Thursday, April 3, 2014

I'm a mile away from you and I have your shoes

Donal Graeme questions how important it is to understand the sinner:
Something that I hear not infrequently is that we as Christians shouldn’t be hasty to judge/evaluate others, because we don’t know what kind of life they have lived. We don’t know their hardships, their trials, the difficulties that they have endured. And principally this line of thought is applied to people who have engaged in sin, or are living lives of outright sin. An example of this would be “We don’t know why she decided to become promiscuous/a prostitute. She could have been neglected or abused growing up!” Or “Don’t be so harsh on him, he had a tough life. Its no wonder he became a criminal.” Of course, there are many, many other such examples.
What I am curious about is just how Christian this whole line of thought actually is. Many of my readers have a far better knowledge of Scripture than I, and the Catholic/Orthodox readers probably are better with Tradition as well. So I am asking for your assistance in this matter. Where in Scripture does it say that we should be understanding of what causes people to sin? I haven’t found anything yet which seems to support that notion, but of course I could be missing something.
The Catholic Church has said that a lot of bad moral reasoning comes from failing to distinguish between the object and the intention. "Object" here means our actual chosen behavior. Imagine that a housewife cheats on her husband. Many spectators will jump to the conclusion that she's cheating because her husband is a bad man. Maybe he savagely beats her. Maybe he's a boring beta herb. Maybe he's a lazy bum. They are trying to change the frame, moving from a discussion of an objective action in the real world to speculation about someone's subjective culpability. After the frame has been shifted to the subjective, we are told that we cannot judge someone's interior motivations.

We need to make a few distinctions here. Every moral action has three components: the object, the intent, and the circumstances. If our intention is to do evil, then pretty much any act can become morally wrong, even mortally sinful. If the circumstances are inappropriate, then a good action can become evil: receiving holy communion in a state of mortal sin for example. The Church holds that some actions, such as adultery, are intrinsically evil and there is never, ever any intention or circumstance that can make it morally acceptable. The object, the intent, and the circumstances must all be good for a moral action to be good. If any one of the three is evil, then the action is evil and we must not do it. Not every evil action is mortally sinful. Telling a white lie does not kill the life of grace in our souls, but it does cause a wound. The more wounded we are through venial sin, the more difficult it becomes to resist those sins which kill us.

So what about the abused wife who cheats on her husband, or the criminal who kills a man for his wallet? In many cases, it doesn't matter why the sinner did something, only that he did it. Doing evil is always morally wrong and bad for the soul, regardless of the sinner's interior disposition or ignorance. It's true that we don't know with any certainty the subjective culpability of the sinner before God, but that doesn't mean we can't know the objectively evil nature of their chosen behaviors. You may have a hard life, but alcoholism is still going to kill you.

h/t: Alpha is Assumed

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