Saturday, November 22, 2014

Forgetting the Meaning of Sin


The word “sin” is probably the most unpopular word it out there. People tend to look at sin as if it were a sort of “Seal of disapproval” for a behavior. If that behavior is popular, people resent the designation. They consider it as being “judgmental" and want it changed. It is treated as an arbitrary human decision which only has authority by way of coercion in the “do it or go to hell,” threat. That’s why we have the media constantly asking, “Is the Church going to change the teaching on contraception or abortion or homosexuality?” every time the Pope makes a statement (and not just for Pope Francis—they did it for St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI as well). They say “Don’t push your views on me!” or “God doesn’t care about X, so the Church shouldn’t either!"

Yet, at the same time, these people also designate that they know that certain things are always wrong. Racism, sexism, harming other people. People know these things are wrong, and they would not accept someone defending them by saying “Don’t push your views on me!” or “God doesn’t care about X, so the Church shouldn’t either!"

That’s a major clue that people have not only lost the sense of sin, but also lost the concept of what sin is.

At the most fundamental level, sin is about a broken relationship. It always affects the person’s relationship with God, and it can also affect a person’s relationship with other people. It does so by choosing to do something which not in keeping with what God has made us to be. The point is, God has created the universe and designed us with the purpose of living forever with Him. That means that there is a right way to have a relationship with Him and the rest of the people He created. But since He wants us to freely choose to love Him, it means we have the possibility to choose to reject Him by not having a right relationship with Him and the rest of the people He created.

The Tools Needed In Living In Right Relationship With God

Knowing how to live in right relationship with God comes from seeking what is true and living according to it. This isn’t always done. Nowadays, many think of themselves as doing good enough and never begin to ask questions on what they ought to do and where they need to change. They invoke their conscience, assuming it to be some sort of infallible guide. But that’s not what conscience is.

Conscience is present in all men, telling them, “you must do this, you must not do that.” Conscience is not infallible however.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes it, conscience can go wrong:

1790 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.

1791 This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.”59 In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits. (1704)

1792 Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct. (133)

1793 If—on the contrary—the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him. It remains no less an evil, a privation, a disorder. One must therefore work to correct the errors of moral conscience. (1860)

So, if a person never bothers to seek out what is right, they cannot invoke “conscience” as a defense for the evil they do. They have to seek out what is true. Assuming that because a person’s conscience is quiet means that he or she does no wrong is not true.

Argument from ignorance

Because conscience can be malformed by sinful habit and corrupt societies, so it needs to be trained by seeking what is right. Two of the sources of training the conscience comes from revelation and reason.

Revelation and Reason

Revelation informs us about those things about God that we could not know on our own. For example, His relationship to us is not indifference (the position of the Deists), but one of love, seeking our greatest good. Because of this revelation, we know that our relationship with God is not one of “Do this or I will bash you,” but one of “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)

When you think about it, this makes sense. In a loving human relationship, the person who loves another does not choose to act in a way he knows his beloved finds hateful or harmful. It doesn’t matter if he never gets caught. Loving another person means behaving in a way that seeks to cherish the beloved. So God makes clear what way of living is incompatible with love of Him, and urges us to avoid that kind of behavior.

So what of the person who doesn’t have the ability to know about God’s revelation? After all, there are people who are denied the opportunity to receive the Gospel and some who have made an error in judgment as to whether the Word of God is to believed. Do they have a “Get Out of Jail Free” card?

Well no. Those who do not know of the right relationship with God can be saved by seeking out what is right and trying to live according to the truth. As the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium (#16) put it:

Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.20* She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life. But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator.129 Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”,130 the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.

So reason matters too. It’s not sufficient on it’s own—one can’t say that because they have reason they don’t need revelation—but reason can help in the seeking to do what is right. Provided, of course, that they don’t get led astray by their pride or by despair. Basically, reason is a tool to seek out what is right, a tool to help one in the search for God. (God’s right there, saying “Here I am,” but we can be kind of slow to grasp that.)

Even the atheist, who denies the existence of God and Revelation, can reason that it is wrong to do certain things—even if he or she does not know the reasons for why it is wrong. The vast majority of people out there know it is wrong to rape or murder or steal, regardless of their religious belief or lack thereof. Some people think that this means that religion can’t be the cause of morality because it’s not just Christians who know it is wrong.

That misses the point however. The unbeliever can reason from the existence of humanity and the interactions of the individuals that some behaviors are morally wrong. They can know it is wrong to kill or harm another person or to deprive them of what is rightfully theirs. But what they are doing is discerning some of what God designed humanity to live like. They don’t have the whole picture of what reality is without recognizing the role of God, but using reason helps discern truth from error.

Missing the Point

Unfortunately, some people don’t realize this. They either deny that God exists or they deny that their behavior has an effect on their relationship with God or they deny that what the Church teaches has anything to do with God. It’s basically an exalting of their own self.

He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.c 10 “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’d 13 But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’e 14 I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

It’s kind of ironic. The people who accuse the Church of being the Pharisee are actually holding that position for themselves, denying their sin while saying, “I thank you Lord that I am not judgmental like that Church!,” basically judging people for being judgmental.

The thing is, if God exists and has taught His will, then those of us who know it need to follow it. But when a person says “God doesn’t care about X!” the question must be asked: On what basis do you make that claim? We know about God through His revelation and our reason. So when a person says “God doesn’t care about X,” and the Bible and the Church says “God does care about X,” then we have contradictory positions where one must be true and one must be false. The Catholics who defend the moral teaching of the Church can point to a constant testimony from both the Scriptures and the Christians from the beginning of Christianity. Those who would deny these teachings have to make the accusation that these things must have been added later. But it seems to me that St. Augustine, in his Confessions (Book 5, Chapter XI, #21) pointed out what was wrong with that thinking:

For at this time the words of one Helpidius, speaking and disputing face to face against the said Manich├Žans, had begun to move me even at Carthage, in that he brought forth things from the Scriptures not easily withstood, to which their answer appeared to me feeble. And this answer they did not give forth publicly, but only to us in private,—when they said that the writings of the New Testament had been tampered with by I know not whom, who were desirous of ingrafting the Jewish law upon the Christian faith;5 but they themselves did not bring forward any uncorrupted copies.6

Even back then, people tried to ignore what was unpopular, remaking Christianity into what they wanted it to say. Basically, such people take Matthew 7:1-5, out of context, assuming that forbidding saying that “judgment” was forbidding saying that an act was wrong. Actually, what is being condemned is the attitude of determining the person’s ultimate end before it is time. We can’t say that a particular person will wind up damned—or saved for that matter—based on his behavior at the current moment. The notorious sinner may repent and become another St. Augustine. The devout Christian might become another Tertullian. We should heed what St. Paul says:

Thus should one regard us: as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.a Now it is of course required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. It does not concern me in the least that I be judged by you or any human tribunal; I do not even pass judgment on myself; I am not conscious of anything against me, but I do not thereby stand acquitted; the one who judges me is the Lord.b Therefore, do not make any judgment before the appointed time, until the Lord comes, for he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will manifest the motives of our hearts, and then everyone will receive praise from God. (1 Cor 4:1-4)

We can see that he is speaking about not judging . . . himself to be worthy.

But that’s ultimately what the person who says, “God does not care about X” is doing. He’s judging himself to be good and does not seek to discover whether or not he is doing what is evil.

What We Believe Against People Who Try to Divide Christ From His Church

Here is another suggestion, which may not be without its value – if you find yourself thus apparently deserted by the light of faith, do not fluster and baffle your imagination by presenting to it all the most difficult doctrines of the Christian religion, those which unbelievers find it easiest to attack; do not be asking yourself, "Can I really believe marriage is indissoluble?  Can I really believe that it is possible to go to hell as the punishment for one mortal sin?"  Keep your attention fixed to the main point, which is a single point – Can I trust the Catholic Church as the final repository of revealed truth?  If you can, all the rest follows; if you cannot, it makes little difference what else you believe or disbelieve.

(Msgr. Ronald Knox, In Soft Garments, pages 113-114).

These words of Msgr. Ronald Knox show the issue to consider. Is the Catholic Church the means Jesus Christ used to evangelize the world?

If Jesus did intend to establish a Church (Matt 16:18) and give her the authority to teach in His name (John 20:21-23, Luke 10:16, Matt 18:17-18) and confirms that He will confirm in Heaven what the Church confirms on Earth (Matt 16:19), then it follows that what the Church teaches is backed by Jesus Christ and rebellion against the teaching of the Church is rebellion against Jesus Christ Himself. The bad behavior of some of the members of the Church do not justify rebellion against the Church or mimicking their behavior:

1 aThen Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, *saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. (Matt 23:1-3)

As St. Augustine points out in one of his Sermons on the Gospels on these verses:

For if I should wish to defend myself in such wise before God as to say, ‘Lord, I saw that thy cleric living evilly, and therefore I lived evilly;’ would He not say to me, ‘Thou wicked servant, hadst thou not heard from Me, “What they say, do, but what they do, do not”?’ (Sermon 87.7)


The fact of the matter is the relationship of God is not based on the legalistic following of rules, but the loving relationship with God. But this loving relationship is not one where we can do whatever the hell we want. If we love God, we live in the way He calls us to live and not demand that He change His design to benefit our disordered desires. If we live in accord with how He calls us to live, it does follow that we live in accord with the teaching of His Church who He has tasked with the mission to the whole world.

When we live in a way which rejects what God has called us to do, we hurt our relationship with God and with other people. Calling the Church “anti-woman” or “homophobic” or “bureaucratic” because we don’t like her teaching, we are not rejecting a human institution. We’re rejecting God who loves us, and eventually we will face judgment over what we did and didn’t do (Matt 7:21-23).

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