The Priesthood and Perfection by Garrigou-Lagrange

The Priesthood and Perfection



Translated by E. HAYDEN, O.P., S.T.L., Ph.D.

The Newman Press, Westminster, Md., 1955


Analysis of modern errors

The dangers of modern times are great, and the remedies to which we often have recourse are insufficient. We shall begin, therefore, by saying a few words about the need for greater faith.

The poisonous errors in modern life are tending toward a complete dechristianization of society, a dechristianization which began in the sixteenth century with the rebirth of paganism and the reappearance of pagan pride and sensuality among Christians. This turning from Christ advanced another stage under Protestantism, which rejected the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the value of sacramental absolution and confession, the infallibility of the Church and Tradition, her teaching power, and finally, the need for observing the precepts which lead to salvation four denials which strike at the root of the Christian life. Then the French Revolution with its deism and naturalism lent a hand in the dechristianization of society: God, if He exists, is interested only in a universal ordering of things and not in individual people. Sin, therefore, is not an offense against God, but only an offense against reason which is constantly evolving. Stealing, for example, was a sin so long as the right of private property was admitted; but if, as communists hold, private property is an injustice against the community, then private property itself becomes a theft.

This spirit of revolution led naturally to liberalism, which tried to steer a middle course between the teaching of the Church and modern errors. But liberalism could reach no definite conclusions: it neither affirmed nor denied, but always made distinctions; and discussions dragged on because it could not solve difficulties which were springing from a denial of the principles of Christianity. Liberalism failed to provide a norm of conduct and it gave way to radicalism, which was even more opposed to the Church. Because it did not like the word "anti-Christian" it called itself " anticlerical." That is typical of freemasonry. But radicalism led to socialism and socialism to atheistic and materialistic communism, as found in Russia today. Attempts were made to spread communism in Spain and other countries also, and to reject religion, private property, the family, the idea of a fatherland, and reduce human life to economics, as if we had no soul, and as if religion, science, art, and rights were the invention of those who wished to keep others in subjection and, in the name of private property, possess everything themselves.

The only effective opponent of materialistic communism is the Catholic Church, because only true Christianity, or Catholicism, contains the truth without any mixture of error.

Nationalism cannot withstand communism. Equally powerless in the religious sphere, because it contains serious error, is Protestantism as practiced in Germany or England; for error, like a virulent disease which kills a living organism, kills any society built upon it as a foundation. Protestantism is like consumption or cancer; it slowly destroys life, because it denies the sacrifice of the Mass, confession, the infallibility of the Church, and the necessity of keeping the commandments.

2. Their effects on everyday life

What effect have all these errors on civil legislation? It gradually becomes atheistic. Not only does it forget the existence of God and divinely revealed law, both positive and natural, but it even enacts legislation opposed to the divine revealed law laws permitting divorce, for example, and laws establishing neutral schools, which eventually become atheistic in all three divisions: primary, secondary, and university. In these schools religion is often reduced to a more or less rationalistic history of religions in which Christianity wears the garb with which the modernist heresy dressed it, a new though higher product of the evolution of the "religious sense" which changes continually so that no dogma and no law are immutable. Finally there is complete freedom of cults and religions; even impiety and irreligion have their freedom. But the repercussions of these laws on society are immeasurable laws permitting divorce, for example, which in every nation ruin thousands of families each year and leave children without real education and guidance. And so, year after year, young people who are the country's future citizens leave these atheistic schools without a grasp of any religious principles. Disordered reason, the concupiscence of the flesh, the concupiscence of the eyes, the desire for money and the pride of life take the place of Christian faith, hope, and charity. All these things form a special naturalistic system under the name of a lay or independent ethic, without any obligation or sanction. Sometimes, it is true, a small vestige of the ten commandments remains, but a vestige always liable to change.

If the sorrowful effects of these cancerous errors are not evident in the first generation, they will become very obvious according to the "law of acceleration in fall" in the second, third and fourth generations. This deterioration in succeeding generations is like the quickening speed of falling bodies: if in the first second the rate of fall is 20, in the fifth second it will be 100. But progress in charity is of a completely different kind: it is like that in the parable of the sower, where each seed sometimes produces thirtyfold, sometimes fifty, sometimes a hundredfold.

It is a real dechristianization, an apostasy of nations. The great Catholic Spaniard, Donoso Cortes, gave a brilliant analysis of the errors at the root of this dechristianization in a long letter given to Cardinal Fomari to present to Pius IX, who in his own turn noted those errors in his "Syllabus" (cf. Denz. 1701).

At the root of these errors is the idea that God, if He exists at all, is only interested in universal laws and not in individual people. As a result, sin is not an offense against God, but against a constantly evolving reason. There is no such thing as original sin, a redemptive Incarnation, regenerative grace, sacraments, and sacrifice. The priesthood and prayer are useless.

Indeed, to think that God exists at all is a mistake. If men individually do not need God, why should we suppose that He exists in heaven? Rather, humanity is evolving itself into god. God is that tendency to progress, to achieve the happiness of all, the happiness of which socialism and communism speak.

How, therefore, according to these principles, can we discern truth from falsehood? There is only one way: liberty of discussion in parliament and elsewhere. This liberty is absolute. It has jurisdiction over everything the utility of divorce, private property, the family, and the value of religion. And so discussion remains as open as if there never had been a divine revelation: the fact that divorce, for example, is forbidden in the Gospel is of little importance.

All these things cause great disturbances, innumerable injustices and crimes; and the only remedy applied is to increase continually the power of civil magistrates, the police, and the army.

But the police are subject to those in power and often a rival group, with completely opposite ideas, will take over control. Besides, when private property is abolished, patriotism, which is like the soul of an army, generally disappears also.

These remedies, therefore, because they reject the divine law and even the natural law written on man's heart, cannot preserve public order and prevent serious disturbances. This failure is a proof, per absurdum, of the existence of God.

In conclusion we may note with Donoso Cortes that those societies which are based on grossly false principles and atheistic legislation are on their way to death. In them, the individual as such can, with God's grace, be saved; but as societies they are dying because the error upon which they are founded is a deadly one. In a similar way, consumption or cancer progressively and infallibly destroys our human organism. Only the Christian and Catholic faith can resist these errors and rechristianize society, but it can do so only on condition that we have deeper faith. As St. John said: "This is the victory which overcometh the world: our faith" (I John 5:4).

3. Remedies

Two remedies, excellent in themselves, are often proposed: the apostolate of Catholic Action and the study of faith and morals. Frequently, however, the heart of our study lacks what ancient theologians called "contemplation," which should be the spring of the apostolic life. As St. Thomas says: "teaching and preaching spring from the plenitude of contemplation." 1 This was true of the apostles after Pentecost. It was true in the case of St. Peter, St. Paul, St. John, the Apostolic Fathers, St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Gregory, St. Anselm, St. Bernard, St. Dominic, St. John of the Cross, St. Ignatius, St. Francis Xavier, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Francis de Sales, St. John Bosco, St. Joseph Cottolengo, the Curé d'Ars, John Baptist Manzella. Yet we often find priests lacking an interior life sufficiently intense to be the soul of the apostolate.

Catholic Action in Europe and America has done great work in renewing the Christian life among members of the working class in city and country, and among university students. Great progress has been made in Italy, France, Switzerland, Spain, Holland, Belgium, Canada, Mexico, the Argentine and other places. Occasionally, however, priests engaged in directing Catholic Action are too much absorbed in "bureaucracy," in the organization of external activity and in propaganda, with detriment to their own interior life and the interior life of others under their care. It is with difficulty that they find time to read their breviary even rapidly; sometimes, also, a too great familiarity with young people of both sexes lessens their dignity and power to do good. Often, too, the better educated among the laity become quasi-preachers. In this there are two great dangers: religious sentimentality and humanitarianism. Often the lecturer, or quasi-preacher, does not live sufficiently from deep faith and apostolic charity. We can speak vividly and eloquently only of those truths which we fully live. If we have not, therefore, a deep faith and a true apostolic charity, our words will spring merely from religious sentiment and humanitarianism, whose formal object is very different from that of true apostolic charity. If the preacher or lecturer who does not live very close to God speaks, for example, from democratic aspirations, he says that he is speaking about a Christian democracy; but he should take care that it is truly Christian. Otherwise, as sometimes happens, the motive of his work will not be supernatural but natural, and will be robbed of its efficacy.

Freemasons make use of this deviation so that apostolic work in the Church may become a practical naturalism which is a denial, at least in practice, of the supernatural life. In the apostolate there is often lacking that interior life which ought to be the very soul of the apostolate.

Another excellent remedy which has been used is the study of faith and morals. In our day, it is true, there is increased interest in philosophy, exegesis, theology, sociology, and even ascetical and mystical theology. At times these studies are made in a more scientific way than formerly, and they are carefully distinguished from "pious exhortations" which lack any solid doctrinal basis.

But a "distinction" should not be a "separation." Too often study is unfortunately separated from the interior life, so much so that it is not inspired by our interior life nor does it aim sufficiently at fostering it. The interior life is neglected and so we study in a purely natural way, without a spirit of faith, with the result that our interior life gradually grows dim. In ascetical and mystical theology, theses dealing with the spiritual life are expounded and defended, but this study is not directed primarily to the actual work of sanctification and consequently has little effect. It would be much better to live a life of prayer than to write a tract on it! Many people criticize spiritual books unjustly. They say that they are either scientific works or vulgarizations. But the New Testament and the work of the great spiritual writers are neither scientific in the technical sense nor vulgarizations: they are the fruit of contemplation.

Hence the remedies which have been applied to the evils of modern life, although excellent in themselves, have not been properly used and produce little fruit. We fail to rise again to higher things. We realize this, but in order to escape from a feeling of sadness about it we take refuge in a superficial optimism, which is either the effect of our temperament or else is deliberately willed. But this superficial optimism is not strong enough to prevent a weakening of our spiritual life.

And thus not only is no remedy applied to our ills but a peace is pursued which is not the peace of God not joy in God, but rather a joy without any foundation, a joy often fatuous and insipid.

4. Preparing the apostle

It follows, therefore, that the interior life is absolutely necessary for the priest and the apostle if he is to develop a deep faith, a faith which will radiate and communicate itself to all so that all may resist the deadly poison of modern errors. And so we come back to the definition of the apostolic life given by St. Thomas Aquinas: "to contemplate divine things and to give to others the fruit of our contemplation." "Just as it is a greater thing to illuminate others than merely to shine, so it is a greater thing to communicate one's contemplation to others than merely to contemplate. [And this form of life] most resembles the perfection of bishops who are the successors of the Apostles." 2 In the same context, St. Thomas says that the preaching of the word of God should proceed from the fullness of contemplation, from a deep interior life.

It follows, therefore, that the sanctification of the priest is of primary importance, far more necessary than the "natural development of our personality." This latter expression is naturalistic and could be used even by an unbeliever or an atheist. It springs from a forgetfulness of the first petition of the Lord's Prayer, Hallowed be thy name, a petition that God's name may be glorified, that it may be accepted as holy by every creature.3

It follows also that a priest should celebrate with very great care the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and so join his daily personal sacrifice to the great sacrifice of Christ, renewed in an unbloody manner doing this in a spirit of reparation and mortification, in spite of the stress laid on personal comfort in modern times.

It follows, also, that there is a need for intimate prayer, without which it is impossible to have a spirit of prayer. When this spirit of prayer is absent, liturgical prayer sometimes degenerates into religious aestheticism. St. Bernard once had a vision which brought this point clearly home to him. He was in choir one day presiding over the Divine Office and he saw over the head of one of the monks his angel guardian writing the psalmody in letters of gold; over another, an angel wrote in letters of silver; over a third in letters of lead; over a fourth in colorless water. But over a fifth religious, his angel guardian stood hand poised and pen extended, not writing a word, to indicate that this religious was not praying at all, that he had not any spirit of prayer.

Examination of one's conscience is also very necessary, even though in some seminaries the retreat-master has been asked not to speak of "examination of conscience" but rather of "introspection." Others refer to it as "psychoanalysis." This is clearly a deviation from the proper supernatural spirit to practical naturalism. An examination of one's conscience ought to proceed from infused prudence, illuminated by faith and by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, whereas both introspection and psychoanalysis are something natural. This change of phraseology reveals a change from a true supernatural life to a mind and heart imbued with practical naturalism.

If these higher and true remedies are neglected, the priest will have merely a superficial faith which touches only the fringe of Sacred Scripture, not a deep, radiating faith. Such a priest may speak of the need of dynamism in the apostolate, but this dynamism seems to be mainly natural and it differs very much from the apostolic spirit of St. Peter at Pentecost, or that of St. Paul or St. John Chrysostom or St. Augustine or St. Bernard or St. Dominic or the Curé d'Ars or St. John Bosco.

This point was stressed by Pius XI in his encyclical, Ad catholici sacerdotii (Dec. 20, 1935), in that section where he discussed the virtues, and in particular the piety, of a priest.

Clearly, it is not enough that the priest should be a man of keen intelligence, wide culture and eloquence. Even if he has these gifts his life may, as happened in the case of Lamennais and Loisy, be unfruitful. Here the priest does not seek God or the salvation of souls, but he seeks himself, his own natural satisfaction in intellectual work and in that natural activity which is not sanctified because it does not proceed from an interior life of faith, hope, charity, and prayer. It does not produce, therefore, a supernatural effect, the salvation of souls.

On the other hand, the apostolic work of a priest who has little natural intelligence but a great supernatural faith, a true interior life and real piety, will be very fruitful. This apostolate, modest though it be in outward form, will bear much fruit, and without any appeal to "dynamism" will save many souls. At the moment of his death such a priest will be judged by the love which he has for God and for souls, his forgetfulness of himself and his self-abnegation.

When one follows this traditional way of priestly formation, the virtue of faith is deepened, even without any help from lofty theological speculation or the knowledge of Oriental tongues. Such a faith, already firm and living, becomes deeper every day, because its intensity is deepened with the deepening of charity, and it is illuminated by the gifts of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, and piety. As a result, it diffuses itself, touches the hearts of sinners and converts them. It shows itself as a higher sense, a Christian sense, and it is as far superior to the natural sense as infused faith, illuminated by charity, is superior to natural reason. A saintly parish priest, the Curé d'Ars, had this Christian sense in a very high degree.4

If through the recitation of the Divine Office and the celebration of Mass and meditation, the prayer of a priest does not develop into a true spirit of prayer and reach its normal goal the contemplation of divine things, which is the soul of the apostolate it will degenerate into a mere mechanical routine, and the recitation of the breviary will be like scanning the morning headlines.

5. Recapitulation

The milieu in which we live demands a moral and spiritual revival, a realization and an acknowledgment of our dependence on God. A positive approach is the means best fitted for accomplishing such a reform, an approach whereby we lift our hearts and minds to God and ask His grace to obey His command that we love Him above all things and love our neighbors as ourselves.

As a practical conclusion, we may use those words of St. Augustine quoted by the Council of Trent: "God does not order you to do impossible things. But when He does command you, He admonishes you to do what you can and to ask for help in what is outside your power, and He helps you so that it may be within your power."5 New graces, therefore, are continually being offered to souls, particularly to priests, in this crisis of modern life, so that they may now carry out their obligations completely.

Many even feel that God is preparing exceptionally great graces for priests so that they may possess that faith of which we spoke not merely a strong and living faith, but a profound, penetrating, discerning and radiating faith. They must communicate this to the Christian world so that it may be able to resist modern errors a deadly poison and find once more that pure air of the Christian ages. That would be the verification of St. John's words (I John 5:4) This is the victory which overcometh the world: our faith. We may conclude by noting that theological study and the interior life should be united; we must, indeed, make a distinction between the two, but we must never separate them or confuse one with the other. Otherwise theological science, through a confusion with piety, would lose its objectivity and immutability, and the interior life might perhaps be reduced to the theses on spirituality. Sacred theology would thus unhappily be reduced, as the Modernists reduced it, to an intellectual expression of subjective religious experience. On the other hand, our interior life would become too intellectual; it would become a theory of the interior life and would lose its realism, its serious depth and fecundity.

These two must not be separated, but distinguished and united, just as they were in the lives of St. Augustine and St. Thomas and all the Doctors of the Church. Body and soul, the head and the heart, blood and the veins are distinguished and yet united as are Church and State, or the various classes in society, or parents and children in the family.

If in our organism that distinction becomes a separation, death will follow. If that separation is allowed in society it too will die. It is the same with our life which must be both spiritual and intellectual. We should ask for this great grace the union of our study and our piety through the intercession of the Doctors of the Church who must first be canonized for their sanctity before they can be given the title of Doctor because of their knowledge."


1. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 2-2, q. 188, a. 6. This work will henceforth be abbreviated S.T.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., q. 83, a. 9.

4. See H. M. Cormier, O.P., Rétraite ecclesiastiqtie; modeles: S. Vincent de Paul, S. Phillippe de Néri, S. Francois de Sales.

5. Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, 804.

6. On this question see the life of St. Alphonsus by Father Bréthe, as it contains two chapters of great importance.

Nihil obstat: A. M. Moynihan, O.P., S.T.L.

H. Marquess, O.P., S.T.L., D.Ph.

Imprimi potest: T. E. Garde, O.P., S.T.M. Provincialis

Nihil obstat: Conlethus Kearns, O.P., S.T.M.

Censor Theologiae Deputatus

Imprimi potest: Joannes Carolus

Archiepiscopus Dublinensis, Hiberniae Primas

die 8 mensis Novembris 1954.

all rights reserved

Printed in the United States of America