Among C.S.Lewis’ best writings is his essay about insider cabals. Entitled The Inner Ring, it can be read here on the website of the C.S. Lewis Society of California. Lewis begins with a quotation from Tolstoy’s War and Peace:
When Boris entered the room, Prince Andrey was listening to an old general, wearing his decorations, who was reporting something to Prince Andrey, with an expression of soldierly servility on his purple face. ‘Alright. Please wait!’ he said to the general, speaking in Russian with the French accent which he used when he spoke with contempt. The moment he noticed Boris he stopped listening to the general who trotted imploringly after him and begged to be heard, while Prince Andrey turned to Boris with a cheerful smile and a nod of the head. Boris now clearly understood—what he had already guessed—that side by side with the system of discipline and subordination which were laid down in the Army Regulations, there existed a different and more real system—the system which compelled a tightly laced general with a purple face to wait respectfully for his turn while a mere captain like Prince Andrey chatted with a mere second lieutenant like Boris. Boris decided at once that he would be guided not by the official system but by this other unwritten system.
Lewis expands on Tolstoy’s observation in his usual down-to-earth style, explaining what he means by “the inner ring.”
In the passage I have just read from Tolstoy, the young second lieutenant Boris Dubretskoi discovers that there exist in the army two different systems or hierarchies. The one is printed in some little red book and anyone can easily read it up. It also remains constant. A general is always superior to a colonel, and a colonel to a captain. The other is not printed anywhere. Nor is it even a formally organized secret society with officers and rules which you would be told after you had been admitted. You are never formally and explicitly admitted by anyone. You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are outside it; and then later, perhaps, that you are inside it.
There has been much talk lately about a “gay mafia” in the Catholic Church — an inner ring charged by illicit sexual desire. Beginning in the seminary and extending to the corridors of power in the Vatican, the charge is that this “Lavender Mafia” holds the reins of power in the church and uses personal secrets to consolidate its control.
The exciting allure of conspiracy theories makes such a theory tantalizing. The very ambiguity and sleekness of such a secret society is what makes it so very seductive. Like all conspiracy theories, there is just enough evidence to make you believe it, but never enough evidence to prove the point. Lewis comments further on the secrecy of such societies:
There are what correspond to passwords, but they are too spontaneous and informal. A particular slang, the use of particular nicknames, an allusive manner of conversation, are the marks. But it is not so constant. It is not easy, even at a given moment, to say who is inside and who is outside. Some people are obviously in and some are obviously out, but there are always several on the borderline. And if you come back to the same Divisional Headquarters, or Brigade Headquarters, or the same regiment or even the same company, after six weeks’ absence, you may find this secondary hierarchy quite altered.
One man’s seduction by the Inner Ring is the subtext of Lewis’ That Hideous Strength as the young university don Mark Studdock is gradually drawn into the nefarious clutches of N.I.C.E. (the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments).
Lewis observed that Inner Rings exist in the institutions of every human endeavor and that the desire to belong leads the individual not at first to some great wickedness, but to the incremental compromise of truth and goodness required in order to be accepted by the insiders—leading at last to complete capitulation to the forces of evil.
Inner Rings fester wherever humans gather, and the existence of such a ring within the church goes without saying. It is often said of the Catholic Church, “by all means come aboard the barque of Peter, but don’t go down into the engine room.” In other words, the Inner Circle of the Catholic Church is not only a dark and steamy engine room. It is also a noisome cave where “there be dragons.”
The events of this summer of shame have proven the point. One priest has said, “this is a sixteenth century moment,” and certainly the cover ups and Machiavellian intrigues of the curia, the chanceries, the clergy, the cardinals, and the crooks seem as nefarious and notorious as the Renaissance court of Rome.
Lewis’ observations about the Inner Ring also echo through the scandals of our day. Seminarians report on their surprise and disgust at discovering circles of homosexuality, and how, if they resisted the seductions they were marginalized, accused and expelled. Whispers of bishops, archbishops, and cardinals having favorites among the handsome young men erupted with the specific accusations against former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and those on the inside insist that the McCarrick scandal is only the hem of a scarlet and purple robe that cloaks a majority of the Catholic hierarchy.
When Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò issued his statement, it seemed the homosexual inner ring was exposed. But what was the result? Whenever an inner ring is exposed it evaporates. Proof is demanded, but there isn’t any because it was all secret handshakes, winks, and nods all along. It was never a formal organization to start with, so the members simply deny, shift their position, and slide away like the serpents they really are.
How does such an Inner Ring gain power? Lewis teaches us that it is the default setting, and we most of us are prone to its allure.
My main purpose in this address is simply to convince you that this desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action. It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it—this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment and advertisement, and if it is one of the permanent mainsprings then you may be quite sure of this. Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care. That will be the natural thing—the life that will come to you of its own accord. Any other kind of life, if you lead it, will be the result of conscious and continuous effort. If you do nothing about it, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an “inner ringer.”
The seduction by the lavender inner ring in the Catholic Church was for the young man to go with the flow and “not make a fuss.” The temptation is to keep quiet and mind your own business at first, then to allow oneself to be drawn in from silence, to condoning, and then to participation. If the seduction was sexual and one yields, then one is forever compromised—being open to blackmail and threats to reveal one’s own deep, dark secrets. If the young seminarian happens to be lacking in male friendship and insecure in his masculinity, the attraction of belonging to the inside circle of the the all-male clergy club will have deeper resonances in his immature personality.
What is the antidote to the poison of the Inner Ring? First to be aware of its existence: and second, to resist its temptation at the beginning and thereafter. One needs the self-confidence to go one’s own way no matter what the cost.
The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know. It will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public: nor will it lead to those periodic scandals and crises which the Inner Ring produces. But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys and which the speeches and advertisements cannot maintain.
And if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside: that you are indeed snug and safe at the centre of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that the secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric: for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like. This is friendship. Aristotle placed it among the virtues. It causes perhaps half of all the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ring can ever have it.
In the church, this friendship will be the camaraderie of brother priests and deacons who are truly serving their Lord with simplicity and sincerity of heart. It will also include laymen who support their clergy in fraternal fellowship, prayer, and the genuine bonhomie of brothers-in-arms.
This article has been republished with permission from The Imaginative Conservative.
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