Friday, January 4, 2019

Who Watches the (Self-Appointed) Watchmen?

Rorschach, “The Watchmen”Vigilantes have been a part of the superhero genre since at least the 1980s. People tired of the clean-cut Superman type of hero became interested in the antihero who repaid violence with violence while the legitimate law-enforcement was portrayed as inept or corrupt.

Of course, the times made the vigilante stories popular. Stories about corruption and criminals getting off scott-free—especially when the two seemed to be linked—tempts people to think that the institutions have failed and we need someone who will defend us if the authorities will not.

There is a problem with that line of thought though. Yes, even with those given the authority to determine what is or isn’t in keeping with the law, there is always a concern over whether they follow the law themselves. But rules do exist (regardless of how well they’re enforced) to govern the abuse of power.

However, the self-appointed vigilante (as graphically demonstrated here by the character Rorschach in the graphic novel The Watchmen [§]) has no authority except brute force, and follows no rule of conduct. If they violate the law in doing what is “just,” they protest that the authorities are focused on petty matters in “persecuting” them while “real” criminals get away.

This strikes me as a good analogy for the self-appointed “orthodoxy cops” who take it upon themselves to determine what is or is not an authentic interpretation of the Catholic Faith... going so far as to pass judgment on the orthodoxy of bishops or even the Pope if these shepherds of the Church should dare interpret the Catholic Faith differently than they do. If you’re not on this “orthodoxy cop’s” side, you’re seen as part of the problem.

The result is, more often than not, symbolically like the panel above. The character Rorschach, investigating a murder, takes it on himself to brutalize people in the hopes (ie. no basis of fact) that one of them will provide the information needed. When it doesn’t, he moves on, justifying himself by assuming that they must be guilty of something.  Likewise, the self-appointed “orthodoxy cop” assumes the guilt in his targets and justifies his or her own attacks by assuming that if others don’t think the way he or she does, they must be heretical and deserves whatever savaging they get.

Think I’m being ridiculous? Consider how many times you’ve seen a “combox warrior” show up in the comments  section on a social media post to accuse a bishop or the Pope of error, based on his or her reading of what was said vs. his or her reading of past Church teaching. If one defends the Pope or bishop in question, or challenges the veracity of the combox warrior, that defender is assumed to be ignorant and a heretic. 

Vigilante comics were spawned from a mistrust of those entrusted to enforce the law, thinking them part of the problem. But the authority to uphold the law exists with law enforcement, not the vigilante. The current attacks on the Church also come from the mistrust of those who interpret and defend the Faith. But, like the vigilante, the self-proclaimed defenders of orthodoxy have no right to impose themselves as judge, jury, and executioner over and above the teaching of the Pope and bishops. Any attempts to claim Catholics must go against the Pope to be faithful has no authority for their actions.

Keep this in mind the next time you see the “orthodoxy cops” at work online. When they equate their opinions with Church teaching and pass judgment on those who reject their opinions, they are basically the online equivalent of a thuggish vigilante.


[§] The entire graphic novel involves “heroes” who have no problem with committing evil acts in the name of a “greater good.” It escalates to the point that one character commits mass murder with the “justification” of preventing nuclear war. The characters display a very Utilitarian morality. While I’m not entirely sure of the intended meaning of the comic as a whole, I think it involves raising questions about vigilantes and morality.

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