In light of the ongoing Pennsylvania Grand Jury reports on child abuse by some Catholic Clergy, the cloud of suspicion and alleged criminal behavior by politicians in the American political landscape, reflecting on, and clarifying these concepts is imminent in my opinion.
Every human act has consequences, albeit, some more consequential than others. Similarly, human acts are either morally right or morally reprehensible, lawful (legal) or unlawful (illegal) and potentially criminal. What is playing out now in the Grand Jury reports, the United States political space, civil society and world governments have been conflated in more ways than an unsuspecting mind can decipher.
Let me begin first by paying tribute to those who, based on their courage and innocence have borne the scars of sexual abuse behind the gaze of justice and criminal silence for decades. They are the real heroes whose determined character is finally awakening our sense of justice and accountability. Your pain is the pain of most, and I hope your courage will model for most how never to give up fighting for justice in the face of overwhelming power play.
Having said this, I will like to clarify implicated concepts in what follows. Sin is “the act of transgression against divine law. It can also be viewed as any thought or action that endangers the ideal relationship between an individual and God; or as any diversion from the perceived ideal order for human living” (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sin).
By this definition, sin directly impacts on a person’s relationship with God, and maybe indirectly on others who share his/her spiritual space.
Now, crime is different. A crime is “an illegal act for which someone can and should be punished by the government, especially: a gross violation of law” (cf. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/crime). Some acts are purely sins, in that they impact solely on a person’s relationship with God, while some are sins that constitute criminal acts as well. A few examples will suffice for clarification.
Two adults who engage in consensual sexual behavior will be in sin if they have no divinely afforded rights to each other. But this is by no stretch a crime. But a sexual act between an adult man/woman and a child/minor is not only a sin but also a grave crime against standing laws. Again, lying is a sin that impacts on our relationship with God. But lying before law enforcement officials is both a sin, a criminal act punishable by law, the culprit notwithstanding. God remains the sole authority in addressing the sinful human behavior. However, sins that are crimes have God and government as adjudicating bodies. In this regard, the Catholic Church’s handling of criminal conduct by some members of the Clergy is a gross violation that is inexcusable. Culprits must be handled by law enforcement and made to pay for crimes committed against innocent children, whose dignity and purity were forcefully stolen from them. Similarly, while sin belongs to the private domain, crime belongs to the public/legal sphere. What is true in the Catholic Church holds true in our politics and civil society. We must distinguish between a person’s sin(s) punishable only by God and a person’s sin(s) that are punishable also by law because they constitute crimes as well. This leads me to clarify the dictates of loyalty.
LOYALTY: is “a strong sense of support and allegiance, a feeling of duty towards a cause, someone or something” (cf. https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/loyalty). Human relationships hinge heavily on this quality. Absent loyalty, human society will be gravely fractured. Now, to what extent must loyalty to causes, persons and things go? Are we justified, in the name of loyalty, to cover criminal behavior to protect those with a claim to our loyalty? My judgment (and most likely the right) conclusion is an ABSOLUTE NO!
Sadly, this is where church leadership, government employees, and political operatives consequentially violated public decency and justice for victims of crimes. As loyal persons, we do have an obligation to defend the dignity and integrity of others by honestly and truthfully protecting their character. But we do not have any responsibility to cover up a person’s crimes in the name of loyalty, though we may cover their sins, because sins belong to the private domain. “Loyalty is defending someone’s or something’s integrity, not crafting or creating one that they don’t have and have not earned” (Tah, 2018). You cannot confer integrity on one whose actions have not deserved it. That only serves to undermine and compromise your integrity. In my opinion, this is true, irrespective of one’s social context of family, church, politics, or civil society. You cannot be more loyal to some “undeserving” other than you are to your moral conscience. The Bible is right in saying that; “ all have sinned (that includes, me, you, and everyone) and fallen short of the Glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Now, while we are all sinners, we are all not criminals. Until we learn to understand this distinction and act accordingly, sanitizing human society will remain a distant, if not an impossible dream.
God bless you and yours.
Rev. Fr Philip Tah, from the Catholic Diocese of Ogoja, Nigeria, is a military chaplain who presently lives in Savannah, Georgia, USA
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