On Never Being Correct

 

In his Ethics, Aristotle tells us
that not every action is a mean between two extremes — too much and too little. Some names indicate what is always base. He gives examples: “spite, shamelessness, envy, among feelings; adultery, theft, murder, among actions.” Such actions are unworthy. “Hence in doing these things we can never be correct, but must invariably be in error.”
 
To hear that language names things that are wrong is refreshing. When something is thus wrong, the law distinguishes between degrees of culpability. Passion, force, or ignorance can mitigate the heinousness of what we do. But we hate to hear someone say “never,” especially Aristotle, as he usually knew of what he spoke. It reminds us that we do not ourselves make all the rules of our living.
 



But what if we go ahead and do such base things anyhow? Where does that put us? Obviously, something happens in our souls. We always have a “reason,” of course, why we do something wrong. We concoct a rationale for our actions or feelings. They usually have a point.
 
No purely evil being exists, not even the devil. We develop a theory about why what we do is all right. We go to great lengths in making our own rules. We are free; we live as we want. Both of these statements are, in fact, correct. We are free. We can live as we want.
 
“Doing what we want,” however, can be read in two ways: 1) We do what we want, whatever it is; or 2) we want to do what is right to do.
 
In the second case, if we do not do what is right, we suspect that we should do it. Therefore, we seek to restore, if possible, whatever damage we did, either to ourselves, to others, or to the principle of right itself. If we do whatever it is we want, however, we have already accepted a theory of universal relativism. It is right because we do it. Thus it does not make much difference what we do.
 
In such a world, we acknowledge no consequences to any act that we do. What applies to us, then, also applies to everyone else. We no longer have any criterion to judge how we stand to others or even to ourselves. We can do nothing wrong, because whatever we do is right. In such logic, we no longer can blame (or praise) anyone else. Everyone does the same thing — namely, whatever he wants.
 
 
Such a world is quite improbable. We cannot shake Aristotle’s insistence that some named things are wrong.
 
What happens when we acknowledge Aristotle’s point? We wonder about the damage we have ourselves put into the world by our wrong deeds. Things do not become right because we think them right. Evil deeds continue to wreak the havoc of their wrongness. How can it be stopped?
 
We need to be both forgiven and to reestablish the law that we violated. We need to restore what our actions upset. In 1 Timothy, we read: “Watch yourself and watch your teaching.” To live rightly, it seems, we must think what is true.
 
What does forgiveness do? It does not make the evil of the action that we put into the world cease to be evil. That action goes on its way in the web of human living. Purely subjective repentance is not enough. It must be made “public,” even in the sacrament. This is what penance and punishment are about. They restore the integrity of the principle. We affirm that what can never be correct is not correct, even if we had a theory to justify our doing it.
 
We distinguish between notorious or public sinners and private ones. The reason for this distinction is not that ordinary people do not commit ordinary crimes and evils; they do. But they are not in a position to widely teach the wrongness in word and example. For great crimes, public penance, acknowledgement, and punishment are required to restore order.
 
Plato rightly said that the one who committed the crimes himself wanted to be punished as a sign of his recognition of the evil he did.
 
Plato also said that the worst thing we could do to great sinners was not to punish them. Let them glory in their evil deeds. This “non-punishment” was itself proposed out of spite. But it was based on the fact that each life is judged after death by its deeds and what they teach.
 
“Watch yourself and watch your teaching” turns out to be good advice. “Hence in doing these things we can never be correct, but must invariably be in error.”
 
In great crimes, private penance also requires public acknowledgement, lest aberrant actions continue to corrupt and teach.
 

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

By

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. His recent books include The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books are A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and the forthcoming On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent book is Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017).

  • Deacon Ed

    for further clarification of the sometimes public nature of our sins and their proper restitution. I can relate personally, In the course of my family life, I committed a serious sin that my sons were aware of. Obviously this needed to be confessed personally and for me to solicit absolution from a priest. However, because there was a public knowledge of my sin, I needed also to confess to my sons and let them know of my sin and the contrition on my part. Why? Because my sin gave them scandal and that needed to be corrected. Sin can and does cast a sometimes wide web and we ought always be conscious of that fact.

    We ought to consider the public nature of sin very seriously when the actions taken on the part of public figures very egregiously run counter to essential teachings of our faith.

  • TonyC

    Amen, Father!

  • Ender

    We distinguish between notorious or public sinners and private ones. … For great crimes, public penance, acknowledgement, and punishment are required to restore order.

    The Church doesn’t really believe this, does she? This might be true in theory but surely it isn’t necessary in practice. If this was actually what the Church taught then there wouldn’t have been such a high profile Catholic funeral for Kennedy so I find this concept a little difficult to accept. Either it isn’t true or Cardinal O’Malley has no understanding of his own faith.

  • mja

    Thank you Fr.Schall for this:

    “What does forgiveness do? It does not make the evil of the action that we put into the world cease to be evil. That action goes on its way in the web of human living. Purely subjective repentance is not enough. It must be made “public,” even in the sacrament. This is what penance and punishment are about. They restore the integrity of the principle. We affirm that what can never be correct is not correct, even if we had a theory to justify our doing it.”

    If only priests would teach this and then hear confessions with this in mind.

    Imagine my horror years ago to have a priest assign this penance to my confession of gossiping, “My dear, you must now call the person you whispered about, ask for forgiveness, and then call or contact every person to whom you relayed that information and ask their forgiveness for passing it on.”

    As you note, Fr. Schall “It does not make the evil of the action that we put into the world cease to be evil. That action goes on its way in the web of human living.”

    If more of us understood this spiritual reality we might act accordingly.

  • Daniel Molinaro

    We distinguish between notorious or public sinners and private ones. … For great crimes, public penance, acknowledgement, and punishment are required to restore order.

    The Church doesn’t really believe this, does she? This might be true in theory but surely it isn’t necessary in practice. If this was actually what the Church taught then there wouldn’t have been such a high profile Catholic funeral for Kennedy so I find this concept a little difficult to accept. Either it isn’t true or Cardinal O’Malley has no understanding of his own faith.

    The Church does believe this. It’s in canon law regarding denying Communion and in the Summa on the same subject. Funerals are slightly different, especially since Senator Kennedy died with a priest present (presumably for confession) and the funeral is also in order to pray for his soul.

  • Ender

    The Church does believe this. It’s in canon law regarding denying Communion and in the Summa on the same subject. Funerals are slightly different, especially since Senator Kennedy died with a priest present (presumably for confession) and the funeral is also in order to pray for his soul.

    “Funerals are slightly different.” It would seem that there is always an exception when the time comes for those in the Church to act on the hard parts of what they profess to believe. Whatever might have transpired between Kennedy and his confessor, I was referring to the distinction supposedly made between public sinners and private ones, which, we are told, calls for public penance. If ever there was a time to make this point surely it was this particular funeral. As to whether the Church actually means what she teaches, I’ll believe it when I see it.

  • R.C.

    I have a book.

    The book is titled, Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle.

    I have not yet gotten ’round to reading it apart from the introduction and a few bits in early chapters, because I am still hard at work trying to figure our what it is either in Dostoyevsky’s writing style or Russian literary culture generally that makes the all characters in The Brothers Karamazov such a sorry lot of over-effusive drama queens. But I digress.

    I have a copy of Nicomachean Ethics which I have not yet read much of. Is this book the same as the “Ethics” referenced above?

    And if so, what in the heck does the word “Nicomachean” mean in the title? Is it a place-name? A person-name? Was there a guy named Nicomacheus walking around discussing ethics at some point? Is it some Greek word for a specific sub-set of the study of ethics? Are “Nicomachean” ethics different from normal ethics?

    I’ve not read the book, but I have read the whole introduction and the back and skimmed a couple of chapters looking for clues, and I have searched for this information online, and I still have no idea what this word is about.

    What I really don’t want to do is keep reading the book, only to eventually get to the end and realize I still haven’t been told what the title means. Talk about feeling like an outsider.

    I know the question is it’s slightly off topic, sorry. But seriously, this has been bothering me. Does anyone know?

  • Stephen B. Wise

    From his own “Ethics,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer would add: “a bad conscience may be healthier and stronger than a conscience which is deceived.”

  • suzyq
  • R.C.

    Suzyq:

    Thanks very much!

    I had already read the Wikipedia article once before, trying to find the answer to this question. But apparently I must have only skimmed the article last time (or else it’s been updated), because I missed this shy little sentence in the opening paragraph:

    It consists of ten books based on notes said to be from his lectures at the Lyceum which were either edited by or dedicated to Aristotle’s son, Nicomachus.

    This answered the question of to what or whom the word “Nicomachean” referred.

    But it left open the question, “Okay, so it’s dedicated to his son; but wouldn’t it make more sense for an English translation to be simply titled Ethics, with a dedication page inserted explaining the dedication to his son, in the usual space?”

    So I dug around a little more and finally found my answer: There are two other works from which Nicomachean Ethics must be distinguished; namely Eudemian Ethics, named for Aristotle’s pupil Eudemus of Rhodes, and Great Ethics (or Magna Moralia), a compilation or abridgment of Aristotle’s thoughts on ethics originally attributed to Aristotle himself but now thought to have been compiled posthumously by one or more followers.

    Since the first two were simply titled Ethics and the latter Great Ethics, incorporating the dedications into the titles allows the works to be distinguished from one another. (But when someone like Rev. Schall, above, refers to Ethics, he is assumed to be referring to Nicomachean Ethics.)

    Whew.

    So now, as soon as I finish wincing my way through Dostoyevsky’s melodramatics and try to figure out why he’s so highly recommended by Peter Kreeft, I can get down to reading Ethics without fearing that there’s some big prerequisite information required to understand it, known to everyone but me.

  • Micha Elyi

    “Funerals are slightly different.” It would seem that there is always an exception when the time comes for those in the Church to act on the hard parts of what they profess to believe. Whatever might have transpired between Kennedy and his confessor, I was referring to the distinction supposedly made between public sinners and private ones, which, we are told, calls for public penance. If ever there was a time to make this point surely it was this particular funeral. As to whether the Church actually means what she teaches, I’ll believe it when I see it.

    I’d like to know how the deceased makes a “public penance” at ones own funeral, Ender. (Or is it “Endor”? [smiley=wink])

    Like a lot of folks, I was chagrined by the lavish celebrity funeral mass held for the notorious Sen. Kennedy. I hope this latest embarassment for the Church may serve to spur our bishops to be better prepared to conduct Church matters more appropriately the next time a rite for notorious celebrity Catholic is contemplated.

  • Ender

    I’d like to know how the deceased makes a “public penance” at ones own funeral, Ender.

    You could as reasonably ask how the deceased confesses his sins. Either he had done his penance or he hadn’t and in the case of grave sins it is certainly appropriate to ask whether it was appropriate for a Cardinal to participate in the funeral of someone who had not been absolved of those grave sins. Given that the sins were public and grave and that therefore a public penance was required, in the absence of any public penance the Cardinal’s actions would seem to be an occasion for scandal.

  • J. Cober

    I believe, those who commit great public sins, should admit to the public, before dying,that they did wrong, e.g. those who promote abortion,in public, should admit to the public that they did wrong, before dying. If not, I think it is wrong to give such great public funeral, for that seems to indicate that the Church does not care. I believe that the Church does care. But some members (e.g. bishops)may not stick to the Church’s teachings. What they do may be very wrong. The proper teachings of the Church are correct. Some members ?

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