Brought up as we American Catholics are in Protestant traditions, surrounded on every side by Protestant culture, compelled to approve and applaud Protestant values, any attempt on our part to resist being engulfed by this flood-tide will appear insanely anti-social. Of all the false values that Protestantism has foisted on us, none is more poisonous than that which limits evil to, and even assimilates it with, immorality. Can one adequately describe Lucifer as an immoral person?” Or was it “immoral” of Eve to eat the apple?
Morals pertain primarily to our animal natures. Decency is a prevailing human instinct. Grace builds on nature, and a sound nature makes a firmer foundation for the work of the Holy Spirit than a perverted one. But do not let us confuse the bedrock of a sound nature with the noble arches and flying buttresses of Grace. They are distinct. What does Grace ask of Nature? Obedience. That is the root of the matter.
Was not Thamar’s action of disguising herself as a harlot and waylaying her father-in-law highly “immoral?” For that matter, when we stop to think of Abraham preparing to kill his son in cold blood, our moral sensibilities are most certainly shocked. In Abraham’s case we are told explicitly that he acted under obedience to God’s command; in Thamar’s we fail to find any explicit mention of God’s disapproval. The Old Testament abounds in “shocking” actions that went unpunished — far more shocking, for example, than that of the Israelites who were condemned to wander in the desert forty years because they were faint-hearted and afraid to trust God’s power; or than that of Moses, who was forbidden to enter the Promised Land because he struck the rock instead of speaking to it as he had been ordered to do. Which arouses our moral indignation? The action of Moses, or that of Thamar? Thamar’s, obviously. Yet to judge by the consequences, that of Moses was evidently the greater sin. Disobedience, distrust of God — these are the most hateful of all things.
But we all tend to obfuscate the issue. Evil we regard as essentially “not nice,” “really too loathsome for words” — and why? Because it implies disobedience to God’s commands? Not at all. Because respectable members of society do not do such things. But many respectable members of society reject God’s Only-begotten Son whom He sent to redeem us, to teach us obedience unto death, because He so loved the world. This, then, is not evil. How could such nice people — so kind, so upright, so generous, so cultured — be “evil?” It is really too much to ask of us that we so brand them. They just haven’t received the gift of Faith. Or maybe they have turned and rent the giver and trampled the Gift under foot. Well, that isn’t half so bad as what Thamar did. You can’t tell me. One has to draw the line somewhere.
This fatuous concept of evil has to a certain extent permeated the Church itself. That it will never prevail against it, we know. But it is sad to think that the pope is chiefly respected by non-Catholics as a “guardian of morals”; and that Catholics are pleased and gratified, as though it was something to respect the pope even though one does not obey him. Surely the pope should command respect chiefly for the fact that he is a legislator, empowered to make and abrogate laws, rather than as a mere guardian or policeman. “What you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.” Liberal interpretations of recent encyclicals of the Holy See have lent themselves to this curtailed interpretation of its function. We have received much sound advice on moral and sociological matters, to which non-believers, on occasion, subscribe as readily as believers. What Catholics would welcome — especially at this time, when three hundred Protestant sects, who originally disagreed on doctrinal and theological points, are now trying to get together on sociological ones — would be a strong doctrinal pronouncement from the Holy Father. We would be happy to have the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin declared a dogma, and to be forced to believe under pain of explicit heresy, in an age of total moral confusion, that God did not permit “His holy one” to see corruption.
(This article was originally published in From the Housetops, Volume III, No.1, September, 1948.)