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Honor, Virtue, and Sin

Josiah Bunting III reflects in the WSJ Opinion Journal on the concept of honor.

In our culture of therapy, self-absorption and celebrity, "honor" has very little cachet. An abuse of honor--say, by perpetrating a public fraud or acting duplicitously in private life--is but the occasion for the administration of comforting words of understanding, the application of medicines to assuage lingering anxieties and the invitation to appear on "Oprah," the better to explain the forces that, overwhelming meager resources of conscience and character, impelled a dishonorable act. Next may come an invitation to undertake the labor of a book, more fully to explore and expiate the fall from grace. Closure (as it is called) will then, at last, be obtained.

In short, there is no shame in actions once known as dishonorable, and the virtues that supported honor seem moribund. Chastity and modesty--so important to honor in social relations--are treated as relics from Jane Austen and "Little Women." When a high-school girl defends a sexual encounter on the grounds that an American president said that her particular act was not really sex, both she and her role model are, if not completely forgiven, understood to be, as members of the human family, subject to the same vagaries of uncontrollable temptations as you and I.

Mr. Bunting is prompted to his musings by the book Honor: a History by James Bowman. This book traces the disappearance of honor as a standard for American behavior. Perhaps this isn’t really an American phenomenon. In the last forty to fifty years the concept of an absolute standard of behavior based on unchanging moral principles has diminished throughout the world. This is the moral relativism that Pope Benedict XVI spoke of when he gave his first address after being elected pope.

Our Catholic culture has only recently seen a resurgence in the use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation after years of precipitous decline. Our self-esteem focused society frowned upon the label sinner. We changed the words to the hymn Amazing Grace from “saved a wretch like me” to “saved and set me free”. To label any action as sinful was judgmental and uncharitable. We preferred to characterize behavioral shortcomings as diseases rather than as moral failings. Every character flaw became a syndrome. We removed the blame from the individual will and placed it on the environment or our dysfunctional families.

Christ never shied away from naming sins. He fully exposed wrong doings. However, he offered during his earthly life and still offers today his infinite Divine Mercy. We must, however, admit our sins without excuses. We must take responsibility for our failings. We then throw ourselves upon his Divine Mercy with the confidence our sins will be forgiven. “I firmly intend, with Your Grace, to do penance, to sin no more and to avoid all that leads me to sin”. How can I recite these words if I cannot understand the difference between sin and virture.


Michelle said…
It's tough to raise virtuous kids when the outside world doesn't support those concepts. It's also tough to teach my kids one thing, but also teach them to not judge others who don't follow the same path. Just the conversation about going to church on Sunday because God tells us to when they know that many friends in the neighborhood do not go to church on Sunday is a difficult one. I don't want my kids condemning their friends to hell (they have already done this with a neighborhood bully), but I also don't want them to think they can get off so easily.
Anonymous said…
One needs to be careful where she puts the blame for the "alternative text" for Amazing Grace. The cause of this revision was the more rigid Catholic theologians who determined the original text of this Protestant hymn affirmed the Calvinist doctrine of the utter depravity of Man. They refused to allow it to be admitted to Catholic worship without this editing.

I guess some ecumenical comfort can be taken that some Catholics have set aside the former disputes about salvation and grace. We used to call this "theological liberalism".

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