- “The priests are to teach my people the difference between what is holy and what is not” (Ezekiel 44:23 GNB).
- “But now you priests have turned away from the right path. Your teaching has led many to do wrong” (Malachi 2:8 GNB).
Precis: If it’s true that we act as we think, reinforcing our thinking, so is it also true that we think as we act, reinforcing our acting. We learn lessons of thought and action from priests, professors, and pundits, some—perhaps many—of whom are infected with the moral diseases of our day, which they then superciliously pass on to their parishioners, students, and readers. Who, then, will teach us to think eternally (sub specie Dei), not just temporally (cf. Mt 16:23)? Far too many (reminiscent of Eichmann) “think” that mass murder–such as genocide and abortion–must be all right if a number of our intellectuals, bureaucrats, and celebrities diabolically approve it. Besides that, displaying loyal devotion to politically progressive thought is a career booster.
Adolf Eichmann: the name of this Nazi SS officer, and one of the principal organizers of the Holocaust, is not well known any more. During World War II, Eichmann was responsible for the deportation of Jews to concentration camps, where millions were subsequently murdered. When the war ended, Eichmann fled to Argentina, where he lived and worked under a false name until he was captured by Israeli agents in 1960. He was then taken to Israel, tried, and hanged in 1962.
Professor Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) wrote an important book about Eichmann. Arendt argued that Eichmann the Nazi seemed not to be consumed by hatred; in fact, by psychiatric consensus, he appeared ordinary or normal. Arendt was understandably horrified by precisely the idea that this mass-murderer could be the common man. She used the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe Eichmann and the conditions which gave rise to Eichmann and to others like him. “Banal” means “commonplace” or “trite.” Eichmann was, on this view, one of many Germans who were only building their careers, just trying to get ahead, merely climbing the steps of the organizational ladder. This “organization,” however, was involved in the slaughter of millions of human beings.
Eichmann argued, in his defense, that he was just following orders. One American social psychologist, Stanley Milgram (1933-1984) concurred with Arendt that people are often too readily disposed to go along unquestioningly with someone in charge. (The famous Milgram experiments, however, actually reveal that we too easily trust those whom we perceive as “experts” rather than just those who issue orders.)
What matters in the Eichmann case is that he was terrifyingly normal. He chose not to ask too many questions, not to reflect at great length upon why he was doing what he was doing, not to place his actions in any morally serious ethical framework. Eichmann was not a stupid man. Although what he did was monstrous, he seemed not to be a monster—but only a man loyally and effectively working for his (morally vile) organization.
To be sure, we all do some things without much reflection. The ancient appeal of the famous Athenian statesman Demosthenes (384-322 B.C.)—“In God’s name, I beg of you to think!”—isn’t popular these days, if it ever was. And the Pauline advice—“take every thought captive and make it obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5 GNB)—seems today to be somehow bizarre. (After all, one never hears that adjuration on TV.) Still, the Church calls us to think—to examine our thoughts, words, and deeds against the standard of the holy cross (CCC #1454, 1785)—every time we go to Confession, which may help, paradoxically, to explain our infrequent reception of this great sacrament.
Consider this thought experiment: Imagine if the Nazi Eichmann had examined his conscience in the light of the Word of God. Would he have done what he did? “Whatever you do,” says the Book of Sirach, “remember that someday you must die. As long as you keep this in mind, you will never sin” (7:36 GNB). When we learn to think as Christ calls us to think and then to examine our consciences in keeping with the teachings of Christ’s bride, the Church (see Luke 10:16), we begin to understand right from wrong, good from evil, and virtue from vice. Eichmann had no “long view”; no perspective; no power of reflection. He had only the moment, only the corrupt commands of his bosses, only the desire to make it up the next step of the depraved Nazi ladder.
This is the testimony of the ancient psalm: “The wicked man’s oracle is Sin in the depths of his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes. He sees himself with too flattering an eye to detect and detest his guilt; all he says tends to mischief and deceit, [and] he has turned his back on wisdom. How best to work mischief he plots, even when he is in bed; he persists in his evil course, [and] he never rejects what is bad” (36:1-4 JB). Isn’t that Eichmann? Isn’t that, at certain times and in certain ways, all of us?
That is one reason we begin Mass, either in the Extraordinary or the Ordinary Form, with the sorrowful, yet realistic, admission that “I have sinned exceedingly, in thought, word, and deed: through my fault, through my fault, through my grievous fault [TLM],” while striking our breast. We cannot grow in faith, hope, and love until we know we want to, until we recognize our need to, until we seek to grow in holiness through the great grace of an ever-merciful God. As the priest says before he receives Holy Communion (in the Traditional Latin Mass): “Deliver me by this, Thy most sacred Body and Blood, from all my iniquities and from every evil; make me cling always to Thy commandments, and permit me never to be separated from Thee.”
There is a term for this kind of prayer, this kind of petition: it’s “thinking Eucharistically.” St. Irenaeus (martyred 202 AD) put it this way: “Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking” (see CCC #1327). What is “normal” today; what “everyone” thinks or does; what the boss or the guys may believe; what TV or the internet describes or depicts—all these things mean nothing if they diminish or deny what we should say as the priest elevates the consecrated host for our veneration: “My Lord and my God.” There is the center and, please God, the destination of our lives—and the starting point for thinking as we should think as Catholic Christians.
Eichmann was an example of evil—of a failure to think. “Very often, deceived by the Evil One,” we read in Lumen Gentium, “men have become vain in their reasonings, have exchanged the truth of God for a lie and served the world rather than the Creator” (#16). St. Irenaeus, by contrast, was an example of goodness—of how to think Eucharistically. “The Church,” we read in Gaudium et Spes, “likewise believes that the key, the center and the purpose of the whole of man’s history is to be found in its Lord and Master” (#10).
On the strength of this analysis, one comes again to the wisdom of Ex Corde Ecclesiae (15 August 1990): “It is the honor and responsibility of a Catholic University to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth” (#4). And one wonders–and worries–whether Catholic college alumni, presumably people whose wish to serve God is enhanced and ennobled by their years of study, are “fully qualified and equipped to do every kind of good deed” (2 Tm 3:17; cf. Heb 13:21). Is the core of their thinking banal or Eucharistic? The Pauline admonition to those who teach and administer rings in our ears: “Teach what befits sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1 RSV). The consequences of failure to teach what is radiantly true results in legions of graduates lost to the world of shadow.
So often, we hear the exhortation that we should think for ourselves. “Critical thinking” is the mantra of our time. It is, however, deceptive and dangerous advice. Reasonable thought should conform to the canons of logic, but, additionally, wise thought should conform to the Will of God (see Romans 12:2) in order that we will know, and then do, “what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Thus do we learn, as taught by St. Paul: “[To] set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col 3:2).
Why that teaching? Why that admonition? Again St. Paul: Those who think only in a banal, secular, selfish way court personal and political disaster, for they cannot distinguish between good and evil: “They are going to end up in hell, because their god is their bodily desires. They are proud of what they should be ashamed of, and they think only of things that belong to this world” (Phil 3;19 GNB [my emphasis]; cf. Jude 10, 13).
And what of those who have taught us to think in the gutters of evil? “Let not many of you become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). How strict? False teachers, from grade school to graduate school, should fear Our Lord’s clear and cogent warning that those causing God’s children (that is, you and I) to sin will have a great millstone fastened around their necks and be drowned in the sea (Mt. 18:6, Luke 17:2, Ez 33:7-9, Lam 2:14, ReView Postv 18:21).
How many of those today celebrating abortion, euthanasia, gender fluidity, homosexuality, socialism, and religious syncretism are college graduates, many holding degrees from Catholic institutions? What, then, of this warning: “Beware of false [teachers], who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits” (Mt 7:15-16 RSV). The wearing of a mortar board or mitre is thus no sure guarantee of wisdom, of learning, or even of human decency. All of us with degrees should reflect upon Isaiah’s prophecy: “Those who are wise will turn out to be fools, and all their cleverness will be useless” (29:14; cf. Acts 4:13). Eichmann, evidently, was both clever and efficient.
The prophet Hosea: “My people perish for want of knowledge” (4:6 NAB). Failure to teach the truth which sets us free leads to the “model,” not of Irenaeus, but of Eichmann. Failure to remember that the Catholic university serves the cause of Truth leads to banal, not Eucharistic, moral judgment. Failure to stand as Catholic witnesses in and to our morally beleaguered society is to contribute to the chaos of our day, which, in turn, permits and even promotes the Eichmann-like mentality of those who hate the truth (cf. John 3:20, Amos 5:10) or who, weak in mind or in will, cheerfully and cleverly cooperate with evil.
Deacon James H. Toner (M.A., William & Mary; Ph.D., Notre Dame) is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has contributed numerous columns to The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, One Peter Five, and the Wanderer. He and his wife Rebecca have three sons and eleven grandchildren.