In my post about St. Anthony wet house, the homeless shelter which allows clients to drink, several commenters reminded us that alcoholism is an especially disgusting, shameful sin—a selfish one, one which destroys lives and displays in the sinner a brutish, willful resistance against grace.
I got the same reaction to an interview I did with a homosexual Catholic man: Most commenters were gracious, but a few were openly revolted at the very subject, and said they couldn’t stand to hear any more about this perverse and unnatural condition.
They’re all right, of course. What kind of man would choose alcohol over family, work, and even his own health? What kind of man is willing to admit that, at the very core of who he is, there is something profoundly distasteful and unnatural?
What I am going to say next is going to sound like false humility, but here goes: What kind of person would do these things? A person like every other person in the world, except for two. A person exactly like you and me—not with some passing, analogous resemblance, when squinted at through a pious lens—but exactly like you and me. Because all sin is disgusting. All of it.
When I think about an alcoholic, I am astonished that someone would choose so much sin and ugliness over everything that is good in the world. But I do this every single day. Every single hour of every single day. I’ve been going to confession for 30 years, and I confess the same damn things every single time. If that’s not an addiction, I don’t know what is. It’s simply my good fortune that the sins I am addicted to aren’t very public, or very far-reaching. When I sin, I don’t get arrested for it, or lose my children because of it, or ruin my organs, or lose my chance at having a normal marriage. I’m lucky, and very grateful, that my sins don’t affect very many people.
Or do they? If you want a truly Lenten experience, then pray earnestly that the Holy Spirit will reveal to you the damage that your sins have done. And then hold onto your butts, because it’s going to be a horrible ride. Don’t forget to pray for hope and healing at the same time, nothing hurts more than looking your own guilt in the face.
“Well,” you may say, “Sure, I’m addicted to my sins, and I’m sure that even the venial sins I commit do hurt people in ways that I don’t fully realize. But if my sins were public, or illegal, or had obvious, catastrophic consequences, then surely I would be more motivated to give them up! These alcoholics, these public sinners are still worse than I am, because they don’t change their lives even when the consequences are so obviously terrible!”
All right. But if my sins are so small in comparison—shouldn’t that make them easier to give up? I’m not responsible for changing the pattern of sin in my life because they are minor and easy to change—does that make any sense? Face it: We are all addicts. We are all spiritual criminals. We are all monsters of selfishness. Our sins are disgusting—all of them, mortal, venial, thought, word, and deed. Venial sin isn’t trivial or separate from mortal sin: It is what makes mortal sin possible, bearing it up and supporting it like a rotten ship on an ocean of sewage. We belong to a Communion of Sinners, and every little sin contributes to the whole hellish chorus of protest against God.
The passion and death of our Lord wasn’t mostly for the alcoholics and the gays and the drug addicts, and then a little bit for the venial crowd, like you and me. He died for my sins. He would have died for my sins only, because they are that bad.
Don’t be fooled by the false hierarchy of sins that we learn from the law, or even the false hierarchy of guilt that human consequences seem to reveal. Some people are worse than others, and some sins are worse than others. But at the last judgment, we will see clearly that all of us are so far—so very, very far away from what God wants—that the distinctions we make between this sin and that sin will seem almost meaningless.
We sin: He died. That’s what matters. God have mercy.