Periodically I hear or read of a film that’s a "must-see" for Catholics. Depending on who’s recommending it, I’ll find out that the film is essential because it:
- Affirms the sanctity of life. (Bella)
- Celebrates the fundamental goodness of every person, even the simplest. (Forrest Gump)
- Dramatizes a sacramental vision of life. (Babette’s Feast)
- Tells the story of an important saint. (Therese, 1986)
- Depicts priests or religious as multi-dimensional people worth taking seriously. (Into Great Silence)
- Shows practicing, sacramental Catholics who are neither unlettered peasants nor Mafia kingpins, but likeable, smart Americans. (Return to Me)
- Powerfully tells the story of a conversion. (The Third Miracle)
- Gives "our side" of historical events that are typically slanted to fit some Black Legend or Whig Authorized Version. (A Man For All Seasons)
- Shows Catholics resisting the Nazis. (The Assisi Underground)
These are all important benefits, even if not all of the above are important films. And it’s hard enough to find entertainment these days that’s not embarrassing to watch in mixed company (let’s leave out the question of kids). It’s a bonus if such a film is not just inoffensive, but actually paints a world that we as believers can recognize. When I finished watching my favorite film of those I listed, The Third Miracle, the only way I could describe the experience to a friend was to say: "Imagine if all your life you’d been watching movies that pretended gravity didn’t exist — where people just floated around like Peter Pan. Then finally, finally, somebody makes a movie where objects fall to the ground and people have to use stairs. That’s what this movie does for religion."
This week I’d like to commend for your holiday viewing a movie that offers none of those happy attributes: Longford. While it isn’t profane or "dirty," I wouldn’t suggest you pop it in and gather the kids, since one of the main characters is an infamous child-murderer. It’s not a feel-good movie about the Church, since its Catholics are clearly in trouble. But I think Longford is essential viewing for Christian grown-ups of every variety, since it tackles what Mother Angelica called the "reigning sin of our time."
This vice isn’t one of the Seven Deadly Sins, although it enables each of them. It’s not exactly a heresy, although it gives heretics aid and comfort. A sharp, if hostile, observer — Friedrich Nietzsche — looked at Christianity and thought this error lay at the very heart of our ethics, which led him to label ours a "slave morality." And wherever this vice takes over a Christian’s heart, slave morality is precisely what we’re practicing.
This vice is misguided compassion. That was the good sister’s term for it, although St. Thomas might have "gone medieval" on this vice by describing it as Liberality and Meekness corrupted by neglect of the governing natural virtue, Prudence. An easier way to say all that is simply "mercy without justice." As we all know, that’s not real mercy at all, and it’s not what we expect from Christ on Judgment Day. As a lover of Byzantine art, I’ve seen plenty of icons depicting Our Lord enthroned as judge of the human race. He isn’t grinning.
The movie Longford depicts misguided compassion gone horribly, wildly out of control — to the point where it ruins lives and destroys the good name of decent people, all to serve the purposes of a manipulative criminal who wishes to make a mockery of justice. But the story it tells could serve as a microcosm of the postconciliar crisis in the Church, and the current futility of Catholic political activism in America. (Have I sold you yet? Are you ready to go rent the DVD and open the kettle corn?)
Frank Pakenham, the Seventh Earl of Longford, was a kind and pious man. Born a British aristocrat, he flouted public opinion by converting to Catholicism in 1940. An accomplished historian, loving husband, and nurturing father — one of his many overachieving children is historian Antonia Fraser — Lord Longford was also active in politics. Long a member of the British House of Lords — and a convinced socialist — he led campaigns against pornography and gay activism, in the face of widespread mockery in the press. (It didn’t help, I guess, that he insisted on conducting widely publicized fact-finding tours in strip clubs, with journalists in tow. Did I mention that Longford lacked the virtue of prudence?)
Educational reformer, chronicler of the Irish war for independence, visionary moral crusader: For none of these things do Englishmen remember the Earl of Longford. Instead, they know him as the British lord who tried to get Myra Hindley out of jail. Hindley’s name is still a watchword for hellish cruelty; she was convicted in 1966 along with her lover Ian Brady for jointly kidnapping, sexually abusing, torturing, and murdering five children — whose anguished cries they tape-recorded. The Moor Murders, and the subsequent trials, were the media sensation of the middle 1960s, and neither Hindley nor Brady showed remorse at their public trial. The two were sentenced to life in prison.
And that’s where poor Longford came in. As a deeply religious Catholic, the Earl made a point of visiting prisoners — which, you might remember, is one of the Corporal Works of Mercy. What you might also recall from Catechism class is that it nowhere says you have to try to get the prisoners out, assuming they’re guilty. That distinction eluded the good Lord Longford, who responded to a letter from Myra Hindley requesting a visit.
As the film depicts their dawning (fawning?) friendship, it is clear that Hindley is a brilliant manipulator, skilled at reading Longford’s character and telling him what he most wants to hear: That she is deeply, profoundly sorry for what she did. That she was an abused child, seized and dominated by a strong, sadistic lover, who forced her to take part in the murders. Oh yes, and that she is deeply attracted to Longford’s Catholic faith. Would he consider sending her some Catholic books, including her in his prayers, and returning for future visits?
Soon Longford is traipsing back and forth between the House of Parliament and a dingy women’s prison, listening wide-eyed to Hindley’s fabricated accounts of her spiritual progress, and flattering himself for his attraction to "the most despised, most marginalized members of society." What he leaves aside is the fact that some people are marginalized and despised for very good reason; looking only at Hindley’s suffering at the hands of her (rightly disgusted) fellow prisoners, he sees her as a kind of Christ figure, and he proceeds to take her on his personal cross. Convinced that she has been rehabilitated — forgetting that prison’s first and most urgent task is punishing guilt and offering victims and society justice — he launches a campaign to win her parole.
The results are predictable, and they play out in the film like a slow-motion train wreck of the Little Choo-Choo That Could. Longford squanders his political influence (which could have done significant good), nearly wrecks his marriage, humiliates his family, outrages and pains the parents of the murdered children, and becomes a public laughingstock. Even when Hindley’s accomplice shows Longford letters where she mocks him and makes light of her repentance, the Earl continues his efforts. Which, thankfully, are futile: At story’s end, we see Hindley dying in prison, admitting that her conversion was a sham — reminiscing, indeed, about the murders, which taught her this: "That evil can be a spiritual experience, too." Indeed it can.
The first thing this movie reminded me of was the story of all those bishops (some two-thirds of current American prelates) whose criminal folly reassigned "penitent" sex abusers to parishes. Then I thought of the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, smiling vaguely as he endorsed the use of Islamic sharia in England. After that, I remembered those clerics and columnists who blathered on throughout the 1980s about the "seamless garment" that somehow made support for legal abortion morally equivalent to favoring budget cuts in Medicaid. And I thought of the time a papal speechwriter compared rejecting economic migrants to destroying unborn children. And so on, through the long detour so many Christians took through genuine slave morality. By the film’s end, I favored the death penalty — for Longford.
Then the movie’s message turned and smacked me in the face. I remembered the times I myself had won cheap grace by engaging in fake compassion — the kind that disregards the truth, vitiates justice, and treats the virtue of prudence as something stuffy or unheroic. (You and I are above such worldly concerns.) Specifically, I remembered how I’d listened to a long series of implausible, heartrending sob stories from someone who craved my time, attention, and treasure — and dangled before me the prospect that she might "come back into the Church."
I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, but it happens to me: The prospect of "saving" a soul, of leading someone to Christ, is a heady temptation indeed — one designed to fool those who’ve conquered more straightforward sins. (Dorothy Sayers famously wrote that Satan is at his most dangerous when he attacks us through our virtues.) This heavenly prospect can overwhelm rational judgment, blind you to contrary evidence, numb the self-protective instinct, shunt aside prudent counsels to "avoid evil company," and end up in scandal and squalor.
In my case, I introduced this potential "convert" (who later turned out to be a textbook sociopath and compulsive liar) to close and trusted friends. Friends who trusted me — and expected that I would use good judgment in choosing my associates. The least outrageous outcome? She bilked one friend out of thousands of dollars, and stole another’s identity to rob several thousands more. By the time I accepted the truth, the list of people who deserved my apologies was long and appalling.
So I have no room to throw stones at the Earl of Longford. His vice is as commonplace now as vengeance was in the age of dueling, or bigotry during the Crusades. A predominant sin, the one that rules an epoch, is rarely obvious to those who were raised to find it natural, normal — even praiseworthy. It’s like a toxic ozone that hangs over our heads, clouding our thoughts and blurring the light of day. It takes works of art to blow away the fog. Longford is that kind of artwork. For my penance this Advent, I’ll watch it again.