Saturday, July 13, 2019

Ignoring the Watchman: A Reflection on Our Double Standard Views of Evil

When we think about the concept of doing evil, we tend to treat our own sins and those of our own faction as minor, while treating the harmful consequences of the acts from those we dislike as if those who did them were acting with the motivation of Aaron in the Shakespearean play, Titus Andronicus:

Lucius: Art thou not sorry for these heinous deeds?
Aaron: Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.
Even now I curse the day, and yet, I think,
Few come within the compass of my curse,
Wherein I did not some notorious ill:
As kill a man, or else devise his death;
Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it;
Accuse some innocent, and forswear myself;
Set deadly enmity between two friends;
Make poor men’s cattle break their necks;
Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears,
Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors,
Even when their sorrows almost were forgot;
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
‘Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.’
Tut! I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.

Titus Andronicus, Act V Scene I.

This way of thinking helps explain why we have a growing divide between factions today when there should be no factions in the Church. By limiting the meaning of evil to “with malice aforethought,” we do not judge our sins rightly and assume that those who disagree with us must sin in the worst way. But doing evil is to do things contrary to the teaching of God as passed on by His Church. If we knowingly disobey these teachings, we are doing evil. There are two things to remember. First, venial matter, imperfect knowledge, or less than full consent may reduce our guilt. Second that evil was done regardless of the level of guilt. By downplaying our own willful disregard to “unimportant,” we’re committing presumption. By exaggerating other’s sins to malicious, we are violating the proper sense of Matthew 7:1ff.

This is evident when we see American Catholics play the “bishops should stay out of politics” card when they teach on something that challenges our complicity on something we write off as “unimportant.” Tragically, this complicity is bipartisan. If the Church speaks out against the unjust treatment of migrants, some Catholics will object to the bishops focusing on this instead of X—with X being something that they already happen to agree with. If the Church defends life and the sanctity of marriage, some Catholics will object to this, insisting that the bishops focus on Y instead—Y being something that they just happen to agree with. Both are willing to overlook that the Church does in fact teach on X and Y as well as on the just treatment of migrants and on life and the sanctity of marriage.

All of us need to realize that this behavior is not standing up for “more important” teachings. It is rejection of the Church teachings which we dislike. Yes, we can be quite sincere about opposing X and Y. But Church teaching is about more than X and Y which don’t directly affect us.

In addition, all of us face the temptation of assuming that, because the individual bishop is not speaking about X or Y at that moment, they must maliciously oppose Church teaching on X or Y. Or, that because the bishop speaks about showing compassion to those who violate Church teaching in an area we feel vehement about, it “must” mean he is lax about the teaching in this area, or even plotting to undermine it. The possibility of him wanting to both save those sinners and protect us from committing rash judgment never seems to occur to the critics.

But see what we’ve become! By assuming that the teaching that rebukes us is “unimportant,” we deafen ourselves to the teachings that could lead us to repentance. By assuming that those who violate teachings we vehemently support must be malicious in intent, we judge in a way forbidden to us. In both assumptions, we endanger our souls.

Yes, some sins are objectively more destructive than others. But that does not mean the “others” can be ignored. I’ve often said in my blog that the deadliest sin for each person are the ones most likely to damn that person to hell. If the Church warns that something we’re indifferent to or complicit in our support for, we’re fools to ignore the warning and blame the messenger for speaking out. We should remember the prophecy of Ezekiel when the Church speaks out:

You, son of man—I have appointed you as a sentinel for the house of Israel; when you hear a word from my mouth, you must warn them for me. When I say to the wicked, “You wicked, you must die,” and you do not speak up to warn the wicked about their ways, they shall die in their sins, but I will hold you responsible for their blood. If, however, you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, but they do not, then they shall die in their sins, but you shall save your life. (Ezekiel 33:7-9)

The Church, as a watchman, is warning us. If we don’t listen, we too will die in our sins.

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