Charles Dickens’ short novel A Christmas Carol is rich with Christian themes. As a preparation for Advent, a time of repentance and recommitment to Christ, two weeks ago we looked at the themes of judgment and self-gift. For the final two weeks of Advent, we will look next at its themes of virtue and vice, and openness to life.

Week Three

Virtue and Vice

“Which of us is not convinced that moral goodness is soundly rooted in the individual's and society's openness to the transcendent world of the Divinity?”

(Pope John Paul II in his Nov. 7 address in New Delhi to representatives of India's many religions)

Among the subjects he treats in his book Love and Responsibility, Karol Wojtyla (who became Pope John Paul II) writes about “Chastity and Resentment.” It occurs in the context of a discussion about the “rehabilitation” of virtue, and it provides some very interesting ideas applicable to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Wojtyla recognized that the word “virtue” had itself lost its meaning for modern man. Instead of being something positive, a characteristic worth striving for, “virtue” had acquired the connotation of being something cramped, stuffy and naive. “Chastity” has come to be seen not as innocence, but ignorance, a Puritanism that just says “no.” The purveyors of a new morality not only deny the true meaning of chastity (treating the person as a person and not just a sex object) but they disdain it: How can anybody really value that?

Wojtyla calls this disdain “resentment.” Living a truly virtuous life is hard. It demands a self-mastery that measures what feels good against what is truly good, and does not hesitate to insist that sometimes pleasures have to be deferred. It means there is a measure of morality outside me. The “resentful” man cannot abide that. Ebenezer Scrooge is a resentful man.

Greed has so permeated Scrooge's life that all values, right and wrong, are stood on their head. Persons are subordinated to money. Capital has primacy over labor (Cratchit's celebrating Christmas represents “a poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every twenty-fifth of December”). Money measures love (Scrooge's nephew, Fred, is ridiculous for letting love lead him to marriage when Scrooge gave up his love for lucre). Debtors’ prison represents social concern.

Scrooge wishes “to be left alone” but it isn't quite that simple. It's not that Scrooge doesn't care what others do as long as he's left out. He simply cannot abide the season: “Every idiot who goes around with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled in his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” And when he demands “the right to choose” — “keep Christmas in your own way and let me keep it in mine” — Fred calls his bluff by pointing out, “You don't keep it.” And while Scrooge can rail that Christmas impoverishes holly-loving merrymakers, his own money does not even give him the pleasure of a hot fire or a good supper. His Christmas Eve dinner is a leftover cup of gruel.

Man is made for the good, and when he persists in evil, he often resolves the tension by calling evil good and good evil. If he can get away with convincing the opinion-makers of his day to call his upside-down moral world “progressive” or “mainstream,” so much the better. They might even call others “misguided” in “trying to resist the inevitable.”

When A Christmas Carol came out, it was generally received with warm praise. Except by the Westminster Review, the organ of the laissez-faire capitalists, whose June 1844 review of Carol shows they just didn't “get it.” In true credit/debit style, they asked: Who had to go without turkey for the lazy Cratchit to get his? Dickensian charity just didn't fit into the “liberal thinking” of the times. Which hungry mouth is stealing the “bread at the banquet of life”? That's resentment.

Scrooge's conversion cannot occur until he starts seeing things as they really ought to be.

Moral evil is bad enough, but resentment is worse. As long as a right order of values exists, there is always the chance that a guilty conscience might repent. But if the voice of conscience is drowned out by the din of a world calling good bad and bad good, a more malignant spiritual malaise has set in.

That malaise is, in many ways, the moral disease of our times. Scrooge is a good example of it in money matters, but the other capital sins — especially lust and sloth — readily provide fodder for resentment. Scrooge's conversion cannot occur until his topsy-turvy moral vision is set right, until he recognizes the writing on the wall (or the tombstone) and starts seeing things as they really ought to be. Only then could he be “as light as a feather ... as happy as an angel ... as merry as a schoolboy.” Or as human as the man he is supposed to be.

Week Four

The Gospel of Life

Our charity ... must be expressed in sharing and in human development understood as the integral growth of each person.”

(Pope John Paul II in his Oct. 27 general-audience address)

A Christmas Carol is not a children's tale. Indeed, Dickens used it to gore many sacred bulls of his day. It is often forgotten today that, alongside his polemic with Adam Smith and the early laissez-faire capitalists, Dickens used the story to attack the theories of Thomas Malthus, the father of the fight against “overpopulation.”

Scrooge the Malthusian can be heard in his reply to the businessmen who come to his office taking up a Christmas collection. When he refuses to give, pleading overtaxation in support of jails and work-houses, they note that the poor “can't go there; and many would rather die.” Scrooge's answer: “If they would rather die ... they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge's words come back to haunt him. When a drop of the milk of human kindness touches him, motivated by pity to ask whether the crippled Tiny Tim might survive, the Ghost of Christmas Present foresees “a vacant seat.” To Scrooge's plea that the boy be spared, the ghost insists that the lad's death is unavoidable if nothing else changes.

Unlike today's bioethicists, who secure prestigious university appointments while advocating infanticide, “Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words ... and was overcome with penitence and grief.”

The ghost, however, does not console him — he drives the point further home. “Man, if man you be in heart ... forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered what the Surplus is and where it is. Will you decide what men shall live and what men shall die? It may be that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. Oh God! To hear the insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust.” Don't be surprised if you don't hear that line quoted in full next time in a TV or local stage adaptation.

For Dickens, life is not the problem. Injustice, man's inhumanity to man, man's belief in his self-sufficiency bought at the cost of kicking the next man down — that is the problem. The problem is the human being who does not need other human beings.

Consider the scene when the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge his former fiancee in the midst of a loving and joyous holiday celebration. At the moment he beholds her lovely daughter, and considers that he might have fathered such a wonderful person himself, he hears the girl's father remark that he saw Scrooge sitting “quite alone” in his counting house as his one friend breathed his last. Only for the Scrooges, the Sartres, and all those who “pronounce on too much life” is hell other people.

In his 1960 classic Love and Responsibility, Karol Wojtyla insisted that responsibility for life is the sine qua non of mature humanity. This responsibility, he says, manifests itself in the physical paternity of parenthood or the “spiritual paternity” usually associated with priesthood. Scrooge's own redemption requires at least spiritual paternity: The story's conclusion tells us that “to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.” In renewing contact with his nephew, Fred, he likewise assumes a kind of paternity.

Fred is son of Fan, the sister who took him home from school; after the reconciliation with him, the life of the Scrooge family once again is one. Mortal man, there is no changing the past: no Fan, no Belle, no daughter. But there is a future, and therein lies Scrooge's last chance to give life.

And if he does not? The Ghost of Christmas Present also reminds us of the alternate future. Hidden beneath his robes are two feral, monstrously deformed children: Ignorance and Doom. Scrooge tries to pass them off to the Spirit. “Are they yours?” The Spirit declines the paternity: “They are man's.” They are children deformed by humanity, on whose brow is written “Doom, unless the writing be erased.” Without the mercy of a pro-life ethic, these creatures will burst upon the world and build a culture of death. It is not coincidental that, right after their appearance, comes the grim reaper, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

This Advent season, may God bless us every one with new appreciation for God's gift of life.

John M. Grondelski, a moral theologian, currently lives in London.