A Reason Not to Convert

An important reason behind conversions to Roman Catholicism over the last three decades has been the Protestant mainline’s abandonment of Christian teaching on sex. For a while the Anglican communion was the place for beauty-deprived Protestants to worship. But once the bishops started coming out of the closet, Christians sound on the family but challenged on doctrine needed to look for another communion. Rome’s holding the line on sex proved appealing.

But Matthew Sitman (say it ain’t so that a good Grove City boy turned Roman Catholic) warns about the danger of that strategy in response to Rusty Reno (who was Anglican and converted). Reno wrote:

The Church is the only major institution in the West that has not accepted the sexual revolution. The official resistance provides an important witness, even when combined with widespread accommodation in ­practice. The sexual revolution has a ruthless quality. It ­allows no dissent. The mere suggestion of teaching chastity to fifteen-year-olds in school is enough to unleash furious denunciations. That the Church has not allowed herself to be dictated to and intimidated by the sexual revolution inspires.

Humanae Vitae’s intransigence sustains us in our overall struggle against the dictatorship of relativism. Even among people who transgress, the resistance reassures. We’ve deregulated a great deal of personal life. Who, today, needs permission? Catholicism stands for something, a moral standard that’s inconvenient and countercultural.

Sitman counters:

The wrong reason to defend Church teaching and the status quo is because it proves strategically helpful. When Reno writes, “Humanae Vitae’s intransigence sustains us in our overall struggle against the dictatorship of relativism,” you can see that the concern is not for the coherence of what that encyclical teaches, but it’s ideological usefulness. When he also asserts, “Catholicism stands for something, a moral standard that’s inconvenient and countercultural,” I confess to wondering why “inconvenient and countercultural” seems to matter more than standing for the truth.

Total rejection and uncritical praise both bind you to the spirit of the age; intransigence apart from discernment, apart from reading the signs of the times, still takes it cues from the merely contemporary. Such a conservatism shades into reaction, moved more by fear than hope, mustering only doomed rear-guard campaigns as a response to the genuine perplexities of modern life.

Might the reason to convert have something to do with being saved from my sins? Tell me Rome has a better account of how I am right with God. Tell me that being right with God (as opposed being right with mother earth) even matters.

Wasn’t it someone important who said, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose own his soul”?

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37 thoughts on “A Reason Not to Convert

  1. Wasn’t it someone important who said, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose own his soul”?

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  2. Wasn’t it someone important who said, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose own his soul”?

    Is that in the Book of Tobit?

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  3. The Reformation, by making every man his own pope, made theological relativism inevitable–indeed necessary. The sexual revolution is winning in Protestantism. In the end, everything’s reduced to a matter of opinion.

    Might the reason to convert have something to do with being saved from my sins? Tell me Rome has a better account of how I am right with God. Tell me that being right with God (as opposed being right with mother earth) even matters.

    That “being right with God” has nothing to do with our sexual conduct is again a questionable, if not a false premise.

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  4. Darryl,

    Don’t forget that the sexual revolution won among many medieval popes before it even happened.

    It’s also winning among the RC laity. But don’t they have the charism?

    #dointhelordswork

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  5. D. G. Hart
    Posted October 9, 2015 at 9:15 pm | Permalink
    vd, t, the sexual revolution is also winning among the German Roman Catholic bishops.

    #incaseyounoticed

    Yes, but you have entire churches going gay, including your parent Church of Scotland. You permit divorce. Until the Catholic Church institutionalizes the sexual revolution, you don’t have a point.

    #ecclesiology

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  6. Sexual sin is inevitable. Anyone who lives to age twelve will be guilty. Idolatry is inevitable. Everyone makes idols. But a church constructing and mandating an imaginary, idol-laden system of doctrine and practice is not inevitable. It is not only optional, it is damnable. So, by all means, apply yourself, O Tom, to the first table of the law. Even better than not going to mass is actually attending a real Xian worship service. And we get Roman sexcapades at a human level, but there is no excuse for inventing something like celibacy for religious professionals to make it all the worse.

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  7. Just one voice crying in the wilderness but certain Catholic books on sex and being human are pretty great. J. Budziszewski’s obviously-titled book and RJ Snell’s work on Acedia were some of the most insightful cultural works I’ve read in years, including Snell’s lengthy citations of papal encyclicals. If those were representative I’d take the popes over evangelical commentary any day, and that’s supposed to be more of a compliment than it sounds.

    Unfortunately Roman Catholicism is less defined by the natural-law theorists or front-porchers than by the flagrantly corrupt hierarchy and substantially less highbrow idiocy up on the altars, neither of which offer cultural or theological solace.

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  8. I think he is stretching Reno’s words here. But Rome is with this Synod proving that its pastoral practice trumps its doctrine anyway. Or so it seems. As for being right with God, since the new pastoral emphasis is teaching we are all already right with God, minus maybe baptism as a passport stamp to Purgatory, they’ve skipped past that question.

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  9. Taking away reasons to convert, from Vatican 2 to Synod on the Family 2:

    So if the full Kasper and the full Humanae Vitae are both out, what remains? The most plausible answer, or at least my own prediction, is simple ambiguity. The last synod produced a final document whose paragraphs on the question of communion for the remarried — which were published, at the pope’s directive, despite not receiving the requisite two-thirds support — simply recapitulated the conservative and liberal positions and stated that “the subject needs to be thoroughly examined.” It seems entirely possible that this synod could similarly leave the question open for further debate; there is some evidence that the design of the proceedings could take things in that direction, and that there might not even be propositions for the synod father to cast votes on.

    In which case (or regardless of what the synod does, really, since he’s the pope after all) Francis could simply follow suit, and issue a post-synod exhortation that 1) officially reaffirms the indissolubility of marriage, 2) doesn’t endorse any specific pastoral approach for the divorced and remarried (or for the cohabitating, or gay couples, etc.), but 3) also doesn’t condemn any propositions or approaches to these issues, and simply calls bishops and pastors to further study, experimentation, and debate, and to a “courageous accompaniment” of couples living contrary to the church’s teaching on sexuality and marriage.

    This kind of ending might be covered as a “fizzle” in the secular press, or it might be portrayed as just another “cool pope welcomes everyone” moment by reporters who don’t sweat the doctrinal details. But either way it would light a fuse on bigger fireworks down the road. Without giving their ideas a formal imprimatur, it would cash out as a significant short-term victory for theological liberals, because it would have the practical effect of licensing the German church (and many others) in its ongoing experiments against tradition, while reducing any fear the church’s progressives have of being sanctioned or disciplined from Rome. This in turn would encourage the (further) development of divergent Catholicisms and official Catholic teachings (TM) across different dioceses, nations and cultures, which would tend to radicalize conservatives as well as progressives in the long run. (Already prominent conservatives are adopting the language of “crisis,” previously the preserve of anti-Vatican II traditionalists.) And this radicalization, in its turn, would lead to intense pressure for either separation, a return to doctrinal uniformity or more likely both, which would make every future conclave and synod and perhaps, eventually, ecumenical council fraught with the possibility of Anglican-style division.

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  10. Pitman hit the nail on the head re: Reno. I’ve read a fair bit of Reno, and I have a hard time concluding that the man can proffer any kind of cogent profession of faith in Christ. He’s merely a social traditionalist who has a low view of general revelation and who therefore believes that we need authoritarian institutions to keep people in line. Therein lies his attraction to Catholicism: It’s the most viable authoritarian institution.

    I remain a Protestant precisely because I believe that God has revealed a sufficient degree of His will in the natural order, such that the common man can govern himself well without reference to authoritarian institutions. While God’s revelation of Himself in nature may be insufficient to tell us of our salvation in Christ, it is abundantly sufficient to lead us in the construction of relatively ordered societies.

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  11. Bobby
    Posted October 10, 2015 at 2:46 pm | Permalink
    Pitman hit the nail on the head re: Reno. I’ve read a fair bit of Reno, and I have a hard time concluding that the man can proffer any kind of cogent profession of faith in Christ. He’s merely a social traditionalist who has a low view of general revelation and who therefore believes that we need authoritarian institutions to keep people in line. Therein lies his attraction to Catholicism: It’s the most viable authoritarian institution.

    I remain a Protestant precisely because I believe that God has revealed a sufficient degree of His will in the natural order, such that the common man can govern himself well without reference to authoritarian institutions. While God’s revelation of Himself in nature may be insufficient to tell us of our salvation in Christ, it is abundantly sufficient to lead us in the construction of relatively ordered societies.

    Aquinas. Natural law. Well done.

    If only the rest of people could sort it out as brilliantly as you and Aquinas.

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  12. D. G. Hart
    Posted October 10, 2015 at 7:01 am | Permalink
    vd, t, but those churches are so SMALL compared to Rome’s billions.

    If you’re going to gloat over numbers, you need to take their lumps.

    Dr. Hart seems unable to appreciate the difference between some clergy in the Catholic Church being seduced by the Sexual Revolution and entire Protestant churches [more all the time] institutionalizing it.

    Categorical error.

    #ecclesiology

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  13. Kirsten Powers just decided to join the Roman club, yet from what I know she wouldn’t fit well with traditional RC teaching on sex and marriage. Is it like a fad to go to Rome? Fox News is going to supplant EWTN’s news coverage, since it seems to be the Roman Catholic news channel. I don’t watch it, but I hear Christians grumbling about it.

    I only mention her because I was dismayed when I heard of her conversion because one Presbyterian was celebrating it, and I think Tim Keller’s influence in it. I was immediately bothered by it because I knew that a more meaningful test of a person’s faith is their trajectory and end after a decade, or two, of observable Christian faith; also, her story wasn’t really inspiring and raised some concerns. Too many like to find a celebrity convert of some some sort, who then turns to Rome or something else; Powers is another in an increasing list.

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  14. My dismay wan’t that she turned to Rome but that a Presbyterian was making a big deal of her initial conversion to Christianity.

    She was in the PCA, so does it really count as a conversion if she has gone to Rome? Pete is still there right? And he has allies? I’m not enthused by many in the PCA.

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  15. Pete Enns—-Pope Francis models a “faith” that I need to be reminded of and that I think often gets lost, especially among evangelicals. True faith isn’t simply something we “have” inside us, but something we do. The Greek word often translated as “faith” (pistis) more often than not means “faithfulness” (or something similar)—it’s an action word. “Faith” is something we do, not simply what we think or feel.

    http://www.peteenns.com/2-reasons-why-im-glad-pope-francis-is-coming-to-philly-but-please-use-mass-transit/

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  16. TVD: Until the Catholic Church institutionalizes the sexual revolution…

    Which it in fact did, through the back door.

    The moment that Rome added man-made rules and customs to marriage, it opened the door for other man-made rules.

    To wit:

    * Annulment
    * The doctrine of marriage-as-sacrament
    * The ban on contraception
    * The ban on ordaining people who were born out of wedlock
    * The practice of granting dispensations on the occasion of marriage.

    All of these things, and more, are nowhere taught in Scripture. Once the RC church opened the floodgates, it is small wonder that others rushed in.

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  17. Jeff Cagle
    Posted October 11, 2015 at 7:52 pm | Permalink
    TVD: Until the Catholic Church institutionalizes the sexual revolution…

    Which it in fact did, through the back door.

    No. Protestantism did, though by accepting divorce, and now many sects [more every day] are institutionalizing homosexuality. How that possibly compares with banning contraception is a case you’re going to actually have to make, and good luck.

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  18. Sorry, but you aren’t convincing. Here’s the problem:

    * Jesus permits divorce in the case of infidelity. Paul permits divorce in the case of desertion.

    * Not coincidentally, so do confessional Protestants of all stripes, while forbidding divorce under other circumstances.

    * By contrast, Rome forbids divorce even under those circumstances (CCC 2382). Catholic doctrine contradicts the Lord Himself.

    * And then, having backed itself into a corner, Rome simply relabels divorces as “annulments” and encourages those who wish to get remarried to obtain one:

    I am a divorced Catholic who would like to remarry in the Catholic Church. What do I need to do?

    Unless your former spouse has died, you will need to obtain an annulment.

    I am divorced. I am not a Catholic but I plan to marry a Catholic. We have been told that I need to obtain an annulment before we can marry in the Catholic Church. I do not understand this since I was not married in the Catholic Church.

    The Catholic Church respects all marriages and presumes that they are valid. Thus, for example, it considers the marriages of two Protestant, Jewish, or even nonbelieving persons to be binding. Any question of dissolution must come before a Church court (tribunal). This teaching may be difficult to understand, especially if you come from a faith tradition that accepts divorce and remarriage. Some couples in a situation similar to yours have found it helpful to talk with a priest or deacon. To go through the annulment process can be a sign of great love for your intended spouse.

    Divorce

    So my point stands: Rome, not Geneva, opened the door to the sexual revolution.

    Do you really want to defend the indefensible? We can talk about the sexual practices of popes. About the moral standards of the 15th century. About the absurd practice of clerical celibacy.

    You would be much more persuasive if you openly grieved about the condition of your own church instead of being a daily pest about someone else’s.

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  19. No, you didn’t make your point that “So my point stands: Rome, not Geneva, opened the door to the sexual revolution.”

    Although you do have a point to be argued about adultery and desertion. But the Catholic Church not allowing those exceptions did NOT “open the door to the sexual revolution.” That’s illogical.

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  20. So notice who can obtain a Catholic annulment: Absolutely anybody, as long as they can persuade an ecclesiastical body that one party or the other did not intend to make a life-long commitment.

    What is an annulment?

    “Annulment” is an unfortunate word that is sometimes used to refer to a Catholic “declaration of nullity.” Actually, nothing is made null through the process. Rather, a Church tribunal (a Catholic church court) declares that a marriage thought to be valid according to Church law actually fell short of at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union.

    A valid Catholic marriage results from five elements: (1) the spouses are free to marry; (2) they freely exchange their consent; (3) in consenting to marry, they have the intention to marry for life, to be faithful to one another and be open to children; (4) they intend the good of each other; and (5) their consent is given in the presence of two witnesses and before a properly authorized Church minister. Exceptions to the last requirement must be approved by church authority.

    (ibid)

    And in fact, that is exactly what happens. Instead of getting divorced because of “irreconcilable differences”, the annuling couple simply asserts one of these reasons.

    A annulment by any other name would still smell like divorce.

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  21. No, it’s quite logical, as I indicated. The common factor is adding the word of man to the word of God. Once you start, it’s hard to stop others from doing the same.

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  22. What may not be clear is that legalism and antinomianism are two sides of the same coin. They are both deeds of the flesh. This is the point of Galatians as well Colossians.

    So while you puzzle that I might say that the RC’s excessive restrictiveness leads to the sexual revolution, it makes entire sense once the excessive restrictiveness and sexual revolution are both understood as defects in the understanding of the Law.

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  23. Jeff Cagle

    “Rather, a Church tribunal (a Catholic church court) declares that a marriage thought to be valid according to Church law actually fell short of at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union.”

    A annulment by any other name would still smell like divorce.

    No, it smells like an annulment. “No it’s not” is not a rebuttal.

    Jeff Cagle
    Posted October 11, 2015 at 8:49 pm | Permalink
    No, it’s quite logical, as I indicated. The common factor is adding the word of man to the word of God. Once you start, it’s hard to stop others from doing the same.

    The Catholic Church not allowing those exceptions did NOT “open the door to the sexual revolution” of unmarried sex, unmarried parenthood, and gay “marriage.”

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  24. Jeff,

    Wow, just wow on that annulment reason list. I really was correct to think that annulment is just a way to have a divorce without calling it a divorce. Yeah, I can really seeing the Apostles granting a divorce because one or both parties didn’t think it was a sacrament going in.

    Rome has completely missed the point of Jesus’ teaching on adultery. He was making it much harder to get a divorce than was accepted in his culture. Rome’s made it much easier.

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  25. Robert,

    You’ve missed the nuance here. Rome isn’t making it easier to get a divorce. They are making it easier to get an “annulment.” Just because it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck doesn’t mean it is–unless Rome says it is.

    My Catholic friends have reported that people married for over 20 years with kids successfully apply for annulment. The fact that Francis wants to *streamline* the process is breathtaking to this outsider.

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  26. <i.Brandon Addison
    Posted October 12, 2015 at 1:48 am | Permalink
    Robert,

    You’ve missed the nuance here. Rome isn’t making it easier to get a divorce. They are making it easier to get an “annulment.” Just because it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck doesn’t mean it is–unless Rome says it is.

    My Catholic friends have reported that people married for over 20 years with kids successfully apply for annulment. The fact that Francis wants to *streamline* the process is breathtaking to this outsider.

    No doubt. Especially if you ignore the reason behind it and try to pretend that annulment = divorce.

    But that is flabby reasoning, cheap reasoning, attacking another church that is not your own and you know little about.

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  27. TVD: “No it’s not” is not a rebuttal.

    TVD in his very next sentence: The Catholic Church not allowing those exceptions did NOT “open the door to the sexual revolution” of unmarried sex, unmarried parenthood, and gay “marriage.”

    Slow down, man. You can’t even keep up with your own end of the conversation.

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  28. But seriously, here is the argument in full.

    * Rome added a number of non-Biblical additions to the doctrine of marriage. First among these is the belief that marriage, beyond being “an honorable and holy estate” is in fact a sacrament.

    * Rome then required belief in these additions to be a necessary component of a valid marriage.

    * So that failing to believe in one of these additions now becomes grounds for an annulment.

    By adding to the law, Rome weakened the institution of marriage by making it easier to get out of that marriage.

    TVD: …try to pretend that annulment = divorce.

    We understand that annulment is not divorce, in theory. The purpose of divorce is to dissolve a valid marriage. The purpose of annulment is to declare that the marriage was invalid.

    But did it ever cross your mind that if the church authorities err in their determination, they will have dissolved a valid marriage? That the numerous trivial grounds that are accepted for annulment make it extremely likely that church authorities do in fact err?

    In which case, all of those annulments are simply divorces mis-labeled.

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  29. Jeff,

    But did it ever cross your mind that if the church authorities err in their determination, they will have dissolved a valid marriage? That the numerous trivial grounds that are accepted for annulment make it extremely likely that church authorities do in fact err?

    In which case, all of those annulments are simply divorces mis-labeled.

    I imagine this is where implicit faith gets one off the hook. Just say you believe whatever the church believes and trust its leaders. If they mess up, you can always say to God on the last day, “But the church said.”

    I mean honestly, Rome really takes away all responsibility of knowing God’s Word and even their own doctrine from the average layperson. Just go get the sacrament and don’t put up any conscious impediments to faith. Someone said here recently that Rome’s focus on ritual increases numbers but not holiness (maybe it was you, I can’t remember.) Whoever it was, they hit it right on the nose.

    We know liberalism when we see it.

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  30. Jeff Cagle
    Posted October 12, 2015 at 5:32 am | Permalink
    TVD: “No it’s not” is not a rebuttal.

    TVD in his very next sentence: The Catholic Church not allowing those exceptions did NOT “open the door to the sexual revolution” of unmarried sex, unmarried parenthood, and gay “marriage.”

    Slow down, man. You can’t even keep up with your own end of the conversation.

    I pointed out that you didn’t make your case.

    1) Catholic Church doesn’t allow divorce for desertion or adultery
    2) dxhyefg odjihugffd apeubffg dsi fdhuhu

    THEREFORE the Catholic Church “opened the door to the sexual revolution” of unmarried sex, unmarried parenthood, and gay “marriage.”

    You need to supply the “2) dxhyefg odjihugffd apeubffg dsi fdhuhu” before you have an argument. Otherwise your assertion remains patent nonsense.

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  31. Jeff Cagle
    Posted October 12, 2015 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    TVD: …try to pretend that annulment = divorce.

    We understand that annulment is not divorce, in theory. The purpose of divorce is to dissolve a valid marriage. The purpose of annulment is to declare that the marriage was invalid.

    But did it ever cross your mind that if the church authorities err in their determination, they will have dissolved a valid marriage?

    Did it cross your mind that granting divorces in the case of adultery carries the same risk of error? Perhaps that’s why the Catholic Church didn’t grant the exception.

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  32. Rod adds another reason:

    When I became a Catholic in 1993, I committed myself to living chastely, as the Church required. This was a desert experience for me, who was not used to denying himself in this way, but it was a desert experience that brought me out of bondage to my own disordered desires. It was hard, but it was necessary, and it was necessary because it was hard.

    At virtually no point did I believe, or have reason to believe, that the institutional church and its ministers had my back. In fact, the silence from the pulpits was total. There is, or was, no sense in contemporary American Catholicism that asceticism is a normal part of the Christian life, and that we might help each other bear those burdens. One of the reasons I sympathize so instinctively with gays and lesbians like Wesley Hill and Eve Tushnet, who keep raising the issue of the Church needing to make affirmative space within its life for same-sex attracted Christians who seek to live celibacy, is because the loneliest and most difficult period of my life as a new Catholic was the four years in which I struggled to be celibate, before I married.

    I didn’t need Father to remind me every week in his homily to keep my pants up. That’s not the point. What I could have used was any sign that the life to which I had submitted, in obedience to what I believed was the truth, mattered to the Church. The message I constantly received from the silence in the parish(es) was: You are wasting your time trying to live out these teachings. Nobody here cares about this stuff, so why should you?

    I knew what kind of Egypt I had been delivered from, and that memory, plus a strong prayer life, strengthened me in the journey. But the institutional Church was worthless in this struggle. I knew I had a strong ally in Pope John Paul II, but Rome was very far away. Thinking back on it, the heart of the problem was the culture of the American church, in which the idea of dying to self to live in Christ was an alien concept.

    Could this explain those who defend the church but don’t go? (And Rod doesn’t even mention the itty bitty point about needing grace to be good or virtuous.)

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