Genuine Faith Requires More than Niceness 

In my previous article I expressed some disagreement with people who said that the now disgraced Theodore McCarrick must never have had more than a “notional” faith, because otherwise he never would have done the wicked things he did. In the meantime, one of my acquaintances described her encounters with McCarrick, who was invariably nice to her, remembering to ask her about her children. She wondered whether he was just playing her, cynically, and some people agreed.

I don’t agree, but I find the problem is not an easy one to express, let alone to resolve. I think also that the problem isn’t merely academic. In a way, this might be the problem behind our troubles, showing up in a variety of subtle forms. What would a more than notional faith look like, in someone we meet? How might it appear in us? How might it feel?

We are apt to judge things by mere appearances, and those deceive. This isn’t always because people want to deceive. It is a feature of our frailty, sinful or not. We are imitative creatures. In our dress, our walk, the lilt of our speech, our choice of words, our posture, and even in things we think are solid results of our dispassionate thought, such as our politics, we are in part play-actors. It is how children learn. But the play’s the thing: we lay a snare for others and then fall into it ourselves.

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I’m not talking here about cold naked lies. The Pharisees believed they were righteous men, because they had so long adopted the habits of playing at righteousness. They acted well and persuaded themselves. What mere man can pierce through the shell upon calcific shell that overlays the human heart? I cannot. I have little doubt that McCarrick believed that he believed, and that most of the people he met believed it, too. He was a nice man, perhaps, and I don’t mean that he merely pretended to be nice. He had so long played at being nice—because niceness is nine parts play and one part good digestion—that it almost makes no difference whether we consider his niceness to have been genuine or false. All such stuff is genuine as far as it goes, which isn’t far at all, at least not for any really important moral or spiritual purpose. Hitler was very nice to dogs. Plenty of abortionists have been nice men. They whistled while they worked. Nice people go to hell all the time.

If you are a nice person, and you know that you are nice, it’s hard to pray the necessary prayer of David, who confesses, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). It’s hard to think that sin penetrates all the way through your being, like dye. We don’t grasp the power of the words of the prophet: “For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap” and “Who can endure the day of his coming?” (Mal. 3:2). It’s not that we find it unpleasant, this image of lye soap scouring and burning its way into our souls, eating and destroying everything filthy in its way; we find it unreal. We are on stage, and take our hypocrisy, our play-acting for our own benefit, for reality. We say that God must refine us with fire, but the image remains ineffectual. What is there to refine?

Perhaps we are less likely to believe in God as we grow blind and deaf to our sin. That doesn’t mean that we won’t believe that we believe in “God.” But to the extent that “sin” is merely a theological category, and not a painful reality that we experience every day, like an ankle twisted out of shape from birth, or a foul cough we’ve developed after years of cigarettes, it may be that “God” retreats also into a category, an abstraction, or even a fiction. Again, I am not saying that we will be quite aware of our dissimulation. The dissembler deceives himself first of all. This is why the psalmist begs to be forgiven his “secret sins,” too; these are the sins that are most dangerous to us, because we don’t see them anymore.

If my guess is correct, it may be that if we want to build up the faith in ourselves and others, we cannot do so unless we sharpen our sense of sin, and of the boundless distance between our pathetic prancing selves and the pure holiness of God. That doesn’t mean we will be glum. Saint Francis was a frolic man if ever there was one, and the holier he grew, the more acutely did he feel his sins, and the more joyfully grateful he was for every one of God’s gifts, from birds to cool water to fire to our sister Bodily Death. Our Lord says that the sinful woman loved him more because she owed him more—she had more for Christ to forgive. Well, we all have a regular waste dump to be cleared away, but we don’t all know it, because we play at being clean. The woman who wept and dried Jesus’s feet with her hair may not have been a very nice woman. Simon the Pharisee, who did not erupt in fury and throw the harlot out, was likely a very nice man. The difference was that she was no longer playing when she wept before Jesus. You do not play when your heart is breaking. Perhaps you can no longer play.

People have asked how a man like McCarrick could have advanced so high in the Church, hypocrite as he was. That is not the question to ask. Bureaucratic institutions are built upon smooth handling and social etiquette. Play-actors go far in them all the time. It does not matter what the institutions are. That is the way of the world. It is the way of man. What sets the Church apart is not that she is stuffed full of play-actors, but that she has made men and women into saints. It may be a scandal that Theodore McCarrick was a cardinal of the Church. It should not be so great a surprise. If we banished from every senate and council chamber every man and woman whose ideas and passions were largely the result of long habits of acting, of imitating others, of speaking cant and believing it, well, there would not be another law passed in a hundred years, and mice and squirrels and raccoons would reclaim the Capitol.

I go to Mass not to be told that I am good, which I am not, nor that God will have me just as I am, though it is my dearest hope that he will not. That is not me, that is not reality, and that is not God. I can’t speak to the true drama of McCarrick’s soul, or the war of good and evil within. Maybe we can say that if he never knew that drama, or never feared that the justice of God might abandon him to his own devices, he did not know the God of fire and stress, of whom the writer to the Hebrews says, “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” The child in his naked innocence can waddle up to the Lord of the universe, knowing only that he is good. The man has learned to act, and he temporizes, or turns away from the true God, toward a deity of his comforting imagination.

Someone will object that I am recalling God’s justice but not his mercy, or that I have forgotten his boundless love. I have not. “Love’s a man of war,” says the poet Herbert, “And can shoot, / And hit from far.” The fires of hell are the fires of love. How else would Satan feel the fires of love if not with intense pain? God does not love as we love, just as he does not judge as we judge. We judge the play-acting. God sees the heart. Our love is weak tea. His love is one hundred proof. The Greeks could placate their gods with sunny ritual praise and sacrifice, because their gods had the good grace not to love them. We don’t slaughter bulls anymore; we try to placate God with our own playing at religion, and trust that he will have the good grace not to love us either, not really. We will be happy if God likes us and is nice to us. That’s enough.

John Donne would have none of that niceness:

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The violence of his language is closer to the language of the prophets, and of our Lord, than we are comfortable admitting. Flannery O’Connor said about one of her prim and proper old lady atheists, Mrs. May in “Greenleaf,” that she believed that “Jesus” was a name that should be kept in church, just as certain other words are fit only for the bedroom. Mrs. May will end up having her heart pierced by a gentleman suitor in the form of a rakish bull. Perhaps she was right in a way she did not understand—but the Christian love poets of the Middle Ages would have understood it. Be advised before you call upon the God of love. He is impetuous and will have all. Watch out before you consent the least little bit. And if there is anything false in us, any of the flash and flare of the human player, it must be torn out and burnt down to the root. That fire will hurt. All cleansing does.

Is that the God whom Cardinal McCarrick encountered in the darkness of his soul? I don’t know. To ask the question is to tremble for one’s own.

I add one comment by the way: We are ever in danger of falling back from reality into the play. Every liturgical innovation that places a human being as the center of attention, whether it is the leader of the choir or the woman welcoming people in the back or the superfluous minister of the Eucharist, helps to insulate us against the fire, to dull our sense of the holy, to make us as confident and silly as peacocks, and to hold our eyes upon ourselves and the reactions we draw from others. It is nice that way—very nice.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Feast in the House of Simone the Pharisee” painted by Peter Paul Rubens in 1618-20.


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