Fake Virtues Are Worse than Vices


By: Guest Authors

by John Zmirak

Lately I’ve felt like Lex Luthor without any Kryptonite. For the past few weeks here I’ve been vindicating the rights of the merely natural against the claims of supernature. (Sheesh, that even sounds boring to me.) It’s not a project calculated to win me friends among the pious. In Christian circles, who really wants to risk sounding like the Prodigal Son’s snotty older brother? Besides, the most carefully balanced arguments risk being swept away by a big man in a red cape with an “S” on his chest. (It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no, it’s Supernature!)
Are there any sinners out there who relish the prospect of championing justice against mercy? Happily, I’ve come across one, who in a public statement has given me enormous aid and comfort: Pope Benedict XVI. And I’m really glad to have him on my side, since in the course of this essay I’ll need to sharply criticize prudential decisions of another beloved pope. I was reminded once again on reading the Holy Father’s words how grateful I am for the wisdom, sanity, and sanctity of Pope Benedict. As he told journalists in Lisbon on May 11, the sex-abuse crisis has proved that the Church must “learn on one hand forgiveness but also the need for justice. Forgiveness is not a substitute for justice.”
Thank you, Papa! We needed to hear the pope say this, in order to face without shame the victims of the abuse — whose molesters were hidden from the police, sent off to cozy spas for Rogerian therapy, and cosseted by a clerical conspiracy, all in the name of “mercy,” or even “charity.” What is more, the abject failure of so many Catholics (lay and clerical) to shield the innocent from abuse implies, the pope said, that “we have to re-learn these essentials: conversion, prayer, penance, and the theological virtues.” Let’s re-read that sentence slowly. We must relearn the fundamentals of Christian life in the light of . . . justice. Our pope, who knows his St. Thomas, would surely agree to my adding in fortitude, temperance, and prudence.
Grace builds on nature, but it cannot simply replace it. If we’re unjust, rash, intemperate or irresponsible, it won’t simply cripple our attempts to practice faith, hope, and charity — it might actually render them evil. That is what I was getting at when I wrote that Darío Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos, in praising bishops who shield molesting priests from the police, was practicing “bankrupt charity.” Misguided compassion, the practice of which wrecked a fair chunk of my life, is charity minus courage — the courage to face the truth about other people, whose souls aren’t passive clay for us to mold whenever we’re feeling all “apostolic.” And so on: Every perversion that has afflicted historic Christianity and distorted some varieties of it until they really have become what Nietzsche called a “slave morality,” can be traced to false attempts to practice faith, hope, or charity minus justice, temperance, fortitude, or prudence. Look forward to more on this from me in the future.
But, for now, let’s stick to justice. Some commenters here have complained that I incessantly make connections between the failure of (two thirds!) of our bishops to protect innocent children from sex abuse and their moralistic statements on immigration. I’ve been accused of arguing ad hominem, of slinging mud at our spiritual fathers, even of anti-Catholicism. The pope’s latest statement underlies what I have really been trying to get at: Attempts to practice charity that violate justice aren’t charity at all. They’re some kind of monstrous imposter, a love-doll inflated with hot air and dressed up as the Sacred Heart that our Enemy wants us to worship — like the mummy that Hazel Motes steals from a museum in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood and sets up as the “new Jesus.” It’s an idol and a fetish, and I intend to treat it as a piñata.
Don’t worry, I will apply the battery acid test (Is it just?) to the particulars of the open-borders position. But really, it isn’t so much the issue of immigration that exercises me as the wholesale perversion of the theological virtues, and its implication for the daily lives of Christians. This perversion will do more than ruin countries: It can wreck lives and damn souls to hell, by goading us to actions that drive us or others into scrupulosity, dishonesty, and finally apostasy or despair. How else can we describe what the bankrupt charity of bishops inflicted on many of the victims of abuse?
I didn’t see the wider implications of this idea myself. It was the lucid writer Erin Manning who pointed them out in a commentary on my piece about poor Cardinal Castrillon. As she wrote:
The four cardinal natural virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, and as this article so clearly points out, these virtues are not to be dismissed just because we think a theological virtue (faith, hope, or charity) demands it. Yet to look at just one example — how many members of the Legion of Christ or Regnum Christi understood this? How many times were they asked to ignore prudence (“Sure, you can take on another apostolate for the Kingdom! God is asking you!”), justice (“Your family will just have to learn that your work for the Movement is important, more important than fulfilling your wifely or motherly duties!”), fortitude (“Stay away from all those anti-Legion websites and their hurtful rumors, or your faith might be shaken!”), or even temperance (“You know, other families in your daughter’s Challenge group bought ten tickets each for the PureFashion show . . .”).
. . . I’ve heard good, intelligent Catholics of every sort react to the notion that prudence should have some play in their decision-making as if the person making the suggestion was in league with the Tempter; why, faith in God is all that is necessary, even if one’s actions repeatedly cause one to end up broke, or exhausted, or the victim of some new swindle dressed up to look like a legitimate Christian ministry.
In another response to my piece, the first-rate writer Leon Podles commented:
God is the author of both nature and grace; nature has its rights and those rights are not superseded or violated by grace. As Zmirak points out, if grace is all that matters, we should be kidnapping the children of pagan (and Jewish) parents and baptizing them.
The Church has not always respected the rights of nature. In 1858 Pius IX forcibly took from his Jewish parents their six-year-old son, Edgardo Mortaro [sic.], who had been secretly baptized by a Catholic servant. Augustine was willing to use the power of the Roman state to force Donatists into the Catholic Church. It was for their own good, for outside of the visible, judicial bounds of the Catholic Church, Augustine believed there was no salvation. But God respects our freedom to love Him or not to love Him, and the Church should imitate God in His respect for nature.
Here I was taken aback. I have long admired the brave Pope Pius IX and lazily taken his side whenever critics complained about what he did. Put briefly, as temporal ruler of the Papal States, Pius enforced a law that forbade Christian servants to work for Jewish families — not because he snobbishly thought this unseemly, but rather because well-meaning Christian girls had a bad habit of taking Jewish children and . . . baptizing them. This meant that, in the Church’s eyes, those children now were Christians and had the “right” to be raised as Catholics. Papal law reflected this “right,” and in the case of Mortara, Pius felt compelled to enforce it — by seizing the boy from his parents and raising him as a Christian. This caused an international scandal, helped alienate the last few nations (such as France and Austria) that supported the Papal States, and cleared the path for their conquest and the unification of Italy.
I used to defend Pio Nono, but I should have known better. And so should he: As Pius would have agreed, anyone validly baptized becomes a member of the Catholic Church, although he may later leave it. This is true not just of little Edgardo Mortara but also of every child christened by Orthodox or Protestants. It is only later — when, at the age of reason, he assents to a non-Catholic creed — that a child “leaves” the Church and joins the “separated brethren.” So, by the logic he applied to Mortara, Pius should have been seizing and raising as Catholic every child of Protestants who happened to live in the Papal States — including those of the British ambassador. (Of course, that might not have been prudent.) Ordinary Catholics, even today, would be justified in kidnapping Protestant children so they could grow up in the one true Faith.
But the Church has never permitted Catholics to do this; Elizabeth I tried it on “recusant” Catholics, but we never returned the favor. Why? We followed St. Thomas Aquinas, who asserted the natural rights of parents. We wouldn’t violate justice for the sake of faith. Had we applied this principle consistently to adults over the centuries, Catholic apologists wouldn’t have to apologize (as Pope John Paul II was right to do) for our persecutions of heretics. It took Dignitatis Humanae at Vatican II for the Church to fully apply the logic of her own position and embrace religious liberty. The assertion of this teaching is the one unambiguous good to come out of that council — though it’s not enough to recompense us for what happened to our liturgy.
Back to the Mexican border for a moment. Well-meaning people commenting on what I’ve written on immigration have pointed to the great disparity of wealth between Americans and Mexicans. Surely we can afford to dispense with “luxuries” and “consumerist” trinkets for the sake of offering Mexicans the chance to . . . accumulate luxuries and trinkets. Surely the claims of charity override the rights of the secular state to enforce its laws, or American taxpayers to defend their private property from forcible confiscation by the state.
Or do they? If you as a Catholic feel guilty about the wealth disparity between your household and that of one in Michoacán, perhaps you are called to send some money down there. I’m sure that Catholic Relief Services (the cleanest, best-run such organization I know of) would appreciate your money. On the other hand, do you really have the right to use the state to take “luxuries” away from your neighbor? That’s exactly what you’re doing when you insist that public hospitals offer non-emergency aid to illegal aliens — and when you offer amnesty to poor people who vote en masse to raise taxes and vote themselves subsidies. You’re imposing “charity” at gunpoint on your neighbors, just as surely as Pius IX was enforcing faith on Mortara.
It’s ironic that this case of well-intentioned kidnapping lost us the Papal States. I think the Church really benefited from having them — although not for all the same reasons Pius adduced. In the old days, when the pope had an actual country to run, churchmen were forced to give due respect to the natural virtues: without fortitude, justice, prudence, and temperance, you really can’t keep the bandits under control.
Like many of his predecessors, Pius employed a papal executioner. How much the world has lost with the abolition of that office! Nothing brings home the sacred inviolability of justice than the need sometimes to enforce God’s justice fatally. I’ve always thought that the most tangible way to show respect for the sanctity of life is by executing murderers. Now that the Holy See controls not a country but a small string of museums, it’s all too easy for soft-handed celibates to wag their fingers at laymen who do the gritty jobs of patrolling borders, imprisoning criminals, paying the bills, and running an honest economy. Even otherwise orthodox clerics, when they speak about politics and economics, tend to jumble solid doctrinal statements with sentimental or utopian effusions, running riot over the natural virtues like a hog in a pastry shop.
It’s our job, as faithful laymen, to shove the pig out of doors, to lock up the perverts, and protect our neighbors’ property rights. If we feel obliged to give money to Mexicans, we should send it ourselves. But we should send Edgardo Mortara back to his parents.


John Zmirak is the author of the upcoming book
The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins, and is Writer-in-Residence at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. He writes weekly for InsideCatholic.com.

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