Public Sin vs. Private Sin


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Brebeuf Jesuit High School in Indiana has been at the center of a news story. One of their faculty members has entered into a same-sex “marriage.” The Archbishop of Indianapolis urged the school to dismiss the teacher for giving public scandal to Catholic teaching. Brebeuf has refused and the Archbishop has disallowed them the label of “Catholic” in his archdiocese.

Today’s article is not about this issue per se. Instead, I want to focus on a response by Fr. James Martin SJ, who took to Twitter to condemn the actions of the archdiocese. He tweeted:

“If employees’ “professional and private lives must convey and be supportive of Catholic Church teaching” that means that, to be consistent, all Catholic institutions (schools, parishes, hospitals, retreat centers) in the Archdiocese would also have to fire the following people:
1) Catholic straight individuals living with someone before being married.
2) Catholic married couples who use birth control.
3) Catholic straight individuals who are divorced and remarried without an annulment.
4) Catholic couples who use in vitro fertilization.”

He goes on, but I think we need an important clarification here on the difference between public sin and private sin.

Always the problem with public sin is that it can lead to the additional problem of scandal. We are all called to be witnesses to Christ in our lives. Because we are broken by Original Sin, we almost always fall short of that high calling. At the very least, I know that I am constantly struggling to overcome sin in my life. We are all sinners, no one disputes this. Fr. Martin sees people with same-sex attractions as being particularly hounded for their sins. To bolster his perspective, I will say that in my years teaching high school, students with same-sex attractions feel like they are being particularly singled out for any sinful behavior regarding their sexuality.

But that really isn’t the issue. The issue for the employment is not the same-sex sin as such, but the public scandal of it.

Scandal has been a serious issue from the beginning. In 1 Corinthians, Paul is furious that Christians in Corinth are suing each other in public court. He says that this gives horrible witness to the love we are supposed to have for each other. He writes:
“I say this to shame you. Can it be that there is not one among you wise enough to be able to settle a case between brothers? But rather brother goes to court against brother, and that before unbelievers? Now indeed [then] it is, in any case, a failure on your part that you have lawsuits against one another” (1 Corinthians 6:5-7)

The problem is not just that some Christians are taking things without returning them. The problem is that their brother and sister Christians are taking them to court and that this is causing scandal. This could cause confusion, frustration, and rejection of the true faith.

I had a former student who asked me if it would be okay to move in with her boyfriend as long as they were not engaging in pre-marital sex. She was a devout Catholic, but they both had trouble maintaining to two residents. I told her not to do so. Even if she was living correctly. Cohabitation of a romantically linked couple implies sexual activity. This would lead to a negative witness that sex outside of marriage was morally acceptable for Catholics, even if they themselves were not engaging in it.

In 2 Maccabees, the old man Eleazar is forced to choose between eating pork (which defies God’s Kosher laws) or death. Some of his friends sneak him some lamb meat that he can eat and pretend it is pork, thereby saving his life and not sinning. But Eleazar refuses. He says:

““At our age it would be unbecoming to make such a pretense; many of the young would think the ninety-year-old Eleazar had gone over to an alien religion. If I dissemble to gain a brief moment of life, they would be led astray by me, while I would bring defilement and dishonor on my old age.” (2 Maccabees 6:24-25)

He understands that even if he does not personally sin, the scandal could lead others astray. And that is what is at issue with Brebeuf High School. Fr. Martin is probably correct that there are many others who are not living in perfect accord with Christian morality. You will find that in any community. But a civil “marriage” is not a private matter but a public one.

We need to make a further distinction between persistent and non-persistent public sin. In a persistent public sin, a person is clearly and visibly living in defiance to Christian morality and appears to have no intention of changing. A non-persistent public sin could be some horrible offense that is past. The non-persistent kind is not what is at issue at Brebeuf. If it was discovered that, for example, a Catholic couple working at a school had engaged in fornication with each other in the past. If it was a one-time fall from grace, from which both had repented, then the scandal would be less. If that couple, instead, decided to publicly flaunt their illicit sexual relationship to the world, this would cause scandal.

At Brebeuf, it is not simply a matter of having someone who has same-sex attractions on the staff. It isn’t even a matter of someone on the staff having engaged in sexual activity with someone of the same sex. The issue is that someone on the staff is publicly and persistently engaged in sexual activity that is at odds with the Gospel message. And now we run an even greater risk, as the wise Eleazar understood, of leading many other young people into error.

I must take a few moments and speak about private sin. Please do not think that simply because scandal is attached to public sin that it is somehow less horrible than private sin. In some ways, private sin is worse for the soul.

When sins are made public, there is scandal and perhaps public ridicule. But private sin usually does not meet this resistance. As a result, it grows and festers in the darkness. If you are like me, you stress about going to the doctor to be examined. I worry that they will find something wrong and I have great anxiety over what they might find. But the stress and anxiety are worth it if, by vigilance, we find any ailment and deal with it. If it is not brought to light, the problem will grow and grow until it is no longer treatable.

Private sin is like this. If it is brought to light it can be painful. But when it is brought to light, it can be treated. If it remains in darkness, it can overtake the soul. We see this a lot lately, particularly with the sin of pornography. People struggle deeply with this, but because of the guilt and shame, they hide this sin from everyone. But in that darkness, it can overcome the person.

If I ever cheated on my wife (which, for the record, is something I would never do), it would be horribly scandalous if this ever came to light, particularly because I am a high school religion teacher. But the public shame of it might get me to repent. If I somehow “got away” with it and avoided discovery, I might seek to continue down this path of sin until it destroys me. The woman caught in adultery may have persisted in her sin if the scandal of it had not brought her face-to-face with Christ.

So public sin is not worse than private sin, but it has a different character on how it affects the larger community. Both must be repented of and both must be given over to the mercy of God.

Copyright WL Grayson, 2019

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W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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