Recently, I shared a Sheen quote on Facebook via the Sheen Facebook page, the controversial part of which was:
When a man loves a woman, he has to become worthy of her. The higher her virtue, the more noble her character, the more devoted she is to truth, justice, goodness, the more a man has to aspire to be worthy of her. The history of civilization could actually be written in terms of the level of its women.The quote is from Sheen's book, Life is Worth Living, and the context is a distinction Sheen is drawing between the will and the intellect. When we know something (with our intellect), we lower the object of our knowledge to our level; thus, if the object of our knowledge is "above the mind in dignity, [the object], to some extent, loses its nobility because we have to pull it down to our level." Sheen illustrates this with the charming example of his "angel" (one of the stagehands), who erases the chalkboard whenever Sheen stepped away from it: "For example--what does my angel look like? How do you picture an angel? If you draw an angel, you must necessarily make an angel less beautiful than it is." In a similar manner, in our knowledge of God, we have to bring Him down to a level such that our finite intellects can grasp a tiny measure of His Infinity:
See how feeble the human mind is in dealing with a mystery like the Trinity. When we compare Three Persons in One God to three angles in one triangle, or to ice, water, and steam as three manifestations of the nature of water, we are falling so far below the sublimity of the Godhead that we almost spoil it by describing it.The opposite is true in regards to the will, as Sheen points out, because when we love something, we are going to seek to become like that which we love. Thus, the object of our love will either lift us to its level or drag us down to its squalor. Sheen continues:
The will, on the contrary, when it loves anything above it in dignity goes out to meet the demands of whatever it loves. When the will loves anything that is below it in dignity, it degrades itself. Suppose the dominant love of man was money. Man would degrade himself by loving what is less worthy than himself. In loving it, he becomes like gold. If a man loves only lust, carnality, and the pleasure of the flesh above all things, he degrades his spirit to the sole level of sex. We become like that which we love. If we love what is base, we become base; but if we love what is noble, we become noble. As Our Lord said, "Where your treasure is, there is your heart also." Hence the least love of God is worth more than the knowledge of all created things.
Who is our ideal? A player of a percussion instrument, a 398 batter, a soldier, a patriot, a saint? The higher the love, the more demands will be made on us to conform to that ideal. To a great extent the level of any civilization is the level of its womanhood. When a man loves a woman, he has to become worthy of her. The higher her virtue, the more noble her character, the more devoted she is to truth, justice, goodness, the more a man has to aspire to be worthy of her. The history of civilization could actually be written in terms of the level of its women.Post anything about women's dignity or rights on Facebook, and at least one person is going to comment or argue that you, the Catholic Church, or the author of the quote, is anti-feminist, anti-woman, anti-women's-dignity, etc. When I shared this quote on my wall, someone asked if Sheen were saying a) that "a woman's worth is measured by her virtue" and b) that "a man wouldn't have to be worthy of a woman who wasn't virtuous."
That's not what this quote means.
First of all: Is a woman's worth, or lack thereof, measured by her virtue or lack thereof? No. The intrinsic worth, dignity, or value of any person--because it is intrinsic--remains, whether or not he or she is virtuous. A person's intrinsic worth or dignity is not a "measurable" entity; it is part of who that person is: because a man or a woman is a human being, made in the image and likeness of God, he or she possesses intrinsic dignity, that no one--no government, no mandate, no court, no civil authority--can take away. Even the worst sinner possesses intrinsic dignity and is worthy of our love.
So why have I titled this post "Worthy of What We Love"? Well, because what we love can either lift us to its level or drag us down; we can either lift up what we love or allow the object of our love--whether it be a person or an object--to drag us down to its level.
Our Lord loved St. Mary Magdalene with every ounce of Human Love and Divine Love that throbbed within His Sacred Heart. He really and truly loved her, despite her sins and weaknesses; and He knew she wasn't living up to her full potential. (I am treading on very thin ice here theologically, trying to describe the Love of the God-Man for the woman whom the Bible calls "a sinner" [Lk. 7:37].) Sheen writes in Peace of Soul (also in Life is Worth Living, fifth series) that Our Lord did not destroy the intense urges and desires that led Magdalene to her sinful life; instead, He raised those urges to the heights:
Our Lord did not repress the biological vitalities of a Magdalene; He merely turned her passion from love of vice to love of virtue. Such a conversion of energies explains why the greatest sinners–like Augustine–sometimes make the greatest saints; it is not because they have been sinners that they love God with their special intensity, but because they have strong urges, violent passions, flowing emotions which, turned to holy purposes, now do as much good as they once did harm.If a virtuous man truly loves a woman who is not virtuous, and if he really wants to be "worthy" of her, he has to first strive to live up to his own potential as a son of God and a temple of the Holy Spirit. (I say "potential" because even if he's in the state of grace, he can still become better, he can still--to turn philosophical briefly--"actualize" his "potency" to be a saint. He has to "strive" because it's easy to squander that potential.) He still has to be "worthy" of her, by being the best that he can be spiritually. He has to be careful to stay close to the Sacraments, because vice, like virtue, is contagious. If he hangs around people of low morals, he will eventually adopt their low morals, unless he has a very strong character and is fortifying himself with the Sacraments; if he hangs around people of high morals, he will want to strive to become even better, because he will see the joy that they have from being in contact with Him Who is Goodness, Beauty, and Truth itself.
Only if he is trying to live in accord with his own dignity can he try to build her up. There's a saying: "Friends don't let friends drive drunk." Friends also don't let friends stay in their sins. If a virtuous man truly loves a woman who is ignorant of her intrinsic dignity or is trampling on it by a life of sin, he will want her to live up to her full potential as a daughter of God and a temple of the Holy Spirit; he will want her to be virtuous; and he will try to lift her up, especially by his own example. She still possesses that intrinsic worth and dignity, just as Magdalene did; and he is only "worthy" of her if he strives to live up to his own potential as a son of God and a temple of the Holy Spirit. So, ultimately, a man is still going to have to be "worthy" of a woman who isn't virtuous.
If we love someone who isn't living up to his or her full potential as a child of God and a temple of the Holy Spirit, we still have to be "worthy" of him or her by being "worthy" of our own dignity and our potential as children of God and temples of the Holy Spirit.
God Love you!
Yours in Fulton Sheen and all things Theological,