When my family lived in Colorado, one of our greatest pleasures was the long drive west from Denver through the Rockies to getaway weekends on the Western Slope. The journey’s highest crest stood at more than 10,000 feet, and was ringed by mountains with permanent snowfields towering 3,000 feet above us. The view in the thin air was spectacular. On cold days it literally took our breath away.
Pennsylvania, our current home, has a different appeal. Few places in America can boast the vivid beauty of our rivers and the intense greens of our hills and forests. But despite the differences in terrain, Pennsylvania and Colorado have something in common: Much of their backcountry is still clean and pure—“pure” in the original sense of the Latin word purus, which means “undefiled.” In other words, much of the land is unviolated.
The Christian virtue of “purity”—cleanliness of heart, mind, body, and behavior as a path to God—has a long pre-Christian pedigree. Humans instinctively seek to separate themselves from waste and unclean things—partly for health reasons, but also from an inbred sense of their own dignity. Republican Rome placed a high (if selective) premium on the virtue of purity, which disappeared only in the tidal wave of wealth, power, and license that accompanied empire.
Today, millions of Catholics seem gripped by a rage virus straight out of the film 28 Days Later. The trigger is the ongoing abuse scandal, and while bishops take (and some deserve) most of the heat, Rome’s foot-dragging makes it complicit. The Vatican deserves a healthy share of lay anger for its refusal to deal with the core issue of the abuse problem. “Clericalism” may contribute to the sexual defilement of minors, but neither my wife, nor I, nor any of the many other veteran parents I know considers that the key issue. As one churchman recently said, “Not acknowledging the real problem for what it is, a pattern of predatory homosexuality and a failure to weed that out from Church life, is an act of self-delusion.”
We need to consider the realities of this delusion: For all the elevated talk about our American “right to privacy,” the world we actually live in has a bottomless appetite for commerce. And that appetite includes our intimacies and seeks to relentlessly monetize every element of life. Almost anything we do on a computer or cell phone, no matter how embarrassing or sensitive, leaves an exploitable record that is difficult to expunge.
On March 27 the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. national security officials had “ordered a Chinese company to sell [the] gay-dating app Grindr, citing the risk that the personal data it collects could be exploited by Beijing to blackmail individuals with security clearances.” Grindr is a popular hookup app for persons with same-sex interests, a Tinder for married and unmarried homosexuals. Two days later, the Journal reported a major refocusing of FBI resources in response to cyberattacks against U.S. national security interests and businesses.
Grindr users number in the millions globally—and every one of them trades revealing, highly sensitive personal information. Privacy (despite corporate assurances) can never really be guaranteed. Grindr users enter a localized and identifiable market for commoditized same-sex interactions. The app company watches those interactions and learns. Foreign states aren’t the only entities with an appetite for these data. Nor are they the only ones with the skill and intent to collect and capitalize on them.
If government officials with “secret” lives can be blackmailed, humiliated, destroyed, or simply exposed, why not Hollywood celebrities, star athletes, university presidents, corporate board chairs, and clergy and religious leaders—like denizens of the Vatican and its diplomats? Let that sink in. None of this involves excessive imagination or anxiety. It can happen right here, right now. Sooner or later, it likely will. Little in the digital age is truly hidden.
The lesson is simple, and it's not to be more clever, disguised, or discreet in how we compromise and soil ourselves through technology. In a world of growing surveillance and receding privacy, pursuing a virtuous life is its own reward. Purity, like so many Christian virtues, is not just the path to a clean spirit and undefiled heart (something to turn our prayers and efforts toward this Lent). It’s also the prudent thing to do.
Francis X. Maier writes from Philadelphia.