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The New Evangelization: Exorcising the Demon of Obtuseness

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
December 5th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

As modern Popes have observed, modern society suffers from spiritual obtuseness.  Modernity is possessed by the demon of obtuseness.  It is one of its basic traits.  This is obtuseness is reflected by the fact that as a society--which means most of us on a one-by-one basis--we have lost the sense of sin.  The modern Pontiffs would seem to agree:  "The restoration of a proper sense of sin is the first way of facing the grave spiritual crisis looming over man today."

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - In the classic spiritual anthology known as the Philokalia, Evagrius Ponticus, also known as Evagrios the Solitary (345-399 A.D.), writes about the demon of obtuseness or insensitivity.  The Greek word he uses is anaisthētē.

We are familiar with the root of that word in our English word aesthete or aesthetic.  An aesthetic person--an aesthete--is one who is sensitive to, and appreciative of, beauty--beauty in nature and beauty in art.  the aesthete has an acute sense of beauty, of the form of things.  Analogously, one can be sensitive to moral, spiritual truths, in which case, in Evagrius's meaning of the term, one would be an aisthētē.

Anaisthētē is the exact opposite of aisthētē.  So someone who is an anaisthētē is not a sensitive person.  Someone who suffers from anaisthētē in Evagrius's sense of the term is unable to be sensitive to, and appreciative of, the horror of sin or evil.  With regard to sin or wickedness, he suffers from a sort of anesthesia which does not allow him to be sensitive to it.  In short, he is obtuse.  Like someone who is under anesthesia (who has loss the sense of pain), the person under the influence of the demon of anaisthēsis has lost the sense of sin.

Evagrius Ponticus describes what happens to a person who is approached by, and succumbs to, the demon of obtuseness. 

First, the soul "departs from its proper state," which is to say, it finds itself in a disordered state relative to God, to nature, and to itself.  The soul becomes out of synch with God, and nature, and itself, and so immediately the higher spiritual and intellectual appetites do not govern the lower, animal or sensual appetite. 

This immediately leads to a state of enmity with God.  For a disordered soul "strips itself of reverence and the fear of God," Evagrius notes.

Once the love of God and the fear of God are lost, the loss of the sense of sin promptly follows.  Hence, the person who has fully succumbed to the demon of obtuseness, the anaisthētē, "no longer regards sin as sin, or wickedness as wickedness."

Left to their own devices--"thoughts of self-esteem" in the words of Evagrius--the spiritually obtuse persons, in the words of St. Paul in the first chapter of his epistle to the Romans, are given up to "the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading their bodies among themselves," to "degrading passions," to "a debased mind and to things that should not be done," including "every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice, full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless."  They become, in a word, moderns.

In his apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, Blessed John Paul II describes this spiritual obtuseness or loss of the sense of sin as the loss of "a fine sensitivity and an acute perception of the seeds of death contained in sin, as well as a sensitivity and an acuteness of perception for identifying them in the thousand guises under which sin shows itself."  (RP, No. 18)

The loss of the sense of sin shows itself in concrete behavior, all of it arising from a repudiation of any sense or notion of the objective moral law, a conscience that is governed by such law, or of a final judgment.  An obtuse soul "looks on judgment and the eternal punishment of hell as mere words," Evagrius says. 

We might add that some modern theologians, surely under the spell of this demon of obtuseness, tell us similarly that Hell is a story, a myth, a pedagogical device, but not by any means a place where souls may find themselves to be eternally damned.

The person who has fallen prey to the demon of obtuseness does not necessarily become an overt atheist (though he certainly may), but he is a practical one for sure.  He acts, in the words of the jurist Grotius, etiamsi daremus non esse Deum, daringly, audaciously, irresponsibly, as if God did not exist.

His belief in God becomes nominal.  For example, he can say "God bless America"  or "God bless Planned Parenthood" without religious scruple while America aborts babies by the millions and thinking this a wonderful thing even a human right, since God really means nothing.  God is just a mere word.  Evagrius Pontus says that "while supposedly confessing God," the obtuse soul possessed by the demon of obtuseness "has no understanding of His commandments."  Belief in God means nothing in practice.

As modern Popes have noticed, modern society suffers from spiritual obtuseness.  Modernity is possessed by the Evagrian demon of obtuseness.  It is one of its basic traits.  This is obtuseness is reflected by the fact that as a society--which means most of us on a one-by-one basis--we have lost the sense of sin.

In his 1946 Radio Message to the United States Catechetical Congress, Pope Pius XII observed that the "sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin," to wit, we confront obtuse souls under the thrall of the demon of obtuseness. 

And since Pius XII, the problem has gotten worse.  Much worse.

The spiritual notion we find in Evagrius Ponticus and in Pius XII appears in the messages of Blessed John Paul II and in Pope Benedict XVI.

Among other places, Pope John Paul II stressed the loss of the sense of sin in his apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia.  He attributed this loss to several causal factors: growing secularism and a concomitant moral relativism, erroneous theories in human sciences such as psychology or sociology, an improper education or formation of youth, and the constant barrage of the media which is hostile to traditional values.  Ultimately, however, he saw the cause as fundamentally spiritual: a denial of God.  (RP, No. 18)

Pope Benedict XVI reiterated that truth.  He very clearly saw the loss of the sense of God as a spiritual problem.  In his poetic words during his Angelus reflections on March 13, 2011, he said: "If God is eliminated from the world's horizon, one cannot speak of sin.  As when the sun is hidden, shadows disappear.  Shadows only appear if the sun is out; hence the eclipse of God necessarily entails the eclipse of sin.  Therefore the sense of sin--which is something different from the "sense of guilt" as psychology understands it--is acquired by rediscovering the sense of God."

Both recent Pontiffs would agree:  "The restoration of a proper sense of sin is the first way of facing the grave spiritual crisis looming over man today."

John Paul II in fact insisted that "the sense of sin can only be restored through a clear reminder of the unchangeable principles of reason and faith which the moral teaching of the church has always upheld."  (RP, No. 18)

But the problem, as the Church has learned during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, is not that easy.  We've talked about the "New Evangelization" for some time now, but the spiritual malaise seems to persist--at least in the West.  In fact, it seems to have gotten worse.

People in the West--in particular in the United States and in Europe, the areas of the world with which I have some familiarity--have become progressively more spiritually obtuse and so do not take to spiritual truths very well, in particular the Gospel.  The demon of obtuseness--having once taken root in a person and in society--is notoriously difficult to exorcise.

Evagrius Ponticus spoke about the intrinsic problems that arise when confronting persons who have lost the sense of sin.  As a result of their obtuseness, they are naturally postured to reject the Gospel message.  Their obtuseness makes them relatively impervious to the Gospel, however presented.

If one speaks of a final judgment or of a hell, the spiritually obtuse person will ridicule the message.  The spiritual obtuse person--like the demon by which he is possessed--"looks on judgment and the eternal punishment of hell as mere words," he "laughs at the fire which causes the earth to tremble," says Evagrius.

Words of warning--from simple suggestions to earnest impetrations to thundering jeremiads--are of no avail.  "You may beat your breast as such a soul draws near to sin, but it takes no notice," Evagrius observes.

The obtuse soul is immune to the words of Scripture or the "principles of faith" John Paul II mentioned:  "You recite from Holy Writ," Evagrius says, "yet it is wholly indifferent and will not hear."

Invoking the natural moral law, the law that governs conscience, or traditional values--the "principles of reason" referred to by John Paul II--similarly has no effect.  "You point out its shame and disgrace among men," Evagrius points out, but "it ignores you, like a pig that closes its eyes and charges through a fence."

But what about Pope Francis?  Where does he stand? 

Interestingly, despite the insistence of his predecessors that regaining the loss of the sense of sin is a central part of the New Evangelization, nowhere--at least in haec verba--does Pope Francis mention it in his recent apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.  While he does mention it as one of a number of "cultural challenges" (No. 64), it does not seem to have the centrality in his thought that it did with his predecessors.  What's up with that?

Although it is difficult to know exactly what Pope Francis is thinking, he may--like Evagrius--realize that the demon of obtuseness cannot be cajoled out--exorcised--through means befitting people who are spiritually sensitive.  As chief pastor of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis may believe that something else ought to be tried.

In a closing comment, Evagrius notes that the demon of obtuseness is one of those kinds of demons "that seldom approach brethren living in a community."  Rather, it is found more prevalently in "solitaries,"  which is to say in individualistic hermits.  This insight by Evagrius many centuries ago may afford us some insight into Pope Francis departure--in praxis, but not in doctrine--from his immediate predecessors. 

That is a topic reserved for our next article.

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Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

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