The Fraternal Fallacy

“He that walketh with the wise, shall be wise: a friend of fools shall become like to them”

(Proverbs 13:20 DRB).

There are, I know, exceptions to this “rule,” but let’s stipulate that men who enter the priesthood are good guys:  They like people, generally interact well with people, expect good things from other people, and are surprised and disappointed when others let them down.  Customarily, priests expect the best of people, not the worst; they expect that people will do the intentional right thing, not the deliberate wrong one; and that apologies will follow if and after people recognize their errors. If sin is a fact of our fallen lives, our priests give full credit to the people they know for apparently trying to fight the good spiritual fight.  Priests are optimists fond of saying things such as they have read the last page of the Bible, and God wins!

Such a sanguine attitude is not to be mocked.  Can you imagine a priesthood utterly embittered by cynical, suspicious, and saturnine men who invariably think the worst of everyone whom they know or meet?  Not without compelling reason–and not without clear biblical warrant (1 Cor 13:13)–are faith, hope, and love the three theological, or supernatural, virtues. By extension, friendliness, a trusting spirit, and optimism are, and should be, a key part of the presbyteral personality.

Unfortunately, these same elements—amiability, confidence in others’ intentions, and a positive attitude—may be mistakenly invested or easily betrayed.  Not without compelling reason—and not without clear biblical warrant (Wisdom 8:7; cf. CCC #1805)—are wisdom, fortitude, temperance, and justice the four cardinal, or natural, virtues.

Faith, hope, and love are grounded, guarded, and guided by the more immanent—that is, the more vigilant—virtues which insist that we examine people and circumstances with what the ancient Greeks called phronesis,  which means an enlightened, well-formed judgment, responding to our situation, whatever it is, with integrity (a noun I use to incorporate wisdom, fortitude, temperance, and justice).  Such integrity can be learned, in part, from wise counselors (see Tobit 4:18) and from good books; but it must also be learned from sagely considered experience and a deep reading of history, especially including salvation history.

A tragedy—perhaps even the tragedy—of our morally fallen world is that men of great faith, hope, and love sometimes see, and trust in, political or strategic mirages.  It may be that Neville Chamberlain was a better man than Winston Churchill–I don’t know, and I am not seeking to make that argument here–but he saw a mirage at Munich in 1938, viewing “Herr Hitler” as someone of similar character, as eager as he was to avoid the horror of another world war. Weak-kneed strategic appeasement led to war.  (Ecumenism, similarly, should never degenerate into the religious appeasement of syncretism.)

This kind of quixotic, irenic, and pollyannaish thinking sabotages and subverts the cardinal virtues, and it invariably flows from a cast of mind which routinely sees moral and political problems as difficulties to be amicably resolved by shared reason, good will, and kindly spirit.  Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, often referred to Stalin (although not in his presence, of course) as “Uncle Joe.” Lyndon Johnson, for his part, seems never to have understood that Ho Chi Minh was not a ward boss to be bribed or somehow personally intimidated.

Political scientist Cecil V. Crabb, Jr. (1924-2003) put it this way:

“Americans have been slow to [understand that] . . . countless internal problems, like divorce, delinquency, alcoholism, traffic accidents, crime, poverty, and many other issues . . . are ever ‘solved’ in a final sense.  They are ameliorated, softened, mitigated, made endurable, adjusted to, outlived—but seldom eliminated.”

This streak of fraternal well-wishing and meliorism (the belief that things will grow better over time) is part of the fraternal fallacy, which insists that we believe positively (even giddily) about others’ character and our circumstances. It may help to explain why such a holy man as Pope St. John Paul did not understand the egregious evil and perversions of Marcial Maciel (1920-2008) and of Theodore McCarrick, both moral monsters.

We know that, in place of a given virtue, there may be either deficiency or excess:  cowardice or rashness, for example, may take the place of courage.  A trusting spirit is surely valuable and virtuous for all of us, but it must be balanced by phronesisThe Good News Bible puts this bluntly: “A fool will believe anything; smart people watch their step” (Prv 14:15; cf. CCC #1788). Gullibility results in our being easily duped or deceived by false teachers, who are legion (cf. Prv 8:5, Col 2:8, 2 Thess 2:3, and Heb 13:9).

This is the great danger of what Monsignor Ronald Knox (1888-1957) called “Enthusiasm,” a moral Micawberism which tells us, foolishly, that all will be well if we see with the eyes of only faith, hope, and love.  The only here is a critical word. As Catholic Christians, we are, indeed, called to see people and events with eyes of faith, hope, and love—but not with such vision alone.  Our Lord is love, is truth, is justice, is mercy—but Jesus was never credulous.  St. John tells us that our Lord “knew what was in man” (2:25) and that “the world knew Him not” (1:10) because we men “loved darkness rather than light” (3:19; cf. Jer 17:9, Gal 5:19-21).  Jesus did not expect of men the provision of a Redemption which could be effected only by Emmanuel Himself (Is 7:14, Mt 1:22-23).

We read or hear so often that we should be dreamers, expecting peace and progress and prosperity.  Some will recall Robert Kennedy’s well-known line: “Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.”  Almost the same line, though, was put into the serpent’s mouth (by George Bernard Shaw in Back to Methuselah) to tempt Eve in the Garden. Our vision of “great things” can thus be Satanic (cf. Isaiah 14:14, 2 Thess 2:4). Both Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, after all, tried to warn us that tenderness can lead to the gas chamber.

As much as we wish to trust others (and ourselves), we ought to heed the insight of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008):

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Although we yearn for goodness in ourselves, in others, and in our national institutions, a deep reading of history—and the instruction of the Catechism (#2515, #387, #407-#409)—tell us that we are concupiscent humans, heir and liable to sin.  No amount of good fellowship or wishful thinking can erase the human propensity to sin.

Then there is the political derivative.  As once expressed by the French diplomat Talleyrand (1754-1838): “Surtout, pas trop de zele!”—“Above all else, not too much zeal!”  In other words, we should not expect too much. We sensibly seek progress and peace, but integrity—the constellation of cardinal virtues—reminds us not to be optimistic.  In the words, not of a diplomat, but of a prophet: “We hoped for peace and a time of healing, but it was no use; terror came instead” (Jeremiah 8:15).  In teaching leadership, one sometimes hears this: “If hope is your only management tool, you’re in for a very rough ride.”

Integrity—the entire plate of virtue—teaches us patience.  We live in a world of hoaxes, of false and fleeting dreams, of utopian schemes, of mirages which seduce or suborn us by promising us roses without thorns and salvation without suffering.  The fraternal fallacy–the specious assurances of brotherhood without burden, of lives without pain, of a world without tears (only God will finally and fully grant us peace [Rev 21:3-4])–was diagnosed about seventy years ago by H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962): “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

The wise among us, those with phronesis, tell us that when something is too good to be true, it most probably is, in fact, not true (cf. 1 John 4:1).  “Trust but verify” was a favorite proverb of President Reagan’s.  It has great good sense.  It has, as well, a biblical connection.  We are instructed to “hold fast to what is good” and to “abstain from every form of evil”: to “test everything”

(1 Thess 5:21) and not be “quickly shaken in mind or excited by spirit or word” (2 Thess 2:2).

The fraternal fallacy insists that political concord is on the horizon if we embrace a progressive political program, or divide national monies more equitably, or develop the right meteorology.  We must not be so imprudent, however, that we mistakenly or impetuously trust false political leaders (Ps 118:9), false shepherds (Jude 4), or false friends (1 Cor 5:11; Sirach 37:1, 6:13).

  • Identify false messiahs (Ps 146:3): Know that political progress is often more illusion than reality; that guarantees of fulfillment in this vale of tears are invitations to corruption and disaster; that prudent sorrow about the human condition serves civic purpose more reliably than quixotic optimism; and that fear of the Lord is, in fact, the beginning of wisdom. Herod, whatever his name may be here and now, is incorrigible.  And . . .
  • Insist upon orthodoxy (Gal 1:6-9, 2 Pt 2:1): How we worship and pray, what we read and watch, whom we listen to—should be clearly consistent with the Holy Bible, with Sacred Tradition, and with the Settled Magisterium—the Deposit of the Faith which comes to us from the Apostles (1 Tm 6:20; cf. CCC #84, #86, #2035). Nevertheless, “fierce wolves will come among you,” and some men from our own number “will tell lies to lead the believers away” (Acts 20:29-30). Resolve to guard, and to be governed by, the truth entrusted to us (cf. 2 Tm 1:13-14). And . . .
  • Separate wheat from chaff: Fraternity has its time and its place. We are explicitly warned, though, by St. Paul: “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals’” (1 Cor 15:33). To revivify an old phrase: It behooves us to take that admonition to heart, for it both complements and, when necessary, corrects the fraternal fallacy.  First:  recognize the bad company (cf. Eph 5:11).  Such recognition requires the cultivation of both virtue and phronesis, the spiritual vaccine produced by wise education and examined experience. Second:  recognize, too, the good company, for “a loyal friend is like a safe shelter; find one, and you have found a treasure” (Sirach 6:14).

This article originally appeared in the print edition of The Wanderer. Reprinted with permission.

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