Our Age’s Reigning Sin: Now on DVD

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.

John Zmirak is author, most recently, of the graphic novel
The Grand Inquisitor and is Writer-in-Residence at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. He writes weekly for InsideCatholic.com.

John Zmirak


John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as Editor of Crisis.

  • Deal Hudson

    This remind me of the point often made by ethicist Stanley Hauerwas that those who are most committed to “being good” are the most prone to self-deception, an inclination we all should take into consideration. I agree with your assessment of “The Third Miracle,” by the way, which I thought quite remarkable when it came out, as you say, for its realism.

  • Mary Pav

    I just stumbled across a comment by p.D. James about Hindley. Can’t find the quote but the essence was that if Hindley had truly come to grips with what she’d done, she wouldn’t want to be released. I saw Longford some time back, and found myself totally befuddled by Lord Longford. Thank you fro this article which gives the issue some context for further consideration.

  • Kirt Higdon

    The Third Miracle and Longford to my Netflix list. Thank you, Mr. Zmirak.

  • nan

    Thank you for your interesting post – food for thought indeed. I’m curious to know your opinion of the movie in which Susan Sarandon plays a nun fighting to keep murderers off death row – I don’t recall the name of the film. I’d also like to see MANY more movies like “Return To Me”, as I agree with your assessment of that film completely.

  • Sid

    Charity/agape wills the best for the person loved. And that means it wills justice and the truth.

    My fellow school teachers will relate how, when we demand from our students high standards of conduct and scholarship, parents (who otherwise neglect or indulge their brats) accuse us of lacking “compassion”.

    H. Emmett Tyrell (I’m probably not spelling his name correctly) back in the 1980s observed that Samuel Johnson was wrong: The last refuge of a scoundrel isn’t patriotism (Johnson meant “nationalism”) but compassion. Ambrose Bierce corrected Johnson to say that nationalism was the FIRST such refuge. Bierce too was wrong.

    Tyrell wryly commented how he would attend dinner parties where he was forced to endure the prideful monologues of a dinner guest, usually a woman, about how compassionate she was, and thus how she ought be for this admired. Tyrell usually took refuge in the wine. And Tyrell also perceptively has said that despite all their poesy about compassion, the capacity of “liberals” (by which I mean the “useful idiots” of Cultural Marxists) to hate with such intensity is quite breathtaking. I myself have never experienced “the principle pleasure of New England”, hate, to such a degree as among “liberals”. Our Lord’s attack on the Pharisees was more than an attack on hypocrisy; one can become so convinced of one’s own goodness that one can decide that one doesn’t need the Grace of God anymore, or (even worse), that one is God.

    This is one of Dr. Z’s best articles. Thanks.

  • Jason

    I think the Susan Sarandon movie was “Dead Men Walking”. Funny – that movie was supposed to be somewhat of an apologia against the death penalty, but I came away from it more persuaded in favor of it.

    Was “Return to me” the one where the dead wife’s heart was given to Minnie Driver and she falls for the husband? Loved it! That group of old men made that movie!

  • Klaire

    John I have really come to appreciate your thought provoking and excellent writing.

    You hit on a topic of which I have much interest and without question my own share of guilt. I

  • Tony Esolen

    Thanks for this piece.

    One of my favorite moments of compassion: Jesus, speaking to the scribes and Pharisees, calling them hypocrites and a brood of vipers. I’m not being sarcastic. The word “compassion” literally means “suffering with,” that is, feeling in an act of imagination what another person is feeling, or is not feeling. That means that I have to get partly inside someone else’s sin. I have to understand, from within, what it is like to be so degraded, or so false, or so culpably stupid, or so selfish — whatever it may happen to be. It is not a nice thing, this sort of compassion. That’s why we hate it so much, and substitute for it the parody — where we shut our imaginations off, block the real sins out of our vision, and pretend to feel for someone else, when really we’re only feeling for ourselves.

  • James Nicholson

    Compassion come from com = with + patior = to suffer. So compassion means to enter into and share the suffering of another, regardless of whether such compassion actually removes the suffering.
    I appreciate the movie reference. Another example from literature is to compare the actions of Atticus and Stuart in Hansen’s Atticus. One enters the suffering of his son, although knowing he cannot alleviate the debt his son owes (and indeed he still goes to jail at the end). The other gives a token to a single beggar, more to assuage his guilt than to actually share the suffering of the unfortunate.
    Our Lord – always the perfect model of virtue – enters into our sin by becoming sin (in the words of St. Paul) and dies on the cross. He certainly could have removed our sin with no cost to himself, but that is not the way of our compassionate God. He walks with us through the valley of tears and death, sharing our suffering and making it bearable when we accept his true compassion.

  • Michael Healy, Jr.

    Actually, false compassion does correspond to one of the seven deadly sins: pride, the mother of them all. It consists, after all, in refusing to admit that what you do not want to be true might be true. And is that not a prideful attitude?

  • CO

    I’ve been suspicus of people who make a prectice of congatulating themselves on their compassion ever since I worked on a pediatric rehabilitation unit in the 80s. One of the most common reactions I used to get when I told people where I worked was “Oh, I could never do that. I just love children too much.” or “I’m just too tender hearted” or the very slightly more honest “I would just feel too sorry for them” or some such self-serving justification. The people who uttered these gems never seemed to think it was odd to point to their ‘compassion’ as the reason they would stay away from the children who were its supposed objects. They were too caught up in praising themselved to understand that what they were calling ‘compassion’ was nothing more that sentimental self-indulgence.

  • Baby Rose

    Thank you Tony & James for your clear insight.

    You bring up an insightful point that most of our “compassionate” acts and gift “giving” are actualy rooted in selfishness which we do not recognize within ourselves.

    Mother Teresa realized that Americans’ greatest poverty is lack of charity for others due to selfishness.

    False compassion is woven throughout the fabric of our nation as reflected in goods & services advertised plus the fairytale notion that in life all are winners regardless of individual culpability. Everyone gets a 1st Prize Blue Ribbon.

    Is the massive push by Pharmacutical companies of legal drugs really for the good of society? What about animals being elevated past the level of dignity ascribed for human beings where we protect endangered turtle eggs, but allow & encourage the murder of human babies in the name of choice or a more affluent lifestyle? What about freedom of speech to include hate speech or other destructive agendas in the name of fairness?

    What about greedy shoppers trampling to death a Wal-Mart employee with no one stopping to help??…all for bargain electronic inanimate products. What about “compassionate” loan companies giving credit to all people so that all people can own homes?? What about “spreading the wealth” so everyone can have the unecessary items our advetisers say we must have and can’t live without?? Phone contracts and Ipods?? As handy as these items are we as a nation pay a great price in the formation of our future genertions becoming totally self-absorbed and out of touch with any type of charitable acts.

    Pope John Paul II said that a culture of life & love is other-centered while a culture of death is self-centered.
    Capitalism without moral grounding and boundaries is destructive to the good of society as a whole. Our values have been turned topsy turvey; so that we can no longer properly discern even the basics of what is good & what is evil.

  • Jen

    Great, great article. One of the things I’ve noticed for some time now about serious Catholics (and very often in myself) is the fear of gray areas and ambiguities. In a way, this is the opposite problem from what you’ve described in our culture: namely, insufficient compassion among Catholics who recognize the existence of objective truth and morality.

    From this point of view, it would be very easy to either a) dismiss Lord Longford entirely as a fool and a prideful hypocrite, and/or b) reject the movie on the assumption that the film directors were mocking the faith: “Lord, what dupes these Catholics be!” In either case, the kind of honest appraisal of human weakness and personal guilt that you showed in your article is unlikely to happen.

    I think both failures of real compassion — either too much or too little — are based on fear. For the devout Catholic, the fear, I think, is precisely of being duped by the world and its moral relativism. And to avoid both errors, it takes a very well-formed conscience and a solid grounding in ethics and Church teaching to know where the important distinctions lie. You have to be very sure of your footing to know where you can step when things get murky.

    Finally, though, real understanding and compassion when things are anything but clear-cut is the goal. Because nothing is ever completely white or black when it comes to a human soul; no saint is perfect and no murderer is wholly evil. As Chesterton’s Father Brown said of his ability to solve crimes, “I simply realize that I am the murderer.”

  • MJ Anderson

    Wasn’t it Flannery O’Connor who observed that compassion led to the gas chambers?

    Misplaced compassion dictates euthanasia.

    Misunderstood compassion is the modern man’s need to “not judge” so that, in return, he (the “compassionate” non-judger) will also escape being judged–he hopes.

    Wonderful article!

  • Cat

    Wonderful article, and food for thought. I think we have all been in a position where we felt we’d helped only to have our compassion used against us.

  • Augustine

    youtube search this phrase:

    fulton sheen false compassion

  • Carlton Chase

    I believe the most relevant movie for Catholics to go to is MILK. It is a movie that in many ways cuts right through to some of the most socially relevant issues of today, and shows a clear chord tied to a historical continuum, often forgotten. It is a film about the triumph of the disenfranchised and the down-trodden. It is a film that was recently simply dismissed by Christianity Today in their review of movies opening in America. It is a film, when placed in the context of the Good Samaritan, forces us to challenge ourselves to see the face of God in all men, particularly the heathen, the stranger, the one we perceive to do us harm, as Father Henri Le Saux, O.S.B. often affirmed in his writings. It is a film about a man fighting for the freedom of a group of American citizens, and about his nemesis, a family man, a politician for the Right Wing, a practicing Catholic, who becomes a murderer, and eventually the agent of his own suicide. It is in the hate and the actions of Dan White (and to a lesser extent Anita Bryant) that we can ask ourselves, quietly, looking at ourselves in the mirror, away from public discourse, who would Jesus have truly approved or, or forgiven. Who was truly working to help “the other” and who was the self-righteous Levite, who refused to touch the beaten man lest he be tinged.
    What is our circle of Christ-like attributes: ourselves, our family, our family and friends, our community, or that man or woman walking right now past us on the street, the stranger, the weirdo, the queer?

    This nation has been recalcitrant towards its own, and towards the world at large, for many years, and it has not brought us safety or prosperity. The time is ripe for change and reconciliation and engagement with all men and all women everywhere. Our theme as a nation must be “growth”.

    “See everything, overlook a great deal, correct a little.”
    Pope John XXIII

    In Salutation, with prayers of peace and health for all,

    Carlton Chase, Directors Guild of America


    Nashville, Tennessee

  • Augustine

    Carlton, you and your ’60s ilk are dinosaurs. The sooner you pass on, the better.

  • David

    Very insightful commentary, and reading it reminded me of the extraordinary riches and subtle distinctions which the Christian tradition offers us.

    I do wonder, however, at characterizing “misguided compassion” as somehow the greatest sin of our age. To say Longford “means well” (full disclosure: I have not seen the film) seems significant to me. As von Balthasar points out in praising Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, for example, it is no sin to be taken advantage of as a fool. And surely it is the case that, for every story of someone taking advantage of gratuitous and overextended compassion, there are stories of gratuitous compassion which surprise and convert the other. Even if we do not achieve good results (because of others’ sins), surely risking compassion is to be preferred to an opposite attitude of overly-cautious stinginess. Christ died for us “while we were yet sinners”, after all. A more everyday version of this question is presented in the face of beggars in any big city. Is it misguided compassion to give to them, since one does realize that one could be supporting all sorts of sinful choices in so doing? Certainly the idea of deciding that we need not give is a problem. How we give is a more interesting question. This is a fair application of prudence, and in this way, any person can be faulted for blindness and distorted vision, particularly if such a vision is distorted by underlying pride in one’s own giving!

    So the question raised here is a good and important one. But to characterize this as “the great sin of our age” seems quite problematic. I do not see people falling all over themselves to visit prisoners; many more simply despise them. I do not see people falling all over themselves to give to beggars; many more simply walk by or condemn them as lazy. The notion that our problem is a surplus of compassion (even “fake” compassion) is hard to swallow.

  • John Zmirak

    Actually, Dave, I think that in most First World countries, it is usually wrong to give to panhandlers. I say this on the advice of priests I’ve known who ran soup kitchens. The people in honest need of help come to those facilities. Those looking for drug money beg on the street. In New York City, a study showed that the average subway panhandler made MORE per week than the blue-collar folks who were guilted into giving him money. As the son of a hard-working mailman who hauled bags on his back for 37 years, that makes me ANGRY.

    When we read the Gospel texts that speak of giving directly to beggars, it’s important to remember that there was NO other system of charity at the time. There wasn’t a massive welfare state confiscating 1/4 to 1/3 of everyone’s income, funding a large and generous system of social benefits. For that reason, I think people who cite the Gospel to assert that we should give to panhandlers might just as well cite it to insist that when guests arrive at our homes, we anoint their heads with oil.

    Yes, I do maintain that Mother Angelica was right about the dangers of misguided compassion. Think of all those children molested by re-offending clergy–those shattered psyches, ruined lives, souls scandalized. As Philip Lawler wrote, the Church was “running out of millstones.” Think of all the fake annulments handed out–and conversely, the couples married in church who have no sacramental intention (and hence really WILL deserve annulments someday). Think of all those catechists who withhold the “hard sayings” of the Faith to spare people’s feelings. Remember that when we engage in misguided compassion, we are NOT the only ones who typically pay the price. The damage extends out in ripples. Give an alcoholic schoolbus driver a second chance, for instance….

    We have limited resources of time, treasure, energy, even love. We must use them as prudent stewards, for we will be called to account for them. Refusing to use one’s God-given intellect and the spiritual resources of discernment which the Church has carefully marshaled over the centuries amounts to taking the talents we have been given and burying them in a field. “Depart from me, O useless servant….”

  • EB

    The end result of misguided compassion is to want suffering ended by any means possible.

    Abortion and euthanasia would not have nearly as many advocates without an underlying conviction that it is better not to be then to suffer. This coupled with an consistent tendency to underestimate the ‘quality of life’ and overestimate the suffering for all types of difficult circumstances leads to the not only elimination before birth of those judged likely to be severely disabled but I’ve also heard the argument that it’s better for a child to be killed before they are born then to be raised in a environment judged to be unfit.

    This is where compassion without guidance leads – to the belief that it is better to die then to have a miserable childhood, [despite the fact that it doesn’t take much listening to find people who’ve had horrible childhoods and who still find life worth living].

  • Staten Island Pilgrim

    I just watched “Longford” based on this review, and found it extraordinary. Broadbent is indeed one of the great actors of the age, and the supporting cast is wonderful as well, particulary Andy Serkis’ (Gollum) chilling portrayal of Ian Brady. The film is unique these days in deeply exploring character flaws, moral choices and psychological types, but “Longford” made me reflect less on liberal criminal-coddlers than on Catholic prelates who err on the side of being “pastoral” rather than exercising their authority. We all know the type: the jowly bishop who presides at banquets and likes to be photographed with schoolchildren and is always smiling, smiling, smiling, yet who will unflinchingly offer the Eucharist to pro-abortion politicians. He continues to smile, smile, smile as Reiki rituals are conducted in his diocese’s churches and homosexual Catholic groups run amok under his nose, yet he does nothing? Why? Because he is employing the “medicine of mercy”, because he’s being “pastoral” rather than authoritative, etc. Is this flaw a result of mere cowardice or can it br traced to some perverted interpretation of Christianity? I don’t know, but Lord Longford’s bleeding heart love for his child murderer made me think of our American hierarchy’s aversion to seeing judgement performed on our Church’s heretics and dissenters.

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