The banality of evil


"The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil."

A young businessman told me that on a recent trip to California he was struck by how insipid the art of conversation had become among those he met there, and that the stock reply to almost every observation or critical comment on any subject was:  "It's all good." 

Although New Yorkers might breezily pass this off as typical of the insipidity of what they call "La-La Land," this insouciance has infected all parts of our society, and anyone walking among pre-Christmas shoppers here on 34th Street can marvel at the epidemic of vacuousness all around.  To say of everything, "It's all good," is to imply that nothing is bad, and that, in turn, means that nothing is either really good or really bad.

The theme of the Second Sunday of Advent is judgment, and judgment is the act of distinguishing bad from good and, consequently in application, wrong from right.  The inability to make a right moral judgment is the definition of insanity.  The philosopher Hannah Arendt said, "The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil."  She spoke of the "banality of evil" with reference to the cruelest Nazis, who did not look or speak like the Devil and seemed even mild and harmless as they engineered horrors. 

If you want a current example of the consequences of bad judgment, consider the teenager just a few blocks from our church who was arrested for shoplifting a pair of jeans and some lingerie while calmly carrying a dead baby in her shopping bag.  At her arraignment, the prosecuting attorney said, ". . . shoplifting with the baby in her bag the entire time certainly suggests a little bit of difficulty following society's rules."  If "It's all good," then murder is an awkward "difficulty" and "society's rules" are the invention of a transient society and not commands from the Creator.

True worship defies the mediocrity that softens moral defense against evil, but in the last generation our narcissistic culture has chosen self-worship over divine worship.  It is mostly the graying people now who want what alert younger people wryly call "Happy-Clappy Masses" with bland folk music and blander preaching. 

Some are even so immersed in banality that they feel threatened when the Catholic Church chants the Catholic words of the Liturgy in a language higher than the idioms of the fading day.  While they invoke a fabricated "Spirit of Vatican II" to support their lack of judgment, this is the opposite of what that Council intended.  Our Lord said, "I judge no man" (John 8:15) and then said, "For judgment I came into this world."  He who is the Truth cannot contradict himself.  He proposed no standard to measure what is good or bad in us other than how we measure up in the reflection of his holy eyes.




Father George William Rutler. "It's all good and the banality of evil."  From the Pastor (December 8, 2013).

Reprinted with permission of Father George W. Rutler.


Father Rutler received priestly ordination in 1981. Born in 1945 and reared in the Episcopal tradition, Father Rutler was an Episcopal priest for nine years. He was received into the Catholic Church in 1979 and was sent to the North American College in Rome for seminary studies. Father Rutler graduated from Dartmouth, where he was a Rufus Choate Scholar, and took advanced degrees at the Johns Hopkins University and the General Theological Seminary. He holds several degrees from the Gregorian and Angelicum Universities in Rome, including the Pontifical Doctorate in Sacred Theology, and studied at the Institut Catholique in Paris. In England, in 1988, the University of Oxford awarded him the degree Master of Studies. From 1987 to 1989 he was regular preacher to the students, faculty, and townspeople of Oxford. Cardinal Egan appointed him Pastor of the Church of Our Saviour, effective September 17, 2001. 

Since 1988 his weekly television program has been broadcast worldwide on EWTN. Father Rutler has published 17 books, including: Cloud of Witnesses — Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive, Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections, A Crisis of Saints: Essays on People and Principles, Brightest and Best, Saint John Vianney: The Cure D'Ars Today, Crisis in Culture, and Adam Danced: The Cross and the Seven Deadly Sins.

Copyright © 2013 Father George W. Rutler

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