The Personalist Project

Accessed on July 15, 2020 - 12:19:10

Defilement and the Challenge of Addressing Evil

Michael Healy, May 29, 2012

This started out as a brief response in discussion of my earlier post on SSM, but developed into a further article.  I think what Katie and Jules worry about in terms of the corrosion of the natural moral sense, the impairing of ethical judgment, and the destructive effect on the moral imagination of having to deal openly with “unthinkable” evils (abortion, infanticide, homosexual relations, SSM), expresses existentially the reason why not only martyrs and virgins, but doctors of the church have special feasts and a special office in the Breviary—they have to deal with all the "unthinkables" because somebody has to refute them.   

This is their crown of thorns but it is a special work of mercy and a special call from Christ, to defend the innocent from terrible error blithely presented—and it merits a special joy in heaven for the intellectuals who have deeply loved and defended the truth.  Seen in this light, as a necessary cross, it does not have to corrode the natural moral sense nor impair ethical judgment.  Katie, in her response to my SSM post, worries that when it come to things like infanticide or SSM, “even to think and talk about it affects us—degrades us morally—opens us to what is wrong.”  But certainly this is not the case with St. Thomas or St. Bonaventure or the many other saints who have had to deal rationally with the evils of their day.  They see the truth (and its beauty) more deeply in contrast to terrible error.  So too with those today who have to deal with such things directly on a regular basis, like Robbie George and Pat Lee.  When the “unthinkables” are foisted upon us, we must respond—not simply long for a lost time when they would not have been mentioned.  Devra's comment on my SSM article shows how unexpected good may come from speaking up even when the tide is against us. People begin to see or at least seriously investigate rather than presume.

I recall one time, years ago, in the Reagan years in fact, when the Republican party was establishing itself as strongly pro-life, I had in class a fellow who turned out to be the Republican party coordinator for all of southern Ohio.  He was a very impressive, successful lawyer.  After the class was over, he approached me to say that it was the first time in his life that he had ever heard a genuinely reasoned set of arguments against abortion and that it had changed his mind.  He had been pro-choice because everyone he met in his milieu (as a moderate to liberal Republican and a successful lawyer/yuppie) was pro-choice.  He thought pro-lifers were mindless fundamentalists trying to foist their religious beliefs on others (and remember he was a Reagan republican, not a democrat).  But all he needed was to hear the truth once reasonably argued and he changed.  

A similar thing happened in grad school at the University of Dallas.  A high school friend of mine who had gone to Notre Dame and been “liberalized” came through on a visit and expressed his vague pro-choice views.  A whole group of grad students, led by John Barger (founder of Sophia Institute Press), collared him and gave him an entire pro-life presentation, complete with slides.  He left totally pro-life, scales had fallen off his eyes.  To his credit, he was willing to listen originally—many are not.

Another example.  An acquaintance of mine, who had spent his entire life in California and Hawaii, visited for a week in Steubenville.  We had some very extensive conversations about morality and religion.  He was a man of very high ideals morally, though very eclectic about religion.  Unfortunately he was on his third marriage, but this no longer “hit” him with its full force due to his everyday milieu.  In Steubenville, however, he experienced full-force dozens of life-long, committed marriages with deep and serious responsibilities and challenges (many children), couples who had been together for decades with no end in sight.  At one point in my car, while discussing some of this, he broke down in tears at the thought of his divorces (one including children)—at his failure to live up to the moral ideal.  He said that he had never seen an enduring marriage in his whole life until now.  His parents had divorced, his wives’ parents had divorced, all his relatives and friends had divorced, and he had just drifted into thinking that faithful monogamous marriage simply wasn’t possible—and therefore was not really part of the moral ideal or requirement.  But now he saw that it was and changed his judgment. 

So we must continue to witness in argument and in our lives to the truth—even if we have to face and discuss seriously evils which should be immediately and self-evidently seen as such.  We have to get our hands dirty in order to do our job, but it does not mean that we sully our souls.