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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

Under canon law, the seal of confession is sacred under the penalty of excommunication (CNS)

Under canon law, the seal of confession is sacred under the penalty of excommunication (CNS)

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?

  • ChrisMorley

    Archbishop Philip Tartaglia, Archbishop of Glasgow and Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh seems to accept the charge of hypocrisy by O’Brien is valid, in his sermon last Sunday
    “The most stinging charge which has been levelled against us in this matter is hypocrisy, and for obvious reasons. I think there is little doubt that the credibility and moral authority of the Catholic Church in Scotland has been dealt a serious blow, and we will need to come to terms with that.”

  • Jon Brownridge

     I present no defense whatsoever for crimes which are indefensible. I simply request accurate and truthful reporting.

  • T Sidnell

    Christians are often accused of making too much of
    sexual sin. Such critics say other things are wrong too, so why make a big deal
    about sex? But it is not biblical to say that all sins are the same. Although
    all sin should be taken seriously, and although each age has its hypocrisies,
    taking some sins more seriously than others – which is probably the target of
    the ‘all sins are the same’ approach – the Bible does make a distinction
    between sins (e.g. Ezek. 8:6,13,15; Matt. 5:19, 23:23; John 19:11; 1 John


    In terms of our legal standing
    before God, any one sin, even what may seem to be a very small one, makes us
    legally guilty before God and therefore worthy of eternal punishment. On the other hand, some sins are worse than others in
    that they have more harmful consequences in our lives and in the lives of
    others, and, in terms of our personal relationship to God as Father, they
    arouse his displeasure more and bring more
    disruption to our fellowship with him. (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology)


    As for sexual sin, the Bible clearly states that it is
    in a distinct category from other sins (1 Cor. 6:18-20). This is not necessarily because it is more
    culpable than lying, for example, but because of what it involves – sinning
    against one’s own body (which is the temple of the Holy Spirit if the person is
    a Christian, vv. 18 & 19), and becoming one flesh with another (v. 16),
    something appropriate only for a man and woman who have committed themselves
    exclusively to each other for life.


    Sexual sin dishonours God, dishonours the sexual
    partner, dishonours oneself, and steals from marriage in that it implies that
    it is not necessary for sexual activity. It is highly damaging spiritually,
    emotionally, relationally, and (increasingly with the prevalence of STDs),
    physically. And if a child is conceived, further damage is wrought either
    through abortion, or through the bringing of a child into the world outside of
    the security of marriage, in many cases depriving the child of a meaningful
    relationship with its father.


    Eventually this last outcome can have all manner of
    negative effects on society – something we are currently witnessing, as a whole
    generation of emotionally-damaged children grows up bringing anti-social
    behaviour into the classroom and to the
    streets of our towns. No man is an island, and sexual sin, though committed in
    private, can have very public effects.


    If nothing else, every sexual act outside of marriage
    is one more assault on marriage as the sole context for sexual union, and since
    marriage (and the families that ensue) is the God-given foundation on which
    society ultimately depends for stability, it is one more assault on society.


    If a couple do not love one another enough to commit
    themselves exclusively to each other for life, they do not love one another
    enough for the sacred union which is sexual intercourse.

  • Julian Lord

    suddenly we are expected to go easy on him

    Of course not !!!

    But as usual, you’re falling into your trap of : false premiss > false conclusion.

    The false premiss being your claim that it is the Church that is “obsessed” with sexuality, rather than the secular society that thinks about the topic far, far too often — and attempts to impose its hedonistic views on the Church (through your vaunted “legality”) whilst hypocritically accusing the Church with being guilty of the obsessions that are being foisted upon her willy-nilly.

  • Julian Lord

    Only 10% of the Ten Commandments concern sex in any way.

  • Charles

     Hi BC, I’ve had so many comments deleted here lately that I don’t know how to participate anymore; I guess England is too PC for a yank like myself. Do you teach English in Russia?

  • lyn

    Bill Clinton was vilified not because of what he did–but because he lied about it. That is what the rest of the world believes is wrong with the respones of the Cardinal–he lied. He knew about the allegations before he publicly said he did not know what they were. I find it odd that the writer of this piece says that sexual sins should remain private–I take it he means the sort of sin that is not a crime? If that is so, then the sexual sins of the cardinal should not have been made public. However, he was in a position of trust and authority, a teacher and leader of his organisation, a man who controlled the careers of the young men he approached for sexual favours. Complaints were made last year to the vatican about his behavoiur, but nothing was done until the complaints were reported in the press. That is why such “sexual sins” cannot remian private. If the sins affect the lives of others and the complaints of those affected are not heard what are they supposed to do? I have read on here that some feel that it is perfectly possible for him to truely believe that homosexual acts are sinful, just because he enjoys such acts himself does not detract from this, but, how many times will he continue to enjoy such acts himself whilst condeming others who enjoy them before we are entilted to think that , perhaps, he is not telling the truth? This was not one or two isolated incidents, but a lifestyle choice that spread over many years. My husbands uncle was in a seminary in Ireland in the 1950′s and never really talked about his time there until he was very elderly and alzhiemers had started to take him back in time. It was clear to us that he had been subject to unwelcome attention from his superiors and had just put up with it. He would cry sometimes, saying he wanted it to stop and he was so sorry. He had nothing to be sorry for, but he carried that guilt all of his life. That is why sexual sins of men such as the cardinal cannot be private.

  • Patrickhowes

    In my humble opinion the problem is no so much the sexual sin as the lack of transparency and archaic methods of self regulation.People and priests have reported abusers to the Church authorities and they do nothing.Is it not this arrogant attitude that has pushed the Church into its own corner.I sicerely believe that Pope Bendict did more than any other to lift the lid,but he was thwarted by the curia and those whose commercial gains could be threatened by revelations.This was apparent in the Maciel scandal.

  • Patrickhowes

    Interesting point.A so called catholic sister once told me that they were little sins as does Father Alex,but actually they are not.If you are promiscious you break up families and leave wives and husbands and women have abortions to get themselves out of trouble.A alrge river stems from a small stream and what we think is a small sin becomes a mortal one all too easily

  • Benedict Carter

    20% at least. 

  • Benedict Carter

    No, I left Russia some years ago after nearly thirteen years there. Not teaching.

    The moderation here is appalling – that of GLAVLIT, the Soviet censor. Welcome to the PC Socialist British Republic.

  • Benedict Carter


  • Arden Forester

    Sin is sin. But with regard to sin I like the definition of an African bishop who said that if Idi Amin had got down on his knees and begged for forgiveness in a true manner then all his sins would be forgiven.

    The trouble is the modern world, or maybe the world for all time, sees forgiveness as weakness. It is actually completely the opposite.

  • $20596475

    Would it not be better if YOU explained to the hierarchy what they ought to be thinking about this, and then insist that they do something about it? That is the fundamental problem with a top down organisation like the Catholic Church. The hierarchy are remote, out of control and do not have the same interests as the lay members. A complete revision of authority is needed, but will never happen. The result is bound to be a continuing downward spiral towards extinction. The RC Church is no longer fit for purpose in the world of 2013. 

  • Acleron

    It appears he was pushed rather than jumped so no credit there.

  • Acleron

    That anyone abuses the defenceless is reprehensible but the main association of this with the catholic church is about the systematic cover up. This point appears to escape most catholics who defend the church.

  • Acleron

    The acceptance of killing after birth is a worrying one but not of a practical concern, no UK government would countenance it. But abortion of foetuses is a trickier problem. I certainly wouldn’t accept the catholic’s view that a single cell is a person, that is ridiculous but as medical techniques improve then re-examining our present laws appear in order. But it was interesting that although you consider a single fertilised cell to be a person for one moment, when money is involved then suddenly you are arguing that they are not people at all.

  • James M

    “Why are we so obsessed with sexual sin ?”

    ## To some degree at least, because the CC is all going on about it, just as other Churches used to. Matters are not helped by the fact that the CC and the culture do not see eye to eye on all these issues. 

    (I assume – maybe wrongly – that the “we” means “we people in the UK”.)

  • James M

     It is a problem, but it needs to be focussed.

    From the POV of the CC, hypocrisy is not the disqualifier from having a right to teach that it can seem to be if one is not Catholic. This is because the CC makes a distinction between clergy are as individual human beings (their private persona), and what they are as its ministers (their public persona).

    In this analysis, a bishop may be a hypocrite, or a murderer, or even a Satanolater, as a private person. But as a bishop, he has to teach  what the CC teaches – and as the CC takes strong objection to hypocrisy, murder, & Satanolatry, he would be obliged  to teach that these are sinful. That he had himself committed one or more of them, would be irrelevant – for he would not be teaching in his private persona, but in his public persona. What makes a cleric a private or public person, is whether he is acting as a minister of the CC, or not.  A paedophile priest is not committing paedophilia as a priest of the Church, but as a man doing something which is reprobated by it. That the paedophile is a Catholic priest – rather than a teacher, a handy-man, a geneticist, or whatever – is incidental; the action is not part of his ministry.

    I have some difficulty accepting this, although it is a very elegant set of ideas – it is problematic because it pays no attention to the Biblical requirement of holiness, which is a profoundly ethical holiness. The idea protects the efficacy as Church ministers of sinful ministers, thus assuring the recipients of the sacraments  that they can receive the sacraments from priests even of unedifying character or false doctrine – but it pays no attention to what is required of priests as specifically Christian: the argument lacks too much detail for that. But priests, like the rest of  the Church, are called to holiness, & not just a generic holiness, but the Holiness of Christ; which is ethical, & existential, & more.

    What the solution does not help with, is the issue of hypocrisy. Conceptual separations are all very well, but they risk being logic-chopping excuses to get round the teaching of Jesus, which is very rigorous. It does not look good, when someone who is tainted with fault X denounces it – unless it is clear that he denounces it as a sinner with other sinners. Clergy, unfortunately, are distanced from the laity, and this distance between the two makes it possible for clergy to sound as though they are rebuking from a position of unjustified moral superiority. Jesus, by contrast, did not distance Himself from others – He sought them out.

    I think this issue is more complex than it appears. There is a problem here, and it can’t be solved  by comments in comboxes. Good question, though. 

  • CullenD

    A difference he tried to force on students under his direct influence. The elephant in the room is… what would have happened if those four men had capitulated? Did other, “weaker”, students agree to his advances? His apology makes clear he regrets his actions as a Cardinal as well as a priest, tutor and bishop.

    I would never consider “thoughtcrime” a crime, but if the only obstacle to O’Brien’s actions were the lack of a willing participant, it removes all moral authority from his position, both as a man and a catholic figure. 

  • James M

     That was well said by him  – it may go some way to disarming some of the criticisms.

  • James M

     The only objection to the opening suggestion, is that individuals can be (& often are) ignored. (Understandably enough.) Excellent post though.

  • James M

     “…it is inevitable that some miscreants were able to slip through the cracks over such a long time.”

    ## Not so – proper oversight, and other necessary things, would make that impossible. Nothing is inevitable; none of this was (IOW) “fated to occur” – it happened because of people’s choices.

    To “fight back” would suggest that the CC cares more about its ego & its self-perpetuation, regardless of the cost to others, than about holiness  in its clergy or the well-being of the victims. Media inadequacies do not change the overall narrative. FWIW, the first I heard of this was a programme about a priest who had molested over 60 people – the first, while he was a deacon. And his bishop knew of it, but ordained him to the priesthood even so. I would like to think this series of events is unparalleled – but is that plausible ?

  • Email2007

    How true this is, that many are taken up with going on at people for their sins as if they have none of their own, “for those without sin cast the first stone”. Keith O’ Brien, like many others deserves compassion and understanding, we all need to look towards God and see others as God wants us to, not as objects of contempt but as a focus of our love.

  • Email2007s

     Defending the Church and defending offenders are two entirely different things, something you seem to have missed!
    The kind of remarks on here that are anti Church are very unhelpful and a reflection of a media driven culture, the media are only interested in selling sex scandal stories to sell papers and advertising and secular people who can’ t get enough of the ‘hot’ news of that kind of flith are just as bad as the abusers themselves. Secular people are always after the next sex abuse story for their latest turn on, and that is why the tabloids make a big deal out of it, sex sells, and those people are not helping victims, they are just as bad as the abusers themselves.

    The Church has done much to sort out the mess and to say they havent is simply untrue.

  • James M

    “…’after-birth abortion’, a title that, for mental gymnastics and sophistry, takes the biscuit.”

    ## That’s putting it mildly. If they mean infanticide – and what is being described, is infanticide – they should say so. If they think killing children is morally justifiable, it is for them to make a case for killing children.   

    Changing the name suggests that calling the practice by its proper name leaves them uneasy. “[A]fter-birth abortion”, or ABA as it will probably be known in the literature, sounds clinical, detached, impersonal – infanticide has the disadvantage of sounding as though it is to do with the killing of children. IOW, its great flaw is that it makes unpleasantly clear just what is intended. But ‘after-birth abortion’ is pleasingly vague. “Infanticide” not only is horrible – it sounds horrible.

    How is this not (delayed) eugenics ?

    “What they are arguing for is that babies that are already born but manifest some ‘defect’ that would have been grounds for abortion, should simply be killed, because they are simply born fetuses – they are not really people, not really babies.”

    ## That makes the victims of Harold Shipman elderly foetuses – by the logic of Singer’s argument. Once X is born, it is immaterial to X’s status as a human whether X is 7 days, or 107 years, old. If Singer is serious, he should argue for the recognition of homicide as a socially responsible activity. This would free the police, & prisons, & the legal system, of a lot of work.

  • James M

     Now that is relativism – in favour of the Church, but still relativism.

  • James M

    “That is what the rest of the world believes is wrong with the respones
    of the Cardinal–he lied. He knew about the allegations before he
    publicly said he did not know what they were.”

    ## While in no way wanting even to seem to defend what he did, IMO he is, perhaps, not lying. STM  he was resorting to a broad mental reservation – & BMRs are perfectly allowable. They are not lies, but means of avoiding lying. Lying OTOH is always wrong.  

  • licjjs

    I made an important slip in using a double negative in the above comment.  I have now corrected it: “If we affirm that a human being can exist without being a person……” instead of: “If we deny………”  Sorry about that.

  • Julian Lord

    The prurient interest in sex is simply a hangover from the time when nobody was supposed to talk about it

    Oh don’t be ludicrous — the popular culture is obsessed with sex, and you know it.

  • Peter

    I would call such killing an absolute evil.

  • licjjs

    “But it was interesting that although you consider a single fertilised cell to be a person for one moment, when money is involved then suddenly you are arguing that they are not people at all.”  
    I do not follow.  When you say ‘you are arguing…..’ I am certainly not arguing that: money has nothing to do with it.  Perhaps you just meant ‘you’ to mean a vague ‘people’??

  • Benedict Carter

    It’s a giant problem and has been since the late 1950′s. The damage these men have done to the Church, in many different ways, is incalculable. 

  • Jonathan West
  • Benedict Carter

    That’s all very well. But he had a responsibility which he took on freely, and he has let himself and the Church down very badly. Actions do have to be judged in this world. 

  • Jonathan West

    I would have been a bit more impressed with this article had there been even some small concern expressed for the welfare of those the Cardinal had interfered with, particularly the four men who reported the matter to the Papal Nuncio and who have undoubtedly been under a great deal of stress lately.

    But no, this article is true to type regarding the attitudes of the Church concerning such matters, the welfare of the abusing priest gets all the attention, and the welfare of his victims doesn’t rate any consideration at all.

    And if you think “abusing” is a wrong word in this context, let me point out that he was making sexual advances to those who he was in a position of authority over and who were hardly in a position to say “no”. That is sexual abuse by any reasonable definition of the word.

    And is the Cardinal even properly repentent? One has to express some doubts about that as well. First of all, he “contested” the allegations, claiming they were too vague for him to know what he was being accused of. That got shot out of the water when the Observer made it clear that details of the allegations were provided to the Cardinal’s office prior to publication. And now he has apologised to all he has “offended”. If offending people is the only damage he thinks that he has done then he is a very long way yet from even being capable of a valid confession of his sins, let alone a full repentance.

    But that doesn’t get mentioned. He’s a cardinal, we must feel sorry for him.

  • Peter

    Singer said there’s no moral difference between killing a newborn baby and killing a baby still in the womb because they are still both not fully aware and therefore not fully human.

    He was of course wrong in concluding that they are both non-human and therefore killable, but right in claiming that there is no moral difference between the two.

    As Catholics we should embrace the latter argument – that there is no moral difference between killing newborn and unborn babies – while strongly rejecting the former argument – that both are killable.

    It appears that Singer has shot himself in the foot, for while trying to justify killing babies outside the womb, he has provided a powerful argument for not killing babies inside the womb.

  • NewFranciman

    In general I think you are right.  It is also worth noting that hypocrisy is a vice more often invoked in the UK than elsewhere probably because the type of press that we have chosen in the UK claims the exposing of hypocrisy as the main justification for peddling stories about the peccadillos of celebrities.  In the gospels Christ uses it as a reply to the rabbis who criticised him for mixing with those who were unclean sinners.  Few if any can look back on their life and claim that they have never taken part in inappropriate sexual behaviour causing, at the very least, a cringe.  Most of us have inappropriately criticised a sinner rather than the sin they have committed and taken pleasure in the disapprobrium of the great and good. 

  • Acleron

    If the defence of the church means covering up the offences of the individual it is still wrong. It is your church officials who tell you what to believe and how to behave who are trying to protect criminals. It is quite right to criticise them as we do with anyone else who interferes with justice.

  • Acleron

    Catholics in America were being sued by a husband who lost his wife, pregnant with twins, to medical negligence. To reduce the amount payable the argument was made that the foetuses were not persons in law. They cheerfully maintained this argument until the hypocrisy was publicised.

  • Jonathan West

    I looked up the meaning of “broad mental reservation” on the Catholic Culture website. This passage was most interesting.

    “The main reason that justifies the use of a broad mental reservation is the need for preserving secrecy, where the value to the common good is greater than would be the manifestation of something that is sure to cause harm. Such reservation must be used with great prudence, at the risk of creating suspicion and mistrust if people cannot be sure that what they are being told is what they hear.”

    It seems to me that O’Brien had absolutely no justification for the use of a BMR. The only secret he was trying to maintain was that of his own sins. There was no consideration whatsoever for the welfare of others, no “common good” justification at all.

    If the Cardinal believed that he was justified in the use of a BMR, then he had deceived himself into thinking that his own personal interests and the common good were one and the same thing. The sin of pride.

  • Pam Ruigh

    There are sexual sins that may be just sin and then there are sexual sins that are crimes. The Church seems not to know the difference. Masturbation, sex outside of marriage, premarital sex and homosexual sex do not carry the same sense of gravity that pedopphilia does.. However pedophilia, hebophilia, and rape of any kind are serious crimes and should be treated as such. I cannot understand a culture that allows and looks the other way when sexual crime occurs. To me the rape of a child or youth by a priest is just as criminal as the same rape done by the common man. It deserves police intervention and serious jail time. Now also if a priest has sex with a parishioner, even consensual it is an abuse of power. psychiatrists can be sued and barred from futher practice if they sleep with patients, however consensual the sex was.
    Jesus Christ had next to nothing to say about sex and everything to say about loving one’s neighbor and caring for the poor and sick.

  • Peter

    All judgement of anyone who commits wrongdoing in this modern day and age ought to take place against the background of the fact that the society in which we live is the most barbaric and bloodthirsty in history, given the number of unborn children that are systematically killed.

    Never in the history of mankind has such systematic killing taken place on such a large scale and for so long.  It is easy to forget that such wholesale slaughter takes place at every moment of every day all round the world hidden from view, and this consequently gives rise to a false sense of morality in society.

    The presence of abortion in our world has deeply distorted our social sense of morality to the extent that it is no longer a valid benchmark for what is truly right and wrong.  Consequently there is no right and wrong in our society, only what is lawful and what is unlawful.  

    Because of abortion, the right to judge anyone by moral standards no longer exists in our society, only the right to judge them legally.  Only if they break the law can society punish them, either through the courts or through the media.  Whatever else they do which does not entail breaking the law is neither the business of the courts nor of the media.

    The believe otherwise, now, that is hypocrisy.

  • Peter

    “The believe”  should be “To believe”