Should leaders – in the church, the government, the military, elsewhere – be held to a different or a higher moral standard?
Most of us will almost immediately respond in the affirmative to that question. Yet implicit within the question are two basic presumptions about the nature of sin.
First, is all sin equally bad?
Answering this question affirmatively creates the difficult problem of delineating a hierarchy of sin. The Roman Catholic Church has defined such a hierarchy, broadly categorizing sins as venial or mortal. Mortal sins, unlike venial sins, place the sinner’s eternal soul in jeopardy.
In reaction to efforts to categorize sin, some Protestant reformers argued that all sin was equally bad because sin, whatever the specifics, separate a human from God; otherwise, that human sin taints God, with the result that God ceases to be perfect.
The Protestant position seems untenable. Sin exists. Nevertheless, God remains in relationship to the world. Additionally, murder or rape seem much worse offenses than does coveting someone else’s truck, but not acting upon that desire. However, attempting to delineate a hierarchy of sin seems an impossible task: nobody can list all possible sins; the effect on one person of committing a specific may differ from the effect on another person who commits the same sin.
What can be said without too much risk of refutation is (1) certain sins are always more egregious than other sins (cf. the example in the preceding paragraph); (2) certain sins are more objectionable when committed by persons in particular positions, e.g., a priest who divulges what s/he learns in the confessional is worse than most gossip; (3) some individuals do appear to have become great souls (Hinduism) or saints (Christianity), i.e., less sinful than the majority of other people.
Second, some sin appears to have little effect on other humans or upon creation but primarily alters the sinner’s relationship with God. Illustrative of this type of sin might be the person who regularly receives Holy Communion yet has no Christian belief whatsoever. Presumably, the preponderance of other people present are Christian believers. If anything, the sin of receiving without belief may reinforce the belief and practice of those Christians. The harm of this sin seems to fall almost entirely upon the non-Christian who receives unbelieving.
Are sins against only God therefore less egregious than other types of sin?
No objective basis exists for definitively answering this question because no finite being can know the mind of the infinite God. Indeed, the metaphor of God’s mind is itself an example of anthropomorphism, imposing human images on the divine.
Instead of pursuing a theological dead end, how can a person identify that which is sinful and thereby journey toward holiness (the absence of sin in one’s life)?
Main definitions of sin include missing the mark (behavior that is not as loving toward God, others, self, or creation as it might be), impairing a relationship, and inappropriate boundary crossings. These definitions, better than any enumeration of possible sins, offer guidance on how to become a better, less sinful human.
Individuals who hold, or who aspire to hold, positions of leadership or significant responsibility do well to reject claims that all sins are equivalent and that spiritual growth away from sin is impossible. Ever mindful of the definition of sin and sin’s temptation, strive to develop a virtuous life, especially focusing on the cardinal virtues of justice, courage, prudence, and temperance and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Then God will say, Well done good and faithful servant.