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Understanding Sin Today

by Richard M. Gula, S.S.

"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 law—the 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 you want).

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 life.

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 we—and our world—have 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 life's relationships.

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 conversion—not law—as 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 heart—a refusal to care—before 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 sustain us.

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 sin—a 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 voting.

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 5—7) 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 human dignity.

Actual sin—we 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 Advent.

Richard M. Gula, S.S., a Sulpician priest, is the professor of moral theology at the Franciscan School of Theology of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including his latest book, Ethics and Pastoral Ministry (Paulist Press, 1996).


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