Lets Rehabilitate Sin

Chapter 11 from What Happened to Sin, by Seán Fagan. S.M.

The Columba Press, 2008.

It would be a total misreading of this book to conclude that recent developments in Scripture studies or theology have done away with the notion of sin or in any way minimised its importance. Nor can it be said that they have so altered its description as to empty it of meaning. On the contrary, running through all of the preceding chapters is an implicit plea for a rehabilitation of the word ‘sin’. It has fallen on hard times, and it needs to be rescued. In the world at large it is an empty word, generally avoided, or used in the most superficial sense. In the Churches it has become so trivialised that it touches only the surface of people’s minds, no longer finds an echo in their hearts, and fails to help people change their lives. There is no need to find a substitute word to sound more modern, because it is one of the basic words of our religious tradition, a word as fundamental as ‘grace’ or ‘God’. In order to rehabilitate it, we need to rescue it from the oversimplifications that keep people from taking it as seriously as it deserves.

Neither symptom nor crime

To emphasise sin is to re-affirm moral responsibility, to do people the honour of respecting their personhood. Society’s superficial reaction is to reduce sin to symptom or crime, so that all that is needed is to treat the neurotics and punish the criminals, leaving the rest of us with an easy conscience. But this is very much an over-simplification. In the chapters on guilt and punishment we drew attention to the need to recognise real guilt in whatever degree it is found, and to help people accept the consequences of their actions, which is the element of punishment. God does not inflict punishment, and we might do well to follow his example by seeing to it that penalties, either in civil society or in Church community, are therapeutic, working for the offender’s improvement, or in extreme cases affecting the common good, simply a deterrent. But vindictive punishment is simply collective revenge, and should have no place in Christian thinking.

To have dealt with the neurotics and criminals is not to have finished with sin. The big sin is to refuse to accept that we are our brother’s keeper, that in fact we are responsible for our brothers and sisters, to close our eyes to the fact that we are part of the system which encourages people to behave neurotically or criminally. So many of these people are more sinned against than sinning. To draw attention to their unsocial or antisocial behaviour is to distract from our own responsibility, to forget that many of our own attitudes and actions are far more harmful to society.

Recognise sins

We are continually sinning, but we prefer not to think about it, and the fact that so many people are in the same boat makes the evasion all the easier. The fact that dishonesty, tax evasion, pilfering, malingering are so common, means that the honest person is made to look and sometimes feel eccentric. For the health of society we need a new awareness of the seven capital or deadly sins, plus a few more: pride, greed, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, sloth, waste, cheating, stealing, lying, cruelty, alcohol and drug abuse, drunk and dangerous driving. These are not simply diseases for which we are not responsible, pathological conditions we can do nothing about. There is no need to catalogue the harmful results to society of any or all of these, nor to describe the basic unhappiness and lack of wholeness they bring to the sinners and their families and friends. But it would be a good thing to remind ourselves that they are bad, that we need to be converted from them and try to avoid them.

Society at large needs such a reminder, and the Churches too need to have their conscience stirred. It is the function of preachers to keep the Christian community aware of the sins in our midst, to call us to repentance and atonement. But the purpose of this book was not to moralise about particular sins, nor indeed to enter into discussion as to whether different forms of contraception or sexual behaviour are sinful or not. Rather it was to stir the conscience of Christians to reflect on the seriousness of sin, to re-think some of the assumptions and uncritical views that tend to trivialise it.

Trivialising notions

Thus, we saw how narrow and crippling is the influence of an over-simplified notion of moral law; a preoccupation with precise measurement; a disproportionate concern with sexuality, particularly physical actions, without reference to their full human meaning; judgement of isolated bits of behaviour divorced from the overall pattern of moral living; an inflated and morbid super-ego taking the place of conscience; neurotic guilt feelings smothering the experience of real moral guilt; the punishment of sin seen in terms of an angry, vengeful God; the sacrament of reconciliation used mainly as a guilt-shedding process with little experience of real conversion; the notion of God’s forgiveness as something to be worked for and earned rather than accepted and celebrated as healing gift; morality presented simply as rules to be obeyed; unthinking conformity praised as obedience; the teaching authority of the Church used simply as power to command; the over-protective caution of those in authority, bishops, priests, teachers, parents; the failure to raise the level of people’s reasoning about moral issues; the reluctance to promote autonomous moral decision; the lust for clarity and certainty beyond what is possible or appropriate.

To this list could be added more general factors like concentration on private morality to the exclusion of any awareness of responsibility for community sinfulness like prejudice or discrimination; a gigantic blind spot with regard to sins of omission, and particularly the sin of simply not caring, not being concerned, and of not being concerned at our lack of concern; an artificial separation between Church and world, spirit and matter, soul and body, worship and service, love of God and love of neighbour, future life and life here on earth; a water-tight division between teaching Church and learning Church; a failure to realise that the Church is not only an institution with its structures and laws, but also a fellowship of brothers and sisters in the Lord, a sacrament of Christ, a herald of the kingdom of God, a servant of the world God so loved; the refusal to read the ‘signs of the times’ in the light of the gospel as an ongoing revelation of God’s will; a failure to recognise the presence of the Holy Spirit in other Christian communities and indeed in world religions, and to admit that we might learn something from them; a complacency that prevents us from realising the wealth of new insights in the documents of Vatican II and from admitting how radical a change in thinking they call for.

Call to change

This is not meant to be a list of sins, though it could provide material for a fruitful examination of conscience. Failures in these areas may not only be sinful, but they can narrow our concept of sin and indeed our understanding of Christian morality. To speak like this may be upsetting to some Catholics who claim that they do not wish to be disturbed in their faith. This reaction merely underlines once again the need for adult education in the Church, how necessary it is to explain that our faith is in Jesus Christ, but that our understanding of it will be coloured by the culture in which we live. To want a ‘simple faith’ in a world that is no longer simple is a failure to hear God’s call in the complexities of daily living, an escape into a fantasy world in which even God can be fashioned in our own image and likeness.

The irony is that those who complain about ‘innovations’, à la carte Catholicism and a ‘new theology’ undermining their simple certainties and relativising their false absolutes appeal to the ‘teaching of the Church’ and fail to realise that it is the Church itself which is calling them to change, through the authority of an ecumenical council. The documents of the Second Vatican Council are the ‘official teaching of the Church’, more ‘official’ than any catechism produced before or after the Council. That they represent, in many cases, a combination of different theologies and leave some questions without satisfactory solutions should warn us against false clarity and misleading simplicity. The effort to lessen their importance by quoting earlier ‘teachings’ or previous papal teaching against them is the worst of bad theology.

Without going into detail on the more intricate moral problems, they have much to tell us that is relevant to morality in today’s world. Their insights and approach throw new light on many of the topics discussed in the previous chapters. First of all, it is significant that the Council totally rejected the special document on The Moral Order drawn up by the Vatican preparatory commission, a document which reflected literally the legalistic and casuistic approach of the old textbooks. Instead of a separate document, the Council spread its teaching on morality over many documents as the need arose. This is not the place for an extensive treatment of Vatican II moral teaching, but we need to recall its new perspective and the radical departure from a tradition that was at least a few centuries old. It looked to the Bible, dogma. and the life of the Church as sources for renewing moral theology. Ignoring the old ‘blueprint’ notion of natural law, it gives a clearer picture of it as God’s plan; it presents Christian life as a gift from God, a fruit of the Spirit (The Church, n. 7). It stresses the dignity and freedom of the children of God, in whose hearts the Holy Spirit dwells as in a temple, and whose ‘law’ is the new commandment ‘to love as Christ loved us’ (ibid. n. 9). It uses the word ‘law’ more in Paul’s sense of a framework or principle of faith rather than as a precise and detailed code (e.g. Church in the Modern World, nn. 22, 24, 28, 32, 38, 41, 42, 43, 48, 50, 51, 78, 89).

God’s call in today’s world

The relativisation of external law is an immediate consequence of the Council’s teaching on conscience, discussed in chapter 6 above. It emphasises that conscience is not omniscient or infallible, and we are reminded of the fact that it can be blunted by sin. But there is a firm insistence throughout on individual responsibility, and on the freedom of our response to God. Faith is conversion from sin and a turning to God, not once but continually as we grow in personal relationship with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But nowhere does the Council suggest that the gospel, Church teaching or even the presence of the Spirit give us solutions in advance. Though the people of God believe that they are led by the Spirit of the Lord, and get inspiration from their faith, they still have to ‘discern in the events, the needs, and the longings they share with other people of our time, what may be genuine signs of the presence or of the purpose of God’ (ibid, n. 11). God’s call is to be heard in the here and now, in the bits and pieces of everyday life, and to be sought afresh as each new problem arises.

The world and earthly values are no longer looked upon as temptations and distractions from spiritual life, but are recognised as part of the basic goodness of creation. The moral challenge to us is not simply to keep the law in order to get to heaven, but to develop our full potential, to grow into the likeness of Jesus, who is not only God made visible, but the human person made perfect. As Jesus did not drop out of the sky as an alien from another world, but was a man of his time who had to grow in age, wisdom and strength, so too the Christian is rooted in this earth, belongs to the human family and is part of its culture.

With this kind of vision, the Council resolutely rules out any kind of individualistic or otherworldly morality and piety. The document onThe Church in the Modern World, whose opening sentence speaks of joy and hope (Gaudium et Spes), emphasises human solidarity, cemented by love extending even to enemies (ibid, n. 28), and lists the principles or basic truths that should guide moral decisions: inter-dependence, co-responsibility and participation, respect for human rights and social justice (ibid, nn. 25, 31, 24, 29). It lays particular stress on the rightful autonomy of earthly affairs (ibid. n. 36).

Values before rules

The second half of this Council document is a treatise on values that ought to be a source-book for Christian thinking on morality, dealing as it does with family, cultural, economic, social and political values, and questions of international life, war and peace. This is a very far cry from the rule-morality and listing of sins with their varying degrees of sinfulness so characteristic of the old manuals, but it is now the ‘official teaching of the Church’. In practice, therefore, the Church would not merely be faithful to its own teaching manifested in the principles of Vatican II, but also it would be more effective as a teacher of morality if it were simply to drop all attempts to draw a sharp line between mortal and venial sin, both objectively and subjectively. Concern about such a division has been a mental strait-jacket of scrupulosity and fear for millions of Catholics, preventing their growth towards moral maturity.

Likewise, the Church in future will have much fewer and far less detailed moral rules than in the past, and will focus more on fundamental principles of moral reasoning, a deeper insight into human and Christian values, and a heightened sense of personal responsibility among the faithful. After all, a central insight of Vatican II is that the Church is first and foremost the People of God. This could be upsetting for those pastors who fear that they may lose ‘control’ of their flock and experience a diminution of ‘power’ in their ministry, but it will be a big step forward for the Church when such leaders can stop worrying about ‘putting people straight’ or ‘making them good’, and instead concentrate on their primary function, which is to preach the Good News of Jesus.

‘Christian’ morality?

With so much talk of the ‘autonomy of earthly affairs’ and the recognition of ‘human values’, it could be asked ‘what is Christian morality?’ or ‘is there such a thing?’ This question has occupied moralists for some years past, and there is growing consensus on the view that, in terms of content or specific commands, there is no Christian morality distinct from basic human morality. The Ten Commandments of the Old Testament and the virtues preached in the New Testament are all simply moral demands of human nature, applicable to all human beings. The insights of the Council make clear that Christians and humanists have the same grounds for knowing the difference between right and wrong, and should therefore collaborate in seeking solutions to the world’s problems. It was for this reason that Pope Paul could address his encyclical letter on fostering the development of peoples, Populorum Progressio (1967), which is certainly a document about morality, not only to Catholics, but to all people of good will.

Once again, this could be upsetting to those accustomed to thinking of the Church as ‘possessing the truth,’ almost ‘owning the truth’ to be handed out to others, but again they need to be reminded that the Vatican II documents are now the official teaching of the Church itself. However, there is something different and special about Christian morality. Just as the religious faith of the people of God in Old and New Testaments saw the obligations of human morality in a new context, in the context of the covenant-relationship with God and as a consequence of the new life in Christ, our faith today enables us to view the demands of being fully human as a response to the call of God in the person of Jesus, in the light of his teaching and his example.

Faith makes a difference

Our faith provides us with a new stimulus and motivation to act morally, puts before us the attractive, impressive and challenging model of Jesus in his humanity, and through his Holy Spirit gives us the power to cope with our sinfulness and respond to his call. Furthermore, the teaching and example of Jesus may make us more sensitive to ideals above the normal, like turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, forgoing our rights, loving our enemies, and remind us of a theology of suffering, of failure and the cross. Likewise, our belonging to a Christian community, a community of faith, service and worship, can make demands on us like participation in the Eucharist and celebration of sacraments that are not operative for non-believers. Also, our belief in a personal relationship with God leaves us open to the possibility of experiencing a personal invitation from him not merely to continual conversion and greater intimacy, but also to a special way of service in the community, for example in the priesthood or religious life. Finally, belief in a God of infinite love, caring for us personally, can bring healing, growth and wholeness that will colour our attitude towards our neighbours and the world about us. Faith also makes a difference in the understanding of sin. It considers sin not simply as selfishness, letting oneself down, disappointing or hurting others or breaking a law. Sin is all of these, but for the believer it is much more. It is the refusal to behave like a child of God, a failure to reflect the mind and heart of Jesus our model.

The human person fully alive

These are all important differences, but they should not allow us to forget that underlying them all is the basic moral demand to become actually what we are potentially, to become fully human. If we are called to follow Jesus, who is not only God in human form but also the perfection of humanity, the more Christ-like we become, the more fully human we become. There are individuals for whom the external expression of their growth in Christ will be blocked by obstacles beyond their control, so we must beware of a too-easy identification of holiness and psychological wholeness. There are forms and degrees of holiness known only to God. But the normal pattern is that our growth in Christ is a development of our humanity. St. Irenaeus describes this ideal in his beautiful claim that ‘the glory of God is the human person fully alive.’

But nobody grows alone. Our roots are in the earth, whose stewardship God put into our hands, and our life, health and growth are determined by our relationship with those around us. We are what our relationships enable us to be. To respond to God’s call to grow, to be fully human, therefore, is to be in a correct relationship with these realities. In fact, we have no way of knowing whether we love God, whether our prayers are more than words, apart from the test of service, of love of our fellow human beings, as Jesus himself tells us: ‘unless you did it to one of these my least brethren’. Certainly, we need to pray and worship. Like Jesus himself, we need to be alone with our heavenly Father from time to time and we also need to praise and thank him together as a community. But, without the touchstone of service, we cannot be sure that this is not mere escapism, that our contemplation is not simply talking to ourselves about ourselves. There can be no love of God except through the neighbour. When Jesus calls us to serve God rather than the mammon of wealth, power or reputation, he is really telling us to live for others. But since we are to love them as we love ourselves, a certain healthy self-love and self-esteem is essential to being human and being Christian. This strand of our Christian vocation needs to be more openly acknowledged and developed against an exaggerated and one-sided preaching on humility and self-abasement which did so much damage in the past.

Reality of sin

It would be easy to get carried away by the optimism of the positive picture of our dignity and call as presented in the Vatican II documents. But a too optimistic picture is bound to be shallow. The full picture must include the dark side of our nature, equally emphasised by the Council, namely the evil in our depths that can turn self into God, the pride, avarice, lust and aggression that are the effects of serving that false god. Our exaggerated self-love is a dis-orientation at the very centre of our being. It is what we call ‘sin’, and it expresses itself in all kinds of broken, distorted and destructive relationships with those around us and with the material world in which we live.

The purpose of this book was to focus attention on the seriousness of sin, to rescue the notion from the many elements in our tradition that tend to trivialise it, and to remove the misunderstandings that tempt people to dismiss it as a reality. We need to see it not simply as misdemeanour, law-breaking, or surface action for which we can easily make amends, but as a mysterious, ever-present reality in the Church as a whole and in individual members. It is a reality to be concerned about, but not to be unduly afraid of. ‘Where sin increased, God’s grace increased much more’ (Rom 5:20). In Christ Jesus we have the forgiveness of all sin, but unless we are convinced of our sinfulness in all its depth and complexity, how can we realise how much we need him, or fully rejoice in the pardon, healing and new life he brings us?

The future?

It is no accident that the chapters on law and sex are much longer than any of the others. It simply shows how much these areas of Christian morality were crying out for critical examination and renewal. The legalistic and abstract approach could not be sweetened by piety, since references to God’s love were often so spiritualised in the past that they made little connection with the reality of people’s daily lives. There was no theology of sex worth speaking of. For older Catholics it was an endless source of scruples and temptation. For far too long the primary purpose of marriage was seen as procreation, with the secondary purpose as the ‘relief of concupiscence’. Official Church teaching still insists that every act of intercourse must be ‘open to procreation’, whereas God himself has arranged that a woman is fertile for only 48 to 72 hours every month. In fact it is only with the recent encyclical of Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, that eros and agape have been meaningfully linked in papal teaching. The Church’s traditional attitude to sex is only one of the factors contributing to the haemorrhaging of Church attendance at the present time, but it is a very important one. Thanks to gifted and prophetic lay writers, men and women with personal experience of married life, we are developing a new and meaningful theology and morality of sexuality. They make good use of the insights of the Second Vatican Council, but they feel that the most central insight of that wonderful Council receives only notional assent by our leaders, namely the nature of the Church itself and the manner of its organisation and functioning.

Vatican II totally abandoned the description of the Church as a ‘perfect society’ and defined it first and foremost as ‘the People of God.’ Of course it is also an international institution, an organisation, with its civil service and admnistrators, but this is secondary. As People of God we are all equally members, with the same baptism and dignity, but in practice clericalism still dominates our experience of Church, and the laity, God’s holy people, still feel this. They are never consulted in any meaningful way and they are disheartened that their children have so much difficulty in relating to the Church. Those children, who can be as caring, generous and loving as their parents were in their time, are not impressed or happy to hear their world described simply in terms of materialism, personalism, and relativism. From their point of view they are tempted to add ‘Catholicism’ as a negative experience. They look in vain for the joy and hope described by Vatican II in its presentation of the Church in the modern world. Our Church is indeed undergoing a tramatic experience. Mass attendance has dropped dramatically in developed countries, and vocations to priesthood and religious life are at an all-time low. We are accustomed to thousands in Latin America having no Eucharist for months because they have no male celibate clerics to lead it, and in Europe and North America churches are closed and parishes are ‘clustered’ to keep the dwindling Church ticking over. But this is a one-sided emphasis on the Church as organisation, and moving the furniture is only a small part of what may need to be done.

The Church in developed countries is forced to close churches or to cluster them in groups to be serviced by a ‘flying padre’, a mobile priest to visit them in turn but without a Christian community of which he himself is part. How long can a celibate priest who really belongs nowhere survive as a human being, and what kind of old age can Holy Mother Church provide for him? This kind of ‘vocation’ will not attract new vocations. The Vatican recently ordered bishops around the world to appoint a priest to organise special prayer meetings and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament to pray for vocations. We have been praying for decades for more priests in Latin America and now in our home countries, but we fail to see that perhaps God has already answered our prayers: that He/She is not interested in ‘more of the same’. God is asking us to use our God-given reason and common sense to search for new answers. There is no need to close or sell the church building. We could ordain a working man or woman or a recently retired person to celebrate the Eucharist and bring the sacraments to the sick and dying. Everything else can be taken care of by a well organised Christian community of lay people with their various gifts. For the first hundred years after the death of Jesus Christianity was not recognised as a religion and there were no churches. The Eucharist was celebrated in private houses and the leader was somebody appointed by an apostle or a man elected by the community. More often the leader of the celebration would be the owners of the house, who could be a married couple or a rich widow. Only later was the leader prayed over by the laying on of hands, and only very slowly did our present notion of priesthood develop. Many people imagine that at the last supper, after the withdrawal of Judas, Jesus ordained the remaining eleven men as priests, giving them everything except Roman collars. But in fact there is nothing in the gospels to show that Jesus consciously founded the Church, or even achurch Nor did he ever ordain anyone a priest in the modern sense, or even think of a cultic priesthood. Inspired by the early history of our Christian communities and the division of ministries, we should be free to devise a healthy and human re-organisation that could revitalise our parishes,

The Church as all God’s holy people

The Church as People of God needs more attention. They need to hear the Good News of the gospel in terms that make sense of their ordinary everyday lives, with a vision that enables them to recognise the basic goodness of God’s wonderful, beautiful creation, and helps them to feel his loving presence in their human relationships.

Some people are inclined to look to the ever-increasing numbers of Catholics in the developing world as hope for the future. There is no doubting their enthusiasm and the quality of their faith, but they are affected by the same social factors that were part of our own experience in the past. It is a step up socially to opt for priesthood or religious life, with the prospect of education and foreign travel. But when these countries reach relative prosperity they will face the same problems we have to cope with today. There are no simple solutions. We may do our best to re-organise our structures and make the best use of our personnel, but the deeper renewal is a bigger and more important challenge. Current efforts at evangelisation focus on liturgy, prayer and sacraments, but these are the very practices that Catholics are abandoning.

The interesting fact is that the surveys which indicate dwindling numbers in church attendance tell us that huge numbers still believe in God and there is a great interest in spirituality. The challenge is to respond to this opportunity, to feed this hunger by helping people to find God in a meaningful way in their relationships, in their experience of sex, in the bits and pieces of everyday life. In today’s world people are not going to fill the churches in their thousands if all they find is ‘more of the same’. Large numbers of enthusiastic lay women and men have done courses in theology and Scripture that have opened their eyes to the deeper meaning of Church and they are only too willing to share in its renewal. In their search for new ways forward they are open to new possibilities in which God could renew his holy Church: more meaningful lay involvement, married clergy, women priests, real accountability of church leaders to their communities of parish, diocese, and world Church. If Jesus were to visit us in person today we might be consoled by his customary greeting ‘Peace be with you’, but probably shocked at his little bit of reality therapy ‘Why are you afraid?’ We should not be afraid to admit how much unhealthy, useless and even dangerous baggage we have been carrying for far too long in our theological past. We should leave it in the past and open our eyes, our hearts and our minds to the liberating and challenging insights we get from the Second Vatican Council calling us to renewal.

While the topics just mentioned are means towards effective renewal, we also need radical change in our underwstanding of Christian religion and our image of Church. Karl Rahner in 1979 drew attention to the fact that the Christian Church began as a form of Judaism and then developed over two thousand years into the Church of European culture and civilisation, but with Vatican II it realised that it was really a world-Church. Instead of hankering after the glories of the past, the challenge now is to adjust to the new reality of there being no future Christendom, but rather a Diaspora-Church, a little flock, a pusillus grex, a Church equally at home in all cultures, in every part of the world. This would take us into uncharted waters, but it might help us to become a more humble and more convincing Church, rather than a world organisation proud of its efficiency.

There is far too much fear in the Church. We need to get rid of our fear, and one way of doing this is to feel that we are trusted. We need to trust each other more. After all, God trusts us: with his Son (in spite of what we did to him), with his word in Scripture, with his sacraments, indeed with his Church (and what have we made of it?). An incredible mystery, if only we could believe it. Perhaps God is telling us that the only way to trust people is to trust them, as he trusts us.

In spite of the many unattractive elements in our Church at the present time, I have no hesitation in declaring that I am passionately in love with it, and I am very much at home in my Catholic faith. A pessimistic Catholic is a contradiction in terms. I find the goodness, truth and beauty of God in the wonderful world he has created and entrusted to our care, and I feel his love most strongly in the precious gift of friendship. As for the Church, it is my home. It brings me so much of the endless compassion of Christ; the kind strong gentleness and refined sensitivity of Mary the Mother of Jesus; the consolation from God himself to help us through the many dark nights of the soul; the strength of grace in the midst of weakness; the deep-down conviction of the mystical meaning of all reality; the deeper meaning of living and dying; the magic of enjoying the earth as the home God gives us out of love, and at the same time realising that we have here no lasting city.

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