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Virtue and its opposite

"Virtue and its opposite" Continued...

Issue: "Summer Books 2005," July 2, 2005

WORLD: You don't seem to have much patience for images of the saintly poor. Your British character Moody in Horn of Africa says about one of his experiences, "First time in life I'd known real hunger, not some pleasant tummy-rumbling before dinner. Know what that does to you after a while? Makes you nasty." Why do many Westerners, looking from afar, tend to romanticize suffering and forget that it is more likely to make people nasty?

CAPUTO: It is natural, when we see misery and suffering, to want to alleviate it and to pity the victims. Westerners, because they are so prosperous, tend to feel guilty about their own good fortune and to make saints of the victims. One needs to remember that in many parts of the world, today's victims can be tomorrow's perpetrators. As one of my characters, Diana Briggs, observes, it is a mistake to equate poverty with virtue-"it's merely poverty." In so many words, compassion should be uncoupled from sentimentality.

WORLD: You seem to take seriously questions of good and evil. What religious beliefs of your own do you try to convey in your writing? Do you see God and the devil as real, as human projections, or as something else?

CAPUTO: I am the product of a Jesuit education. I take moral problems very seriously. Almost all of my work has been concerned with them. I do not try to convey any doctrinal beliefs of my own in my writing, but I do try to present people facing moral predicaments, choices between doing the right thing or the wrong thing in circumstances wherein it is often very hard to tell the difference between the two. I believe in God and the Devil as real beings. The one is the Divine intelligence who created and sustains the universe, the other is the destructive force. Think of them as two immeasurably powerful currents. Through our own free will, we can choose to tap into one or the other.

WORLD: Your ambivalent narrator in Horn of Africa says after reading the journals of a brutal man, "The picture would not have been so disturbing if it had not been so familiar. . . . The demons who dwelled in him dwelled in me, as they do in all men: the attraction to violence, the need to be free from all restrictions, the impulse to follow one's desires wherever they may lead and without regard for others." Do you see our human natures as inherently good or inherently sinful? If you have any hope for change, what is the basis of your hope?

CAPUTO: I believe in Original Sin, that is, in the fallen nature of man. He is inherently sinful, but he has the power to overcome his inherited demons. The first step in that conquest is to realize that they dwell in each one of us. In Acts of Faith, Fitzhugh Martin makes this observation about his partner, Douglas Braithwaite: "Anyone who does not acknowledge the darkness in his nature will succumb to it. He will not take precautions against its promptings, nor recognize it when it calls." Later in the narrative, he expresses this thought in conversation with Diana Briggs. Speaking of Douglas, he says, "He lacks a moral imagination when it comes to himself. . . . The man cannot imagine himself doing anything wrong. It's a blindness. He can't see his own demons because he doesn't think they exist, and so he's fallen prey to them." Although that sounds stern, there is hope in it. We can behave with virtue so long as we recognize how capable we are of doing the opposite.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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