Thursday, February 3, 2011

The near occasion of sin

It has been a bad week for news about priests.

As I referred to in my post yesterday, it is being shown that some of Maciel's followers still--even now, after so much evidence of his life of wrongdoing--secretly or not-secretly believe he will eventually be vindicated as the living saint they thought he was. Will the difficulties presented by this attitude eventually derail any attempt to bring real and lasting reform to the LC/RC? God alone knows.

Today, there is news about the $77 million dollar settlement reached by the diocese of Wilmington, Delaware to compensate 146 people claiming abuse by clergy; the claims stretch back forty years, and involved diocesan priests and religious order priests:

Lawyers involved with the Delaware Catholic Diocese of Wilmington's $77 million settlement with nearly 150 alleged victims of sexual abuse said the church's agreement to release unredacted documents is a historic step toward making sure it doesn't happen again.

And lawyers for the alleged victims said they will post the documents on the Internet.

"When people see the documents, they will be able to judge for themselves" how the church dealt with pedophile priests, attorney John Manly said.

And there was also the news this week that popular priest Fr. Thomas Euteneuer released a statement in which he admitted to violations of chastity with an adult female under his spiritual care in the course of his somewhat unusual exorcism ministry.

With all of these items of news and information, there tend to be comments and conversations which reveal more about each person's view of the Church, the priesthood, sin, and the like than they do about the individual situation. On secular news sites, alas, the comments on matters like these tend to fall along anti-Catholic lines, blaming the Church, the celibate priesthood, the moral law, and similar things for clerical malfeasance. On Catholic websites, commentary seems to divide among three groups: those concerned primarily for the victims; those defending the priests accused or admittedly guilty of some wrongdoing on the grounds that they are otherwise good, holy men; and those who insist that any failure on the part of a priest is really the laity's fault for not praying more, offering more sacrifices, or inviting priests over to dinner more often.


Sin is not a proof that the Church is wrong about a celibate priesthood, nor is it proof that the Church is not an institution founded by Christ to serve as the ordinary means of salvation for all men. Sin is not self-justifying; that is, just because men and women fail to live up to the Church's teachings regarding sexual morality does not mean there is not really any such thing as sexual morality.

But sin is also not something to be brushed aside and overlooked simply because we admire the person or group of people involved in it. And while the laity certainly ought to pray and make sacrifices for priests as for all of the Body of Christ (and could clearly learn to be more hospitable, in some cases), priests sin for the same reason lay people do. We have free will. It is among God's greatest gifts to us, but it is also our gravest responsibility: to learn what is good, and to choose only what is good, regardless of the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Can we do that on our own? No. Hundreds of saints have told us so. Even St. Paul said, "For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do." (Romans 7:19). If any of us thinks we are strong enough on our own to avoid sin, we are being tempted by the worst sort of spiritual pride, and should seek the remedy of prayer, the Eucharist, good Confessions, and the other helps to our spiritual growth the Church offers us.

But this is why the Church also teaches us that we have a serious duty to avoid the near occasion of sin--because we are weak, all of us, and because failing to heed that warning and placing ourselves in the occasion of sin is the first step toward falling into sin, perhaps grave sin. For the priests who abused children, the sin did not simply begin one day; it was preceded by a lengthy period of slowly grooming the children to succumb, and this meant making the choice to be in the children's presence alone and to take some liberties in terms of personal contact which, though innocent enough to appearance, were already sinful in that the perpetrators were using these opportunities to break down the children's natural reserve and innocence. In other cases I've read about, priest abusers used the deadly combination of pornography and alcohol to "seduce" their preteen or teen victims; here, again, the occasion of sin had already been sought out and embraced before the crimes began.

Laity are not exempt from this moral imperative, avoiding the near occasion of sin, either. If a man thinks that he is far too moral and good to be tempted by the presence of a really attractive female co-worker on a business trip far away from home, he may discover to his shame that he was only a few drinks and a convenient hotel-room away from breaking his marriage vows. If a woman thinks that she can form close friendships with men other than her husband, enjoying the attention of what she thinks of to herself as harmless flirtations without ever planning to go any farther with this "game" of hers, she may also learn that she is ready to leave her family for a man she has been insisting is just a friend before very much time has passed. If an engaged couple thinks that of course their virtue is so strong that they will not be tempted by the fact that they've decided to spend an afternoon and evening watching movies alone in the young man's apartment, they may face the prospect of having to postpone the wedding until after the baby is born.

And though I've focused on sins against the sixth commandment, the same rules apply to the other commandments as well. A man who drives over to a rival's house in a fit of deadly anger may well end up in jail for a violent or even murderous act. A dishonest employee begins to steal from his employer not when he actually takes the money, but when he starts wondering how to convince another employee to break protocol and let him take the day's bank deposit to the bank alone. A woman's struggle with covetousness may be exacerbated by her subscription to magazines featuring perfect homes with expensive furnishings and appointments; a man's battle with laziness may end in defeat not when he squanders a day, but when he deliberately fails to set his alarm clock the night before; a woman's sins of gluttony may have their origin not in her binges, but in the act of placing the ice cream and chips into her shopping cart in the first place.

If, in our day and age, priests have been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, I can't help but wonder if it isn't because our age focuses so little on sin, and on the things that lead to it. Priests are no more exempt from the rule of the avoidance of the near occasion of sin than anyone is--but I wonder, when I read the sad articles and recall the pain and confusion many Catholics felt at the height of the Scandal, whether some of them might not have forgotten it, as, indeed, many of us have done, and continue to do.


L. said...

Buried in this post, with which I largely agree, is this:

"...If a woman thinks that she can form close friendships with men other than her husband..."

I truly believe that deep platonic relationships are possible.

Men and women CAN together, form close workplace friendships and even go on business trips together, because there is a certain line that the majority of people know NOT to cross -- and I think that's your point.

bathilda said...

The issue for me has been, and now continues to be the Church's systematic acknowelegement of the abuse and not just the cover up, but reassigning abusive people into other parishes. that is and was evil. it goes beyond the sin of the abuser. Yes, my opinion reflects my feelings regarding the church in could it not? I'm not a good sheep. I think for myself. If those priests had been murdering children instead of raping them, would people still listen to the church with a capital C? Raping children is heinous. It is the result of a sick individual. Hiding that and releasing that person onto other ususpecting children in full knoweledge of what you are doing is indefensible. there is no rationalization. it only serves to make Catholics look like raving lunatics who flat our refuse to use the brains God gave them.

melanie said...

Or, on the flip side, it was a very misguided attempt at compassion towards men who probably claimed they would never do it again. Something which the hierarchy of the church now acknowledges was completely wrong headed. But, we often make weird justifications and rationalizations when people we care for sin. And often people seem truly contrite so it takes time before we realize wow, no, you are not actually going to change. I have a hard time wrapping my brain around it too. However, I do know how badly the devil wants to win souls, and His achievement at doing so much to discredit and destroy the priesthood has gone along way towards winning His battle. And in this country since our media culture tends to put so much focus on sensationalism, we totally miss out on the thousands of good wonderful, holy priests and nuns who have humbly, quietly and faithfully served Christ and His people throughout their very un-hyped up lives. And yes, what I have learned from all this? Pray for our priests and religious. They need our prayers.

Red, this is an excellent post and commentary on sin.

Anonymous said...

You are absolutely correct that we need to know ourselves enough to in the very least, be able to identify near occassions of sin not excluding rules/boundaries that exist in professional relationships in order to protect everyone NOT just from lawsuits.

I would add, where it may seem this person is sympathetic toward this group, etc (regarding comments which could be true to a degree), we each have our own gifts which we are given to develop. I consider you a mouth peace for injustices so those that rightly point out that their do exist victims of adult clergy abuse and they are victims, not lovers nor are they affairs, are not just sympathetic toward that group but might be another mouth peace to give voice to another injustice. Most of these victims have not even received an apology from anyone in authority let alone from the abuser. The Church needs to work on this and it starts with us and our own vocabulary.

Erin said...

What a great post! I long ago discovered that my will is too weak to simply depend on self-control to keep me from I put up external barriers. For example, I have asked my husband to block certain retail websites on our computer, so I am not tempted to shop online.

I have an Evangelical friend who won't have women guests over when his wife is not home. In addition to preventing sexual temptation, this also ensures that his nosey, gossipy neighbors won't have anything to speculate about. He is even avoiding the appearance of sin or wrongdoing.

Red Cardigan said...

Erin, that's wise of your friend. It's not, to respond to L., that men and women can't have platonic friendships--I have such friendships myself. But men who are my friends know that I have rules about these things--that, for instance, any letters or emails sent to me are always open to my husband's view, etc.

To be fair, the gentlemen who *are* my friends have similar rules, if they are married. This protects everyone involved, and is a way of honoring and respecting one's marriage first and foremost above any friendships.

Lee said...

I have platonic relationships with men - my husband is always involved in any meetings I have with them and like you, R C, my husband has full access to any correspondence from them. I do not have workmen in our home if my husband or my grown sons are not also in the home.

I am concerned about priests who have female assistants and female traveling companions - it causes scandal, even when there may be nothing going on between them. satan loves nothing more than temptation and of course, falling into sin from all of us, but most especially by priests.

John Thayer Jensen said...

I am the man side - one of my female co-workers is a very good friend of mine through work - and personally, as well - but always and only in connexion with her husband and my wife. We (my wife and I) have meals with them. Occasionally her husband is away - but my wife is always there. And I have encouraged my wife to develop a friendship with her independently of me - not so easy as we don't live in the same area - but the point really is that between men and women in every case there is always the little spark of sexuality that flavours the relationship. This is not at all a bad thing - but like fire, it can easily get out of control.


Anonymous said...

Personally, there are MANY men whom I don't share even a micro amount of a spark of sexuality. JJ, are you the type of man who thinks that women are coming on to you because they are wearing pants? Platonic relationships are possible. sheesh!

Red Cardigan said...

Anonymous, be nice. JJ is a good guy and a "regular" here.

That said, I do think some of the disagreement re: platonic friendships often comes because men and women view each other so differently--and thus men and women have different ideas about what a truly platonic friendship is. Is it a friendship in which there simply is no attraction? Or is it a friendship in which any attraction is subordinated and kept out of the relationship?

This is why, btw, it's such a good idea to know ahead of time what a near occasion of sin is for one's own self. If you're truly not capable of being around a member of the opposite sex without being aware of his/her SA, so to speak, then you definitely don't want to have even platonic friendships without a whole lot of strict rules in place.

Rebecca in CA said...

There's something to be said for the societal rules which used to be in place and which no longer are, really. For example, the evangelical friend's rule--that's not his invention; it used to simply be a rule of society. Now I think it is rougher for people because instead of being protected by such rules as not being alone for any extended amount of time with a member of the opposite sex, the individual is left with having to give a personal reason. The individual has to put his neck out and say, "for me this would be a near occasion of sin" rather than being protected by societal rules that recognized that in general such things are not recommended. I know people personally who began with completely platonic relationships, ended up spending a lot of time with the other person alone for one reason or another, and found that they both were very attracted to one another. It is a development which should not be unexpected; no one should consider themselves immune to this, or too spiritual for this.

Good post, Red.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic Analysis. I never leave comments, but your article gets to the root of the problem. I know priests need our prayers but I am tired of laity and clergy refusing to make sacrifices that are just a fraction of what a small minority within the Church have to do to remain faithful to Church teaching. I too am a sinner in need of confession right now, but honesty and repentance doesn't so much manifest itself when we say "Mea Culpa" as it does when we say "I better not go there". Avoid near occasions to sin, and stop buying the line that we are capable of more sophisticated, plutonic relationships in a world that is obsessed with sex. Avoid pornography, avoid being alone with persons you are attracted to.
Great article.

Dave said...


Do you feel the same way about public school teachers, who have more pedophiles in number and percentage, and the occurence of which is still subject to cover-up?

No, I'm not excusing what the ephebophile priests did or for their enablers, but when you have the same level of outrage for a more prevalent and insidious scandal, get back to me.

John Thayer Jensen said...

@Anonymous - 4 February 2011 12:46PM:

Personally, there are MANY men whom I don't share even a micro amount of a spark of sexuality. JJ, are you the type of man who thinks that women are coming on to you because they are wearing pants? Platonic relationships are possible. sheesh!

Well, actually, I do not think I have ever thought a woman was 'coming on' to me - only once about 40 years after the fact a certain woman - who was wearing a dress at the time - told me that she had thought me 'very good-looking.' Whether that is 'coming on' or not I really don't know.

And I may have meant something much more about my own feelings towards women :-)

But by 'sexuality' I think I meant something a lot broader than 'coming on to' someone. I don't know that I can express it more clearly than that, but I would assert:

- men and women always have a dimension to their relationship that expresses the sex difference. In some cases it may be what is regularly thought of as sexual desire - but not necessarily. It may have the flavour of the father-daughter relationship - which is very different from father-son - and from the woman's side may smack of mother-son - but it is sexual in the sense that the sexual difference is fundamental.

- men and men always have a dimension to their relationship that is related to aggression. Again, in most cases it isn't a matter of wanting to fight or anything ridiculous of that sort. But it is different precisely because of sexuality.

- women and women - I really can't say - but I would wager that some of the women here might be able to give me an insight here. Is there always a slight undercurrent of competetiveness?

No doubt I have raised your hackles thereby - but perhaps that is part of that 'sexual spark' I was speaking of :-)


L. said...

"-women and women - ... Is there always a slight undercurrent of competetiveness?"

Sometimes, yes. Always, no. It's really hard to make sweeping generalizations about things like that.

And I once had an evangelical friend who wouldn't accept a ride home from my husband without me in the car, too. If this is how some people feel it's best to live, fine -- but I, personally, wouldn't want to live in a world like that.

I work full-time in a male-dominated field, and over the years, I have had many close work friends who were men -- some of whom I've thought were quite physically attractive. We can't control our thoughts, but we CAN control our actions. I think the vast majority of people, no matter whether they're religious or secular, know it's not a good idea to go around acting on every single sexual attraction.

And you know, maybe those of us who don't follow any religion-based code of sexuality, and yet still want to remain faithful and true to our partners, also acknowledge what can be called "the near occasion of sin" -- and we avoid it, too.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

About the only thing I can add to this discussion is, there have been women I find attractive, sometimes legitimately so, subject to appropriate respect, there have been women who have become good friends who are esthetically nice looking but who I do not have the least hormonal attraction to, nor they for me, and there are women I notice are attractive, but know I should keep that notice to myself. These are all possibilities. Knowing to handle each situation in the right way is of course the key to everything discussed here.

Pauli said...

Is anonymous blogging a near occasion of sin?

Red Cardigan said...

Pauli, comments on posts over two weeks old usually end up in my spam filter--I just found yours there.

I'm not sure what you're talking about, anyway--my real name is under the "About Me" section.