I listened to a reading of Sigrid Undset’s novel ‘Jenny’ recently.  It is one of her early novels, from before she became a Catholic and while she was still a Norwegian atheist.  I’d heard people praise her for ages, but until now I’d never made her acquaintance.

What a book!  I won’t give away the plot, but it perfectly fulfils the classic ideal of a tragedy, a noble character’s being ruined by a single flaw whose consequences unfold themselves in the course of the action (by the way, why is it that women excel in writing novels?  I would take any of Jane Austen’s books over any of Dickens’s, and Wuthering Heights may well be the greatest novel in the English language ever written.)

All that put me in mind of the Greek chap who said that tragedy was a matter of purifying or affording release to pity and fear and similar emotions.  There were certainly buckets of pity and fear to go round at the end of Jenny.  But what exactly does the phrase from the Poetics mean?

I imagine there is a long and rich commnentatorial tradition to draw on here, but I am entirely ignorant of it.  Nor, I’m afraid, did I ever study the Poetics.  But I shall still comment on it, and without compunction, since C. S. Lewis says somewhere that no one has ever been able to decide what Aristotle meant by the phrase.

The case seems to me this.  All the fundamental emotions – eleven, according to St Thomas, though with innumerable sub-species – have an organic basis in the human body, and so we will experience all of them from time to time.  Yet some of the basic emotions, though natural to fallen man, are also intrinsically harmful, not morally, but physically.  Here is St Thomas; and though the physiology is obviously primitive in the extreme, it sounds plausible:

Man’s life consists in a certain movement, which flows from the heart to the other parts of the body: and this movement is befitting to human nature according to a certain fixed measure. Consequently if this movement goes beyond the right measure, it will be repugnant to man’s life in respect of the measure of quantity; but not in respect of its specific character: whereas if this movement be hindered in its progress, it will be repugnant to life in respect of its species.

Now it must be noted that, in all the passions of the soul, the bodily transmutation which is their material element, is in conformity with and in proportion to the appetitive movement, which is the formal element: just as in everything matter is proportionate to form.

Consequently those passions that imply a movement of the appetite in pursuit of something, are not repugnant to the vital movement as regards its species, but they may be repugnant thereto as regards its measure: such are love, joy, desire and the like; wherefore these passions conduce to the well-being of the body; though, if they be excessive, they may be harmful to it.

On the other hand, those passions which denote in the appetite a movement of flight or contraction, are repugnant to the vital movement, not only as regards its measure, but also as regards its species; wherefore they are simply harmful: such are fear and despair, and above all sorrow which depresses the soul by reason of a present evil, which makes a stronger impression than future evil (Summa Theologiae, 1a 2ae 37, 4).

In other words, we need to flush out the sorrow and fear from our system, since they are physically bad for us.  Since emotion, having an organic basis, cannot remain at an intense level for a long time without a reaction setting it, one way to do this is to induce an unusually high degree of sorrow and fear. We don’t want to do this by using something in the real world (since this would involve bringing a real evil upon ourselves), and therefore we use something in the imaginary world.

There is a problem, however.  Our emotional life has not only physical consequences but also moral ones.  Virtue lies in being glad and sad about the right things.  If therefore I induce a pity and terror directed toward unworthy objects, I become worse. If I read sentimental novels, I grow sentimental; if I read brutal horror stories, I grow callous.

Tragedy, therefore, requires a noble hero or heroine.  To feel pity or fear for the woes of such a person is a noble outlet for these emotions.  Yet why must the person have one flaw?  Is it not nobler still to pity the sufferings of a sinless man or woman?  In itself, certainly.  Yet either because we perceive that such a person, however much they suffer, cannot be called wretched, or else because we are ourselves flawed, it appears that, by nature if not by grace, we pity the flawed hero or heroine more keenly.

Recently there has been some discussion on-line about whether Catholics who assist at the traditional Roman Mass are more likely than others to be anti-Semitic.  In following this discussion I came across an article by John Lamont from 2014, “Why the Jews are not the Enemies of the Church”.  As anyone familiar with Dr Lamont’s work would expect, it makes a clear and forceful case for its thesis.  He points out that rabbinic and conservative Jews do not seek to convert Christians away from belief in Christ, while secular Jews who attack Catholics do so not in virtue of Jewish beliefs but in virtue of Enlightenment principles which were opposed in their origin by both Catholics and Rabbinic Jews.  He also points out that conservative Jews are often active in defence of the moral principles upheld by the Church, and even of the Church herself.

All this is important and needs to be said.  At the same time there is the doctrine of the two cities to uphold, articulated among others by St Augustine and St Thomas.  It was expressed thus by Leo XIII:

The race of man, after its miserable fall from God, the Creator and the Giver of heavenly gifts, “through the envy of the devil,” separated into two diverse and opposite parts, of which the one steadfastly contends for truth and virtue, the other of those things which are contrary to virtue and to truth. The one is the kingdom of God on earth, namely, the true Church of Jesus Christ; and those who desire from their heart to be united with it, so as to gain salvation, must of necessity serve God and His only-begotten Son with their whole mind and with an entire will. The other is the kingdom of Satan, in whose possession and control are all whosoever follow the fatal example of their leader and of our first parents, those who refuse to obey the divine and eternal law, and who have many aims of their own in contempt of God, and many aims also against God (‘Humanum genus’, 1).

St Thomas, for his part, wrote:

The end of the devil is the aversion of the rational creature from God; hence from the beginning he has endeavoured to lead man from obeying the divine precept. But aversion from God has the nature of an end, inasmuch as it is sought for under the appearance of liberty, according to Jeremiah 2: “Of old time thou hast broken my yoke, thou hast burst my bands, and thou saidst, ‘I will not serve.'” Hence, inasmuch as some are brought to this end by sinning, they fall under the rule and government of the devil, and therefore he is called their head (Summa theologiae 3a, 8, 7).

The angelic doctor also holds that in this age of the world, one can be liberated from the dominion of sin only by explicit faith in the mediator, our Lord Jesus Christ.  From this it follows that not Jews only but all non-Christians are subsumed into the counter-Church, which St Augustine calls the city of man or of the devil.  However well-disposed non-Christians may be as individuals, they are still for the moment part of the enemy’s forces, conscripts in his attempt to maximise the aversion of the rational creation from God.  In holding this it is important to remember the words of Bl. Pius IX:

God forbid that the children of the Catholic Church should ever in any way be unfriendly to those who are not at all united to us by the same bonds of faith and love. On the contrary, let them be eager always to attend to their needs with all the kind services of Christian charity, whether they are poor or sick or suffering any other kind of visitation. First of all, let them rescue them from the darkness of the errors into which they have unhappily fallen (Quanto conficiamur moerore, 9)

St Thomas also holds that the sin of unbelief is worse in heretics than in Jews, but worse in Jews than in pagans who have heard the gospel and rejected it.

The unbelief of heretics, who confess their belief in the Gospel, and resist that faith by corrupting it, is a more grievous sin than that of the Jews, who have never accepted the Gospel faith. Since, however, they accepted the figure of that faith in the Old Law, which they corrupt by their false interpretations, their unbelief is a more grievous sin than that of the heathens, because the latter have not accepted the Gospel faith in any way at all (Summa theologiae 2a 2ae 10, 6)

He then makes an important qualification:

The second thing to be considered in unbelief is the corruption of matters of faith. In this respect, since heathens err on more points than Jews, and these in more points than heretics, the unbelief of heathens is more grievous than the unbelief of the Jews, and that of the Jews than that of the heretics, except in such cases as that of the Manichees, who, in matters of faith, err even more than heathens do.

However, he concludes:

Of these two gravities the first surpasses the second from the point of view of guilt; since, as stated above, unbelief has the character of guilt, from its resisting faith rather than from the mere absence of faith, for the latter, as was stated, seems rather to bear the character of punishment. Hence, speaking absolutely, the unbelief of heretics is the worst.

From this it follows that, say, animists or Zoroastrians, are less inimical to the Church than Jews, but that Jews are less inimical than, say, Anglican bishops or members of the editorial board of the Tablet. All this is per se, of course. Per accidens, anything can happen.

By a Feeneyite I mean one who holds that to be in a state of grace it is necessary not just to have an explicit faith in Christ and the Holy Trinity but also to be right about what visible society is the Church founded by Christ (if any follower of Fr Feeney should chance to read this, I apologise if I have characterised his position wrongly.) The passages in St Thomas that raise this question come in his treatment of the virtue of faith, and in particular whether one who disbelieves one article of faith can have supernatural faith in another article. The statement that perhaps most strongly supports the Feeneyite position is in the De Caritate, article 13 ad 6 :-

The formal object itself [formalis ratio obiecti] in faith is the first truth manifested by the teaching of the Church, just as the formal object of a science is the proofs that establish the conclusions; and so just as someone who knows by heart some geometrical conclusions doesn’t have the science of geometry if he doesn’t assent to the conclusion on account of the arguments that prove them… so the one who holds things that belong to the faith while not assenting to them on account of the authority of Catholic doctrine does not have the habit of faith.

The discussion in the Summa 2a 2ae q. 5, a. 3, apparently written a year or two later, is slightly different, though very similar:-

The formal object of the faith is the first truth insofar as it is manifested in sacred Scripture and the doctrine of the Church. Thus, whoever does not adhere, as to an infallible and divine rule, to the doctrine of the Church which proceeds from the first truth manifested in sacred Scripture does not have the habit of faith, but  holds those things which are of faith by some means other than by faith [he then gives the same illustration about knowing the conclusion of a science and not the proofs.]

The difference is that the treatment in the Summa introduces the Scripture into the discussion of the formal object of faith. That might seem to provide room for one who wanted to argue that for St Thomas it was possible for some person to have faith without explicitly adhering to the Catholic Church; they don’t have the whole ‘rule of faith’, but they have enough of it – the First Truth revealed in Scripture – to make an act of faith.

The problem with this is that a formal object is indivisible. The whole point of talking about formal objects is that they are what make an act a certain kind of act rather than another kind of act. If you could take something away from the object and still have the same kind of act – in this case, an act of faith – then clearly the original object wasn’t the formal object at all. And whenever St Thomas speaks of the formal object of faith, whether or not he mentions Scripture, he always mentions the Church. You can’t take away inhering to the Church as to an infallible rule and still have an act of faith, for St Thomas (in theory you could, but not in the actual order of things willed by God.)

And yet, according to the Holy Office, an implicit desire for membership of the Church can be enough to ground an act of faith. Are these two positions reconcilable? Can someone who is not a Catholic and who has not resolved to become a Catholic nevertheless be adhering to the Catholic Church as to an infallible rule?

I think he can, provided that he admits that the Church founded by Christ is infallible and that it still exists, even though he is confused about where it is. Similarly, one can have trust in the veracity of one’s mother even if one should be unsure which of two identical twins is one’s mother (unlikely, I know, but that doesn’t lessen the force of the analogy.) It is sufficient if one has a definition of one’s mother that per se distinguishes her from every other person (e.g. ‘the woman who gave birth to me’), even if at the moment it does not allow one to pick her out here and now. If both twins make the same statement, for example about when one was born, and one believes it, then one can be said to be believing it on account of the veracity of one’s mother even though one doesn’t know who one’s mother is. On the other hand, if they make contradictory statements, it would not be reasonable to accept either of them for as long as one remained in doubt as to which woman was one’s mother; one would be running the risk of disbelieving one’s mother; one could no longer be said to be adhering to her words as to an infallible rule.

To apply the analogy to Christendom. If someone adheres to a doctrine taught by the Catholic Church and by various separated bodies, it seems possible that one is adhering to it on account of the infallible authority of the Catholic Church, even if one cannot empirically identify the Catholic Church. On the other hand, where the Catholic Church and the other bodies make contradictory statements, if someone assents to the statement made by the non-Catholic body, he cannot be said to be adhering to the Catholic Church as to an infallible rule, and therefore, according to St Thomas, he cannot have faith. John Henry Newman in 1840 wanted to believe everything taught by the Church founded by Christ, only he wasn’t sure where that Church was. But I think it very likely that he had supernatural faith.

Criticisms welcome.