The Sin of Sins

Baron Friedrich von Hügel was born in Germany but spent most of his life in England, having married into the distinguished family of Herberts. He was a popular spiritual writer in the Anglo-Catholic sphere of the early 20th century. One of his works, The Life of Prayer, is a short treatise that questions the assumption, common among Catholics since Saint Augustine, that the “sin of sins” has always to do with the “sex instinct.” The baron concluded otherwise. “The central sin, for the Christian,” he said, “is Pride and Self-sufficiency.” Von Hügel was a theological liberal, which in his day meant (among other things) a Catholic who did not find Darwin’s evolutionary theories incompatible with Christian belief. One hundred years later, an open mind on the question of evolution is scarcely sufficient to qualify a Catholic as theologically liberal. What, one wonders, would the baron have made of the race question today?

An editorial in America magazine for June 1 addresses the issue of race, racism, and the Catholic Church directly, taking the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May as its starting point. Its title—“To fight racism, Catholics must hunger for justice like we do for the Eucharist”—puts the editors’ conclusion up front:

Our country has not yet found—or built—the spiritual and practical resources necessary for overcoming racism. Catholics cannot be content to stand on the sidelines of this struggle… At this moment, when the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us the depths of our need for the sacraments and for community, this national outcry should lead Catholics, white Catholics especially, to conversion, repentance, and reconciliation. Catholics are capable of mobilizing consciences on issues of national concern… Catholics should be held to account six months from now and a year from now… for what actions we have taken in response… Many Catholics seem too timid to listen to and collaborate with new movements, such as Black Lives Matter, that are leading today’s charge for justice… Students formed by Catholic education should recognize racism both as an intrinsic evil and as a primary manifestation of social sin.

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Let us set aside here the justice and accuracy of America’s charge that white American Catholics are morally culpable for acts of omission and commission in their relationships, public and private, with American blacks, and the sensibleness of the magazine’s exhortation concerning their social, religious, and spiritual duties henceforth. “Go, and do not sin again.” What is pertinent today in Baron von Hügel’s treatise is the question of what sin—if any—is the sin of sins. The second word of the editorial is “murder” (a charge yet to be decided by a jury in the prosecution of Officer Derek Chauvin), not “racism.” Thereafter, however, it does not reappear, though “racism” is repeated many times. Could this mean that, for the editors, racism is a more heinous crime than murder, and thus more hateful in the eyes of God? Is it for them (and liberals generally) the sin of sins? If so, the implication is that the thought is more evil than the act, the motive than the crime itself. Can that really be so?

The video showing Chauvin with his knee on George Floyd’s neck is certainly shocking, especially when one learns that he held it there for more than eight minutes, shocking enough that the great majority of viewers instantly perceived his action as an expression of racial hatred and bigotry. So, indeed, it may have been. Still, the visceral public response to the killing prevented a variety of possibilities from being considered and investigated by commentators, the most important of these being the history of violence behind the incident that, ironically, has been treated only as further evidence incriminating Derek Chauvin.

Chauvin’s police record includes 17 complaints made against him by members of the public over his 19 years in service as a policeman. The only one of them that I have seen described was filed by a woman whom he stopped for driving 10 miles over the speed limit. According to the record, Officer Chauvin pulled her from her car and frisked her. Neither the color nor the ethnicity of the “offender” is mentioned, but it is reasonable to imagine that had she been black the fact would have been noted, at the very least. Concerning the other 16, no details have been released to the public, though presumably, given the demographic makeup of 21st-century America, several of them were “people of color.”

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal recounts the contrasting biographies of George Floyd and Derek Chauvin, following their stories as far as their final fatal encounter. Jennifer Levitz, the reporter who wrote the story, mentions that Chauvin was married to a South Asian woman for eight years. This seems odd behavior on the part of an anti-black racist, let alone a white supremacist, though perhaps Chauvin’s alleged racism does not extend beyond the black race. In any case, the point is that public opinion may have been too quick to assume that Officer Chauvin’s “motive”—if, indeed, he acted from any considered or even conscious impulse in brutalizing George Floyd—was engendered by “racism.”

Maybe another violent spasm of the sort that he had manifested so often in the course of his career was to blame, or perhaps a generalized hatred of the human race, the world, and God was the cause of his behavior. But since “systemic racism” is the phrase of the times, “racism” was the explanation that leaped immediately to the mind of the American public, racial activists, and the media in particular. After that, most of the international public followed along.

That it did so with such evident enthusiasm is a fact as disturbing as it is obvious—a truth that America’s editorialists, however, chose to ignore. Devout Catholic communicants do indeed “hunger” for the Eucharist, as the editorial notes. And they receive the Host with “pleasure,” though the pleasure is a spiritual and not a profane one. Furthermore, it makes them feel “good,” though, again, not in the manner of a pharmaceutical painkiller or Prozac. It does not, or rather it should not, make them feel good about themselves, whereas public protests and other acts of political dissent—including writing editorial commentary—demonstrably do.

This is not to question the moral sincerity of America’s editors, partly because I cannot read their consciences any more than they could accurately have discerned Derek Chauvin’s motive in taking George Floyd’s life, assuming he had one. Or, I must add, than they are privy to the consciences of “white Catholics” and capable of perceiving their degree of guilt (if any) for “ignoring and marginalizing the voices of Catholics of color,” assuming that anyone at all is guilty of such a nebulous and unmeasurable thing.

Liberalism is a highly self-conscious creed that, from its beginnings in the 16th century, has taken pride in its supposed superior enlightenment, intelligence, generosity, and compassion, and found much reason for self-congratulation in these wholly self-ascribed traits. So it is only natural in the human sense that liberals themselves should be strongly inclined toward virtue signaling, a practice that covers a multitude of sins while assuming protean forms—from snubbing a conservative at a drinks party to rioting in the streets, looting, and burning honest citizens’ property. Virtue-signaling of every kind (not least the discovery of racism and other sins wherever it exists, as well as where it doesn’t) is a pleasing and self-pleasing exercise for everyone involved in the enterprise, including the sophisticated progressives of the media, the universities, and polite society generally, as well as the thugs who have grown addicted to the violently destructive street parties the establishment has agreed to excuse—and often praise—as “protest demonstrations.” It makes life so much easier for those at the top of society, besides signaling virtue at a decibel level that no other type of human activity can.

Photo credit: Getty Images


  • Chilton Williamson, Jr.

    Chilton Williamson, Jr. is a senior contributor at Crisis. He is the former editor of Chronicles magazine, and his column “Prejudices” appears in The Spectator USA. He is the author of After Tocqueville (ISI, 2012) and the novel Jerusalem, Jerusalem! (Chronicles Press, 2017). For over a decade he served as literary editor, then senior editor, at National Review. He blogs at

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