“I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues,” says Brendan Gleeson’s character, Fr. James Lavelle, in the critically acclaimed 2014 film, Calvary. The line comes at a critical juncture in the film, which (without spoiling the end) marks a definitive change in Fr. Lavelle’s decision making and sets up the climactic scene. In context, the line is a beautiful reaction to the film’s preceding events and sets up the conclusion to the overall narrative. Out of context of the film, the line is well worth contemplating on its own as a powerful commentary on modern society and the Church.
It might appear as though Fr. Lavelle’s remark is directed at the Catholic Church, since the reputation of the Church in secular society (and amongst many faithful) is that of being too focused on sin at the expense of mercy. Despite Pope Francis’ efforts to alter that perception (e.g., calling for the celebration of an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy), the view persists. But taken another way, the remark may just as well be directed towards modern, secular society which is replete with its own “sins” and “virtues.”
Unlike Christian virtues, which are based on reason and revelation with the purpose of leading man “to become like God” (CCC, 1803), modernism’s “virtues” are typically based on utility; one of the principle virtues being tolerance. Former film critic and author Michael Walsh says “’tolerance’ has taken on the status of a virtue – albeit a bogus one – a protective coloration for the Left when it is weak and something to be dispensed with once it is no longer required” (Walsh, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, 45). In other words, tolerance and other virtues of modern secularism are not aimed at lifting man up to be “partakers in the Divine Nature” but rather serve to tear down and divide.
Conversely, the most egregious “sin” in the Church of Modernism is nothing more than the flip-side of “tolerance”; an inherent, unwitting intolerance. This sin is that of “privilege.” If modernist thought was as neatly organized as Catholic theology this vice would be equivalent to an excommunicable offense. Alas, without such detailed cataloguing, the mere charge of having “privilege” leads to scorn, exile and ridicule, especially on college campuses – although adherents insist it serves merely as an invitation to listen and reflect.
According to the University of San Francisco, “privilege” is defined as: “Unearned access to social power based on membership in a dominant social group.” Other definitions add “because of prejudice” to emphasize the vice all the more. Although the concept originated in feminist circles to demean “male privilege,” it now comes with wide assortment of modifiers: Christian, white, class, able-bodied, heterosexual, and cisgender. If you can check a box next to any of these, you have “privilege” and you need to check it at the door.
In the post-Ferguson world, movements such as Black Lives Matter and others have continued to push “privilege” as a concept responsible for any number of social ills. The aforementioned University of San Francisco (a Jesuit institution) and other colleges & universities around the country in recent years have held so-called social marketing campaigns on their campuses featuring posters which prominently tell students to “check your privilege” with various checkboxes pre-selected.
€That phrase – “check your privilege” – seems to have developed on social media as a lazy rebuttal during online arguments, but was widely adopted on college campuses and within academia. It leaped into the national consciousness and became a part of the wider cultural lexicon in April 2014 when a Princeton University student’s essay, Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege, went viral and sparked conversation in mainstream media outlets ranging from Salon to Fox News. The phrase has been debated, discussed, explained, and defined ad nauseam in recent years, largely because of its intrinsic ambiguity – a sure hallmark of the Devil’s handiwork.
In his book aptly named The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, Walsh examines the damage inflicted on America by a post-WWII Marxist weltanschauung known as Critical Theory. This theory, he says:
“…holds that there is no received tenet of civilization that should not either be questioned or attacked. Our cultural totems, shibboleths, and taboos are declared either completely arbitrary or the result of a long-ago ‘conspiracy,’ steadfastly maintained down through the ages – as degenerate modern feminism blames male ‘privilege’ and other forms of imaginary oppression…”
In that understanding, the very concept of “privilege” is part of the larger endeavor at cultural debasement simply for the sake of doing so. Walsh goes on:
“In its purest form, which is to say its most malevolent form, Critical Theory is the very essence of Satanism: rebellion for the sake of rebellion against an established order that has obtained for eons, and with no greater promise for the future than destruction” (Walsh, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, 49-50).
Fr. Lavelle is right. There is too much talk about sins. But that’s the world’s problem. The Church wants to talk about virtue.
So, what is the solution? Are we hopelessly prejudiced against a longsuffering class of people, or people different than ourselves, be it irrationally or unintentionally, simply because of how we were brought up? Are we unable to overcome our sins and live virtuously? Such a perspective seems to be a shallow and discouraging view of humanity.
If we’re going to change the narrative of our story, we need to change the terms of the conversation, just as Fr. Lavelle did. Instead of checking our “privilege” let’s acknowledge our blessings. The Catechism says: “From the beginning until the end of time the whole of God’s work is a blessing” (CCC, 1079). That means everything in this world, everything you and I have and all that we can do, is rightly considered a blessing. We are blessed to be alive and living in the greatest country in the world. We may be blessed with wealth or poverty, health or sickness, intelligence or a lack thereof; whatever the case may be, God has blessed us and we must be thankful for those blessings.
But with blessings come certain responsibilities. The blessing of children requires us to be responsible for raising them in the Faith. The blessing of a certain level of wealth requires that we share those resources wisely and prudently. Being a human on this earth requires us to be good stewards of our resources. These may be privileges, but they are more accurately called blessings to be acknowledged, shared and celebrated, not “checked,” hidden or apologized for. By acknowledging all the blessings in our lives, replete with the understanding that everything comes from God, we take a step towards living virtuously.
Are sin and evil real? Absolutely, and Catholic men especially need to fortify themselves to live virtuously by frequenting the sacraments, especially confession. That point should not be minimized. On the other hand, the argument for “privilege” in a certain sense does have merits, but only with a proper understanding of nature, God’s plan, and our role in it.
The Catechism says, “From the beginning God blessed all living beings, especially man and woman. The covenant with Noah and with all living things renewed this blessing of fruitfulness despite man’s sin [emphasis added]…” (CCC, 1080). Despite our failings, despite not living up to our baptismal promises, despite our sinfulness – or if you will, our “privilege” – God has blessed us. With recourse to prayer, scripture, and the sacraments, we can live virtuously and not worry about the sins of Modernism.