The Nice Guy Syndrome

Note: Deacon Toner raises an interesting and difficult problem in today’s column, one that we are acutely aware of here at The Catholic Thing. In a time like ours, there’s a great temptation to go along, to be sociable, not only when truths of the faith are threatened but when the needs of basic human functioning are denied. We are civil because we believe in civilization. We are charitable, because we believe in caritas, the love with which God Himself loves. And we are even nice to others out of ordinary human decency – unless something far more important arises than immediate feeling. TCT has to deal with many delicate questions from issues surrounding the pope to neuralgic controversies in our culture. You’ll always find us civil, but you can count on it that we’ll tell the truth truthfully, defend the faith faithfully. We can only do so with your help. There are several ways that you can make a donation quite easily. The need is urgent, so please, don’t delay. – Robert Royal

Recently, a well-known liberal political commentator died. Eulogies poured in from his friends and colleagues, praising him as a man with a kind word for everyone, with a ready smile, and with a generous heart. He was a nice man, they said. This is no doubt true, and one does pray for his immortal soul.

But there, precisely, is the rub: he was subject to divine judgment. This “nice guy” had strongly supported the usual panoply of secular causes, even, at one point, mocking Catholics Rick and Karen Santorum for their expression of grief after the death of their baby. To the extent that the late pundit had had influence, he used it to promote an agenda that arrogantly rejects the Gospel.

Baseball manager Leo “The Lip” Durocher famously said: “Nice guys finish last.” That may or may not be accurate, but we do know that everyone, nice or not, “finishes.” We all have an expiration date. We are wise, therefore, in celebrating the counsels and consolations of those whose examples lead us along the right paths.

That the deceased political pundit – and we – will face judgment (Heb 9:27) is nowhere to be seen or heard in the encomiums offered about him. Although we can understand the wisdom of De mortuis nihil nisi bonum (“Don’t speak ill of the dead”), we must also refrain from praising and honoring those whose lives and legacies repudiate what is objectively morally true.

Here, also, is the kernel of the argument against Catholic colleges’ giving honorary degrees to men and women who, by word and deed, lead or prompt us into what is evil. (cf. Eph 4:17)

Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527 [Frick Collection, New York]
Nice guys are sincere, we hear. Nice guys are tolerant, we are told. Nice guys are “authentic,” as a confused Jean-Paul Sartre put it. That there can be sincere rapists, tolerant drug dealers, or authentic terrorists; that abortionists can be pleasant people; that those planning a political paradise marked by eugenics and euthanasia can simultaneously be loving grandparents – all these things testify to what Hannah Arendt famously called the “banality of evil.”

Nice guys – with the occasional exception of “nice” political pundits whose fingers are in the air, monitoring the wind direction of the day, eager to join in the platitudes of the chorus – refrain from self-promotion and just want to get along. Nice guys, usually, are plain and simple men.

In Robert Bolt’s play about Saint Thomas More, however, Bolt puts these words into the saint’s mouth as his jailer goes about his peremptory tasks, ignorant of a higher duty, and demanding pity because he is only a “plain, simple man”: “Oh, Sweet Jesus! These plain, simple men!”

Nice guys – “these plain, simple men” – thus have done, and can do, great evil because of apathy, because of unwillingness to seek the truth and then to do it. Truth obliges. Knowing the truth requires us to act in that truth – to “do” the truth. (James 1:22, CCC 898) If being a “nice guy” means that we must be wishy-washy or apathetic about knowing and serving truth, then we must be as disagreeable, as dyspeptic, as possible.

Plain, simple men rarely bother themselves about pursuit of truth, but “believers do not surrender. They can continue on their way to the truth,” wrote St. John Paul, “because they are certain that God has created them “explorers” (cf. Eccl 1:13), whose mission it is to leave no stone unturned, though the temptation to doubt is always there.

Leaning on God, they continue to reach out, always and everywhere, for all that is beautiful, true and good.” (Fides et Ratio, 21) “There exists a prior moral obligation, and a grave one at that,” the saint wrote, “to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known.” (Veritatis Splendor, 34)

The notion that there is no truth or that, if truth were to exist, it would be unknowable, compels the kind of moral relativism which is so much cherished by nice guys who run from the duty to admonish the sinner. (Luke 17:3).

Smiling nice guys are legion: we find them in parliaments and in pulpits, in chancelleries and in colleges, in the public square and in religious synods.

But if I do not trouble myself about the truth – about its certainty in Christ – then I need not concern myself about doing the truth, about testifying to that truth by what I say and do, and thus risk alienating those very people who see me as a “nice guy.”

The Vatican II “Declaration on Religious Liberty” asserts that “It is in accordance with their dignity as persons – that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility – that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth.”

Such adherence to truth may mean that the world may hate us (Mt 10:22) and, horribile dictu, not mark us as “nice guys.” As usual, though, Chesterton had it exactly right in his observation that Christians are not hated enough by the world. Too often, we are “nice guys.”

Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of numerous articles, books, essays, and reviews. He has taught at Notre Dame, Auburn, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has also served as “Distinguished Visiting Chair of Character Development” at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He is incardinated in the Diocese of Charlotte.