Are you living in sin? The answer to that question is “Yes”—we are all living in sin. We are all sinners. We all live in a world that forces us to deal with the consequences of our own sins and the sins of others. However, the phrase “living in sin” has traditionally been applied to couples who live together without being validly married. This phrase has normally been applied to: 1) Couples who are living together but are not married, 2) Catholics who are civilly married, but not married in the Catholic Church, and 3) Catholics who, after being married in the church, have divorced and remarried civilly (although anyone, not just a Catholic, who is divorced and remarried would fall into this same category). Of course, it is not sinful to merely live with someone else. In order for these couples to be “living in sin,” they must be sexually intimate.
Last October in Rome, the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family took place. During this synod some bishops suggested the church drop the use of language such as “living in sin,” “intrinsically disordered,” and “contraceptive mentality.” The final report from this synod, which also serves as the working document for the Ordinary Synod to take place this October, does call for a critical examination of the language the church uses when addressing the people who would normally have these terms applied to them. Many of those critical of this idea see it as a cowardly concession to political correctness. However, there are good reasons to drop this kind of language.
First of all, this phrase is used inconsistently. As I previously noted, we are all “living in sin.” We are all sinners. To apply a phrase like this to only one kind of human behavior, as if others are not also “living in sin,” is an arbitrary and deceptive misrepresentation of people’s circumstances and the reality of sin. For example, are not those who fail to care for the poor also living in sin? Why should we apply this phrase to only one kind of misbehavior? The church is not fairly representing all the complexities of any relationship when it focuses on only one aspect of that relationship (i.e., sexual intimacy outside of a valid marriage), as important as this aspect might be, and tells the couple they are “living in sin.”
The church loses credibility because most people know couples who are not married in the church. The experience of these couples is that they can be committed, prayerful, generous, loving, and kind to each other, to their children, and to others. It sounds insulting, dismissive, and inaccurate when the church labels these couples as merely “living in sin.” Identifying sinful aspects of any (or all) relationships is very different than claiming that there is only one significant aspect of the relationship, or that the entirety of the relationship can be fairly categorized as only sinful, which is what this phrase seems to imply.
Do you know what Catholics used to call Protestants? Heretics. Technically speaking, according to Catholic teaching, Protestants are still heretics. However, when was the last time you heard your priest or bishop use that term to refer to Protestants? There was a big shift during the Second Vatican Council. In the decree from Vatican II on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio (1964), the church began referring to Protestants as “brothers [and sisters] in the Lord” or “separated brothers [and sisters].” Notice the difference? Without changing doctrine, the church changed its language. The church recognized that the term heretic, with all its associated emotions and images, was not an adequate or appropriate description for our Protestant brothers and sisters. The church recognized that using a word that comes across as an insult is not a fitting way for members of the Body of Christ to speak. As the psalmist pointed out, it is God’s will that truth and kindness must always accompany one another (Ps. 85:10). Truth without kindness can be arrogant and cruel. Kindness without truth can be cowardly and cruel. Both are ineffective when it comes to proclaiming the gospel. It is not enough to only proclaim truth; it is absolutely essential to make sure that our proclamation of the truth is wrapped in the language and reality of loving kindness.
Just as the Catholic Church has changed the language it uses concerning our Protestant brothers and sisters in the Lord, the church should also change the language it uses concerning couples whose relationships fail to symbolize the fullness of marriage. It is time to recognize the reality that holiness and sin coexist in the life of every human person and in every human relationship. Language that obscures that truth should be abandoned. It is time for kindness and truth to meet.
This column appeared in the August 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 8, pages 37–38).