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Chapter 13: What Sin Is and What It Is Not

Question G: How should Christians evaluate deterministic accounts of sin?

1. The denial of the reality of God and of free choice must be rejected.15 It is a divinely revealed truth, solemnly defined by the Church, that human persons have a capacity to make free choices (see 2‑B). Free choice is both an essential principle of Christian moral responsibility and an integral part of what it means for human persons to be made in God’s image.

2. It is quite true that people often act without choosing. Experiments show, for example, that people can be led to act spontaneously, without any choice, by hypnotic suggestion. Psychological case studies by Freud and others further suggest that many people have emotional urges which they do not understand and which limit them in making choices, including such very important choices as that of a marriage partner. Furthermore, it hardly needs saying that, in choosing, people are often unable to consider possibilities they might choose if they considered them. For example, children raised in a slum simply do not face the same set of practical possibilities as children raised in a middle-class neighborhood.

3. Such evidence points to the conclusion that some people are not in a position to make the choices others might think they morally ought to make. Thus, a comfortable, middle-class, psychologically healthy Christian, who is in a good position to live in accord with Christian norms of morality, might well fail to appreciate the narrow limits within which others, lacking such advantages, make their choices.

4. We ought not, however, to make the nonbeliever’s mistake of generalizing from limited data to deny free choice and moral responsibility. The data show that people often act without choosing and often choose without being in a position to give serious consideration to possibilities others regard as morally right. But these data do not show that people who have the experience of making choices could be mistaken in thinking their choices free. Despite all modern attempts to explain away sin, free choice and radical personal responsibility remain intact. Moral responsibility ends where free choice becomes impossible, but where there is a possibility of free choice for a person in his or her actual condition, moral responsibility is present.

5. Christians should therefore reject deterministic theories of moral evil. Some of the data which they cover—namely, data arising from free choices—should be attributed to free choices, and the irreducible character of free choice should be defended. To the extent that sins depend on the freedom of free choices, it is a mistake to try to give explanations for them, for freedom simply cannot be explained by something other than itself. Otherwise, it would not be freedom.

Deterministic theories remain tempting for two reasons. First, we would like to think we are not as responsible as we are. We talk about “falling” into sin, as if we sinned by accident, rather than admit that we sin by freely choosing a path apart from God. We also become very “charitable” in explaining away the apparent sins of others—not only to avoid condemnation but presumptuously to render an acquittal—because this sort of indulgence allows us to excuse ourselves: “If Titus, who commits murder, cannot help it, how could I be held responsible for a bit of malicious gossip?” Second, a deterministic theory remains attractive because it seems to explain human action; free choice leaves human action ultimately mysterious. We not only could distance ourselves from sin but could feel sin to be in our power if we could point to an adequate cause which would explain it. However, no free choice as such can be fully explained.

6. Where determining factors are really operative, rather than denying their operation, one should appeal to them to explain what they actually explain, but only that. For example, alcoholism has many determining factors; it is a disease of sorts. But it is also a condition which continues to rule people because they freely refuse, when sober, to seek the necessary help, such as joining Alcoholics Anonymous.

7. Many psychological and social determining factors invoked by modern theories of moral evil have moral roots. For example, it is easy enough to see how social conditions do limit choices for many people who are subject to oppressors; to this extent, Marxism’s deterministic account of some aspects of people’s behavior can be justified. But on the further account of Marxism, the behavior of the oppressors is due to morally questionable motives such as greed, and there is nothing in the theory which compels one to accept a deterministic account of this greed or the oppression to which it leads.

8. Similarly, one can at times accept a psychological account attributing certain behavior of individuals to neurotic compulsion. Yet the compulsion itself might be traceable to moral guilt on the part of the individual. If Lady Macbeth could not help washing her hands, there nevertheless was a time when she freely chose to bloody them.

9. Insofar as human misery has its moral roots in freedom, hope remains for conversion and redemption. By contrast, Marxists propose to improve the human condition by violent revolution, liberal secular humanists by technocratic manipulation. Both approaches infringe upon the inner integrity and intimate relationships of persons; both undermine appreciation for human dignity. For its part, the gospel calls for repentance, offers forgiveness, and promises the grace to live a life worthy of one made in God’s image. It respects inner integrity and intimate relationships; it promotes true personal dignity.

Secular humanists usually propose their accounts of sin in the name of science. Attempts to explain away sin are often found in psychological and sociological writings. Drawing upon such sources, many Catholic writers, including theologians, religious educators, and popular writers on spirituality, have become imbued with a false account of sin. To repeat: It is necessary to guard against attempts to explain sin. They are appealing for, if successful, they would eliminate responsibility and allow one to sin with impunity. But sin cannot be explained in terms of anything else. I alone am responsible for my sin.

15. I know of no thoroughgoing critique of post–Hegelian world views considered precisely as proposals alternative to Christian morality’s understanding of sin and redemption. A helpful beginning toward such a critique: Jacques Maritain, Moral Philosophy: An Historical and Critical Survey of the Great Systems (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964), 209–447. Some suggestive reflections on certain post-Hegelian thinkers’ inadequate reactions to legalism: Wilhelm Korff, “Dilemmas of a ‘Guilt-Free Ethic’,” in Moral Evil under Challenge, Concilium, 56, ed. Johannes B. Metz (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970), 69–89.