Can the Theological Virtues Eat the Natural Ones?


Like many tradition-loving Catholics,
I feel terrible for Darío Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos — now the second-most hated cardinal in the Church, after Bernard Cardinal Law. As John Allen observed, Cardinal Castrillón once “was widely considered a serious contender to become the first Latin American pope.” Today, he “has achieved global infamy in light of a September 2001 letter he dispatched to a French bishop congratulating him for refusing to report an abuser priest to the police.” To mark Pope Benedict XVI’s fifth anniversary on the throne, Cardinal Castrillón was preparing to celebrate a festive traditional Mass at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. In the face of public outrage, organizers had to disinvite their one-time patron in the Vatican.
I think back a few years and remember how Cardinal Castrillón was one of the lonely voices in Rome speaking up for traditional Catholics. He did yeoman’s work in the face of bitter and dishonest opposition when he headed Ecclesia Dei. That commission was deputized by Pope John Paul II with ministering to Catholics who claimed (rightly, according to Summorum Pontificum) that the Tridentine liturgy had never been suppressed. Cardinal Castrillón was key in starting to mend the breach between the Vatican and the Society of St. Pius X (though many have criticized him for failing to first conduct a simple Google search that might have turned up the Holocaust “revisionist” views of the egregious SSPX bishop Richard Williamson).
I hear other praiseworthy things about the cardinal. According to Time magazine:
He has gone deep into Colombian jungles to mediate between leftist guerrillas and right-wing death squads, and once showed up at the house of cocaine king Pablo Escobar disguised as a milkman. Revealing himself, Castrillón Hoyos implored Escobar to confess his sins, which, presumably at some considerable length, the vicious gangster did.
If you wonder where Cardinal Castrillón found the nerve, consider that he had for years been facing down liturgists. By contrast, dealing with Escobar might have seemed a piece of cake. In any case, the cardinal’s track record proves that he is not some sleazy, self-serving bureaucrat — like so many of the bishops who shuffled gay predator priests from boys school to orphanage and back again.
So we wonder how to explain Cardinal Castrillón’s support (in Allen’s words) for “Bishop Pierre Pican of Bayeux-Lisieux, France, sentenced by a French court to three months in prison in 2001, though that term was suspended, for failing to denounce Rev. René Bissey, convicted in October 2000 for sexual abuse of eleven minor boys between 1989 and 1996.” Cardinal Castrillón actually wrote the offending bishop: “I rejoice to have a colleague in the episcopate that, in the eyes of history and all the other bishops of the world, preferred prison rather than denouncing one of his sons and priests.” Is there any way to defend or extenuate this? The short answer is, “No.”
Furthermore, Allen reports, “On April 16, Cardinal Castrillón spoke at a conference on the legacy of John Paul II at a Catholic university in Murcia, Spain, in which he asserted that he had shown his 2001 letter to the late pope who authorized him to send it. Far from being a previously secret ‘smoking gun,’ the cardinal said that he had posted the letter at the time on the Web site of the Congregation for Clergy.”
If the cardinal isn’t lying, this raises a thornier question: Should the Church overlook John Paul’s record on handling abuse claims (most prominently those made against Rev. Marcial Maciel) for the sake of his speedy canonization? Again, we must answer, sadly, “No.”
Unless Bishop Pican found out about the priest’s abuse in the confessional (and it seems clear that he didn’t), there is no excuse for his behavior, and the only thing we Catholics should regret is that his jail term was so short, and that it was suspended. (What is wrong with secular authorities nowadays?) The Vatican was right to distance itself from Cardinal Castrillón’s position and point out that it was one Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger who fought internal opposition to force stricter scrutiny of abuse cases, like Father Maciel’s.
And with all due respect for him and his vast achievements, John Paul’s response to the abuse crisis should trouble us. It will give ample fodder to the “devil’s advocate” whose job it is to argue against his canonization. Indeed, the issue involved is considerably more serious than the (largely discredited) charges that are blocking the process for Pope Pius XII. It pertains not to decisions on how prudentially to respond to a humanitarian crisis being caused by genocidal neopagans — but rather to the ongoing abuse of the sacraments and the priesthood.
I’m not saying that his handling of the abuse crisis must argue against John Paul’s personal holiness, but at the very least it raises the question of how exemplary a figure he will prove for our time. If such revelations continue to emerge, expect his cause to fall into the same dusty bottom drawer that holds the file of Pope Paul VI. If that happens, it will sadden millions of Catholics, as it deeply saddens me.
What are we to make of the behavior of men we might broadly admire, such as the cardinal, when it seems so . . . inexplicable, inexcusable? In the case of most bishops who shuffled sex offenders around, Philip Lawler’s solemn verdict seems inescapable: These were worldly men who loved bricks, mortar, and infrastructure too much, and who cared for souls too little. As he wrote in the decade’s one indispensable Catholic book, The Faithful Departed, we really have been “running out of millstones.” But we can’t hang one on Cardinal Castrillón — nor certainly on the magnanimous and ascetical John Paul.
There’s something else going on. As Dorothy Sayers once observed of Goethe’s Faust, “He is much better served by exploiting our virtues than by appealing to our lower passions.” Some of the worst crimes in European history were committed by men devoted to Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. These values, as John Paul wrote in Memory and Identity, are secular forms of the theological virtues Faith, Hope, and Charity. Why should it surprise us that the Father of Lies can mislead men into misreading even these? I’ve written here before of the toxic trap that Mother Angelica calls Misguided Compassion. What if we are nowadays facing, even among the most sincere Catholics, distortions of the theological virtues — Blind Faith, False Hope, and Bankrupt Charity? While the genuine articles are infused directly by God, such counterfeits are cobbled together out of one-sided theology and our sentiments.
There’s one sure test for determining whether an action really lives up to the theological virtue we hope we’re practicing. It’s simple: Does this action violate any natural virtues along the way? For instance, a citizen who listens to clerics pontificate about politics and follows their lead in supporting policies that destroy the sovereignty and civic order of his country may think that by deferring to churchmen he is practicing the virtue of Faith. But if the laws he favors violate Justice, he’s deeply mistaken. A priest who fears that his congregation won’t obey the moral law, so for the sake of their salvation he decides not to preach on controversial topics like contraception — how sound is his Hope for their souls?
Coming back to Cardinal Castrillón: When he held the paternal bond between a bishop and his priest as more sacred than the right of the community to punish sex abusers, was he upholding the bond of Charity that ought to unite those who head the Church to its members? It must have seemed so at the time. Such sins smell and look like lilies. But they flank a coffin.
Lying dead and stiff inside that box is natural Justice, an attribute of God as much as His Mercy. Simple Justice is what each of us owes the other in an unconditional debt. We cannot violate that Justice in pursuit of Faith, Hope, or Charity. When we contemplate any action that stokes in us the sentiment that we’re being “more radically Christian” and really “living the gospel” by going beyond “merely natural” virtues, every alarm bell in our conscience should start going off. We can no more attain theological virtues by violating the natural ones than we can build the dome on a cathedral by pulling steel from its foundations.
We cannot practice Charity toward the poor through confiscation from the rich; only if something is owed the poor in simple Justice should the state make sure they get it (as Pope Leo XIII taught in Rerum Novarum). At the height of the high Middle Ages, the Church never furthered the salvation of souls by confiscating non-Christian children, baptizing them, and rearing them in the Faith. At age 18 I wondered why not, till a wise priest explained to me that the natural rights of pagan parents could not be torn away in such a “higher cause.” Likewise, the natural rights of parents, and the state that represents them, to defend their children from rape cannot be sacrificed on the altar of priestly solidarity, compassion for “troubled brother priests,” or the need to avoid bad publicity for the Church.
Remember that most cases of abuse were covered up for fearing of “giving scandal.” Satan has a real sense of humor.


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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