The news broke this morning the Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities for the disabled, was guilty of manipulative sexual abuse of at least six women over the years. The disappointment and shock is reverberating around the Catholic world because he was considered, along with Mother Teresa, to be a living saint.
At the same time the headlines rumble with indignation at the bigotry and misogyny of candidate Bloomberg, the alleged racism of Donald Trump, the sexual abuse trial of Harvey Weinstein and the echoes of the predator Jeffrey Epstein and his various cronies from Prince Andrew down to a whole crew of scurvy pirates.
You know what? It doesn’t faze me. I’m not too disappointed by such news and I’m not devastated, and I think I know why. Rightly or wrongly, I was brought up in a religious setting which was built on a foundation of underlying Calvinism, and one of the tenets of Calvinism is the doctrine of “total depravity”. This is the doctrine of original sin on steroids. We were taught not only that “there is none righteous, no not one.” (Romans 3:10-12) but also “All your righteousness is as filthy rags.” (Isa. 64:6) and some of the preachers didn’t mind telling us that the translation of “filthy rags” was “menstrual rags.”
That was a shocker and emphasized the extreme vision of total depravity.
This Protestant doctrine is corrected by the Catholic truth that were are all created good because we are created in God’s image and likeness, but that we have all fallen through original sin and the wound of sin needs to be healed.
The fallout of the doctrine of total depravity is that people become too pessimistic about human nature. “Total Depravity” becomes as harsh and terrible as the words themselves sound. You conclude that there is nothing good in you and harsh teachers, parents and preachers can pound into sensitive souls the idea that they are crap. They hear Luther’s old image that they are just a dunghill and if they’re lucky the dunghill is covered with snow and that’s God’s grace covering up for you, but deep down your still a pile of crap.
The fallout from the Catholic doctrine is that too often people become too optimistic about human nature. This is the kind of default setting within a liberal society like ours. We think everybody is good. Everybody is a darling. Everybody deserves to win a prize. We think everybody is really good at heart and if only we appealed to their better nature they would all be just as sweet and kind and nice as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. This liberal optimism about human nature is why we suddenly get so upset and disappointed and disenchanted when it is revealed that our heroes have feet of clay.
In fact, being too optimistic about human nature is just as destructive to a grasp on reality as being too pessimistic about human nature because the overly optimistic are far more likely to excuse sin, turn a blind eye and give the creep a second chance. It was this liberal over optimism that allowed Western elitists, for example, to continue for a very long time to imagine that Stalin was a good guy and communism was peachy.
The true Catholic position is realistic. It teaches that we are indeed created good because we are created in God’s image and likeness, but it is also true that from the very first moment we are fallen creatures. We are people of the lie and the New Testament clearly teaches that the default setting is that we are condemned. The default setting–without God’s grace is that we are alienated from God. If this makes you uncomfortable I’m sorry, but here are the beautiful and terrible words from the third chapter of John’s gospel.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
Do you see verse 18? “whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” This is a realistic assessment of our human condition. It is not total depravity as the Calvinists teach, but neither is it the blithe and naive optimism of the liberal universalists who think that God is so good and nice and sweet that he will no one will go to hell in the end.
If we therefore, have this realistic understanding of human nature we will not be so disappointed, outraged and indignant when we hear that Jean Vanier was a sinner. We will not be so angry and dismayed by the scandal and heartbreak of abusive, corrupt and immoral pastors and priests. We will not be surprised because we were realistic about human nature from the beginning.
Furthermore, if we were more realistic we would be able to be more balanced about in our judgement and assessment of such problems. As it stands now, because we are stupidly optimistic about human nature, when it turns out that someone has been bad we tend to condemn them completely. We throw them under the bus. We excommunicate them utterly and cast them out. Furthermore, we go on an irrational purge, raging against anyone who might wish to point out that none of us should be defined only by the bad things we’ve done.
Not too long ago a priest was charged with a sexual indiscretion against an adult woman. When I suggested that he was a good man who had stumbled and fallen, and we should remember the good as well as the bad I was subjected to a Twitter hate fest by the people who had once been all sweetness and light and Pollyanna optimism, but who had turned vicious once they were disappointed.
If we had been more realistic to start with we would understand that a man can be guilty of some terrible actions and make some seriously sinful mistakes but at the same time may have done much more good and been a much better person than we thought. If we had been realistic about human nature and not lived in some kind of theological plastic fantasy land we would have known ahead of time that everyone but the saints have their shadow side and we should not be surprised. If we had been more realistic we would have known that the more saintly a person is the more temptations he is given.
This is not to excuse the sin or let the person off, but it is simply a balance in our own perceptions and reactions.
Finally, if we were more realistic about human nature in others we would be more realistic in our self regard. Because of these two extremes of over optimism or pessimism we tend to fall into the same trap about ourselves. If too optimistic we excuse our sin. We overlook our failures and fall into the silly trap of thinking we are good people just because we’ve never killed or raped anyone or robbed a bank. On the other hand those of us who are too pessimistic think we can never do anything good, get weighed down with scruples and deny God’s mercy and forgiveness.
The way of balance is to be realistic about ourselves and others. We are created in God’s good and beautiful image, but we were also born into sin, and it will take a life time of thought, prayer, discipline and devotion for that wound of sin (by God’s grace) to be healed. If we understand this then we will look on ourselves and others as God looks on us: with pity not with blame.