Ethics morality

It is better to be a dirty beast

8:38:00 AMAnnie Foster

In the reflection of the polished bathroom floor tiles, Ben could see his wife Ann standing in the doorway in her pajamas, tears streaming down her tired face.  

He could only imagine the disdain for him she felt as she stared down at him lying on the bathroom floor next to the toilet.  This was the third night that week she had found him there.  As she turned her back to him and walked back into their bedroom an all too common overwhelming sense of shame overcame Ben.  He had promised her that this would never happen again. He had promised God that this would never happen again.  

Three years ago Ben was picking up his nine year old son Jonathan from a Little Leaguers game, Jonathan was Daddy's favorite boy.  Jonathan had won his first game of the season and was excitingly relaying all the tiny facts and details of the big win to his Dad as they drove home.  Jonathan was begging his dad to look at the game winning ball in his hand. As Ben turned around for a quick peek a tow truck pulled out in front of him.  From the moment the first sirens could be heard the rest of the night became a blur. Jonathan was wheeled away, a coarse white sheet covering him head to toe.  From that night on, Ben could be found from six in the evening till three in the morning sulking on a bar stool, drinking his sorrows away.

Ben was a religious man, went to daily Mass and in the afternoons worked in the soup kitchen.  One would never guess that he spent his evenings on a bar stool and his nights on the bathroom floor.  Multiple drunken nights turned into weeks, and months.  Ben tried to stop. Every Thursday night Ben laid naked his soul, exposed his ugliness, and weaknesses to his confessor and to Christ.  Unfortunately, his crutch had become too dominant, crippling him, and enslaving him to a sinful habit.  His prayers were real, raw, and passionate, pleading with God to save his soul and his marriage.  The sharpest pain that pierced Ben’s drunken heart was the knowledge of Christ's crucified body and the sorrow felt by his Savior on his behalf.  

If you were to walk in on drunken Ben at a bar or on a bathroom floor, would you scoff at his fallen nature or pity his sinfulness because you yourself, share in his state? 

Too often do we label people "sinners" and "non-sinners," judging the moral state of others by mere appearances. It is this kind of self-righteous behavior which blinds a person to their own fallen nature and disables a person from having the sincere and contrite heart of a sinner.  Reading Dietrich von Hildebrand's Morality and Situation Ethics, I was struck with a seemingly paradoxical notion. Sometimes a tragic sinner can be morally superior to a mediocre morally correct man or a self-righteous man.  He can be morally superior because he is more sincere, more humble, more true, and more disposed to a real conversion and real love of God and neighbor.  (1)

The type of sinner who Hildebrand regards as superior is not the evil tyrant, or someone who blatantly disregards morals. Hildebrand is referring to “tragic” sinners, such as the drunk but repentant Ben. What makes a sinner a "tragic" sinner is the tragic character of his sinful life which he loathes but yet can not let go of. Hildebrand claims that "tragic" sinners can have greater love of God than the self-righteous man or the merely mediocre man. The passionate, ardent, and contrite heart of a truly sorrowful sinner makes his confessions far greater than that of the self-righteous. Hildebrand pays particular attention to the hypocrisy of the self-righteous, especially their pride which blinds them to their sins.

"The self-righteous is especially hideous because it corrodes all positive moral attitudes, whereas the ‘tragic’ sinner can be generous and charitable and can do many positive moral things, notwithstanding his sinning." (2) 

In no way does Hildebrand condone the jovial tolerance of other persons’ moral failures undertaken so as to alleviate your own conscience. We must also keep in mind that sin is worse than mediocrity. Additionally, Hildebrand emphatically points out that a tragic sin does not imply an unavoidable sin or a moral trial where man is objectively bound to fall. A “tragic” sinner only indicates a type of sin springing from weakness rather than wickedness. (3)  A "tragic" sinner refers to a sinner who is aware of his sin and who suffers because he is separated from God. (4) This type of sinner understands the seriousness of morality and possess the "spirit" of the moral commandments, the spirit of a lover breaking their back to serve their beloved.  Although the self-righteous abides strictly, and not tepidly, by the letter of moral commandments, his fervent obedience does not take the place of fervent humility.  He abides by the letter alone, not by the spirit. To express what I mean by "spirit" more clearly I will use the example of a marriage.  No one would ever be satisfied with a spouse who treated love legalistically, viewing actions of love as mere rules to obey so as to appear to be a morally correct spouse.  Where is the heart, the "spirit" of love, in this type of relationship?    

True morality is expressed best by the pathetic pleas of the tragic sinner who draws us into a dramatic confrontation with God. Dissimilar to the tragic sinner, the self-righteous thinks he lives without sin and therefore avoids a vulnerable encounter with God, never seeking His forgiveness and mercy.  

“If, seeing the tragic sinner, we are reminded of the great drama of man and our heart is attacked and moved by the intrinsic beauty of morality, if in our compassion for a sinner we experience all the misery of being banished from the domus Domini and, in the same breath, the intrinsic loveableness of moral goodness, is it quite otherwise in the presence of the self-righteous man.  For in him morality appears as a narrow and depressing bondage.”(5) 

We have much to learn from the tragic sinner whose humility reflects a greater love of God than the man whose pride keeps him from groveling at his Father’s merciful feet. Therefore, I will end in the way Hildebrand began, with a most fitting quote from the French novel, The Woman’s Pharisee:

“What I am going to say may startle you, but I think it’s better to be a dirty beast than to have Brigitte Pian’s brand of virtue.”  (6) 

It is better to be a dirty beast, a passionate drunkard, a tragic sinner. It is better to cower in guilt than relish your piety.  


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Image 1: source
Image 2: source

(1) Dietrich von Hildebrand, Morality and Situation Ethics (Chicago:Franciscan Herald Press, 1966), 36.  
(2) Hildebrand, Morality, 42. 
(3) Hildebrand, Morality, 38. 
(4) Hildebrand, Morality, 30. 
(5) Hildebrand, Morality, 36.  
(6) Morality, opening. 

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