Mourning the Discovery of Hidden Vice Without Falling Into Prurience

The guilty plea of Fr. James Jackson, FSSP points to the mystery of iniquity, and is a caution to both his most zealous defenders and his strongest critics.

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The news is out that Fr. James Jackson, F.S.S.P., has pleaded guilty to charges of receiving child porn. What he is guilty of not only looks bad, it looks worse than could possibly be imagined. I will spare the details because, as I will explain further below, we can actually sin—yes, truly!—by probing too curiously into evils in the name of a purported quest for justice.

There are still some who are grasping at straws to figure out a way to exonerate Fr. Jackson. Let’s not beat around the bush: that is nothing more than an extreme form of clericalism. It is not reasonable at this point to believe him to be innocent when he has himself pleaded guilty to charges that will put him in jail for anywhere from five to twenty years, not to mention the maximum fine of $250,000. One might well see his lack of any effort to defend himself as a glimmer of hope that he has begun to repent. Repentance begins with the simple acknowledgment of evil-doing, without any attempt to justify or defend oneself.

We are seeing here, in its full ugliness, the mysterium iniquitatis—the mystery of iniquity. Does any grown Catholic with some life experience really need to be told that free and fallen human beings are capable of immense, enormous, and duplicitous evil-doing? Just as the history of espionage is full of double spies, so “double Catholics” are possible—and, at times, a man is so deeply double that he can function as if he were two different persons. 

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I was friends with Fr. Jackson over many years, spent lots of time talking to him, and never had the slightest inkling that he was hiding any secret vices. I found him insightful on everything concerning the Faith. But we also know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that such vices can exist even in the most competent, amiable, and holy-seeming people.

The one who is surprised about this is, I’m afraid, terribly naive. How many more Maciels, McCarricks, Philippes, Vaniers, and Rupniks will it take before this truth is too obvious to deny? (Note, moreover, that the names just mentioned cover a fairly wide ecclesiastical spectrum from progressive to highly conservative. Vice is not fussy about the soil it grows in.)

Fr. Jackson was a brilliant writer and preacher, enough to deceive the elect as far as his moral character was concerned. As St. Thomas Aquinas acknowledges, following Aristotle, intellectual virtue and moral virtue are two different spheres—overlapping in ways, but also capable of being quite distinct, which explains why we can have great Christian art from vicious men (e.g., Caravaggio), as well as execrable kitsch from saintly souls. 

People can be intellectually brilliant, and perhaps even give good advice based on general right principles, while being themselves in the grip of vice. This is not going to happen too often because vice has a way of disturbing the mind and the judgment, but I don’t see why there couldn’t be times when it doesn’t have that immediate effect, or at least not for a very long time. In this particular case, we don’t know when Fr. Jackson’s problems started, or why. So, there are questions we likely won’t be able to answer.

No one who knows him, as far as I can tell—and I know a lot of people who know him, and, as I said, I know him myself—was aware of his vice. We are all utterly shocked and appalled. Usually, these things reveal themselves in some external manifestation, but this seems to have gone entirely hidden. 

Moreover, no one has come forward with any further accusation against him for evil behavior. I’m not saying there might not be such an accusation yet to be made but only that there’s been quite a long period of time between when he was first caught and his guilty plea; and during that period, no one has come forward to say that he harmed this or that person. I say this not by way of downplaying the magnitude of the evil of which he is guilty but, rather, to place definite boundaries around the evil and to discourage extrapolations from it.

We should bear in mind that modernity has brought into our society, at every level—in what seems, at times, like every nook and cranny—certain moral evils on a scale inconceivable in earlier ages. I’m not saying there hasn’t always been every sort of sexual sin indulged in in the past, for we know it’s always been that way (the Old Testament itself has passages so disturbing that St. Benedict, in his Rule, recommends not reading them in the evening!); but the ease and magnitude of the moral evils in this domain are on a historically unprecedented plane. More people, numerically, are going to be bent and twisted, damaged and wounded, than ever before—and that will include, perforce, our clergy and religious. 

This is an extremely tragic situation, and it explains why some people do not want to trust priests anymore, or get too close to them in a relationship of dependency like spiritual direction. It’s a shame, because even if we can’t “know for sure” the character of a man’s heart—God alone sees him in full—the chances are that most of the good priests who seem good really are good.

“How can we ever trust the clergy if someone who seemed so virtuous to so many people turns out to be a moral monster?” one might ask in desperation. Here is the sobering truth: we cannot, in fact, wholly trust anyone except God. In terms of moral probabilities, we have reasonable grounds for trusting our friends—actually, for trusting anyone, but especially those who love us and whom we know well—as long as they give us no reason not to trust them. 

The phenomenon of people not living up to their Christian beliefs, values, and ideals—that means nearly every one of us, needless to say—is mostly limited to lesser sins that are not destructive of a possible relationship with God or with one’s fellow men, and therefore it doesn’t undermine the possibility (and the reasonableness) of trusting them. But the full-blown double-life phenomenon, such as we are witnessing in this awful case, is a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” scenario, and it is so disturbing that it’s no wonder people instantly want to talk either about mental disease or about the devil. In other words, we are confronted here with something that goes well beyond ordinary evil to a new level we can’t even imagine (and I, for one, am glad I can’t imagine it).

Some commentators out there seem to be almost gloating over the fact that a traditionalist priest was caught red-handed. Apart from the sheer disgustingness of gloating in such a case, I would say it is entirely natural and good for human beings to want to think well of others, especially of clergy, and even more of traditional clergy, who have all the resources they could possibly need to be saints (if they wanted to be). No one should be blamed for having the goodness of heart to want to disbelieve evil of another person.

But there comes a time when we have to give up that laudable “benefit of the doubt” and suffer the full pain of admitting that we have been duped and that, in this one soul at least, evil has gained untrammeled possession, and appearances were false, as they often are in this vale of tears. Let this be a lesson not to assume that because so-and-so seems to be such-and-such—a good husband and father; a good wife and mother; a good priest or bishop; a good religious—therefore he or she must actually be exactly as he or she seems.

On November 2, 2021, shortly after the charges against Fr. Jackson first became public, I published an article on this topic, “Traditionalism Is a Power, Not a Panacea,” the content of which I still stand by 100 percent. Here’s a passage from it:

The devil knows, better than anyone, how good and powerful traditional Catholicism is. That’s why his master plan was getting rid of as much of it as possible. For the same reason, he targets especially those who are still holding on to it, who are its representatives, its ambassadors, its transmitters, and whose fall from grace will definitely play into his hands, especially in a world dominated by the self-righteous and often hypocritical “Gotcha!” mentality.

I recall a story from the desert fathers about a vision of hordes of demons going off to the remote places of the hermits while the city had only one lazy demon sitting on its ramparts. The explanation was simple. In the city most of the people were enslaved to vices, so demons had little work to do there. The hermits, on the other hand, presented a genuine obstacle to the powers of hell, and they were accordingly targeted and assaulted. The traditionalists are like the hermits because what they hold fast to and keep alive is a much more formidable obstacle to Satan’s plans than the compromised, diluted, and dying Catholicism of the mainstream Church in the West. As a result, infernal attacks will be far more concentrated on traditional clergy, religious, and laity.

The devil knows that whenever a traditional Catholic falls badly and publicly, it will bring discredit on the movement, even as any Catholic scandal brings discredit on Catholicism itself, and any Christian scandal on Christianity. Yet rational people do not write off an entire sport because some of its players take drugs; they do not write off a political party because some of its members are womanizers; they do not write off the sincerity and virtue of all the brothers and sisters of a religious community because its founder is exposed as a serial abuser; they do not assume that a good law is responsible for the existence of criminals who violate it, or that a good regimen of diet and exercise is to blame for the sickness and death of a mortal creature. These different kinds of examples point to the need for discerning causes and effects, and for making distinctions instead of slothfully settling for guilt by association.

Having admitted all this, there is a final and quite specific kind of evil that can be generated by the evil of which we are speaking, like two wrongs that don’t make a right.

When evils like this emerge, some enterprises go after them with a bit too much enthusiasm, with the zeal of inquisitors who wish to make a public spectacle of their trophy. What some media enterprises do in the name of pursuing justice to the bitter end fails to edify, or rather, it ends in bitterness. Again, this is no defense of criminals: I have spoken clearly and repeatedly about the need for criminals to be brought to justice. It’s rather a question of how one goes about reporting and what is motivating one’s approach. 

It is one thing to do investigative journalism. It is another thing entirely to go into lurid detail, to insinuate that traditionalism is collectively guilty, and to slam one Catholic after another for their gullibility and clericalism (even if they are, in fact, in the wrong). It would be far better to report soberly on the facts (as much as is necessary and no more)—to say, “this is no longer a matter for debate and those who are debating it are sadly deluded,” and then to let the rest go. It is one thing to do investigative journalism. It is another thing entirely to go into lurid detail, to insinuate that traditionalism is collectively guilty, and to slam one Catholic after another for their gullibility and clericalism.Tweet This

If there are still deluded people, they won’t be more convinced regardless of what the media outlet says, since there will always be another conspiracy theory that explains why what seems obvious is actually an elaborate con job. And if readers are indeed Catholics, they will want to pray and do penance, not point fingers and knock people down. 

Perhaps some in the media world think that only “shock therapy” will work nowadays. But this has no conceivable good end, since one will have to keep upping the wattage to deliver new shocks to an increasingly numbed reading public. Better to remain modest, sober, and restrained, and to let the truth speak with its own convicting power. My main point is this: to go into lurid detail and to seem to gloat over how wrong Fr. Jackson’s defenders were is itself vicious; and instead of imitating the God who brings good out of evil, it brings evil out of evil.

There are many lessons we can and must learn each time a scandal breaks out. The most fundamental of these lessons is that fallen mankind is trapped in sinfulness—that is what it means to be fallen—and can be liberated from sin only by surrendering in faith and love to Jesus Christ. Nothing we do merely externally can guarantee this liberation because it is a matter of the heart, of our free will intersecting with God’s reality. Every day we must get on our knees again and ask the Lord for the grace to be His, to be truly good, and, in time, to be holy. 

The exposure of hidden vice reminds us with the discomfort of a bucket of ice-cold water that “there but for the grace of God go I”—perhaps not into this or that specific evil, which may be repulsive to us, but into some habit of sin that will harm our neighbors and damn our souls. If this is not the primary lesson we take away from any abominable revelation, we are missing the boat sent to us by Divine Providence to carry us from this shore to the eternal city.

As a great hymn puts it:

Guide me, O thou great Redeemer,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
Hold me with thy powerful hand:
Bread of heaven, bread of heaven
Feed me till I want no more.
Feed me till I want no more.
Open thou the crystal fountain
Whence the healing stream shall flow;
Let the fiery, cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through:
Strong deliverer, strong deliverer
Be thou still my strength and shield.
Be thou still my strength and shield.
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of death, and hell’s destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side:
Songs of praises, songs of praises
I will ever give to thee.
I will ever give to thee.

[Editor’s Note: An earlier version this article stated that Fr. Jackson plead guilty of possessing child pornography. However, he plead guilty to receiving, not possessing, child pornography. We apologize for the error.]

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