Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

The Devil's Distraction: A Misplaced Bad Conscience

by Alice von Hildebrand

Description

In this essay Dr. Alice von Hildebrand examines the effects of having a bad conscience — feeling misplaced guilt for sins one has not even committed. She discusses the devil's misguiding tactics, which have tricked some of our Church leaders into these guilt-ridden situations, thus distracting them from larger problems ultimately resulting in a greater victory for the evil one. Some examples include the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the current scandals plaguing the Church.

Larger Work

Crisis Magazine

Pages

34 – 38

Publisher & Date

Morley Publishing Group, Inc., Washington, D.C., April 2007

Having a bad conscience is one of the most unpleasant feelings one can experience. We dread it and understandably try to escape its sting. Anything that assuages a bad conscience will be welcome. In the meantime, the wily one — the devil — calculates what advantage he can win from it. He begins to benefit as soon as a bad conscience is activated, since this creates such a restlessness within the sinner that he inevitably — by a spiritual law of gravity — falls into a whole series of new sins. Lack of inner peace always triggers new faults.

One trick employed by the devil is to exaggerate one's fault to such an extent as to convince him that it cannot possibly ever be forgiven. St. Augustine wrote that at the time of temptation the devil presents the sin as harmless. The moment the sin is committed, he reverses the tactic and tries to lead the sinner to despair, thus preventing him from ever going from bad conscience to contrition, confession, and absolution. The deadly fear of the evil one is the sacrament of penance. He will use every conceivable wile to make the sinner dread it, for a victory for God is a bitter defeat for him.

Another efficient wile is to talk the sinner into the "sincere" conviction that it was not his fault. The tendency to put the fault on others goes all the way back to original sin: Eve put the blame on the serpent, Adam on his wife (not very gentlemanly conduct). When we lapse in some way, the first response is always, "It is not my fault; so-and-so brought me to do it."

Modern psychology has proven to be a superb tool; it has taught us to put the blame on others. We just mentioned that the tendency to deny our guilt is not a modern phenomenon. What is new, however, is that today this denial of personal guilt has assumed a scientific character, thanks to the empirical research made by contemporary psychiatrists and psychologists who, since Freud, have assumed the role of spiritual directors. Most of my students regularly went to their psychiatrist for healing.

Whatever problem modern youths now face is explained by the authoritarianism to which they have been subjected. In his valuable book Psychology as Religion, Paul C. Vitz writes: "It is time to recognize the psychologically 'battered parent' as a familiar syndrome." Parents are made responsible for every aberration committed by their children. We are far from denying that, in our decadent society, some parents fail miserably in educating their children. Many of them have been so convinced by thinkers such as Rodgers, Maslow, May, and their disciples that "self-fulfillment" is the goal of human existence that they view their child as an unwelcome burden that does not deserve either attention or love. How can they reach self-fulfillment if the child "forces" them to be self-sacrificing and chokes both their creativity and their possibility of growth?

The problem has two sides: parents paying no attention to their child, and children making their parents responsible for every single one of their flaws and failures. Authoritarianism is the main culprit: Whether commands come from parents or from the Church, the child is inhibited in his growth, and his rebellion is fully justified. We all know battered parents. We also know severely deprived children. How often have I heard from my students or from friends: "I have never heard the words, 'I love you"'? To be told by one single person, "I rejoice that you exist" is a life elixir. For being loved "justifies" our existence. Lack of love is crippling because it is the life principle par excellence. Legitimate as it is to expect love from our parents, ultimately fulfillment will only be found in God. Augustine has formulated this truth in his own unique way: "Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our heart is restless till it rests in Thee."

We live in a society of "wounded" people who take their revenge by finding satisfaction in destroying whatever is in their paths. "I have been mistreated; let others suffer the same fate" seems to be their mot d'ordre. They look for a scapegoat, usually their parents, their genes, society, or the Church. Feminists hate men; many men despise women. They are guiltless; they are victims. A victim is entitled to revenge, and many meaningless acts of terrorism can be traced back to the evil satisfaction of paying back "with the same coin" those thought responsible for their woes.

Are there valid cases of deprivation? Are there children who have never been hugged with tenderness? The answer is, of course, yes. We can now raise the following question: Are there not also cases in which this "deprivation syndrome" is the result of a fundamentally wrong attitude? We all know the fierce jealousy and rivalry that can exist between siblings. There are cases of children who talk themselves into believing that their sibling is the pet child, and consequently they do not receive their fair share of affection. The "other" is always the favored one. In fact, it may not be the case at all, but the jealous child is so convinced of it that he will inevitably read "injustice" into every action and every word of his parent, for it will be read with the deforming glasses of envy. Their self-centeredness is the real cause of the problem, but they do not see it. Subjectively, their woundedness justifies their erratic behavior in their own eyes — which in turn makes it more and more difficult for others to deal with them. They are guiltless; it is never their fault. They are victims, and victims are morally entitled to start a psychological lawsuit against the culprits. Tua culpa is the new order of the day.

The devil is infinitely clever, whereas our intelligence is very limited, making it easy for the wicked one to lead us astray under holy titles. There is another superb wile that has caused so much harm in the Church, which I call "a misplaced bad conscience." The devil knows that any Christian worthy of this name realizes that he is a sinner in need of God's mercy. This is a valid attitude that the father of lies will deflect for his own purpose: to give men (particularly Church men) a bad conscience for things they are not responsible for, while closing their eyes to real moral faults that can lead to a severe neglect of their duty as pastors of souls. It is a superb method of leading them into a dead end and making them feel contrite and apologetic for sins they have not committed. This approach has several advantages for evil: First, an imaginary weight of guilt is paralyzing and unbearable because it cannot possibly lead to a valid contrition, which in turn leads to confession and reconciliation. Another is that it closes the eyes of pastors to their real sins of omission and the grave neglect of their primary duties.

The trick of the evil one is so simple that it always works: Divert the attention of the sinner toward sins committed in the past by people he cannot possibly know, and therefore create an artificial feeling of guilt that is interpreted as "contrition" for sins that one has not committed. One feels very humble without possessing this virtue. It's a superb way of avoiding our real faults that urgently call for redress.

A couple of examples will illustrate our point. Contemporary Catholics are repeatedly reminded of the horrors committed during the Crusades. The news media and the press make a point of constantly pounding into the Catholic conscience the grievous faults the Church has committed throughout history. That the Crusades were started to defend the holy places that had been desecrated is not mentioned.

The Inquisition is something that every ignorant schoolboy is familiar with. But all they know is that it was horrible and was initiated by the Roman Catholic Church. Then came the Galileo case: Clearly the Church — fearing that scientific discoveries would sap her intellectual and moral authoritarianism — condemned a man who had dared challenge her views based on ignorance and superstition. What about the wars waged against so-called heretics, people who happen to have "different opinions," and therefore were simply exercising their right to think for themselves? Everyone knows (even those who do not drink cocktails) the one named "bloody Mary." That the last Catholic queen of England simply tried to reinstate the Faith that had been prevalent in England for centuries is not mentioned. Her reign was very short, but the long one of her half-sister, Elizabeth, who ruthlessly destroyed the Catholic Faith in the Island of Saints, is not branded as cruel.

But the list of sins committed by the Church is not yet finished. What about her attacks on the Albigenses in southern France, and her condemnation and burning at the stake of Jan Huss in Bohemia? A Jewish student of mine openly declared in the classroom that it would have been better for the world if Catholicism — in essence, Christ Himself — had never existed. The story of the Catholic Church, we are repeatedly told, is a dark one, and it is only proper for her to apologize.

Many non-Catholics (and even some so-called Catholics) make no distinction between the Church, the Holy Bride of Christ — without blemish and without stain — and what Jacques Maritain aptly calls "le personnel de l'Eglise" (the staff of the Church, the members of the Church) — many of whom are sinners indeed. There were great sinners in the Old Testament. There were great sinners in the New. There are sinners in every religious community. Judas was one of the privileged twelve, and he was a traitor. If we keep the same proportion, we can assume that today there are plenty of Judases in the Church occupying important positions.

It is an upsetting fact. But recall the words of Christ: "The gates of hell shall not prevail." The very misery and betrayal of many members of the clergy and many members of the Church, far from shaking our faith, should force us to put our hope in the Savior of the world and His Holy Mother. Dark as the sky might be, the divine message keeps all its joyful validity. In the apocalypse, St. John tells us that the closer we come to the second coming of Christ, the more fearful will be the attacks of the evil one because he knows he is running out of time.

More important for our topic is to examine how this misplaced bad conscience affected the bishops' draft on women that kept them busy for months in the 1980s. A number of women were invited to share with their excellencies their innumerable grievances against the Roman Catholic Church. It turned out to be a real avalanche of reproaches and recriminations dating back to the very beginning of the Church. Their excellencies were told that the Church has discriminated against half of her children, namely women. Their important contributions to the life of the Church were either not acknowledged, treated as insignificant, or taken for granted. They were meant to be servants. As a result, they felt alienated; the clergy was adopting a patronizing attitude toward them, as if they were immature and unintelligent. They did not feel "at home" in the Church; their concerns and sufferings were treated as trivial. They were always put in the background and treated as inferior. They were "only" women. The machos were in command. Women were never given the dignity that is their right as human persons. Their equality with men was denied.

The very language of the Church expressed this denigration: Man is constantly referred to; women are not mentioned. (Clearly feminists ignore the fact that the word "man" can mean anybody belonging to the human race or the male sex. Such a problem does not exist in Latin, where there is a clear distinction between homo, and vir. This is something that any woman knew until the enlightened 20th century.) Worst of all, women were denied one sacrament that is the unique privilege of men: holy orders. Clearly they are considered unworthy of this honor. Why should girls be denied to serve at the altar? Bishops clearly had fallen into a grave sin of sexism.

The rhetoric of the most fanatical feminists makes one believe that the seven capital sins were minor by comparison. The Church was clearly sexist and should not only apologize to women, but repair this crying injustice. Serious reforms are called for. The moment has come for women to claim their rights; to be officially recognized, to be on the same level with men; to be granted the same privileges and the same power in the Church. They had suffered patiently for centuries, and enough is enough.

Every single meeting between bishops and women was a repetition of the previous one. Cowed and intimidated by being put on the hot seat and by this passionate jeremiad they sheepishly listened to, bishops — accustomed as they were to being treated with respect — actually lost their footing. They developed a bad conscience toward all these afflicted sheep so neglected by the Church that claims to be a Church of love. The feminist rhetoric convinced them that the Church had gravely sinned against the female sex for the last 2,000 years, compelling them to acknowledge the validity of these searing criticisms and promise to correct the injustices. Obviously, the Church, being slow-moving, could not be expected to satisfy all their demands. One of them, however, should be attended to urgently: reform of liturgical language, and that merely as a first step — a modest promise of more reforms to come. The re-writing of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was clearly the call of the Kairos. It should be given top priority. This was a Herculean task that was to keep some "experts" so busy for months on end that they had no time left for other duties.

In the meantime, the devil was having a field day laughing at the stupidity of men. While keeping several ecclesiastics glued to this gigantic task, he saw — with diabolical delight — that in the very same diocese satanic attacks against the purity of young men were being launched by some members of the clergy. Clearly the local bishop was too busy to pay attention to these secondary concerns: The revision of the Catechism had to be completed as soon as possible. The bishops — plagued with a misplaced bad conscience — either paid no attention to the horrors that were being perpetrated by priests, willingly ignored the gravity of the problem, or turned to secular help (or just put a Band-Aid on a festering wound by sending the culprits to another diocese).

We know the rest of the story: By the beginning of the 21st century, the scandal had reached such proportions that it made headlines in the secular press. It started in the diocese where "inclusive language" was a top priority. Diocese after diocese was engaged in lawsuits that brought some of them to utter bankruptcy: Churches were closed, Catholic schools could no longer be financed. Church property was sold. The devil had won. The Catechism was "purged" of its "sexism." But — and this is the enchanting irony of the whole thing — the work done was rejected by the Church.

The devil's wile had succeeded beyond expectation. The bishops' bad consciences had totally blinded them from their primary duty: to save their sheep from ravenous wolves. All this came out five years ago with the force of a moral tsunami. I wonder how many shepherds today realize that their misplaced bad consciences might be responsible for their collective failure to extinguish the fire of impurity raging among some of their priests. Humanly speaking, the damage is irreparable. But "all things are possible with God," and we know that the Church will survive even though the price for many might be martyrdom. She has always sung the praise of those who have washed their garments in the blood of the Lamb. This is the history of the Church. This is why she will always conquer in spite of the mediocrity and treason of some of her shepherds.


Alice von Hildebrand is professor emerita of philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York and the renowned author of many books, including The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002).

© Morley Publishing Group, Inc.

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