Father Richard Barrett answers readers' questions
Recently an agony uncle described indulging in Internet chat lines as an instance of "virtual infidelity" and explained that for Christians there can be no moral difference between a virtual affair and a flesh-and-blood betrayal. What are the indications of official moral teaching on this matter?
The reader is referring to an issue of the popular Italian journal Famiglia Cristiana, which is regarded by some as something of a litmus test of official moral indicators, though the pronouncements of some Italian church officials, say on contraception, have not always reflected the measured and moderate terms of Vatican documents.
The agony uncle reported is in fact a priest who argued that "exchanging confidences with people you have never met amounts to betrayal, even if your mistress or lover only exists in the ether."
So is this a virtual or real sin? The question from the original Italian reader in Farniglia Cristiana suggested that the issue was about the moral status of chatting on the internet. We might begin by disentangling the legal implications of internet surfing from its moral implications.
Currently some firms (notably Royal Sun Alliance) are sacking employees for misuse of office computers for private and explicit e-mailing. This raises the question of privacy generally, but also of the new issue for moral theologians of what we can call internet sin.
Most readers will know that the law in this country makes it a criminal act to download child pornography from the internet so it would appear that the law regards such a push of the electronic button as a true and verifiable act even though it simply registers "in ether" as Fr Sciortino quaintly puts it.
But the law does note as cognisable by a court a move from software to hardware. Taking our approach from the hierarchy of sources, doctrine, law, and then moral theology, we can see that modem scenarios involving virtual reality do not easily fit into a traditional framework, as provided for in the ten Commandments, so we may have to have recourse to the first-century Gospels.
From a legal point of view a sin is not always a crime and indeed in canon law a delict or offence only occurs when it is an external and morally imputable violation of a law to which a sanction is attached. Clearly downloading child pornography and saving it is regarded as a crime and indeed there is no reason to suggest that it is not also a sin (Lk 17:13). As there are often prompts on most programmes before one downloads anything received via the internet then a defence of inadvertence (ie "I didn't mean to push that button") would probably not stand up in a court of law.
What of those that log onto an explicitly sexual chat line for the purpose of meeting others on line and arranging dates, as in the gay American site, St Sebastian 's Angels?
Obviously one may have to distinguish here between a canonical offence and a sin. It could be argued that a punishable internet-sin is not involved because the participants are over 16. This is not always verifiable however. Some screen names give no indication of the age of the user. From the moral point of view, the sinfulness of these electronic acts would need to be judged with regard to the nature of the web-site and one's electronic communications thereto.
Obviously if the site was sexually explicit and clearly dedicated to arreaiging dates then say a male or female religious who had taken a public vow of chastity would be morally compromised where say a single male or female would not necessarily be so. A secular cleric on the other hand who does not take a vow of chastity, but has taken a promise of celibacy might argue that virtual participation without a meeting in the flesh amounts to harmless flirtation. A young Jesuit in the States has however outlined the problems with such a defence in
the news magazine, Catholic World Report (Nov 2000).
Yet the more recent case of a Scottish cleric who had been using an office computer for downloading hard porn from gay websites has highlighted public revulsion at internet-sins of this kind. There is a law to cover such activity (abuse of ecclesiastical goods at cairn. 1389* 1, 1741 *5) and therefore punishable tribunal computers are for marriage cases and not for ogling sixpacks or reproductive equipment.
Though the faithful have a right to be tried according to the positive law and not according to the canons of outrage among readers, the bishop in the case above would need to keep in mind the terms of canon 1399, which expresses Jesus's own warning to those who give scandal to minors (Lk 17:1-3).
So though we are not Anglican clerics for whom any "conduct unbecoming for a clerk in holy orders" is punishable, we should recognise the interne requires new categories of law. This duly noted Fr Sciortino's response does not distinguish sufficiently between the virtual and the real. Christ our moral guide, it is true, did explain that a person who looked lustfully at another woman commits adultery with her in his heart (Mt 5:27-28). But is this a simple description of what is happening in the psyche of the subject or a moral injunction not to do so?
The crime of adultery in Jesus's own time involved capital punishment was Jesus suggesting a new reign of thought police and the capital punishment of ogling males? It's unlikely. Beauty is always worth admiring and every woman knows that there is a difference between admiration and lust otherwise Raphael would never have picked up a paint-brush and the puritans would have whitewashed the Sistine Chapel. Here Oscar Wilde's book, De Profiradis, would be of great benefit to readers seeking 10 distinguish admiration from lust.
Jesus then seems to have been advising that giving attention to the heart is the first base in the virtue of self-control
he was not advocating capital punishment for lusty males or females. Thus married couples would not be compromising their promises if they indulged in ordinary chatlines. Indeed as chatlines are rarely explicit (their servers publish rules of engagement to prevent this) so they should not be regarded always and everywhere as invitations to infidelity. Is engaging in a internet chat line then always a betrayal for the committed? Flirtation it could be infidelity it is not. Until there is a flesh-on-flesh betrayal it seems that interne sin remains a matter of virtual significance only. Gravity will hang on whether a silver surfer takes the virtual into reality.