Edward Feser is one of the relatively unsung heroes of modern Catholic thought. He’s been absolutely unflinching in his defense of the moral liceity of the death penalty in Catholic teaching, and has even co-authored a book on the topic. I’ve seen him write very compelling essays on other issues as well. He has a tough, no-nonsense style that I think men in particular tend to appreciate.
Which brings me to a post of his I read this morning. Entitled, “Against Candy-Ass Christianity,” Feser gets bonus points for the title alone. Examining some of the modern media hagiographies emerging about the late Fred Rogers (the iconic “Mr. Rogers” from children’s television) that have cropped up in the wake of his portrayal by Tom Hanks in the new biopic, “A Beautiful Day,” Feser uses this “embarrassingly rapturous attention” as a launching point to disabuse the reader of the false idea that niceness is a virtue.
Niceness. Well, it has its place. But the Christ who angrily overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, who taught a moral code more austere than that of the Pharisees, and who threatened unrepentant sinners with the fiery furnace, wailing, and gnashing of teeth, was not exactly “nice.”
Now, my point is not to criticize Rogers himself, who I’m sure was a decent fellow, and who was, after all, simply hosting a children’s program. I don’t know anything about his personal theological opinions, and I don’t know whether the movie accurately represents them or even refers to them at all. The point is to comment on the idea that an inoffensive “niceness” is somehow the essence of the true Christian, or at least of any Christian worthy of the liberal’s respect. For it is an idea that even a great many churchmen seem to have bought into.
This is evident from the innumerable vapid sermons one hears about God’s love and acceptance and forgiveness, but never about divine judgment or the moral teachings to which modern people are most resistant – and which, precisely for that reason, they most need to hear expounded and defended. And it is evident in the tendency of modern Catholic bishops to emphasize dialogue and common ground rather than conversion, orthodoxy, and doctrinal precision, and to speak of the Church’s teachings on sexual morality, if at all, only half-apologetically, in vague and soft language, and in a manner hedged with endless qualifications.
Such “niceness” is in no way a part of Christian morality. It is a distortion of the virtues of meekness (which is simply moderation in anger – as opposed to too much or too little anger), and friendliness (which is a matter of exhibiting the right degree of affability necessary for decent social order – as opposed to too little affability or too much).
Feser spends some time, like the Thomist he is, examining St. Thomas’s thoughts on anger, and the notion that the lack thereof can in fact be a defect when the situation warrants it. He also cites Aquinas citing St. John Chrysostom:
…as he adds in Summa Theologiae II-II.158.8:
[As] Chrysostom says: “He who is not angry, whereas he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices, it fosters negligence, and incites not only the wicked but even the good to do wrong.” …
Anger… [is] a simple movement of the will, whereby one inflicts punishment, not through passion, but in virtue of a judgment of the reason: and thus without doubt lack of anger is a sin…
Hence the movement of anger in the sensitive appetite cannot be lacking altogether, unless the movement of the will be altogether lacking or weak. Consequently lack of the passion of anger is also a vice, even as the lack of movement in the will directed to punishment by the judgment of reason…
The lack of anger is a sign that the judgment of reason is lacking.
Of course, that’s not the whole story, and Feser makes sure to treat of the moderation of anger, and the good of friendliness/affability. He also gets a dig in on the heresy of Americanism, which he thinks has infected the post-Vatican II Church, by way of a quote from Pope Leo XIII, who explained that this error proposes that “in order to more easily attract those who differ from her, the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions.“
“The malady of the will that underlies the contemporary Christian fetish for ‘niceness,'” Feser writes, “is the one Aquinas labeled effeminacy, by which he meant a softness in the face of even relatively mild difficulties.”
In Summa Theologiae II-II.138.1, he explains:
[F]or a man to be ready to forsake a good on account of difficulties which he cannot endure… is what we understand by effeminacy, because a thing is said to be “soft” if it readily yields to the touch. Now a thing is not declared to be soft through yielding to a heavy blow, for walls yield to the battering-ram. Wherefore a man is not said to be effeminate if he yields to heavy blows… [P]roperly speaking an effeminate man is one who withdraws from good on account of sorrow caused by lack of pleasure, yielding as it were to a weak motion.
End quote. Effeminacy in this sense is rife among modern churchmen, who seem to fear controversy above all things, and especially controversy that might earn them the disdain of the secular liberal intelligentsia. And for most of the last few decades, the worst they would have faced is some bad press. The way Western culture is turning now, they will probably face far worse than that in the not too distant future – and will face it precisely because they did not speak and act boldly and consistently enough when bad press was all they had to fear. Appeasement only ever breeds contempt among those appeased, and spurs them to greater evil.
In the end, pseudo-Christian “niceness” will only doom both those who practice it and those they fear to offend.
The whole piece is great, and filled with helpful quotes and references. Please give it a read over at Feser’s blog. It strikes me as a dose of exactly what’s needed in a Church full of “men without chests.”
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.