Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The petty little sins

A commenter on yesterday's post mentioned that Catholic blogs sometimes look a bit puritanical, in that we (collectively) spend a lot of time talking about sins against the Sixth Commandment and not, say, sins of usury or economic injustice. I agreed with him that sins against economic justice are a real problem in our world today--but except for a few people at rather high levels, the temptation to commit economic injustice probably doesn't happen all that often for the average person. It's not like your garden-variety Catholic wakes up one day and says, "Hmm. I think I'll oppress the poor today, charge a bit too much for my goods/services, and exact staggeringly high interest on any loans I happen to give."

Which is quite true. But then I thought about this some more.

Most of us, even when we're talking about the Sixth Commandment, aren't tempted (at least not at first) to commit the Big Sins. We're tempted to commit the Petty Little Sins that can lead to the big sins over time.

Few of us happily married Catholic bloggers, for instance, are out there plotting adultery. But some happily married Catholics (bloggers or not) fail to recognize the dangers inherent in getting too friendly with members of the opposite sex. They look up old flames on Facebook or similar sites, perhaps, or they engage in rather flirtatious online conversations with like-minded opposite sex Catholics who live safely in other states. They may never be actually tempted to commit adultery, but they are still being tempted to cheat on their spouses--not to cheat sexually, perhaps, but to give time, effort, emotional support, etc. to some person other than their own husband or wife, and to begin to view their own husband or wife rather negatively in light of the "good, fun" relationship they are having with this other person (or, perhaps, even people). Without even realizing it, they have possibly taken the first step away from their marriage, all without doing something that rises to the level of objectively grave sin.

Then, too, there are other temptations against chastity that don't get talked about. We've had plenty of people show up here on this blog, for instance, to argue about how the way other people dress does or does not affect them--but how many people who are insistent on modesty in dress find themselves giving a total pass to the television shows they like when these shows drift toward egregious immodesty and have no redeeming literary or other value? How many people who uphold the Church's teaching against homosexual activity have no problem watching a show like Glee, for instance? How many people who insist that they cannot without sin view the sight of a woman's knee at Mass don't mind at all that Dancing With the Stars is regular viewing in their household? How many women have made jokes about the UPS drivers' uniforms when they are "out with the girls," or commented on the physical appearance of their favorite actors?

And, of course, what is true about the Sixth Commandment is true about the others.

We probably won't be in a position to give someone a loan and charge him usurious interest. But how many Catholics--and other followers of Christ, as well--think it's fine to cheat a little bit on their taxes? How many are silent when they see the cashier accidentally enter the code for ordinary lettuce instead of the more expensive variety they have in that little plastic bag? How many stretch a store's generous return policy to the breaking point? (I sat aghast, once, hearing a Catholic talk about how she would buy brand-name stuff at a local thrift store and "return" it for full credit at a department store that carried the same brands and did not require receipts for return. I considered her actions to be theft, but was too stunned to say so.) How many people accept government aid they don't really need or could do without on the grounds that it is available and they would be fools to pay for things themselves that the state or nation is ready and able to hand them?

Then there's the Third Commandment. Full disclosure: I'm bad at this one. How many of you are, too? How many of you do errands or servile work or other things that break the Sunday character just because it's convenient? I'm not talking about the occasional justified sort of thing, but about making a habit out of treating Sunday as if it were Saturday, minus the hour or so you actually spend in church. Like I said, I'm bad at this one, so I'm not asking readers to ponder anything I'm not pondering here.

And maybe we don't actually take the Lord's name in vain, but maybe we've picked up an unattractive habit of casual swearing or vulgarity. And maybe we don't kill people, but maybe we don't do as much for the pro-life movement as we ought; or maybe we're a bit violent in our attitudes and thoughts toward people in a way that is occasionally depersonalizing (I'm a redhead. Enough said). And maybe we don't dishonor our parents, but maybe we're not as good about visiting or picking up the phone or taking the time to be present to them and really listen (not talking about deeply dysfunctional relationships, here, but ordinary ones). And maybe we don't bear false witness, but maybe we gossip or have a habit of petty character shredding or have developed the "defense mechanism" of always thinking and believing the worst about other people (and being cynical when they seem to be good). And maybe we don't covet anything or anyone belonging to our neighbor, but maybe we nag our own spouse about what other people's spouses do around the house etc., and maybe we immerse ourselves in self-pity about how our house looks compared to how it ought to look, based on magazines and home improvement shows and friends and neighbors who have more money than we do.

I think that it's natural to focus on the big sins, because they betray something deeply wrong with our present culture in this modern age, something that started several hundred years ago and continues to spiral toward decay and destruction. But in our own personal lives, it's the petty little sins that stand between us and holiness, and that can, if left unchecked and unresolved, lead us to the big sins that can cut us off from eternal life. The petty little sins shouldn't be ignored; they are symptoms of our mortality, and can grow to become deadly if we never focus on them at all.


Peter said...

Your post touches on many good topics here, which I appreciate. Your words about economic injustice and stealing at the cash register struck a chord for me. I often see poor people steal things, understanding that it is a drop in the bucket here on Wall Street. I work in an office where there are vast differences in income. Vast. I know one employee whose salary is $40k/year and other whose salary is $4million/year. They regularly interact.

If each of those persons steals a $10 lunch (which happens often - charging the client for a lunch that really wasn't a "working" lunch), I tend to think that the $40k employee has committed a more serious sin than the other.

Am I alone in this thought? Not a trick question - would really like your thoughts.


Geoff G. said...

Red, I'd just like to say I really like this introspective turn your blog has taken lately. There's a lot of really good food for thought in this post.

Peter, I'd say $10 is $10. It's unethical to steal from your client regardless of whatever wage you may be making. It's the stealing itself that's immoral, not the amount.

But one might argue that the one making $4 million a year is committing the worse sin because he sells out his integrity at a cheaper relative price. His theft of a $10 lunch would be akin to the $40,000 employee selling his own integrity by stealing a 1 cent gum-ball.

Deirdre Mundy said...

The other place I think a lot of Catholics fall down is "paying a fair wage to employees." I've noticed this especially with regard to babysitters-- a lot of the homeschooled girls are shy about asking for the 'going rate' and are willing to take slave wages for babysitting.

It's laudable that they're willing to do an act of charity for the young moms, BUT we moms have an obligation on our end, to pay a fair wage to these kids. (Especially since many are saving up for college--I mean seriously, it's not like paying whatever the local going rate is will turn the kids to sex, drugs and rock and roll.)

Anyway, this one really bothers me just because I remember how much babysitting money meant to me as a teen, and how much earning money taught me. But the same goes for the kid who mows your lawn or the person you hire to rake your leaves. If you can't pay a fair wage for someone's work, you should be doing the job yourself!

Kimberly Margosein said...

Peter, I do not follow your logic. Could you expound on it?

Anonymous said...

Just a point re: language. Blasphemy aside, if you are talking with others who are not scandalized by foul language, then it's not sinful. "Bad" language (scare quotes because I don't think it's "bad" at all, sometimes it's exactly appropriate!) doesn't phase me or my circle of friends; others are aghast so I'd never use it in front of them.

However, with regards to blasphemy, I don't even use the phrase "Oh, my God!" unless I'm referring directly to Him.

There's a difference.