Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.
I was talking recently with a friend and we were both lamenting the “strange and stranger” quality of our culture today; we had both seen the video at the bottom of this post. In it, the interviewer (who is a 5’9” white man), through a series of questions, gets a number of college students to accept that he is actually a 6’5” Chinese woman, or, alternately, a seven-year-old boy. They consider the way he “identifies” himself to be more significant than the obvious reality before them.
That such an appeal can convince a college student (or anyone for that matter) demonstrates that we have collectively taken leave of our senses. My friend said that the image that came to his mind was of the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland. When something as obvious as a person’s sex is unclear, when large numbers of people are willing to go along with calling a well-known man and former Olympic decathlete a woman, we have definitely fallen down a rabbit hole into a strange and nightmarishly bizarre world marked by absurdity after absurdity.
Alice in Wonderland may capture it, but to me it is more reminiscent of the children’s story The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen. The tale contains many eerie parallels with our current culture. While most are familiar with the tale, I will provide a brief synopsis:
The story begins with an Emperor who is described as being excessively fond of new clothes. Knowing his weakness and seeking to profit by it, two swindlers offer to weave him a set of glorious set of clothes with the wonderful property of being invisible to anyone who is unfit for the office he holds or who is extraordinarily simple. The Emperor is intrigued by the idea of being able to find out who within his realm is unfit for his office as well to be able to distinguish between the wise and the foolish. So he pays the swindlers a large sum of money and supplies them with copious quantities of expensive fabrics (which they stash in their bags) so that they can begin work immediately.
The Emperor periodically sends members of his staff to observe their progress. The rogues point to the empty looms and pretend to point out the magnificence of the non-existent material. But none of them will admit to seeing nothing and each returns to the Emperor with a glowing report of the splendid cloth. Finally, the Emperor himself pays a visit to the weavers (and also, obviously, sees nothing at all). Embarrassed by his inability to see the cloth, he (like the others) pretends to be amazed by its beauty.
Finally, the day arrives for the Emperor to wear these glorious clothes in a procession through the kingdom. The “clothes” are brought out by the swindlers, who explain that they are “as light as a spider’s web. One would almost think he had nothing on, but that’s what makes them so fine.” The Emperor undresses and the rogues pretend to dress him, one garment after another. This is all done to the applause and fawning commentary of both the Emperor and his entourage, all of whom see nothing at all!
Then the procession begins. The nearly naked Emperor parades through the streets under his high canopy, accompanied by noblemen carrying the ends of his magnificent, invisible train. The townsfolk, not wanting to be considered simpletons, applaud the magnificent clothes and comment aloud on the Emperor’s “finery.”
But then a young child, not yet fearful of the opinions of others, states the obvious: “But the emperor has nothing at all on!”
As the news of the child’s cry passes through the crowd, they become emboldened and begin to repeat, “He has nothing at all on!”
On hearing this, the Emperor realizes that the people are right. However, he decides that the procession must go on. And so he continues walking along in his underwear, with his staff taking greater care than ever in maintaining the façade, holding up the train that doesn’t exist.
And thus we have a parable for our times. Like the Emperor in the tale, many are willing to imagine things in order to preserve their vanity. And out of fear of being considered unenlightened, intolerant, etc., they play along with what is obviously absurd: that a man can really be a woman, or that human beings come in dozens of genders rather than two, or that a man having sexual relations with another man is not disordered, or that a child in the womb is something other than a human person, or that the head of the largest abortion provider in the U.S. should be honored at a Catholic university with a standing ovation, etc. Yes, many play along with the absurd.
And those who raise objections or state that such views are not in conformity with basic reality, those who say (in effect) that “the emperor has no clothes” are told to be quiet, to not talk about the obvious absurdity before everyone’s eyes. Such people are labeled unenlightened and intolerant because they cannot see the “beauty” that the enlightened and tolerant can.
In the story above, a mere child could easily see the absurdity before him and simply spoke to what was obvious; children are often that way. They have less to lose. They have not yet become jaded by flattery and the thousand little (and big) lies we adults like to tell ourselves and others. Little children have not yet gotten the memo that appearing right is more important than being right. They are still shocked by lies and inconsistency; they often speak the truth in impolite, unrefined, and even blunt ways.
But as innocence dies out and circumspection dawns, too many of us begin to indulge deception. We go along to get along, “drinking the Kool-Aid” of a world gone increasingly mad. Even as the absurdity multiplies and we are asked to deny the plainly obvious, the fear among many of being considered unenlightened seems to be growing by leaps and bounds.
Here’s to the little child in us that is still shocked by lies, inconsistencies, and absurdity. Here’s to that innocent child who can still cry out, “But the emperor has nothing at all on!”
For having known God, they glorified Him not and neither were they thankful; but they became vain in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened (Rom 1:21).
Here is the video that sparked this post. Absurdity seems to know no limits.