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Shacking-Up: A “Divine Imperative”?

HOW TO SIN WITH A CLEAR CONSCIENCE

By Sheryl Temaat | January 2002
Sheryl Temaat is a teacher in Monument, Colorado.

Msgr. Joseph M. Champlin wrote an article on unmarried children living together titled “Cohabiting Kids: What’s a Parent to Do?” It appeared in the Knights of Columbus magazine Columbia (March 2001), having been reprinted from The Priest, published by Our Sunday Visitor Inc. Champlin warns parents that telling their cohabiting children that they are living in sin and need to go to confession is beyond the pale because it’s “playing God.”

He does acknowledge that “Living together before marriage is, objectively, a moral wrong. Engaging in sexual intercourse prior to nuptial vows increases the wrongness of that situation.” In the next paragraph, however, he opens the door to moral relativism: “But subjective sin represents a different matter. Sin occurs when we fail to follow the divine imperative in our heart. Sin happens when…. we have failed to follow our conscience.” So if, personally, you don’t think an “objective” sin is really a sin, then it’s not a sin for you.

But this is a gross and irresponsible oversimplification. The Catechism says that “subjective” sin can be truly sinful, and that appealing to “conscience” will not necessarily get you off the hook: “This is the case when a man ‘takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded by the habit of committing sin’ [Gaudium et Spes, 16]. In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits” (#1791).

Do note the Monsignor’s appeal to “the divine imperative” in one’s (fickle) “heart.” The divine imperative for Catholics is found in the Bible, Tradition, and the Magisterium, and Catholics (actually, all men) are expected to form their conscience in accord with them. But if you happen to form your conscience according to some other “divine” imperative — one coming from, say, the Sirens of the surrounding culture, as in the case of the cohabiting couple — Champlin defends the rightness, the sinlessness, of doing so. Well, how accommodating of him!

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