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Chapter 13: What Sin Is and What It Is Not

Appendix 2: Emphases on self and law to be avoided

In Christian teaching today, it probably would be wise not to stress selfishness or self-love as a danger. Even more, it is important to avoid emphasis on law.

To say that self-love and selfishness should not be stressed as a danger is not to say that lack of sympathy and unfairness should be ignored. Especially in dealing with children, one must confront rather gross forms of egoism. However, the effort must be to help children understand that their genuine self-fulfillment is in Jesus rather than elsewhere. It is a mistake to overcome egoism by transforming it into irrational partiality toward a group; sin resides more securely in such partiality than in the fragile egoism of the selfish little child.

When one deals with adults, one must try to help them understand that their group biases and prejudices, their partiality to selected classes and types of people, can have a nonrational ground which is much more seriously immoral than the naive egoism of the child or the social misfit. However, in our culture, which is both individualistic and dominated by social controls necessary to keep selfishness in check, to stress self-love and selfishness as a moral danger is in practice to put Christian moral teaching in the service of socialization into mass culture as it is. It is more important to stress the inadequacy of the self-love of the sinner, to point out his or her failure to move toward true self-fulfillment which can be found only in Jesus.

In short, where “self” for Augustine and most medieval thinkers pointed to a center of resistance to communion in intelligible goods, “self” for people living in our time points to unenlightened and immature egoism. In earlier times, warnings against self-love might turn sinners toward God; today, warnings against self-love turn everyone toward the organization, the group, the lonely crowd—the mass society in which individuals surrender personal dignity for a feeling of community and in return gain only participation in a larger and less self-conscious center of resistance to communion in intelligible goods.

Likewise, any emphasis on law is likely to be confusing. “Law” has a bad name, for it is much abused as an instrument of formal social control and an enforcer of conventional norms, regardless of whether they have a moral foundation. Hence, the aspect in which law is an alien imposition upon one’s freedom is paramount in most people’s thought. Moreover, small children necessarily view morality in a rather legalistic way, and adolescents inevitably rebel against this childish view. Today, such rebellion is in full flower, with the whole culture selectively setting law aside as an encumbrance of childhood.

For these reasons, I do not speak of “natural law,” but rather of human modes of responsibility, human moral principles, and so on. One must understand what “law” means in Scripture, in traditional teachings, in the Fathers, and in recent documents of the magisterium. But one can hardly hope to bring the faithful at large to understand the realities to which the Church refers by “law” if one constantly uses the word itself.

Enlightened by true moral norms, a Christian is not confronted with a set of arbitrary choices, made for some purpose which he or she might or might not share. Rather, moral norms in Christian instruction clarify the truths which everyone more or less knows at heart and add the light of faith which makes clear the way of Christ for finding both human and divine fulfillment. To sin is not to break a law (taking “law” in any ordinary sense); to be punished for sin is not to experience the sanction imposed upon lawbreakers. Rather, to sin is to limit oneself unnecessarily, to damage one’s true self and block one’s real fulfillment; the punishment of sin is the sin itself and its inevitable consequences, as will be explained more fully (in 18‑I).