1. What Happened to Sin?

From What Happened to Sin?, by Seán Fagan. S.M.

The Columba Press, 2008.

I am now 81 years old and since 1953 I have heard confessions in 12 different countries and five languages. I also have my own experience of personal sinfulness. This does not make me an expert on sin, but for the past 53 years I have lectured on moral theology to adults, so I have given serious thought to the subject. It is neither a fashionable word nor a popular subject in today’s world. For non-religious people it is simply irrelevant, a carry-over from a bygone age. Even in religious circles it has not the common currency it once had. Among Christians its meaning has become confused to such an extent that preachers tend to soft-pedal it. The loss of the sense of sin may well be a reaction against overemphasis on sin in the past, both in its hell-fire punishment aspect and in the detailed labelling that attached a degree of sinfulness to even the simplest of human activities. Until a short time ago a single act of sexual self-gratification was considered a mortal sin meriting eternal punishment. It was common Church teaching that to miss one Sunday Mass deliberately without sufficient reason meant hell for all eternity, and for centuries it was a mortal sin for married couples to have intercourse during menstruation or pregnancy, although for hundreds of years the Church only recognised murder, adultery and apostasy as mortal sins. Today’s common sense rejects this kind of thinking, but the rejection is often accompanied by impatience with any talk of sin, so the real meaning of sin is weakened or lost.

The world-wide decline in respect for authority is another factor. Sin has traditionally been preached as disobedience to God’s law expressed in the Bible, Church teaching and the commands of lawful authorities. But people are nowadays more alert to the abuses and exaggerations of authority, and find it difficult to see any convincing link between obedience to rules and fidelity to God. This too can be a healthy reaction, rejecting the notion of God as primarily legislator and taskmaster, but it can blunt our sensitivity to God’s invitation and call, and blind us to the possibility of sinful refusals.

A new, but not always correct, understanding of conscience may also lessen the sense of sin. Reacting against the blind obedience often preached in the past, many people now confuse personal conscience with simply doing as they please, without any reference to guidance from authority. ‘What is right’ very easily becomes ‘what I like or want’, and since there is no strong urge in human nature to do what one dislikes, the lines between right and wrong become blurred, moral conflict disappears, and with it the whole notion of sin.

A more general reason for the weakening of the notion of sin is the lessening of the sense of God in today’s world. Western society is becoming more and more secularised, with little direct reference to God, so that human wrongdoing is seldom understood as a religious reality, as sin. Affluence is a factor here, insofar as riches often bring a spirit of independence and self-sufficiency, with little room for God. Jesus himself warned us about this: ‘How hard it will be for rich people to enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt 10:23).

Freedom and responsibility

In the area of freedom and responsibility, the discoveries of psychology about subconscious motivation and the influence of heredity and environment tend to lessen people’s sense of guilt and consequently their admission of sin. It is frequently believed that because a motive for an action can be identified that the action was not fully free, and so the evils in the world can be attributed to outside forces and circumstances beyond our control. It is too easily forgotten that no human action can be without a motive, that our motives are freely chosen, notwithstanding outside influences, and they are often sinfully selfish, without regard for our true good or for the needs of others.

Paradoxically, a somewhat similar form of escapism may be our greater sensitivity nowadays to collective responsibility for sinful situations and structures, for social evils like discrimination, racism, and economic exploitation on national and international levels. We can become so righteously indignant about these social injustices not of our making that we forget the personal sins in our own lives. The enormity of some of these unjust structures and our helplessness in the face of them make our personal misdeeds seem trivial by comparison.

Psychologists have discovered a great deal in recent decades about neurotic guilt and the influence of what Freud called the ‘super ego’. The general acceptance of these findings by the public at large has tended to weaken the sense of sin, since sin is usually associated with guilt. But writers of popular psychology often fail to distinguish between the irrational guilt feelings produced by infantile conscience and the real guilt acknowledged by morally mature people who have acted against their conscience. Psychiatrists and counsellors sometimes undermine our morale and sense of personhood by telling us that we were not responsible for our actions, instead of helping us to accept our responsibility and real moral guilt. There is a sure-fire remedy for the pain of real guilt, namely acknowledgement, repentance, atonement. To treat it as neurotic, in those cases in which it is clearly not such, is to ask for trouble. A rehabilitation of the word ‘sin’ and a greater understanding of how to cope with it through repentance and forgiveness would be more helpful to many people than the guesswork and groping of some psychiatrists.

An over-optimistic view of evolution and human progress can also blunt the concept of sin. It is possible to contrast today’s moral sensitivity to human rights with the barbarism and cruelty of former times, but it would be a mistake to conclude that human beings are therefore less sinful. Our greater awareness of certain moral values and our deeper insight into our human dignity do not mean that we are morally better than our grandparents. The developments of technology that have made life more comfortable and offer us possibilities for a new humanism, have also opened new roads to unprecedented forms of inhumanity. The old are often lonelier today than in most times in the past, people are less capable of coping with the problem of death in today’s society, and the living conditions in modern cities have not produced greater friendliness or neighbourliness. We can feel self-righteous in condemning apartheid abroad, but what happens to our convictions when we are in a position to do something about racial discrimination in our own neighbourhood or in our business? The torture and oppression practised by so many governments throughout the world should be a warning against a too easy optimism. Sin is still a reality in our world, and the world might be a healthier place if it were more sincerely and realistically admitted.

Large numbers of Catholics lived happy and holy lives with an over-simple understanding of sin and morality, and there may be some for whom that is still meaningful, or at least not too harmful. But growing numbers are dissatisfied with such an over-simplified picture. It does not speak to their condition, and it raises too many questions for which they have not been given convincing answers. There is a reaction against a legalistic, formalistic, juridic notion of sin as a thing, the breaking of an external law, a disruption of order and stability. We now have a greater awareness of our personal responsibility, a realisation that the established order itself, whether in Church or state, may be an obstacle to full human development, and so not in accordance with God’s will. The dissatisfaction with the older presentation is not always clearly defined or understood, but there is real need for a new understanding of sin. Such a new understanding has indeed developed over the past few years. There is no question of a ‘new theology’ to do away with sin or encourage the so-called ‘permissiveness’ of modern society. There is continuity between the old and the new, though a considerable shift of emphasis has taken place, and in many ways the whole question is seen in a new light. Sin is as much a reality as ever, and is taken quite seriously by the new theology. In a sense, the new understanding makes far more demands than the old.

It could be objected that what is needed for the renewal of the Church is a positive theology of love rather than a negative theology of sin. This is certainly true, but there is room for a book which will meet people where they are, which will take what understanding they already have, and help them to see where it needs to be corrected and developed. A book on sin need not be a negative treatment. The good news of the gospel is that God loves us with an infinite and everlasting love, and that this love became incarnate in Jesus through whom we have the forgiveness of sins. We cannot repent and be converted unless we take sin seriously. But a defective notion of sin can produce distorted ideas of God, the Church, conscience, law, sacraments (particularly penance), and Christian morality itself. It may be helpful, therefore, to take a critical look at those aspects of the common understanding of sin which need correcting and development. To identify and admit the negative influence of our past can in itself be a liberating experience.

Problems from the past

The old ‘sin-grid’ focused attention on measurement, both of the matter of the sin and of the degree of responsibility and guilt. This needs re-examination today. Are the old categories sufficient? They emphasised law, which was always clearly defined, and therefore easily measured. But with the multiplication of Church laws, people felt that where there was no clear-cut law, there was no moral obligation. Besides, many came to believe that things were wrong because they were forbidden instead of seeing that they were forbidden because they were wrong. This is hardly moral maturity. Among the commandments, the two relating to sex were singled out for such disproportionately special treatment that many people today automatically think of sex when the word ‘sin’ is mentioned. If sin was feared, it was often because of the punishment attached to it, but the over-simplified traditional notions of purgatory and hell are unconvincing to modern Catholics, so their sense of sin is affected. Not only can parents no longer instil the fear of God into their children by invoking the threat of hell-fire, but they are at a loss when it comes to explaining and handing on the moral principles they themselves were brought up on. They feel particularly helpless in trying to form the consciences of their children, because they themselves were seldom encouraged to explore the full meaning of conscience or to use it in a really personal way. The teaching Church, as a loving mother concerned for the safety of her children, at times developed an over-protective attitude amounting to a nervous distrust of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the faithful. A narrow view of the ‘teaching Church’ restricted it to Church leaders, and it was forgotten that the whole Church is both a teaching Church and a learning Church. Before there is any reference to how the Church is organised or ruled, the Second Vatican Council defines it as the People of God, all God’s holy people, equal in our baptism. Because of an individualistic notion of sin, the sacrament of penance became, for many people, a private guilt‑shedding process with little reference to the Church itself as a community of reconciliation. Preoccupation with law and measurement, coupled with this individualistic notion of sin, left Catholics less conscious of collective responsibility and the general sinfulness of the community itself. Likewise, individual sinful actions were often assessed in isolation from the overall pattern of one’s life. Bits of behaviour were often given moral labels merely in terms of their physical component, without reference to the full human meaning of the action.

Change in the Church

While these various factors have left many Catholics with an inadequate or even distorted notion of sin, it is also true that the confusion they experience is part of the general upheaval in the Church since the Second Vatican Council. Changes were not limited to dogmatic theology, liturgy or ecclesiastical organisation, but affected some of the basic principles of Christian morality. The interpretation of the Bible, the nature and extent of the Church’s teaching authority, and modern insights about human nature, all gave rise to new questions in the area of morality. The old black and white answers were no longer convincing, the lines became blurred, and soon people were confused as to what could be labelled sin, or indeed what sin really meant.

Traditional theology taught that sin was an offence against God. This was a dangerous half-truth because it left people with an ungodly understanding of God. He was feared as the All-seeing eye examining our behaviour to pounce on every last ounce of guilt, with special focus on sexuality. This left us not only with an unhealthy understanding of God’s beautiful gift of sexuality and relationship, but with a totally false notion of God, who is essentially infinite love, compassion and forgiveness, not a task-master spying on the intimate lives of his holy people created in his own image and likeness.

Sin is a religious concept

Sin is the word used to describe moral evil when seen in the context of religion, as distinct from ethics or civil or criminal law. The Christian ideal is to do everything as done to the Lord, so shortcomings are considered as against a divinely given law, as grieving the Holy Spirit. It is a symbol which expresses our alienation from God. As a symbol it was subject to historical and cultural development, from biblical times to the present day. The cultural conditioning of past centuries was so strong that it almost trivialised the meaning of sin in today’s world. The popular press uses the word in reference to sexual misconduct, but seldom applies it to economic oppression or the abuse of power. The catechism definition was clear and workable within the framework of stable, classical culture. But today’s Christians are more questioning and critical, less passively accepting of rules and regulations binding ‘under pain of sin’, especially mortal sin with its implication of eternal punishment. They would like it to make sense in the light of modern experience and without the legalism inherited from the past.

The healthy fear of sin as displeasing to God could often degenerate into a crippling and scrupulous fear of self and a doubting of one’s own self-worth. Preoccupation with law and measurement and a kind of lust for certainty left people ill-equipped to live creatively with tension or to keep a balanced Christian attitude in ambiguous situations. The scandal of ‘good-living’ Christians supporting an unjust social system, even economic exploitation and cruel repression raises questions about the primacy of obedience. Since Vatican II the emphasis has changed in our thinking about sin. The starting point is no longer the sinfulness of the creature needing pardon, but the incredible love of God our Creator, Mother and Father, who treasures each of us infinitely, and sees in each one of us the image of Jesus his Son.

The central insight here is that we are most like God in our freedom, that we are created to be free, to grow and develop into the fullness of the maturity of Christ. We do this by saying Yes to the world, to life, to our neighbour, and in and through all of this to God. To say No is to sin, to alienate ourselves from the world, from life, from our true selves, from our brothers and sisters in the human family, and ultimately from God who created us for life, for friendship and love. If the glory of God is the human person fully alive, sin can be seen as anything that violates our human dignity, anything that restricts or blocks our freedom, in ourselves or others.

The negative forces and actions that offend human dignity and lessen human freedom are seen as bad, as evil, as realities to be avoided, to be fought against, but they are not moral evils until associated with deliberate human action, the outcome of free human choice. Since sin is moral evil, all that is said of moral evil applies to sin, but is understood in a wider context. It is seen in the context of Christian faith in a God who is love, a God who is not indifferent to how we live our lives and treat our brothers and sisters, how we care for the universe God created as our home. King David’s sins of adultery and murder were certainly against a fellow human being and the order of society, but in the moment of conversion he acknowledged them as sins against God, in the words of the psalm: ‘Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil’ (Ps 51:4).

The Old Testament describes sin as iniquity, guilt, rebellion, disorder, abomination, a lie and folly, but it is always clear that it was essentially a break in the love-relationship with God, a failure to live up to the dignity and destiny intended for us by God. Sin has meaning only in the context of faith. The Jewish people, our ancestors in the faith, continually experienced the presence of God in their history, and in that sense knew God as a wife knows her husband and is known by him. But their response was often one of infidelity, provoking God to complain with all the heartbreak of a deserted husband or wife: ‘My people, why do you turn away from me without ever turning back? Not one of you has been sorry for his wickedness… (Jer 8:5-7). This is the essence of sin, each one going their own way, seeking their own private ends regardless of others, forgetting that we are members of one family, parts of a greater whole.

Sin and God’s forgiveness

The history of Israel’s infidelities is a history of sin, but it is equally the story of God’s continual never-ending forgiveness and love. No matter how often or how far God’s children go whoring after false gods, God is always there gently drawing them back to forgive and heal them. The New Testament does not enter into details about sin, but presents Jesus as the incarnation of God’s love capable of overcoming sin and death. His healing miracles are signs of his mission. He drew sinners into fellowship with himself, restored their dignity, and assured them of full status in his Father’s house. St. Paul’s letters have the most developed treatment of sin, with the word occurring sixty times. They stress the results of sin: a hardening of the heart, a dulling of the moral sense, and a kind of death, because sin is the denial of life, and sinners die to their own better, potential selves each time they sin. But Paul equally affirms our freedom in the face of sin, repeatedly assuring us that we can resist and overcome it by Christ dwelling in our hearts, by his spirit taking possession of our lives.

We cannot be fully Christian unless we feel a real need for Christ, and it is our sinfulness that brings this home to us. The English mystic Julian of Norwich was not ashamed to write: ‘We need to fall, and we need to realise this. If we never fell, we should never know how weak and wretched we are in ourselves, nor should we ever appreciate the astonishing love of our Maker… We sin grievously, yet despite all this it makes no difference at all to his love, and we are no less precious in his sight. By the simple fact that we fall, we shall gain a deep knowledge of what God’s love means… It is a good thing to know this.’ Indeed, it is a very good thing. It makes all the difference between knowing about God and actually knowing God. St. Paul assures us that ‘all things work towards good for those who love God.’ Commenting on this St. Augustine added: ‘Yes, even sin’, and he knew what he was talking about.

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