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Vices Opposed To The Virtue Of Hope

January 5, 2019 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

In beginning our deliberation on the theological virtue of hope in last week’s installment, it was noted that human hope pertains to a certain confidence directed toward what is expected, but not yet present.
As portrayed by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn in the third volume of Living the Catechism of the Catholic Church, natural hope is “a human attitude without which there can be no human life: the sick person hopes for recovery; the lover, for the return of the beloved; those afflicted by war, for peace” (p. 49).
His Eminence goes on to state that “someone who has no hope left at all — if that is even possible — cannot live, either” (ibid., p. 50).
This is confirmed in the firsthand experience of psychiatrist Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, who, during his time as a prisoner in the death camp of Auschwitz, observed that it was those who lost all hope who were the first to die: “The prisoner who lost faith in the future — his future — was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold….He simply gave up” (Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 95).
Supernatural hope concerns something of far greater importance — our eternal destiny. As our Christian faith tells us, death is not the end but a gateway to everlasting happiness in Heaven — if we have cooperated with God’s grace. The theological virtue of hope, then, is the virtue “by which we desire and await from God eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit to merit it and to persevere to the end of our earthly life” (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 387).
Hope is the “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…that enters…where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf” (Heb. 6:19-20). Moreover, “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5; as cited in Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], n. 1820).
We also saw last week, as taught by St. Thomas Aquinas, that “faith precedes hope” (Summa Theologiae [STh] II-II, Q. 17, art. 7). Even common sense testifies to this, for it would not be possible to hope in God unless we “believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him” (Heb. 11:6).
Moreover, says the Angelic Doctor, “Hope…attains God by leaning on His help in order to obtain the hoped for good” (STh II-II, Q. 17, art. 2). Fr. Anastasius of the Holy Rosary, OCD, aptly states that “the object of hope is in one sense, eternal beatitude; in another sense, it is the help of God… Faith, then, is the foundation of hope and hope is the flowering of faith” (The Theological Virtues in the Spiritual Life [TV-SL], p. 34).
What level of certainty is associated with the supernatural virtue of hope? “It is a doctrine of our Christian faith,” states Fr. Leo Trese, that “God gives to every soul he creates sufficient grace to get to heaven” (The Faith Explained [TFE], p. 129).
As St. Paul attests, we have a God who “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4; as cited in CCC, n. 1821). Elsewhere the apostle says, “In hope we [are] saved” (Romans 8:24). However, our all-loving God will not thwart man’s free will — we must freely accept and cooperate with God’s grace to attain eternal beatitude. Thus, as expressed pithily by Fr. Trese, “No one loses heaven except by his own fault. So far as God’s part is concerned, our salvation is certain. It is only our part — our cooperation or non-cooperation with God’s grace — that is uncertain” (TFE, p. 129).
Let us now consider the two opposing vices that are contrary to the virtue of hope: despair and presumption. The first extreme, despair, constitutes the case where one loses or abandons all hope of salvation. St. Thomas attributes to it special gravity because “despair is not only a sin but also the origin of other sins” (STh II-II, Q. 20, art. 1).
He points to St. Paul’s reference to men who “have become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness” (Eph. 4:19) as descriptive of those who have succumbed to despair.
The true state of their soul is very often camouflaged under the outward appearance of gaiety and pleasure-seeking. Absent all hope, they live by the motto: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:32; Eccles. 8:15).
Msgr. Paul J. Glenn, following the teaching of St. Thomas, characterizes despair as a most dangerous sin for it “leads a person to fling himself headlong into all manner of sin” (A Tour of the Summa [ATS], p. 200).
The etymology of the word “despair” is from two Latin words: de- (“the opposite of”) and sperare (“to hope”), or desperario (“hopelessness”). In his Modern Catholic Dictionary (MCD), Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, defines it as “the sin by which a person gives up all hope of salvation or of the means necessary to reach heaven. It is therefore not mere anxiety about the future or fear that one may be lost. It is rather a deliberate yielding to the idea that human nature cannot cooperate with God’s grace, or that the despairing person is too wicked to be saved, or that God has cast one away. It is a grave crime against God’s goodness” (p. 154).
As specified similarly in the Catechism, “despair is contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice — for the Lord is faithful to his promises — and to his mercy” (CCC, n. 2091).
Despair, then, can be seen to be intimately tied to blasphemy against faith — it implies the negation of God’s mercy, love, and goodness. In itself, however, “despair is not so grievous as unbelief or hatred of God” (ATS, p. 200). In fact, not everyone who despairs has lost or rejected the Faith. “A person may know by faith that all sin is pardonable,” says Msgr. Glenn, “and yet, by a corrupted judgment on his own particular case, may abandon all hope of pardon for himself” (ibid.).
One can see this outlook in Cain after slaying his brother Abel: “My iniquity is greater than that I may deserve pardon” (Gen. 4:13 [Douay-Rheims version]).
The sin of despair is attributed by many theologians and Scripture scholars to Judas Iscariot. One need only recall the experiences of St. Peter and Judas Iscariot at the time of Jesus’ death on the cross. Both apostles sinned seriously and both experienced profound grief. After betraying our Lord, Peter “went out and wept bitterly” (Matt. 26:75), but then repented. Judas, on the other hand, also experienced deep grief but despaired and “went and hanged himself” (Matt. 27:5).
On the other end of the spectrum is the sin of presumption. “Just as, through despair, a man despises the Divine mercy, on which hope relies, so, through presumption, he despises the Divine justice, which punishes the sinner,” teaches the Angelic Doctor.
“Now justice is in God even as mercy is. Therefore, just as despair consists in aversion from God, so presumption consists in, inordinate conversion to Him” (STh II-II, Q. 21, art. 1). In other words, explains Msgr. Glenn, “presumption as a sin against hope is the wholly unreasonable expectation that God will save us despite the bad will in us which makes that saving impossible” (ATS, p. 200).
The etymology of the word “presumption” is from the Latin word praesumere (“to suppose, to take for granted”). Fr. Hardon defines it as “the desire to undertake, or the actual undertaking of, what is above one’s capacity. It is a result of pride, which makes a person overestimate his ability and blinds him to his deficiencies. It also leads one to expect graces from God without doing anything to obtain them, and even when acting the opposite, as when sinning, the person presumes that forgiveness is assured” (MCD, p. 437).

A Crisis Of Hope

As the Catechism teaches, there are two kinds of presumption: “Either man presumes upon his own capacities (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God’s almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit)” (CCC, n. 2092).
The contrast is evident if one compares the fifth-century heresy of Pelagianism to Martin Luther’s doctrine of salvation by faith alone. Whereas Pelagianism “presumed to achieve salvation through human effort at moral perfection, without the necessity of God’s grace,” explains Dr. Lawrence Feingold, STD, “the original doctrine of Luther presumed to be certain of salvation without the necessity of contrition or works of charity” (Course Notes for Fundamental Moral Theology [FMT], December 2009, p. 160).
“Presumption arises from vainglory,” asserts Msgr. Glenn, “from a prideful trust that a person has in himself as powerful enough to cope with anything, and as a being so excellent that God could not allow him to be punished” (ATS, pp. 200-201). The presumptuous are “the ones who think they have already reached the goal; they have done everything and lack nothing,” posits Fr. Gabriel. “As a result of their supposed adequacy, they become sterile” (TV-SL, p. 38).
As observed astutely by Dr. Feingold, “The modern world is oscillating unstably between presumption and despair, two contrary blasphemies against the Holy Spirit” (FMT, p. 161). It might be said there is a crisis of hope in the contemporary world, a theme addressed by Pope Benedict XVI in his 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi, which we will take up in the next installment.

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