GUEST COLUMN
Presumption: A Pathetic Self-Deception

April 2016By Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the seventeenth century.

Pope Francis has proclaimed a Year of Mercy from December 8, 2015, to November 20, 2016. In Misericordiae Vultus, his bull of indiction announcing the jubilee year, the Holy Father instructs us to “be instruments of mercy because it was we who first received mercy from God” (no. 14), and he warns us that we will be judged on whether “we have helped others to escape the doubt that causes them to fall into despair” (no. 15). This is undoubtedly true, but despair is not the only sin opposed to God’s mercy. The other is presumption. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the sin of presumption includes the hope “to obtain [God’s] forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit” (no. 2092).

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, divine mercy follows repentance. Pope Francis confirms this proper order, encouraging priests to “place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the center once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own hands” (Misericordiae Vultus, no. 17). But nowadays far too many Catholics see no need to repent because they have decided that certain actions are not serious sins, no matter what the Church has taught since the Age of the Apostles. For example, according to recent findings by the Pew Research Center, about “half or more of U.S. Catholics say that using contraceptives, living with a romantic partner outside of marriage and remarrying after a divorce without an annulment are not sins. And about four-in-ten (39%) say homosexual behavior is not a sin” (Sept. 2, 2015). Like Eve, these foolish Catholics choose to believe that the forbidden fruit is “good” and may be eaten with impunity.

Fr. Michael Buckley, in a sermon on “False Confidence” (1870), defined presumption as “a foolish expectation of salvation without making proper use of the necessary means to obtain it.” Presumption, he said, insults the justice of God when the sinner excuses himself thus: “I was born with those weaknesses; they are inherent in my nature; other men are free from them but I am their victim; God will have it so. My deplorable tendency to sin ought rather to excite God’s pity than arm His wrath against me.”

This is “false reasoning,” Fr. Buckley replies, and he instructs the sinner that “God is not the cause of your corrupt nature. Sin is the cause of it — it sprung from the crime of Adam, and is fostered by your own self-indulgence. Again, whatever be the weakness of your nature, you are always master of your passions, otherwise God would doom you beforehand to inevitable destruction, which is inconsistent with the nature of Him who is infinitely just and good.” God is ready to answer our prayers and fortify us with graces, provided we repent and are willing to part from our “corrupt inclinations.”


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