Father Brophy always sermonized about ‘the occasion of sin’. The environment in which one lived – friends, institutions, occasions – was the Petri dish for aberrant behavior. If boys never visited Jimmy’s Smoke Shop, they never would have seen the girly magazines that Jimmy had arrayed behind the pipe tobacco, would never have been excited by them, and never would never have pleasured themselves with lurid thoughts of the women they had seen in Crack and Come!.
All-y0u-can eat buffets were temptations to gluttony. Although one might be restrained or even abstemious at home, the steam trays full of turkey, meatballs, fricassee, and the tables of chocolate cake, éclairs, cream puffs, and custard tarts would certainly be hard to resist.
According to Father Brophy, just about everything was an occasion for sin and his list was endless. Public schools were godless creations of the State. Circus side shows were devilish in their display of deformity and turned minds from the perfect beauty of God’s grace to the worst of Satan’s demonic distortions. Trips to the southern Jersey Shore tempted fate because of its proximity to Atlantic City and its casinos, drink, and prostitution.
According to Father Murphy there was only one way to get into heaven, and that was in a monastery. There one could lead a life of solitary prayer and contemplation, live simply, and live far from temptation.
‘Into Great Silence’
Father Brophy was never taken seriously for the very reason that his list of sinful occasions was so long. His message might have been far more compelling had he focused more on the nature of temptation and the importance of moral courage and right behavior in dismissing it rather than on the perniciousness of the environment.
The story of Christ’s Temptation would have made a perfect sermon. The Devil’s audacity, rebelliousness, and arrogance were in full display. Jesus’ moral principles, inflexible rectitude, and wise dismissal of Satan’s offers of power and riches taught important lessons. We are all tempted, but by realizing the nature of temptation and the powerful, spiritual force of refusal, we can become true heirs to God’s kingdom.
The story of the Temptation is seminal to Christian theology, for it presents the nature, expression , and dangers of evil; teaches the importance of the personal moral responsibility and resolve it takes to resist temptation; and thereby accurately places man and his free will in the context of good and evil.
Unfortunately Father Brophy preferred to talk more about specific occasions of sin rather than the moral principles required to avoid or resist them. In fact, the more he talked about Jimmy’s Smoke Shop, the show girls at Atlantic City, the drunken debauchery at New Brighton’s country clubs, the provocative dress of New York women, deceived Protestants, and the Seven Deadly Sins, the more the boys of St. Maurice wanted them. Given this seductive array of experiences ahead of them, any boy would be foolish to even consider a monastic life.
To most parishioners Father Brophy had a a lot of loose hinges. While the boys were ironically tempted by all the delights he preached from the pulpit, their parents were worried that the priest would finally go off the rails. While some admired his resolve and obvious passion, most of the congregation wished he would change the subject, stick to the Stations of the Cross, lessons from the Catechism, and the miracle of transubstantiation.
Yet Father Brophy had a point. The occasion of sin does indeed matter; and today it is called an enabling environment. If an employee works at a Wall Street firm where greed is thinly disguised as ambition and where financial investment and trading are guided by corporate profits rather than ethical principles, then it is likely that he, no matter how morally disciplined or ethically prepared he might be, will quickly subscribe to the ethos of the company.
The question is less why the new employee turns morally flaccid and more whether or not the corporate culture mitigates his personal responsibility. If the company is accused of SEC violations, how guilty is the lower-level employee who willingly if not happily goes along with his superiors? Shouldn’t he be as guilty as anyone higher up? Shouldn’t he have realized the moral dereliction of he company when he first joined and quit on principle? And wasn’t his staying an admission of complicity?
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen has written extensively about the complicity of ordinary Germans in the Nazi Holocaust. They could not have been totally ignorant of Hitler’s plan, he argues, and despite the powerful machinery of the State could have rebuffed the Fuhrer when they first realized his intents and might have been able stop him.
Once the complicit acceptance of Hitler and his grand designs became widespread if not universal, the incorporation of Nazi ideals within the normal life of German citizens became easy. Not only did Germans no longer question Hitler or even think of revolt, they accepted him. The environment enabled them to sleep easily.
Do such ordinary Germans deserve the opprobrium 0f Goldhagen? Don’t we all fall prey to overwhelming majority opinion, cultural ethos, and peer pressure?
The issue of sexual assault on college campuses is a contentious one. An important but infrequently raised question is not about assault or rape itself; nor even its frequency; but about the enabling environment. Feminists say there is no such thing. If a woman has sexual relations without her consent, then she has been raped, period.
Others, like Mona Charen writing in The National Review disagree. The hook-up, alcohol-fueled culture on campuses, she says, provides the enabling environment for sexual assault to occur. In other words, she does not deny that it occurs, nor does she exonerate the men who – under any definition – rape women; but she asks if such assaults would occur if the prevailing culture on college campuses were different. Referring to the recent Stanford University case where a woman was raped and her assailant received a light sentence she says:
Turner is a criminal, something liberals as well as conservatives should be able to agree upon. One can understand the judge taking the defendant’s age and lack of priors into account in sentencing, but to cite his drunkenness as a mitigating factor is peculiar. Oh, you were drunk when you robbed the liquor store? Reduced sentence.
Here is the truth that the Left will never acknowledge — the hook-up culture they celebrate and defend is the greatest petri dish for enabling rape and sexual assault imaginable. It does women no favors to tell them that the way they drink is irrelevant. It may not be a crime to get blind drunk at a bar or party — but it’s reckless. The Stanford woman’s blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit. Again, that doesn’t make her a criminal, but who can doubt that, but for that, she would not have become a victim?There is no doubt that an employee in an investment banking firm who puts his name on a fraudulent document is guilty of a crime; but would that crime have ever happened without the enabling, permissive environment? The French baker who volunteered information about the identity and location of Jews and whose denunciation sent them to Auschwitz was most definitely guilty of many crimes; but would those crimes have been committed by so many if anti-Semitism been so endemic? Did the Nazis simply encourage the expression of an anti-Semitism which always existed but which had been kept in check by self-imposed moral injunctions?
Are not college campuses the very epitome of the occasion of sin denounced by Father Brophy?
Where does all this lead us? A case can be made for Father Brophy. There should be no fluidity in the definition of right and wrong, and inflexible moral precepts should be taught from early childhood. Certain actions – such as sexual assault, fraud, or the deprivation of life and liberty – are wrong and always wrong. Parsing motivation, contributing factors, or enabling environments does not belong in a moral education.
Father Brophy’s warnings about the occasion of sin were necessary because he, like the rest of us, knew about human failings. We may think we are responsible, principled, and moral; but we are no Jesus Christ in the desert. Without avoiding the occasions of sin, sin will undoubtedly occur.
The law is very clear on the nature of guilt. If a crime is on the books, then a defendant must be judged according to it. He either did it or didn’t do it. No excuses, no testimony of previous behavior.
The issues are with the definition of crime; and the enabling environment which contributes to it. To be fair to both plaintiff and defendant, the definition of the crime must be absolutely clear. It is the obligation of every citizen to know and understand the law and pay the penalty for disregarding it.
Similarly, institutions must take responsibility for the enabling environment they create or permit. They may not be legally responsible for individual crimes, but they are at least ethically guilty for them.