Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, eighty-six years-old, Archbishop of Bologna from 1984 to 2003, has just had published a series of twenty-two meditations that he composed for Lenten exercises in 1989 for Pope John Paul II and members of the Roman Curia. The volume is titled, The Manifold Wisdom of God. The title is taken from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, chapter 3, vs 10: “That the manifold wisdom of God may be made known to the principalities and powers in heavenly places through the church.” In one of his meditations, “Sin and Forgiveness in the Plan of God,” the eminent theologian references Saint Ambrose of Milan as his authority in upholding that “sin has its own valuable positive character in God’s plan.”
A friend of mine brought this statement to my attention recently by email and, quite frankly, I was quite troubled by it. When I read more quotes from Saint Ambrose on this theme, which are given in the meditation, my confusion increased.
I was, of course, familiar with the Church’s prayer “O Felix Culpa” (O Happy Fault) which is sung within the Exultet (otherwise called the Paschal Proclamation) during the Easter Vigil service. “O Happy Fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer!” What I had passed over thoughtlessly, however, was the previous verse of the hymn: “O truly necessary sin of Adam, which the death of Christ has blotted out!”
There is surely a mystery here. And this is the subject of Cardinal Biffi’s meditation. He bases it on the teaching of Saint Ambrose who was the Archbishop of Milan from 374 to 397. Actually the phrase “O Felix Culpa,” not the idea, was first used by his disciple Saint Augustine. Saint Thomas Aquinas develops the truth further in his Summa: “But there is no reason why human nature should not have been raised to something greater after sin. For God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom” (Third Part, Question 1, Article 3, Reply to Objection 3)
I understand that the redemption wrought by the God-man has elevated those in grace above what would have been due to the just if Adam had not fallen. In the Offertory of the Mass, the priest affirms the same when he prays: “O God, Who in creating man didst exalt his nature very wonderfully and yet more wonderfully didst establish it anew . . .” But, what was new for me was the idea that sin could have a “positive character” but, of course Cardinal Biffi is quick to add, “in God’s plan.” Now, Saint Ambrose does not use these exact words, but he certainly does teach the same thing: “O Lord Jesus, I am more a debtor to your outrages for my redemption than to your power in my creation. It would have been useless for us to have been born if we had gone without the benefit of being redeemed.” (In Lucam II, 41).
This is repeated practically verbatim in another verse of the Exultet: “Nihil enim nobis nasci profuit nisi redimi profuisset” (For it availed us nothing to be born, unless it had availed us to be redeemed).
Cardinal Biffi provides a number of supporting quotes from Saint Ambrose, which, even as I write, I find troubling — not in the sense of being questionable — but in the sense of being provocative, unsettling, even disturbing. Was my faith lacking something essential all these years? Or does this question bring up a mystery better left unexplored — affirm it, so to speak, as a mystery, and let it go?
It must be noted that Cardinal Biffi is an Ambrosian scholar, in fact he was the principal collaborator in compiling the Opera Omnia of the Father and Doctor of the Church. The Cardinal Archbishop-Emeritus of Bologna is, coincidentally, a native of Milan.
Here are the relevant quotes he extracts from Saint Ambrose’s writings:
“My fault has become for me the price of redemption, through which Christ came to me. For me Christ tasted death. Transgression is more profitable than innocence. Innocence had made me arrogant, transgression made me humble” (De Iacob et vita beata, I, 21, my italic).
“The Lord knew that Adam would fall and then be redeemed by Christ. Happy ruin, that has such a beautiful reparation!” ( Commentary on Psalm 39, 20).
“We who have sinned more have gained more, because your grace makes us more blessed than our absence of fault does” (Commentary on Psalm 37, 47).
“Evil in fact has a utility within itself and evil has even insinuated itself into the saints by the providential will of the Lord” (Apologia David, 7).
Cardinal Biffi believes that this theme of sin/reparation/elevation saturates the whole theological thought of the doctor from Milan. He says that it is brought out most saliently in the saint’s commentary on the six days of creation. In fact, he calls it the “fulcrum of his entire personal theological conception.” That may well be true. (After all, Saint Ambrose was singularly peculiar in that he once referred to the Church as the “chaste harlot.” Cardinal Biffi does not cite this, for good reason, but it lets us know that even doctors of the Church can exaggerate a point unwisely.)
Too, perhaps Saint Ambrose is merely developing what Saint Paul was inspired to teach in Romans 8:28: “And we know that to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as, according to his purpose, are called to be saints.”
Saint Augustine comes close to the same position as Saint Ambrose in commenting on this same verse in a letter to the pious “Lady Proba”: “Looking to this, you do well to regard the evils of this world as easy to bear because of the hope of the world to come. For thus, by being rightly used, these evils become a blessing, because, while they do not increase our desires for this world, they exercise our patience; as to which the apostle says, We know that all things work together for good to them that love God: all things, he says — not only, therefore, those which are desired because pleasant, but also those which are shunned because painful; since we receive the former without being carried away by them, and bear the latter without being crushed by them, and in all give thanks.” (Letter 131)
Ambrose, again: “I thank the Lord our God who created such a marvelous work in which to find his rest. He created the heavens, and I do not read that he rested; he created the earth, and I do not read that he rested; he created the sun, the moon, the stars, and I do not read that even then he rested; but I read that he created man and that at this point he rested, having a being whose sins he could forgive” (Hexameron, IX 76).
The Cardinal’s comment here is evocative, to put it mildly: “As can be seen, according to Ambrose, God creates the universe for man, and creates man in order to be merciful. It cannot be said that he creates man as a sinner or in order that he should sin; but it must certainly be said that the ultimate rest of Christ in his redemptive death and manifestation of divine mercy represent the ultimate and highest meaning of creation.”
Our illustrious Cardinal also provides a complementary verse from one of the Prefaces of the Ambrosian liturgy: “You bent down over our wounds and healed us, giving us a medicine stronger than our afflictions, a mercy greater than our fault. In this way even sin, by virtue of your invincible love, served to elevate us to the divine life” (Sunday XVI per annum).
My friend, whom I mentioned at the start, asks the question: “ Am I to anticipate my judgment with fear and trembling for my many and grievous sins or with serene confidence in the indulgences of the Church, Mary’s intercession for me, and God’s mercy?”
My friend also puts forward, in support of his own doubts about Cardinal Biffi’s thesis, these verses from the Book of Ecclesiasticus (also used for the Epistle for the Mass of the Holy Rosary).
“Blessed is the man that is found without blemish, and that has not gone after gold, nor put his trust in money, nor in treasure. Who is he that we may praise him? for he has done wonderful things in his life. Who has been tried thereby, and made perfect, he shall have glory everlasting: he that could have transgressed but did not transgress: that could have done evil and did not: therefore are his goods established in the Lord, and his alms in the full assembly of the saints.”
To which the Cardinal might counter-point the words of Our Lord in the parable of the Prodigal Son (the Cardinal does, in fact, cite this verse in his commentary): “I tell you there will be more joy in heaven for a converted sinner than for the ninety-nine just who have no need of conversion” (Luke 15:7).
Holy Scripture, however, is not for private interpretation. Therefore, we cannot, like Protestants, pick whatever verses we find useful to support our own personal agenda. True Catholics think with the mind of the Church, the mind of Christ: “For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that we may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Cor. 2:16).
Let us go, therefore, to Saint Paul, to his Letter to the Romans, there we will quickly find more light to help us partake of the word of this mystery:
“And where sin abounded, grace did more abound” (Romans 5:20). And he adds in the next chapter, “What shall we say, then? shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. For we that are dead to sin, how shall we live any longer therein?” (6:1).
Therefore, this much is clear, that, as my friend noted, we must do penance for our sins as Our Lord commanded, and work out our salvation in fear and trembling: “Wherefore, my dearly beloved (as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but much more now in my absence) with fear and trembling work out your salvation” (Phil. 2:12).
In my own inadequate response to my friend’s email I stressed that one must always hold that it were better not to have sinned than to have sinned. Having sinned, however, we can taste God’s loving mercy, which we would not know had we not sinned and repented from sin. Contradiction? No! Mystery? Yes. Nevertheless, Saint Louis IX was most just when he gave this advice to his son: “You ought especially to be resolved not to commit mortal sin, no matter what may happen and should permit all your limbs to be hewn off, and suffer every manner of torment rather than fall knowingly into mortal sin.” (Letter to his eldest son, Philip)
Lastly, even though we are faced with a wonderful mystery here, Cardinal Biff’s final thoughts, which immediately follow, are worthy of reflection, and they summarize well our blessed condition, which grace alone can maintain. Let us rejoice always in the inexhaustible and unfathomable mercy of God who has given us such a Savior and, even more wonderful in a way, such an Immaculate Mother who, to quote a Protestant, the poet William Wordsworth, was “our tainted nature’s solitary boast!” O Mary, Refuge of Sinners, Pray for Us!
Here are Cardinal Biffi final thoughts:
“The sinner who repents expresses in a direct way the specific meaning and emergent value of this universe that was in fact willed by God.
“In this way we arrive at understanding that our infidelities, our foolishness, our capricious ‘no’s’ (for which we are and should be humbled and confused) can become the opportunity for a more intense spiritual life; and that our very fault is overcome and overthrown at its birth by the greater power of the love of the Father who saves.
“It is painful to see oneself in one’s own pettiness. But it is precisely in recognizing my pettiness that I see myself called to salvation and drawn near to my redeemer: my sin is not able to express itself before it is already exceeded and dissolved by the divine will for redemption.
“In the end there is something like a bittersweet gladness that does not forget our infidelities and does not neglect to weep over them, but is no longer able to see them other than as surpassed by the greater impetus of the Father’s mercy.