Is Lacordaire “Unreal”? On the possibility of virtue

Is Rev Lacordaire’s tribute to chastity as the jewel of Catholicism an “unreal” approach?

In his Reflections on Humanae Vitae Pope John Paul II considers the question whether the demand of periodic abstinence is “unreal” and therefore “unpastoral.” That is to say, some took the “pastoral” nature of Vatican II to entail a moral laxity and a de-emphasis upon the truth of the full human good so that weak and frail human beings are not overwhelmed by its demands. I think this idea may be why some priests after Vatican II rejected Lacordaire’s prayer as “unreal”and this is no doubt a reason why many Catholic married couples do not even consider following the moral norm of Humanae vitae.

Pope John Paul II says that this approach misunderstands the meaning of a “pastoral” approach. The pastoral approach must be based in truth. He says: “Whoever believes that the Council and the Encyclical do not sufficiently take into account the difficulties present in concrete life does not understand the pastoral concern that was at the origin of those documents. Pastoral concern means the search for the true good of man, a promotion of the values engraved in his person by God. That is, it means observing that rule of understanding which is directed to the ever clearer discovery of God’s plan for human love, in the certitude that the only true good of the human person consists in fulfilling this divine plan.” 30 July 1984.
But still we may ask, how can frail human beings live up to this full truth of the human good? Pope John Paul II spoke in another place about the role of the Holy Spirit.
“Here is the essential and fundamental ‘power’: the love planted in the heart (‘poured out into our hearts’) by the Holy Spirit. Consequently, the encyclical points out how the married couple must implore this essential power and every other divine help by prayer; how they must draw grace and love from the ever-living fountain of the Eucharist; how ‘with humble perseverance’ they must overcome their deficiencies and sins in the Sacrament of Penance.

These are the means — infallible and indispensable — for forming the Christian spirituality of married life and family life. With these, that essential and spiritual creative power of love reaches human hearts and, at the same time, human bodies in their subjective masculinity and femininity.” October 8, 1985

Pope John Paul II bases his approach squarely on a passage from the Bible, Romans 5.5 — “the love poured out into our hearts,” the Holy Spirit, makes possible a chaste life. If that is “unreal” or “unpastoral” than Christians might as well stop reciting the Creed. The critics of Lacordaire or Paul VI are reminiscent of the ancient heresies — Pelagians now giving into despair or Manicheans who attribute to evil a hold over the world that blocks God himself.
Indeed, Romans 5.5 is this very passage that St. Augustine uses again and again in his refutation of the Pelagians (See his Nature and Grace, §42 and also Peter Brown’s discussion of Augustine contra the Pelagians in his Augustine of Hippo, chap. 31-32).
So if we aspire to be good, and to live a life of virtue, without the power of the Holy Spirit, then, of course, the high demand of chastity is too difficult (and gentleness is too difficult, and justice is too difficult, and courage is too difficult). Is this the pastoral approach? I think not.
Christ proposed to us a heroic ideal and he gave us the grace to live it (through the Church we have the indispensable means to live it). To give up either the ideal or the means is to give up Christ.


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