The “Pernicious Habit of Charity”

As Catholic bloggers (or bloggers in general) know all too well, it’s easier to get into heated personal arguments on the internet than it is in person. Debates about various hot-button issues — abortion, capital punishment, just war, nuclear weapons, waterboarding suspected terrorists, voting for candidates who endorse immoral policies, etc. — can run to hundreds of comments. They also, at times, tend to degenerate into back and forth accusations of dissent from Church teaching, or not-so-subtle suggestions that those with the wrong stance on these issues are guilty of mortal sin.

With that in mind, I would like to offer a reflection that I have found helpful in dealing with these issues. It comes from one of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, and it concerns the ever-popular topic of how to respond to one’s enemies.

The Letters were written during World War II, and in this particular letter, junior demon Wormwood has asked his uncle Screwtape for advice on how to shape the attitudes of his “patient” — a young man of draft age living in England — toward the war. They know that “the Enemy” (God) commands His followers to love their enemies; therefore, one might assume they would do all they could to encourage the patient to hate his country’s enemies, the Germans. But Screwtape cautions Wormwood against that assumption:

“As regards his more general attitude to the war, you must not rely too much on those feelings of hatred which the humans are so fond of discussing in Christian, or anti-Christian, periodicals. In his anguish, the patient can, of course, be encouraged to revenge himself by some vindictive feelings directed towards the German leaders, and that is good so far as it goes. But it is usually a sort of melodramatic or mythical hatred directed against imaginary scapegoats. He has never met these people in real life-they are lay figures modelled on what he gets from newspapers. The results of such fanciful hatred are often most disappointing, and of all humans the English are in this respect the most deplorable milksops. They are creatures of that miserable sort who loudly proclaim that torture is too good for their enemies and then give tea and cigarettes to the first wounded German pilot who turns up at the back door.

“Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient’s soul. The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbours whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary. There is no good at all in inflaming his hatred of Germans if, at the same time, a pernicious habit of charity is growing up between him and his mother, his employer, and the man he meets in the train. Think of your man as a series of concentric circles, his will being the innermost, his intellect coming next, and finally his fantasy. You can hardly hope, at once, to exclude from all the circles everything that smells of the Enemy: but you must keep on shoving all the virtues outward till they are finally located in the circle of fantasy, and all the desirable qualities inward into the Will. It is only in so far as they reach the will and are there embodied in habits that the virtues are really fatal to us. (I don’t, of course, mean what the patient mistakes for his will, the conscious fume and fret of resolutions and clenched teeth, but the real centre, what the Enemy calls the Heart.) All sorts of virtues painted in the fantasy or approved by the intellect or even, in some measure, loved and admired, will not keep a man from our Father’s house: indeed they may make him more amusing when he gets there.”

The main point I take away from this passage is that how one acts toward individual, real people in the present is of greater moral weight than is how one feels toward certain groups or types of people in the abstract. While this may sound obvious, it’s something that our social-media-driven world seems to have forgotten. Our culture places relentless emphasis on cultivating politically correct attitudes to the point that persons who express correct feelings can get away with all sorts of unjust, insulting and cruel actions toward individuals. Likewise, those who do the right thing with regard to individuals but express the “wrong” sentiments regarding certain groups suffer harsh condemnation.

For example, take the wave of anti-police brutality demonstrations that occurred in the wake of the Ferguson police shooting and similar incidents. Some crossed the line from mere demonstrations of free speech into actively harassing bystanders and disrupting their lawful activities such as shopping, eating in restaurants, and commuting to or from work.  And there were, sadly, those who went so far as to inflict violence on police officers who had nothing to do with the original incidents being protested. All these occurrences, to me, epitomize what Screwtape was hoping to achieve: directing the benevolence of the protesters toward dead men whom they had never met, while directing their malice toward living people in their own communities. You can probably think of other examples, such as a person who purports to have great concern for “social justice” but treats actual poor or homeless individuals with contempt.

Now, just as the hatred Wormwood’s “patient” may have felt toward the Germans was largely imaginary, so our emotions toward certain groups or types of people — liberals, conservatives, feminists, gays/lesbians, pro-gun and anti-gun activists, illegal immigrants, “trad” Catholics, CINOs, Jews, Muslims, etc. — may also be “imaginary” in the sense Screwtape described. We may know people, for example, who could rant all day long about the evils of liberalism and the modern Democratic Party platform if given a forum to do so, but still get along fine with their friends and family who are dyed in the wool Democrats. These are people who have managed to separate their feelings toward Democrats or liberals in the abstract from their actions toward the real people they know who hold liberal viewpoints. Others experience this with regard to differences over issues such as abortion, same-sex civil marriage, gun control, etc. Maintaining a respectful relationship with someone who disagrees with you on fundamental issues is not easy, of course, and not everyone does it or handles it well, but by the grace of God, it can be done.

The difference between imaginary and real virtue also may help explain why certain moral teachings receive more emphasis than others. As important as Church teachings on the economy, just war, torture and capital punishment are, the fact remains that most of us reading this blog will never be in a position where we are directly involved in an actual life or death decision involving those issues. Does this mean we need not care what the Church teaches on these issues? Not at all. Nor does it mean we should not take it into account when considering whom to vote for, or how we respond to common arguments on these issues. Still, those actions are indirect and remote, and not, in my opinion, of the same weight as direct, immediate action such as a prosecutor, judge, public official or member of the military might take. (Situations involving abortion, end-of-life issues and Catholic teachings regarding marriage, however, are far more common and the odds of an Average Catholic in the Pew being involved in such a critical decision are much higher.)

What it does mean, in my opinion, is that we should not place being on the “right” side of a debate regarding a hypothetical or historical situation above our duty to treat our audience — whether in person or online — with respect and charity. To insult or condemn people or accuse them of mortal sin based on their sentiments regarding situations that cannot, or probably will not, ever happen to them in real life (“What if I captured a terrorist who had planted a nuke in a major city and had to torture them to find out where the bomb was?”) is, in my view, rash judgment. That, to me, would be like threatening to divorce my husband because he disagrees with me about how to prepare for a tsunami or volcanic eruption — when we live in central Illinois, thousands of miles away from the nearest ocean or active volcano. If one lives in an area where a tsunami or volcanic eruption is possible, then preparing for it should be a priority. For those who don’t live in those areas, their preparedness priorities need to be directed toward situations that could actually happen to them — tornadoes, flash floods, hurricanes, etc. — rather than toward scenarios that, for them, would be imaginary.  Likewise, I believe our moral “preparedness” exercises and debates are best directed toward situations we actually encounter or are likely to encounter in reality. In this way, we cultivate the “pernicious habit of charity” to which Screwtape referred.

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  1. I’m reminded of the Lord telling the Pharisees that its not what goes into the body that is unclean, rather it’s what comes out of the body, (the heart.) Your lesson is a good one. All to often I will use this medium to vent and unknowingly harbor a poison that can or does harm to loved ones.

  2. But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels. 2 Timothy 2:23

  3. Thank you, Elaine Krewer. I especially appreciated: “The main point I take away from this passage is that how one acts toward individual, real people in the present is of greater moral weight than is how one feels toward certain groups or types of people in the abstract.”
    The war was self-defense, in person and in particular and in abstract and in general. The particular and the general judgment come to mind.
    I wanted to thank you, simply, but the mind keeps scrolling.
    Bishop Fulton J. Sheen said: roughly quoted: ” Some people love humanity but they do not love their neighbor, or the person with whom they live”.

  4. Idealized groups with whom has no interaction are able to be refreshingly free of conflict, while flesh-and-blood interaction has no such assurance– and the more you interact with someone, the more likely there will be a chance for conflict.

  5. Too true Foxfier!
    There’s old advice not to talk politics or religion to avoid opposing opinions and hurt feelings. When we are behind our computer screens we may not have social inhibitions against bad manners…
    In a representative democracy, we have to be able to put ourselves imaginatively “into” situations, to consider the morality of what we would do in such and such a situation, so that we can encourage our nation in moral decision making on our behalf.
    Empathy – being able to feel with another helps us react with indignation at the pain suffered by an aborted baby for example, making us want to legislate against abortion.
    We cannot absent ourselves from such discussions just becasue they never happen to us or might be remote from our own personal experience. We can however try to keep good manners and pernicious charity.

  6. Wonderful essay Elaine.
    Scarce a day goes by but that we are confronted with the dilemma described. The current President appears on the tube, saying something either inane or otherwise irritating, and we react in a human manner, with anger. Is our anger sinful? No. It’s just an emotional response to a stimulus.
    It may be sinful not to be angry over some things. We hear of ISIS slaughtering innocents and are outraged. We would, but for our great age, take up arms against them, shoot as many as we could, yet we sin not.
    There is a time for peace, and a time for war. A just person uses his or her temper, an unjust one loses it. If a soldier doesn’t work up an adequate temper in the heat of battle, he’ll probably not survive.
    We heard a cogent homily on this a few years ago. We are commanded to love one another but not to like one another. I love you because you are God’s creature whom He loves so much as to send His Son to die for you. So how can I not love you and expect God to be pleased with me? I like you because you make me feel good but dislike you if you make me feel bad. I have no choice as it’s not a matter of will. It’s a visceral response over which I have little control.
    It is inescapably obvious that I am talking to myself as much as to anyone. When certain people come on the TV screen, I can’t switch the channel fast enough. Perhaps I should be at least pleased to have them as enemies for whom I must pray.

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