A Short Post on Evil and Contempt

(This is Neil.) I’ve just read a very interesting article on evil in the March 26 issue of America, written by the Notre Dame theologian John Cavadini (online for subscribers only). We should consider what we immediately think of when we think of evil – perhaps Hitler or now Osama bin Laden. These are not bad choices. After all, it can be convincingly argued that the Holocaust was uniquely evil, and the terrorist attacks of September 11 were also unprecedented, at least in the history of the United States.

But we might immediately think of Nazis and al-Qaeda for other, more questionable reasons. In our imagination, they inevitably seem to be almost completely evil, lacking any discernible redeeming qualities. This allows us to conveniently neglect one of the most disturbing (yet true) convictions of Christian theology – that evil is always found with good. As Professor Cavadini writes, “Evil is the good, deformed and corrupted.” Furthermore, we are ourselves not remotely attracted to either Nazism or Islamic radicalism, and are easily able to dismiss the seductiveness of a Nuremberg rally or the dream of a renewed caliphate birthed through violence. This allows us to conveniently forget what Cavadini calls the “deeply mixed character of one’s own goodness.” 

We should not shy away from use of the word “evil.” But we should remember that evil is always “intertwined with the good,” even, sadly and inevitably, our own best intentions. Cavadini writes, “It may be that one must go to war to abolish slavery, for example, and yet at the same time one must realize, and say, that the war itself is a kind of judgment on our own ‘national perverseness and disobedience,’ as President Lincoln put it in his Oct. 3, 1863, Thanksgiving Proclamation.” If we forget this, we will separate ourselves as the representatives of “good” from the rest of the world, which we will then treat with sheer contempt.  

This contempt, Professor Cavadini writes, tells us a “foundational lie”: “human solidarity is productive of nothing, is not glorious and goes nowhere.” This lie represents the very opposite of the Incarnation, through which God declared his solidarity with sinners, whom he could have held in contempt. 

Let me provide a longer excerpt from Professor Cavadini’s article giving us an example of this sort of contempt. Surprisingly, it has to do with a saint and St Benedict at that: 

An unforgettable reflection on this is Gregory the Great’s narration of the ‘Life and Miracles of St. Benedict.’ Like many ancient saints’ lives, this one is narrated in such a way as to make a theological point. At the beginning of the story, Benedict drops out of school and leaves the world while still a student, “seeing its emptiness,” Gregory tells us, and he leaves it “without regret.” He spends his life building an alternative community in the wilderness, a place from which to “see the world” in its true character, a place to gain perspective on all of its arrogance and false claims to power. Benedict’s work is accompanied by miracles, one after another, some of them miracles of “perspective” or “seeing.” He is able simply to look at the rope that binds a peasant’s hands in the power of a ruthless landowner and the rope falls away. God does not recognize these bonds as legitimate.

And yet, at the end of the narrative, Benedict comes up short. His sister, Scholastica, asks him to prolong their once yearly conversation late into the night. It’s a reasonable request. Scholastica loves her brother, and they are talking about the joys of heaven, much like Monica and Augustine in another famous “vision” scene, already a classic by Gregory’s day. Benedict refuses, for the rules of his new, alternative community forbid him to spend the night outside the monastery – though Gregory the narrator has made it clear that the house in which they are meeting is one the grounds of the monastery. Benedict has also apparently forgotten that in his early days in the wilderness, he was fed by the kindness of a monk who had to sneak away from his own monastery to share his bread with him. 

Scholastica prays to God, who answers her immediately by providing a thunderstorm deluxe, so terrifying that Benedict could not think of leaving. In a rather unflattering scene, he scolds his sister for producing a miracle. But Gregory reminds us that her power was the greater in this case because she loved more, and “God is love.” It is only after this correction by his sister that Benedict has his famous and beautiful vision of the world summed up as a ball of light under God’s providence, a corrective to his earlier, colder “seeing” of the world that had prompted him to leave it with so little regret. 

What is scary about the story is that Benedict is blinded, one might say, not by any evident evil but by his own goodness. His alternative community is, in fact, a good corrective to the power of the world, corrupt as it mostly is, and it does provide a miraculous vantage point for renewed perspective. His miracles of building this new perspective, conformed to the biblical miracles in both Testaments, are truly the work of God. Yet Benedict becomes so addicted, as it were, to these displays of power that he grows deaf to the simplest quest of charity, one that would require no miracle at all to perform. Even his alternative “view” of the world, the reader discovers almost with horror, is tainted with contempt. Though God does not love evil, God loves the world, and far from leaving it “without regret,” declared ultimate solidarity with it in the Incarnation.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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9 Responses to A Short Post on Evil and Contempt

  1. Anne says:

    “…evil is always intertwined with the good…”

    This is so very true. We, at my parish, are experiencing a crisis because of a minority of parishioners. I have no problem stating that “Evil” is present among us. These people, who no longer have “power” in the parish which lacked good leadership for years, have managed to bring down our new pastor with lies, threats and manipulation. He resigned. This leaves the majority of us confused about the vision we had for the future. Our future was very promising since he was sent to us after a direct hit from the abuse scandal. This has been a Lent I will never forget. Pray for us!

  2. Liam says:


    Was this what prompted your query elsewhere about the cult-like aspects of a certain movement?

    I can more than sympathize. I’ve been in two intentional communities that were rocked with and riven by the conflicting passions of minorities of congregants. It’s never pretty. I understand, btw, that the Paulist Center (which I was never a member of but which I had friends who were over the course of it’s myriad waxings and wanings…) may be on the threshhold of internal drama. Anyway, one of the limited blessings of broader-based territorial parishes is that they should be less prone to these afflictions of intentional communities. Although obviously not immune.

    Where’s your pastoral council? It might want to call in impartial facilitators of open community meetings – any such meetings must be highly structured to set ground rules for discussion that are fair and balanced. I am certainly in favor of having structured public discussions rather than merely behind-the-scenes denunciations, which tend to be self-reinforcing as they tend to be shared among the like-minded. Let the light shine on the darkness; though you have to be prepared to see the ugliness. It isn’t pretty, as I said.

  3. Anne says:

    Thank you Liam. I was actually hoping to hear from you. I’m not comfortable discussing the particulars of the problem via this media. And, yes, this IS what prompted my inquiry regarding the cult which Sean seems in favor of. I was told by someone who has been through something similar that this is a good possibility if we are left without a pastor until June (when they normally look for a location). This is the kind of situation these guys go looking for…a divided parish looking for hope. My fear is that with this reputation ( “parishioners take control”) who will want to be pastor? What priest in their right mind will accept this assignment unless forced to?! Maybe a dictator. We had one of the best in the archdiocese. Moderately progressive with a vision, spiritual, great homilies and loves liturgy. He was bringing in new families. It’s so sad. I was telling him today that I think it’s ironic that Passion Sunday is on April Fool’s day this year. Maybe his homily could be about that! He is still with us at this point awaiting a replacement. Hope his homily on Sunday is about foolish Christians.
    As far as the Pastoral Council (of which I am a member) is concerned, some of the members are part of the problem group and our last meeting was a horrible shouting match. I left crying. We don’t know what to do now except give up. It’s not a Catholic parish anymore to me. My husband and I are starting a search for another community. I’ve never been so sure in my life that Satan exists!
    Sorry and thanks Neil…I needed to vent.

  4. Liam says:

    You might want to check out Incarnation in Melrose. Fr Field, a noted and somewhat progressively inclined liturgist, is pastor. Easy to reach from your neck of the woods: Shoot down US 1, hang a right on Essex Street right after the mall (which becomes Upham Street once it crosses from Saugus to Melrose), in a mile and a quarter you’ll see it on the left. The church space is a wan, postwar imitation neo-Colonial style – not nearly as pretty as the older St Mary’s in the center of town – but the community seems warm and comparivtely young. The music director that drew folks with venturing into praise chorus styles is gone (which, since I am no fan of praise chorus styles, is OK with me).

    Anyway, I hope your pastor avoids making any comment on the trouble makers. Not that I advocate a kind of silent martyrdom, but positive farewell statements – are always more effective. I’ve seen both types, and I have reason to know! Besides, the example of the Lord’s Last Discourse is the best model to follow in cases such as this.

    In a sense, this Triduum could be liberating for him – and you and your community. Because where you find a Cross in your way, there is the marker of a font of grace. Avoid that Cross, and you’ll miss the opportunity to drink of that font. At a minimum, it’s an opportunity for solidarity with all of those saddled without choice to be in parishes they find spiritually bereft at best and dangerous at worst. There’s a lot of those out there.

    End of my homilette you didn’t ask for. But you can see my experience of this….

  5. Anne says:

    Thanks for listening Liam. I know Jim Field and was planning on a visit in the near future.
    True about the Triduum. I’m presiding at a prayer service tomorrow at which I will offer a reflection on the Passion.

  6. Liam says:

    Good enough. I wasn’t recommending St Mary’s because I am pretty sure you don’t need to hear homilies on the relevance of the Battle of Lepanto to the current Islamist threat (yes, I encountered that pearl of a homily last year – on the other hand, the priest that gave that is a gifted confessor and something of a discerner of souls, proving once again never to take someone’s homiletic style (or lack thereof) and project it onto their other faculties!). Anyway, as you know, St Paul’s in Cambridge is more my cup o tea.

  7. Anne says:

    We plan on visiting St Paul’s in the summer as well. I’m assuming though that the choirs don’t sing then. I know the boys don’t. It’s not convenient for us to join anyway but nice to go to ocassionally. Even though you may think of me as radical in my beliefs, I have a love for this style of liturgy. I sang once in a concert directed by Ted Marier and Father Collins (former deceased pastor of St Paul’s) concelebrated at our wedding. Also, John Dunn is an aquaintance.

  8. Liam says:


    The last day for the adult choir is Father’s Day – at least that’s what’s on the schedule for us tentatively. I think the boys end a bit earlier when classes end (maybe the week before?). Choir resumes the Sunday after Labor Day. I do think St Paul’s is blessed with about a 3/4 chance on any given Sunday of having a strong or even memorable homily. Way higher than I’ve ever been anywhere else. St Paul’s is not without its own liturgical irregularities – if I bothered, I could probably confect a list, but despite my penchant on discussion boards for being something of a rubrical literalist, my main concern in that latter regard is to advance the Roman sensibility over the American sensiblity for understanding liturgical irregularities (that is, Romans are usually OK with them if they are not chronic and are never elevated into norms that compete with the actual norms, but Americans tend to want to elevate them into norms or even “best practice”, which I think is a sure way to undermine the conciliar reforms over the long haul). One thing I do love at St Paul’s is that each of the ministries is so well trained and cultivated that the habit of excellence appears fairly effortless so that it does not call attention to itself.

  9. Rosalia says:

    Dear Friends, Happy April Fool’s Day!!!

    A rookie police officer was out for his first ride with an experienced partner. A call came in telling them to disperse some people who were loitering.
    The officers drove to the street and observed a small crowd standing on a corner. The rookie rolled down his window and said, “Let’s get off the corner people.”
    A few glances, but no one moved, so he barked again, “Let’s get off that corner… NOW!”
    Intimidated, the group of people began to leave, casting puzzled stares in his direction.
    Proud of his first official act, the young policeman turned to his partner and asked, “Well, how did I do?”
    “Pretty good,” chuckled the vet, “especially since this is a bus stop.”

    Happy April Fool’s Day!

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