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Why are we so obsessed with sexual sin?

Sin is sin – why is our society obsessed with just a few bodily-related ones?

By on Monday, 4 March 2013

CNS photo illustration by Mike Crupi, Catholic Courie

CNS photo illustration by Mike Crupi, Catholic Courie

Ought sexual sins to be treated as special cases? Should sexual sins be treated as a special class of sin?

Somewhere (I am afraid I cannot find the quote) Saint Augustine says that sexual sins are the easiest sins for God to forgive, because they are the easiest sins for human beings to commit, in that in the sexual realm we are all at our weakest. The great saint and theologian (and let us not forget, the father of existentialism) has this to say about the way a Christian lives his or her sexual life. ( You can find this quote in City of God, XXI, 16.)

Few indeed are those who are so blessed that from earliest adolescence they not merely continue free from every mortal sin, whether of lust or violence or deliberate rejection of religious truth, but magnanimously conquer every carnal inclination that threatens to become their masters. The story of most people, however, is this, that, after they have become conscious of responsibility to law, they are first overcome by passion and become violators of the law, then they have recourse to grace which helps them to grieve bitterly for the past and to struggle bravely against passion until, at last, with their will in subjection to God and their reason in control of their flesh, they conquer themselves

What this tells us is that the saint understands that sexual sins are widespread and if they are to be conquered, this will take time, and will be the result of co-operation with divine grace. Of course, Augustine himself lived an immoral life before his conversion, though it is important not to exaggerate the sexual immorality of his pre-conversion existence. This knowledge must have armed him in later life, as a priest and a bishop, against an over-censorious approach to people who commit sexual sin.

I wonder what it would have been like going to confession to Saint Augustine? I imagine that he would have been a kindly and understanding confessor, though not a lax one. I imagine he must have been a good confessor, as he clearly knew so much about what it means to be human. He knew that we are all sinners, for a start.

Nowadays the concept of sin has almost disappeared from the popular lexicon, but because nature abhors a vacuum, the space once filled by sin has been taken over by other concepts, namely law, not divine law, but human law. If you care to cast your mind back to the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Bill Clinton’s sins were there paraded before the world’s media not as sins but as possible infractions of law. In the end there was no trial, no arrest, only a failed impeachment, for no crime had been committed (if memory serves.) But the real point here is that sin should not be confused with crime. Crime belongs in the courtroom, sin does not. Sin belongs in the non-public forum of the confessional (for Catholics) and the conscience (for Catholics and for everyone else too.) Bill Clinton’s sins, now made public, are no business of the public’s at all; they are something that Bill Clinton should discuss with God and God alone. (Mr Clinton is, as is well known, a firm believer in God.) This applies to all sins, but sexual sins in particular, as of their very nature they should remain private.

Does this last point need to be argued? Surely not. Because in sexual encounters people expose themselves, in every sense of the word, as weak and in some cases vulnerable, this weakness and vulnerability need protection. It is simply cruel to gaze upon the sexual sins of others.

Cruelty, as I think I have said before now, is the modern world’s worst vice.  How I wish we could stop being so cruel to each other. Bill Clinton did not deserve the cruel treatment he received over the Monica Lewinsky affair. And the same goes for Cardinal O’Brien. Leave him alone! Stop bullying him! Yes, he is a sinner, but aren’t we all?