The Church's Forgotten Teaching: the Dogma of Sufficient Grace.
The Second Sunday of the Great Fast.
The First & Second Findings of the Head of John the Baptist.
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1:44 PM 2/24/2013 — The paralyzed man in the Gospel lesson for the 2nd Sunday of the Great Fast has a lot to be thankful for, and not only the cure he receives from our Lord. He can be thankful, as well, for his friends who decided not to give up when they found they could not reach Jesus by the usual means. Taking him up onto the roof and lowering him down through the ceiling is certainly very unusual, and shows an extraordinary level of dedication and devotion, particularly since they’re doing it, not for themselves, but for someone else. And I suggest that their perseverance in taking such extreme measures to get their friend to our Lord is something that applies analogously to our own interior life and relationship with God. How many of us have given up or somehow faulted our Lord when we could not get what we wanted in the way we wanted?
Many years ago, when I was serving as a full-time hospital chaplain, I was often with families when they were told that a loved one had died. If the illness had been a long one, they usually had been praying for a recovery. And when death finally came, they inevitably felt that their prayers had gone unanswered, and this confused them. Why did God turn down their request? This is even more true when the death is sudden and unexpected, or when the person who has died was a son or a daughter; then the confusion often becomes a very bitter anger toward God: “I went to church every Sunday. I said my prayers. I lived a good life. I did what was right. Why has God let me down? Why has he betrayed me like this?” We talked about this a little at the beginning of the Great Fast.
And you will find within your own life that this is also true with regard to our own struggles with sin and temptation, especially as we try to focus on the need to reform our lives during the Great Fast: “I have asked the Lord to help me with this sin. Why am I still struggling? Why is it that God does not lift this burden from my soul like I asked him to?” And when we go to the priest to confess the same old sin time and time again, we almost want to believe that it’s God’s fault: “I prayed for strength. Why has he not given it?” Forgive me for repeating the line I've used so many times, but so many of us pray in the same way we shop: “O.K., here are my prayers and sacrifices, my good deeds, my Sunday Liturgies—here’s my money—now give me what I want?” as if God’s answer to our prayers is like payment for services rendered.
And here is where I think the behavior of the paralyzed man’s friends can be instructive for us. When they reach the house where Jesus is preaching and find that there’s no way they can get in by the door, they could have stopped right there, had a little conference among themselves, and said, “What kind of nonsense is this? Here this guy invites us to come and bring our sick to be cured, and now we find we can’t even get in. We don’t have to stand for this.” And then I suppose they could have stormed off home cursing our Lord for not being accessible enough. But that wasn't the attitude they took; instead of cursing our Lord and turning away, they find another way. And the way they find is certainly above and beyond the call of duty; it’s practically heroic. They climb up onto the roof, carrying their friend with them, and lower him through a hole the ceiling. It’s no wonder this impresses our Lord. And this is exactly why our Lord gives them what they came for: because instead of blaming him, they looked for an answer within themselves and found a way to reach our Lord, never doubting the Lord’s love for them no matter what they had to go through to be with him.
Now, I could end the homily right there, and simply say that the moral of the story is “God helps those who help themselves,” which would leave it on the level of a fourth grade Sunday School class; but, as you should know by now, there's always more to it than that. What these men do for their friend, and how our Lord responds to them, is a perfect illustration of an almost totally forgotten, universally ignored teaching of the Catholic Church called the Dogma of Sufficient Grace. You've heard it before because I keep talking about it; but, any other Catholic you meet on the street is going to have no idea what you mean by it in spite of the fact that understanding it makes the whole spectrum of Catholic moral teaching comprehensible. If the next conclave elects me pope—and don't worry; no one has suggested it—my first encyclical would be on the Dogma of Sufficient Grace, which says basically this: in any situation in which a baptized Christian is faced with a moral choice, the Holy Spirit will always provide sufficient grace to do what is right. More often than not, that grace will come through the Holy Mysteries or Sacraments of the Church.
Now, that may sound like a mouthful, but it's really quite easy to understand. All it's really saying is that there can never be such thing as “I know the Church teaches this is wrong, but I really have no choice, otherwise this will happen or that will happen, and I just can't deal with that; so, I'm forced to do this thing I know is wrong.” The Dogma of Sufficient Grace says that this can never be true; and, if you think it's true, it's all in your head, the operative word in the definition being “sufficient.” It's not the Dogma of Abundant Grace; it's the Dogma of Sufficient Grace. The word “sufficient” implies just enough to do what's right; no more, no less. If it was the Dogma of Abundant Grace, then it would mean that God gives us enough grace to do what's right without any ill effects, without any hardship, without any suffering; but, because the grace offered to us is only sufficient, it does not protect us from suffering or hardship, but it does gives us the grace to cope with and endure the suffering and hardship that may result from doing the right thing.
The classic example of the Dogma of Sufficient Grace is martyrdom. Who were the martyrs? They're men and women throughout all of church history who did the right thing even when it meant they knew they would die for it. Take a more modern example: a young girl who becomes pregnant: if she does the right thing, her whole life is changed forever. Whatever dreams she may have had for her future are out the window, because she's going to be a mother. Even if she puts her child up for adoption—which is not a bad thing to do—there's no guarantee that her child will not want to seek her out some day. There is no way that she can completely erase the consequences of her situation. The Dogma of Sufficient Grace gives her the grace to endure that hardship. If, on the other hand—and I think this is the more common response today—she concludes that this is all unfair, and God is unfair for requiring her to abandon her plans and dreams for the future, and she goes ahead and has the abortion, she gets to avoid the hardship and the suffering and can continue with her life uninterrupted; but, the price she pays for that far exceeds the hardship and suffering she thinks she's avoided, and it will be exacted from her on the day of her judgment. And in light of the fact that our time on this earth is but a drop in the ocean of eternity, a believer should have no problem recognizing that that's just too high a price to pay for rejecting God's grace. Nor is it any different even if her situation is not her fault, even if her situation is not a consequence of her own poor choices, as in the case of someone who has been raped. What did the martyrs of the First Century ever do that was wrong? All they had to do was offer sacrifice to a pagan god in a pagan temple, and they could have gone on with their happy-go-lucky lives. They chose not to do that because eternal life was more important to them than earthly life.
Now, that's just one example—and a pretty extreme one—of how the Dogma of Sufficient Grace works. We always have the ability, given to us by God, to do what is right, not only in extreme cases like a woman facing an unwanted pregnancy, but dozens of times every day, in all kinds of little situations, whenever we are faced with a choice to do right or wrong, and an easy way out always presents itself. In the case of the men described in today's Gospel, the easy choice would have been to say, “Well, we can't get in through the front door. We've done enough. No one could reasonably expect us to do more. Let's take our crippled friend and go home.” But they didn't do that. And who would've expected them to drag this man on his stretcher up onto the roof, and pull off the tiles, and lower him down through the ceiling? No reasonable person on earth would have expected that. Our Lord didn't expect it. He marveled at it, and gave them the grace of a cure for their friend.