The Virtue of Compassion
Compassion is not a new virtue, although many employ it with the kind of wide-eyed excitement that might suggest they had discovered it. It is cited many times in Sacred Scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments. St. Augustine, in his Confessions, written in the early 5th century, discussed the fraternal compassion we owe to others and advised that we should prefer to find nothing in them that would elicit our compassion. St. Bernard, in the 12th century, said that Christ is our primary teacher of compassion because He willed His passion so that we could learn compassion. St. Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, wrote about how our compassion can mitigate the suffering of a friend.
What a pity!
History has taught us enough about the meaning of compassion so as to leave us with little excuse for confusing it with pity. Compassion, which is rooted in love, takes on the pain of the sufferer, but with the hope that some positive good will emerge from this shared suffering. Pity, on the other hand, which is more closely associated with an aesthetic sensibility than with love, is devoid of hope. This is why a sufferer welcomes compassion but despises pity. “I don’t want your pity!” is a poignant cry that implies the futility of pity. And yet, pitilessness, which is insensitivity to another’s suffering, is even more despicable.
Every virtue has its bogus pretenders. Foolhardiness passes for courage, timidity for prudence, apathy for patience, obsequiousness for courtesy, and credulity for faith. But there is no counterfeit that is more successful in obscuring the genuine article, especially in the present era, than false compassion.
The great Russian philosopher and Orthodox Christian, Nikolai Berdyaev, makes a valid and crucial point when he states that “in Buddhism, compassion means a desire that the sufferer should attain non-being and is a refusal to bear suffering on behalf of others as well as oneself. In Christianity, compassion means a desire for a new and better life for the sufferer and a willingness to share his pain.”
Buddhist compassion is really pity. It does not rise to the level of Christian compassion because it lacks both love in the person who has pity and hope for the other who is suffering. This is why Berdyaev goes on to say that pity may “turn into the worst possible state, into the rejection . . . both of God and man.” Pity can be a source of rebellion against God.
For the Christian, suffering is not necessarily meaningless. Indeed, it can be redemptive. For a Christian to share the suffering of another means that, by so doing, he brings a light into the pain and misery of that person’s life. He blesses the other person’s existence with a higher meaning. Christian compassion is thus bound up with the mystery of the Cross.
Humanistic compassion, another variety of false compassion, is based on the illusion that it is possible to free human beings from suffering altogether and supply them with uninterrupted happiness. This illusion is rampant in the present therapeutic culture, which believes that the road to happiness passes through pharmaceutical companies. But since humanistic compassion is neither realistic nor rooted in love, it is simply another form of pity.
Hoche and Binding, in The Release of the Destruction of Life Devoid of Value, a notorious work published in 1920 that paved the way for the Nazi eugenics program, wrote eloquently about “compassion.” In one passage, characteristic of their books, the authors write: “A terrible testimony of the morals of our time! We are spending lots of time, patience, and care on the survival of life devoid of value. Every reasonably thinking person would hope for its end. Our compassion is going beyond a reasonable measure until it reaches cruelty. To deny the incurable patient the peaceful death he so much desires is no longer compassion but the opposite.”
Along the spectrum of human dispositions that one can have toward his suffering neighbor, there is pitilessness or insensitivity; Buddhist, humanistic, or other forms of pity; and true compassion that is rooted in love and animated by hope.
Expediency in disguise
Whereas chastity is the contemporary world’s most unpopular virtue, compassion is clearly its favorite. It has become a cultural imperative that we have compassion for others. Compassion’s popularity, unfortunately, is so great that it tends to isolate this virtue from all those other factors it needs in order to remain truly a virtue.
Consequently, compassion becomes an argument unto itself, so to speak, to justify abortion, sterilization, euthanasia, and sundry other actions that are aimed at reducing the amount of misery that currently afflicts mankind. Separated from love, light, generosity, hope, patience, courage, and determination, “compassion” becomes nothing more than a code word whose real name is expediency. It may be true that more lives are dispatched in the name of compassion than are lost in wars. When compassion becomes a principle, it ceases to be a virtue. As a principle, all it means is the easiest way out.
A person who experiences pity is in a position to feel morally superior to those who are devoid of pity. And in this case, he is right. But a little bit of rectitude can be a dangerous thing. What he may not realize is the moral superiority of loving compassion. But he very well may, filled with a sense of humanistic righteousness — Jack Kevorkian and Derek Humphry leap to mind — launch a euthanasia program that is nominally compassionate but essentially inhumane. Such is the theme of Rita Marker’s penetrating book, Deadly Compassion.
Feeling others’ pain
The problem with pity is not that it is inhumane. It is only too humane. Its problem is that it cannot transcend suffering, finds no meaning in it, and is, in fact, overwhelmed by it. Pity, ultimately, is so humane that it excludes God. Ivan Karamazov, in Dostoevsky’s great novel, could not believe in God as long as one child was in torment. One of Albert Camus’ heroes could not accept the divinity of Christ because of the slaughter of the innocents.
The various modes of popular pity mark our gain in sensibility, but at the cost of narrowing our vision to the point where pain is all that we can see. Christianity and the therapeutic culture are at odds with each other on the fundamental question of how we should respond to another’s pain. Christianity is by no means insensitive to pain nor to the anguish of the sufferer. But, unlike the therapeutic culture, the Christian brings to his suffering neighbor love, hope, and the light of the Cross.
By DeMarco, Donald “The Virtue of Compassion.” Lay Witness (January-February, 1999).
Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.
Lay Witness is the flagship publication of Catholics United for the Faith. Featuring articles written by leaders in the Catholic Church, each issue of Lay Witness keeps you informed on current events in the Church, the Holy Father’s intentions for the month, and provides formation through biblical and catechetical articles with real-life applications for everyday Catholics.