout the West. But they are unquestionably, I believe, a significant factor.
Copyright © Philip Trower 2015
Version: 14th May 2015