Where Does Such Cruelty Come from in a Culture That Prizes Kindness?

08032015What are we to make of cruelty in our culture? At one level, there is demonstrably less cruelty on a daily basis. Many hundreds of years ago, before the emergence of a common civil law, settled governments, and national boundaries, villages were often overrun by roving bands of plunderers or the armies of nearby towns. Feudal lords or landed families were either venting grievances or seeking to increase their territory. City-states had high walls, moats, and embattlements for a reason. Brutality, rape, torture, banishment, pillaging, and enslavement were common features of the ancient world and continued well into the 16th Century in Europe and even to this very day in some parts of the world.

With the emergence of civil law and more common standards of justice (thanks in part to the Church), along with more settled nation-states and boundaries, order in daily life, of the kind not experienced since the Pax Romana, began to develop.

Few of us today fear to venture outside our cities, which no longer have protective walls, or far from our homes. A drive out in the country is not something we undertake with trepidation, wondering if we will ever return.

And yet from the perspective of a “body count,” we have never lived in bloodier times. Even as we call ourselves “civilized” we kill in numbers unimaginable to the ancient world or feudal Europe. In the 20th century alone, tens of millions were killed in the two world wars. And the dead were not found only on the battlefields, but in fire-bombed and carpet-bombed cities as well. “Civilized” Germany ran death camps that killed millions more. The “Cold War” that followed World War II and atheistic communism killed millions more. Even by conservative estimates, some 200 million people died in the 20th century for ideological reasons: at the hands of Stalin, Mao, and Pohl Pot, and as a result of wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Korea. The 20th century was surely the bloodiest century this world has ever known.

Add to this the cruelest killing of all, in numbers almost unfathomable: abortion. Whatever euphemism we may wish to use (“reproductive choice,” “women’s healthcare,” etc.), the fact remains that abortion is a brutal thing. Infants are scalded to death by saline or dismembered by suction. And regardless of what women are told or what they think going in, no post-abortive woman I have ever spoken with would describe abortion as anything less than an act of terrible violence. They themselves are also the victims of the lies and euphemisms. Reality hits hard.

The recently released undercover Planned Parenthood videos show the brutality and the callous disregard for human life and dignity in some people. The actions of Planned Parenthood are reprehensible, but not surprising. When a person or an organization unrepentantly engages in any objectively sinful practice, the sin has a way of growing, and the darkness and rationalizations get ever deeper. And if this is the case with lesser sins, how much more so with the extremely grave sin of unrepentantly killing infants in the womb.

Planned Parenthood’s organizational response to the videos, while less glib than the “doctors” in the videos, demonstrates a lack of remorse and no desire to end the practice. But what remorse can we expect from Planned Parenthood when it supports and profits from the killing of over 300,000 infants a year?

Yes, in this country the darkness is growing ever deeper in many hearts. And thus we see the most abominable practices celebrated by those who have lost their moorings, who lack even simple human tenderness toward the most innocent among us: our infants. Many even justify selling aborted infants for the sake of “medical research.”

So here is the great paradox of cruelty in our times. At one level we experience less brutal and random violence. Law and order, national boundaries, etc. have reduced the daily violence that most (not all) of us experience. Indeed, we talk endlessly and to a fault about being kind and “nice” and of the obligation not to hurt anyone’s feelings. We lament the killing of whales, the baby seals, and Cecil the lion. And yet, by the numbers, we are more brutal and cruel than ever. While we call ourselves civilized, the numbers show that the modern world is a killing machine the likes of which the world has never known.

In pondering the enormous violence in a culture that talks “nice” and prizes tolerance and kindness, Dr. Peter Kreeft makes a valuable observation:

How [is our civilization] weak? Not technologically … not intellectually … Nor are we morally weaker. I do not think we are necessarily more wicked than our ancestors overall. True, we are less courageous, less honest with ourselves, less self-disciplined, and obviously less chaste than they were. But they were more cruel, intolerant, snobbish, and inhumane than we are. They were better at the hard virtues; we are better at the soft virtues. …

But though we are not weaker in morality, we are weaker in the knowledge of morality … We know more about what is less than ourselves, but less about what is more than ourselves. When we act morally, we are better than our philosophy … Our ancestors were worse than theirs. Their problem was not living up to their principles. Ours is not having any.

We talk a good game of ethics … but it has the effect of an inoculation. [Professing] a little ethics or pseudo ethics we build up an immunity to the real thing. Those who obviously have no ethics … are ripe for conversion. Those who seem to have ethics but actually do not [because they have merely inoculated themselves from true ethics by a little ethics] are comfortably ensconced in illusion (Peter Kreeft, Back to Virtue, Ignatius Press, 1992, pp. 23-32).

Kreeft’s basic explanation for our paradoxical “kind, yet brutal” culture comes down to an analogy of immunization. In immunization we “inoculate” ourselves. That is, we take a little portion of a disease in order to avoid the whole disease. Taking this little portion immunizes us and helps us to resist the big portion.

And thus those who use a little ethics, i.e., selective ethics, take it as something relatively harmless and less demanding than the whole of ethics or morality, which they shun like a disease. So, they take a little ethics (and selective ethics at that) and then congratulate themselves for being tolerant, kind, and nice, ignoring the rest of ethics and morality with its more frightening, consistent, and sweeping demands.

Yes, have a little ethics, get congratulated, and ignore the rest. Tell folks that you love the whales and think the poor should be fed; be polite and kind to most people, and you’re inoculated. Now, never mind that you are unchaste, think abortion should be legal, think that the selling of body parts obtained by killing is OK or even virtuous. No, never mind any of that. You are inoculated and therefore immune from the “disease” of a full moral vision. Indeed, those who do have the full symptoms of the full “disease” of morality and ethics are referred to with the disease-like term, “fanatic.”

Yes, what are we to make of the cruelty in our culture? Why is there such an astonishing death toll in a culture in which kindness and politeness are so prized? What are we to make of a culture that eschews violence and yet finds it even debatably “OK” to crush infants in the womb “carefully” and then harvest their organs? What are we to make of a culture that thinks it’s OK to abort infants at all, while we still talk about justice and fairness out of the other side of our mouth?

I think Dr. Kreeft’s analogy with inoculation helps explain some of the paradox. Our kindness and politeness, our sense of “civil” discourse, and our rejection of localized violence, good in themselves, are taken by many like an inoculation to immunize them from the broader expectations of a fully biblical morality or natural law ethics. Some think and would say, “I’ve done a little. I hold to the minimally correct, publicly approved view. I’m inoculated. So now leave me alone and take your fanatical and diseased extremism out of here.”

Little things may mean a lot, but not if they are used to exclude and excuse one from the greater. In this case, the good is the enemy of the perfect. And hence our politely cruel culture.

19 Replies to “Where Does Such Cruelty Come from in a Culture That Prizes Kindness?”

  1. You priests need to start teaching about the human virtues – for example, what a virtue is, difference between human and Christian virtues, etc.

    Indeed, terrible priestly teaching is a grave reason for many of our sins. Catholics wouldn’t be making conspiracy theories, politicizing the Faith, generalizing Muslims as evil and generalizing the media as liberal, and teaching sins (over-righteousness mistaken as justice, lust mistaken as love, lax devotion mistaken as secularism, etc.) if Priests were teaching about virtue – above all, the human virtue of religion and the Christian Virtue of Faith (not to be confused for the human virtue of faith, aka, human faith).

    The wellspring of cruelty is Original Sin and concupiscence, and the fruit of concupiscence is inclination to sin and error and subjection to sin and death – yet Christ has conquered on the Cross and risen in the Tomb, we have died and risen with Him, and so we can convert from cruelty to kindness. Our Lord converts the Eucharistic species and us sinners alike into Himself. Baptism and Confession remedy sin, but if Priests are silent, how can any other souls know about them?

    Christian Faith includes all virtues and all truths, so there should be no reason for Priests to not catechize on the Christian and human virtues. Still, God has His seven thousand and His cloud of heavenly witnesses: we sinners are not alone, for God has converted so many sinners before and around us, and He works secretly in sinners’ hearts, and He created Mary Immaculate, and He assumed a Perfect Humanity – along with our weaknesses, our sins, and ourselves – when He became Man.

    Yes, Priests are poor in learning and virtue, but He Who is Rich became poor, so that, in His Poverty, we might become rich like Him. God knows we need Him more than we know His Nature, and He knows our needs even before we pray, and He prays in and with us as we pray to Him. Our Eternal High Priest is tempted with and in us, and He overcame all temptation, so that He might sympathize with us and so that we might conquer temptation in Him. Let us sympathize with other sinners like Him. Thus He teaches us three human virtues: kindness, compassion, and sympathy.

    Lastly, God teaches us the virtue of humility by making virtuous atheists and agnostics, civil rights activists, scientists and inventors, granting elements of sanctification to other Christian communities, hearing the complaints of His Saints (Abraham praying for Sodom, etc.), telling Saint Job that if he could surpass God than He would be the first to adore him, performing acts of kindness throughout Israel, and – above all – becoming like us in all ways except sin and learning obedience through what He suffered, even unto Death.

    1. Whoa Nellie! The fault dear Brutus lies not in the stars but in ourselves. Blame the priests, religious but not ourselves for deliberately ignoring 2,000 years of Christ’s teachings. True, good catechesis is abysmal today but even with the best teachers, there will still be failing students. You assessment about sin in ourselves is the only correct reason for the evils that are so overwhelming.

      Virtuous atheists? Ignoring the Source of all that is good is not virtuous. Did it ever occur to you that excepting the evils of abortion, most of the crimes against humanity were done by those who rejected God?Without faith you cannot please God. So no matter what good actions are done by those who deliberately reject God cannot compare with followers who are weak.

      1. Exactly Marguerite, it is so easy to blame priests or anyone but ourselves. Nothing never stopped me from buying a catechism and teaching my kids. We lay folk need to do our part too. Many priest have been negligent, but how often we turn on them when they do speak out. Further, everyone wants a 7 minute sermon and short mass but the priest is also supposed to cover every moral topic and teach on virtue and teaching on sin and, and and….. The pulpit can’t be the place for everything. But how many of us come to religious education opportunities? IN my parish less than one percent come to bible studies or adult ed opportunities.

        1. It is said that one has to continuously learn to keep up on their job and career. The same goes with one’s faith. The onus is on us, not the priest.

          An excellent primer on Catholicism is by the author noted by Monsignor Pope, Peter Kreeft. His “Fundamentals Of The Faith” – “Essays in Christian Apologetics” is a starter. The information is out there, it is voluminous. Learning can be fun, too.

  2. Msgr.: Another place where our cruelty and barbaric behavior is manifest is in our treatment of the elderly. I recently read this article on another blog, Shoved To Them. I cannot tell you how many people I have met who treat their elderly parents in much the same way, and how their death is no more than a blip on their screen. I have met those who love and care for their parents too. What I do notice is the ones who do not care often go to great lengths to appear that they do, just like the ethically superficial you mention in your article.
    The article:
    “The people in front of us scooted over in the handicapped pew in Mass this morning to make room for a tiny, stooped, elderly woman with a walker. Her daughter guided her carefully to the front of the church and moved the walker out of the way. The people in the pew started to move down further so that she could sit when she turned to leave.

    The Mother’s arthritic hand fluttered outward in the direction of her middle-aged child, and her faint whisper of a voice said, “Please stay with me.”

    I closed my eyes and silently begged the daughter to give in, instead, with and exasperated sigh she hissed, “No. I’m not staying. I’ll be back in an hour to get you. You’re fine.” She spun quickly and determinedly walked to the nearest exit.

    Her mother had no idea she’d gone. She reached again in the direction where her daughter had last been, and softly pleaded, “Please?” When she realized that she had been left, she reached up and, with her fingertips, gently stroked along the contours of her face. Tears misted across her sightless eyes as she reached forward to find where her walker had been placed.

    I leaned forward and asked her, “Do you need help?” When she didn’t respond, I repeated myself a little more loudly, and then asked a third time louder still. At last she heard me.

    She half-turned in my direction and stated matter-of-factly, “I can’t find my walker. I think it got misplaced.”

    It was inches beyond where she had been reaching.

    Blind, nearly-deaf, and very nearly unable to walk; she sat alone at the end of her pew, standing or kneeling whenever she sensed movement in the Sanctuary. She knew the Mass by rote memory, and was following along as best she was able. The woman beside her raised and lowered the kneeler, and I reached out gently to let her know she should sit when she stood by mistake.

    When it came time for Communion. she knelt down and placed her hands in front of her in anticipation of the Eucharist. She waited patiently, but when the usher approached her, he was asking her to sit down and let the other people out rather than bringing her the Host. “Why should I sit?” She asked in confusion. “I’ve never taken Communion sitting down. I’ve always knelt.” But by then the usher was gone, and there was no one to answer her.

    It was absolutely heartbreaking.

    She dabbed at her eyes with her fingertips, and I sat sobbing immediately behind her. I reached out instinctively to touch her shoulder and offer what comfort I could, but she flinched away in confusion. It was emotionally devastating to behold.

    I fought with myself to not judge her daughter. I don’t know them or their circumstances. This may be the daughter’s only free hour of the week. She had left her mother in a place where she knew she would be safe, and was taking a much-needed breather. Maybe she was an atheist or a Protestant, and found the idea of Mass personally off-putting, but had found the strength and Grace to make sure that her mother attended anyway. I thought of a dozen reasons and more of why she might have left her alone this morning, and more. The reaction of the people around her showed that this was something they were used to seeing.

    And that made it so much worse.

    I glanced down our row at the six children we still have living at home, and I silently begged them “Please, don’t ever leave me this way. Please don’t leave me blind, deaf, crippled, and confused sitting alone and helpless at the end of a pew. Please remember the woman I am now, giving my youth and my strength to you as my gift. Please remember the woman who chased monsters from under your bed, and held you for hours when you were ill. Remember the mother who baked you cookies, and tickled you until you were breathless. Remember the safety of curling up within the safety of my arms. Please don’t forget how I loved you with all of being – madly and wildly.”

    “Please, whatever you do, don’t leave me trapped and alone in the silent darkness wondering where and why you have gone.”

    And I began to think then, of my own mother, and how I am teaching my children by example. Every time that I sigh and roll my eyes because she’s calling on the phone to clarify something for the hundredth time. The way I allow myself to be frustrated with her slow and awkward gait instead of walking slowly and patiently beside her. That I sometimes wish we could have holidays with just us, enjoying the quiet routine of our everyday lives.

    Every time that I have abandoned her just as the daughter in Mass did this morning.

    Each and every one of those times, there is a child nearby who is listening and learning from my example. Learning how they will someday treat me. And it was crushing to realize that all the things I hope for, I do not do myself.

    Somehow I’ve allowed myself to stop seeing my mother, and see instead only the old woman she has become.

    I’ve somehow forgotten the way she would swing on the swing beside mine for hours, the two of us scream-singing Shirley Temple songs to the clear summer sky. I forgot the curve of her body, and how I would curl into in in late nights after having a nightmare, finding safety in her embrace. The girlish-ghoulish grin on her face as she told campfire ghost stories with a flashlight held under chin. The young, strong woman who would grab tightly onto my hands and spin us both until my feet lifted from the floor and I felt as if I could fly.

    She was young once too, and gave herself over to the raising of my brothers and me. She had dreams that she set aside or delayed because we were her whole world, just as she was, for many years, our whole world. Selfless and thankless. And I have repaid her by pushing her out to the periphery of our busy lives when she should be in the middle of it.

    I called her on our way home and invited her down in August to celebrate our son’s 14th birthday with us, and I offered to help her set up a Skype account. She may not live nearby, but that’s no reason for her to not be an integral part of our lives.

    Because she deserves to be.”

    1. This has been the horrorifying heartbreak as this morning our attorney’s conference! After many corporate moves with my husband’s job (…any educators know what havoc this does to your teaching career, nevermind the one semester short of finishing my Masters Degree in Memphis prior our move to Chicago). Once settled I taught in a part-time position handed a lucrative contract for the following school year! Our children would be left to sleep on plastic cots at nap time and kept in separate rooms in Day Care. Platinum Elite Rewards earning father who left me for a job back in Chicago has somehow earned the love of my children whom I stayed home to offer every best opportunity and beyond! There are NO WORDS for this elite-minded disregard for a parent who only and constantly looked and delivered Faith formation in Daily Mass attendance. Dominican seminars and too many others to list such as Latin, sciences, Logic, Mathematics łetc to be left out and left behind by my children has alerted me to the inhumane potential within every person! If asked during our robust years of year-round swimming producing two Nationally ranked all Academic scholars etc never EVER would I dreamt MY children might cast ME out!!!! Never! Wake up to the human potential!

      1. I’m sorry. I know it is a small comfort, but sometimes children, even adult ones, chase down the one who showed them less care, in an effort to get it, if that makes sense? Hugs.

  3. Msgr. said: “Some think and would say, “I’ve done a little. I hold to the minimally correct, publicly approved view. I’m inoculated. So now leave me alone and take your fanatical and diseased extremism out of here.”

    I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people of questionable ethics justifying themselves saying, “But I’m a good person.” How apt your analysis is, Msgr.!

  4. I think our society has been brainwashed to think it is not “nice” to “force” a woman carry a pregnancy to term. Therefore, abortion becomes the nice option. Pro-lifers are the meanies.

    1. Yeah, “nice” and “kind” tend to be seen in isolation from virtue and true help. A doctor who tells a patient to stop smoking may not get points for being “nice” but IS doing the proper and loving thing. Kindness is an aspect of love, but so is rebuke. Getting an abortion is wrong for all sorts of reasons even beyond what it does to the baby. Many women who have had abortions will struggle for years in the aftermath. And as the article tries to show, our cruelty and darkness tend to spared and get deeper and darker. The Planned Parenthood response along with many of its supporters (i.e. that medical research is helped and their going to be killed anyway) is quite identical to the justification of the Nazi doctors at the Nuremberg trials and no one seems to know or care.

    2. I was recently reading in a comments section of an article on abortion, a “pro-choice” advocate saying if a fetus is declared a person, the 13th Amendment against involuntary servitude could be (and probably would be) invoked to support abortion. In other words, a pregnant woman would claim she could not be forced to carry a baby to term because that would be involuntary servitude. I thought I had heard it all, but the mentally unhinged never cease to amaze me.

      In my comment back noted that if that were the case, infanticide and even killing of older children would have to be allowed, and all child abuse and neglect laws would become irrelevant, since the parent (guardian) could decide they no longer wished to care for the child, and to continue to do so amounts to involuntary servitude, and since it is legitimate to kill them before birth for that reason, it must be legitimate to kill them after birth for that reason.

      I got no response.

  5. A world steeped in such abominable sin only understands kindness on a superficial level. One of Shakespeare’s characters said that he must be cruel in order to be kind. In other words, kindness must always be linked with truth. If someone lets me drink and drive home, he is not being kind by not telling me I’m drunk. We are superficial in almost every aspect of our lives, including what we call kindness. Slapping each other on the back and telling ourselves how good we are despite apparent evils in our society is delusional. It’s fiddling while Rome is burning. We are living in a delusional society wherein evil, products, politicians and other goods are sold on lies.

  6. I think there are two things going on, inoculation AND habituation, both involve learning but in different ways. Inoculation is a learning that builds up a defensive perimeter that actually attacks something that seeks to penetrate the perimeter (e.g., antibodies actually attack disease agents.) Habituation is a learning process whereby we simply become less responsive to information or stimulation that is coming in from the outside ( e.g., getting used to airplanes flying overhead.)

    The response to baby butchery illustrates both inoculation and habituation: the abortionist and her defenders are accustomed to the physical and moral ugliness of the murder—this is habituation. But, they are also well defended against the attempts to change their conscience, hence, they attack Christians for pointing out the evil of their action–this is inoculation.

  7. As far as abortion is concerned this recent flare up with Planned Parenthood has put those who are for it on the defensive. It is the first time this has occurred in my lifetime.

  8. I’m not sure what I think of that Peter Kreeft quote. I’m not sure that I even think it makes sense. Why? Because with each passing day it is becoming clearer that our society is crumbling and that is ample evidence that we are morally worse than our ancestors. So, I disagree with his first premise.

    Really, making babies is the one of the few things that people are by nature are good at. When a society willfully stops being good at that it will probably lose the ability to become good at other things by the acquisition of art.–because it has turned its back on the best exemplar.

  9. Thank you for writing about cruelty. While you focus on abortion, I know you are also speaking about much more – the highest number of displaced people from conflict in history, racism, countless and unknown numbers of people in slavery, children in sex trade, religious persecution, species obliterated, communities wiped out by progress, people disrespected undignified forced into slums, ghettos, reservations, poverty of the pocket, spirit, and identity forced upon us by a very aware system.
    The one who stands silently by is just as guilty as the ones plotting to profit from another’s suffering.

    In my life and work I am constantly bombarded with situations in which cruelty is so prevalent that I wonder if we have collectively lost our minds?

    I find the only solace that I have in this swirling madness is in prayer – is when I step out of the world to pray – whether in adoration or a celebrated mass – the words from the Bible echoing off church walls – wisdom of holy men in the Priesthood or Sisters in service spoken with confidence. I think we should all pray much much more. Pray for the cruelty to subside – for a world gone sideways, for ourselves to find the places where we contribute to such violence in word, deed, and thought. We are all to blame and we can all be part of the solution.

    The information is overwhelming – just a glance at the news, drive through a part of town avoided in the Western world, or take a trip to a village or city slum in the Southern Hemisphere on your next vacation – reality of how intensely cruel we’ve become toward one another hits our senses full on – the present cruelty toward life and with intent to cause death is staggering.

  10. I think the problems of the era of Christendom are overstated – often deliberately so by historians with an agenda. That aside, the modern world’s cruelty isn’t that hard to explain. The further a society (or individual) moves away from God, the closer it gets to Hell even though, sometimes, the evil is hidden under a thin veneer of material prosperity. We cannot entirely escape sin in this world, so we have always had problems, but, as people abandon God, the evils are orders of magnitude worse. There is no question that the 20th Century was the worst in human history and this one hasn’t started any better. We need to return to Christ and His teachings found in the traditional doctrines of the Church. Any other strategy is a waste of time and doomed to fail.

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