Sins of the Tongue

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Sept. 15 1999 3:30 AM

Sins of the Tongue

Bill Clinton, Ken Starr, and traditional Christian values.

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During the Flytrap scandal last year, traditional Christian values were often invoked--but only those concerning sex. What no one talked about was that from the Middle Ages through the Reformation era, Christian moral theology, both Catholic and Protestant, has upheld other principles relevant to Flytrap: above all, that "nemo tenetur detegere turpitudinem suam." That does not translate as "thou shalt not lie with interns (nor lie about it thereafter)." It means "no one is compelled to reveal his own secret sin." A corollary holds that no one--including judges and prosecutors--has a moral right to compel another person to disclose his private shameful acts. As the eminent Puritan theologian William Ames wrote in Conscience and the Cases Thereof, "[H]e whose offence is hidden has ... as yet right to preserve his fame that it should not rashly be laid open. Neither is it the part of a judge to search into hidden faults."

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You may not agree with this principle, but it was the church's position for centuries. According to medieval canon law, "private and shameful acts," the sorts of things a penitent whispers to his priest, lie outside the jurisdiction of public tribunals. Moreover, both Catholic and Protestant writers argued against compelling people to answer specific incriminating questions under oath--because, Ames explains, it is "against nature" to expect "that any man should betray or defame himself." Even this stiff old Puritan never supposes that it is only weak, unprincipled men who lie under such circumstances. To put someone on oath, and then ask if he has masturbated or committed adultery (both mortal sins according to traditional Christian ethics), is merely to "give occasion of horrid perjuries." The Roman Catholic jurist Julius Clarus says much the same, adding "as daily experience teaches."

Traditional Christian morality even supports President Clinton's slippery answers to prosecutors' questions. It was precisely to give witnesses and defendants a way out of the perjury trap that theologians distinguished between a lie and a misleading or equivocal statement. Henry Mason, an Anglican priest writing in the early 17th century, points out that in traditional Protestant and Catholic ethics "if there be just cause for concealing of a truth," one may use words in a "less known and common signification, and in another meaning than it is likely the hearers will understand them." Like, say, using "sex" in a sense that excludes fellatio (though that's not an example that Mason gives).

Traditional Christian moral theology does not view attempts to hide one's private sins and shame as grave offenses. What it does view as a fundamental violation of Christian charity is detractio: disclosing another human being's private failings and weaknesses in order to ruin his good name or otherwise bring him into discredit. According to the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, to harm someone this way is a mortal sin--even if the allegations are true--since "defamation is not a distortion of the truth but the destruction of a reputation." Or, as Ames puts it, he is "truly a detractor who revealeth a true sin of another man's ... spoiling the man's reputation to the intent to hurt him."

Aquinas considered detractio more seriously wicked than theft, because "reputation is more valuable than riches." Citing St. Augustine, some penitential manuals classify it as a type of homicide, while others make it a sin against the Holy Spirit and thus unforgivable. The Protestant Ames takes an equally hard line: "The unjust revealing a secret hath in it oftentimes the pernicious violations of trust, friendship, and honesty," and is therefore "not only in the common esteem of men, but in the Scripture also, reckoned amongst the most odious sins."

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T o be sure, there are times when one has a moral right and duty to reveal damaging information about another person. As Ames notes, "every citizen" is bound to notify the authorities of "faults which do either immediately hurt the public good ... or which hurt heavily any innocent." But, he adds, as long as "the fault itself is not pernicious to others ... then charity and justice require that, setting aside accusation, we content ourselves with private correction."

In other words, the release of the Starr report one year ago this week was, by traditional Christian standards, the big sin of Flytrap. Disclosing every last humiliating detail of Clinton's sex life occupies the dead center of what traditional Christianity means by sin--and is perhaps even more deeply wrong than either committing or concealing adultery. If, as many said, Flytrap reflects the erosion of traditional Christian values, it is not because a man committed adultery and lied about it--which is nothing new. The evidence of eroding Christian values is that compelling a man to publicize his hidden faults and punishing him for not cooperating in his own disgrace are no longer considered by many to be sins at all.

Debora Shuger is a professor of English at UCLA and the author of The Renaissance Bible (click here to buy the book).

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