“Associate with people who are likely to improve you.” – Seneca
We feel a certain thrill when we hear news of natural disasters, even more so when we see pictures of them. This is not to deny that we empathize with those who suffer death or loss when hurricane, earthquake, flood or fire ravage the landscape. That is another matter, and the interest we have in photos or films of devastation does not imply any lack of fraternal charity on our part.
There is grandeur and beauty in the lava flows of Kilauea; the fact that homes and highways have been buried and burned by the molten earth as it crawls towards the sea is another matter. The same is true of tsunamis and tornadoes, forest fires and even car wrecks. It is the drama and power of destruction that impresses us and from which we cannot turn away. It awakens us from the dull dream that we are in control of our world and provides stark proof of a power we can only imagine. It can also awaken our sense of being part of the human community; of our vulnerability and mutual need.
We might also experience a thrill when we hear of moral disasters. Sometimes, our desire for justice is gratified when corruption is exposed and punished. That evil men plunder and rape with impunity and that we are helpless in the face of their predation, with the law frequently a tool manipulated by those with wealth and power, appears distressingly normal. When a wrong is occasionally righted, our hearts are lifted. Our faith in the eventual triumph of righteousness is strengthened. Hollywood knows this and produces films that gratify our desire for justice, while we gratify Hollywood’s desire for profits. The superhero genre represents a comic-book theology in which all is set right by a mighty being who champions our cause in the battle with evil.
But we can develop an unwholesome taste for tales of corruption and retribution, or even of corruption alone. A fascination with depravity is perhaps the greatest danger that currently accompanies the ongoing revelations of monstrous sexual crimes committed and covered up by priests, bishops and cardinals of the Catholic Church. So vast, so horrible, so habitual are the sins that are being uncovered that they have a similar effect to the viewing of an earthly cataclysm. It is as though we are seeing an avalanche of evil gathering mass and force as it roars towards us. We find it hard to look away and don’t know where to go to escape it.
Our sense of having been betrayed by those in whom we placed our greatest trust is enormous. We may have known that many leaders of our Church were doctrinally heterodox. We may have had the sense that a terrible chastisement was in the offing. But few imagined that the Church was so thoroughly enmeshed in the web of evil whose threads are now unravelling in a seemingly endless series of ever greater public scandals. Where will it end? The situation appears not unlike that of the Nixon presidency, in which the trail of criminality led eventually into the Oval Office itself. There are now calls for the resignation of Pope Francis? Will the canonization of John Paul II come into question? It is not only how high but how far back in time the taint of coverup and corruption may reach.
That we have misplaced our trust is certain. Have we also been negligent in our duty to discern evil? It may be that we have had ample evidence that many of our priests and bishops had departed from the immemorial teaching of the Church. Perhaps we should have realized that any departure from truth will likely be accompanied by a departure from right conduct. One salutary thing that we can take away from this debacle is an increased awareness that orthodoxy, while no guarantee of rectitude, is the indispensable foundation of its possibility.
The cascade of scandal, as overwhelming as it presently seems, may only be at its beginning. We can reasonably expect that more stories of sickening depravity will be forthcoming. We may become numb to shock, or we may develop a taste for it. We all have in us the tendency to enjoy salacious gossip. The more we feed it, the greater its appetite grows. One of the many lamentable features of the 24-hour news cycle is the constant feeding of this appetite. Much of what passes for news these days is nothing other than gossip, often malicious and unfounded, and we have become accustomed to it. As revelations of priestly and episcopal crimes continue to unfold, we may grow to enjoy hearing about them. We will condemn these sins, of course, but a delectation for scandal may take root in us. This must be fought. But it can only be fought if we are conscious of its progress and stop it.
When I was a boy, the nuns who taught me were not shy about prescribing modes of conduct and enforcing them. But one rule they repeated very often concerned something that only we could enforce of our own volition: avoid bad companions. This admonition was given with great frequency, for its observance was rightly considered crucial to any progress in virtue and its disregard the prelude to moral ruin. A bad companion was not difficult to recognize when we were children: dissimulation in the young is not highly developed. But as we grow older, we grow more artful. Our own sins, and those of others, are not always in plain view. And we can be led into corruption before we know where we are.
If we develop a taste for scandal, then the crimes of our priests and bishops will have been compounded. The mind takes on the qualities of that which it dwells upon. If we dwell upon the hideous, our minds will become filled with hideous thoughts. We should not, indeed cannot, ignore the horrors that are being disclosed, but they should move us to a greater love of the true and the good and the beautiful, not a fascination with deformity and the grotesque.
Christ is the true priest, the true teacher. If we turn to Him, keep company with Him, we will be able to avoid bad companions. Such companions come in the form of men and women, but more often in the form of thoughts and feelings. We may become angry when we hear reports of the latest crimes and coverups, and we may think our anger justified. But there is a great danger in any kind of anger: an undetected movement from righteousness to self-righteousness, from a desire for justice to a desire for revenge. At the last, we may sink into what is called schadenfreude – joy at the misfortune of another. Rather than pray for the fallen and the wounded, we may come to take a satisfaction in their plight.
In schadenfreude, we will have moved far away from Our Lord, Who feels only sorrow when He sees any of His children enslaved by sin, from which His desire is to set us free. Our Lord does not delight in seeing men punished for evil. The only reason He allows it is rooted in His love for us. Turning away from Him is the essence of all punishment; turning away from sin is the beginning of every joy.
There is a terrible purgation taking place now. It is the Lord’s business and He will conduct it in a way that will bring the greatest good out of it. Our part is to keep our eyes on Our Lord and our ears open to His voice. Let us not become connoisseurs of corruption but lovers and doers of the Word which is the light and life of all.