How do we as Catholics approach sinners guilty of things like pedophilia or homosexual acts with consenting or non-consenting adults? Do we think of these things in terms of punishment? Are we horrified? Do we detach ourselves and think of these things as diseases? Or do we lay the guilt on the individual?
I would like to examine this Church crisis through Richard III, a play which tells the tale of the rise and fall of a hardened sinner, There’s no possibility of repentance for Richard III. The reason is that of a hardening of his heart which leads to a perpetuation of sin.
The Seeming Impossibility of Redemption for Richard III
There’s a line from King Richard III that comes to mind in our current mess. Richard III, a murdering king, calculates that “But I am in So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin” (Act 4, Scene 2, lines 64-65). “Sin will pluck on sin” implies that sin has become a self-spawning cancerous growth. For Richard III, there’s no way out. He has to keep sinning in order to survive.
He has painted a mask of himself that he refuses to give up. Pride and love of power tie him to his lies. As the Bible says, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18), and, indeed, in this part of the play, Richard III acts with great hubris. Having already lied and murdered his way to the throne, he now contemplates the murder of his nephew Prince Edward, who is still a child.
His Wrestling with Conscience
Richard III is beyond redemption by his own choice. He has condemned himself to hell as it were. To repent would mean to lose what he wants ‒ power. Nonetheless, Richard III has a conscience which is captured brilliantly in the final act of the play.
O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!
The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard; that is, I and I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
(Act 5, Scene 3, Lines 191-196)
In the words “Richard loves Richard; that is, I and I,” Richard III tries to reconcile who he is with what he has done. He has divided himself into the Richard that deserves punishment and the Richard that is somehow still loveable and, perhaps, redeemable. To me, this is, in a nutshell, the sickness which is sin, namely, self-alienation. Conscience tells us one thing and our sinful state another. Like all sinners, Richard III has become quite attached to his sinful lifestyle, half by choice and half by compulsion ‒ his lies have become a necessity.
We should also notice Richard’s hatred for his conscience which he calls “coward conscience.” In the introduction, I alluded to a psychological disorder. In this post, I won’t have time to explore this. I’m also not qualified to make definitive statements about it. However, I am very familiar with the kind of illness with which Richard III wrestles, the disease of sin. The desire to deaden conscience and inure oneself to sin is truly a sickness.
Christ came for sinners (Matt 9:13), but redemption is not possible for the Richard III’s of the world who wish to kill their consciences. Redemption exists even for the most notorious of sinners, but by trying to kill his conscience, Richard III has made it impossible to be forgiven.
His Friendless Death
At the end of the play, Richard III’s cry, “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!” (Act 5, Scene 4, line 7), expresses all the folly behind our restless drive for power and fame. Contemplating Richard III brings to mind Christ’s question “what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt 16:26). Without a horse, Richard III becomes a mere man. The man who once had everything is now both physically and spiritually abandoned. He has been abandoned by his followers and his own step-father will kill him. Even his horse has somehow betrayed him. He is spiritually alone through his denial of God and his own being. He has hardened his heart seemingly to all love and as a result is cut off in a deep way from being.
I have used Richard III to talk about a very trying time in the Church. Using Richard III instead of a current figure has helped me to talk about the issue of guilty conscience in general terms. Richard III illustrates to what the hardening of our hearts can lead. Let’s strive to hear God’s voice and harden not our hearts.