Conversations with Father John A. Hardon About the Incarnation of Christ

Dr. Robert Hickson

30 December 2020

Saint Sabinus (d. 303)

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. (d. 2000)

Epigraphs

“How many of the three infused theological virtues—faith, hope, and charity—did Christ’s Sacred Humanity possess?” (Father John A. Hardon, S.J. in a conversation with R. Hickson in the late 1980s.)

***

“Christ as well as His Blessed Mother were both morally free, we trust, but were they thus free to sin? In Heaven we too are to be free, but will we in Beatitude thereby be free to sin? These exceptional capacities, limits, and gifts of liberty appear to be higher forms of freedom which are now especially to be aspired to by us, and striven after—with persevering virtue and under Divine Grace.” (Father John A. Hardon, S.J. in a conversation with R. Hickson in the early 1990s.)

***

In the recent public discourse concerning our federal U.S. presidential elections and their ongoing turbulent aftermath, there has been much mention of our seeking after and attaining “more liberty” and “more freedom.” When I first heard these often used but undefined conceptual words, I asked myself a couple of questions: “what do you mean and how do you know?”; secondly, do you also say or imply a “freedom from something”? or, rather, is it especially a “freedom for something”? Is it a liberation from, or a liberation for? Or are we to understand that both forms of freedom are intended to have a purposive accent and resolute orientation, even if they are not always abidingly virtuous? As in a desperate escape from a palpable tyranny.

These posed questions have also caused me to recall some things Father John Hardon, S.J. first told me, and then asked of me, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It involves some sacred Catholic matters and illuminates for us still some differentiated aspects of freedom and liberty. For example, the traditional words “Libertas Ecclesiae” have not the same meaning as “Libertas Religiosa”—calling for the Liberty of the Church, as distinct from calling for the vaguer modernist and ecumenical sense of “Religious Liberty” which became prominent, but often conveniently equivocal or even intentionally undefined in the discussions and official documents of Vaticanum II (1962-1965) and in the later years.

In the late 1980s, the Jesuit Father John A. Hardon told me about an earlier incident with his Catholic seminary students in New York at Saint John’s College. During one exchange of ideas with his theological students about the Humility of God in the Incarnation, he had surprisingly asked them: how many of the theological gifts did Jesus possess in his Sacred Humanity? Almost all of the seminarians then promptly answered: “All three of these infused gifts!”

To these unexpected words of a more or less common opinion (as lucidly expressed by his seminarians in their theology class), Father Hardon himself promptly made a terse summary critique and began a further commentary about those who had surprisingly thought that Christ’s humanity possessed all three of the Theological Virtues. Father Hardon said: “You do not thus seem to understand the fuller meaning of Christ’s Hypostatic Union.”

Father Hardon then proceeded to say of the Incarnation of Christ that “Christ is a Divine Person Who has assumed a passible Human Nature. That is to say: His Sacred Humanity showed forth that His assumed nature was both passible (able to suffer) and abidingly capable of genuine moral freedom, which thereby also enabled Him to accept and to choose freely His own sacred Passion. Christ was not a Monothelite, one who claimed that Christ had no truly free human will, but only a divine will. If that were so, it would mean emptying out the meaning of His freely chosen Passion, to include His Agony in the Garden, Lacerations, Crucifixion and Death.” (Monothelitism was gradually observed to be the subtlest of all the Christological Heresies. We should still consider this fact.)

Moreover, it was in Virginia a few days later that Father Hardon—himself a Dogmatic Theologian by formation—very slowly and quite sadly said to me in person that he was quite surprised by his mature seminary students: their unexpected and abiding doctrinal errors as they were openly expressed by his advanced seminarians in New York. Father Hardon then even began to examine me, a laymen, before we went together into Father Hardon’s local catechetical class on the Church’s traditional Doctrine of Grace: Divine Grace. That is to say, he also first proposed to me me several pertinent questions on Christology; and he then asked me for my own specific answers, to include my explanation and dogmatic rationale for the Doctrine of the Hypostatic Union along with some of its indispensable unfolding implications. (It is so that I shall not likely forget those solemn tests and answers under Father Hardon’s candid and close scrutiny. They indeed taught me trenchantly how to understand many other doctrinal matters of permanent moment.)

One of those implications Father Hardon also discussed with me presented to me another formidable mystery: “the temptations of Christ” Who suffered acutely and greatly, especially because Our Lord did not have a Fallen Human Nature. That is to say, unlike us with our perduring Fallen Nature, most of us. That is to say, it is so but for a few exceptions, such as with Mary His Mother herself who was, like her Son, also sinless from her Immaculate Conception on, and throughout her lived actions and ponderings of her heart and mortal life.

Father Hardon also asked me another truly searching and challenging theological question: “What do strict Calvinists and faithful Lutherans have in common with Pelagianism – specifically concerning the special Gifts that our Proto-Parents were given and received in their Creation before the Fall?”

Father’s brief answers to my ignorance first spoke of three kinds of gifts received from God before the Fall—as informed and faithful Catholics still affirm—and they were: natural gifts, praeternatural gifts, and supernatural gifts. After the Fall, man lost both the supernatural gifts of Divine Grace and the unique but limited preternatural gifts (e.g., bodily immortality and ordered control of his various passions, and the like), although this latter category of praeternatural gifts, very mysteriously, would never be fully restored, not even after Christ’s Redemptive Passion, Resurrection, and elevating Restoration of the generous life of Virtue and Divine Grace, especially of Sacramental and Sanctifying Graces.

After the Fall, and having been deprived of Grace, man with his natural gifts and his still gifted nature would be nonetheless wounded by ignorance and by our obscuring and disordered passions.

However, as Father Hardon himself accented it, strict Protestants and strict Pelagians both deny the very existence of supernatural and praeternatural gifts generously granted to our Proto-Parents before their Fall. Thus for Protestants, as a consequence, our fallen nature was not just deprived of grace and other prelapsarian gifts, but became even depraved. Man—under these dark premises—was thus thought to be deeply corrupted, not only wounded and deprived; but also depraved. For, it was claimed, that man had now fallen darkly beneath Nature. It was now a matter, not just of a “Natura deprivata,” but also of a “Natura depravata.” A dark view it was of man and his resultant nature, for sure! In contrast to Luther, Catholic theological anthropology shows itself to be more generous and forgiving, I think, but it is not Semi-Pelagian. Therefore, the Catholic way is potentially more joyful, and with supportive good reasons and with hope for a sincere Gaudium et Laetitia.

Father Hardon and I also discussed a note on presumption in relation to hope, as it was first deftly presented by the German Catholic philosopher, Josef Pieper; for it is so that presumption, as a form of pride, is also—at least in the Traditional Catholic Catechisms—one of the two sins against hope, the second one being despair (and its preparatory spiritual sloth). Among his other fresh insights, Josef Pieper says that “presumption is the premature anticipation of final fulfillment [Vita Eternal and its Beatitude]”; “despair is the premature anticipation of a final non-fulfillment.”

On another occasion, when discussing with Father Hardon some non-Catholic ideas (especially 1647 Calvinist ones) about freedom, redemption, grace, perseverance, and salvation, the Jesuit priest also deeply and memorably appreciated another wise and succinct Catholic insight spoken to me by Josef Pieper personally in his home in Germany: “Given the riskful and formidable dowry of our individual freedom—and until the very moment of our death—we retain the permanent possibility of our voluntary defection.”

Lest we fall from humility and lest we then fall into sinful presumption, our own hope of salvation—our own Spes Salutis—must recurrently pray for a certain fear: the Donum Timoris, the Gift of Fear. That special fear is that we ultimately could be finally separated from the Good and the Beloved.

The Gift of Final Perseverance, the Catholic Council of Trent has written, is a “Magnum Bonum”—it is indeed, sub Gratia, a very Great Gift. It certainly allows us to live our morally free and manly lives amidst the challenges of a Great Adventure full of risk, and to do it with humility and without that smooth, insidious and self-assured presumption that is—along with despair—regrettably a grave sin against hope.

Father Hardon also abidingly knew all of these components and aspects of adventure and our obligatory responsibility; and he (along with Josef Pieper (d. 6 November 1997)) has helped me so much, and so well, to savour still many fundamental facts and principles of our historic Catholic Faith.

Father Hardon, S.J. died on 30 December 2000, R.I.P. Every day I still pray for him gratefully.

–FINIS–

© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

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