Lessons about sin from the headlines
Oh, how their hearts must have raced when they looked over their shoulders, called up the Ashley Madison website, and began their adventures in adultery.
“Thousands of cheating wives and cheating husbands signup everyday looking for an affair,” said the site. “With our affair guarantee package we guarantee you will find the perfect affair partner.”
My, how their blood must have run cold in their veins when they read the announcement hackers made after infiltrating the site:
“We will release all customer records,” said the warning, “including profiles with all the customers’ secret sexual fantasies.”
Thus has it ever been with sin: It begins with a tantalizing promise of secrecy and excitement. It ends helpless in the icy grip of unforgiving reality.
But before we feel too proud that we are not on the Ashley Madison’s servers, here are lessons we can all learn from the incident.
1. There is no such thing as a private sin.
Subway pitchman Jared Fogle experienced the same thing Ashley Madison clients did. He started out by secretly seeking out ways to prey on underage girls; he ended disgraced in headlines and stuck in prison.
Think of all the damage private sins have done: Gary Hart lost his career; Tiger Woods lost his family; and lest we forget it, the Catholic hierarchy lost the respect of many because of the not-so-secret sins of priests.
They all learned that their sins are never truly private.
No man is an island; our behavior affects others whether we like it or not. It affects them directly, when they are our victims or collaborators — or indirectly, because sin changes our behavior and changes how we interact with others.
2. Sin is a trap with irresistible bait.
The devil’s second biggest lie — after the lie that he doesn’t exist — is that sin is freeing. In fact, choosing to sin diminishes or stops our freedom altogether.
Josh Duggar, one of the Ashley Madison clients outed by hackers, shared an important spiritual lesson he learned from the experience: “We have the freedom to choose our actions, but we do not get to choose our consequences.”
Sin not only puts us at the mercy of our consequences; “Sin creates a proclivity to sin,” as the Catechism puts it (No. 1865).
Committing a sin doesn’t get sin “out of our system.” It puts sin “into our system.” It pulls us forward from one sin to the next by a logic that is no longer our own but belongs, according to St. Ambrose, to “the wiles of your adversary the devil … who is accustomed to leading into sin.”
He still favors the tactic he used in the Garden of Eden: He offers us something that is a “delight to the eyes” and “desirable for wisdom,” and then grabs us and won’t let go, once we reach for it.
In fact, this is so common that it can be used to sum up the human condition …
3. Sin is our default position; we have to battle to be good.
We often make the great error of thinking we are basically good guys who occasionally surprise God and ourselves by sinning. Religious people are especially prone to this error. We think serious sin is something that other people fall prey to. We are the holy ones. We know better than them.
Adam and Eve brought “triple concupiscence” into the world with their sin. For the first time, after the apple, Adam stopped looking at Eve as a helpmate and started plotting how he might use her for pleasure, how he might control her, and how to make sure she didn’t take his stuff.
Ever since then we have been fascinated by pleasure, money and power—and by playing on this weakness, “the devil has acquired a certain domination over man” says the Catechism (No. 407).
Vatican II’s Gaudiem et Spes uses intense—and intensely depressing—language to talk about sin in our lives:
“The whole of man’s history has been the story of dour combat with the powers of evil, stretching, so our Lord tells us, from the very dawn of history until the last day. Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield man has to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to himself, and aided by God’s grace, that he succeeds in achieving his own inner integrity.”
We are, in fact, helpless in the face of sin.
The only way to keep clear of it is by attaching ourselves to Jesus Christ, who conquered it, and his mother, who kept it at bay her whole life. In fact, the Church has made the Lord’s prayer and the Hail Mary the most common prayers in our lives for a reason: They are sinners’ prayers for freedom in duress.
So before we take too much pride in the fact that we, at least, have escaped the headline-grabbing sins of the day, we should realize that it is only a few short steps—a couple of clicks of the mouse—from where we are now to where Ashley Madison’s customers are today.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.