on sin and hypocrisy

Here are excerpts from a powerful column by Dutch writer Ian Buruma that was published more than seven years ago. Click on the link to read the full essay.

In more traditional days, not so very long ago, when God reigned supreme and most people still turned to their priests (or ministers, rabbis, etc.) for moral guidance, sexual behavior was often dictated by power. Christians may have believed in sin. The values espoused by the Church were paid their due deference.

But hypocrisy gave privileged people, including priests, a certain leeway. Wealthy men had mistresses, professors had affairs with students, and even the lowly village priest, a man of social and spiritual power, if not of great wealth, often enjoyed the sexual favors of a woman conveniently at hand to take care of his domestic needs. ….

[It is] no longer all right for men to have mistresses, teachers to have affairs with students, or priests to enjoy the favors of their chambermaids. People became less tolerant of hypocrisy. In a way, the social transformations of the 1960’s and 1970’s brought about a new form of puritanism. Especially in the US, a man can lose his job for making an “inappropriate” sexual remark, marriages collapse because of a one-night stand, and any form of sex with children is an absolute taboo. ….

Catholics have tended to be more tolerant of hypocrisy than Protestants. The rise of Protestantism was in part a protest against this. Strict Protestants make a virtue out of brutal frankness, because they believe they have a direct pipeline to God. Catholics confess to their priests, not to God himself. Sins can be dealt with, as long as proper ceremony is observed. This explains why the Vatican chooses to describe the pedophiliac transgression of its clergy as sins rather than crimes.

Ian Buruma, “Holy Abuse“, Project Syndicate, 31 March 2010.

Ian Buruma (born 1951) lives in the United States. He is Editor of The New York Review of Books, teaches at Bard College and is author of many books, including Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents (Princeton University Press, 2010).



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