If Peter Can Deny Our Lord Three Times (dot dot dot)

In the current climate of Roman Catholic discontent about sexually abusive and active priests, bishops, cardinals, and a church structure that made cover-up possible, it may not be the best time to raise questions about sexual infidelity among pastors. But a dinner with old friends and colleagues this summer at General Assembly and now reading about what to do about priests who have fallen has me thinking (always dangerous to do in public).

The thought is this: why is sexual infidelity worse than other sin? As the title of the post indicates, Peter did something that was pretty rotten. He denied his Lord three times. At certain times in church history (persecution in N. Africa in the third century and in Korea in the twentieth century), that kind of infidelity could get you booted from the ministry. But you could add lying and stealing as big deals. How do you trust a pastor who commits those sins? And perhaps not as obviously wicked, but what about idolatry or blasphemy (never mind keeping the Lord’s Day holy)? Why do we zoom in on the seventh commandment to adopt a one-strike and you’re out?

Here is how Robert George put it this week:

In short, what the Church (and by “the Church” I am referring to the lay faithful as well as to the Church’s hierarchical officials) should demand—that is, absolutely insist upon without exception—of its clergy is what the clergy should preach to the people, namely, fidelity. Fidelity, fidelity, fidelity. Priests must believe and preach what the Church holds as true about God and man—and must practice what they preach. Am I advocating a zero-tolerance policy toward grave sexual sins, such as fornication, adultery, and sodomy (even when committed by consenting adults)? Yes, I am. It is not because I think these sins are unforgivable, or even that they are the worst sins. (In fact, they are forgivable and, though grave, they are not the worst sins.) It is because the infidelity expressed by and embodied in these sins, and because the scandal—undermining of the faith (including the faith of the sinning priest and the faith of the person with whom he sins)—they occasion, is simply intolerable. These sins are toxic to the priestly ministry. Priests who cannot or will not avoid them cannot effectively carry out their mission.

So there is the logic from a conservative Roman Catholic:

Sexual infidelity undermines the faith corporately and personally.

Therefore, sexual infidelity is intolerable.

I understand it but the argument is not exactly airtight since you could insert idolatry, lying, and stealing into the premise and come to the same conclusion.

I am not trying to excuse sexual infidelity (or lying and stealing). I am curious though if our revulsion at sexual sin reveals more about those judging the sin than it does about the nature of the sin. I understand that according to our standards, some sins in themselves and by reason of several aggravations are more heinous in the sight of God than others. But that catechetical language gives room for what may only be “like your opinion, man.”

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How Liberalism Abets Sin

People who self-identify as Christian scholars have issued a statement that condemns racism:

Racism should be denounced by religious and civic leaders in no uncertain terms. Equivocal talk about racist groups gives those groups sanction, something no politician or pastor should ever do.

The Christian basis for such denunciation is that all humans are created in the image of God. So far, so uncomplicated.

The statement also includes an affirmation of civil liberty:

Even as we condemn racism, we recognize that the First Amendment legally protects even very offensive speech.

The statement could include freedom of assembly, and freedom to publish. But these Christians see that our laws protect speech even when it is offensive.

Now imagine if the abolitionists had made similar assertions about slavery:

Slavery should be denounced in no uncertain terms.

Even as we condemn slavery, we recognize that the First-Amendment legally protects slavery advocates to express their ideas.

I don’t think that kind of toleration was in William Lloyd Garrison’s playbook.

I am aware, that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; —but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.

And so, the problem that proponents of certain moral positions in public face is that in a free society, we make room for sinners.

Even as we condemn adultery, we recognize that we don’t want police going into private homes to see what people are doing.

Or

Even as we condemn the desecration of the Lord’s Day, we recognize that those who try to observe the Fourth Commandment should not receive special protections from law enforcement officials for their beliefs.

Or

Even as we condemn Communism, we recognize that the freedom of association allows the Communist Party USA to enjoy the protections of tax laws and civil and corporate codes.

In other words, a liberal society will not allow government to root out sin. It even protects its practice.

That is an especially difficult aspect that this statement does not address. The authors acknowledge that racism has taken many forms in U.S. history:

Slavery was formally abolished in 1865, but racism was not. Indeed, it was often institutionalized and in some ways heightened over time through Jim Crow legislation, de facto segregation, structural inequalities, and pervasively racist attitudes.

American law and policy have addressed some of these instances of racism — Jim Crow, structural inequalities, voting rights. But can legislation do anything about racist attitudes or the efforts of those who hold them to meet and publish?

Probably. But then you may no longer have a free society.

In which case, what does speaking out do?

Even without liberalism, will always have sin with us. With it, we have different interpretations of sin and so vice receives protection.