How We Redefine the Good to Justify Our Sins

I remember a political debate where participants were asked, “Who is your favorite philosopher?”

Mostly their answers were ones you’d expect — Aristotle, Plato and so on. But one piously said that his favorite philosopher was Jesus. Another replied with even greater rectitude that Jesus was not a philosopher: Jesus is not a lover of wisdom, but Wisdom itself. He is the Truth that has ordered the universe. Philosophy is a natural activity of the mind — the discerning of the basic hierarchy of principles by which we deduce what truth is. Theology, however, moves beyond philosophy by considering the source of truth itself.

When Our Lord was twelve years old, the rabbis in the temple marveled at His wisdom. I am sure that Our Lady and St. Joseph had a very good little domestic school going in Nazareth, but His wisdom did not come from them. In His human nature, He did have to learn natural things; for instance, He had to be taught the grammar of the Scriptures that He had given the world. But this magnificent paradox does not contradict His divine nature, which is not merely intelligent, but is the source of all intelligence.

What We Choose

The human being has a free will to choose good or evil. But after having plotted evil, when a person begins to commit the act itself, it begins to contradict the human dignity and the conscience in a more poignant way. This is why the most evil people in the world have had to redefine evil, pretending that it was good. Or, when that hasn’t worked, they have had to drug themselves, either with intoxicating language — slurs and euphemisms and so on — or with chemical drugs.

If we cooperate with evil, if we plot to do evil, and then if we commit ourselves to evil, the human spirit has to deny that what it is doing is evil. Evil always calls itself good; every vice parades itself as a form of liberation.

Fr. Theobald and Our Culture

In the nineteenth century there was a remarkable character named Fr. Theobald Mathew, an Irish Capuchin who dedicated his life to the temperance movement. There are those today who speak patronizingly of such work, but he was not a puritanical teetotaler, and drunkenness truly was a social crisis at that time. He had a higher vision, a vision of the human soul as a reflection of the glory of God. And it was so wonderful to him that he wanted people to understand that they were losing sight of something far more splendid than what alcohol or drugs could give.

This article is from a chapter in Grace and Truth.

He was a virtual miracle worker, giving the temperance pledge to hundreds of thousands of Irish and, on one occasion, to a multitude of a hundred thousand Scotsmen. He came to the United States and visited at the White House, where he presented his work to the admiration of President Zachary Taylor. The vice president at the time, who later became President Millard Fillmore, received him at City Hall in New York, and it is said that he even took the pledge.

What Fr. Mathew faced in his day was no different from the drug culture we face today. Any sociologist can come up with an explanation for why alcohol was such a problem in the nineteenth century: The breakdown of social institutions, economic oppression, the suppression of religion, political tyranny, or any number of other things drove people to seek some kind of escape. But this good priest told the people that God gives us not an escape but an “inscape” — a vision of the good that challenges every attempt to contradict that good by doing evil.

Our Lord gives us His Body and His Blood in the Holy Eucharist. When the world denies the majestic reality of the Holy Eucharist, it will always try to drink itself into oblivion or drug itself out of reality. Any attempt to redefine the Blessed Sacrament as something less than the sacrifice of Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the presentation on the altar of His True Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity is an embarkation upon a kind of semi-life.


Why do people even consider doing evil? Well, it’s in the blood — not the Blood of Christ, but human nature. It’s Original Sin. When we appropriate that Original Sin in the form of explicit acts against the good, that’s what we call a sin.

Our Lord told a parable about the owner of a vineyard who left tenants in charge of the land. The proprietor sent one man to visit the vineyard and collect the rents, and that man was beaten. Another went to the vineyard, and he was gravely wounded. And then finally he said, “Surely, they will not touch my son.” He sent his son in, and they killed him.

Our Lord is giving us an allegory for sin. The beating of the first servant is venial sin, a lighter kind of offense against the good that can easily be remedied through an Act of Contrition. It does not even require a sacramental Confession, though it is recommended. But a venial sin is not to be dismissed lightly, because it lays the groundwork for the more direct affront against God represented by the wounding of the other servant, which represents habitual sin. The ache in the soul that takes away our desire for the good forms a habit of behavior. These habits lead to the gravest offense of all: killing of the Son Himself. This is mortal sin, and every mortal sin is an act of violence against the Lord of Life. St. John Vianney said that when we confess our sins, we take the nails out of Jesus.

Charles Darwin, in his expedition to the Galapagos Islands, noted with great insight how the wildlife seemed unperturbed by the arrival of his ship or the men on it. The reason was clear: They had never seen humans before, and thus had no reason to feel threatened by them. They were not potential hunters or collectors, but just like the birds in the air and the beasts of the field. But, he observed, the seals jumped off the rocks and swam away at the ship’s approach, for the seals alone of all the species on that island had a long experience of being hunted by humans.

The sons of Adam were like those seals. We have had a long experience — that is, all of human history — to observe and to learn the various ways in which people have offended God by offending against men and women, and this has created a deep wound in the human heart. If we are not careful, it can rust into cynicism, which denies the possibility of holiness and eternal joy. Cynicism cooperates with evil.

Jonathan Swift & Righteous Indignation

One of the most admirable writers in the English language was Jonathan Swift. He lived something of a misplaced life as a non-Celt living in Ireland and the dean of the Protestant cathedral of a Catholic country. But he was a man of deep natural virtue. He saw injustice all around him, and he marshaled his literary talent to do what he could to publicize these accounts. To do this, he unleashed his acidic tongue in the form of biting satire.

A lot of people continue to think that Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is a children’s book. It is anything but! A child can enjoy it, of course, but it was written for the minds and hearts of the most sophisticated people of his day. He aimed his satirical barbs at the government officials and the representatives of the ancient institutions of his culture who had fallen into the dismal self-parody of worshipping themselves and their class instead of worshipping the God Who gave them life and power and prosperity.

He reserved particular scorn for the intellectuals who used their intelligence for no useful purpose at all. In the book, they live on a flying island, which they can never quite get to settle down on solid ground. He satirizes the politicians as jumping through hoops or over strings just to get a particular kind of colored ribbon. Swift laid before the reader how easy it is for us, deprived of the vision of God, to lapse into a kind of innocent rejection of our own dignity. Once we have done that, we become easy prey for the liar. The prince of lies knows that once we have lost the vision of higher things, we can be persuaded to participate in the lower things.

Jonathan Swift, as I said, was a man of natural virtue, to a remarkable degree. What he did lack were the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love to a degree that could overcome bitterness and cynicism. He practically dissolved in his frustration and indignation at the injustices of his day. On his tomb in the cathedral in Dublin is this epitaph: “Where savage indignation no longer tears his heart apart.”

Our Lord doesn’t want us to deny that kind of bittersweet indignation, but He also doesn’t want our hearts to be torn apart by cynicism. The goodness of the human soul can discern good from evil, but it will be eternally frustrated if it doesn’t have access to the grace and truth of Christ, which can release the good and conquer the evil.

Light in Darkness

It is highly significant that Our Lord reveals Himself as an eternal light shining in the darkness. Our Lord, when He wanted us to see His divine mercy, showed it in a private revelation to St. Faustina with lights coming out of Him. The Light that made the world can cancel out the propensity to evil that is in every human heart.

Instead of surrendering to indignation and dying with a sense of futility, it is far better to follow the example of the saints. In particular, we could take as our model that saint whose very name means “fire”: Ignatius Loyola. He prayed in his Spiritual Exercises, and the Church has taken up his prayer ever since,

Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my will. All that I am and have You have given to me. And I give all back to You to be disposed of according to Your good pleasure. Give me only the comfort of Your presence and the joy of Your love, and with these, I shall be more than rich and shall desire nothing more.

This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Rutler’s latest book, Grace and Truth: Twenty Steps to Embracing Virtue and Saving Civilization. It is available from Sophia Institute Press.


Fr. George W. Rutler is a parish priest in Manhattan who is known internationally for his programs on EWTN, including Christ in the City and The Parables of Christ. He is the author of thirty-two books including newly released, A Year with Fr. RutlerHe holds degrees from Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Rome, and Oxford.

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