God’s ‘Right to Privacy’

Christianity does not admit of zones of life shielded from the Divine gaze and judgment

In the wake of the first anniversary of the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, partisans of abortion-on-demand continue to assert their “right to privacy” and trot out numerous other bogeymen of what an “out-of-control Supreme Court” might yet do to “human rights.”

In light of this obsession with protecting the “right to privacy,” it might be interesting to look at the Christian view of it. Last Sunday’s Gospel, Matthew 10:26-33 [here], was illustrative.

Jesus is about to dispatch His Apostles on their first missionary journey, as two-member advance parties, to prepare His way through the various villages of Israel. He warns them they will face opposition, but He also tells them to “fear no one.” A few verses on, Jesus tells them whom to fear: “be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.”

In other words, aware that His Gospel of the Kingdom would encounter opposition, Jesus sets their priorities straight: don’t worry about earthly opposition. Worry about losing your soul. That is what matters. Jesus has got everything else.

After telling them not to fear, Jesus adds: “Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.” Jesus doesn’t seem particularly to prize privacy.

Read that passage again. It makes clear that God sees all. Every Catholic parent tells his child, “God sees you” or “God is watching.”

That’s not to say God is a Peeping Tom. But it should dispel the idea that somehow some parts of our lives are shielded from God’s Judgment. There is no “right to privacy” that creates a moral-free zone for us to choose evil over good.

That’s what Jesus is getting at in the Gospel of John, where He speaks of men who “loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light, for fear his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it might be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God” (3:19-21).

Lurking in the shadows, hiding in the bushes like Adam and Eve — such is symptomatic of guilt. “Privacy” is invoked by those who refuse to admit a moral judgment of those moments of their lives.

But man cannot escape God’s vision. The Psalmist (139:7) already makes that clear: “Where can I flee from Your Presence?” He confesses that attempts to hide in the cloak of night are futile, for “darkness is as light to you” (v. 12). Even on the Last Day, men will try in vain to hide under the mountains to escape God’s sight: “They will say to the mountains, ‘fall on us’ and the hills, ‘cover us!'” (Lk 23:30), an entreaty repeated in Revelation 6:15-16. Two points: (i) there is no hiding place from God, and (ii) all these efforts at hiding are useless attempts to escape accountability for moral judgment of one’s choices and acts.

Indeed, man cannot even escape the vision of the communion of saints: “we are surrounded by a great crowd of witnesses” (Heb 12:1). Because of that “great crowd of witnesses,” we are urged to “throw off everything that hinders us and the sin that so easily entangles.”

Efforts to lurk in the shadows have been primarily associated with sex and other bodily pleasures. It’s no surprise, then, that the effort to eschew moral judgment in that area led to the mistaken idea of “victimless crimes.”

Now, not every immorality need be a criminal act. There are practical and prudential judgments to be made in this area. But proponents of the idea of “victimless crimes,” in my judgment, had another agenda. Aware that law and morality have been traditionally mutually reinforcing, they sought to break that nexus. In the process, they created a schizophrenic concept of “freedom.” Freedom, instead of being directed to my moral possession of the good that I do, is simply reduced to the good. This is the “ethic of choice” — that, not what I choose is what matters.

Because law and morality are closely related, the effort to create a morals-free legal “freedom” also fosters an ethically relativistic moral “freedom.” In the latter case, moral absolutes disappear and freedom becomes a kind of neutrality between good and evil rather than moral choice in defense of the good.

The Christian message does not admit of zones of life shielded from the Divine gaze and judgment: “nothing is concealed that will not be revealed.” That is what the General Judgment is for. As Catholics, we affirm that God is our Judge. God will judge us twice. We will be judged in the “particular judgment” at the moment of our deaths, where our eternal fate, based on our deeds and choices, is decided.

So why the Last Judgment at the end of the world? Because our particular judgments are, in a sense, private. We do not know most of what happens in the next world. The only “insight” we have is through canonization—those who are in heaven—which requires a verification process. Beyond that, everything else about the fate of men in the next world is, in a sense, sealed. But man did not live a sealed life. He lived a life in community, in public, where his lives touched others. God is Just, which means His Justice must be manifest.

That means how human history played out—and how we each played our parts in it—is a matter that should be known by all. This is what Jesus means by “nothing is concealed that will not be revealed.” There will be no “right to privacy” on the Last Day. What you have made yourself – and how you did it – will be manifest.

I remember once reading a book about exorcism (Begone Satan!), which provided an important insight to me. The devil, as usual, sought to deter the exorcist’s assistants by naming their faults, using that particular diabolical ruse [see more here] of dulling our consciences about the wrongness of what we do before we do it but then exaggerating it exponentially when we try to repent. The assistants remarked that if their faults could be pardoned by God, they were not worried. That led to an important diabolical admission: “what you have already confessed, I do not know.” The confessional, clearly, is God’s one zone of “privacy” but, even there, it requires the avowal of one’s wrongdoing through the priest to God. I fear that the modern “right of privacy” is an attempt to avoid moral introspection, even—perhaps even most especially—by ourselves.

Even here, however, while our evil may be erased, history is not. When the Church speaks of the sins of the woman caught in adultery or the dalliances of St. Augustine, when she reads the Gospel telling us how Peter denied Jesus in His hour of need or Acts telling us how Paul served as cloak boy for Stephen’s murderers, when she talks of the sins committed by a Camillus de Lellis or a Matt Talbot, neither she nor the saint rejoices in what they had been. But they do rejoice in what, nevertheless, God has done with them. I once heard a Polish priest put it well in an All Saints’ Day homily: “a saint is someone unafraid of his biography.” Warts and all.

“Nothing concealed will be hidden.” “Privacy” in the sense of one being alone with and before God, yes; “privacy” as a “right” to remove and seal off aspects of one’s life from God and His Judgment, no.

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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