Friday, August 28, 2020

The Theological Virtues and the Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Codex Aureus of Echternach (c. 1030), Manuscript (Hs. 156142)
Lost in Translation #14 

The readings for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost have as their focal point the power and importance of supernatural faith. It is faith, the Gospel tells us (Luke 17, 11-19), that makes us whole; and it is faith, the Epistle tells us (Galatians 3, 16-22), that helps us inherit God’s promises. But lest we slip into the heresy of Sola Fides, the Collect provides a succinct and yet packed framework in which to understand this precious gift:
Omnípotens sempiterne Deus, da nobis fídei, spei et caritátis augmentum: et, ut mereámur ássequi quod promittis, fac nos amáre quod praecipis. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
Almighty and everlasting God, grant unto us an increase of faith, hope, and charity: and so that we may merit to obtain what Thou dost promise, make us love what Thou dost command. Through our Lord.
There is much in this brief Collect. Like clever children who know how to get their mom and dad to say Yes, the Orations of the Roman Missal usually flatter God by praising His attributes in a “who” clause before asking Him for a favor. This prayer, however, cuts right to the chase: there isn’t even the standard deferential “we beseech Thee.”
Moreover, by requesting the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, the Collect reminds us that faith alone does not save, but must be accompanied by hope and charity, especially the latter. St. Thomas Aquinas goes so far as to call charity the “form” or animating principle of faith, that without which faith is a lifeless corpse (for even the demons believe in God, but it does them little good [see James 2, 19]). Stephen Beale rightly argues that the key difference between Protestants and Catholics is a soteriology not of “faith alone” versus “faith and works” but of “faith alone” versus “faith and charity.”
But the Collect aims even higher, praying not simply for faith, hope, and charity, but their increase. These virtues were infused into our souls by the sheer generosity of God when we received the sacrament of baptism, but they can increase or decrease after that signature event, and we obviously want them to increase. God may have infused these virtues “in us, without us” as Aquinas puts it, but they cannot be maintained without us. The Council of Trent cites this Sunday’s Collect in its articulation of the Catholic doctrine of sanctification, which involves progressing in the state of justice until death (session vi, chapter 10).
Indeed, the amount of faith, hope, and charity a person has at the moment of his death is the amount that he will have for all eternity. Purgatory does not increase one’s virtues but pays off the debt of temporal punishment that is owed to God. This decontamination shower (or refiner’s fire, if you prefer) at Heaven's doorstep simply burnishes what is there; it does not bestow what is not there. There is no growth in Heaven either, only perfection of various kinds that creates a “holy ranking” of heavenly souls and spirits, or to use the Greek term, a “hierarchy.” Therefore, if you wish your soul to have a maximum of faith, hope, and charity, now is the time to go for it. The theme of increasing the theological virtues also pairs nicely with the Postcommunion for this Sunday, which prays that through the working of the sacraments we have just received “we may advance in the increase of eternal redemption” (ad redemptiónis aeternæ, quaesumus, proficiámus augmentum), that is, an increase in the effects of the Redemption on our souls.
The second half of the Collect teaches us how to increase the theological virtues, although the answer seems contradictory. Does the Catholic Church teach that we are saved by God’s grace or by human merit? Yes, the Collect replies. We need merit to obtain God’s promises, and merit is obtained by good works and the exercise of virtue. But it is still God who gives the increase (1 Cor. 3, 6). As the well-trained Thomist Blessed Columba Marmion explains, God is the efficient cause of the increase of virtue in our souls while our acts are “the meritorious cause,” which simply means that “by our acts, we merit that God should augment these vital virtues in our souls.” [1]
And what makes these acts meritorious? The Collect has an answer to that question as well: we must love what God commands. As Aristotle pointed out long ago, simply doing good deeds does not make one a just man, for if one only acts out of fear of punishment or a desire for reward, one is not truly just. What makes a good man good is that he loves the good as well as does it. But to love the good--or to put it back in more biblical terms, to love what God commands--takes nothing less than a root-and-branch conversion that only God can give us, for our hearts are desperately wicked from their youth (see Jeremiah 17, 9). We again return to the theme of reordered desire that emerges during this portion of the Time after Pentecost and to the paramount importance of undergoing an internal transformation. 
Put differently, there is no “works righteousness” doctrine undergirding this Collect, and still less is there Luther’s belief in “imputed righteousness” which has even souls in Heaven remain piles of dung covered by gracious blankets of snow. The Catholic dogma concerning salvation does not teach that we earn our way into Heaven by sole dint of our own efforts but that any merit we have earned and must earn is, paradoxically, a gift from God. For, as we never tire of citing, when God rewards the merits of His saints, He is rewarding His own gifts (see Gallican Preface for All Saints Day). 
In the case of this Collect, the Church asks for an increase of faith, hope, and charity through a two-step process. First, she begs God to make us true lovers of His will, which we have absolutely no hope of accomplishing on our own but which, when accomplished by God’s grace, internally transforms our dark hearts into shiny, bright Temples. Next, the Church asks God to give us, based on the merits that flow from being God’s true lovers, what He has promised to such blessed folk (see James 1:12, 2:5). Not a bad plan, that.

[1] Christ the Life of the Soul (Angelico Press, 2012), 222.

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