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We can love the sinner, but morality demands we go on hating the sin


Nobody, however critical of President Clinton’s behavior, could have wanted Judgment Day to come so sadly for him.

Bill Clinton is living out a familiar scenario of judgment that has been used to terrify sinners into repentance for centuries. There, in the glaring spotlight of a raucous Roman arena-like structure, individuals are summoned to stand all alone while the eternal public address system announces their every sin, slip and near moral miss to the jeering crowd.

Shame is the acid that eats away at the sinner’s pretense in such a situation. Childish lies, arrogance and the devil’s own gift of manipulation are burned off so that, as in movies in which characters are “morphed” into various shapes, the person whose number is up and whose time has come is reduced to a protoplasmic remnant of a once over-projected self.

What people were asked to do in the ancient arena they are now asked to do by pollsters. Thumbs up? Or thumbs down?

This has all happened to Clinton in real time instead of in eternity. The records are not those kept by God.

They are rather the logs kept by the White House guards, the tape-recordings of conversations, the evidence of things bought and sold and promised in secret, and of deception by energetic, televised lies.

The high crimes and misdemeanors are of the earth in this drama. This is not a preacher’s vision of hereafter but the public record of a destiny no man could have knowingly designed for himself.

The gift of mercy is surely the one all of us will ask for at the end. It is understandable that people are moved to grant it in some fashion now. We would shrink from being part of this tableau that, tragically for everyone, must go forward to repair the shattered public order and to unfurl again the tattered banner of morality where it has not been raised on high for a long time.

Americans are torn even more because over the last 30 years we have made judgment one of the capital sins. Do not, for example, interfere with your college roommate who is drugging or drinking his brain into Druid ruins. Do not judge what is his choice. Nobody has a right to judge in a nation that so strongly prizes the idea of choice.

The role of prophet has been relegated to the wild-eyed man on the corner with the jagged letter sign, “Repent. The End Is Near.” Few religious leaders don the vesture of judges. When one does, such as Pope John Paul II, he is often dismissed with advice that he should stay in the Vatican and out of our lives.

The only social critics with whom we seem comfortable are Siskel and Ebert who, in fact, employ the old Coliseum signal, thumbs up or thumbs down, as they review movies on television.

We are not moral, however, unless we can tell the difference between right and wrong and tell that difference to a wide range of those to whom we are linked by obligation -- our children, our students, our parishioners, our patients or our employees.

To be mature enough to make sensible moral judgments distinguishes us from moral cowards, snitches, or -- most dreaded category of all -- the hapless do-gooders who, like errant cruise missiles, are often mistargeted and do so much incidental damage.

The recovery of judgment in the spirit of Pope John XXIII -- to hate the sin but still to love the sinner -- is essential if we are to restore a moral voice to the millions of Americans who have been long denied it by the hired guns of opinion-shaping and marketing strategies.

Judgment remains a building block of any moral life or any moral community. Perhaps we can understand it better if we think of judgment on moral wrong as like that of a physician making judgments on physical illness.

The physician’s goal is to rid the body of infection and set free the impulses of health. In mature moral judgment -- our obligation no matter how the public relations legions urge us to take a pass -- we want to restore the moral health of the community.

We are plagued by a sense that the healthy impulses of good people are overwhelmed by those of a pathology-ridden culture. We can only restore moral health by dropping our diffidence about making moral judgments. We can still love the sinner, but we cannot afford to ignore the sin.

Eugene Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author most recently of My Brother Joseph, published by St. Martin Press.

National Catholic Reporter, September 25, 1998