I wrote yesterday about the confessional and how I think a call to mercy means a particular call to Christian communities to practice mercy. Today, I discuss what I think that might mean for our writing and teaching as Catholic moral theologians.

The stories that are told of our discipline, Catholic moral theology, tend to be told in this way: in the beginning, the “Catholic moral theologians” were all priests, and were all interested in the field of moral theology because what they said in the confessional to penitents depended very much on how they named and identified individual sins. The manualist tradition was particularly steeped in questions of individual cases, to the point of scrupulosity.

But in the aftermath of Vatican II and Humanae Vitae,  as well as significant historical events like the Holocaust, the Civil Rights movement,  and various revolutions against communist governments and powerful dictators who maintained a hegemony of power and money over impoverished citizens, and in an era of low numbers of priests but rising numbers of lay theologians, naming individual sins becomes less important. Naming systemic sins and systemic accounts of ethics, and the ways individuals perpetuate and participate in those systemic sins or systems of ethics, becomes far more important for most moral theologians.

In short, after World War II, I think we wanted to know how we could avoid being the Nazis, especially as a society – or whomever the bad guys on the wrong side of history are. We wanted to know how we could promote freedom, especially in relation to democracy. Good in themselves – but I worry also not ultimately hitting the right pressure points.

I know what I’m about to say is a broad sweeping generalization, made all the worse for having published it online. (Mea culpa…I’ll maybe offer it at my next confession….) But it is this: We write books about virtue theory and utilitarianism and law and ethic of care; we write about environmental issues and war and marriage and sexuality and race; we write more besides. All dealing with questions we care about and see a vital need to address, in the service of justice, love, making the world a better place, and so forth.

But if we were to think in context of mercy, and especially the need for forgiveness, how much of that writing would get us to mercy, especially the kind of mercy encountered in the confessional, the personal focus? Would our classroom lectures and discussions get us there? I wonder about this – not because I think any of us are against mercy, any more than we’re against justice or love or God – but because in the course of doing this meditation on mercy and the confessional, I started down this windy rumination road, leading to a two-part blog post of all things.

Smarm versus mercy?


Consider students, for example. My students come to my classes thinking that ethics is all about learning “right from wrong” – and while there is some of that, my hope is that students leave my courses realizing that ethics is about the way they live their whole life, and for Christians, that’s about witnessing to who Jesus is.

When it comes to the final course assessment, disappointingly, they tend to leave my ethics courses with pretty much the same attitude they had when they started. I might have changed their minds on, say, water use in the West – but they leave believing they know the “right answers” and especially the “right groups” to support, just as much as they came in knowing the “right answers.” Just, now they know my right answers.

And, they know that the real right answer is to be open and tolerant and nice. As long as everyone smiles and gets along with each other, all will be well with the world. That’s right.

But if that is true, there is no need of forgiveness, mercy, or humility.

In other words, they’re good people armed with the “right answers” and therefore will never sin – just like all of us are.  If a person hints otherwise -at the possibility of sin – well, that person simply isn’t nice. That person is the real sinner!

Ergo, we tolerant kind smiley ones don’t need the sacrament of Reconciliation; that’s just for the people who do the really nasty stuff, out of sync with the “good people” in society.

Tom Socca’s essay on smarm in The Gawker diagnoses some of these tendencies.

What is smarm, exactly? Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.

Smarm would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can’t everyone just be nicer?

As Socca goes on to discuss, citing Harry Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit, smarm doesn’t really seek truth. Whether the smarmist’s statements are true (in any sense of the word “true”) matters little; what matters more is a surface tone, a question of whether we’re being “civil”.

Contemporary American politics is full of smarm. Socca gives the following examples:

[A]t the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, I witnessed an unforgettable performance: Windy Smith, a 26-year-old with Down syndrome, was brought out onstage before the cameras to tell the American public that she, personally, wanted George W. Bush to become the next president. A Bush presidency, she said, “will be a happy time for America.”

Was it? Did it turn out to be a happy time for America? Is that a mean or disrespectful question? If it is, whose fault is that?


The New York Times reported last month that in 2011, the Obama Administration decided not to nominate Rebecca M. Blank to be the head of the Council of Economic Advisers, because of “something politically dangerous” she had written in the past: In writing about poverty relief, she had used the word “redistribution.”

The Times quoted a passage from the dangerous work, which was written 19 years before Blank was in position to be treated as a political liability:

“A commitment to economic justice necessarily implies a commitment to the redistribution of economic resources, so that the poor and the dispossessed are more fully included in the economic system.”

Socca goes on to point out that Blank’s statement is a tautology – that money does, in fact, need to be tendered to those who are poor, even if the methods for giving that money differ. Then he notes: “But to admit the fact is to imply that someone ought to spend that money, which implies a conflict between the desires of the people who have the money and the people who do not. “

So, tellingly, there are other examples of unacceptable political discourse, including this one that Socca mentions:

God’s people are directed to tend to the needs of these most marginalized groups and to be sure that they receive their just share of the community’s resources [Deuteronomy 10:17-18]. There is to be a regular redistribution of property and the forgiveness of past debts [Leviticus 25:1-55; Deuteronomy 15:1-11].

Economics doesn’t get a pass, either:

Market reasoning is deeply, essentially smarmy. We live, it insists, in a world that is optimized by the invisible hand. The conditions under which we live have been created by rational needs and preferences, producing an economicist Panglossianism: What thrives deserves to thrive, be it Nike or sprawl or the finance industry or Upworthy; what fails deserves to have failed….Immense fortunes have bloomed in Silicon Valley on the most ephemeral and stupid windborne seeds of concepts, friends funding friends, apps copying apps, and the winners proclaiming themselves the elite of the newest of meritocracies. What’s was wrong with you, that you didn’t get a piece of it?

Smarm emphasizes YOU, the brand – and the chance to believe that we can be anything we want to be, so long as we’re not The Haters.  We should love everyone who wins, on the principle that we, too, can be them.

Initially, niceness sounds nice. My students love it. Just yesterday, several of my students suggested that no one could say or decide anything at all without “having been there or been personally touched.” For them, that meant abortion was off-limits for discussion and so was gay marriage. They liked that, because they’re tired of arguing about it.

 But doesn’t that logic also mean that we can’t touch racism or rape, ultimately, issues with which my students would absolutely abhor, in ways that they don’t abhor abortion. (After all, I haven’t been a rapist, so….)  Doesn’t it even mean, in some way, we can’t also do something that we hope, with well-meaning hearts, is positive, even if ultimately it fails – something like invent cochlear implants or heart transplants?

Thus, as Socca notes: “Sympathy begets sympathy, to the benefit of things that don’t deserve to be sympathized with.” And, “A civilization that speaks in smarm is a civilization that has lost its ability to talk about purposes at all. It is a civilization that says ‘Don’t Be Evil,’ rather than making sure it does not do evil.”

Niceness/smarm is a dangerous mentality to have, all the more so as sociologists have suggested the ways in which our decision making and understanding of what is “good” is affected by all kinds of social cues and the all-encompassing peer pressure. Genocide cases might be precisely such situations where we can see that what is named as “good” is not at all “good”.

Back to the Future: A New Manualist Tradition?

What Socca utterly neglects is that truth-telling doesn’t stand well on its own. How can a person tell truth in a vacuum, when no one else seems to be doing it? Indeed, how could we even get to the point of knowing what is a truthful way of naming a situation? And finally, how can a person tell truth especially about one’s self, when no one is assured of anything other than a smarmy, superior response?

In the current culture, the one who really – really – aims at truth telling – is the one who becomes the sacrificial offering at the altar of niceness.

That’s why the pope’s focus on mercy in relation to confession is spot on. It seems strange to me to say it, but in a world where niceness reigns but where people secretly feel pained and betrayed by the things their friends or family did or said (and then not-so-secretly dress down everyone’s lack of niceness on Facebook, Twitter and SnapChat) – the sacrament of Reconciliation offers a counter practice.

It’s a point where the smarm can stop, and where kindness and mercy and, yes, justice have some space.

But here’s where I wonder about our role now, as lay theologians. How could we help in the endeavor to name individual sins? Because I think, in the degree that we need mercy, we ought at least be able to take a stab at this kind of naming, even with the full knowledge that our accounts might be wrong, that we might be lying to ourselves, that we’ve neglected large parts of where we sin.

That’s not to negate the importance of many of our current modes of writing. But (again, with mea culpas for making generalizations) does it help us name sins?

Much of our writing as a guild involves textbooks on metaethics and ethical theories and development of an array of social issues. Yet I worry that the textbooks may help students learn a bit of philosophy and see where some of their decision-making processes originate but I’d venture to say they don’t often help students grapple much at all with what it means to name individual sins – either their own or others’. Nor do they help students make careful discernments about what to do, especially when faced with an array of apparent good actions. 

I suspect many of us write about systemic sins and social issues because we understand this concern. And there is, indeed a connection – of course! Yet I fear, again, that it has meant that in the classroom and in Catholic preaching and public writing, that this focus has meant the individual thinks it is merely a matter of their choosing the good (that is to say, the winning) side without having to invest much in naming ways they are complicit.

All of this is a long way around to saying that I think we need accounts of individual sin, alongside mercy, especially in the form of forgiveness. To refer back to what I said yesterday, that requires, I think, specific embodied relationships between people, and difficult communal practices. But we especially need to know how to name sins, as individual Christians. We need also to be able to look at an array of potential possible goods and name what will be better – and that requires the kind of robust task of description that naming sins does.

What would it mean, as a guild, for us to discuss naming individual sins, to take up in some kind of altered form, a kind of manualist tradition? Could we even do that, in light of the important theological concern that confession not be simply about naming laundry lists of sins?  What are other ways we might help ourselves and our students name sins? How do we currently do this work?  Have we any part in extolling mercy in relation to confession?

I’m interested in hearing about others’ works, especially if you see yourself doing what I have suggested is missing – and whether the picture I describe is at all a truthful one.