This New York Times commentary on Pope Benedict’s visit troubles me in so many ways I’m having a hard time counting them. There’s one particular diabolical strategy in Lewis’ Screwtape Letters that I always found particularly compelling. Screwtape reminds Wormwood that one of the tools in the Tempter’s box is to warn the people of every age of a particular vice that is presently threatening them, when in fact it is the vice polar opposite to the one being shouted from the rooftops which threatens to overwhelm them. Lewis puts it this way:
“The use of Fashions is thought to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers when there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already near gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere ‘understanding’. Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.”
I will do the Holy Father the courtesy of presuming that Mr. Bermudez has quoted him out of context. I do commend Mr. Bermudez for his honesty, though. At least we now know where the bogey lies. Mr. Bermudez’s image of the church, in my view, calls to mind every bad guy in Jesus’ parables, the Pharisee who prays in the Temple with the tax collector, the hirelings who worked all day and wanted to deny the late arrivals a full wage and, my personal favorite (because we are so much alike) the unnamed Elder Brother.
Contrast Mr. Bermudez’s understanding of the church with Jesus’ view of the Kingdom. Note that it is the Pharisees, the caste apart, those who said “we see” who are threatened by Jesus’ message.
There has been much bleating that this age is “too tolerant”, that we no longer have any standards, that we no longer understand and appreciate what it means to be a “Catholic”, “an American”, “a Muslim”, “a [fill in the blank]”. When I hear that, I try to keep in mind who Screwtape is and his strategy. It seems to me the real trouble comes from those who say, “‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity…”