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Is fear a sin? Is it just an emotion? How are Christians meant to understand fear? Is there such a thing as fear that is actually a gift from the Holy Spirit? Father Hugh Barbour fearlessly tackles a host of questions about fear.


CK: Is fear a sin? Father Hugh Barbour, next.

Hello and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I’m Cy Kellett, your host, and it’s a time of fear. There is a good deal of fear all around us. It’s in part because of the virus certainly, but we can live in a frightened age in many ways. We have our strange fears, sometimes nameless, sometimes they have a name and an object connected to them. So we’ll talk a bit about fear today in this episode, and to help us do that, we welcome Father Hugh Barbour, a Norbertine priest.

FHB:
Here I am.

CK:
I do not know if you remember this Father, but when I was young, there was a Pope named John Paul the Second. All right?

FHB:
Yes, I do recall this.

CK:
Oh, you recall him?

FHB:
Yes, yes. I am older than you are.

CK:
Oh, yeah. Okay. Well, I didn’t know how your recollection was though.

FHB:
I’ll be 60 this weekend.

CK:
Really?

FHB:
Yes.

CK:
Congratulations.

FHB:
60 on May 16th, yeah.

CK:
Well, you seem like a very young 60. You don’t feel that? I don’t know, maybe.

FHB:
Sometimes I think I don’t feel any different from when I was 20, but that’s a question of feelings.

CK:
Okay, so Pope John Paul, he gets elected Pope and he comes out and he says, “Be not afraid.” What do you think was the motive of that? Do you think he looked at the world and said, “This is a world in fear?”

FHB:
Well, the use of fear there is referring to an emotion of fear, which has an impact on our moral life and our life of faith. He was using it there in the way our Lord uses it, more as the passion of fear, which has become inordinate and needs to be healed by God’s grace and the reassurances that of faith. Fear is a broader notion than that, but that’s the concept which is used when you’re confronted with something which is beyond your can or which you don’t see the hope of being able to overcome.

CK:
All right, well, because he’s quoting the Lord and in general, you would say a command of the Lord, if we don’t follow it, we’re sinning. But are we sinning when we’re afraid then?

FHB:
No, in fact, we’re obliged to fear certain things. It says, “Fear God and keep his commandments”. That is, fear is one of the 11 passions of the human soul, and it’s that passion that affects our senses and imagination and memory when we’re confronted with some evil in the future, which is hard to overcome. So something that’s going to happen in the future that’s an evil or something bad that is hard to overcome, that’s what causes fear. That’s like light to the eye, you see color, right? Present the affections of a human being and their perception with the prospect of a future evil, which can only be avoided with difficulty? Automatically, there’s fear.

CK:
There’s fear, yeah, right.

FHB:
It’s a natural passion of ours that we have. Not natural in the technical domestic sense, I just say that in the case of someone carping on the other side, but just in general, it’s something that all men have and have to have in order to live safely and uprightly in this life. That is, we are supposed to have the emotion of fear when we’re confronted with an evil which is future and difficult to overcome.

But then the response to that is to respond to that with the emotion of courage or the virtue of fortitude, whereby we are able to confront evils that are difficult to avoid or obtain goods which are difficult to obtain. There is an answer. Courage is the basic answer for fear, but we have to dig a little deeper for the origin of fear itself because we wouldn’t fear any future evil if we did not love something else, some other good. In a certain sense, love is a kind of cause of fear in that you wouldn’t be afraid of some future evil unless you love something else. So the fleeing from evil is fleeing to the safety of the thing that we love, or the true good that we are loving.

For example, we can say some people don’t fear to commit certain sins and other people do, right? Their fear of committing a certain sin is born of their love for God and his Commandments, and so they flee the occasion of sin and seek not to commit it. But if they’ve lost that sense, well then that’s a defect, it’s a fear that they need to have. But in general, we fear anything that makes us unable to see what the outcome could be of a certain situation. It’s natural. We’re knowing creatures, [inaudible 00:04:59] by nature desire to know, and we’re confronted with something which is beyond our understanding, then automatically that’s a potential evil. Ignorance is the fundamental human evil because we have use of reason. So there are different kinds of fear.

For example, the most basic one that you get and you discover as soon as you become an adolescent or a child, some of you, the reason is the fear we could call laziness, the fear of effort perceived as an evil that’s hard to do, and so we fall into what is called [Foreign language 00:05:41], slowness or laziness. That’s a fear of putting out effort, right? That obviously has to be confronted with a courageous attempt to get our duties done and to get them done, your mother says, “Well, do it now and you won’t be troubled by it later. Learn how to do it. Let me show you.” Those are all helping our children overcome their fear of the effort it takes to do something that appears to them to be difficult. It can be tying your shoes at one point in your life.

CK:
Yeah, “I don’t want to.”

FHB:
Right, right. But there’s a natural human tendency to fall into a kind of laziness that is often due to fear. People that are lazy tend also not to be particularly courageous because they’re overcome by various fears. Now another one is the future evil of a bad opinion of oneself by oneself or by others, there we have shame and embarrassment. So the thought, “If I do that, I’ll feel shame.” Shame is the type of fear that happens when we’ve done something that harms our own opinion of ourself very greatly. That’s why shaming people is so wounding and effective means of controlling them because you make them feel bad about themselves. The less of that you use the better in this life, because it doesn’t help people to be shamed continually. It has to be something really, really bad or dangerous in order to justify shaming people. Children grow up, some of them grew up feeling ashamed of the simplest, dumbest things because of the way in which they’re corrected. That form of fear needs to be used with very great moderation and to be avoided, even when you tell people, “Psychologically, don’t focus on shame, no matter what you’ve done.”

On the other hand is embarrassment, that’s what other people think. Well, that’s closer to guilt and that’s not so unreasonable. It’s natural to be embarrassed if you’ve done something wrong and other people know about it. You can deal with that by amending your life and regaining your good name or whatever, if you can. But then the one that’s the most fundamentally human you might say is the fear called wonder, or in Latin, [Latin 00:08:05], because wonder means that we are confronted with something which so amazes us we wonder at the cause. Of course, the human mind wants to know what’s behind that phenomenon, like a magnificent sunset in the beautiful Pacific Ocean with a sun setting in the West or rising in the East, if you’re on the Atlantic, or however it rises when you’re in the Gulf of Mexico, rises over land [crosstalk 00:08:30] whatever.

But the [Foreign language 00:08:35], the not knowing the cause, causes an emotion of admiration or wonder, and that begins our search for knowledge because we don’t want to be ignorant. We want to find out. Wondering about things is a species of fear, which we almost associate with something pleasant or delightful. The same goes in relationships of love and romance and whatnot, where you’re just kind of amazed, like, “I can’t believe that girl actually likes me”, and you kind of go, “Wow.” Then she helps you to discover what it is in you that actually makes you attractive as it may not have occurred to you because you were shamed too much when you were a child and you were always embarrassed as a gangly teenager. So consequently… And then of course, if the evil is just so enormous that you just don’t know what to do about it, that’s what St. Thomas called stupor. We were stunned by it. That’s a form of fear as well, like the deer in the headlights.

CK:
That’s a horrible thing.

FHB:
It’s a terrible thing.

CK:
Sometimes you can see something so horrible, an act or something, that you almost question reality at that moment where you’re like, “Is this real? Has this person really done this? Is this a real…” It can take a long time to recover from that, but a moment to recover even your ability to-

FHB:
To respond.

CK:
To respond, that’s what Thomas means by stupor?

FHB:
Well, actually that characteristic is common to fear in general, fear causes a contraction he says in a person. It’s a contraction. That’s good to apply psychologically to our whole situation now, there’s this fear of the coronavirus, you see someone walking towards you in a grocery store aisle who’s not wearing a face mask.

CK:
That’s no problem for me because I’m carrying a stick. I just hit them. I’m now carrying a corona stick.

FHB:
Oh, really?

CK:
Is that bad? Do you think that’s bad?

FHB:
Well, St. Charles Borromeo had a long stick that he used during the plague to maintain the distance. He would go out to see the faithful-

CK:
But he wasn’t hitting people?

FHB:
No, he wasn’t hitting people, but he used it in order to maintain the distance.

CK:
I’m only kidding, yeah.

FHB:
But I mean, they did that even back then. They didn’t know about microbes-

CK:
Social distancing.

FHB:
They didn’t know about microbes, but they knew there was something about contact that [crosstalk 00:10:44]. They even had long, long, long spoons on which the host was placed so you go to the windows of the shut-in and the Priest could give them Communion on a long silver spoon.

CK:
Oh, we could’ve done that during [crosstalk 00:10:59] That would’ve come in handy the last-

FHB:
Would’ve come in handy, right.

CK:
Few months. Okay. So, you’re walking down the supermarket and you see the person without the mask and you clench up a little bit, right?

FHB:
That causes the contraction. That’s natural to anything that is feared. The fact is that the way we overcome unreasonable fear is by understanding what are true evils and how are they to be confronted if they’re unavoidable. It’s perfectly natural and virtuous to flee something that’s an evil for us, but if it’s an evil that we have to confront, for example, to defend our family or our person or a property or say a soldier who’s at war, or something like that, then the fear has to be overcome in order for us to be morally upright. We don’t just run away and do nothing. You see a little old lady being mugged, at least you cry for help if you can’t really reasonably engage these giant guys that are attacking her, but you probably would because-

CK:
Well, I’ve got my stick with me.

FHB:
Right, you’ve got your stick so you can beat them. Right. But the point is is that there are certain fears that we have to confront because in order to obtain a moral good that’s greater, we have to make use of courage, but there are other fears where we’re legitimately able to flee. For example, you don’t want to shake hands with people or hug people in church because of this coronavirus. That could be regarded as a legitimate fear, some people of course will argue with that, but the point is it’s a legitimate fear. If you’re at all charitable to other people, you would recognize that and respect it. They are actually afraid of your shaking hands with them, so you respect that. They’re making use of their fear in a moderated way, not being rude or unkind, but nodding and smiling and whatnot. But still the fear is what generates that particular contraction of their behavior. They’re not required to confront all their fears, they’re required to confront such evils which are difficult to overcome but which involve them morally, like people they have to defend or who are innocent or weak or unable to help themselves. But otherwise, it’s only reasonable to flee evils.

CK:
But it seems to me that in our current state, we’re fleeing goods a lot of the time. People are afraid of marriage, for example, and marriage is such a common, basic good. I’m not using any precise, theological language there. It’s just such a good, but we’re so afraid of it.

FHB:
Well, yeah, it reminds me in the Scriptures, it says, “Woe to you who call good evil and evil good.” We have a culture in which normal traditional family life has been demonized, not just ignored, it’s been treated with suspicion and ordinary parents who want to raise their children and educate them in the love and fear of God, they’re regarded as dangerous, they’re haters. That’s one thing, and then the world is actually afraid of Christian marriage. But then of course, the world being afraid of Christian marriage allows for divorce very, very freely, and so young people grow up in an atmosphere in which half of the marriages don’t work out. It becomes more and more normal for them to be concerned that they don’t want to get into something as serious as marriage and then have it all fall apart. They’re afraid to make the commitment. That’s the thing, it’s worse in men than women, probably. Young men, when do they get married now? 28, 29, 30, or older?

CK:
If that, they feel like they’re young when they do that.

FHB:
Right, exactly. Of course, not too long ago you got married when you were 19 or 20. But of course you also got married with the social skills and the social identity which enabled you to do that. Whereas now-

CK:
Right, yeah. Maybe you really aren’t ready.

FHB:
[crosstalk 00:14:49] People feel like little children still and in many ways are. But no, that’s a particular problem, but it’s caused by the other passions that have overtaken society of lust or a fear of loss of material prosperity. That fear of loss of material prosperity consequent upon marriage is a very big one. It was not surprising to the Fathers of the church or to the sacred writers in Scripture, or to the moral theologians of the church like St. [inaudible 00:15:25] that poor people get married. Really poor people who lack the means of support, they get married because it’s better to marry than not to marry unless you’re being unfaithful or irresponsible. You try to obtain work and to support your family to the best of your ability, but the notion that somehow marrying without the guarantee of [crosstalk 00:15:51].

CK:
Material [crosstalk 00:00:15:52].

FHB:
[crosstalk 00:15:51] success and money is somehow immoral or irresponsible is something that would come as quite a surprise to all of the teeming, millions of people who want the companionship of family life and the joy of having children, even if it means risking all kinds of material disadvantages. That’s something that our culture doesn’t understand.

CK:
Well, for example, the fear of marriage that we have, is that sinful fear? Is that…

FHB:
Well, to fear a positive good because of the difficulties that come about in obtaining it, that’s the cowardice. It’s actually an immoral kind of fear. No one should fear marriage because they think that it’s too difficult or impossible unless they have some subjective condition that makes it so they’re not able to marry at the moment, some psychological or physical condition. But fearing a good because it’s just too difficult is something that we can do, and that we’re supposed to do is something we just simply are told we should overcome. John Paul the Second’s words quoting our Lord, that’s what we’re referring to. Be not afraid. I’m with you, the God of Heaven and Earth who took human nature and gives you the grace and the protection and the guarantee of eternal life.

What’s the worst thing that could happen to you? You could become a martyr. All right? You’re probably not going to be, but if you did, it would be a blessing, not a curse. There’s some martyrs who almost ran away out of fear and still persevered to the end. That’s a work with of charity because if we love the Lord, we’re willing to endure difficulties for his sake, and the sacrament of matrimony is a sign of Christ’s union with the church, and so it’s a sign of his great love for us, and it’s a sacrament of great love. Therefore, when it’s difficult, all the more reason to insist courageously that we’re going to make this work and not simply give up and flee in a cowardly way towards a new spouse or whatever, it just depends.

Of course, need not say it, there are obviously situations that require separation and all that, I’m was saying that just in case you don’t realize that I realize that for those listening. But in point of fact, marriage is a positive good. It’s not something we viewed with suspicion it’s supposed to be viewed as commonly speaking, the most common and the goodest state of life for most people.

CK:
It’s a thing to be aspired to, not to be terrified of.

FHB:
[crosstalk 00:18:33] for and to love it because it’s going to give meaning and direction to your life. [inaudible 00:18:38] you’re not an adult, you’re not a grown man, until you have something to take care of, someone and something to take care of. Taking care of people, whether it’s through marriage or through care of souls or to some institution, that’s what makes you an adult.

CK:
There has been a distinction traditionally between servile and filial fear. Can you just explain that to me?

FHB:
Well, that introduces the fear which is not just the emotion of fear we were talking about, that’s the reaction of our passions or our feelings or our inclinations towards a future evil which is hard to overcome. But in the case of the terms filial and servile fear, we’re talking about the gift of the Holy Spirit called fear. It has the same name as the emotion, and it has certain things in common with it. For example, the fear of the loss of a future good which is hard to obtain, that definition still stands there, but there it’s a gift infused by the Holy Spirit upon our baptism or our justification by grace, and it’s the fear we’re given which is motivated by purely by the love of God which sets aside any motivation other than the love of God for avoiding sin and for reverencing and honoring God.

As Apostles says, “Perfect love casts out fear.” So the filial fear, which is the gift of the Holy Spirit, is infused into us at baptism. In practicing it, we adhere to God for God’s sake and we fear to offend him because he is so good and deserving of all our love. Whereas servile fear is a fear which fears the punishment that is consequent upon our sins. It’s called servile because it’s slavish, there’s not the fear of a son, [Foreign language 00:20:35] or daughter, filial fear, but rather the fear of a slave or a servant. That servile fear is not bad per se, that is, it’s certainly reasonable to fear God’s punishments, but it’s not-

CK:
Many people have avoided great evil because they feared hell. That has actually happened.

FHB:
Right, right. Oh yeah, definitely. It’s not a bad thing in itself, but if it’s the sole motivation for avoiding sin, it’s not compatible with the fullest contrition because we want to avoid sin not just because we’d be punished. That is, I would do this, God, if you weren’t going to punish me, but since you’re going to punish me, I’m not going to do it, meaning that you don’t recognize that it’s something that intrinsically offends God that’s against his love. You’re not getting the basic part of the Christian message that we’re supposed to love God, and our neighbors, ourselves, for God’s sake.

CK:
Right, you’re missing a piece there. You’re missing a key piece, yeah.

FHB:
Right, and that’s what we call perfect contrition, the charity which we have in perfect contrition is motivated in the same way that the filial fear, the gift of the Holy Spirit is. I’m sorry for my sins and I [inaudible 00:21:45] to amend in the future because I love you above all things that are all good and deserving of my love, and by sinning, I’ve offended you. So the servile fear fears the evil of punishment, and that’s an true evil of human nature. Filial fear fears the evil of offense against God or of guilt, it’s called the [foreign language 00:22:09], that’s guilt like [Latin 00:22:11], or [Latin 00:22:12], that is the evil of punishment. Of course, they’re both there in the act of contrition you’ll notice, both motives are given because we can have a supernatural fear of God’s punishments based on our faith, but that’s insufficient for the healing of our soul. We need to have perfect contrition. For that, we could only pray, and then of course, if we still can’t get a perfect contrition, it’s still true that the absolution of the Priest and the sacrament makes our imperfect contrition perfect by the gift of Christ.

CK:
I guess I’m thinking about this idea of servile and filial fear, and I want to give a concrete example of it and see if I have it correct. I think as one matures little by little in the Christian faith, one becomes more attached to the name of Jesus so that any instance of the misuse of the name of Jesus… It begins to become really bothersome.

FHB:
Hurtful.

CK:
Hurtful, yeah. It seems to me that that involves a kind of fear of, “I don’t want to misuse the name of Jesus. That’s related to love for Him.” So that when you’re young, people use the name of Jesus just as an exclamation, kind of. Then when you get older, you fear to do that, not because you think Jesus is going to slap you for misusing His name, but you-

FHB:
Mary’s going to slap you for that.

CK:
She’ll do it, too. I’m trying to get a concrete example, because I’m not good at the abstracts, just to solidify this in my mind that this filial love for Jesus then becomes a fear of misusing his name. But that fear is not servile fear.

FHB:
Right, it’s not just fear of the punishment, it’s a fear for Jesus’ sake.

CK:
But it is actually an offense against something very important, someone very important.

FHB:
Yeah, so if a devout person misuses the Holy ame of Jesus, they would feel pained at heart, and their first thought would not be the punishment, but rather, “How could I ever speak of him in that way?”

CK:
Or, I don’t even want to encourage anyone else to do that. The certain way in which you react to the misuse of the name of Jesus, either with blankness or with negativity, because you’re like, “Don’t do that. Don’t…”

FHB:
Well, we should tell people that too, say, “You shouldn’t be using the name of Jesus like that because Christians, Protestants, and Catholics, all of us, we have a reverence for the name of Jesus, and it’s the name of God made man, it’s the name of the savior. It means savior, and so we shouldn’t use it in that way. Just try to give them a little guilt trip to get them to stop.

CK:
Yeah, get them to have a little servile fear [crosstalk 00:25:17].

FHB:
Or you could just say, “Look, I’d rather you say the F word a hundred times than to say Jesus like that.” That is, people often confess or talk about cussing, and foul language is not the same thing as cursing or using God’s name in vain. The latter is much worse, using God’s name in vain is a lot worse than using the four letter words that we’ve heard before. I’m not encouraging anyone to use those either.

CK:
No, that’s what I heard, Father. I heard you told me-

FHB:
But I’m just saying, children need to know that the misuse of the name is worse than foul language.

CK:
Oh, without question. Yeah. Right, right. [crosstalk 00:25:55] Jesus is so much better [crosstalk 00:25:57].

FHB:
People that can say GD very easily who would never say any other four letter word because it’s so indignified.

CK:
Okay, so fear then in itself is a passion.

FHB:
A passion.

CK:
It’s just an emotion.

FHB:
It’s an emotion.

CK:
And I’m not guilty of my emotions.

FHB:
No.

CK:
An emotion is not a sin.

FHB:
Our emotions are in and of themselves necessary for the conduct of human life. We all need to have fear, we all need to have hope, we all need to have a reasonable love and desire for things or an aversion to things that are bad for us, all the different emotions we need to have. But because of original sin and our weakness, the emotions turn sometime to become passions of the soul, which are exaggerated, so you have too much fear or too much hope, too much presumption, for example. The emotions can be inordinately indulged in, or you can have a defect where you don’t have enough of a particular emotion. But the emotions in themselves are good.

CK:
Right. Okay, okay. I can’t treat fear as if it has no connection to sin, because if I’m inordinately attached to my fear, even if it’s my fear of labor for example, I just don’t want to-

FHB:
Right, if you give in to that fear so that you’re not actually performing the duties of which you’re capable or obliged to do, well then that’s sinful, just like if you refuse to come to the assistance of someone who is being unjustly attacked and is begging for help, just because you’re afraid. Well, that’s wrong, it’s a lack of courage, or you’re afraid to let people know when someone’s misusing the name of Jesus and you just are too afraid of their opinion to correct them, so you’re afraid of the shame or the social ostracism you might get by revealing that you’re a practicing Catholic. those kinds of things are moral defects. I’m not saying they’re mortal sins, necessarily. Some of them might be, but some of them aren’t, but it is laziness, human respect, a lack of sympathy for people in need. All of that is definitely an exaggeration of fear.

CK:
There is one kind of fear to aspire to and that’s filial fear.

FHB:
The filial fear of-

CK:
Actually, we want God to give us more of that.

FHB:
Right, in which we will have reverence for God because of his greatness and magnificence. St. Thomas says, “In a certain sense, this reverential fear will never cease in heaven.” Like we say in the preface of the mass, the angels’ [inaudible 00:28:44] tremble before you. Of course, that’s not a fear of an evil coming upon them, but rather the overwhelming magnificence of God’s presence, which of course always escapes to some degree our understanding, and so we push further. That will never go away because charity doesn’t pass away and neither does Holy fear. But perfect love casts out fear, which is just simply the emotion or the fear of future evils.

CK:
All right, Father, thank you very much.

FHB:
God bless you.

CK:
And you too, thank you.

FHB:
Be not afraid.

CK:
Be not afraid. Father Hugh Barbour, our guest. Thank you so much for joining us on Catholic Answers Focus, we appreciate it and we’ll see you next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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