By Anthony Esolen, September 27, 2018
A priest of the Chicago archdiocese, Fr. Paul Kalchick, has been disciplined by his bishop for burning a Nazi flag that had been lying in a closet somewhere. It was left over from many years before, when German Catholics wanted very much to believe, along with plenty of temporizers, trimmers, and German bishops, that National Socialism would someday soon be seen as compatible with the Catholic faith. Father Kalchick has been removed from his duties as pastor of Resurrection Parish.
His superior has recommended psychiatric evaluation. I should like to recommend Dr. O’Brien, in Room 101 at the Ministry of Love.
Of course it was not a Nazi flag. Everyone, even Father Kalchick’s superior knows—knows now—that Nazism is evil. Their predecessors did not necessarily know it when Pope Pius XI condemned it in his encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, but we all know it now, because, well, because every nice person knows it now. And why does every nice person know it now? Please let me not shock my readers’ sense of the wisdom of mankind. Every nice person knows it now because the Americans burnt out the rats’ nest in Berlin, that is why. Everyone likes a winner. The same people who strewed the Lord’s way with branches of palm would a few days later quite mysteriously begin to appreciate the wisdom of the Pharisees.
We turn and turn again, and in our time we are like pinwheels in the wind, because we do not have a strong sense of the reality of evil. As often it is illuminating to change the terms of the discussion. Suppose you have a touch of tuberculosis, and you are coughing up blood. You are worried about it, and you see your family physician, Dr. Mangleheart. He gives you a curious smile and recommends that you cover your mouth and nose with a wet rag thick with mustard gas. He has an impressive Greek name for it, homeopathy or something. He acknowledges that it seems counterintuitive, just as if you would go to clean your wash by intinction in swamp water, but that’s the beauty of it. There’s nature, and there’s medicine, he says, with a knowing tilt of the head.
I guess that everyone except for the occasional college professor would immediately draw the right conclusion. Dr. Mangleheart is either a very bad doctor, or a very bad man. It does not matter what he believes about mustard gas, as far as you are concerned. He may be a pleasant idiot who somehow passed his medical examinations without absorbing any of the knowledge; a man with a regular oilcloth of a brain. He may just be a wicked man. But he must be one or the other. He cannot be both a good doctor and a good man.
It will not do, either, to save the doctor’s medical reputation by telling us that he has a very fine bedside manner, that he is pleasant to the frequent gatherings of next of kin, or that he enjoys a good rapport with his superiors. None of that matters. Nor will it do to save the doctor’s moral reputation to tell us that he gives to the United Way, that he is kind to animals, and that he once carried a child out of a burning house. Hitler was nice to dogs. He wrote a sufficiently mawkish poem on the death of his mother. He never took a drink.
But when it comes to the moral questions raised by the rainbow flag, we do act as if all that separates us from peace and harmony will be the Church’s declaration that the mustard gas is all right. We are not treating the matter seriously. If the Church is correct, and the great heaped-up mass of sexual sins that have come to be indifferently condoned or positively celebrated is an evil, then that evil will do harm, not eventually but in the act, and even quicker than the mustard gas. The poison actually takes a moment or two to enter the bronchial tubes, but the harm of the evil is coterminous with the will that embraces it.
I am assuming here that a thing is evil not because God (or the Church) happens to condemn it, no more than that inhaling mustard gas is bad for your chest because the American Medical Association polled its members about it. The thing is evil because it is evil. Pope Benedict’s address at Regensburg aimed at describing this same tectonic fault: Muslims, William of Ockham, and modern western man on one side, and the eastern Orthodox, Thomas Aquinas, Roman Catholics, and the great majority of pagan philosophers and sages on the other. God forbids only what is evil and will harm us, and commands only what is good and will build us up. Christ does not “submit” to a reason exterior to himself. He is the Word through whom all things were made.
So the question must not be, “Should the Church permit or celebrate the thing that Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones, or Mr. Brown and Miss Walker, enjoy doing?” That question is neither here nor there, unless the facts have been ascertained. We cannot come out for or against a drug, without considering what the drug is, and what the human body is, and in what consists the body’s health.
If you say, “There are no moral facts, only persuasions, and the persuasions are meant to keep men in line,” then I reply that you are either a fool or a knave, but in any case you cannot be a real Roman Catholic. Some work must be done before we can even have a moral argument at all. But if you are a Roman Catholic, then with regard to good and evil you really are in the position of someone who believes in real moral harm. If you recommend or you celebrate the thing that Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones, or Mr. Brown and Miss Walker, enjoy doing, you imply that it is as innocent as drinking orange juice or playing croquet. You do so, however, in the face of twenty centuries of condemnation, and the express commands of Scripture, and the plain facts of the human body and the nature of children.
And against something else. I have very little sympathy for the German bishops who played the Nazi parlor game. Very little; but I do have a little. It isn’t personal. It’s that I am acutely aware of how easy it is for human beings to go badly wrong, when everybody around them is going badly wrong in the same direction. It’s also easy when the thing you are all in a flutter about seems not to have been tried before. Seems—for nothing is really new under the sun. Yet men do not think reliably. When you can hardly be persuaded against gambling by the ruin of your next door neighbor, how can the fall of a long dead empire move you in the slightest? A flea can move an elephant with a little nip. History has less influence upon the mind of man than that insect has on the pachyderm.
So man pleads ignorance. Dr. Mangleheart ought to know about the constitution of the human lungs, and the chemical nature of mustard gas. But he doesn’t know. He is a bad doctor. Yet what if the experiment has been tried, in front of his very eyes, with the foretold results?
You cannot plead ignorance now. No one can. No one can say, “If only the Church concedes the point, all will be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” The liberal Protestant denominations conceded point after point. Mass entertainment has done more than concede; it has celebrated. Our schools affirm it. Everyone but a Father Kalchick here and there waves the flag of the Sexual Revolution.
So where is the man with his lungs healed, climbing mountains and swimming across broad rivers and taking into himself the sweet good air of health? Where is he? As I have written often before, we Catholics—I mean we who actually do believe that God is not arbitrary—do not need to affirm anything on our own. Our enemies affirm it. We are not the ones who say that our college campuses are pullulating bogs of sexual crime. Our enemies say it. We are not the ones who say that a woman has to fear “domestic abuse”—what should be called “wife beating,” except that in the majority of cases we are not talking about wives—every time she shuts the front door upon herself and a man. Our enemies say it. We are not the ones who says that there is no meaning to being male or female. They insist upon it; they are nihilists on a mission.
Meanwhile, there are facts that not even our enemies dispute. Far from it—the maddest of them wave them in triumph. Marriage is in free-fall, and venereal diseases are not. A young person is more likely to be afflicted with one of the latter than to be blessed with a stable household and a passel of children. The revolution shows no signs of abating. It is, as evil generally is, fissiparous. Bigamy becomes fashionable again. Adultery is in. Mutilating the bodies of children and pumping them up with a lifetime of growth hormones, carcinogenic almost by definition, is all the rage. Abortion is a sacrament. Hatred of Christians is a virtue. What are the blessings of the mustard gas?
But we should not despair. For we do see what will get a priest in trouble. Finally, we have a prelate who says, “This is too much!” Liturgical abuses, heresy, immorality—all may be forgiven. Taking liberties with teenage boys—the Greeks did as much. Establishing cabals of sodomites and their friends? Nobody’s perfect. But burning a rainbow flag, now there you’re talking some serious business.
Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).