Mysterium Iniquitatis

The investigation of the crash of Germanwings 9525 this week has taken a strange turn. If it proves true that the co-pilot deliberately flew the plane into a mountainside, as the evidence increasingly seems to suggest, we’ll have horror mounted on horror: a seemingly ordinary man who, with a high degree of professionalism and sang froid, used one of the great modern technological marvels – a passenger jet – to kill himself and 150 people, screaming as they descended, whom he didn’t even know.

Psychological analysis will ensue – fine so far as it goes, which is not very far, especially in cases like this, which make a jihadist carrying out a fatwa look like the very soul of reason. Psychology, of a crude and narrow kind, is as much as we allow ourselves in “investigating” such evils and their effects. You may have noticed: Even before the cockpit recorder had been examined, psychological counselors were dispatched to help victims’ families. Rescue teams – but also many journalists, and politicians – were all over the accident scene.

Clergy were absent, being personae non gratae on such occasions now, though it’s striking how much the spontaneous memorials of friends and colleagues of the dead in several countries look like nothing so much as the banks of candles and flowers you see in a Catholic church in front of an image of a saint – without the saint – which must reflect some deeply atavistic impulse.

One of the most trenchant sayings in the old King James Bible is, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) You’ll never hear that at Mass, however, because in the “New American Bible Revised Edition” (NABRE) it comes out: “More tortuous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it?” Yea, who can understand this modern translation – which has tortured a verse that once referred to the indisputable depth of evil in the world without calling into question the efficacy of God’s grace (beyond remedy?) – and rendered it into a more familiar, contemporary idiom: i.e., “it’s complicated.”

The Bible scholars can wrangle over that translation, but it’s no wonder that so many people have a weak connection to a faith that says God had to die on the Cross, as we’ll remember next week, to save us; because we can’t seem to acknowledge the depth of evil, even when, as in the plane crash, it passes graphically before our eyes. Not for us Augustine and the mysterium iniquitatis (“the mystery of evil”), which accounts for a lot more without setting out on the hopeless errand of trying to explain, to turn what is by nature a mystery into some problem that can be remedied by better pilot screening, different flight procedures, or more funding for psychological research.

Germanwings flight attendants placing candles and flowers at the company's headquarters in Cologne, Germany
Germanwings flight attendants placing candles and flowers at the company’s headquarters in Cologne, Germany

It would be hard to say whether this fear of recognizing the mystery of evil is a particularly modern aberration or whether it’s always been with us, to a greater or lesser degree. We’d like to believe that human wickedness can be reduced to something like physics – suicidal depression or pathological massacre as a kind of human biochemical or intra-psychic tsunami – that therefore might be managed.

With all due respect to the psychologists, many of whom do real good, at a certain point, this turns into something about as scientific as astrology. The wicked – and illegitimate – Edmund in King Lear mocks similar theories in Shakespeare’s day:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune, – often the surfeit
of our own behavior, – we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star! My
father compounded with my mother under the
dragon’s tail; and my nativity was under Ursa
major; so that it follows, I am rough and
lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am,
had the maidenliest star in the firmament
twinkled on my bastardizing.

It’s hard to face the fact that malice walks among us, a malice that we cannot explain away. In Othello, Shakespeare grapples with this mystery and wisely does not try to provide an answer, which would be a false consolation and conclusion. Pressed why he tormented his captain with jealousy and orchestrated several murders, Iago replies with only two lines, which only prolong the mystery and the suffering:

Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:
From this time forth I never will speak word.

We know no amount of neat explanation will adequately account for this, what one Shakespeare scholar rightly called “motiveless malignancy.” Some of us make evil choices, and there’s an end to it.

These and many other testimonies from among the very greatest of our artists – and often enough not particularly pious or theological minds, at that – ought to count for a great deal among us. But we’ve reduced evil to something it isn’t. As a result, we can no longer say much at all about certain realities other than they “make no sense.” And they don’t because we’ve cut ourselves off from a whole gamut of terms about good and evil that once helped account for human acts.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.