Among all the quickly produced denunciations of the Covington Catholic students, the condemnations from fellow Catholics and fellow pro-lifers were perhaps the most disappointing. Covington Catholic High School and the Diocese of Covington quickly put out a statement saying: “We condemn the actions of the Covington Catholic High School students towards Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general, Jan. 18, after the March for Life, in Washington, D.C. We extend our deepest apologies to Mr. Phillips. This behavior is opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person…”
The March for Life itself tweeted, “The pro-life movement at its core is a movement of love and the reprehensible behavior shown in the video in no way represents the 46 years and millions of people who have peacefully and respectfully gathered in Washington, DC, to stand up for the unborn…”
The National Review, conservative commentator S.E. Cupp, and scores of others who would normally be friends of the pro-life community were quick to condemn without knowing the facts.
Most have since apologized. S.E. Cupp tweeted: “Hey guys. Seeing all the additional videos now, and I 100% regret reacting too quickly to the Covington story. I wish I’d had the fuller picture before weighing in, and I’m truly sorry.”
In many apologies, such as the one from Ms. Cupp, the reason given for the errant condemnations was that not enough facts were known. Not enough time was taken to see if there were alternative explanations. Not enough thought was given to the possibility that the original short video did not tell the whole story.
But this doesn’t answer the question of why time and care was not taken. Many commentators clearly wanted to “get out in front of the story.” They decided to proactively condemn the students and tell the media that they didn’t condone whatever vile thing the students might have done.
It’s not my purpose to condemn the condemners, especially not those who have apologized. I’m sure that many of them acted with good intentions, even if too hastily. I don’t know why each rushed to condemn, but I wonder if some part of the explanation might be related to a particular temptation, which I must guard against within myself.
In my youth, I sometimes posted on a message board where believers and non-believers contended with each other. At one point, I recall seeing a message from one of the atheists to one of the believers saying something like, “We consider you one of the most reasonable Christians on this message board.” And I remember—I am ashamed to report—thinking to myself that I hoped one of the atheists might write something nice like that about me someday. I wanted the atheists to think well of me. I wanted them to think I was different from those other believers they didn’t respect.
I wonder if this sentiment might have driven some of the quick condemnation of the Covington students from fellow Catholics and pro-lifers.
As Catholics who stand up for the sanctity of human life, we want to speak the truth. We want to warn our fellow citizens that society is going down a road which can only lead to misery and ruin. Plus, we want to be holy; we want to be the people that Christ has called us to be. And we know that for this the world will hate us. Christ said to us, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, and I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).
We know the world will hate us. We get it.
But we don’t want the world to hate us. We want the world to love us. So we look for ways to raise our social status.
We see the world virtue signaling, and then we see our chance to show that we’re virtuous, too. The world is quick to condemn, so we are quick to condemn. We use the methods of the world to show the world that we are like them, in the hopes that the world will like us.
We convince ourselves that in quickly condemning others we are doing the right thing.
In T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Thomas à Becket is tempted to choose martyrdom not for the honor of God, but for the glory it will bring to him before men, so that in all future ages his name will be spoken with reverence. But he realizes martyrdom chosen with an improper motive is not a praiseworthy martyrdom. He says, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
And toward this, i.e., toward seeking the approval of the world rather than the glory of God, each of us is tempted. When we see an opportunity to be raised in the opinion of the world, it is easy to fall to that temptation, especially when what we are doing seems righteous. After all, speaking for good and against evil is praiseworthy. Yes, but only if we do it for the right reason—only if we do it to fraternally correct the one who does evil, or to convince others not to follow a bad example. If we speak out against evil in the hope that the world will love us, we do the right thing for a terrible reason.
And it’s not only public commentators who must guard against this. Through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms, everyone has the ability and the temptation to signal their virtue by condemning others. It almost seems that the main purpose of social media is to raise ourselves up on a platform built upon denunciations of others.
The March for Life is a perfect example of doing the right thing for the right reason. The March does not condemn, rather it calls the nation to a more perfect way of thinking and living. Those who attend do not seek, and surely will not receive, the approbation of the elite. They speak the truth not in order to receive love from the world, but in order to give love to the world. And they do this despite knowing that the world will return hate for love.
That’s the example we all need to follow in the difficult times ahead.