The Dastardly Sin of Betrayal

As Dante the pilgrim descends into the ninth and final circle of hell in the lowest and darkest pit of the Inferno in The Divine Comedy, he sees immersed in ice the traitors to family, to benefactors, to guests, and to country. The cold hardheartedness of these sinners who returned evil for good and ingratitude for love justifies the punishment of the frozen lake, a body of ice more thick than the Danube River in winter so that if mountains fell on it, “even its edge would not have made a crack.” Dante encounters Ganelon who betrayed his commander by conspiring with the Saracens to have the rearguard of Sir Roland’s army ambushed at Roncesvalles. Dante sees Archbishop Ruggieri who imprisoned Count Ugolino and his four sons—all members of the Ghibelline family to which the archbishop also belonged–to starve to death in a tower. Dante beholds Brother Alberigo who invited relatives to dinner presumably to reconcile family differences only to have them assassinated by his servants, a crime so unspeakable that he refers to his sin as an utterly despicable betrayal punished by the attack of a devil: “. . . know that as soon as any soul betrays/As I betrayed, his body’s snatched away and taken by a demon, who controls it/ until the time arrives for it to die.”

Dante sees in this dismal region of the Inferno the most notorious of the traitors in history. Immobile in ice, Satan with his three heads flaps his bat’s wings that cause powerful gales that freeze the Cocytus River, and with his three heads he chews on the heads of fellow betrayers, Judas, Cassius, and Brutus—an image of devouring that symbolizes the vicious cruelty treason inflicts on others. Attacking his Creator and the Trinity of the Godhead with its attributes of power, wisdom, and love bestowed upon the archangel so near to the source of all goodness, Satan received his strength, intelligence, and beauty from God without any sense of indebtedness or obligation to his Maker. Like Satan, Judas, one of the disciples and closest friends of Christ who witnessed the profound love, divine teaching, and wondrous miracles of the Master, returned evil for good and hate for love. Brutus and Cassius’ betrayal of Julius Caesar in their conspiracy of assassination violated every virtue of friendship and loyalty formed by a lifetime of close association with a great Roman leader.

One of the worst sins of injustice, betrayal not only fails to render others their just due as God, parents, relatives, benefactors, friends, or hosts but also commits the worst of evils by insensibility to the great benefits received from love’s generosity. Without gratitude for the gift of life and all the angelic powers given to spiritual beings, Satan wages war in Heaven and perverts the innocence of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden by causing the tragedy of the Fall that released all the evils of original sin. God does great good to Satan, but Satan commits great evil to God. Without any sense of appreciation for the privilege of Christ’s special friendship as his disciple or any sense of wonder at Christ’s miracles, Judas does not value his association with Christ or acknowledge the supernatural nature of Christ’s power, knowledge, and friendship. Judas receives all that Christ gives to those whom He loves, but he does not thank, honor, or respect the God who lived in his midst. Brutus and Cassius put politics before loyalty, and with duplicity and cunning assassinated the Roman leader who placed all trust in them. The famous words “And you too, Brutus” (“Et tu, Brute”) convey the broken heart of a man who would never have imagined such a dastardly deed from true friends. In Mark Anthony’s famous speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, he finds it inconceivable that a man as reputedly “honorable” as Brutus would accuse Caesar of ambition when the renowned general refused all the wealth from ransoms that filled the treasury.

These same sins of betrayal create the culture of death in the world of legalized abortion, no-fault divorce, and the sexual revolution. In every abortion a father or mother or both betray their children by rejecting the precious gift of an innocent child who will bless their lives. In every case of euthanasia family members betray their loved ones and physicians betray their medical profession to “do no harm” as Hippocrates declared. God gives the sacred, but man profanes it. In every divorce a man or a woman betrays a spouse and renounces a promise of fidelity and commitment for a lifetime. The violation of marital vows also betrays the children of the marriage who suffer all the effects of a broken marriage that separates them from the daily presence and love of both parents in the unity of the family bond. Same-sex marriage and transgender ideology also betray children by violating their innocence, introducing them to immoral practices, and misleading them into believing that maleness and femaleness are fluid and flexible, not fixed, determined, and God-given. Political leaders and judges betray the citizens they serve by legalizing moral evils in the name of progressiveness or the evolution of the law from the dark ages to the enlightenment of modernity.

Nothing is more unnatural and inhuman than betrayal because all human beings need stability, permanence, and order to live a meaningful life with purpose. If a person cannot rely on a parent or sibling, trust a spouse or friend, believe in the validity of laws, embrace the unchangeable moral doctrines of the Church, or respect the leaders of a government or the learning of an educated class, then the worst form of chaos known as anarchy rages as lawlessness inflicts destructive harm on many victims. As Willa Cather in Death Comes to the Archbishop expresses this natural human yearning for the unchanging, constant, and eternal, she identifies it with the rock that Bishop Latour sees when he travels to a mesa where the Acoma Indians live for shelter and protection against hostile tribes. Wondering why men would live on the top of a vast naked rock, Latour learns that it offers safety and sanctuary:

The rock, when one came to think on it, was the utmost expression of human need; even mere feeling yearned for it; it was the highest comparison of loyalty in love and friendship. Christ Himself had used that comparison for the disciple to whom He gave the keys of His Church. And the Hebrews of the Old Testament, always being carried captive into foreign lands,–their rock was an idea of God, the only thing their conquerors could not take from them.

Without the weight and solidity of the rock as a fortress and haven which the mesas in the Southwest provided Indian tribes, they were always defenseless against the attacks of enemies. Without a sense of universal truth and moral stability in the knowledge of right and wrong, all persons live in a world of relative truth that subverts everything reliable and true as a guide to life. If Christianity is only superstition for the ignorant to prevent the rebellion of the masses or only the opiate of the people as Communist ideology proclaims; if marriage is an evolving, progressive institution subject to trends and not a lifelong commitment to the unchangeable laws of the Church that declare its indissolubility; and if abortion and euthanasia do not qualify as intrinsic evils but represent free choices in a democratic, multicultural society, then human beings live without rocks or mesas–without divine authority, eternal law,  moral order, or the light of truth.

No person wants to be betrayed, cheated, deceived, or exploited. All civil society and human relationships depend on the trustworthiness of words, promises, and vows as the solid foundation for good will, friendship, and love. When betrayal in all its multiple forms removes all the sanctuaries and fortresses that people seek for stability and protection, then the mind questions the very existence and value of truth. If the Catholic Church changes her teaching on contraception, abortion, marriage, homosexuality, euthanasia, or just war, then it would no longer be the rock that the whole world and every person need. A Church that accommodates its teaching to conform to democratic majorities, modern ideologies, or new political or trendy psychological theories betrays both God and man and leaves people defenseless and confused.

God deserves love and obedience, benefactors are owed gratitude, marriage dictates fidelity and openness to children, children are entitled to a stable home and the love of both a father and mother, and family members count on loyalty and devotion. When these debts of justice, love, and thanksgiving are not paid, the world suffers in every way because nothing has permanent value, abiding truth, or meaningful purpose—the theme of Shakespeare’s King Lear. When the king discovers the betrayal of two of his daughters to whom he bequeathed his wealth, land, and power, he invokes Mother Nature to curse their sterility and make them barren:

Hear, Nature, hear, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful.
Into her womb convey sterility.
Dry up in her the organs of increase,
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honor her!

He finds it incomprehensible that his own flesh and blood would deny him hospitality in their castles and not let him attend with his retainers when he cries “I gave you all.”

Lear suffers not only a broken heart and the pain of ruthless injustice but also a profound sense of meaninglessness. After he blessed his daughters with life, love, and treasure, he endured their rejection in his old age. When parents give but do not receive, love generously but have nothing to show for it, offer care, breeding, and affection in the course of a lifetime but suffer callousness and neglect in return, then they question the purpose of the family and the fruitfulness of marriage: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To have a thankless child!” All these types of betrayal deprive their victims of a love of life and an appreciation for its great goodness because, like Lear, they sow but do not reap, confer blessings but receive curses, honor promises but experience treachery—the pain of ingratitude that ruins their happiness and makes them question the purpose of life and the worth of goodness. Where betrayal rules, love stops, and every human relationship is destroyed because there is no rock on which it is built.

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. has completed fifty years of teaching beginning as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, continuing as a professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa for thirty-one years, and recently teaching part-time at various schools and college in New Hampshire. As well as contributing to a number of publications, he has published seven books: The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, An Armenian Family Reunion (a collection of short stories), Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct and The Virtue of Civility, and The Virtues We Need Again. He has designed homeschooling literature courses for Seton Home School, and he also teaches online courses for Queen of Heaven Academy and part-time for Northeast Catholic College.
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