Whoever first compared a surfeit of fun to a barrel of monkeys and not a barrel of Catholic intellectuals can’t have read John Zmirak’s Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins. In his romping, discursive treatment of what he calls “the seven areas of life in which Jesus ruins our fun,” Zmirak riffs and jams, has himself a fine old time, and does his best to make sure we readers have one, too. In my own case, he succeeded. Until I started taking it personally.
The title refers to sin, which is probably wise from a marketing point of view, but Zmirak’s real goal is to assist his readers in cultivating the seven contrary virtues — a project that too often involves a scrupulous swing from vice to its opposite pole, where neurotic and un-Godly quirks like Frigidity, Prodigality, and Fanaticism lie in wait. In the Thomistic-Aristotelian view, Zmirak tells us, genuine virtue “stands not just between two extreme modes of behavior but above them, reconciling the partial truths they exaggerate into a higher synthesis that points to a Truth.”
We learn that Patience reconciles Wrath and Servility; Humility, Scrupulosity and Vainglory; Temperance, Gluttony and Insensibility. To help us along, Zmirak supplies examples in the form of personal anecdotes, and exemplars in the form of thumbnail biographies. Whoever, like Stalin, is prone to take disproportionate revenge can learn patience from Stalin’s prisoner, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Or he can read about Zmirak and his beagles. Anyone greedy as Mao Zedong can meditate on the diligence of Mother Angelica, or on the author’s own upward slog from business journalism, etc., etc.
So far this sounds like a book Bill Bennett could have written. On the contrary, it’s a book Bill Bennett couldn’t have written in a thousand years. Your average moral entrepreneur should consider selling his soul for a ghost writer as allergic to pious drip as John Zmirak. He sounds like one of Mencken’s grandkids, a cousin to P.J. O’Rourke and Florence King. In Bad Catholic’s Guide, Zmirak enjoys license to ride all his hobby horses at once, and the result has the exuberance of a Jimmy Page guitar solo. He puts his bibliography into macaronic verse, proving himself one European reactionary who knows more Yiddish than Dreyfus ever did (and much more than I ever did).
My favorite among his one-liners: “I reacted prickly — and I mean that as an adverb.” But Zmirak’s most winsome gift, for this book’s purposes, is for creating an atmosphere where “pathos foxtrots with bathos.” He writes: “For much of mankind, sexuality is less like a big, shiny present left for us by a loving Father, and more like a case of poison ivy that lasts for decades — which it’s a mortal sin to scratch.” Almost alone among Catholic writers, the man, God bless him, can kvetch like a champ.
When he wants to, that is. When he’s not empathizing gruffly with much of humanity, Zmirak’s taking a blackjack to its leadership. In social-critic mode, he gives no quarter, as anyone who’s read his columns in InsideCatholic, or Crisis Magazine, or National Catholic Register will know. Here, without quite shilling for government shrinkage or sealed borders or any other program beloved of his Austrian school of economics, he deploys Thomistic language to make any rival program look, not merely ineffective, but positively depraved. His sketches of historical figures read less like credibly balanced portraits of the people and their times than platforms for firing theological boos and bravos at entire thought systems.
As long as Zmirak sticks to the likes of the Great Helmsman and Comrade Koba, this is fine. But here he is on the welfare state:
Conversely, the slacker who votes to “redistribute” the wealth might not in fact be envious. Let’s say he’s eager to get a monthly government check or have his sex-change operation paid for by the state, but doesn’t take an evil glee in taxing families out of their ancestral homes to pay for it. He simply shrugs and cashes the check: Democratic greed.
Zmirak came by these convictions honestly — by standing fast against whole squadrons of liberals like your reviewer — and so, he owes them to his readers. Without them, the book would look a lot more like the kind of self-help book it’s meant in part to parody. And yet I find myself distracted by the sweep. Zmirak packs his laundry lists so densely, it’s sometimes hard to find the real lesson. At first, I wasn’t sure how, exactly, French President François Mitterand had earned his dishonorable mention. Was it by supporting Vichy as a young man? Legalizing illegal North African immigrants? Having an outside daughter with Anne Pingeot? Turns out his crowning offense, so to speak, was to sup on a tiny bird called the ortolan bunting, a dignity “once proper to France’s kings.” Okay, but, sheesh, why not just say so in the first place?
The late Mitterand’s his own problem now. I suspect I wouldn’t much care what Zmirak had to say about him or his diet if I didn’t happen to be one of those floundering, legend-in-his-own-mind creative types Zmirak tags with the sin of Vainglory and finds risible. That prejudiced me — yes, on top of everything, I’m that petty. Granted, the laugh Zmirak enjoys at our expense is a bitter, Irish type of laugh, born — he hints sportingly — of a first-hand familiarity with our headspace. Still, all allowances made, I have to say I’m glad Zmirak was able to discern his calling as a pundit. With his arming wit, he might be our very best. But a pastor? That he ain’t.
The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins makes up a single installment in a series that includes The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whiskey, and Song, The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism, and The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living. I’ll probably end up getting them all and swapping them with my friends. But first I think I’m going to get a good spiritual director.