Beware the Allure of the Inner Ring

I have had an uncanny and revealing experience this week.

There are three elements to it. Let me describe the first two, as a preface for drawing out a moral imperative for Catholics in these bad times.

Every semester at Thomas More College, we set a few Fridays aside for what we call traditio. No classes are held. Instead, the whole college gets together for some common intellectual or spiritual enterprise. For today, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, students and faculty had read William Roper’s Life of Sir Thomas More. Roper was the husband of Margaret, Sir Thomas’s beloved elder daughter. He lived in the same household with his father-in-law for sixteen years, enjoying his friendship and admiring the elder man’s keen wit and observation, his real humility, and his steadfastness in maintaining the truth.

We gathered this afternoon, the whole student body and all the Teaching Fellows of the college, to hear three of the Fellows give their reactions to the work, followed by questions from the audience; this took about two hours and was most invigorating. One of the students asked whether we believed that More sought the positions he was obviously qualified to hold, and whether that might be characterized as “ambition.”

 

My two colleagues and I did not quite know how to answer. One said that Roper seemed to portray More as always maneuvered by divine Providence into just the work that he was meant to perform, even while the martyrdom he would eventually suffer was always there, ready beyond the next turn, as if the young More was a martyr in the seed. That characterization was apt. Early in his career, More took sides against the king in a controversy with the pope, ably arguing for the pope’s prerogatives and frustrating the cash-strapped king’s designs. This was Henry, the Seventh of that name, a cold and parsimonious man, not the profligate Eighth. More was about to flee to the continent for safety, when the king passed to his reward. If you are honest in this world, expect to be persecuted. When Roper chaffed Sir Thomas on the favor he enjoyed with Henry the Eighth, his father-in-law shrewdly replied, “I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head could win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go.”

The second member of our panel noted our patron’s warm humanity. When Sir Thomas had resigned his office as Lord Chancellor, because he could not go along with the king’s divorce, he was suddenly reduced in income to a mere hundred pounds a year. Yet he did not wish to dismiss any of his household servants. He chose rather to tighten their way of life so that all who wished might remain under his roof. Since he had risen from Oxford to a chancery court, then to Lincoln’s Inn, and to the royal court, so now, he said to them, they would accompany him back down, if they chose, but not all the way down at once. They would try to live first with a Lincoln’s Inn diet, and if they could not maintain it they would choose the lesser fare of the court of chancery, and after that a diet fit for Oxford dons, and if that, too, failed, “we may yet, with bags and wallets, go a-begging together, and hoping that for pity some good folk will give us their charity, at every man’s door to sing Salve Regina, and so still keep company and be merry together.”

When my turn came, I followed the lead of my colleagues, and brought up something else I had read just the day before—the second of the elements to which I have alluded. Thomas More had a great capacity for friendship. We see it in a youthful episode, when, impromptu, he joins a company of boys putting on a play before Cardinal Morton, and steals the show, causing the cardinal—who became More’s first patron—to say that that boy would go far. More wanted human company. He sought it for four years as a lay brother in a Carthusian house, the last place you would go to if you wanted to make a splash in the world, yet a place of quiet and profound human bonds. His friendships with Erasmus and other humanists of the time are well known. He was the kind of man for whom doors open: he was learned, quick, indefatigable, and yet easy to approach. So delighted were Henry VIII and Queen Catherine with his company, More had to play the part of a wallflower just so that he would get to see his family once in a while, rather than being invited to the palace all the time. If there is some unnamed virtue for which ambition is the vice, Thomas More had it, I believe: the desire to be at the center when important things are to be done, because you have the talent for them, and you are willing to serve.

And so More was also the kind of man who would be vulnerable to an evil I will now describe. Rather I will let C.S. Lewis describe it. It is in “The Inner Ring,” which I had by chance assigned for my sophomores in a writing tutorial, from his collection of essays in The Weight of Glory.

Lewis was speaking to a group of young men at Cambridge. He was warning them about one of the mainsprings of human action, the desire to belong to an “inner ring,” i.e., those who really run things regardless of what their titles say. This desire, says Lewis, is neither good nor bad, but you must take care lest it slowly make you into a “scoundrel”—he does not scruple to use that word. To almost everyone the temptation will come, but not in any dramatic way:

Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink or a cup of coffee, disguised as a triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or a woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naif or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which is not quite in accordance with the technical rules of fair play; something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand; something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about, but something, says your new friend, which “we”—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something “we always do.”

And if you are drawn in, says Lewis, it will not be mainly for hope of gain, but for fear of being cast outside, just when the cup is nearest to your lips. From then on you will be drawn a little farther from the rules, and farther still, and all in a friendly spirit. The result is inevitable, though that does not mean that people will see it: “It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may in millions, a peerage, and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.”

Prelates who Sought to Join the Inner Ring
Does that description of spiritual grooming sound familiar? It should. Two high voltage wires suddenly cross. The junction is the scandal in our midst, of bad priests and worse prelates.

People have said that the actions of the priests who sought out teenage boys and young men did not have to do with sex, but with a desire to dominate. This is a false dilemma. Of course it had to do with sexual arousal. Homosexual men are aroused by teenage boys and young men. This is not a new thing in the world. It is a very old and bad thing. It is a corruption of the desire for male camaraderie, and of the high spirits of being young and suddenly endowed with strength beyond that of a girl or woman, and with a capacity for nervous action that would wear out stronger and older men.

Others say that the scandal was not really about homosexuality, but about sexual predation generally, since about one fifth of the victims were girls. But that is to look at things through the wrong end of a microscope. I am not claiming that the abuse of a girl is not wicked, and mortally so. I am claiming that the meta-crime was wholly homosexual. There was no inner ring of men covering for other men who liked girls. The inner ring was for men who liked boys and men.

Still others say that the scandal is about “clericalism.” Sure, but let’s be clear about the charge. Clericalism is not a disease that afflicts only priests. It is what Lewis has identified, dead on. “We” are in the know. “We” get things done. “We” run the show. I saw it on display among the laity at Providence College, working behind the scenes to sap the school’s Catholic character, and by means that people who minded their own business would never have imagined. It was also a feature of the minority of Dominicans who shouldered the orthodox out of the way. It is how your school district runs, your town hall, your army, your nation’s capital, the FBI, the CIA, Hollywood, large business enterprises, labor unions, and other churches. Again, it need not be wicked. People with talent will attract one another and form powerful combinations.

If there are strong checks against them, such as habits of self-examination, confession, and mortification, then probably they will not go bad. They will be Thomas More, who wore a hair shirt beneath his robes of state. Absent such checks, they will be Thomas Cromwell, a wicked man, or the go-along Duke of Norfolk. Scoundrels will run the show. Scoundrels may run it well for a while. Scoundrels can be men of genius. Half of your civic commemorations are for scoundrels. But eventually the wicked behavior will ruin you. Wickedness unravels.

The matter now seems clear. How do you hook a young man of talent? You inveigle him. You entice him to join you in the intoxicating pleasure of doing something forbidden. We must not make the groomers out to be cold Machiavellian calculators. The heat of passion forbids it: both the sexual passion, and the passion to belong, to matter, not to be left out. This desire sinks its roots into the souls of both the pursuer and the pursued.

Nor should we ignore the specific character of the forbidden act—the homosexuality. If the bad bishops had to deal only with priests who abused girls, then they might well have strung them up. A judge who takes payola from real estate deals may be all the more severe with burglars and muggers. But the abusers of girls could not be condemned without embroiling those who abused boys—and that was the sticking point. Not wanting to deal with abusers of boys, they fell back upon not dealing with abusers of anyone, boys or girls. That was the hook for those who should have been protecting all the young people, male and female. And the hook is sharp and works its way into the entrails, into the soul. Think of it. The very unnaturalness of homosexual activity is a parody of supernatural action. Its insemination in the schools is a parody of the evangel. The mingling of the sacerdotal with the sexual is a parody of a sacrament. I need not disgust my readers with the details.

Some people cast in our teeth a Church that is supposedly a crime business or a racket. Pot, meet kettle. Where are the Thomas Mores of our time? American government has the structure of a protection racket. How often do we settle with wickedness because we want to be on the lee side of public opinion? It hurts to be a saint.

The institutional question as we go forward is how to smash up this particular inner ring, a ring of either sodomites or men who have compromised themselves by condoning or permitting the evil at one or two removes—men who chose favor rather than isolation. This must be done, and to expect the USCCB to do it is to expect Tammany Hall to fire Boss Tweed. The spiritual question is, as always, how we are to be saints. If we think that the evils in our Church are limited to clerics, we’ll give the devils a laugh. Remember the terrible words of one of More’s rivals, the disgraced player of the inner ring, Cardinal Wolsey. Had we but served God half as well as we have served the king—or the state, the chancery, the school, the studio, the party, etc.—he would not now have abandoned us to our enemies.

Anthony Esolen

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Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan Books, 2016); Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017); and Nostalgia (Regnery, 2018).

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