“What fruit had you then in those things of which you are now ashamed.”
In the epistle today, Saint Paul reminds us of something that seems to have gone out of style in the modern world—the idea of shame. According to Saint Thomas, “shame is a recoil from what is disgraceful or a shrinking back from what is base.” It is that passion we feel when we do something that we know is wrong; and particularly the passion we feel when we get caught doing something that we know to be wrong; and even more particularly, when we get caught doing something wrong by those who know us and with whom we must deal on a regular basis.
The loss of shame in our society is a serious problem. Evil is not a 20th century invention. We've always had people doing things they shouldn't. Not too many years ago, a man would have been ashamed to be caught stealing, or stepping out with another man’s wife, or to have a reputation for being a liar. That sense of shame had a two-fold effect: the fellow who was going to do something wrong tried to keep it secret. That might seem to be a bit hypocritical, but at least it had the secondary effect of not giving bad example to others. This fellow with a sense of shame might still go and cheat on his wife (for example), but at least he didn't give others the excuse that “everybody’s doing it,” and he certainly didn't get on his soapbox to try to gain public acceptance of adultery. He knew what he was doing was wrong, and he still did it, but he didn't try to turn the moral law upside down.
In others, a sense of shame actually kept them from doing wrong. The potential embarrassment of getting caught in a lie made them generally tell the truth—the fear of being though of a thief kept them from stealing—the dishonor associated with marital infidelity kept them from cheating—and so on. This may still seem a little hypocritical, but yet good is still served, even if it is not for the best of reasons.
Finally, the sense of shame sometimes actually turns bad people into good ones. Shame should be internal as well as it is external. The fellow who is cheating on his wife (for example) may never get caught if he is careful, but hopefully, he may come to realize that is degrading himself. Hopefully, he will come to understand that his sin, and his betrayal of trust, and his disregard for his own family, and the damage he is doing to society make him a lesser person—hopefully he will be ashamed of himself, even without being caught. And, hopefully, his shame will help him to amend his ways.
As Saint Paul tells the Romans, the fruit that we have from the things of which we should be ashamed is death. Now, that may seem a bit strong at first. Other than murder itself, it is hard for us to equate any one sin with death. We may be ashamed of getting caught in a compromising position; we may even have that internal disposition that keeps us from committing evils that we can get away with. But it is hard for us to equate a few lies or some petty theft with “death.”
But St. Paul is right—for two reasons. First of all, if a sin or combination of sins is serious enough to be mortal in nature, we lose sanctifying grace; we lose the life of God within our souls—and that can be thought of as a spiritual death—one that may literally cost us eternal life with God in heaven.
And even if our sins are relatively minor, they still might be equated with death over a lifetime. Sins tend to become habits. The fellow who gets away with a small sin is less likely to avoid it in the future; and less likely to avoid larger sins of the same nature.
So, shame can be a very positive thing—something we don't want to lose from our society; something we don't want to lose in our own lives.
We ought not to accept indifference to evil in our culture. And we do have some control over that, even in modern America.
Our influence in politics may not be great, but it should not be ignored. No political system is perfect, but the system would work a whole lot better if people took enough interest in things to be informed of the issues, and write enough letters to officials, and support the right candidates.
No one can force us to watch television programs or to spend our money on movies or books that glorify bad behavior. No one can tell us who to associate with; what kinds of friends to have, or what we may talk about. In personal matters, evil should rarely go unopposed.
I am sorry to have to mention that a recent encyclical gave many people several false ideas—the foremost of which are—that the Commandments are merely “goals” to try to meet; that some Commandments may be impossible for some people to obey; and that it is permissible to break them as long as we are striving to keep them at some time in the future. Almost three years ago, four Cardinals of the Roman Church requested a clarification of the encyclical—the clock is still ticking!
The reality, of course, is that the Commandments are exactly that—“Commandments” and not “suggestions,” or “goals.” The reality is that God’s grace is sufficient in keeping the Commandments for all who strive to cooperate with that grace. The reality is that breaking the Commandments is sinful in the present, no matter what our expectations of the future might be.
And we need to oppose evil in the place where we have the greatest influence. If we used to “yield to uncleanness and iniquity,” we must “become slaves of justice unto sanctification.” Every night we need to make an examination of conscience, and get to Sacramental Confession regularly. We ought to have a proper sense of shame. We need to oppose evil in the place where we have the greatest influence—to oppose it in ourselves.
 Epistle: Romans vi: 19-23 http://www.drbo.org/cgi-bin/d?b=drl&bk=52&ch=6&l=19-#x
 S.T. II II, Q. 144, A. 1. in Glenn, A Tour of the Summa, p. 275. Summa online at http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3144.htm#article1
 Verse 21 http://www.drbo.org/cgi-bin/d?b=drl&bk=52&ch=6&l=21-#x