Where Paul's Letter to the Romans stands behind the development of the doctrine of original sin, Catholic views on personal sin draw heavily on the OT scriptures. The last section of this chapter completes our outline of the human condition. Having examined sinfulness in its inherited form, we now summarize Catholic thinking about the sinfulness that results from personal freedom. Some questions, however, will need to be delayed for later chapters on grace, the sacraments, and moral theology.118
God's covenant with Noah recalls the conviction that human beings have been created in the divine 'image' (Gen. 9: 6). Yet the biblical narrative rarely loses sight of the sinful failures and even slavery to evil that plague humankind. The Ten Commandments sum up various duties towards God and neighbour (Exod. 20: 2—17; Deut. 5: 6—21). The Deuteronomic version, in particular, goes on to insist that obedience to these commandments will bring real welfare and rich blessings (Deut. 6: 1—3). The divine commandments spell out the conditions of human well-being, but they also hint at persistent iniquity. Human beings lapse into idolatry by setting up false gods. They murder other people, commit adultery, steal, and bear false witness. The OT repeatedly condemns these and other sins as rebellion against the Lord, as foolishness, and as infidelity to the covenant relationship with God.
The great OT prophets, in particular, denounce human crimes and offences. In the name of God, Isaiah inveighs against the people's religious
118 For a summary of the issues and a bibliography on sin, see 'Sin', Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church , 1505.
superficiality (Isa. 1: 10—20); they must learn to 'rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow' (Isa. 1: 17). Amos warns Israel against trampling on the poor, pushing aside the needy, and taking bribes (Amos 5: 11—12). Through the prophet Hosea, God indicts Israel. Sin brings suffering and death to the whole of creation: 'Swearing, lying and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing' (Hos. 4: 2—3). Israel must learn again to 'seek' God and 'live' (Amos 5: 4). Sin repudiates God's offer of life and love.
Personal responsibility for sin is by no means absent in the Genesis story: Adam, Eve, and Cain, for example, are pictured as personally culpable. The free exercise of personal responsibility ultimately accounts for the heinous nature of sin and the outrageous disruption it brings about in God's order of creation. However, Jeremiah (31: 27—30) and, even more clearly, Ezekiel (18: 1—4) underscore individual responsibility. Human beings are prone to blame others (e.g. parents or ancestors), instead of recognizing their personal guilt that brings misfortune. God is not powerless or deaf; it is the contamination of sin that wrecks people's lives (Isa. 59: 1—21). Sins are free choices made from the heart; God wants to change wicked human hearts and turn sinners into obedient people (Ezek. 11: 19—21).
Psalm 51, the Miserere, understood as King David's prayer after his sins of adultery and murder (2 Sam. 11: 1—27), sums up OT thought on the evil of sin. In the first place, sin is a personal offence against God: 'Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight' (Ps. 51: 4). Terrible injustice has been committed against Uriah the Hittite, Bathsheba's husband, but the fundamental evil of sin consists in the ruptured relationship with God. Sin is a clear sign of the absence of true wisdom and of a joyless heart (Ps. 51: 6). The Miserere, with the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11—32), has shaped profoundly the way Catholics (and many other Christians) understand sin—not as a merely ethical evil, let alone a regrettable mistake, but as a personal offence against a loving God for which one must take responsibility and ask forgiveness. Like David in the Miserere the prodigal acknowledges his sins to be first and foremost an offence against God ('I have sinned against heaven') and only then an offence against his father (Luke 15: 18, 21).
Indebted to the OT and the Jewish sense of sin, Western Catholic priests and others recite the Miserere every Friday at morning prayer.
That psalm (and, behind it, the story of David's adultery and murder) and Jesus' parable of the prodigal son have also moulded the way Catholics (and other Christians) react to their sins. In recognizing their guilt and asking pardon of God, they follow a middle path between (a) a pathological scrupulosity, which compulsively detects sin where none exists or tortures itself over past sins long forgiven by God, and (b) a laxity, which refuses to accept one's culpability and dismisses even grave sins as minor 'mistakes' or blemishes on one's record caused by unfortunate circumstances and/or the failure of others.
Before leaving the OT, let us add a word about the Wisdom of Solomon, the most theological of all the deuterocanonical works (see Ch. 3). Written only a few years before the birth of Jesus, it pictures poignantly the reasoning of sensual and ungodly sinners (Wis. 1: 16—2: 24). They think of themselves as being 'born by mere chance' and of death as the end of their existence. Life has no meaning for them, and they give themselves to sensual satisfaction—even at terrible cost to others. Wisdom allows us to listen in to their talk and thoughts: 'Let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow or regard the grey hairs of the aged. But let our might be our law of right' (Wis. 2: 10—11). The OT prophets also denounce the oppression of the helpless, righteous people. But the Book of Wisdom goes further in depicting dramatically the way in which wicked sinners urge each other to live frivolously and persecute mercilessly. Their wickedness has blinded them; their sin clouds and corrupts their reasoning; they know neither God nor 'the secret purposes of God' (Wis. 2: 21—2).
Jesus and his first followers keep up the Jewish teaching on sin while adding some new accents. Jesus saw that sin comes from within a person (e.g. Mark 7: 20—3; Matt. 5: 27—8). Like the author of Wisdom, he knew that something goes wrong in the human mind and heart even before sinners commit evil actions. Jesus upheld the Ten Commandments (Mark 12: 19) and followed the prophets in stigmatizing social injustice, especially the failure to act justly and lovingly towards those in terrible need (Luke 16: 19—31). Jesus went so far, according to one tradition, as to make the Final Judgement depend simply on our practical concern for the hungry, the sick, prisoners, homeless persons, and others in great need (Matt. 25: 31—46). Jesus broke new ground by linking together the command to love
God and love our neighbour (Mark 12: 28—34). This was to turn all sins into failures to follow the love-command.
The NT authors normally do not add much to the OT teachings on sin. James, for example, stigmatizes abuses committed by the wealthy (2: 1—7; 4: 13—17; 5: 1—6). Yet many of these warnings not only have their background in the OT prophetic and wisdom traditions but also echo sayings of Jesus about the dangers of wealth. But the Johannine literature and the Pauline letters introduce new themes when writing about sin.
The striking Christocentrism of John entails representing sin as choosing darkness, hatred, and falsity, rather than light, love, and truth. Thus sin becomes a refusal to 'come' to Christ and believe in him. This very Christocentric perspective on faith and sin also includes introducing its counterpoint, the devil, 'a murderer from the beginning' and 'the father of lies' (John 8: 44). Sinners are 'children of the devil' (1 John 3: 8). Even more than John, Paul almost personifies sin itself. Sin is a cosmic force of evil that enters into human beings through their submission to it. Along with death, its fearful consequence and expression, sin has exercised dominion over human beings and made them its slaves (Rom. 5—8). Believers cease to be slaves of sin when they become God's slaves (Rom. 6: 15—23). Another strong emphasis from Paul is his teaching that 'all have sinned' (Rom. 3: 23), Jews by offending against God's written law and Gentiles by not following what they could know through the visible things God has made and through the law written in their hearts (Rom. 1: 18-3: 20).
In many ways, Paul illustrates how sin threatens the life of the Church, especially when believers turn back to the lifestyle of their 'old self' that they have renounced at baptism (Rom. 6: 6; see Eph. 4: 22; Col. 3: 9). Sin can manifest itself as instability in the profession of faith, or the acceptance of a 'different gospel' (Gal. 1: 6). Believers can become 'lazy', 'fainthearted', 'weak' (1 Thess. 5: 14), envious, and quarrelsome (1 Cor. 1-4). They can bring civil cases against each other 'before the unrighteous', rather than turn for help to 'the saints' (1 Cor. 6: 1). Paul enjoins Christians to 'deliver to Satan for the destruction of the flesh' anyone guilty of illicit sexual relationships (1 Cor. 5: 1-5). Some of the Corinthian Christians abuse the eucharistic assemblies (1 Cor. 11: 17-30), or accept 'false apostles, deceitful workmen', who disguise themselves as 'apostles of Christ' (2 Cor 11: 13). Paul admits that he is afraid to visit the Corinthians a third time, since he may encounter 'quarrelling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder' (2 Cor. 12: 20).
Post-NT Christian teaching clarified biblical thinking on sin and, as we saw above, articulated the doctrine of original sin. The Church of the second and third centuries, as we shall see in Ch. 7 when dealing with the sacrament of reconciliation, specified those sins that could never be remitted: adultery, wilful murder, and idolatry (or apostasy).
St Augustine developed three definitions of sin. First, sin is 'anything done, said or desired against the eternal law' (Contra Faustum, 22. 27), a definition that in reverse order prompted many writers to call sin any thought, word, or deed against the will of God.119 Augustine explained eternal law as 'the divine order or will of God, which requires the preservation of natural order, and forbids its violation' (ibid.). Speaking of sin as disobedience to the will of God (rather than 'against the natural law'), Augustine made it clear that sin is no mere breach of an impersonal law but a personal act of rebellion disrupting our relationship with God.
Augustine's second conception of sin centred around an egoistic love of self, associated with a deep unwillingness to love God. Quoting Sirach 10: 13 as 'Pride is the beginning of sin', Augustine asked: 'And what is pride but the craving for undue exaltation? And this is undue exaltation, when the soul abandons him to whom it ought to cleave as its end, and becomes a kind of end to itself' (De Civitate Dei, 14. 13). Augustine distinguished between two cities moulded by two distinct loves: 'The earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord' (ibid. 14. 28).
Third, Augustine also defined sin as a 'turning away from God and turning toward creatures' (DeLibero Arbitrio, 2. 53). Sin, as 'aversion' or turning away from the contemplation of God and 'conversion' or turning to creatures, brings about 'a disorder and a perversity', because sinners distance themselves from the creator, the highest good in person, and turn towards inferior, created realities (Ad Simplicianum, 1. 2. 18). Augustine considered such a lapse of the will to be evil, 'because it is contrary to the order of nature, and an abandonment' of the good 'which has supreme being for some other thing which has a lesser [good]' (De Civitate Dei, 12. 8). Augustine's Platonist background supported this third version of sin: on the hierarchical scale of existence, the sinner freely decides to move downwards rather than upwards. Augustine underscored the fact that sin
119 Thomas Aquinas e.g. cites this definition in ST I-II q. 71 a. 6.
proceeds from a deliberate and free decision on the creature's part to discard God's plan and determine one's own actions; the creature turns to selfishness as opposed to interdependence and interconnectedness, two fundamental characteristics of God's creation (see De Civitate Dei, 14. 11).
The Catholic tradition has often oscillated between the legal and the relational understanding of sin (Augustine's first two definitions): sin is a decision against God's law or the disruption of the creature's relationship with the creator. Those who explain sin as contrary to the divine will or the 'eternal law' can appeal to Vatican II's declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae. It calls 'the supreme norm of human life' the 'divine law itself—eternal, objective, and universal—whereby God orders, directs and governs the whole world and the ways of the human community with a wise and loving plan' (no. 3). Vatican II understands here 'the divine law' as equivalent to what has often been called 'the natural law', an objective moral order intended by God for all human beings and their world. Hence Gaudium et Spes took sin to be an obstacle that bars the way to God's plan being actualized for humanity: Jesus, it declared, came to free humanity from the bondage of sin which 'has diminished the human being, blocking the path to fulfilment' (no. 13).
In the wake of Vatican II, Catholic teaching explored in greater depth the personal and relational implications of sin (Augustine's second definition). In a 1984 apostolic exhortation John Paul II defined sin as 'the radical cause of all wounds and divisions between people, and in the first place between people and God' (Reconciliation and Penance, 4). The Catechism of the Catholic Church summed up the Church's tradition as follows: 'the sinner wounds God's honour and love, his own human dignity as one called to be a son of God, and the spiritual well-being of the church, of which each Christian ought to be a living stone' (no. 1487).
We should note two further significant pieces of Catholic teaching on sin: the distinction between 'mortal' and 'venial' sin, and the growing awareness of 'social' sin. On the basis of the NT distinction between sins that 'exclude from the kingdom of God' (e.g. 1 Cor. 6: 9-10) and those that do not do so (Jas. 3: 2; 1 John 1: 8; 5: 16-17), the Church has consistently distinguished 'mortal' from 'venial' sins. Mortal or 'deadly sins involve (a) a deliberate and radical turning away from God that comes (b) through clear knowledge and (c) full consent (d) in a truly serious matter (see DH 1537, 1444, 1680-2; ND 1626, 1938, 1945). Mortal sin, hence, turns us into 'enemies of God' and entails the loss of sanctifying grace and the risk of eternal damnation (DH 1680; ND 1626). Venial or 'excusable' sins, through which 'we are not excluded from the grace of God', truly harm our relationship with God and with others, but do not entail a direct, fundamental choice against God (ibid.). Thomas Aquinas was the first to systematize the distinction between 'mortal' and 'venial' sin (Summa contra Gentiles., 3. 139; ST I-II q. 88 a. 1). Together with the 1973 rite for the sacrament of reconciliation, the 1983 Code of Canon Law and the 1990 Code of Canons for the Oriental Churches (the two official legal codes for the Western and Eastern Catholic Church, respectively) converge in speaking of 'grave' sins and 'venial' sins, and in dropping the term 'mortal' sins. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) uses, however, both 'mortal' and 'grave' when explaining the forgiveness of sins in the sacrament of reconciliation. Which terminology will eventually prevail, 'mortal' or 'grave', is a very minor issue when compared with the harm sins do to human beings in their relationships with God, with one another, with themselves, and with their world.
While the language of 'mortal' or 'grave' sin, as distinguished from 'venial' sin, has a long history, teaching about 'social' sin and 'sinful structures' of society has emerged more forcefully and explicitly in modern times. Since Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, popes led the way in developing Catholic teaching on the rights and obligations of different members of society in their relationship to the common good, both national and international. The Second Vatican Council encouraged at every level justice in the social order (Gaudium et Spes, 9, 63-93), and in the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People called on Catholics to participate actively in social causes Apostolicam Actuositatem, 7, 8, 13). Social justice, international solidarity, and human rights became constant themes of John Paul Il's teachings. In a 1987 encyclical, Solliatudo Rei Socialis, he used the concepts of 'social sin' and 'structures of sin'—language already found in his 1984 apostolic exhortation, Reconciliation and Penance.
John Paul II underlined the fact that 'sin, in the proper sense, is always a personal act, since it is an act of freedom on the part of an individual person and not properly of a group or community'. Then, he added that 'to speak of social sin means .to recognize that, by virtue of human solidarity which is as mysterious and intangible as it is real and concrete, each individual's sin in some way affects others'. To the 'ascending' solidarity that is 'the profound and magnificent mystery of the communion of saints', there corresponds another perverse, 'descending' solidarity:
a 'communion of sin, whereby a soul that lowers itself through sin drags down with itself the church and, in some way, the whole world'. Thus John Paul II revived Augustine's third definition of sin and, without watering down personal accountability, he also highlighted the 'structures of sin' that result from many individual sins (Reconciliation and Penance, 16; ND 2067b-c). In his Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (no. 46), John Paul II drew the following conclusion:
The principal obstacle to be overcome on the way to authentic liberation is sin and the structures produced by sin as it multiplies and spreads. The freedom with which Christ has set us free (cf. Gal. 5: 1) encourages us to become the servants of all. Thus the process of development and liberation takes concrete shape in the exercise of solidarity, that is to say in the love and service of neighbour, especially of the poorest.
From the start of his pontificate, John Paul II constantly recalled the diverse forces that diminish our freedom and subject us to futility.120 Our existence urgently needs God's gift of grace. To that we now turn.
120 See e.g. the 1979 encyclical Redemptor hominis , 8 (ND 517).
6 The Life of Grace and the Hope of Glory
By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing: it is the gift of God. (Ephesians 2: 8)
I am filled with his love and his beauty, and I am sated with divine delight and sweetness. I share in the light, I participate also in the glory, and my face shines like my Beloved's, and all my members become bearers of light. Then I finally become more beautiful than those who are beautiful, wealthier than those who are wealthy, and more than all the mighty I am mighty and greater than kings, and much more precious than all that is visible, not only more than the world or the men of the world, but also more than heaven and all the angels of heaven, for I possess the creator of the whole universe to whom is due glory and honour, now and forever. Amen. (Simeon the New Theologian, Hymn of Divine Love, 16)
According to the Christian Good News, the Father shares his 'grace' with men and women of all times, calling them to a complete union with the tripersonal God and with one another. What is the life of grace freely given to us now through Christ, and what is our hope of glorious fulfilment at the end? This chapter aims to set out Catholic teaching on the present communion with God in the risen Christ and through the Holy Spirit, and on the consummation of this graced life in the final kingdom beyond death.
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