The Irony of Goodness

It will be observed, while glancing through the Catholic Internet, on any day in Lent, or any other day, that the majority of items have a political taint. I, at least, observe this, because I am myself politically tainted, and notice the same in writers to the left and right of me.

There are moments when I find this strange. In particular, it is in many of those moments when I am consulting the religious literature of the past. I have come to associate politics with modernity, in the sense that I don’t even detect it in most writings prior to the Protestant revolt, or “Reformation.”

However, I am perhaps reading too narrowly. Had I been alive in my beloved 13th century (an imperfect century, but less so than the rest), I would perhaps have been acutely aware of the political dimension of things, obscure to me now because they seldom took the form of modern, ideological party politics.

Some men, like, say, the Bishop of Paris, were in the habit of throwing their weight around in a way we might characterize as overtly political. One could be put to some material expense by crossing them; and they could leave creases from their political edge.

Does controversy make a man political? Here I am thinking of the man, Jesus Christ, who was frequently controversial, both then and more recently. He was (in the view of the Roman authorities, charged with maintaining the peace in an un-Roman land) looking for trouble; and he found it, immediately enough, among some good synagogue attenders of the day.

As what might be called a “traditionalist” myself, I am perhaps more aware than some of His more complacent followers of His settled convention of rocking the boat. Also, I discern some irony in this apparently constant strategy. When, to give my random example, He is first presented as a child in the Temple – we were remembering this at Candlemas – the irony of his person is first made plain.

Note, the child has been born into this world just forty days ago. Yet He is already communicating his Lordship to Simeon, who has perhaps only forty days left. And in that moment, with Simeon, and with the prophetess Anna, the importance of Christ’s redemptive mission to Israel is made known.

This is the irony. It is a redemptive mission actually to the world; not restricted to a locality.

The infant Lord is showing His command. It is acknowledged in the prayers of Simeon and Anna. Yet his identity as the child of Mary is also made explicit, together with the facts of her poverty and modesty – she whose husband cannot afford a lamb for the offering, and instead brings a brace of affordable, sacrificial birds.


To the modern mind, this may not be irony. But to my unmodern sensibility it is – as it were, situational irony. It is recorded by Saint Luke with his bristling awareness of divine action in the human world: it will be the first in a career of ironies that presents the mysterious liturgical action of Jesus, from the beginning of His appearance.

Yet part of that irony is what it is not. It is not “spectacular.” Like many of the actions in the Gospels, which are universally significant, it could be known only to a small familial group or blessed circle of disciples; and it continues to be known through the eyes of faith.

Faith is itself an ironical disposition. This is its Greek element (as a rational, rhetorical device), merging with the Hebrew. What is true is not absolutely obvious, but in many ways the opposite. But it is still inevitably true, and thus visible to the meditative, contemplative mind. What is divine is paradoxically fitting. The divine is grasped ironically within what is worldly.

We often claim freedom as a political good; but in Scripture this claim is avoided. Freedom is not bestowed by men upon each other; it does not belong to the civil law, as slavery and manumission do. It is itself a “mystery” that requires a theological understanding. A person is made free by his faith. To outward appearance, he makes himself free; stone walls do not a prison make.

But freedom for a people is only freedom FROM something. It is the mere negation of being captured. In our modern, political obsession, we can only grasp freedom in this un-ironical way, expressed in rights language of one kind or another.

For this reason, “political freedom” is narrow and constraining. It makes one a slave, owing his freedom to Abe Lincoln, or some other notorious liberator. It is depicted in classic political propaganda as a man unchained. He needed another man to break those chains, or at least a snipping device for the cuffs. His freedom is conditional.

But now he may go on his “freedom march.”

To be good, by a secular definition, is to break chains. This is how Leftists and Rightists perceive their great political heroes. At its most modest, to be good is to obey one stricture or another. It is to pass a test; to “do the right thing.” I have no objection, or usually very little, to the goody two-shoes who goes about, virtue signaling. For politics can provide good entertainment.

Whereas religion presents us with ironies, and behavior that is not outwardly as visible as a “freedom march.” It does not necessarily signal virtue, and would rather not.

For what it signals is not quite obvious to perception, in this world or, I suspect, any other. In the Catholic disposition, the word that is signaled is more often “Holiness.” The only obvious thing about it is that, to call oneself Holy would be to make oneself ridiculous, as one may do in almost any language.

That is itself an irony; that calling oneself good is almost always a tacit admission that one has been bad.


*Image: The Presentation in the Temple by an unknown artist/maker, late 13th century [The Getty, Los Angeles]

You may also enjoy:

Fr. Bevil Bramwell’s Underrating Jesus Christ

Anthony Esolen’s Splinters and Beams

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: