Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sin Is How We Hurt People

In a discussion of the Church's teaching on divorce (that leaving your spouse and attempting a second marriage is considered by the Church to be adultery) someone made the following comment:
I find it hard to believe people think God cares about this issue this much, given all the real sin in the world (ie social injustice and war) but anyway.
There's a certain tendency to see sin as "really bad things that happen out there", while things that ordinary people we identify with want to do (especially if they involve sex) are seen as things that "God doesn't care about". Some of this is simply that we often care much more about thinking well of ourselves than of other people. Things we do, and things our friends do, are no big deal. Things done by far away people, things of a scale that we don't normally encounter, those we can safely label as sins without disturbing our own comfort.

But let's be honest, most of us here and now have suffered more because of the "little" sins that we inflict upon each other than due to war or huge societal injustices. It's only possible to imagine that God doesn't care about sex and the many ways that we hurt each other with it and because of it if we narrow our frame of reference down to only the person we choose to care about, the person who wants to do something which is a sin.

Few of us have started wars, but many of us have started rumors. I don't have the ability to wipe away social injustice, myself, today. But I do have the ability not to commit some petty injustice that would hurt one or two people.

And let's be honest. Sex, marriage, and relationships are one of the main areas of conflict that we as humans encounter. Sex and relationships are important to us. Why is it that so many movies and stories involve sex and relationships? Because drama is built on conflict and one of the main areas in which we have personal conflict is around our relationships.

So unless we believe that God doesn't care if we treat people well, unless we believe that he doesn't care whether or not we suffer: Yes, God does care about sex and marriage. He cares about it because one of the main ways that you personally can either make others happy or make their lives miserable is your treatment of your family and loved ones.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps what the commenter meant was that God wouldn't care about whether divorce+remarriage is properly adultery. And perhaps the commenter was suggesting that God wouldn't care about divorce+remarriage itself since it isn't necessarily hurtful, whereas war and social injustices are. (As a person with the best parents-are-divorced-and-remarried story I've ever heard who is nevertheless hurt by it all, I'm rather unsure that a convincing case can be made for the last point.)

However, maybe your commenter could make a similar point against the Church's teaching against homosexual marriages. Those really do not seem to be intrinsically or normally hurtful (at least, not significantly more so than heterosexual marriages). So they don't seem to be sins, even in the broader sense you defend here.

What do you think?

Itinérante said...

I hope I do not sound strange but when I read this I was reminded a lot that God loves personally... not the human race broadly but me him her she... and it makes sense to me that if He cares immensely about to, to care about every little or big aspect about me!
Thank you Mr. Darwin =)

Darwin said...


Sorry to be slow on the replies, we're on a family trip and the writing time is pretty scattered.

"However, maybe your commenter could make a similar point against the Church's teaching against homosexual marriages. Those really do not seem to be intrinsically or normally hurtful (at least, not significantly more so than heterosexual marriages). So they don't seem to be sins, even in the broader sense you defend here.

What do you think?"

I think that the Church's approach to same sex marriage is more difficult to explain to someone who differs from the Church's priors in this regard. As you point out, it's pretty intuitive that people can hurt each other with sex and relationship betrayals. The Church's take on same sex marriage is based on the idea that the human person is designed to be in opposite sex pairs, and that marriage is designed to be between the type of couple (a man and a woman) who are able to have children together.

So from a Catholic point of view same sex marriage hurts its participants in the sense that they are acting against their natures, and children brought up in such a family are being intentionally put into a situation which is not as it is designed to be (thus making is a different situation from, say, a widow bringing up her children with the help of her sister -- a family not as it was "meant" to be which is nonetheless the best option which people are able to reach at the time due to outside circumstances, not a chosen situation.)

Unsurprisingly, this doesn't go over as easily as the idea that God does indeed care about "little" things like divorce and adultery.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply, Darwin. No need to apologize for the delay.

I wonder if the apparent lack of special hurtfulness in homosexual marriages (both with respect to the adults and the children involved) can be seen as a reason to reject either (a) the Church's stance on what kind of pairs we were designed to be in or (b) the idea that it's hurtful to be in a situation you weren't designed to be in. If it follows from (a) and (b) that homosexual relationships and marriages are hurtful, and it's not the case (to all appearances) that homosexual relationships are hurtful, then we ought to reject either (a) or (b) or both.

Of course, one man's modus tollens is another's modus ponens, so I'm not really sure what to say here given that there are a lot of people who take the non-hurtfulness of homosexual marriages to be more probable than the the Church's position on what we were designed for, and also a lot of people who take what the Church says to be more probable than the non-hurtfulness of homosexual marriages. In fact, if both parties in a debate grant (b) above, I have a really hard time imagining that the debate would progress. It will do no good trying to convince someone who does not see any special hurt coming from homosexual marriages that God designed us for heterosexual marriages, because if He did, something that is false would be true.

Maybe it's just that the "argument from the hurtfulness of the practice" won't be a very strong one in defending God's interest in the matter. I think we're in agreement on that point. But I do wonder--what can be said instead? I've found it difficult to argue that God designed us for only heterosexual relationships (even when I'm not faced with the rejoinder "if God had designed us for that, homosexual relationships would be hurtful, and they're not (especially anyway)")

Thanks again for your reply; I'm sorry if I'm being too long-winded for a combox!

Darwin said...


I think various things come into play here:

While a lot of sin can be talked about in terms of what hurts ourselves or others in some clearly agreed upon way (the way that adultery or divorce does), other sins do not cause such readily agreed upon harm. I think that can be both because the concept of sin goes beyond the readily agreed upon definition of harm, and also because we as a culture tend to be blind to certain types of harm because we're so used to them and they fit with our cultural biases.

So, for example, dueling and honor killing seems obviously harmful now, but 200 years ago, in a lot of cultures, it seemed far more harmful NOT to deal with an affront to honor with violence than to do so. This seems so foreign to us now that I think there's a tendency to assume that people realized it was crazy, but were somehow unable to avoid it. But I think this misses how much we can push ourselves into a cultural definition of good and harm.

Set aside homosexuality for a moment and the other sexual sins that the modern world has a really hard time understanding are masturbation, fornication in a "committed relationship", and the use of artificial contraception. Arguably, all of these are hard for modern people to understand precisely because they also seem not to cause any harm, and they also have to do with using our bodies in other ways than we're intended to, or in ways that don't properly express the truth of what we're doing. (I want to be clear: I think that all of the examples discussed including same sex marriage do cause harm, but certainly there's not broad cultural agreement they do.)

Also, I think it's important to be honest that we don't necessarily just come to Catholic morals on our own. If they were clearly irrational or wrong, we might reject the whole edifice, but without the testament of the Church there are certainly elements we might not reason our way to with sufficient surety to live by them or say that others ought to. So while I don't accept the Church's teaching on natural-law-based moral issues regarding sex (masturbation, contraception, homosexuality, etc.) simply on faith without seeing them as basically reasonable, the fact remains that what takes me from basic plausibility to conviction is my belief that the Church is divinely instituted and guided in order to present God's teaching to the world. In this sense, belief in and desire to follow God is prior to acceptance of some of these other beliefs -- especially those which particularly follow our current culture's weak points. (In our moment, the purpose of sex is a big one of these, in other moments, it's been other things.)

This is why we see leaders in the Church sometimes talking about the importance of bringing people to embrace Christ first, prior to pushing them on some moral issues. It can be a dangerous way of thinking, because often it just serves as an excuse to stop worrying about troubling moral issues at all and never get from "God loves me" to "how does God want me to live?", but there is a basic sense in which prior to accepting Christ, that Christ's teaching has been preserved faithfully by the Church, and that we owe God obedience to his law if we desire to be truly united with him one day in heaven, it's going to be hard to get any real purchase with someone on tough moral issues.