Imagine you are an artist in your workshop, working on a mosaic artefact. Your four year-old daughter is watching with fascination as you glue tiny bits of pretty glass to a board. She decides to be helpful. She goes into the house, takes a hammer, goes to the cabinet containing your best wine glasses, smashes all your Waterford crystal into tiny pieces, places the shards of glass on a tray, and, with the sincerity of a four year-old, brings them to you, saying: “Here is some more glass for you to work with!” Did she do right or wrong?

The question allows no easy answer. On the one hand, she is sincere and trying to be helpful. On the other hand, your precious crystal is forever smashed, irreparable damage has been done. So you stand before your daughter unsure whether to kiss or scold her – or do both.

This little moral puzzle is valuable because it highlights the fact that something can be done in love and sincerity and still be wrong at another level. In essence, in this little scenario, we see the difference between objective wrong (a mistake) and subjective guilt (sin). Something can be wrong and yet not be sinful.

Too often we do not make that distinction. Instead we use a number of words with quite different meanings as if they were the same. Thus, for instance, we ask questions like: “Is it a sin not go to church on Sunday? Is euthanasia immoral? Is premarital sex wrong? Is artificial birth control unnatural? Is war evil? Does cheating on your taxes transgress any moral boundaries? Is this a mistake? Is this ideal? Is this tasteless? Is this aesthetically improper?” All of these are moral questions, but they are speaking of morality in a different way.

We have many words in our moral vocabulary to suggest that something is not ideal. We speak of things as being bad, wrong, sinful, evil, immoral, unethical, corrupt, wicked, not right, unnatural, perverse, imperfect, abnormal, distasteful, tactless, aesthetically improper, impure, intrinsically wrong, an impropriety, a failing, a transgression, a mistake, a stupidity, an error, a blunder, an indiscretion, a faux pas. These do not all say the same thing. Too often though we tend to make them synonymous and many of our disagreements over moral issues result from that.

For example, to say that something is wrong is not necessarily to say that it is a sin. Conversely, just because something cannot be said to be a sin does not mean that it is not wrong. Take the question of sex outside of marriage: Is it a sin or not? Is it right or wrong? Is it a mistake? An impropriety? Immoral? Is it simply something that is less than ideal? These are different questions. If I were making the moral judgements, I would answer the questions separately.

Is sex outside of marriage a sin? That is not a judgement that I, nor anyone else, can make. Sin is always a question of the heart and only God reads that. Nobody can ever look at an action done by another and say that it is a sin. Sin is a subjective thing, something between an individual and God, something dependent upon many personal things that cannot be judged from the outside – motivation, knowledge, background, responsibility, maturity, the degree of felt-love in one’s life, mental and emotional health. All the moral theology books, old and new, agree on that.

However, the question of moral right or wrong is something else. One can, and should, say that sex outside of marriage is not morally right. Such a statement does not judge the subjective intent, goodness, or relationship to God of another person. It accuses no one of sinning. It is only a judgement, but a necessary one, about the moral order of things. It simply says that some “Waterford crystal” has been broken, irrespective of the private goodness and sincerity of the one doing the breaking.

This kind of distinction is equally unpopular among conservatives and liberals. Neither is comfortable with saying that something can “be wrong” but “not sinful”. For the conservative, if it’s wrong it’s also sinful. For a liberal, if it isn’t sinful then one shouldn’t say it’s wrong. Both these positions are unfortunate, hurt people, and confuse moral discourse.

We hurt people and do not do any favour for religion when we impute sin all over the place and make judgements on peoples’ private consciences. Nobody can tell anyone that he or she has sinned.

Conversely, we also hurt people and do no favour to religion, however well intended our efforts, when we collapse the entire moral order into peoples’ private intentions. If I paint a moustache on the Mona Lisa because I naively think it will improve the painting, I do something wrong, whether I am well intentioned or not.

Something can be innocent but wrong, sincere but hurtful, well intended but a mistake, pleasant but tactless, honest but stupid. It is important that all of us, liberals and conservatives alike, admit both sides of these equations.