I would like to speak now of another trend in the history of human thought, present even with the Church, which has wounded many human persons and hindered them from experiencing to the full the happiness for which they were created. As in all other errors, it is founded on a seed of truth, which, however, has been both exaggerated and taken out of the context of more fundamental and primary truths in which alone it can be understood authentically. The seed of truth is that, as a result of original sin, our desires have become fractured away from their authentic ends and are, as it were, “skewed” and out of order. And if we allow these disordered desires to guide us, then we will bring upon ourselves, not happiness, but a multitude of ills.

For example, the authentic orientation of man and woman towards one another—what John Paul calls their “perennial attraction”—has become profoundly affected by lust and impersonal objectification, such that a pure beholding of a person of the opposite sex (a seeing which beholds the incomparable person visible in the body and in its every part, and affirms them accordingly) is rare, and is not at all the spontaneous response of many people in society. The proliferation of pornography, and indeed the “pornification” of popular culture and media as a whole, attests to the woundedness of our hearts. Our desires are no longer healthy or whole, and, before we can follow them without reserve, they need to be healed and re-oriented, re-integrated, down to their very root and in their first movements.

But how does this profound truth become something that is no longer true—a destructive lie rather than a deep recognition that calls the human heart to wholeness? There are of course a number of ways, but what I want to speak of here is how this recognition of the woundedness of human desires has often led to a condemnation of human desire altogether. It has led to casting the human heart “into a state of continual and irreversible suspicion,” to again use John Paul’s words (TOB 46:4). What happens, in these circumstances, is that the very essence of the Gospel disappears from sight, and is replaced with a religion that is more stoic than Christian, more dis-incarnate than incarnate, more repressive than affirming, more wounding than healing. For rather than leading to the ordering of human desire such that, made whole anew in the very wellsprings of our thought, imagination, and feeling, we can spontaneously feel and respond to the good with childlike confidence and carefree abandonment—which has always been the authentic teaching of the Church and of those closest to the Heart of Christ—this fear-based teaching instead leads to a constricted life pervaded by the observance of external rules and regulations, and fixated on particular ideals. Rather than making the human person whole in all of their faculties, and opening them to the “liberty of the children of God” that surpasses the law, what usually results from this is a yet deeper dis-integration of the person.

This manifests in many ways, but one specific way is a legalistic preoccupation with certain standards or rules which are made into absolutes, and are not understood in a holistic and healthy way as at the service of the person. Rather than serving the good of human flourishing, laws are instead seen, or at least experienced, as being constrictions of freedom, and the person comes to serve the law. Indeed, the law of itself, even when understood authentically, can never give freedom without the pure gift of grace communicated in Christ at work in the human heart. Saint Paul speaks about this throughout his letters, and always as a preface to an exultant rejoicing in the redemption brought by Christ. For example: “Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:23-27).

This does not, of course, mean that the law is irrelevant, but rather that it is oriented towards something beyond itself: towards the righteousness that comes only through faith, through acceptance of the pure gift of redeeming grace which alone can heal the wounded heart. And when the heart allows itself to be healed in such a way, it gradually comes to fulfill the law itself even more than the law itself can either give or command. The law, in other words, is a custodian, to use Paul’s term, or an educator. It is a pedagogy in human freedom. This is true in part because there are certain actions which are always harmful to the person and to society; and thus they are never valid options for human choice and action. The law points these out, to prevent us from acting is such ways that will bring about our own harm and the harm of others. Such is what is expressed in the Ten Commandments. On the other hand, the law also has an interior “movement” inherent within it, a kind of inner trajectory, that directs the heart beyond the law to what only love can fulfill. This is the great gift of grace given in the New Testament, that what the law promises but cannot bring is brought fully, and given freely, in and through Christ, who incorporates us into the living purity and love of his own life.

In sum, the commandments, when understood authentically, have been given by God in order to help facilitate human flourishing by educating human desire according to the truth of reality, which is always a truth of love and gift. And only in love and gift can they find their fulfillment, and not in the command itself. Thus they serve as guideposts for authentic human fulfillment according to the nature given to us by God, and point towards the healthy exercise of our freedom in a way that will bring about true happiness. For liberty does not consist merely in the capacity to choose between alternatives, but also in the capacity of the human heart to discern the authentic good—to be moved by what is beautiful, good, and true—and to assent to it, indeed, to live according to it in every moment.

As anyone who has ever committed a sin more than once knows (and that is all of us), “He who commits sin is a slave to sin” (Jn 8:34). Merely being able to choose options without any other directives about good or evil leads, not to freedom, but to slavery. It is only when we humbly receive the givens of reality, the givenness of our own existence within this world, and live according to it, do we find authentic freedom. And we find it, precisely, as the freedom of love and intimacy—the freedom to live love and intimacy to the full, without the wounds of sin and brokenness holding us back from what our hearts most desire. Indeed, this is the deepest definition of obedience. It is much more than submission to an external commandment, though at certain times it manifests in this way; rather, it is, in its inner essence, simply openness to receive the gift and live according to its inner nature. And precisely in living according to the inner nature of the gift that we receive from God—the gift of our very existence, of our bodiliness, and of the whole creation—we find our humanity growing to full blossoming in the maturity of childhood for which he created us.

Why is this? In the light of what has already been said in reflections above, it should be radiantly apparent. The whole universe is nothing but a gratuitous gift of God’s outpouring generosity, bestowed upon us to draw us into intimate and loving relationship with himself. Thus the whole universe, and our own being—precisely in its “givenness”—is a manifestation of the very nature of God himself. All that exists bears a “Trinitarian stamp,” since it has been fashioned to be precisely as it is, and not otherwise, by the creative love and wisdom of the Trinity. Thus it exists and lives, in its inner nature, according to the nature of God’s own life and love—the dimension of gift, as we have seen—and can be received and lived and affirmed only within this truth of gift. To try to appropriate this gift as our own and to alter its meaning is precisely to disobey. And to do this leads immediately to slavery, as we see in the experience of Adam and Eve in taking the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and as we all experience in our own sins. So why would we do this? Precisely because we do not trust God to know what is best for us. We do not trust that the gift he is giving is truly what we desire.

And this is ultimately a rejection, not so much of God’s gifts, as it is of God himself. For it is a doubt, not so much of a particular gift, but of the goodness of the Giver. It is a preference for my own limited judgment and control over the all-good and all-wise Father. This is the terrible lie at the root of every consciously chosen sin. It is an act of distrust in the goodness and love of God, and a turning away from relationship with him. What happens in sin is that the dimension of gift is rejected for a dimension of appropriation instead. And yet appropriation—possessiveness and use—can only occur to the degree that relationship, with its innate surrender, receptivity, and dependency, dies. This realization truly unveils for us just how destructive is sin, how it lies at the root of all disorder within creation. It also shows how important is the rehabilitation of human desire in the truth. For in our innate being, we have been fashioned by the creative love of the Trinity; we bear the imprint of his own being within us; and insofar as we live according to this awesome gift, we will find happiness. We will find joy and lightness of heart, freedom and the capacity for childlike wonder and play, within the embrace of the Trinity and living the happiness of love and intimacy in the likeness of God.

But here also we see the harmfulness of the lie mentioned above, as well as its roots. Even if it springs from a recognition of the destructiveness of sin, it offers a solution that brings about numerous wounds that do not heal or make whole, but only aggravate the hurt and disorder. And this is fundamentally because it shares the same basic presupposition as sin: namely that God’s will for us is an imposition from the outside, and one that chafes against our own nature and desires. Thus all we can do is grit our teeth and bear it, subjecting ourselves to the yoke. Again, the continuity between the goodness of creation—and thus of human desire to be in contact with creation—and the goodness of God is called into question. God, for all practical purposes, becomes very distant, and his image is obscured from the human heart, buried over by fear and compulsive questioning and doubt. God may be seen as light and goodness, but the human person is seen as pure darkness, and there is no possibility (except perhaps after years and years of intense asceticism and self-denial) of bringing them together.

Of course, there are many different manifestations of this tendency, to greater or lesser degrees doubting the innate goodness of our nature as fashioned by God—and retaining its fundamental goodness even as it is wounded by sin. For the teaching of the Catholic Church is very firm that the human person, and human nature, still remains good to its very core, even in the face of the wounds of sin. This contrasts greatly with the teaching, for example, of Martin Luther, who said that human nature was “totally corrupt,” a dung hill to its very depths. In this view, the human person can do nothing good, but only sin; and, in fact, the human person cannot even be regenerated. Redemption and justification thus consists rather in Christ standing in our place and suffering the punishment that we, in our disgusting sinfulness, deserve. His own holiness and purity becomes like a white sheet covering the dung hill of our ugliness; and, seeing this white sheet, the heavenly Father overlooks our sins and admits us into heaven.

The idea of “utter depravity” introduced by the Protestant reformers may seem to diverge only slightly from the Catholic belief that man is tragically fallen, yet in some way retains his basic goodness. However, a notion of utter depravity has dangerous and far-reaching implications. For example, “dying to self” does not mean rooting out the weeds in one’s soul so that the wheat can flourish. If we are utterly depraved, we are all weeds. This means all of our aspirations and desires are suspect. One who “dies to himself” in such a fashion will end up nullifying the unique mystery and giftedness of his own personhood. He will end up “dying” not only to sin but also to the person God created him or her to be. Furthermore, if the human heart goes no deeper than its distortions, how can we hope to desire, let alone come progressively to experience, the restoration of God’s original plan? In this view, the heart only desires corruption and “the tendency to sin (concupiscentia)…would be insurmountable” (CCC, 406). … [W]e come to see ourselves, to use one of Luther’s images, as a “dung heap.” Christ may cover us with a blanket of white snow. But even so, according to Luther’s logic, we remain impure internally. Catholic anthropology insists that sin did not trump our “very good” creation. Hence John Paul maintains that the heritage of the human heart “is deeper than the sinfulness inherited” (TOB 46:6). Christ appeals to that deeper heritage of our hearts in order to revive it. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, he transforms us from within. Historical man has this lifelong task: to give voice to the deepest aspirations of his heart by accepting the grace of ongoing conversion.i

The Catholic understanding is therefore the almost direct opposite of the doctrine of total depravity. For in the authentic teaching of the Church—and thus of the whole history of Christianity—redemption consists in an interior renewal of the person. And this renewal does not take a person who is wholly corrupt, wholly sin, and make them into something else (nor merely cover over this sin in a legalistic or juridical judgment of righteousness). Rather, it touches the innate truth of our nature—which has been wounded by sin and twisted and harmed from expressing itself fully—and sets it free to be what it was always meant to be. And it does this, above all, by drawing us back into a living relationship with the Trinity and irradiating our being with the light of his goodness and love (in a way that is both ontological and experiential). This pure gift of Redemption, which was brought about through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, incorporates us into itself (thus bringing about our “justification”) through faith and, in ordinary circumstances, the Sacrament of Baptism. In this wonderful gift, in this tangible contact with the mystery of God’s love mediated through the body, through the Body of his Church, the Trinity adopts us into his own innermost life and infuses anew into our being the very ontological substance as well as the subjective living of his own life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This gift is ontological, not because God is not present in our spirit or our body beforehand (for obviously he is), but, in part, because the person has an ontological significance, and not merely a subjective one. In other words, we can think of Baptism (helpfully if inadequately) as the re-establishing of the bonds of communion between our personhood and the persons of the Trinity.* It is an objective fact, an act brought about by God himself in utterly free generosity, which makes us new precisely by bringing our person back into a living contact with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus Baptism and grace is new life; it is a new birth from the death and loneliness of sin and into the aliveness of love and relationship. Does it not, after all, parallel, and bring into existence once again, the pristine gift that God first gave at the beginning of creation, when he gave himself in giving all things in the primal creative act of love?

This gift is thus also subjective, not in that it is immediately experienced as some kind of ecstatic vision or mystical experience of the Trinity’s presence (God is much too humble and “little” for that), but in that it allows God to graft himself into, and to act within, our consciousness in a particularly intimate way. This is the breathtaking beauty of the Church’s teaching on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. These three virtues—dispositions of the inner being, the heart, which also irradiate our faculties and all of our experiences—are in essence nothing else than the Trinity’s own life active within us. To live in faith, hope, and love is not merely to exercise certain acts or choices in relation to God—i.e. to trust, to desire, to surrender—but to allow God to awaken and sustain these things within us. These realities—or rather this single, threefold reality—is the foundation for what, when it reaches full maturity in the personal subject, manifests itself in the “breathing with God in God” about which John of the Cross spoke. The fullness of Christian life comes about precisely through the full flowering of these three realities of faith, hope, and love, or, in other words, when our trust in God and our desire for him become so deeply rooted in us, and so pervade our being, that we live at every moment in the dimension of gift once again, in the ceaseless receptivity and reciprocal surrender of love.

And these three primal virtues, rooted in God and born of God himself alive and active within us, also touch and transform all the other dimensions of our humanity, without constricting or altering or doing violence to any of them. Rather, God’s touch within us does nothing but heal, purify, and renew; it does nothing but reorder and make whole, unto the full restoration of our pristine nature in the image and likeness of God, and unto the radiant liberty of our inner person in life-giving communion with the Persons of the Trinity and with the whole of creation.

Here at last we come to the tremendous beauty of the Catholic understanding of Redemption and justification. Both of these are one-time gifts fully and freely given by God’s gratuitous generosity—just like our first creation in the womb of our mother; and yet they also begin a process that culminates and reaches its conclusion only after our death, in the next life of eternal communion with God (and, in fact, in the fullness of the new creation, when all things and the whole of humanity are made new). Thus, the Christian life—which is nothing but human life redeemed in Christ—is a path of sanctification, of the making-whole of our being and our nature in the truth of loving communion with the Trinity, and also in our communion with other created persons and with the whole universe.

Precisely by being drawn out of the loneliness and isolation of sin, collapsed upon ourselves in fear, and, simultaneously, by being drawn into the proximity of loving relationship, we find our humanity becoming whole again. We find our capacity for love and intimacy being renewed. For, through the encounter with the gratuitous love of God who approaches us first and unveils before us the beauty of our being as he sees it, our true goodness bathed in the light of his loving gaze, we learn what love is. As Joseph Ratzinger says:

From the point of view of the Christian faith, man comes in the most profound sense to himself, not through what he does, but through what he accepts. He must wait for the gift of love, and love can only be received as a gift. It cannot be “made” on one’s own, without anyone else; one must wait for it, let it be given to one. And one cannot become wholly man in any other way than by being loved, by letting oneself be loved. That love represents simultaneously both man’s highest possibility and his deepest need and that this most necessary thing is at the same time the freest and the most unenforceable means precisely that for his “salvation” man is meant to rely on receiving. If he declines to let himself be presented with the gift, then he destroys himself. Activity that makes itself into an absolute, that aims at achieving human by its own efforts alone, is in contradiction with man’s being. Louis Evely has expressed this perception splendidly:

The whole history of mankind was led astray, suffered a break, because of Adam’s false idea of God. He wanted to be like God. I hope that you never thought that Adam’s sin lay in this … Had God not invited him to nourish this desire? Adam only deluded himself about the model. He thought God was an independent autonomous being sufficient to himself; and in order to become like him he rebelled and showed disobedience.

But when God revealed himself, when God wished to show who he was, he appeared as love, tenderness, as outpouring of himself, infinite pleasure in another. Inclination, dependence. God showed himself obedient, obedient unto death.

In the belief that he was becoming like God, Adam turned right away from him. He withdrew into loneliness, and God was fellowship.

This whole thing indubitably signifies a relativization of works, of doing; St Paul’s struggle against “justification by works” is to be understood from this angle. But one must add that this classification of human activity as only of penultimate importance gives it at the same time an inner liberation: man’s activity can now be carried on in the tranquility, detachment and freedom appropriate to the penultimate. The primacy of acceptance is not intended to condemn man to passivity… On the contrary, it alone makes it possible to do the things of this world in a spirit of responsibility, yet at the same time in an uncramped, cheerful, free way, and to put them at the service of redemptive love.ii

The decisive thing is that we learn what it is to be loved, to be loved by the One who is infinite Love, or rather, the Three who are, in the indivisibility of their divine life, infinite Love. And thus we find the primal happiness, the happiness resulting from the affirmation of the goodness of our unique being and identity before God who made us and sustains us. Indeed, we begin to experience the primal repose, a restfulness and joy and lightness of heart which will cradle every passing moment of our life within the security of God’s own undying gaze of cherishing love. And, within this pure gift and grace of being infinitely and incomparably loved, we can walk the path of sanctification, the path of growth into the fullness of love and intimacy for which we are destined; and we can do so in a spirit of lightness and play.

Yes, and this path does not do violence to any of our authentic desires. For the healing grace of God is not a “no,” but only a “yes,” a yes of affirming tenderness towards all that is beautiful, good, and true, in the will for it to be what it was created to be, and to find its everlasting consummation in the embrace of the Trinity. Resting in this truth, in God’s own unhindered “yes” to our being and existence, we can join our hearts to his in his own loving affirmation, not only of our own selves, but of every person and of all things. In short, knowing what it is to be loved, we also begin to learn how to love. Our capacity grows to receive and reverence others in their authentic beauty, and also our capacity to give ourselves as a reciprocal gift to them. And precisely in this way we find ourselves caught up into the orbit of loving relationship, the bonds of intimacy being woven ever deeper between ourselves and other persons, between ourselves and all that exists, within the all-enfolding and all-pervading embrace of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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*This is not to exclude other aspects of the gift conferred in Baptism, but only to emphasize the primacy of the personal dimension. See the following reflection for more “fleshing out” of this mystery in terms of nature and the created order.

i. Christopher West, Theology of the Body Explained: A Commentary on John Paul II’s Man and Woman He Created Them (Pauline Books and Media: Boston, 2007), 200.

ii. Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity,trans. J.R. Foster (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2004), 267-268.