Sunday, August 23, 2009

St. Robert Bellarmine: Fasting, Legalism, and Cheap Grace

I try to read a bit of everyone to get my head around the Catholic Tradition. I've read some St. Augustine, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Thomas Aquinas, and only a tiny bit of St. Thomas More & St. Edmund Campion, and some modern saints and theologians like Cardinal Newman and JPII.

But the theological era I probably know least about in the Catholic Tradition is the Catholic Counter/Catholic-Reformation. From Trent to Vatican I, I am in need of learning.

The other problem I find is that these writers tend to be the "scary" Catholics. The super-guilt promoting, super-Marian, ultramontantists. But the one thing I like is that they know proper Catholic morality. What Lutherans would call "the Law". St. Robert Bellarmine a counter/Catholic-Reformation Cardinal and Tridentine theologian. Here is just a taste of his writing on fasting:

"This is also the constant doctrine of the holy fathers: Tertullian says: “As we refrain from the use of food, so our fasting satisfies God." (De Jejunio) St. Cyprian: “Let us appease the anger of an offended God, by fasting and weeping, as he admonishes us. "(De Lapsis) St. Basil: "Penance, without fasting, is useless and vain; by fasting satisfy God." (De Jejunio) St. Chrysostom: "God, like an indulgent father, offers us a cure by fasting." St. Ambrose also says: "Fasting is the death of sin, the destruction of our crimes, and the remedy of our salvation." St. Jerome, in his Commentary on the third chapter of Jonas, remarks: "Fasting and sackcloth are the arms of penance, the help of sinners." St. Augustine likewise says: “No one fasts for human praise, but for the pardon of his sins." So also St. Bernard in his 66th Sermon on the Canticles: “I often fast, and my fasting is a satisfaction for sin, not a superstition for impiety."" - St. Robert Bellarmine "The Art of Dying Well" Ch. VIII p. 21

But what some would call his legalism (even though here he just ends up quoting Church Fathers), I find to be an authentic assessment of the Christian moral tradition. The thing I find disturbing about modern Jesuit-style moral theology is that it diminishes sin to a point that promotes legalism rather than repentance or abstinence. Philip Yancey in his book "What's So Amazing About Grace" says that those who have a low view of the law actually end up having a lower view of grace and the gospel. Bonhoeffer calls a similar issue "cheap grace" where we cheapen the forgiveness and grace of God because of a moral laxity that doesn't understand how deeply we've offended him. While St. Robert here seems harsh, he also writes the solution to sin, which IS a reality:

"nothing can be imagined more useful than for those who value their salvation, , twice every day, morning and night, diligently to examine their conscience; what they have done during the night, or the preceding day; what they have said, desired, or thought of, in which sin may have entered; and if they shall discover anything mortal, let them not defer seeking the remedy of true contrition, with a resolution to approach the sacrament of penance on the very first opportunity. Wherefore, let them ask of God the gift of contrition, let them ponder on the enormity of sin, let them detest their sins from their heart, and seriously ask themselves who is the "offended and the offenders." Man, a worm, offends God the Almighty; a base slave, the Lord of heaven and earth! Spare not then your tears, nor cease to strike your breast: in fine, make a firm resolution never more to offend God, never more to irritate the best of Fathers. If this examination be continued morning and night, or at least once in the day, it can scarcely happen that we shall die in sin, or mad, or delirious. Thus it will be, that every preparation being made for a good death, neither its uncertainty will trouble us, nor the happiness of eternal life fail us." - St. Robert Bellarmine "The Art of Dying Well" Ch. VI

Repentance, true repentance is necessary. When we understand sin in it's entirety and God's mercy in it's entirety we avoid cheap grace and legalism.

Fasting is a practice I need to cultivate.

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