HT – Fr Stephen Smuts
My attention is drawn to an article – Toxic Congregations – about parishioners who behave in such a way as there is only one answer – close down the parish. But it might not be so simple, as the troublemakers may be in the minority. The others would be unfairly punished.
Who wins in these conflicts depends on who has the purse strings, who owns the “plant” and who has the most credible power over the priest or minister. We are simply in a world of clericalism versus anti-clerical clericalism. Ultimately, it is the subject of an academic discipline known as ponerology, a scientific study about evil, how whole countries can become rotten like Hitler’s Germany or Idi Amin’s Uganda.
Evil is usually understood in religious and mythological terms, but there are also psychological explanations. We sometimes encounter people who have no moral conscience, no remorse for the hurt they do to others. They know no limits to their behaviour imposed by morality, social norms or laws. They have no shame, and other people are just gullible fools to them, just waiting to be exploited. They lie and manipulate for power and material goods, but very often, all they want is to make people suffer. These are characteristics of people psychiatrists call psychopaths, sociopaths or narcissistic personalities. According to known data, this is a permanent condition, innate to the personality and incurable. When they commit serious crimes, the only thing to do with them is to execute them or put them in prison for life (with hard labour to pay for their keep and save the taxpayer’s money), preferably the latter as I am opposed to capital punishment.
At a level where we have people who do not infringe the law in such a way as they are arrested, tried and imprisoned, one sign of such a personality is that nothing is ever their fault. Nevertheless, each at his or own level, they are predators. They are just the people who are the most successful in business and church leadership – the system is made for them! How about this definition of evil?
I define evil, then, as the exercise of political power – that is, the imposition of one’s will upon others by overt or covert coercion – in order to avoid extending one’s self for the purpose of nurturing spiritual growth. Ordinary laziness is non-love; evil is anti-love.
The Polish psychiatrist Lobaczewski put the percentage of evil people at about 4-6% of the general population. Psychopathy does not discriminate between culture, race or social background but would seem to be about ten times more prevalent in males than in females. How is it that whole populations can come under the control of these people? Obviously, the reason is that most ordinary people do not recognise evil. Psychopaths, other than cinema ghouls or serial killers, look like normal people. They have no conscience, but they hide the fact and put on a false front or a mask. We just cannot imagine that a person can be like that.
We often look for evil in the wrong places. Only the psychopaths who fail end up in prisons and lunatic asylums. Successful ones are found in every “respectable” walk of life. Some embezzle money, but the worst ones commit evil that goes far beyond theft. They strike society like a virus in the body, seeking the weakest points, until the whole of society is plunged into darkness, horror and tragedy. It has happened in history and is still around us. If you are in the right place at the right time, and have the right kind of talent, – and are evil – you can whip up anger and hatred like Hitler did, and people will worship you! That is for people who have the possibility and ambition to get into big-time politics.
Most of us live in our families and work is small businesses or are employed by large corporations. Some of us go to church and have our social lives through various kinds of associations or informal circles of friends. We will find our caricatures of humans there too. This kind of personality can be the priest of a parish (some people still think the priesthood confers social status and power) or individual lay people who obtain control over the parish. The fact the association is religious makes no difference, because religious behaviour for those people is just a mask. They are interested in conquest and domination. The Internet is full of people we call “trolls”. They want control, and above all they want others to suffer. There is the added dimension of evil spirits that can use electronic media to communicate with us on earth and cause havoc. Satan is the ultimate psychopath!
It only needs one or two evil people in a parish to whip up support for themselves. Through smooth talking, they get themselves elected to the parish council. They squeeze out all the good people, and confront any priest who challenges their exclusivity and elitism. That is how it happens each time, unless the priest is stronger or has the support of the Bishop.
The real issue is being able to recognise the psychopath, sociopath or narcissistic personality. When you dig down a little, you discover that they have never done any wrong and they never have themselves to blame for anything. The wrong is always on the side of the “others”. They ring hollow, and you will also find they don’t care about other people.
I recommend becoming familiar with the work of Dr Robert Hare, an eminent Canadian psychiatrist who specialises in psychopathy. Here are a few clues to look for:
- Glib and superficial
- Egocentric and grandiose
- Lack of remorse or guilt
- Lack of empathy
- Deceitful and manipulative
- Shallow emotions
Decidedly, there are two solutions to a parish that is infected by poisonous people – close down the parish or surgically rout out those concerned and limit the costs. Recognising the causes is half the battle. It seems as simple as that, though horribly difficult to put into practice. Prevention is better than cure.