They trembled with fear where there was nothing to fear

Source: District of Asia

Times are no longer festive. For several years now, fear has invaded our societies. Hope is disappearing from our horizon in favor of a world of uncertainty. Should Catholics associate themselves with the prevailing terror?

Ambient Terror

Terrorism, global warming, social and racial tensions, censorship, urban clashes, migratory flows and, on top of that, the famous virus: these are the new avatars of contemporary terror that hover over this world like birds of ill omen. From November 2015 to 2017, France spent two years in a “state of emergency” through six extensions due to the attacks. In January 2019, the young Greta Thunberg said at the Davos summit about global warming: “I want you to panic, I want you to feel the fear I feel every day,” like a prophetess of an apocalypse without Divine Revelation. More recently, the newspaper, Libération, it its October 4, 2020 edition, published an article on the danger of “reassuranceists” who were wrong to break the consensus of fear. A doctor wrote: “They scare me a lot.” Those who reassure should be feared.

These positions are reversed when it comes to a vaccine. The camp of fear then becomes that of “reassurance” and vice versa, so that one cannot univocally designate a camp of fear. One fear is correlative to another: those who do not fear the virus may fear government measures, journalistic anathema, peer criticism, heated discussions, denunciations from the neighborhood, fines, or even the loss of a job.

What varies is what we are afraid of: the object of our fears is indicative of who we are.

Should fear be banished?

The Old Testament does not have a monopoly on fear. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself experienced fear in the Garden of Olives: He began to be seized with dread and anguish (Mk 14:33). Later, in the Acts of the Apostles we learn of the fraud of Saphira and Ananias that St. Peter rebuked harshly. Then: “Ananias, having heard these words, fell down and died. And great fear came upon all who heart it” (Acts. 5:5). Saint Paul also says that we must work our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).

Fear is helpful. It is good for the child to be afraid of fire. It keeps them from danger. When he is not afraid of it, it is the mother who fears for her child. Saint Thomas Aquinas notes that passions – and therefore fear – are only bad “when they escape the government of reason” 1 . Fear is bad when it is not regulated by reason: either by excess or by defect.

There are unfounded fears such as Lepidopterophobia: it is the fear of butterflies…There are also well-founded but excessive fears: one must certainly be afraid of fire, but not panic for all that. Panic precipitates bad decisions, often worse than the feared evil. Reason, on the contrary, takes its time.

By defect, it is also possible to lack fear: “Don’t you fear God?” (Lk. 23:40) rightly asked the good thief to his fellow thief who attacked Our Lord on the Cross. Many men walk in the recklessness of their eternal loss.

The Psalmist denounces both the excess and the defect in the fool who does not believe in God: “The fear of God is not before their eyes…They did not call upon the Lord; they trembled with fear where there was nothing to fear” (Ps. 14:3,5).

The fear of God has an important place in Scripture. It is the “beginning of Wisdom” (Ps. 110:10). The Psalmist tells us that it is “holy” and “abides forever and ever” (Ps. 18:10), therefore even in blessed eternity. It is even a gift of the Holy Spirit (Is. 11:3).

Genesis of Fear

Far from the modern opinion that opposes love and fear, Saint Thomas Aquinas places love at the origin of all passion and therefore of fear2 . In fact, we fear that an evil will reach a loved one. He who does not love does not fear. The less one is attached to money, the less one fears its unexpected loss. This is how St. Augustine states that “passions are good or bad, depending on whether love is good or bad3 .

A little further on, St. Augustine states the well-known formula: “TWO LOVES HAVE MADE TWO CITIES: the love of self to the point of contempt for God, the earthly city, the love of God to the point of contempt of self, the heavenly city”4 . If there are two loves, then there are also two fears: one worldly and the other divine. One between the world and our body, the other between God and our soul.

But at the origin of love there is knowledge. Saint Thomas Aquinas notes that nothing is loved that is not first known5 . One must know good in order to love it, and one must know evil in order to fear it. We must at least suppose that we know, for error also nourishes love and fear.

So there are also different fears depending on what feeds our intelligence: the media or the sermon. The fear of God disappears when we stop hearing Divine truths being preached or doing pious readings. It is undoubtedly useful to inform ourselves with measure in the media, but it is right to give the best part to preaching that inspires us with fear for our eternity and not for what is passing.

Thus, fear is extinguished when the screen turns off. It is sometimes necessary to turn off the screen to avoid falling into the spiral of fear: information foments fear and fear makes people search for information. All the more so since the one who fears “believes things to be more terrible than they are6 . Horror films show us that there is a morbid desire to scare oneself, and this desire does not only affect fiction. We know that we must sometimes silence danger in order not to cause panic.

Fear and Providence

Saint Thomas notes that we fear only that which is beyond our power7 . The fearful will therefore seek either to regain control over evil or to rely on someone who has control over it.

It is natural that man seeks to master what is in his power. God has given him power over the world, which he develops through technology, especially through medicine. But whatever happens, there will always remain a part of things that is beyond his knowledge or power: “Who among you can add a cubit to his size?” (Mt. 6:27).

From then on, one must recognize one’s limits and entrust oneself to the Eternal Father who can do everything. In fear, the child is reassured by his father and the Christian entrusts himself to God:

Do not worry8  for your life…look at the birds of the air…your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth more?” (Mt. 6:25-27).

This idea of abandonment to God has become unbearable for modern man who wants to believe that he can know and control everything. We have become accustomed to a sanitized world where nothing goes beyond the fixed framework; everything is smoothed out with the help of advanced technology, all kinds of insurance and a powerful if not invasive administration. Armed with the precautionary principle, we seek to ensure that nothing escapes man’s control in the paternalistic welfare state akin to God the Father.

From this perspective, it is no longer contradictory to push some towards the exit by promoting euthanasia and to forbid others to die, even if it means depriving them of all freedom. These are only two aspects of a will to control what belongs to the sole sovereign power of God: life and death.

But when it becomes obvious that man is more skilled at restricting life than at preventing death; when he proves himself powerless to stem a virus a thousand times smaller than a hair is think, all that remains is to fall back more violently into fear.

Fear of God, fear of men

Do not fear those who kill the body, and cannot kill the soul; but rather fear him who can lose both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28).

The same sentence of Our Lord contains the two contrary injunctions. There is not only the famous “do not be afraid9 , but also “be afraid”: It is a commandment of God. Our Lord reassures us against thanatophobia: the fear of losing our physical life. He commands us to fear for our soul.

Today’s world is not afraid to promote and develop the killing of the unborn child while it fears for dolphins, polar bears, and the like. The fear of revealing one’s body, which is called modesty, disappears from this world while people are offended by anything that goes beyond the norms set on social networks.

On the contrary, Catholics should be less afraid of global warming than of the cooling of souls. Dechristianization should worry him more than social or racial tensions. They should fear the drying up of priestly and religious vocations, not the tyranny of prevailing opinion and the prevailing way of life. Catholics should not be afraid to affirm their faith by their mouth and in their actions, lest God reproach them for their weakness: “If anyone in the adulterous and sinful generation blushes at Me and My words, the Son of Man will also blush at Him” (Mk. 8:38). Above all, he must fear the leprosy of sin far beyond bodily illnesses.

Our time is far from the audacity of a Saint Paul facing perils for the love of souls: “Perils on rivers, perils of thieves, perils on behalf of my nation, perils of the Gentiles, perils in cities, perils in the desert, perils on the sea, perils among false brethren; in work and fatigue, in many vigils, in hunger and thirst, in many fasts, in cold and nakedness” (2 Cor. 11:26).

In 1905, the year of battle, Father Janvier, O.P. preached at Notre-Dame de Paris words that seems to have been said for our times:

…the fear of men acts on our behavior, imposing on us attitudes that our conscience reproves, the omission of acts that our convictions command us.

…Enter the groups of our society, you will see men made to abandon their duties, to deny their education, their traditions, their masters, to remain slaves of a handful of miserable people they are afraid of. What does the odious sect of the Freemasons not obtain in our generation?

…they fear the criticism of a bad leaf, the disapproval of their voters, what do I know? The personality, the freedom, abandon themselves under the influence of this feeling which is decorated with the name of prudence, which leads to treason, which is called in psychology, fear, and in morals, cowardice.

(R.P. Janvier, O. P., Exposition de la Morale Catholique III - Les Passions, Lethielleux edition)

Therefore let us not seek to banish all fear, but let us seek the true fear of God. What is most feared is that God will one day say of us: “The fear of God is not before their eyes. ... they trembled with fear where there was nothing to fear” (Ps 14).

Abbé Frédéric Weil FSSPX

1. S.T. Ia IIae, Q. 24, A. 2

2. S.T. Ia IIae, Q. 25, A. 1 & 2

3. The City of God, Bk. 14, Ch. 7

4. The City of God, Bk. 14, Ch. 28

5. “Non potest amari nisi cognitum”, S.T. Ia IIae, Q. 27, A. 2. Saint Thomas takes again Saint Augustine who is quoted in the same article: nullus potest amare aliquid incognitum.

6. S.T. Ia IIae, Q. 44, A. 2, corpus

7. S.T. Ia IIae, Q. 42, A. 3. Strictly speaking, we cannot fear sin because it is in our power, but we must fear temptation.

8. The exhortation to get rid of anxiety recurs three times in this beautiful passage of the Sermon on the Mount.

9. “Don't be afraid,” however, often comes back in the mouth of the Word made flesh: nearly twelve times. Our Lord repeatedly gives the reason for not being afraid: “It is I,” he says

  • 1S.T. Ia IIae, Q. 24, A. 2
  • 2S.T. Ia IIae, Q. 25, A. 1 & 2
  • 3The City of God, Bk. 14, Ch. 7
  • 4The City of God, Bk. 14, Ch. 28
  • 5"Non potest amari nisi cognitum", S.T. Ia IIae, Q. 27, A. 2. Saint Thomas takes again Saint Augustine who is quoted in the same article - "nullus potest amare aliquid incognitum."
  • 6S.T. Ia IIae, Q. 44, A. 2, corpus
  • 7S.T. Ia IIae, Q. 42, A. 3. Strictly speaking, we cannot fear sin because it is in our power, but we must fear temptation.
  • 8The exhortation to get rid of anxiety recurs three times in this beautiful passage of the Sermon on the Mount.
  • 9"Don't be afraid", however, often comes back in the mouth of the Word made flesh - nearly twelve times. Our Lord repeatedly gives the reason for not being afraid - "It is I", he says.