Monday, August 30, 2010

"Living in Sin" and Double Standards

I have been mulling this for some time now, and worry it may become one my more misunderstood posts or accused of heresy. But there are some contradictions on a very practical spiritual level that seem to be at play here, and I think they need to be explored. I'm just hashing out my thoughts on all this, I'm not trying to make any claims of total consistency on my own part either or saying this is some sort of definitive position paper or anything like that.

Anyway, it's clear that a lot of the Church's current problems can be traced back to sex. Which may well be a problem with our own culture of death, of course. But, also, there is the fact (which can become highly politicized) that the Church currently has this sort of double-standard for sinners. A chronic masturbator or promiscuous person who engages in occasional hook-ups...can go to confession, receive the eucharist (at least until they do it again), and it's all tolerable because, heck, we're all sinners, and that is a discreet act they can repent of (or, perhaps, just compartmentalize it) and move on. God is merciful.

But, then, there is this perpetual class of pariahs who are apparently not only sinning but, also, "living in sin" because they are divorced and remarried, or cohabiting (not the same thing as merely sharing a domicile, by the way), or in a homosexual relationship, etc. And so they are seen as not only sinning in a discreet instance, but as being in some sort of perpetual state-of-being that is sinful, as if they are committed to sin because they have institutionalized it in the form of a committed relationship.

The concept is described in a passage from "Brideshead Revisited" by a character considering a divorced-and-remarried type situation:

" 'Living in sin'; not just doing wrong, as I did when I went to America [for a one-time-only adulterous fling]; doing wrong, knowing it is wrong, stopping it, [repenting,] forgetting. That's not what they mean [...They] mean just what it says in black and white[:] Living in sin, with sin, by sin, for sin, every hour, every day, year in, year out. Waking up with sin in the morning, seeing curtains drawn on sin, bathing in it, dressing it, clipping diamonds to it, feeding it, showing it around, giving it a good time, putting it to sleep at night with a tablet of Dial if it’s fretful."

This is, of course, the official party-line on the matter. And yet, it seems to me to create a weird contradiction on the practical spiritual level. Specifically, it seems to imply that a series of promiscuous hook-ups are better than an actual committed mutually respectful relationship. Because a person doing the former can repent, go to confession, receive communion for a time, until they fall again...but the latter is permanently expected to refrain from communion even if they recognize that what they've done is wrong and there is a stretch of time that they havent, actually, had sex with their partner.

Because (the logic goes) they cannot validly confess, because they are still intending to do it in the future, they are committed to that idea and have built a "lifestyle" around it, whereas the promiscuous person can "swear it off" for a time, at least.

Even if, in practice, the two are doing the actual sin itself just as often! Yet, for some reason, the chronic masturbator can go to confession and communion in between falls because those are just separate instances of sin, but the divorced-and-remarried or cohabiting or homosexual couple can't because they are "living in a state of sin" even during periods when they don't actually do it.

To me, this doesn't seem to be a terribly healthy notion. I actually met this Calvinist guy (so he had other problems too, lol) in a religion discussion forum once, who was homosexual and who would anonymously hook-up with men every few weeks, but also spoke of entering a committed stable relationship as anathema because that would require, I guess, committing to the idea...whereas anonymous hook-ups can be one-time things that he could repent of, compartmentalize, and move on with life until the next time, being "good" in between.

I think any mature person with any concrete experience of the workings of the human spirit, outside of mere theory...would admit (at least I would hope) that anonymous hook-ups are much worse morally than a committed relationship, which at least has some redeeming moral value (care, trust, respecting and loving the other person as a human being, etc) even if its sex itself is technically illicit. Any notion that would have a series of one-time flings held up as better than something at least somewhat stable, because of some idea that the former can be sworn off in between distinct falls...strikes me as just a recipe for sociopathy. Is it really better for a woman to repeatedly cheat on her husband, repent, go to confession, say she's never going to do it again, only to do it again with another man a few months later...than for her to just be honest about the situation and commit to another stable relationship?

Some people might disagree, but I think that's ridiculous. I agree with what Cardinal Schonborn recently said: "We should give more consideration to the quality of homosexual relationships. A stable relationship is certainly better than if someone chooses to be promiscuous." He likewise said that we need to approach the divorced and remarried more pastorally, as at least they make a stable commitment, whereas many people don't even marry at all anymore but merely live in a fornicatory manner. And yet, the promiscuous person can receive communion in between their distinct acts, while the person in a stable relationship is considered to be in some perpetual state and unable to repent even if they haven't, in fact, done it in a while.

Why can someone repeatedly hookup with someone with no commitment, repent, go to confession, receive communion...even if they keep falling, and know it's likely to happen again with the same person...but a stable relationship with that person is "living in sin"? Where can we drawn the line between repeated falls into sin with the same person and a committed relationship with them...except in the delusion and dishonesty within the mind of the repeat offender who keeps swinging back and forth mentally instead of just deciding once and for all? That really seems to be, a friend I showed this post to pointed out, just cognitive dissonance. Just deluding oneself by not being honest about the nature of the relationship. Is that really what the Church wants to encourage through this idea of "living in sin" as opposed to just "regular old sinning"? Especially given that, I'd like to think, the commitment (to the relationship, not to the sex) would actually be morally redeeming to a degree as opposed to the opposite. Surely a stable relationship is better than promiscuity?

Some might say, "Well, if they really were repenting or knew it was wrong, they'd stop, or get out of that relationship." Yet, another friend of mine said once, "a home is also built on charity, but it has a real sense of evil, sin and failure too." As this so eloquently points out, we're fallen and all our relationships are imperfect and probably have some element of sin in them, even the American Dream nuclear heterosexual family with 10 kids and NFP classes. Even "wholesome" family life and marriage is filled with sin and evil, and yet do we say "Well, because you fight with your wife all the time you should separate from her because she's obviously an occasion of the sin of wrath for you"? No, because we know the good outweighs the evil, and that the evil can be weeded out over time.

This is true even for contracepting married couples to some extent. Since their sin isn't public, I guess, they can probably confess their contraception and receive communion, even if they then, in the future, use contraception again. And yet, when it comes to "public scandal," isn't it rather presumptuous to assume that a divorced-and-remarried or homosexual couple are actually having sex? Realistic, sure, but's also realistic to assume that married couples are contracepting (since so many do), and yet we don't go around judging all married couples or making such assumptions; we mind our own business. So, again, double-standard.

Even my own friendships...obviously contain at times elements of gossip, uncharitable words about others, bawdiness, etc. These elements cannot simply be excised like some tumor either, though, as they form a big part of the friendships. Even if I recognize they are wrong in themselves and confess them...I also know that (God bringing good out of evil) they've been a big part of building up the friendships, getting to know each others personalities (if only in all our sinfulness and imperfection), encouraging personal intimacy, etc. Some of my best memories, on the human level, are of sitting around joking and laughing in ways that, I recognize, had sinful elements to them when it came to speech. And yet, am I to put away all those friends or stop talking to them?

Where sin abounded grace did more abound, and though we can repent of the sin by recognizing it was wrong and entrusting it to God's mercy...we can't actually wish it "never happened" without the sin, the grace the flowed through that wound (even the grace of the forgiveness itself) would never have happened. Think of the children born of these illicit unions. The parent can recognize the act was wrong on principle and ask for God's mercy, but they surely shouldn't wish the act "never happened" if they love the child born of it! We have to own our sin and live with it and, with God's grace, integrate it. We cannot change the past, nor are we required to wish the past was different.

When I confess gossip, for example, I know that I'm supposed to make a resolve never to do it again. But what does that mean? For me, basically, then, this all comes down to the question of what actually is required in terms of the resolve or intent never to do it again. Because, if we're being realistic, I think we all know that when we confess, even if we repent of the act, recognize it as bad, and entrust ourselves to God's mercy...we know that it is at least likely that we'll do it again, even if at the moment we have no specific intent or plans to do so (which I think is enough for the validity of contrition).

But obviously, many Catholics get into a scrupulous guilt cycle (which I've described before) wherein they swear something off radically, and every confession is their "last time" doing it...even though they've said that a hundred times before and, if they were being honest and self-knowing, would admit it probably isn't likely their last time this time either. This is a model for spiritual self-delusion.

Yet, why can I continue in friendships that have been built-up in their intimacy and mutual affection by gossip, and can repent validly even though I know it is likely to happen again (as long as I have no specific intention to do it at the moment)? I can have no intention of breaking off the friendship merely to avoid that "occasion of sin" because the good in the friendship outweighs the evil...and yet a divorced-and-remarried couple or homosexual couple is expected to cut off the relationship entirely or else need to make some big vowed commitment to celibately living "as brother and sister."

Such a burden doesnt seem to be placed on regular sinners where sin is a feature of their relationship; we merely need to have no specific intent to do it again at the moment of confession, we need to recognize it is wrong and thus resolve to stop, but we arent required to make any sort of unrealistic lifelong forecast about never doing it in the future, as long as at the moment we recognize we shouldn't theoretically. Because I think it is realized that this would be merely unrealistic (it is likely that we'll do some things again, and to say otherwise is delusional) yet it's recognized that it's better to have the graces of confession and communion for the battle than to expect people to be truly ready or likely never to do it again in an absolute sense (which just isnt realistic for most people in most instances). We're not required to make some sort of big prophecy or vow about our whole life, merely to address it in the moment (even if it is probable that it will happen again) and commit it to God's mercy.

In summary, I guess what I'm getting at is this: if a woman is divorced and remarried, why shouldn't she be able to just go to confession Saturday morning, mention that, and receive communion Sunday? Even while continuing the relationship. And, if sex happens again later in the week (as long as she wasn't specifically intending it at the time) well, then she's no worse than the chronic masturbator or porn addict who repents only to fall again. And should be no more expected to break off the relationship than the man who yells at his wife, repents, only to have it happen again because she naturally annoys him.

I mean, how are these people supposed to fulfill their Easter duty!? What if they decided each year to give up sex "at least for Lent," went to confession at the beginning, received communion at Easter, but otherwise took a "we'll cross that bridge when we get to it" outlook towards anything more distant in the future than that. Because I think, if any of us are being honest, our own commitments about reforming our lives rarely have an outlook any more distant in the future than that; in reality these things are decided and dealt with day-by-day.

The problem, of course, is that (probably because they've been alienated and singled-out) the divorced-and-remarried, cohabiting, and homosexual couples...often now aren't willing to just say, "Yes, there is sin in our relationship as in all relationships" but want even the sin itself (as opposed to just the good effects) now positively affirmed as good and celebrated. And I'm sure being deprived of the sacramental graces merely compounds that.

And, indeed, it can be understandably difficult to make that abstraction as good-effects can flow even from the illicit sex itself (children, for example, whom the parents love, or even just a building up of intimacy on the human level). And yet, might that not be our fault as an institution for treating them as a special class of sinners as opposed to just sinners like the rest of us? As I said...some of my relationships have been and are built up by interactions that have involved sin, and yet I can still recognize it as wrong (whatever the good effects) and ask God for mercy (even while not intending to leave the friendship, even while knowing it will probably happen again).

I think, here, the ideological commitment is a main problem, of course, that conservatives see with this. The "real problem" is the pride and heresy these people commit when trying to say there is "nothing wrong" with their sex, that they "aren't sinning." Sinning is one thing, and everyone does it and will continue to until the end of time. Refusing to admit that something was a sin is what is really spiritually destructive, though. "Amen I say to you, that all sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and the blasphemies wherewith they shall blaspheme: But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost, shall never have forgiveness, but shall be guilty of an everlasting sin."

The problem seems really more to be the sin of obstinancy (one of the sins against the Holy Spirit), which is prideful, and which compounds the sin (which might otherwise be no big deal) by refusing to let the Physician see it each week or however often, by denying that it's wrong rather than just humbly saying, "Yet, it's wrong, God be merciful. But I think there is more good in the relationship than evil, and so I'll stay even though I know it may well happen again." Because good comes from it (even if the act itself is wrong) and as long as they have no specific plans or intent at the time.

And yet, we don't let them do that! We deny them that grace and antagonize them and so encourage them in such an obstinancy. The hierarchy expects them to live like monks, basically, and put an undue burden of avoiding the occasion of sin on them that the rest of us to do not face in our day to day lives and temptations. I think, ironically, if we allowed it, if we were more pastorally understanding in that regard (rather than expecting them to break everything off and make radical renunciations before we accept their confessions)...they'd actually be more likely, in the end, to move more and more together towards the "ideal" in their relationship (which would still be celibacy) than if we merely leave them high and dry. Why make the perfect the enemy of good?

Isn't obstinancy the corner we box them into by painting their whole relationship as tainted and evil by the fact of one sin within it? That attitude in itself would seem to lead to the unhealthy idea of essentializing their relationship as a sexual one, rather than simply a human one where sex may or may not sometimes happen.

I don't essentialize my relationships with people as founded on sin and therefore irredeemably evil and sinful, even if sin has been a big part of them. Such a vision of these relationships (ie, as essentially just outgrowths or ornamentations of illicit sex) seems to trivialize them and be very reductionist, as such loving pairings may be perfectly humanizing in a million other ways even if, as in all relationships, there is also occasion of sin. And I can see how people would find that offensive, and lead them to (in a defensive reaction) embrace obstinancy and demand to call even the sinful element "good" (which is something infinitely worse and spiritually destructive than the actual sin in itself).

I'm sorry for rambling, I know this one was all over the board, but please discuss! I'm trying to sort out the sorts of double-standards and contradictions I see in the perhaps artificial division between "regular old sinning" (where you can go to confession and receive communion again) and "living in sin" (which makes you some sort of pariah incapable of valid repentance without radical renunciations or massive changes to your whole life).


Curtis said...

This post hit a lot of nerves for me. I think you're onto something but I can't say I agree with most of it. Some thoughts...

1) There is something to be said for "fighting the good fight" rather than working out some compromise, forgoing any possibility of victory. We don't pick what crosses our Lord gives us to carry. St. Paul asked the Lord to take the thorn from his side but He wouldn't, preferring Paul to hope on nothing more than His grace. Shouldn't this be our approach and not some slippery pastoral compromise? The thought of hashing out some scheme with my confessor that would allow me to receive Communion in a sinful state, based on the premise that I might be committing worse sins otherwise, seems like an awful idea to me.

2) We might be being presumptuous about what is more or less evil. I think that, after we die, we will see the evil of these "sinful states" with open eyes and they will be quite horrible. States are invisible to the senses, and thus, I think, undervalued in terms of their importance.

3) People so rarely bother to confess venial sins. What would happen if the Church said you didn't even have to confess mortal sins, so long as there are even worse mortal sins that you might be doing? A man could say "Yes, I beat my wife regularly and don't intend to stop, but if I didn't, I'd kill her, so I should be able to confess and receive Communion". Or does this line of reasoning only apply to sexual sins?

To use another non-sexual example, if a person was into petty crime, mugging someone once a month, would you encourage them to join a gang, so as to incur less risk, a more steady income and the camaraderie between fellow gang members? I don't think anyone would.

4) A person can only vow to never do something again so many times before he ceases to believe himself and the resolution ceases to have any effect. The will becomes numb. You should never take that vow or any vow, unless it has been lived out at least a year, similar to a novitiate period. It should not be done lightly. In general, I think it's a bad idea treating yourself so melodramatically. To quote St. Francis de Sales "There is no cause to marvel because weakness is weak, or infirmity infirm".

5) I do think there is greater need to show empathy and understanding to those stuck in an imperfect state. Even St. Thomas regards homosexual inclinations as being a "co-naturalized habituation", which is Scholastic for "it might be unnatural but it's dang hard to get rid of". I'm not sure if we need a different approach to Confession and absolution, though...

A Sinner said...

Very interesting, Curtis. However, based on some of your comments I'm afraid you may have misunderstood my main point:

"There is something to be said for 'fighting the good fight' rather than working out some compromise, forgoing any possibility of victory. We don't pick what crosses our Lord gives us to carry."

I totally agree. As I said, no one would be approving the illicit sex in these situations. Celibacy would still be the moral obligation for them and the sex would still be seen as sinful.

But I don't see why the sex isn't seen simply as distinct discreet acts, like we treat other sins. As opposed to some "state of being" that seems to create this two-tiered classification of sinners.

"Shouldn't this be our approach and not some slippery pastoral compromise? The thought of hashing out some scheme with my confessor that would allow me to receive Communion in a sinful state, based on the premise that I might be committing worse sins otherwise, seems like an awful idea to me."

But that's not what I'm suggesting at all. I'm suggesting that this idea of "sinful states" separate from actual sinful ACTS...may be meaningless.

Is the habitual masturbator to be denied absolution and communion unless he can prove that he's likely never to do it ever again or unless he makes huge radical lifestyle changes to prevent it?

Some might suggest that we should treat all sinners that way, which I suppose would at least be consistent; obviously, in the early church, public penance was a long ordeal designed to root out the sin totally before being brought back into the fold.

But that is not the model the Church has used for most sins for a long long time.

A Sinner said...

"We might be being presumptuous about what is more or less evil."

No one here is trying to make the argument that the lesser evil can be chosen. The sex would still be seen as sinful and abstinence as an obligation.

It's a question of why repeat-sinners (and most people are) can keep falling and getting up in between...but these people are considered perpetually in sin even between the distinct acts, and seen as unable to repent unless they radically cut off whole parts of their life.

Would it be better to have a woman and man with a pattern of adultery after divorce deny that they are in a stable relationship and say that their sex is just the occasional slip up so they can confess and commune in between? To me this seems like just semantics, then, and one that would encourage a lot of duplicity and dissonance.

"What would happen if the Church said you didn't even have to confess mortal sins, so long as there are even worse mortal sins that you might be doing?"

Who is suggesting that?! The whole point of this is that the illicit sex would be treated as a mortal sin LIKE ANY OTHER, and need to be confessed before communion, etc.

I'm not saying wink at sin, I'm saying a sin is a sin, it's an act, so to have this artificial category of "living in sin" that can't be absolved as opposed to just "regular sinning" a double standard.

Why can't divorced and remarried persons confess their sex and commune like any other sinner? Instead, a positive burden is placed on them to basically PROVE their resolve never to do it again (by making radical vows or dissolving the relationship itself), a burden of proof that is not placed on us "regular" sinners.

"To use another non-sexual example, if a person was into petty crime, mugging someone once a month, would you encourage them to join a gang, so as to incur less risk, a more steady income and the camaraderie between fellow gang members? I don't think anyone would."

Ah, but here's the interesting thing: a person in a theft-gang could come to Church, confess "theft," be absolved, and receive communion (until he stole again) without having the burden of proof regarding his resolve that is put on the divorced and remarried, the cohabiting, the homosexual couple.

"a person can only vow to never do something again so many times before he ceases to believe himself and the resolution ceases to have any effect."

Oh, perhaps. And yet the Church absolves people week after week who have been doing the same sins for years (porn, masturbation, lying, gossiping) without requiring from them the same burden of proof in terms of the seriousness of their resolve that is placed on those "living in sin."

George said...

so for other types of sins the seriousness of the resolve to stop is just assumed by default by the very fact that the person is confessing, but in these cases the sinner is given the burden of proof and must demonstrate through cutting off the relationship or promising to live as brother and sister etc when in other sins the priest does not usually pry to much about the extent of the resolve

Stephen said...

Admittedly, what I'm about to say is purely anecdotal (and hearsay at that), so take it for what it's worth.

I've heard of a priest who will refuse to give absolution (or threaten to do so) to a man who is not cohabiting with his girlfriend, but is still having sex with her on a regular basis. Usually, he knows the man and after he hears the same sin several times within a short period of time, and eventually tells the man that he's got to change.

As for being in a gang of thieves, I actually think that might be a "state of sin," comparable to cohabiting with a girlfriend. It would also raise similar issues for a priest. The penitent needs to stop stealing, but he may also need help "getting out of the relationship" without getting hurt, he may need to find a way to support his family without resorting to crime, etc. It really would call for a change in the sinner's entire way of life.

You might also want to consider another example of public sinning and being in a state of sin, such as being a member of the mob. Aren't mob bosses denied Christian burial?

A Sinner said...

I'm not sure any of that is regular policy in the way it is for the divorced and remarried, etc.

John Gotti was denied a public funeral Mass, more for reasons of scandal, but still got burial in a Catholic cemetery.

Some priests may deny other types of sinners absolution until they "prove" their resolve or make some major changes (I think in the East this is more common) but it's hardly policy in the West except for a small category of sexual sins. I've never heard of it, and it's certainly not the practice of the most pastoral.

If a priest denied absolution, many people would simply go to another who didn't know their background. Disingenuous, perhaps, yet the person clearly wants absolution for some reason, and we'd have to dismantle the whole system of anonymous confessions and confessor-shopping to do this in a consistent way.

And I'm not necessarily sure it would be a good thing. I don't think resolve to stop can realistically be anything more than a recognition that something is sinful, a desire for mercy, and the lack of specific intent to do it again. Requiring people to look out too far beyond that moment...might lead to a lot of dishonesty or self-deception.

Curtis said...

I quite agree that there needs to be some sort of absolution given to a divorced-and-remarried person, where both spouses want nothing to do with each other. Given that an annulment is impossible, it seems like you should able to confess to remarriage or concubinage or whatever that sin would be, and move on.

If absolution is denied, it should be based on the realistic fact that the person could easily take some simple steps to get out of the sinful state. If it is plain that it isn't easy to get out, like in the case of a remarriage with children, or a complex gang/mafia situation where life and livelihood would be in danger, there should be some norm to follow that would allow the priest to absolve them of their sin, provided the person expresses contrition over their actual sins and for their sinful state of living.

After all, in the case of the woman caught in adultery, Our Lord absolved her and said "Go and sin no more", but there was no burden of proof demanded. She didn't need to show how she would support herself without prostitution (if that was the case) and she didn't need to promise to leave town to avoid her former lover (if adultery was the case).

I believe it is a tenet of Catholic moral theology that many of the states that we would call "living in sin" actually mitigate the culpability of each actual sin committed within that state. For instance, I would say that the more a person shoots heroin, the less and less guilt they incur with every occurrence. It's always an evil thing, even if they are an out-and-out junkie, but it seems in some ways that living in sin should be a greater cause for mercy and pity. But we seem to store up all our righteous anger for people who are so hopelessly caught up in sin, they can barely tell up from down.

I recall another maxim of Catholic moral praxis. "Never expect a heroic degree of virtue".

A Sinner said...

Well, the sin in remarriage is adultery. And you can't absolve it under the assumption that it will still be happening. But since sex acts are distinct acts (and potentially far between for married couples, lol) why they couldnt confess and be absolved for the times "in between" like any other sinners, without this huge burden of proof regarding their resolve to not do it again...I don't really know.

Anonymous said...

Some thoughts....I am currently listening to Scott Hahn and he has a very good explanation as salvation history as a series of Covenants. Anyway, in one of his audios (Part of the "Father's Plan" Bible Study on the EWTN site), he speaks of the holiness of marriage as a covenant.

I think the reason that the person "living in sin" rather than the intermittent sexual sinner is held to such high standards and more tangible proof of a will to change is that by living as if they were married they are actually in a sense committing a sacrilege against something holy (Matrimony).

Just as it is a serious sin for a person who is not a priest to dress up as a priest and pretend he is one, it is a sin for a couple to live as if they are married ("dress up") when they are not.

Not only would each of the priest impersonator's simulations of the Mass or other sacraments be sinful
individually, but the very status of pretending to be a priest ("living in sin") would also be a sin.

If we look at marriage as Covenant like Scott Hahn emphasizes, I think the whole idea of not "living in sin" makes sense.

Additionally, I think many priests are just careless today. Technically, any priest sees that any pentitent is not willing to give up an occasion of sin, should deny that person absolution until they are ready to do so.

A Sinner said...

Interesting. And yet, such married couples are for various reasons permitted to live "as brother and sister" so I'm still not entirely sure. There seems to be a presumption of guilt about them that is not made, for example, for a regular married couple even though the latter is probably contracepting if statistics are any indicator.