The Moral Theology of the Devil

Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk and writer who did most of his work in the 1950s and 1960s (he died in 1968 under somewhat mysterious circumstances--he electrocuted himself in a bathtub).  His most famous book is his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which talks about his entry into the monastery.  For my money, however, his best work is a short essay that was included in a collection called New Seeds of Contemplation.  The essay is entitled "The Moral Theology of the Devil."  Every word of it is worth reading (reprinted here), but I would particularly like to focus on this section:

The people who listen to this sort of thing, and absorb it, and enjoy it, develop a notion of the spiritual which is a kind of hypnosis of evil. The concepts of sin, suffering, damnation, punishment, the justice of God, retribution, the end of the world and so on, are things over which they smack their lips with unspeakable pleasure. Perhaps this is why they develop a deep, subconscious comfort from the thought that many other people will fall into hell which they themselves are going to escape. And how do they know that they are going to escape it? They cannot give any definite reason except that they feel a certain sort of relief at the thought of all this punishment is prepared for practically everyone else but themselves.

This feeling of complacency is what they refer to as "faith", and it constitutes a kind of conviction that they are "saved".
The devil makes many disciples by preaching against sin. He convinces them that the great evil of sin, induces a crisis of guilt by which "God is satisfied:. And after that he lets them spend the rest of their lives meditating on the intense sinfulness and evident reprobation of other men. . . .
It sometimes happens that men who preach most vehemently about evil and the punishment of evil, so that they seem to have practically nothing else on their minds except sin, are really unconscious hates of other men. They think the world does not appreciate them, and this is their way of getting even.

The devil is not afraid to preach the will of God provided he can preach it in his own way.


Merton's thoughts are particularly relevant now, during the strum und drang regarding Pope Francis's interview and the signs that he is turning the great wheel of the ship of the Catholic Church.  There are many articles from those who were quite pleased with the old regime and find this new direction upsetting.  In some respects they are all same, but for some reason this one in particular struck me [Edit: link change to redirect to original post].

At the heart of many of these reactions is an unshaken belief that what they are doing right now cannot be wrong or misguided.  How dare Pope Francis "blam[e] the world’s inability to understand the Church on those who have given their lives to fight the genocide of the unborn or defend Christian marriage"--i.e. themselves.  After all, they are the ones that being far more Catholic than everyone else by loudly yelling about abortion and gay marriage.  And being more Catholic than those lax folks in the pews is always good, right?  If going to Mass and saying your prayers is good, than surely going to Mass, saying your prayers and "giving your life" to whatever cause is at the forefront of Catholic thinking is better, right?

I can't say exactly what Francis has in mind by the sentence “[w]e have to find a new balance,
otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”  But I suspect he might be thinking about folks like the author.  Merton's essay points out that you can do enormous damage to others--and ultimately to yourself--by blindly and thoughtlessly committing oneself to a cause, even if the cause is ultimately a good one.  Because it is all too easy for it to stop being about the cause, and to start being about "winning."  Once a person sees their life in terms of a "struggle" against the terrible people who oppose their righteous crusade, then the only way their struggles can be justified is through victory.  Victory, not truth, and certainly not mercy, becomes the goal.  It is not a long step toward becoming an "unconscious hate[] of other men."

As Catholics, we know that this danger is real, because we have seen it happen in our history.  My former order, the Dominicans, was formed by St. Dominic to convince a well-intentioned but seriously misguided dissident group in southern France, the Cathars, that they should return to the Church.  St. Dominic convinced some of them to return, but most never got the chance--they were slaughtered by the armies of the King of France.  Medieval Spain set out to insure that the Catholic people could practice their faith free from attacks from the Muslim rulers in Granada.  Three hundred years later, the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella and their children sent thousands of Jews and Muslims to their deaths because they had the audacity to back-slide from the conversions imposed at the point of a sword.  In either case (and there are others), the people at the forefront of these efforts likely believed, fervently, that they were doing the will of God and advancing the interests of the Catholic Church.  In fact, I am sure that they looked at some of their fellow Catholics as soft and lax when they recoiled from what "needed to be done" to promote the faith.

I do not mean to suggest that the author, or any of the other folks that are upset at Pope Francis, are secretly planning another Inquisition.  In fact, I am sure they do not think that way.  But that is precisely why I hope that they would stop and reflect--really reflect--on what Pope Francis is saying here, and see if the spirit of what they are doing is drifting into the territory that Merton is describing.  Because that way is not simply the was of zeal.  It is the way of darkness, of fire, of blood. 

The devil makes many disciples by preaching against sin.

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