Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Understanding Sin Today
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been
six weeks since my last confession. I lost my patience three times;
I lied twice; I missed Mass once; I had impure thoughts twice
and I gossiped about my neighbor four times."
Sound familiar? The above confession reflects an understanding
of the moral life and sin that prevailed among Roman Catholics
for centuries. But in the last half of this century, many changes
have been occurring in the way we think about morality and sin.
These changes have resulted in part from new ways of understanding
what it means to be human. They also come from rediscovering old
ideas that the Bible and Jesus taught about how we ought to relate
to God and to one another.
Sin as crime
There was a time when Catholics thought
that living morally was mostly a matter of obeying the lawthe
divine law or the commandments of God, the ecclesial (Church) laws
or the natural laws expressed in the moral teaching of the Church.
"It's in the Bible" or "The Church says so" were often our most
important reasons for being moral.
Sin was like a crime, a transgression
of the law. It was akin to breaking the speed limit on the highway.
The law is what made an action sinful. Where there was no clear-cut
law (no speed limit), there was no question of sin (go as fast as
Catholic theology has since come to realize
that the legal model for understanding the moral life and sin is
deficient. For one thing, the demands of being a faithful follower
of Jesus, of living according to the vision and values of the gospel,
stretch us farther than what can be prescribed by law.
But no one is trying to do away with
laws. We know that laws will always be necessary to help us live
together well. Just as our city streets would be chaos without traffic
laws, so our living together would be a moral chaos without laws
like those about telling the truth, respecting property and protecting
But laws cannot possibly cover all the
decisions that we have to make. The legal model of the moral life
too easily makes moral living a matter of repeating the same old
behaviors even though weand our worldhave changed. The
legal model also tends to focus too much on the actions that we
do as being sinful or not. Did I miss Mass? Did I cheat on an exam
or on my taxes? Did I disobey my parents?
Laws by themselves don't address the
important realities of the heart, such as our attitudes (Are we
kind or hostile?), intentions (Do we strive to be helpful or self-serving?)
and ways of seeing things (Do we look through the eyes of faith?
Are we optimistic or pessimistic?). Jesus reminds us that what comes
from the heart is what makes one sinful. Sinful actions are like
the tip of an iceberg being held above the surface by a wayward
heart (see Is 29:13; Mk 7:21; Mt 23:25-26; Lk 6:45).
The legal model also tends to make the
moral life too centered on one's self. Sin affects me and my salvation.
Saving my soul through obedience is the guiding moral principle
according to this model. This leaves out, however, the all-important
relational dimensions of sin and conversion. As St. Paul teaches,
no one lives for oneself (Rom 14:7). As the Body of Christ, we suffer
together and rejoice together (1 Cor 12:26-27). Because we share
a common world, we are part of a network of relationships that joins
each of us in responsibility to others and to all of creation. We
all know that we violate the ecological balance of nature when we
put toxins into our air and water or throw hamburger foil wrappers
out the car window. We violate our moral ecology when we create
discord, dissension, fear, mistrust and alienation in the web of
Sin's new look
A new look at the moral life has been informed by
the biblical renewal in the Church and by some philosophical shifts
within the Church and society.
For example, the biblical renewal has given us covenant,
heart and conversionnot lawas our primary moral concepts.
Responsibility has replaced obligation as the primary characteristic
of the moral life. Shifts in philosophy have emphasized the dignity
of persons and the value of sharing life in society. Together
these shifts in theology and philosophy support a relational
model of the moral life. The relational model emphasizes personal
responsibility for protecting the bonds of peace and justice that
sustain human relationships.
What might a contemporary confession sound like that
reflects the relational model of the moral life?
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been
six weeks since my last confession. I am a husband, a father of
three teenage children, and I hold an executive position in a
large computer firm.
"Over the past month I have allowed love to grow
cold at home and in my work. At home, I have been inattentive
to my wife and children as I allowed my new projects at work to
consume most of my time and attention. I have spent more time
at work and little time with the family. At work, I have selfishly
neglected to disclose some data which my colleagues needed for
a new project. I wanted to gain the glory. I have also failed
to support a female colleague who was clearly being sexually harassed
and I failed to confront those who were doing the harassing.
"I think a good penance for me, Father, would be
to take the family on a picnic this week and to make a special
effort to affirm my junior colleagues for the great work they
have been doing."
This penitent senses how he is affecting the quality
of life and love in his primary relationships. He also knows what
he can do to show conversion. His confession reflects contemporary
theology's emphasis on responsibility to others over the traditional
overemphasis on what is allowed or forbidden by law. Rather than
focusing just on committing sinful acts, it shows that sin is
also an omission, a failure to do what ought to be done.
Far from doing away with sin, contemporary theology
admits that sin is very much with us and touches us more deeply
than we realize. Greed, violence, corruption, poverty, hunger,
sexism and oppression are too prevalent to ignore.
Sin is just as basic a term in our Christian
vocabulary today as it has been in the past. Its root sense means
to be disconnected from God through the failure to love. In sin,
we simply don't bother about anyone outside ourselves. Sin is
first a matter of a selfish hearta refusal to carebefore
it shows itself in actions. Because loving God and loving our
neighbor are all tied together, sin will always be expressed in
and through our relationships.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms
that, just as the least of our acts done in charity has some benefit
for all, so every sin causes some harm. The Catechism quotes
Scripture to make this point: "None of us lives for oneself, and
none of us dies for oneself" (Rom 14:7); "If one member suffers,
all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it"
(1 Cor 12:26-27); "Charity does not insist on its own way" (1
Cor 13:5; see 10:24). In this solidarity with all people, says
the Catechism, "living or dead, which is founded on the
communion of saints, the least of our acts done in charity redounds
to the profit of all. Every sin harms this communion" (#953).
One of the most obvious changes in a contemporary
approach to sin is the emphasis given to how sin affects the quality
of life and love in our relationships. Sin is any action or
omission that hinders, violates or breaks right relationships
which support human well-being. For example, if I spread gossip
or fail to correct a false rumor about a co-worker, I am not only
failing in my relationship to that person, but also impairing
the quality of life in the workplace.
My favorite example of how this relational vision
of sin and the moral life influenced another's behavior came from
my five-year-old niece, Julia. She listened to a conversation
I was having with her eight-year-old sister about what she was
being taught in her preparation for first Penance. The lesson
on sin was filled with stories of relationships and the difference
between loving and unloving choices. The next day, when Julia
came home from kindergarten, I asked her how her day was. She
said, "I had a good day." When I asked her what made it good,
she said, "I had an opportunity to make a loving choice. Kenny
forgot to bring a snack today, so I gave him one of my pretzels."
Julia learned quite well that right moral living begins
with caring for one another: paying attention to another's needs
and acting in a way that enhances another's well-being. Sin, by
contrast, turns in and sets oneself against another. Self-serving
interests destroy the bonds of peace and justice that ought to
Original sin didn't go away
In an age when evils on a massive scale frequently
make front-page news (wars, ethnic genocide, bombings, terrorism),
theologians are trying to revive the doctrine of original sin.
This doctrine tells us that there is more evil in the world than
that which we cause ourselves. Consider the children being born
in Rwanda or Bosnia today. They are affected and infected by the
evil that surrounds them before they are ever able to make choices
of their own.
Original sin is the face of sin which we recognize
as the condition of evil into which we are all born. It is a condition
of being human that makes us feel as if our freedom were bound
by chains from the very beginning. We feel the effects of this
evil in the pull towards selfishness which alienates us from our
deeper selves, from others and from God. Because of original sin,
we will always know struggle and tragedy as part of our life.
While the power of original sin pulls us in the direction
of selfishness and aloofness, the power of grace moves us to be
for others and to live mutually dependent on one another. The
film Schindler's List shows how Oskar Schindler witnessed
to this power of grace in the way he saved thousands of Jews from
the death camps. So did the many unnamed heroines and heroes who
helped the victims of the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal
building in 1995. So do those who open their homes to refugees
of war and poverty.
In order to rise above the power of evil, we need
to open ourselves to the presence of redeeming love. This love
comes to us through others witnessing to justice, truth and peace.
While the presence of original sin may make responsible moral
living a truly demanding task, the presence of redeeming love
makes it possible. This is the sense of St. Paul's conviction
that while sin abounds, grace abounds even more (Rom 5:20).
Social sina life of its own
Social sin has been around as long as civilization,
but it is a relatively new concept for Catholics. We have tended
to focus exclusively on personal (actual) sin: lying, cheating,
missing Mass. We have not paid sufficient attention to social
structures and customs which hold such sinful practices in place.
We are changing, however. One clear example of a rising social
consciousness can be seen in Pope John Paul II's 1995 "Letter
to Women." Here he publicly acknowledges sexism as a social sin
and then goes on to apologize to women for the ways the Church
has complied in denigrating women, misrepresenting them, reducing
them to servitude and marginalizing them from society.
Social sin describes human-made structures when they
offend human dignity by causing people to suffer oppression, exploitation
or marginalization. These include educational systems, housing
policies, tax structures, immigration policies, health-care systems,
employment policies, a market economy. Once established, social
structures and customs seem to take on a life of their own. The
social sin of racism, for example, has continued and still continues
long after slavery was abolished. For example, there remain obstacles
to adequate education, to housing, to work, sometimes even to
We learn to live in a world with these structures.
We presume that the social customs which they hold in place are
good, traditional customs. That is what makes social sin so difficult
to recognize and to change. Yet the evil of sinful social structures
abounds in all forms of discrimination, racism and sexism; in
the exploitation of migrant workers; in the illiteracy and homelessness
of the poor; in the lack of basic health care for all; in the
manipulation of consumers by the manufacturing practices, advertising,
pricing policies and packaging of goods; and in many other practices
which we continue to support more out of ignorance than meanness.
Why does social sin prevail? Largely because we fail to name social
evils and seek to correct them.
Christianity could easily adopt the motto of Missouri:
"Show me." It is not enough to talk a good game. The moral teachings
of the prophets (see Is 58:6-8) and of Jesus (see the Sermon on
the Mount, Mt 57) tell us that faith and piety without active
commitment to justice are not what God wants.
When we become aware of structural evils, we should
not be paralyzed by the guilt of self-condemnation, but moved
to conversion. Conversion from social sin involves, at one level,
changing our own lifestyle in ways that will help reform society.
We cannot do everything to end the structures which support sexism,
for example, but we can do some things, for instance, curbing
our use of exclusive and insensitive language. We can influence
others' attitudes through the ways we talk to and about one another.
At another level, conversion from social sin involves examining
existing regulations and practices, reforming those that offend
Actual sinwe all know it
Another face of sin is personal sin. Our traditional
way of distinguishing the degrees of gravity of personal sins
is to call them mortal and venial sins.
Catholics traditionally have been taught that for
sin to be mortal, three conditions have to be met: 1) serious
matter; 2) sufficient reflection; 3) full consent of the will.
These are still valuable criteria. They are comprehensive in including
conditions which pertain to the action (1) and to the person (2
& 3) before we can speak of mortal sin in its truest sense.
The relational model of the moral life helps us to
understand actual sin as primarily an expression of the person
in relationship, not simply as disobedience to the law.
Mortal sin. Mortal sin is a serious break in
a relationship of love with God, neighbor, world and self. We
can think of it as a radical No to God and to others. It happens
when we refuse to live in a positive, life-giving way. Just as
acts of heroism and extraordinary generosity are evidence of our
capacity to say a radical Yes to God, so calculated acts permeated
with malice are evidence of our capacity to say No to God. Mortal
sin involves a moral evil done by a person who is supremely selfish
and committed to making evil and not goodness the characteristic
mark of his or her life.
While we would not be surprised to find mortal sin
in those who choose to make crime, extortion or greed a way of
life, we must still be wary of judging another. No one can ever
know for sure just by looking from the sidelines whether a particular
act of malice is a mortal sin or not. We need to know more about
the person's knowledge, freedom and fundamental disposition before
God. We must refrain from judging others as being in mortal sin,
even though we know their acts are permeated with evil. That is
why the Church has never taught that anyone is, in fact,
in hell. At the same time the Church acknowledges that we all
have the capacity to cut ourselves off from the source
of life that is God, which is a good description of hell.
Venial sin. These days people are not giving
enough attention to immoral acts of less importance than mortal
sin. If mortal sin radically reverses one's positive relationship
to God, the habit of unloving acts can corrode that relationship.
This is why we must take venial sins seriously. Venial sins can
weigh us down with the anchor of bad habits.
Venial sin often enters our lives when we fail to
show care for others. People can easily become submerged in self-interest.
Perhaps we speak sharply to another, revel in our piece of gossip
or exercise a power play over another that keeps us secure and
in control. While these acts of selfish arrogance do not radically
turn us away from God, they are inconsistent with our basic commitment
to be for life and for love. They are venial sins.
Contemporary notions of sin emphasize the gospel's
call to conversion in and through the web of life's relationships.
The more clearly we can recognize God's presence and love in these
relationships, the more clearly we can recognize our venial sins,
and the more seriously we can take them. Without recognizing our
sinfulness, we cannot grow in converting to the demands of love.
God is merciful
These are only some of the significant
changes in our understanding of sin. We are talking about sin differently
today because the relational model of the moral life has replaced
the legal model. One thing that hasn't changed, though, is our concept
of God's love and mercy. We do not believe that God wants us to
be weighed down with a distorted sense of guilt and responsibility.
Rather, we believe that we are called to participate more fully
in the creative power of God calling us to reconciliation, to reconnect
with our best selves, with others, with the world and with God.
The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation
is an opportunity and invitation to heal the brokenness in our lives
and to set relationships right. We should give more attention to
celebrating this gift, especially during the seasons of Lent and