As Catholic bloggers (or bloggers in general) know all too well, it’s easier to get into heated personal arguments on the internet than it is in person. Debates about various hot-button issues — abortion, capital punishment, just war, nuclear weapons, waterboarding suspected terrorists, voting for candidates who endorse immoral policies, etc. — can run to hundreds of comments. They also, at times, tend to degenerate into back and forth accusations of dissent from Church teaching, or not-so-subtle suggestions that those with the wrong stance on these issues are guilty of mortal sin.
With that in mind, I would like to offer a reflection that I have found helpful in dealing with these issues. It comes from one of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, and it concerns the ever-popular topic of how to respond to one’s enemies.
The Letters were written during World War II, and in this particular letter, junior demon Wormwood has asked his uncle Screwtape for advice on how to shape the attitudes of his “patient” — a young man of draft age living in England — toward the war. They know that “the Enemy” (God) commands His followers to love their enemies; therefore, one might assume they would do all they could to encourage the patient to hate his country’s enemies, the Germans. But Screwtape cautions Wormwood against that assumption:
“As regards his more general attitude to the war, you must not rely too much on those feelings of hatred which the humans are so fond of discussing in Christian, or anti-Christian, periodicals. In his anguish, the patient can, of course, be encouraged to revenge himself by some vindictive feelings directed towards the German leaders, and that is good so far as it goes. But it is usually a sort of melodramatic or mythical hatred directed against imaginary scapegoats. He has never met these people in real life-they are lay figures modelled on what he gets from newspapers. The results of such fanciful hatred are often most disappointing, and of all humans the English are in this respect the most deplorable milksops. They are creatures of that miserable sort who loudly proclaim that torture is too good for their enemies and then give tea and cigarettes to the first wounded German pilot who turns up at the back door.
“Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient’s soul. The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbours whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary. There is no good at all in inflaming his hatred of Germans if, at the same time, a pernicious habit of charity is growing up between him and his mother, his employer, and the man he meets in the train. Think of your man as a series of concentric circles, his will being the innermost, his intellect coming next, and finally his fantasy. You can hardly hope, at once, to exclude from all the circles everything that smells of the Enemy: but you must keep on shoving all the virtues outward till they are finally located in the circle of fantasy, and all the desirable qualities inward into the Will. It is only in so far as they reach the will and are there embodied in habits that the virtues are really fatal to us. (I don’t, of course, mean what the patient mistakes for his will, the conscious fume and fret of resolutions and clenched teeth, but the real centre, what the Enemy calls the Heart.) All sorts of virtues painted in the fantasy or approved by the intellect or even, in some measure, loved and admired, will not keep a man from our Father’s house: indeed they may make him more amusing when he gets there.”