What Happened to Sin?

by Seán Fagan. S.M.

 The Columba Press, 2008


Introduction (see below)

1. What Happened to Sin?

2. What Does the Bible Say?

3. Is It Allowed?

4. How Far Can I Go?

5. How Sinful is Sex?

6. My Conscience or the Law?

7. Am I really Guilty?

8. Does God Punish Sin?

9. God’s Gift of Forgiveness

10. Can Morality be Taught?

11. Let’s Rehabilitate Sin!


In 1977 I wrote a book called Has Sin Changed? It was written in two months and was published by Michael Glazier, Wilmington, Gill-MacMillan, Dublin, Doubleday, New York, and was the Thomas More Book Club selection, U.S.A. in 1978. It sold 65,000 copies worldwide and is a Talking Book for the Blind in the United States. I still receive requests for it and queries about it, so I thought it worthwhile to re-write it totally in the light of developments during the thirty years since it first appeared. There have been very considerable developments in the Church and world in that time. Although many of the giants in theology have gone to their heavenly reward and now enjoy the fullness of life for which they were created, their research, lectures, writing and wisdom live on for the enrichment of contemporary Catholics. Thousands of lay men and women have discovered the joys of theological study and are excited about the experience. But they are saddened that their talents are so often ignored by the clerical Church. While the Church in the Third World is full of enthusiasm and growing in numbers, its place in developed countries continues to shrink, with massive reduction in Mass attendance, and an ever-growing drop in vocations to priesthood and religious life. It is so easy to blame outside forces like relativism, materialism, individualism and the general sinfulness of the secular world for our current misfortune, but the first Christian converts who moved out of Palestine and into Europe had to cope with the sophisticated paganism of Greece and Rome, and later the savage barbarism of the scattered tribes looking for fresh conquests. The problems of today’s Church are not all caused by outside influences.

There is no simple answer to the problem of renewal. More than just organisational management of personnel, we need a renewal of spirituality and vision, a new effort to take seriously the insights of the Second Vatican Council in our understanding and living of the meaning of Church and mission. A helpful step in this direction is to recognise and discard so much useless and at times dangerous baggage from the past, so that our gospel message can shine out clearly in its own light. A wider interest in, and knowledge of, theology can be of help and we should make more room for those laity who have begun to discover the riches of their faith and how it helps them to make godly sense of the complicated world we live in. So many committed lay Catholics find it difficult to live in our clerical Church and women are still waiting to have more than lip-service paid to the equality of the sexes.

But the major stimulus to my re-writing this book has been my experience of hearing confessions in many countries and listening to so much heart-break in marriage counselling since 1968. Like me, many clergy will have encountered the intense pain suffered by hundreds of thousands of married women around the world, while others alas seem to have ignored that intense pain when those women came to the confessional asking to be absolved from a ‘sin’ which with sincere and well-formed responsible conscience they knew could not be proved sinful. This situation becomes critical when the woman’s health precludes a further pregnancy. The most poignant example of this was just one of many, that of a woman who had two children followed by eleven miscarriages (with the agonising worry about the mysterious Limbo). As a good Catholic she and her husband conscientiously tried so-called natural family planning with no success, except that the strain of abstinence and repeated unwanted death-threatening pregnancies almost destroyed their marriage. Her doctor told her that she could easily become pregnant, which she did, but because of her medical condition she could never bear a live child, and her abnormal blood-clotting problem meant that each pregnancy could easily cause death. Her problem was solved by tubal ligation. Only God knows the number of those refused absolution by priests who felt they were just doing their job. An extreme example was an English woman who never missed Sunday Mass for almost thirty years but felt she could not receive Communion because two priests had refused her absolution. She was overjoyed just recently to be able to have Communion again. Clerics who have the privilege of daily celebration of the Eucharist have no idea of the intense suffering of devout Catholic couples who love the Mass but have been told for years that they cannot accept the invitation of Jesus when he offers his body and blood with the words ‘Take and eat, take and drink.’ Most of them are convinced that this cannot be God’s will, but they are saddened to know that the Church can do nothing to help them. Those in second unions have the same suffering.

This tragic experience sharpened my interest in their problem. The first step in my research was the discovery of the masterly study of Professor John T. Noonan, Jr., of Notre Dame Law School: Contraception, How the Catholic Church has viewed birth control, from the earliest times to the present day.(1) He was special consultant to the papal commission in Rome set up to study the question of birth control. His book is a magnificent presentation and discussion of statements of popes, theologians and canonists from the Roman Empire to the present day. It is doubtful that Pope Paul VI ever read this extraordinary book, written in English, and it has been said that many bishops dismissed it as not being ‘reliable’, without ever looking at it. An equally enlightening book was Robert McClory’s: Turning Point, the inside story of the Papal Birth Control Commission.(2) The book is called after the extraordinary moment when none of the Commission could point out why contraception was contrary to Natural Law. Much has been written about contraception and Church teaching during the past forty years, but not a single convincing argument has emerged to prove that artificial contraception is ‘intrinsically evil’. Cardinal Heenan, who was a member of the Second Vatican Council and also a member of the papal commission told Dr. John Marshall, a fellow member, during the long wait for the encyclical: ‘It does not matter now what the Pope says. It is too late. The people have made up their minds’. Dr. Marshall voted with the majority of the commission that contraception was not intrinsically evil, while Cardinal Heenan was one of three abstaining bishops.

Cardinal Wojtyla was a member of the Commission but never attended a single session, possibly because of the high view of papal infallibility he expressed in his book The Theology of the Body (p.389) where he says that ‘Even if the moral law formulated in Humanae vitae is not found in Sacred Scripture, nonetheless, from the fact that it is contained in Tradition, and as Paul VI writes, has been “very often expounded by the Magisterium” (HV 12) to the faithful, it follows that this norm is in accordance with the sum total of revealed doctrine contained in biblical sources’. This unfounded view is far from the First Vatican Council’s understanding of ‘infallibility’ and ‘revealed doctrine.’ Humnae vitae teaches that ‘every act of marriage must, in itself, stay destined towards the chance of human procreation.’ (n. 11). Apart from cases of low sperm count, this happens in male intercourse only because God has created female human nature differently. A woman is fertile for only 48 to 72 hours each month from puberty to menopause, so most of her acts of intercourse throughout life are not open to procreation. The obvious conclusion is that God has attached procreation to the marital relationship itself, the two-in-one-flesh which is the essence of marriage, and not to all acts of intercourse.

Although women are still excluded from Holy Orders, since late in the last century many of them have been able to study theology and have excelled in it. What I found most enlightening and heart-warming since 1968 has been to listen to the voices and experience of some of these women. who are far more qualified in this area than most celibate clerics. Their contributions to my thinking and understanding are beyond number, but I mention just three to record my admiration, appreciation and deep gratitude. Their help will be apparent in chapter 5. The first is Kim Power, an acknowledged world expert on Augustine, his culture and his writings, author of Veiled Desire, Augustine on Women.(3) She points out the irony in the fact that it was Augustine, the man who argued so powerfully, and eventually persuasively, that sexuality belonged in Eden, who also made the desire to be loved by the beloved so suspect and so shameful, rendering it so tainted and dangerous that the erotic could never be permitted to symbolise divine love. So much for the Song of Songs in the Bible. She brilliantly shows how Augustine legitimised the split between love and sex so that sexual intercourse is depersonalised, and it wasn’t until Paul VI that papal teaching accepted that intercourse had a unitive meaning. I was also encouraged and enriched by correspondence and conversations with Angela Hanley, an Irish married woman well qualified in theology, a coordinator with the Priory Institute Distance Education Programme in Theology, Tallaght, Dublin, author of Justified by Faith,(4) and co-editor of Quench not the Spirit.(5)

A special source of inspiration and understanding was Elizabeth Price of the U.K., also an avid student of Noonan’s Contraception. She noted that Paul VI said of the Pontifical Commission that ‘The conclusions to which they came the Pope cannot accept; for they are not conclusive in themselves, and some of their proposals went much too far away from what the Teaching Church has always said’ (HV 6). Having read Noonan, she saw that this was indeed true of contraception, but that the wider understanding of the physiological and psychological aspects of marital sexuality had changed beyond all recognition since the middle of the twentieth century. Up until the sixteenth century this misunderstanding had led to many acts of intercourse in marriage being seen as mortal or venial sin, then after argument between rigorist and pastoral theologians were seen as innocent. Feeling that this should be true of contraception, she wrote an article prior to the Synod on the Family in 1980, and published it in the May edition of the Clergy Review that year. It was expressively called Sexual Misunderstanding – The true reason for the Magisterial Ban on Contraception. The points it raised are still being ignored. They will be discussed in chapter 5 of this book.

In 2000 Elizabeth wrote a pamphlet called Seeing Sin Where None Is. (6) , which was published by Catholics for a Changing Church, a group which had come into being in 1968 to protest at what they saw as the moral injustice of Humanae vitae. Frank Pycroft, co-founder and current chairman of CCC, has recently described it as one of the group’s most important publications. As one of the group’s vice-chairmen, Elizabeth was given the task of writing letters to the Catholic Press on marriage matters. Her main point in these letters is to say that given the need for ‘responsible parenthood,’ this can be achieved in two ways: either by altering the act of intercourse by removing its potential fertility with the use of contraception, or altering the very relationship of marriage itself by removing an act intrinsic to it – sexual intercourse. She argues that no moral authority has the right to do this, because Christ’s teaching in Mt 19:4-6, which has been used by the Church throughout history in an almost fundamentalist way to ban divorce, is also in fact Jesus himself revealing that the initial and continuous purpose of intercourse is to bring about a change between the couple, and to sustain them as no longer two but one. This special relationship forms the background security both for the couple and for any children born to them. Chapter 5 will hopefully show not only why this beautiful teaching of Christ has been ignored until the present day, but also how this text ought to be used to change our whole understanding of human sexuality and of how our Catholic Church could better engage in preparation for, and ministry to marriage.

It is a well-known fact that 80% of Catholics disregard the ban on contraception. It will be clear from our discussion of the subject that this is not the result of lust, selfishness, materialism or secularism among the laity, but rather that the fault arose from the ignorance of the close advisors of Paul VI who disregarded the informed advice and lived experience of the married People of God on the Pontifical Commission. The advice of these married people was rejected simply because it did not accord with a flawed and untried theory passed down from one generation of celibate clerics to the next, which had never been put to the test in their own lives. The contraception debate gets only brief treatment in chapter 5, but fuller information is available in my earlier book Does Morality Change? (7) – chapters 5-9: Does Nature Change? Conscience Today, Moral Discernment, Responsible Parenthood, and Church Teaching.

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