Published March 18, 2021
There is no such thing as a private sin. Our moral failings – whatever they may be – have consequences that extend out far beyond our own personal guilt or innocence. My own moral failings have consequences for my wife and children, for my friends, and so on. My failings cause others to suffer, often in invisible ways. My sin breeds sin and stymies virtue, in myself and in others. How much better off would those around me be if I were a saint?
Sometimes, we are only just able to glimpse the moral filaments that connect our actions to the lives of those arounds us. At other times, the consequences of our sins are all too apparent. Every father who has caught his own uncharitable words in the mouth of one of his children knows the power of his own bad example. Sometimes sins we foolishly hoped would remain secret are drawn into the light for all to see, to our own horror and humiliation.
Such moments of recognition can be occasions for grace to stir the conscience – like the cock crow that brought Peter to bitter tears. But such occasions, in which we are put on the spot by our own consciences, do not always result in repentance and conversion. At least not immediately.
In Mark’s Gospel, a rich man comes to Jesus eager to do what he must do to inherit eternal life. The man is at first pleased to hear that he has done all that is required, but his pleasure turns to disappointment when Our Lord asks for more. We all know the story:
“You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
The rich man was so close; he was lacking only one thing. But he would not give it up his attachment. And Christ, who “looking at him, loved him,” let him go.
I was reminded of this passage this week by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s response (here) to a question about “blessings for unions of persons of the same sex.” The CDF’s ruling, backed by Pope Francis, is that same-sex unions cannot be blessed: “[God] does not and cannot bless sin.” This has caused anguish among those who have long hoped that the Church would find a way around Scripture and Tradition to embrace same-sex unions.
That this comes from Pope Francis – the pope of “Who am I to judge,” the pope who offered measured support for same-sex civil unions, the pope in whom so many had placed their hopes for a sweeping change in doctrine – has made this an even more bitter pill to swallow.
The German bishops, who many expected to openly embrace such blessings through their Binding Synodal Process, are “not happy.” Hundreds of German priests are openly defiant. Many other Catholics are outraged. Some are simply walking away.
Which brings me back to the story of the rich man.
For those of us who see the CDF’s clarification as necessary and welcome, as I do, it might be tempting to dismiss this anger and dissent with, “Good! If they will cling to what is dear rather than follow the truth, then let them go!”
It may come to that. Some may leave, but it would not be happy thing. The Church is for sinners.
No. To jeer at the defeat of others in the face of hard truths is hubris. We are all of us in need of mercy; knowing that ought to humble us.
I was reminded of the story of the rich man, not by those who are walking away from Christ and His Church on account of a hard teaching, but because it is so easy to see myself in the place of the rich man: proud, content, and unwilling to let go of what prevents me growing closer to God.
What the Church asks of Catholics with same sex-attraction may be unambiguous and simple chastity – but that does not make it easy. God offers mercy to all, but His offer of mercy does not spare us difficult choices. In a sense, God’s greatest mercy is that choice: he offers us a way out, narrow though it may be, rather than leaving us as we are. And though He looks at us and loves us, as he did the rich man, he leaves it to us to accept the offer. Or not.
That thought should make us all tremble.
In the weeks and months ahead, there will be much discussion of the CDF’s statement. There will be many hard truths to defend and arguments to be made. The issue will undoubtedly get dragged into our political debates: think of the Equality Act currently before Congress. And it is likely to continue generating acrimony between and among Catholics.
But if sin breeds sin and stymies virtue, then love accomplishes the opposite. As welcome as the clarity of the CDF statement may be, that clarity does not absolve any of us from the work of loving our enemies, let alone our brothers and sisters in Christ.
We pass up the opportunity to love at our own peril.
© 2021 The Catholic Thing.
Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.