And the angel said to them, Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which shall be to all the people; for today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you, Who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign to you: you will find an Infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. (Lk 2:10-12)
The order before the fall
God created the universe for Himself. He created man in the image and likeness of Himself as the pinnacle of the material universe and ordained him to the highest possible perfection which was the act of freely loving - with a divine love - the most loveable object which was God Himself.
Not only did Adam share in the divine life by supernatural grace, He was given gifts (the preternatural gifts) so that he may readily attain the end for which he was created. He was given knowledge of God and the universe (the gift of science); he had perfect command of his passions (the gift of integrity); he was given a perfect body that would never fall ill or accidentally injure itself (the gift of impassibility); and his soul would never have to be separated from his body (the gift of immortality).
He was also given a law in his heart (the natural law) by which God’s will for his human actions was written into his human nature. He was given a law by revelation too which included the injunction: “Of every tree of paradise thou shalt eat: But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat.” (Gen 2:16-17)
The disorder after the fall
With these gifts and guides, Adam was on the path to the Beatific Vision ...and then he fell: deceived by the devil, he chose to put his own will before God’s will. Adam’s sin, which was always a possibility for a free creature, destroyed the state of innocence and friendship with God in which he had been created. He lost sanctifying grace and the preternatural gifts and, henceforth, laboured under ignorance in the mind, malice in the will, rebellion of the passions (concupiscence), suffering in body and the spectre of inevitable death.
Adam’s sin and its consequences affected not only Adam; by the will of God, they communicated themselves to all his progeny so that, try as any man might, he could not attain that thing for which he was made, namely, the Beatific Vision.
Fallen man still has his intellect with its ability to know the truth by simple apprehension, judgement and reasoning, but, without the gift of science, the truth is so much harder to attain. He still has a will with goodness as its object, but, weakened by sin and without the gift of integrity, he suffers the rebellion of his passions which would have him choose a good which is not ordered to God.
But even if man, in his disordered state, can work out the truth and follow the laws of nature, it is to no avail in attaining that for which he was made. He was made for the supernatural order which is nothing other than a participation in the life of his Creator, but, languishing only in the natural order, he has no power to raise himself up to this new order of existence.
In order to make man's participation in the life of his Creator possible again, God, in His infinite justice and mercy, sent His Son, Jesus Christ. He sent Him in justice, to make satisfaction for the sin of Adam (and every subsequent sin). He sent His Son also in mercy both to supply the satisfaction that man, in his fallen state, is unable to make, and to make accessible again the final end for which He made man: the Beatific Vision which is a permanent union with God. As the Penny Catechism says: God the Son was made man to redeem us from sin and hell, and to teach us the way to heaven.
The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, Jesus Christ, took to Himself a human nature and was born into His own creation. He taught men that they might achieve their supernatural destiny through Him, by becoming part of Him. He established an authoritative body - the Church - headed by Himself to teach, to govern and to sanctify man; and He instituted the sacraments as the principal means by which man could be incorporated into this Church which is His Mystical Body. Such is the work of Redemption.
The ladder to heaven
One can imagine the work of Redemption as the construction of a ladder to heaven with five rungs. The first three rungs of the ladder were always possible by nature, but they were made more difficult after the fall and, by themselves, are inadequate to bridge the void between earth and heaven. The first rung is belief that truth (reality) may be known. The second rung is belief that there is a natural rightness and wrongness in human actions according to a natural law. The third rung is belief in the existence of God arrived at by consideration of the natural order of things (natural theology). The two final rungs of the ladder are entirely new. Belief that Jesus Christ is God, Redeemer, Priest, Teacher and King is the fourth rung. And the fifth is participation in Jesus Christ both in and through the institution which He founded: His Church, which, in its spiritual aspect, is His Mystical Body and, in its material aspect, is a physical hierarchy instituted to continue His mission to teach, govern and sanctify.
Climbing the ladder
In the order of execution, a soul will not necessarily climb the ladder to heaven rung by rung, for at the moment of baptism an infant will be placed on the highest rung long before it will have use of its reason. In the order of logic, however, it is so. As a soul climbs the ladder to heaven, she goes out of herself. She makes her intellect conform to the natural truths of the world on the first rung; she makes her will conform to God’s will which is written in her heart on the second; she knows God through the natural world by the light of her natural reason on the third; she knows God as revealed by God Himself on the fourth rung; and, on the fifth, she is elevated to a life of participation in God by incorporation into His Mystical Body by the gift of sanctifying grace received through His Church.
When a soul stands on the top rung she is within reach of heaven; she even has a hand on her eternal crown and only death separates her from the Beatific Vision.
Breaking the rungs
Satan, of course, who labours under an insatiable hatred of God and desires that every soul share his eternal damnation, tries to break the rungs of the ladder for each soul. He attempts this by means of five principle attacks: by rejecting the Church, by rejecting Jesus Christ, by denying the existence of God, by rejecting the natural law, and finally, by rejecting the possibility of knowing objective truth.
Protestantism: sola scriptura
Protestantism is the most prominent manifestation of the first attack. Protestantism rejects the Church as instituted by Jesus Christ: it rejects the Church's authority to teach sacred doctrine, it rejects its priesthood and it rejects the Mass. Protestants believe that revelation is contained exclusively in the scriptures which they then interpret by their own authority. The Protestant, as such, is not incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ. How could he be if he rejects Christ's teaching concerning the Church? The Protestant has faith in Jesus Christ, but it is not a supernatural faith, which must be based on the acceptance of the authority of the teaching God, who cannot deceive, nor be deceived. He believes according to his own personal religion. “Salvation by scripture alone” is his banner and he breaks the fifth rung of the ladder to heaven.
Rationalism: sola ratione
The Age of Enlightenment is characterised by the error of rationalism. Rationalism rejects any truth which is inaccessible to human reason. The revealed truth of scripture and tradition is just folklore and superstition to the rationalist. There no such thing as a supernatural order of being; Jesus Christ was just a man; man has all he needs to reach his perfection which may or may not be in this life. The god that exists and the path to him is the one fashioned by reason alone. A rationalist, in effect, makes his own god in his own mind, as he subjects God to human reason. The error of rationalism breaks the fourth rung of the ladder. “Salvation by reason alone” reads the rationalist’s banner.
Atheism: sola materia
From the nineteenth century until today we have witnessed the devastating growth of materialistic atheism which denies not only the supernatural order of being, but also the spiritual order of being. To the materialistic atheist, there is no such thing as God, angels or the soul. All is matter; life is just a complex chemical chain reaction; man is no different from the animals. There is no heaven; this earth is all there is to enjoy and it is best enjoyed by domination over it. This error breaks the third rung of the ladder; “Salvation by tyranny” is the atheist’s banner.
Liberalism: sola voluntate mea
If a man limits his god to the authority of human reason or denies that any god exists, it is but a short step for him to reject the natural law which is the will of the true God written into his heart as the guide to his actions. Without a guide from without, his judgment soon falls prey to his passions within - to which his intellect then conforms. Divorce, promiscuity, contraception, abortion, pornography, homosexuality, drug abuse, euthanasia, murder, etc. are considered a matter of personal choice and can even be regarded as virtuous by those who make their own god after the inclinations of their passions. “Salvation by the pursuit of my will” is their banner .. and the second rung of the ladder is broken.
Egoism: mihi soli
The disturbing consequences of rejecting the Church, Jesus Christ, God and the natural law leave a man floundering. His life is all confusion; he is a slave to his passions; nothing makes him happy and nothing makes sense except perhaps the denial that anything outside of himself can make sense. A man in this state seeks solace in refusing the knowability of objective truth. He closes-in upon himself; he is his own god; he is his own universe; the only thing real is himself; he makes himself the measure of truth. The philosophical name for this condition is solipsism and the result of this condition is despair. “I decide whether I am male or female,” is the statement of a soul in such a self-imposed exile from reality - an exile which is destined to self-destruction. “I decide whether an unborn child is a human being or not,” is another example. “It is for me to decide whether God exists or not.” And so on. This state of mind is the ante-chamber to hell: a place of total disorder. “I am perplexed” were the unsurprising last words of a notorious satanist just before he died, for his banner read “Salvation by me alone” - all five rungs of his ladder were broken.
Usefulness of this image
The image of the ladder is useful in a number of ways. The most obvious is that, despite there being many more heresies besides Protestantism, rationalism, atheism, liberalism and egoism, all errors concerning the path to salvation are comprised of one or more of these. Modernism, described as the “synthesis of all heresies,” has them all.
The image of the ladder is useful for another reason too: Just as the logical ascent of the ladder marks the movement of a soul out of herself to God, the successive breaking of the rungs traces the retreat of a soul into herself until there is nothing left but self. Understanding this will help us understand where post-Christian Western world now finds itself and how it may be rescued.
Repairing and strengthening the rungs again
The liberation of a soul turned-in on itself can only be effected by a special grace. An appeal to reason will not work for the faculty of reason is short-circuited. An appeal the passions alone, won’t work because they are in rebellion; it will only be a special grace from God that restores order in such a soul.
As God usually makes use of natural instruments to communicate his grace, liberation may come in many ways. It may come by means of a sudden vision of natural beauty, for example, which makes a soul reach out to a truth that could never have come from within her prison of despair. Thus, the first rung might be repaired.
The second rung might be restored by the soul being the beneficiary of an act of virtue of such selflessness that a consciousness of a transcendent “law of goodness” be awoken in her.
Reflection, then, upon the source and finality of that transcendent law could then lead the soul to a natural knowledge of God as the necessary first cause and final end of all things. The third rung repaired.
Then, looking out into the world once more, conscious of a God who must be goodness itself and seeking this God, a soul might light upon or remember the story of Jesus Christ and be moved, if not by the supernatural gift of faith, at least by a natural faith to believe that He be God incarnate. The fourth rung repaired.
Then, disposed by all these preceding graces, a soul might receive that gift of sanctifying grace which makes her a participant in the life of Jesus Christ and a member of His Church, thereby leaving her with great joy and hope upon the newly repaired fifth rung of the ladder and with a hand on her eternal crown.
This is but one example of how God might lead a soul back to Himself. He might lift a soul directly the top of the ladder when she meditates upon His Passion, or by being knocked off a horse, or by a bolt of lightning, or through an illness, or when assisting at Mass.
God might bring a soul to Himself when meditating upon the scene that made this all possible: the Nativity. No child or mother was more beautiful to behold than Jesus and Mary (first rung); the selfless humility of Mary before her Child (rung two); the cause and finality of this beauty and virtue (rung three); faith that this Child was God (rung four); and supernatural love of the Child (rung five).
My dear brethren, during Christmastide, it is fitting that we meditate upon this scene too. By the birth of Jesus Christ - our God and Saviour - a ladder spanning the infinite abyss between earth and heaven was wrought. And by our adoration of this same Infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, we stand upon its highest rung and are filled with great joy.
On behalf of the priests, brothers and sisters of the Society, please accept our thanks for your support of the Society by your prayers and sacrifices during this last momentous year. It has been a good year too. Our Society peacefully elected a new Superior General and is blessed with vocations of which four came from our own District.
Please accept also our wishes that the feast of Christmas bring grace and comfort to your homes and fills your hearts with the same love which filled the heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary as she adored her Son in the crib all those years ago. I remain yours,
In Jesu et Maria,
Rev. Robert Brucciani