Saturday, 9 March 2013

The Theological Virtues, Part 2: Hope

This is the second article in a three-part series of articles I wrote for the Unofficial MODG Senior Newsletter. This article deals with the theological virtue of hope.


HOPE, the second theological virtue, is that virtue by which man, on the basis of trust in God’s infinite power and mercy, is enabled to confidently expect to obtain his eternal salvation and the means to obtain it. Hope essentially consists in man’s sincere and confident desire to obtain God for himself, but for God’s sake; its confidence and certainty is founded on God’s infinite power, mercy, and fidelity, His will for the salvation of all men, and the efficacy of His graces.
            In regards to the object of hope, theologians traditionally make a distinction between the formal and material object. The formal object of hope is God, insofar as it is God for whom one hopes and whom one desires. The material object of hope is for one’s own eternal happiness, primarily, and secondarily for the means of attaining it.[1] The relationship between the formal and material object is such that one hopes for and desires eternal happiness and the means of obtaining it; but this object is given meaning and the dignity of purpose by the fact that it is inseparable from God Himself. It is God, as the object of our hope, Who makes eternal happiness, and the means to it, acquire any meaning as also being the object of our hope; these things are meaningless without God. This is because eternal happiness can only be found in the attainment of God, and the means to attain it can only be found in recourse to God.
            In connection to this, there is also the motive of hope: and here it is important to note that this consists not in our own human efforts, which of themselves are quite useless and without merit, but rather in the infinite omnipotence, mercy, and fidelity of God. We hope for our salvation and the means to obtain it, on the basis that God has the power to aid His creatures to salvation, by giving them His manifold graces and blessings. We hope for our salvation and the means to obtain it, also on the basis that God wills to aid His creatures to salvation, in that He looks down upon them and sees their weakness, their nothingness, and their unworthiness; and consequently, in His mercy, He seeks to make them strong and worthy; and this, again, He does by giving them His many graces and blessings. And finally, we hope for our salvation and the means to it, on the basis of God’s fidelity: He is ever faithful to His promises, and if we cooperate with the graces with which He showers us, He will not fail to reward us with eternal glory.
            Hope presupposes the theological virtue of faith. This is evident in that if one does not first believe that God is all-powerful, all-merciful, and ever faithful, one cannot for that reason have confidence and hope that God will provide the graces necessary for salvation. St. Thomas explains that, because the object of hope in general is an arduous or difficult good, hope can only be had when it is revealed that this arduous good is yet possible to attain, even if difficult. But one can only have knowledge of this possibility of attaining it if one has faith. We do have such knowledge, for we know of our own eternal happiness and of God’s assistance by faith; we know also of God’s infinite power, mercy, and fidelity, by faith; and this knowledge gives us a motive to hope. Hence, hope must be preceded by faith.[2]
            The vices contrary to hope are primarily two in number: presumption and despair. Of the former, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange notes that there are two kinds:
either man relies excessively on his own powers, like the Pelagians, not asking as much as he should for the help of God, not recalling sufficiently the necessity of grace for every salutary act; or, on the other hand, he expects from the divine mercy what God cannot grant: for example, pardon without true repentance, or eternal life without any effort to merit it.[3]
Of the first kind, it must be noted that the “self-confidence” which the world so often advises is evidently a vice and a sin which must be shunned. But this is especially true with regard to our spiritual welfare, and our progression towards eternal salvation. Here, man is of himself completely powerless; of his nature, he cannot obtain salvation and eternal happiness. This is because this salvation, which consists in the Beatific Vision, is a supernatural destiny of man; thus, in order to obtain it, it is necessary that man be aided by supernatural means, by grace. God alone can provide for this. Hence, confidence must absolutely and unconditionally be placed in God alone. One cannot hope too much in God.
            The second kind of presumption, as Garrigou-Lagrange states above, consists in the expectance of something from God which God cannot grant. A particular example of this applies to the sacrament of penance: if one is not truly sorrowful for one’s sins, one does not obtain true pardon. The Council of Trent declares:
If anyone denies that for the full and perfect remission of sins three acts are required on the part of the penitent, constituting as it were the matter of the sacrament of penance, namely, contrition, confession and satisfaction, which are called the three parts of penance… let him be anathema.[4] (My emphasis).
It often happens, for example, that one commits a sin with the intention to confess it later. This manifests a gravely imperfect degree of contrition or sorrow, if any at all; and this proves an impediment to the full and perfect remission and pardon of one’s sins. This is presumption.
            The second sin against the virtue of hope is that of despair, by which one deems that the difficult good, namely eternal happiness, has now become inaccessible and impossible for him to obtain. The man who has fallen into despair no longer trusts in the infinite mercy and love of God for him. Despair very often comes as a result of presumption, insofar as the presumptuous man may find he was wrong to expect so much from God, or that he was wrong to think he could act by himself; thus he is led to feel that there is no chance for him at all. His hope wanes, and despair and discouragement ensue.
            Garrigou-Lagrange notes that this despair gives rise to acedia, or spiritual sloth, in which one has only disgust for prayer and the things of God;[5] for in despair, one can only see these things as if they are completely inefficacious and unable to benefit him in any way.
            It should be easily understood that the virtue of hope is necessary for salvation. If one does not trust in God to give him the graces necessary for salvation, one will not be properly disposed to cooperate with those graces; and thus, one will not be able to merit salvation. The greatest proof of hope, in the spiritual life, is when one is afflicted with sufferings and trials which seem to slow one’s spiritual progress, and yet one does not become discouraged, but keeps a firm will to let the Will of God direct all things. The practice of hope thus consists largely in abandoning oneself completely to Divine Providence, and trusting in the guiding hand of almighty God; the hopeful Christian leaves all things to the direction of God. By so doing, he cooperates with God’s grace, and is enabled to obtain his eternal salvation.

[1] Prummer, Handbook of Moral Theology
[2] Summa Theologica, 2nd pt. of 2nd pt., q. 17, a. 7
[3] The Three Ages of the Spiritual Life, Part III, Chapter 18
[4] Council of Trent, Session XIV, Canons on the Sacrament of Penance, Canon No. 4
[5] The Three Ages, Part III, Chapter 18

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