Sed Contra: That Privacy Thing

Deal W. Hudson
November 1, 1998

The Bible says that in the last days our sins will be shouted from the rooftops. Well, a millennium of sorts has already arrived for some Washington politicians, both friend, and foe. The brave new world of the media, fed relentlessly by the Internet and 24-hour cable news, has made that scenario almost literally possible.

I suspect that as more and more lives are turned inside out Catholics should be better prepared than most to sort out the resultant confusion. Why? Catholics, I think, have a different view of privacy from other people. The regular practice of confession, the habit of making your sins public, even if it is only to a priest, makes these revelations less of a shock.

This is not to say that Catholics have come to expect less of their leaders, but that their attitudes are informed by a moral realism born in the crucible of penance. Confession breaks down the walls we put up around the self, and eventually destroys the false distinction between public and private life. Character is destiny; this is part of the truth that keeps us going back to the confessional.

This understanding of privacy, however, leads Catholics to expect more, not less, of our leaders. Case in point—a recent swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in Charleston, South Carolina. At the oath of allegiance to their commander-in-chief, all six new recruits doubled over in laughter! The academy commandant had to remind them of their proper dignity and ask them to maintain military bearing.

The president has the power of life and death over every man and woman in the U.S. military—they must be prepared to give their lives if he deems it necessary for the common good. When they consider the character of the man who can place their lives in harm’s way, all facile distinctions between private and public judgment appear ridiculous.

More personal revelations are expected the closer we get to impeachment hearings. The White House “scorched earth” policy reinforces the sense of an apocalypse fast approaching. The net effect has been to make us less mindful of last things and more mindful than before of the inevitable tinge of eroticism that attaches itself to power. This addresses another aspect of Catholic moral realism implicit in the wisdom of retaining a celibate clergy. The vow of celibacy provides both priest and layperson the clear sense of boundaries they need in vulnerable situations.

Over and over again, we hear on the talk shows that we shouldn’t hold the president to a “higher standard.” I would argue quite the opposite. Leaders are by definition leaders of people. Leaders, whether they be priests or presidents, have life-changing influence on those who follow them. Our well-being depends upon their judgment and actions. Those who are not willing to bear the burden of these higher standards should not seek office.

In the past few months, the media and their audience—all of us—have conspired to become a nation of voyeurs. What we are seeing and hearing every day, hour after hour, is poisoning the moral imagination of this nation. After we have stripped away all idealism from offices that bind our culture together—president, father, husband—what will be left for us to aspire to? Who will want to sacrifice personal desires for public responsibilities?

For years now the baby boomer generation has tried to lecture the so-called Generation X on the importance of public service. Boomers have been appalled at the lack of respect they have for the adult world and its treasured institutions. We can be sure our best arguments will be met with scoffing by teenagers who can’t see past the spectacle of hypocrisy.

The fabric of the republic has been rent apart by something far worse than a sex scandal at the White House. It has been torn by a man who came into office talking about vision and quoting the Old Testament prophets. There is little doubt that any one of those fire-breathing prophets of old would have to say about the Man who refuses to repent.

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