A Sense of Sin
Richard M. Gula, S.S.
Reason Informed by Faith: Foundations of Catholic Morality. Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1989. 89-105.
No one doubts the presence of evil in the world. We experience it in a variety of ways: national and international conflict; domestic and street violence; political and corporate corruption; and a host of manifestations of sexism, clericalism, racism, ageism, and other violations of justice. All such forms of brutality, disorder and discrimination, seem from a theological perspective, are rooted in sin. But do we ever recognize the sin and name it as such? 1
Retrieving a Sense of Sin
For some reason, sin seems to have lost its hold on us as a way of accounting for and naming so much of the evil we know. Among the many other reasons, the eclipse of the religious world view through the rise of the secular spirit accounts significantly for the loss of the sense of sin. In fact, in his post-synodal exhortation, Reconciliatio et Penitentia (1984), Pope John Paul II credits “secularism” above all with contributing to a loss of a sense of sin.2 The secular spirit questions the relevance and meaning of all Christian symbols, and even of religion itself. One effect of this secular spirit on the meaning of sin, for example, has been to reduce sin to some form of psychological or social disorder. The therapeutic perspective which pervades the secular spirit looks on behavior as either healthily adaptive-problem-solving behavior, or as unhealthy, nonadaptive, and problem-creating behavior.3 It does not call the latter sin.
For a survey at major attempts in the past twenty years to explore the mystery of sin, see James A. O’Donohue, "Toward a Theology of Sin: A Look at the Last Twenty Years,” Church 2 (Spring 1986): 48-54. 2 The other factors of a non-ecclesial nature which John Paul II lists as errors made in evaluating certain findings of the human sciences, deriving systems of ethics from historical relativism, and identifying sin with neurotic guilt. Within the thought and life of the Church, certain trends have also contributed to the loss of the sense of sin. Among these he lists the movement from seeing sin everywhere to not recognizing it anywhere; from an emphasis on fear of external punishment to preaching a love of God that excludes punishment; from correcting erroneous consciences to respecting consciences but excluding the duty to tell the truth. Two other ecclesial factors are the plurality of opinions existing in the church on questions of morality and the deficiencies in the practice of penance. To restore a healthy sense of sin, the pope advocates “a sound catechetics, illuminated by the biblical theology of the covenant, by an attentive listening and trustful openness to the magisterium of the church, which never ceases to enlighten consciences, and by an ever more careful practice of the sacrament of penance.” See Origins 14 (December 20, 1984): 443-444, quotation at p. 444. 3 The research of the team headed by sociologist Robert Bellah which has produced Habits of the Heart (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), a study of the American beliefs and practices which give shape to our character and form our social order, shows that the therapist is the newest character forming American culture. See Chapter Two “Culture and Character: The Historical Conversation,” pp. 27-51, especially pp. 47-48.
2 Moreover, the secular, therapeutic perspective tends to look on persons more as victims of unconscious or socio-cultural influences than as agents of free actions. Psychiatrists Karl Menninger in Whatever Happened to Sin4 and M. Scott Peck in People of the Lie5 want to make full allowance for those conditions which cause people to do evil. Yet both insist on a strip of responsibility which cannot be negotiated away to these determining influences. While the behavioral sciences provide us with helpful explanations of human behavior, they do not give a...
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