Recognizing the Face of Evil

White-collar criminals can be very clever. In 1976, master criminal Albert Spaggiari and his gang spent two months drilling a 25-foot tunnel into a bank in the French city of Nice. His gang spent four days in the bank emptying the vault, over a holiday weekend. They left a message behind: “Without hatred, without violence, without weapons.” I also remember reading at the time an addition that isn’t reported now: “We like pretty girls.” Ah, the good-old days.

Bank robbers have their schemes to avoid capture. Street thugs run away from their crime scenes. When terrorists are not blowing themselves up, they try to melt seamlessly into the population. Most criminals are capable of recognizing evil and its consequences more readily than those of us in our ivory towers.

Consider the ivory tower sensibilities of CNN host Don Lemon as he reported the recent horrific news of the torture of a bound and gagged victim in Chicago. Facebook Live video showed the traumatized victim beaten, slashed, held at knifepoint while assailants are heard saying “f–k white people” and “f–k Trump.” Lemon said the act was not “evil,” adding that the perpetrators had “bad home training.” Probably true, but not the whole truth.

The CNN host is not alone. Many Catholic churchmen also seem to be incapable of recognizing the evil of the most monstrous of human acts. Internet searches of the comments made by senior clergymen after terrorist events reveal an undeniable pattern. Terrorist acts by extremist Islamists are almost always met with comments disassociating the “religion of peace” from the act. Frequently – despite evidence that many Islamists like Osama bin Laden are well-to-do – joblessness and economic deprivation are blamed.  The solution usually includes a strong call for more “dialog” (with whom?). There is never talk of just punishment and just measures to protect individuals and society – even just retribution. Why such a disconnected response?

Problems of joblessness, economic dislocation, and the need for “more dialog”  do exist. But these ever-present realities largely skirt the most self-evident cause of profoundly evil acts and the necessity to respond in justice. The inability to see evil – and our capacity to choose evil – I believe, is the result of an erosion of Catholic faith. And that erosion can be found even among some senior churchmen.


A Florida bishop, recently retired, wrote in a parting reflection on his blog, as is now customary, about the Church’s loss of our young people. His narrative (in which he never mentions the name of Jesus) includes this passage which illustrates a pattern of ambiguity and lack of confidence in the Gospel:

The Church is losing an alarming percentage of the younger generation. . . .They will only be proud of their church when we bundle life issues to include far more than simply the “right to life” issue solely of abortion. They are settled in their tolerance and acceptance of what were once seen as alternate lifestyles. They don’t like the inconsistency of matters like capitol [sic] punishment, unfettered gun control, alleviating homelessness and guaranteeing their children a nuclear free world. . . .sadly this generation has not seen their Church address forcefully and realistically much other than abortion, euthanasia, and immigration.

This is the language of our democratic politics, not the Gospel and Catholic morality. And it’s hard to blame a young person for a failure to be horrified by the “issue” of abortion when churchmen reduce it to one issue among many. (It’s noteworthy that the bishop groups “immigration” – truly a political issue – with the intrinsically evil acts of abortion and euthanasia.) Fortunately, we have many committed laymen in the trenches who have exposed the true moral outrage of the abortion industry keeping the embers of the language of Catholic morality alive.

The overall effect of this subtle but very real loss of confidence in the Gospel is unmistakable: a growing institutional inability to recognize the true horror of evil as well as an inability to address evil as ambassadors of Christ. Many Catholic churchmen have wittingly or not allowed themselves to become mere political functionaries. They respond as politicians respond to the pressures of special interest groups.

A priest friend recently emailed me:

This morning while taking my walk I was thinking about the Old Testament teaching that the just man is one who, among other things, “has taken no bribe against the innocent.” Yet liberal Catholics in general. . .were bribed to look the other way when abortion was legalized in order to advance the sexual revolution and to earn acceptance in the higher echelons of cultural élites. So 59 million or so innocents (within the United States, at any rate) were exchanged for thirty pieces of silver. I have despaired of any [religious] superior’s confronting this crime against humanity for what it is.

Most of us in “the helping professions” meet with those in need on our own turf, and may actually be “bribed” by our own “safe spaces.” Of course, most professionals of every stripe live in ivory towers, reasonably safe and apart from the streets; and we need not be apologetic. But we certainly should be grateful for the safety of our towers. And the least we could do is truly pity the victims of crime.

We might also honor the policemen and the maintenance men – and so many others – working the inner cities and those fighting the good fight in all those hot spots of the world. We would begin to honor all of them by trying to visualize the evil they endure and forthrightly call evil by its name.

Only then might we respond, with God’s grace, with Christian mercy tempered with God’s justice.

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.