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Why doesn’t ‘discernment’ apply to other types of sin too?

In the modern world adultery is regarded as OK, while such things as racism remain beyond the pale

In his excellent blog Fr John Hunwicke asked two big questions. Here is the second:
“There is much talk about Discernment, Accompaniment, Gradualism, and Conscience, as applied to those in objectively adulterous relationships.
BIG QUESTION: Does all this stuff apply only to adulterers, or does it also apply to all sinners, including embezzlers, paedophiles, murderers, wife-beaters, human traffickers, torturers, rapists, economic exploiters of the poor, blackmailers, racists, exploiters of prostitutes, perpetrators of genocide, drug traffickers, etc. etc.
If not, why not?”
Once more the good Father has opened up an interesting avenue of exploration. In fact we all know the answer to this question. While adultery is now in some quarters regarded as OK, along with fornication and other sexual sins, and able to be sanitised by good intentions, other sins remain beyond the pale: indeed some of these other sins, such as racism, genocide and paedophilia, are now seen as so uniquely awful as to be quite beyond redemption. So, we have a two-way movement: sexual sins are absolved, while certain forms of sin are excoriated more than ever before. This means that our age is puritanical with regard to things like racism, but licentious with regard to sexual matters. That is contradictory, but when were human beings ever coherent?
Given the universal horror aroused by child abuse, one might take this as an indication that absolute moral norms exist, but that is something the world is loath to admit: though it seems to me that the fact that child abuse, slavery, racism and other bad deeds are unacceptable in all circumstances and cannot be sanitised by any motive whatsoever is a pretty good sign that St John Paul II was on to something when he wrote Veritatis Splendor, insisting on the objective nature of morality and the existence of moral norms without exception.
So why the disconnect? Why is adultery OK, and racism not? The answer is, I think, because the revolution of the 1960s was, like all revolutions, fought only on one front. It was a sexual revolution in essence, even though at the time it might have seemed like a political revolution as well. It is true that in 1968 France looked on the verge of dramatic political change, and there was enough turmoil to make people assume that this was so. But when the dust settled and the smoke cleared, France was still there politically, and the ruling class intact; what had changed was people’s attitude to sex. This is illustrated in Bernardo Bertolucci’s film about 1968, The Dreamers. Yes, I know there seemed more to 1968 at the time, but what is the legacy now?
It is worth noting that real revolutionaries, people like Maximilien Robespierre, are often anything but libertine in their private lives. Many of the Russian revolutionaries strongly disapproved of sexual immorality, which they saw as symptomatic of bourgeois decadence. The Soviet Union was not a hospitable place for what are now termed “sexual minorities”.
Those dour old Soviets were perhaps not wrong about everything. Revolutions are about changing the world; sexual licence is essentially about the self, and indulging the self’s most dearly held egotistical desires. There is something deeply individualistic about the modern insistence that one’s own sexual life is completely autonomous, meaning that no one else has the right to judge it.
Derek Jarman, the filmmaker, put it like this:
“Understand that if we decide to have sex whether safe, safer, or unsafe, it is our decision and you have no rights in our lovemaking.”
This assertion is one many contemporary people would share. But this form of radical autonomy (also seen in the assertion of abortion “rights” and the “right to privacy” that underpins Roe versus Wade) is one that only holds sway in certain fields. In other matters – overseas aid, for example – the thrust of modern life is always to get involved, even to interfere. When it comes to racism, we are all our brother’s keeper.
Contrasted to this confusing picture, the Church is a society in which we are all responsible to God, and, to a lesser extent, to each other. In the Church we are all radically dependent creatures, part of a community. The Church is also mater et magistra: she teaches, she judges and she corrects where necessary. This is the essential foundation of the community of the Church.
We all need the correction of the confessional and canon law, both the internal and external forum, from time to time. No one can be a judge in his or her own case. And this is particularly true in sexual matters, where we are most likely to want to kid ourselves.
If all the modern talk of discernment and accompaniment is a ruse to get around the Magisterium, traditional sacramental practice, and canon law, replacing the authority of God, mediated by the Church, and the truth about God and the truth about humanity, with our own not very clear self-understanding (which so often coincides with exactly what we want) then I fear for the future.

by Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith

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