Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Personal Aside: Fr. Ernie on Bernie Madoff and Blago.


Yes, my venerated philosophy professor, Fr. Ernest Kilzer OSB…with whom I spent four long years in tutledge…died aeons before Bernie Madoff whose $50 billion Ponzi scheme conned affluent and sophisticated investors and Blago conned reformers—but the yellowing papers of my notes (1946-50) tell what Ernie would say today about the evil that lurked unseen in the heart of a supposedly philanthropic and gentle man.

“Gentlemen, take your seats,” Ernie said on April 26, 1947. “Consider the two-fold nature of man. If we can stop this gabbing about, Mr. Hesch, I ask you and your loquacious colleagues to consider the two-fold nature of man. For our natural life we are dependent by inheritance upon Adam—which means that in the two-fold circumstance, our souls are a direct creation of God. And yet—and yet—Mr. Roeser what is it you’re drawing on your notepad. Ah, I see: it is a man. You are obviously contemplating the fact that the nature of man is compacted with each soul united at the beginning of life with a carnal body which is quite sufficient to ensure for man a damaged nature. Thus we have the disorder in the elements of our nature as had Adam: a body rebellious against the soul with warfare of the soul’s power against our human nature—imagination, let me say, far too powerful with passions and emotions swinging us…swinging us veritably…to sin.

“Further, gentlemen, let me point out that we live in a world which has lost the necessity of its obeying us. From Adam onward, man has been fighting for his life and his rights in a universe that no longer acknowledges him as its lord. You see through history the greatest conqueror bought to his death by a snake—or now, even more humiliatingly, by a microbe. As you can see, the harmony is wrecked…wrecked. What once was perfect balance is upset. To Adam who disobeyed, God said “The earth is cursed in thy work.” At creation, God looked upon all He hade made and saw it was very good. Now there is a disorder in it—not part of God’s design but by Adam’s sin. And what happened as result—let’s see, Mr., Mr. Brusseau. You say—what? Speaker louder, sir. You say—good so far as you go but let me amplify.

“We are born without supernatural life…not because Adam, having lost it, could not transmit it to us…no-no…for as we have seen, Adam almost surely regained it for himself. No, the supernatural life is not transmitted by inheritance as our bodies are. We are born without it—not because Adam didn’t have it to give to us, but…and this is important, gentlemen…but because the condition on which God would have given it to us at the first moment of our existence was that Adam should not fail. But he failed.”

The next day: “There was to be Atonement. God knew what He would have to do that the race of man would return to His friendship—for which He gave sanctifying grace to individual men. There would be for men a second chance. But it comes with the condition that each man shall be tested individually. This, gentlemen, is known as the testing of the will. The will is free to choose God or to choose ourselves against God. Now this latter choice is seldom presented as a choice of self—but by means of seeking happiness according to one’s own desires…which may be directed to anything whatever that is—but against the will of God. But do not despair, gentlemen, buffeted as you are with improper desires. Remember—we know that God knew what He would do to un-do the catastrophe of man’s fall. It is not for nothing that the very first statement made by God of what He would do was not delivered to Adam or Eve but to Satan—and He made it in terms of absolute victory over the Devil. His head was to be crushed.”

And the next week, Monday: “Naturally a generation living a devitalized life—half-wasted in looking for happiness where it does not exist and avoiding suffering where it cannot be avoided—is not happy. Unhappiness is always unused or ill-used spiritual energy and man has within himself so many energies made for God that lacking God these energies cannot be satisfied—and can only turn in upon man and rend him.”

My Conclusion.

Therefore with Madoff as with Blagojevich, there is no need to cry out for more laws…more regulation. Madoff accomplished his scam not through hedge funds: hedge funds were victimized here. He accomplished it not through a weakness of regulation: The SEC investigated him in 2005 and 2007. The conclusion is that it is impossible for stricter finance regulation to block a Blagojevich or more complex securities supervision to prevent a Madoff. The ultimate lesson is about men not politics in the case of Blagojevich, about men not regulation of finance as with Madoff. It means in the case of Blagojevich that we must pay stricter diligence to those like him who importune us with the promise of perfect social justice on earth which is not in anyone’s province. It means in the case of Madoff the watchword must be diversification and diligence.

As Ernie concluded his last lecture before our graduation:

“It’s been a rewarding four years, gentlemen—for me…not for you. But there will come a time when you remember these years. You who have taken notes, keep them. Now I leave with you the injunction of Saint Paul from Romans 5. 18. It goes, ‘One man commits a fault and it brings condemnation on all [Adam]. One man makes amends [Christ] and it brings to all justification, that is life. A multitude will become acceptable to God through one man’s obedience, just as a multitude through one man’s disobedience became guilty.’

“Now go to your graduation but so long as you shall live, remember this. My concern over these years has been not with the Will but the Intellect. Not with sanctity but sanity. Some time, pray it comes soon, you will appreciate this.”

More excerpts from the four-year treasure trove from Ernie’s lectures--some other time.


  1. Dear Tom:
    Thanks for sharing the wisdom of Fr. Ernie. It is still relevant after all these years. Too few speak these truths. You were blessed to have had this good priest as a teacher.

  2. Brilliant application (and catechesis) of Original Sin.