C.S. Lewis once wrote that “of all the bad men, religious bad men are the worst.” Reflecting on the various revelations in the Church within the past year that involved poor leadership, hypocrisy, and scandalizing behavior to say the least, it is hard not to think of the words of C.S. Lewis and recall Dante’s Inferno in The Divine Comedy.
In his Divine Comedy, Dante is guided through Hell and Purgatory by Virgil, and later on, through Heaven, by Beatrice. Throughout his tour, Dante witnesses the various punishments of the wicked in Hell and the differing joys of the blessed in Heaven. This retribution is particularly noted in the Inferno. Dante’s genius craftsmanship of the poem reflects his realization of the gravity of sin, a concept which is becoming lost in today’s day and age. Dante manifests the reality of sin and its eternal consequences by his clever punishments which he bestows upon various groups of souls in Hell and Purgatory, for the chastisements reflect the crimes committed by the souls on earth.
In the Inferno, Dante witnesses and is troubled by many disturbing images he sees in Hell. He travels throughout each circle of Hell and notices how each punishment reflects a certain crime which the souls committed on earth: those who sinned by lust are forced to drift in the wind, chasing each other without ever experiencing rest or peace. Murderers are doomed to sink in a boiling river of blood and fire, while heretics burn in a fiery tomb for eternity. Out of all the punishments which Dante describes, perhaps the most fitting are the ones dealt to hypocrites and corrupt leaders.
Dante places these characters in the farthest parts of Hell, in the sixth pit of the eighth circle. Here Dante speaks to various historical figures who sought after their own personal gain while maintaining positions of authority among those whom they governed. The main sinner of this pit is Caiaphas, the High Priest who advocated for Christ’s death under the guise of being concerned for Israel’s well-being.
The hypocrites found in this pit are forced to wear cloaks, which to the eye, look beautiful to behold. On closer inspection, however, the insides of these cloaks are revealed to be laden with lead. Thus, the cloaks reflect the lives the hypocrites led on earth: lives of corruption and filth which were masked by the appearances of seemingly ordered, well-intentioned individuals seeking the good.
On earth, these individuals skillfully concealed their superficial quests for power, praise, and pleasure. These desires, coupled with the quest for material gain, consumed them to the point of mastering the art of living a double life. Thus, their lives became walking lies. As pleasure and self-interest were deemed more important than salvation, all Faith and belief in the eternal became lost and only served as a means for their own gain. The mystery of the supernatural became clouded by temporal desires and their disordered passions jeopardized what mattered the most: their eternal souls.
Dante’s Inferno serves as a warning for all, particularly those in positions of leadership. Leadership should not be something sought after. It should not be viewed as an opportunity for power, wealth, or recognition, for with power comes great responsibility. This responsibility comes with severe consequences for failing to fulfill the duties of the office and for misguiding others. Christ warns His apostles of these penalties: “Whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better if a millstone were tied around his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mk. 9:42). This same principle is applied for those who, by virtue of their office and example, cause scandal to those around them.
Saint John the Baptist has harsh words for hypocrites and for those who cause scandal. He calls the Pharisees a “brood of vipers.” Why? Because they are just as deceitful and cunning as the serpent in the Garden of Eden. They hide their true intentions, making what is vile and evil appear as good. Likewise, Christ has strong words for those who, by word or action, lead others astray. Jesus speaks of hypocrites as “white-washed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside [they] appear to people as righteous, but on the inside, [they] are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Mt. 23:27-28). Thus, those who secretly fail to practice the teachings of the Church which they preach or who perform good deeds solely for the sake of praise, are likened to those who are dead as these actions kill the life of grace in the soul. Knowing the dangers of such hypocrisy, Jesus warns the disciples of these false prophets who appear as sheep, “but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Mt. 7:15).
If all the above can be said about religious bad men, what about religious good men? Although C.S. Lewis rightly notes that “of all the bad men, religious bad men are the worst,” it can be argued that of all the good men, religious good men, faithful Christians, are the best, for they, out of all, are able to evaluate their lives, putting them in proper perspective and orientating them toward the good. Devout men understand the horror of sin, its ramifications, and effects and so they shudder at the thought of committing any evil act. Because they recognize both the gravity and the scandal which sin brings about, they are conscious of how they live their lives so that in all that they do, God may be glorified. Through their daily commitment to following God in their words and actions, the lives of righteous men bear silent witness to the fact that the salvation of the eternal soul is worth more than anything offered by the world and that the fight to preserve this is integral to authentic happiness in the world to come.
As religious men realize the futility of this life, they do not seek fleeting pleasures. They strive to live each day being mindful that they are “dust and to dust [they] shall return.” Though aware of their sinfulness and weakness, they rely on God’s grace in daily striving to live up to their call to holiness. This enables religious good men to understand the very purpose for their existence, which, as Saint Ignatius of Loyola explains, is “to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord and in this way to save [their] soul[s].” With this in mind, God is at the center of the lives of righteous men, for they recognize that the world about them merely serves as a means to their end. Their purpose in life, grounded in achieving eternal union with God, shapes their every desire, and causes them to place themselves at God’s disposal and to tirelessly work in service of others.
With lives grounded in God and rooted in moral law, these faithful Christians radiate the love of God to all whom they encounter, thus making God known to all. Their genuine witness to the beauty of living the Gospel and the joy which stems from doing so inspires their fellow men to pursue virtue, for men by nature are attracted to the good. Pope Leo writes of the importance of living a virtuous life, and by doing so, of being a good example toward others. He notes that providing a “good example is the best means of cultivating in men the love of virtue.” The integrity of this witness can only be effective if it is authentic: it must stem from a relationship with Christ and the desire and commitment of Christians to pursue holiness. By doing so, faithful Christians touch the lives of those whom they encounter for their genuine witness to the Gospel, fidelity to Christ, virtues, and transparency with themselves and others, which are the unintentional nets which attract others to them, and ultimately to Christ.
Thus, the example of religious good men is powerful. This has always been the case, as seen through the witness of saints throughout the centuries, regardless of their personalities or vocations. By their lives and joyful abandonment to the service of God, the saints mirrored divine love to all those whom they encountered and so became beacons of the light of Faith in the world.
Though C.S. Lewis relates that there is nothing worse than religious wicked men, who through their deception mock all that is good and profanes that which is holy, there is nothing more beautiful than witnessing righteous souls ardently striving for union with God. The example of just men not only gives hope to humanity, but also reminds men of their heavenly goal. This is the power of righteous men: in all they do they reflect God to others and through seasoning the world with God’s Word by their words and examples, just men reveal Heaven to men and so bring humanity to God.
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The featured image is ” ‘Skofeld’ Wearing ‘mind forged manacles’ ” by William Blake (1757-1827), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.