Thursday, November 21, 2019
Against candy-ass Christianity
, with Tom Hanks in the starring role, comes out this week and has been getting a lot of positive attention – in some cases, This might seem surprising coming from Hollywood types and secular liberals, given that Rogers was a Presbyterian minister. But of course, Rogers’ adherence to Christian teaching has nothing to do with it. Commenting on the movie, Angelus magazine “Hanks mentions that Rogers was indeed an ordained minister but seems to take comfort that Rogers ‘never mentioned God in his show.’” In , a man says to Mr. Rogers “You love broken people, like me,” to which Rogers replies “I don’t think you are broken” – never mind the doctrine of original sin..
So, why the adulation? The movie poster reminds us that “we could all use a little kindness.” The Daily Beast story linked to above tells us that Rogers was America’s “one true hero” and that “Hanks could very well be a living saint,” all because of their extraordinary… “niceness.” Indeed, “Tom Hanks playing Mr. Rogers may save us all,” because the movie reminds us that “the world we live in now still does have niceness in it.”
Niceness. Well, it has its place. But the Christ who angrily overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, who taught a moral code more austere than that of the Pharisees, and who threatened unrepentant sinners with the fiery furnace, wailing, and gnashing of teeth, was not exactly “nice.”
Now, my point is not to criticize Rogers himself, who I’m sure was a decent fellow, and who was, after all, simply hosting a children’s program. I don’t know anything about his personal theological opinions, and I don’t know whether the movie accurately represents them or even refers to them at all. The point is to comment on the idea that an inoffensive “niceness” is somehow the essence of the true Christian, or at least of any Christian worthy of the liberal’s respect. For it is an idea that even a great many churchmen seem to have bought into.
This is evident from the innumerable vapid sermons one hears about God’s love and acceptance and forgiveness, but never about divine judgment or the moral teachings to which modern people are most resistant – and which, precisely for that reason, they most need to hear expounded and defended. And it is evident in the tendency of modern Catholic bishops to emphasize dialogue and common ground rather than conversion, orthodoxy, and doctrinal precision, and to speak of the Church’s teachings on sexual morality, if at all, only half-apologetically, in vague and soft language, and in a manner hedged with endless qualifications.
Such “niceness” is in no way a part of Christian morality. It is a distortion of the virtues of (which is simply moderation in anger – as opposed to too much or too little anger), and (which is a matter of exhibiting the right degree of affability necessary for decent social order – as opposed to too little affability or too much).
As always, St. Thomas illuminates where modern churchmen obfuscate. Where meekness is concerned, Aquinas notes that just as anger should not be excessive or directed at the wrong object, so too can one be deficient in anger, and that this too can be sinful. For anger is nature’s way of prodding us to act to set things right when they are in some way disordered. The absence of anger in cases where it is called for is, for that reason, a moral defect, and a habit of responding to evils with insufficient anger is a vice. Thus, as Aquinas writes in Summa Theologiae :
Chrysostom says: “He that is angry without cause, shall be in danger; but he that is angry with cause, shall not be in danger: for without anger, teaching will be useless, judgments unstable, crimes unchecked.” Therefore to be angry is not always an evil…
[I]f one is angry in accordance with right reason, one's anger is deserving of praise…
It is unlawful to desire vengeance considered as evil to the man who is to be punished, but it is praiseworthy to desire vengeance as a corrective of vice and for the good of justice.
And as he adds in Summa Theologiae :
[As] Chrysostom says: “He who is not angry, whereas he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices, it fosters negligence, and incites not only the wicked but even the good to do wrong.” …
Anger… [is] a simple movement of the will, whereby one inflicts punishment, not through passion, but in virtue of a judgment of the reason: and thus without doubt lack of anger is a sin…
Hence the movement of anger in the sensitive appetite cannot be lacking altogether, unless the movement of the will be altogether lacking or weak. Consequently lack of the passion of anger is also a vice, even as the lack of movement in the will directed to punishment by the judgment of reason…
The lack of anger is a sign that the judgment of reason is lacking.
End quote. On the subject of friendliness or affability, Aquinas notes that just as one can be deficient in this trait and thus difficult for others to get along with, it is also possible to go too far in the other direction. In Summa Theologiae he writes:
[F]or the sake of some good that will result, or in order to avoid some evil, the virtuous man will sometimes not shrink from bringing sorrow to those among whom he lives… For this reason we should not show a cheerful face to those who are given to sin, in order that we may please them, lest we seem to consent to their sin, and in a way encourage them to sin further.
And in Summa Theologiae he describes such excess as a vice opposed to genuine friendliness:
[A]lthough the friendship of which we have been speaking, or affability, intends chiefly the pleasure of those among whom one lives, yet it does not fear to displease when it is a question of obtaining a certain good, or of avoiding a certain evil. Accordingly, if a man were to wish always to speak pleasantly to others, he would exceed the mode of pleasing, and would therefore sin by excess. If he do this with the mere intention of pleasing he is said to be “complaisant,” according to the Philosopher (Ethic. iv, 6).
To be “complaisant” in this sense is to be agreeable, amiable, or keen to please. It is, in short, to be Mr. Rogers-like. And that is not only not per se Christ-like, it can, as Aquinas says, even be sinful if what is called for is talk that is bracingly frank and displeasing.
What is the root of these vices masquerading as the pseudo-virtue of “niceness”? I would suggest that it is twofold, in part an error of the intellect and in part a malady of the will. The intellectual error is the one that Pope Leo XIII referred to as “Americanism” – in particular, the
principle… that, in order to more easily attract those who differ from her, the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions. Many think that these concessions should be made not only in regard to ways of living, but even in regard to doctrines which belong to the deposit of the faith. They contend that it would be opportune, in order to gain those who differ from us, to omit certain points of her teaching which are of lesser importance, and to tone down the meaning which the Church has always attached to them.
End quote. This is essentially the mentality that has come to prevail in the decades since Vatican II. Eternal damnation, the necessity of conversion to the Catholic faith, the immorality of contraception, and many other unpopular doctrines are simply not much talked about, and are hedged and softened and deemphasized on the rare occasions when they are talked about. By contrast, the rhetoric of freedom, human dignity, dialogue and ecumenism, and other themes and jargon congenial to the liberal mindset are trumpeted as if they were somehow at the very heart of Catholicism. The stern gravitas of the Fathers, Doctors, and saints has with many churchmen been replaced by a back-slapping, glad-handing affability.
Predictably, this has resulted, not in people being drawn to the Church in greater numbers, but rather in a massive decline in observance and orthodoxy among Catholics, and a general assumption among Catholics and non-Catholics alike that the unpopular doctrines are not really important after all and will inevitably be abandoned.
The malady of the will that underlies the contemporary Christian fetish for “niceness” is the one Aquinas labeled effeminacy, by which he meant a softness in the face of even relatively mild difficulties. In Summa Theologiae II-II.138.1, he explains:
[F]or a man to be ready to forsake a good on account of difficulties which he cannot endure… is what we understand by effeminacy, because a thing is said to be “soft” if it readily yields to the touch. Now a thing is not declared to be soft through yielding to a heavy blow, for walls yield to the battering-ram. Wherefore a man is not said to be effeminate if he yields to heavy blows… [P]roperly speaking an effeminate man is one who withdraws from good on account of sorrow caused by lack of pleasure, yielding as it were to a weak motion.
End quote. Effeminacy in this sense is rife among modern churchmen, who seem to fear controversy above all things, and especially controversy that might earn them the disdain of the secular liberal intelligentsia. And for most of the last few decades, the worst they would have faced is some bad press. The way Western culture is turning now, they will probably face far worse than that in the not too distant future – and will face it precisely because they did not speak and act boldly and consistently enough when bad press was all they had to fear. Appeasement only ever breeds contempt among those appeased, and spurs them to greater evil.
In the end, pseudo-Christian “niceness” will only doom both those who practice it and those they fear to offend. In the book of Ezekiel, God famously warns those placed as “watchmen” over his people:
If I say to the wicked, O wicked man, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way; he shall die in his iniquity, but you will have saved your life. (Ezekiel 33: 8-9)
Churchmen take note: A little more harshness might just save your soul, and the souls for which you are responsible – but nice guys finish last.