In the cartoons I watched growing up in the 1980s, there were clear-cut heroes and villains. G.I. Joe vs. Cobra. He-Man vs. Skeletor. Autobots vs. Decepticons.
Those worlds were black and white. Good on one side, evil on the other. Villains were malevolent and corrupt to the core. Heroes were virtuous, magnanimous and self-sacrificing.
These were children’s cartoons, so they weren’t exactly focused on complexity, character development and nuance. Besides, those shows were really designed to be marketing vehicles for popular toy lines as much as they were about moralizing and “the more you know” lessons at the end of each episode.
Eventually I grew up – kinda – and stopped watching Voltron and Transformers in favor of more adult fare. As St. Paul told those rowdy Corinthians 2,000 years ago, when you grow up, you’re no longer supposed to reason, think and speak like a child.
However, judging from what some Catholics have been saying this political season, not all of us have learned how to “put away childish things” in their adult years.
To hear some people tell it, faithful Catholics in America are besieged by villains, in the Church and in the culture. These villains are not flesh-and-blood human beings, people made in God’s image, who might live next door to us. No, these foes are cartoonishly evil figures who are hell-bent on destroying the Church, the family, our country and our way of life.
This black-and-white worldview is evident in the shrill commentary we’ve seen lately from the “Catholics for Trump” crowd, which throws the “fake Catholic” label at any coreligionist who dares to criticize Donald Trump or indicate their support for Joe Biden.
Trey Trainor, the Republican chairman of the Federal Election Commission, this past week sat down for an interview with the fringe outlet Church Militant where he admitted to viewing the November elections as “a spiritual war” and “a battle between good and evil.”
Guess which side of the battle Trainor sees himself fighting on. Hint, it’s not with the outfit that would lose in an episode of G.I. Joe.
Ignore Today’s Manichees
This simple-minded outlook, mixed with healthy servings of paranoia, ignorance and self-righteousness, is championed by political and religious demagogues who see it as an effective tool to divide people and mobilize the masses for their own benefit. We see it with Trump and how he villainizes everyone and any institution he sees standing in his way.
We also see it with Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, our former nuncio who has taken to a conspiratorial, neo-Manichaean worldview where the “children of light” – people who share his retrograde ecclesiology and reactionary political ideology – are in an apocalyptic battle of sorts against “the children of darkness,” i.e. people who hold opinions different from his.
This one-dimensional depiction of one’s critics and ideological/political opponents is not only absurd, but dangerous. In such a world, there is no “coming together” after an election to bind a nation’s wounds. There is no room for dialogue, debate, compromise and mutual respect. You fight evil until the enemy surrenders or is vanquished.
Notwithstanding our red-pilled former nuncio’s assertions to the contrary, this comic book world of light vs. evil is incompatible with a Catholic understanding of creation. We may live in a fallen world where the effects of original sin surround us, but God’s creation is still good and reflects His power and majesty. Lest we forget, God in fact loves this world so much that He sent His only begotten Son to redeem it.
A view of the human person rooted in Christian anthropology must also reject the idea that people who don’t share our opinions, political views and religious traditions are evil or depraved. When someone like Taylor Marshall says Muslims should convert or be wiped off the face of the earth, he is betraying a non-Christian disposition toward his neighbor. As Catholics who draw from the deep wellspring of our Church’s body of social teaching, we affirm the innate human dignity of everyone, regardless of their race, age, gender, creed, sexual orientation and political affiliation.
As Catholics, we’re also informed by Sacred Scripture. Yes, we believe that evil in fact exists. St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 6:12 that our struggle in this life is not so much against flesh and blood but against “principalities,” the “world rulers of this present darkness” and the “evil spirits in the heavens.”
We are indeed in a spiritual battle against Satan and his evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls, as the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel so eloquently puts it. But this battle is fought primarily in our own hearts and minds. The real battlefield is not so much the political arena as it is our interior life. The toughest enemy any of us will fight is ourselves, not so much our neighbor.
Only God Can Judge
The spiritual battle for our souls is further complicated by our individual upbringing, as well as, oftentimes, by mental illness, addiction, invincible ignorance, deep-seated insecurities, fear, emotional trauma and social conditioning.
We are messy and complex fusions of life experiences, innate talents, strengths, weaknesses and shortcomings. Only God can make sense of it all. That is why only He can judge the state of our souls.
We can judge actions, never people. We can say certain acts like murder, adultery and defrauding the worker are evil and kill the life of grace. But only God knows a person’s heart. As Catholics, it’s fair game to criticize Joe Biden for capitulating to his party’s unrelenting position on legal abortion. But to call him evil or a fake Catholic is beyond the pale.
Joe Biden is a flawed Catholic, like many of us, and a politician, the best of whom have tendencies to be calculating and willing to bend their public positions to maintain political viability. There’s a reason why a “statesman” is sometimes described as a politician who’s been dead ten years.
In these discussions, there are always people who resort to extreme examples like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Nazis, gulags, genocides, mass graves and ethnic cleansing to argue that the world is a dangerous place filled with evil, nasty people who are ready to do violence to God-fearing men and women. The world can indeed be dangerous, sometimes tragically so. The evil at war within us can manifest itself in sinful social structures and systemic oppression of the weak and vulnerable if we allow it.
As Catholics, however, we need to be discerning enough to know the difference between our good friends who see abortion through a women’s rights perspective and actual Nazi guards in concentration camps. We should be able to differentiate people of good will who do not agree with us on everything from would-be tyrants who use dehumanizing rhetoric and treat people like objects.
The Odd Couple
While writing this column, the news broke of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. Some shameful comments in Catholic social media celebrated her passing because of her ardent support of legal abortion rights.
Somebody who would not have celebrated was the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a pro-life Catholic and proud conservative who enjoyed a deep friendship with his liberal colleague. Despite profound differences in their life philosophies and jurisprudence, Scalia and Ginsburg saw each other’s humanity and found common ground, including a shared love of opera, upon which to build a real friendship.
People in today’s polarized political climate may wonder how that’s possible, but it really starts by listening to one another, trying to understand where the other is coming from and treating everyone how we want to be treated. It also helps to look at our neighbor as a flesh-and-blood human being, not a cartoon villain.