Skeletons in Our Closets
It is fair to suggest that in time, most people have occasion to look back at their lives with regret for behavior that may rise to the level of an embarrassing “skeleton in the closet.”
Robert Penn Warren, author of All the King’s Men, exploits the primordial fear of revelation of long-hidden secrets through the development of his character Willie Stark (the populist 1930s Louisiana governor, Huey Long, thinly veiled). When told that no adverse information about an opponent is likely to be found, Stark betrays his Calvinistic resignation: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption, and he passeth from the stink of the didie [diaper] to the stench of the shroud. There’s always something.”
In politics, the search for that “something” is called “opposition research” and it is justified as a legitimate—or at least an effective—means of silencing critics. During the Clinton impeachment proceedings, Clinton’s opposition researchers dug up an adultery incident on the part of an influential congressman: an offense committed very early in his life, an embarrassment that effectively silenced him. Based on the life and record of the congressman, as opposed to Clinton, however, it was clear he considered the adultery, from his distant past, a shameful transgression, an act that in no way was indicative of his pattern of life. Did the public have a right to this information?
The morality of opposition research is governed by the Eighth Commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” Lies are of the Devil. But so is the unjust revelation of shameful secrets. Defamation of a person’s character offends another’s reputation either by a direct lie (calumny) or detraction.
Calumny is an outright lie about the person or circumstances surrounding him, a lie that can easily become a most serious sin. The sin of detraction involves the disclosure of someone’s real faults or defects—without a valid reason (e.g., to protect children from sexual predators). The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional.” (2488) “Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury.” (2477) And:
Everyone should observe an appropriate reserve concerning persons’ private lives. Those in charge of communications should maintain a fair balance between the requirements of the common good and respect for individual rights. Interference by the media in the private lives of persons engaged in political or public activity is to be condemned to the extent that it infringes upon their privacy and freedom. (2492)
The Church further enshrines a person’s right to “natural secrets” with the “seal of Confession”:
The secret of the sacrament of reconciliation is sacred, and cannot be violated under any pretext. “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore, it is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason.” (2490).
But a relatively new phenomenon has emerged in our day. It is the shameless public revelation of one’s own shameful acts. Politico-moral activism—as well as the narcissism of grabbing a public spotlight through “painful” self-revelations—has given rise to a new set of moral problems in need of consideration. Motivations vary.
The public self-revelation of sins by clergy—sometimes from the pulpit—has unfortunate and scandalous consequences. If there is no hint of shame in the revelation of sinful inclinations, it may be perceived that the sin itself is not truly a sin.
When active homosexuals (and other sexual deviants) “come out of the closet,” it is an attempt to promote cultural acceptance of sinful behavior. It works. Hence there is a disturbing growing trend among certain members of Catholic clergy to encourage priests to “come out” (rather than repent) if they are “gay.” Leaving aside the studied ambiguity of what it means to be “gay” (active or inactive?), it is an obvious attempt to “normalize” the homosexual lifestyle.
Even when the revelation includes an expression of remorse, the context of the revelation is critical. Little good can come from a priest’s publicly revealing a serious moral failing (especially from his distant past) simply because he is “haunted” by the transgression. He may intend it as a means of instruction from the pulpit, but he also invites a sinful voyeurism, allowing others to enter into the privacy of his tormented psychological and spiritual state. Even priests should have “safe spaces” for personal and spiritual privacy. (The same should be said for parents who may feel a compulsion to share the “sins of their youth” with their children.)
Catholics may also incorrectly conclude that they themselves might be under an obligation to revisit and reveal their own sins, sins already forgiven. The priest, through the angst of self-revelation, may also unintentionally call into question the very efficacy of sacramental absolution he has received. (So it would be helpful for priests, in general, to stress the transforming power of the words of absolution when accompanied by true sorrow.)
There are times when, for truly compelling reasons, public reparation is necessary: for instance, when a manifestly grave sin by a public figure causes scandal. But ordinarily the moral failings of one’s past that have been forgiven in Confession should remain a guarded secret. If confused and afraid, we should surrender ourselves to God and His mercy, being reminded that God “…blots out your transgressions, for [his] own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” (Is 43:25) If clergy or any of the faithful feel the need to expose past sins that have been sacramentally forgiven, the appropriate venue is spiritual direction, perhaps a mental health practitioner, or simply to a trusted and discreet friend who can help them through the crisis.
Years ago, a prominent public official, a Catholic, who opposed the legalization of drugs was asked if he ever smoked marijuana. His response was superb: “If I did, I wouldn’t tell you. I’d tell my priest.”
Do you have any moral skeletons in your closet? Nervous?
More tortuous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, the Lord, explore the mind and test the heart, giving to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their deeds. (Jer 17:9-10)
In this life, you’ll never fully grasp the reasons for your failure, nor can you “forgive yourself.” Only God forgives.
So pray with confidence. “Do not remember the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you, Lord, are good.” (Ps 25:7) And remember secret acts of reparation and penance in love cover a multitude of sins.
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Posted by: steve.grist2587 -
Aug. 30, 2017 5:24 AM ET USA
Thank you for the insightful article. Clearly, our culture over-shares, without even considering the spiritual direction you suggested. If the unintended consequence is to legitimize the sin, then ill-considered sharing of past sins causes far more harm than good. Furthermore, given our depraved culture, revelations of more sin often seem gratuitous. (This discussion almost seems hypothetical since 'sin' is no longer a part of our cultural vocabulary.)
Posted by: philipjohnmorrissey9990 -
Aug. 30, 2017 2:48 AM ET USA
thanks. wonderful article for this time.
Posted by: Grace2014 -
Aug. 29, 2017 6:50 PM ET USA
Posted by: ElizabethD -
Aug. 29, 2017 3:49 PM ET USA
I also found it surprising that this came on St Augustine's day. What I got out of this is that Christians are reeking piles of manure who need to stay covered in snow. Yes there needs to be prudence about past sin, but the dynamic of sinners in relationship with the merciful love of God is fundamental to who we are as Christians. Much as many enjoy imagining the virgin Church also crammed wall to wall with innocent virgin Christians, repentant sinners witness the efficacy of the Resurrection.
Posted by: 1Jn416 -
Aug. 28, 2017 8:50 PM ET USA
I find it ironic that this was published on St. Augustine's feast day. If the Doctor of Grace held to this standard, we would not have The Confessions. There can be good reasons to share our sins and difficulties in certain circumstances with certain people. This is not to endorse a tell-all attitude by any means. But helping others by showing the work of God in our lives, and seeking support for moral areas we find difficult, are two good reasons to share at the right times.