False Extremes and the Christian Way Forward

JOHN ZMIRAK

Most people get virtue wrong.  They think that it is simply the opposite of sin — when in fact the opposite of a sin is usually another kind of sin, just as the opposite of going too far west is going too far east.

Most lists of the Seven Deadly Sins run down the various vices, and the virtues we ought to practice instead.  What such listings miss is the fact that the original meaning of "virtue" comes from "manliness" (Latin, vir), which in modern terms we might translate as "humanity."  Full, healthy humanity, as opposed to a sick and distorted form.

Aquinas, drawing on Aristotle, saw virtue as residing in the Golden Mean, the healthy place of balance where a person lives in accord with human nature and his own state of life, not veering off into one or the other toxic extreme.  Hence the virtue of Temperance consists in enjoying food and drink in reasonable, healthy quantities.  One could sin against Temperance either by charging ahead into Gluttony, or by despising the body and eating too little (or too carelessly), a vice Aquinas called Insensibility.

It's the same with each of the other Deadly Sins: The virtue lies in the healthy middle course between two sinful distortions.  Most of the neurosis, rage, and dysfunction I have seen among fellow Catholics in my lifetime has emerged from people missing this crucial point, and desperately avoiding Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Vainglory, and Envy by grasping at the one or more of the "Seven Deadly Neuroses": Frigidity, Insensibility, Prodigality, Fanaticism, Servility, Scrupulosity, and Pussilanimity.  My goal in writing The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins was to restore the wholesome, Thomistic vision of the virtues, which is all too often lost.  If more people followed Thomas, many shrinks would go out of business.

As Chesterton observed, the Church has likewise had to fight off a series of equal and opposite heresies, which cut off one piece of a complex truth to make a simple slogan.  The Arians proclaimed "God is One!" and denied that Christ was divine.  The Monophysites shouted back, "Jesus is God," and effectively denied that He was human. More recently, the vast majority of Catholics rejected Pope Paul VI's teaching that contraception is always forbidden.  Of the Catholics who were left, a high percentage reject Paul VI's teaching that NFP is broadly permitted.  (See Fr.  Ryan Erlenbusch's excellent "The Myth of the Contraceptive Mentality.")

Likewise, excessively broad-minded Catholics took the Church's teachings on ecumenism and religious liberty at Vatican II to mean that all religions are basically equal, "diverse" pathways that lead to the very same God.  To this, radical traditionalists responded by rejecting Vatican II and calling for the state to imprison "heretics."

And so on.  Such herky-jerky oscillation between alluring false extremes will surely pervade human life until the last re-run of Law and Order is aired, and Jesus returns.

As Chesterton observed, the Church has likewise had to fight off a series of equal and opposite heresies, which cut off one piece of a complex truth to make a simple slogan.

Two profound mistakes about the relationship between God's grace and human effort have played twangy dueling banjos for the past 1500 years.  Put simply, it's the fight between Pelagianism and Calvinism.  While there are many theological niceties at stake here, boiled down to its simplest elements, Pelagians think that salvation depends on human's effort to imitate Christ's example, while Calvinists (and others who follow his reading of Augustine, such as the Jansenists and some Dominicans) believe that God does everything — that man is not even free to resist God's grace. 

The best book to read on this subject is Leszek Kolakowski's lucid God Owes Us Nothing.  Pelagius saw Jesus not so much as a redeemer as a role model, while Calvin imagines a God who creates billions of souls explicitly for Hell.  The brilliant novelist Anthony Burgess, a pagan who never escaped or regretted his Catholic education, applied this polarity to politics — imagining human history as the spastic oscillation between ideologies that think that human life can be perfected here on earth, and those that despair of improvement and blithely shrug at cruelty and injustice.  In the stinging satire The Wanting Seed, he depicts the perfectionists as coldly bureaucratic socialists, Malthusians, social scientists, and atheists — who promote sterilization, homosexuality, and even castration as desperate answers to economic shortage.  The imperfectionists, for their part, are superstitious obscurantists, who wink at fertility cults, warfare, and even cannibalism.

In today's terms, we might see the perfectionists as liberation theologians, the imperfectionists as cynical crony capitalists.


Throughout the history of the Church, we have seen such extremes at work — Christians who imagined that they could impose the Kingdom of God on earth through revolutionary force, and those who saw original sin as rendering any real progress impossible.  Jason Jones and I explore this polarity in The Race to Save Our Century.

On the one hand:

As Norman Cohn documents in The Pursuit of the Millennium, the praise lavished on the poor throughout the Gospels and the promises of a perfect "New Jerusalem" on earth to be found in Revelation served as highly combustible fuel for radical preachers, disgruntled tradesmen, and displaced intellectuals, who sometimes attracted followings of thousands to violent movements to eradicate every trace of evil and construct the perfect society here and now.  The Flagellants began by doing penance to ward off the plague but ended by calling for the destruction of the "corrupt" Catholic Church.  The "People's Crusade," when it proved unable to fight the Muslims in the Holy Land, settled for persecuting the Jews at home in Europe.  Such movements wreaked havoc in dozens of cities and claimed the lives of many thousands. 

In the annals of historical anti-Semitism, these were among the worst events recorded before the Holocaust.  Some rulers invoked utopian themes when they promised to root out "evil" in their realms, which for them meant forcibly converting or driving out religious minorities.  (The Jews were expelled, at one point, from every major country in Europe, except for Poland.) Church leaders, although they regularly and firmly condemned such utopian movements, were sometimes powerless to prevent the actions of mobs led by half-educated or unbalanced self-proclaimed prophets.

The opposite of such radical idealism is a world-weary cynicism, to which churchmen, being fallen, were not immune:
The cruelties, wars, and ideological extravagances of the French and related revolutions drove most churchmen even further into the arms of authoritarian monarchies, even as thinkers who saw the legitimate Christian principles of moral equality and human dignity lurking behind the Enlightenment rhetoric of some revolutionaries — for instance, Hugues-Félicité Robert de Lamennais — were subject to condemnation by popes who feared the return of the anticlerical mobs.  The peoples of Catholic nations under foreign occupation — such as Poland and Ireland — were appalled when popes supported their "legitimate," non-Catholic rulers against popular, national revolts.
As Cardinal Josef Ratzinger wrote in 1982, much of the work of Vatican II was aimed at disentangling the Church from the sticky embrace of the state, and renewing her claim to serving as a prophetic critic of every worldly system.  (He also noted ruefully in The Ratzinger Report that too many Catholics took the Church's willingness to be self-critical about her past as license to promiscuously embrace the modern world, warts and all.)

Today, the power of the secular state is growing daily and menacing the freedom of the Church.  Well-meaning, ill-informed Catholics are inveighing against a long-dead "laissez-faire" free market, looking to the secular state as a means of establishing earthly justice.  It is tempting to respond with a lapse into the opposite error, to shrug and say that justice on earth is completely unattainable, and not even worth worrying over — since all debts will be repaid on the Day of Judgment, in spades (or pitchforks).  But that won't do.  You can't make a shower comfortable by switching the water from 120 degrees to 60.

Critics of Catholic utopianism need to believe in justice, and to point out firmly and clearly that justice is not the same thing as material equality.  Perfect equality on earth is neither attainable, desirable, nor even just.  The world of Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron," where the government stifles every human difference and controls every person's life, is a picture of earthly hell.  And governments that have tried to enforce equality have racked up murdered civilians in the tens and hundreds of millions — compared to which the worst excesses of unfettered capitalism look like the Corporal Works of Mercy.


It is simply a fact of nature that people's abilities, ambitions, and circumstances are unequal — and that people will only consistently work hard for their own or their family's benefit.  Economic systems that accept these facts of human nature, which are partly leavened by the effects of original sin, produce wealth much more effectively than systems that rely on idealism or coercion.  If you want to abolish extreme poverty, and meet basic human needs, you will work with the human race that really exists — not some fantasy of unfallen Adam or of future "socialist man."  Nor can you pretend that the Second Coming has already happened, and design housing structures suited only to resurrected bodies.

But in accepting that man is truly fallen, we must remember that he was also redeemed, that we are called to blunt the worst effects of inequality and protect the human dignity of every person.  So there must be red lines beyond which competition cannot pass, and means for the poorest citizens to defend their human rights.  In most of the developed world, such lines and means were established decades ago, and extreme poverty abolished.  The inequality that exists within America, or most European countries, is then morally meaningless.  There are real social problems, and unjust means by which crony capitalists game the system — as Tim Carney documents in The Big Ripoff — but inequality in itself is not an issue.  It is perfectly just that Bill Gates got rich while impractical essayists like me have not.

It's a fuel that emits some toxins, which we need the community to regulate.  But without it, nothing moves.

Inequality among nations is a complex issue, but in the main it results not from exploitation or even colonialism, but rather from the results of a Darwinian struggle between social systems.  Nations whose founding cultures believed in free competition, decentralized government, and the rule of law have prospered.  Those whose founding cultures were rife with coercion, paternalism, and nepotism did not.  The answer to this inequality is not to beggar the rich nations, or flood them with needy immigrants, but to promote in small, non-coercive ways the habits that lead to prosperity.

In just my lifetime, nations such as South Korea and India have made enormous strides toward eradicating poverty and unleashing the human potential of hundreds of millions of people by embracing these healthy habits — which we really ought to call political virtues.  At the same time, hundreds of millions of others were held back, dehumanized, bullied, and left in poverty by the practice of ideologies that denied human nature, and tried to run societies as coercive versions of monasteries.  We ought to call these ideologies what they really were: political sins.

So we must look at political and economic questions from a Christian "realist" perspective informed by a knowledge of history and what it tells us of human nature.  People were made by God to look out first for themselves and their families, and then for the larger community — an inclination that has been exaggerated by sin.  This human drive to improve, to grow, to acquire, is the energy source that fuels all work, all striving, all growth.  It's a fuel that emits some toxins, which we need the community to regulate.  But without it, nothing moves.  Crush out a man's "selfish" desires, and the only way you'll get him to move is at the point of a bayonet.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

John Zmirak. "False Extremes and the Christian Way Forward." Aleteia (July 15, 2014).

Reprinted with permission of aleteia. See the original article here.

The Christian universe is immense, with thousands and thousands of websites, blogs and information. Through partnership with content suppliers, Aleteia is a unique platform for those seeking the truth.

THE AUTHOR

John Zmirak is an editor, a journalist, a college professor, and a political commentator. He received his B.A. from Yale University in 1986, then his M.F.A. in screenwriting and fiction and his Ph.D. in English in 1996 from Louisiana State University.  He works now as an editor for several publishing companies.  He lives in his native New York City and is the author of A Bad Catholic's Guide to Good Living, The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins: A Vital Look at Virtue and Vice, With Quizzes and Activities for Saintly Self-Improvement, and editor of All-American Colleges: Top Schools for Conservatives, Old-Fashioned Liberals, and People of Faith.

Copyright © 2014 Aleteia




Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter

 

 

Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.