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Chapter 13: What Sin Is and What It Is Not


Scripture neither identifies sin with creatureliness, nor reduces it to illusion or the breaking of a taboo. Rather, the sacred writers show sin to be a terrible reality involving a personal, inner, and enduring wrong. Even when it involves injustice to other people, sin is more basically against the Lord. Yet it is not God whom sin hurts but the sinner. The New Testament regards sin not primarily as the multiple reality of many immoral deeds but as the unitary reality of the sinner’s state of alienation from God.

Moral evil and sin are really the same thing, considered under different aspects. Sin is moral evil considered precisely as it is contrary to the good of religion. Every immoral act disrupts harmony in the relationship with God as well as within the self and in the relationship with other people.

All sin is an offense against God. This is so because sin is moral evil, and moral evil is contrary to integral human fulfillment—the fulfillment to which we are directed by God’s eternal law, in which both natural law and revealed moral truth participate. The sins of Christians are more serious than those of nonbelievers; the Christian offends Jesus, wounds the Church, and consciously sins against God in choosing some other good in a way incompatible with continued friendship with him. Understood this way, St. Augustine is correct in saying that every immoral act involves turning from God and contempt for him; but this is misunderstood if it is taken to mean that one does not sin unless one purposely offends God or that the evil of sin is only in disruption of one’s relationship with God.

Moral evil resides precisely in a privation—lack of openness to integral human fulfillment. As a privation, moral evil is real but not a positive reality. It does not require a causal explanation, as if it were a distinct creature, and therefore in no way depends on God.

While the behavior which executes an evil choice shares in its evil, sin is primarily in the choice; and because choices are spiritual realities which determine the self and which last, the guilt of sin—which is sin itself—lasts after the sinful behavior ceases. Moral evil spreads from sinful choices through other forms of voluntariness. It pervades interpersonal relationships and introduces disorder into all the dimensions of individual and social reality.

A wrong choice which conforms to erroneous conscience or one made by a person unable to make a relevant judgment of conscience is called “material” sin, while a choice which violates conscience is “formal” sin. To the extent erroneous conscience is culpable, however—that is, to the extent one is responsible for being mistaken—material sins also involve guilt.

Although in sinning one does not choose moral evil as such but a certain good, one nevertheless accepts the moral evil. To persons without faith, moral evil generally appears unreasonable at most. But because consistent reasonableness is likely to seem pointless in the fallen human condition, morally evil choices are, as the Church teaches, inevitable apart from faith and grace. Sinful possibilities can be appealing to emotion; furthermore, they invariably offer at least some aspect of intelligible goodness, namely, a certain realization of the good of self-integration effected by satisfying an emotional drive (though at the expense of a deeper and more inclusive self-integration).

Sins in social acts affect even members of a community who do not personally participate in them. Original sin, the prototype of social sin, affects the entire human situation. Humankind is confronted not only with the sins of individuals but with a whole system of evil deriving from original sin and actual sins. In working for redemption, Christians must strive to overcome the sin which pervades society and culture. Pervasive as this is, however, one ought not therefore to accord to sin a reality, an autonomy, in itself.

In attempting to account for the reality of moral evil in the world, secular humanist ideologies seek to explain sin away by denying free choice and proposing solutions which do not depend on freedom. This is true in their various ways of Freud and Dewey, of Marxists, of Nietzsche and Heidegger. Regardless of their preferred explanation, when they speak of immorality most contemporary nonbelievers are thinking of conventional morality; and while to some extent they criticize conventional morality, to some extent they also reinforce it.

Christians cannot accept the atheism and determinism of secular humanist ideologies. True, people’s capacity for exercising free choice is often limited by pyschological factors or social and cultural circumstances. But this does not take away the reality of free choice and personal responsibility. It is a mistake, furthermore, to try to explain sins; for sins are free choices, and freedom cannot be explained by anything but itself.

A great deal of human suffering has its moral roots in sin and thus in freedom; to the extent this is so, there is hope in the possibility of conversion and redemption. By contrast, Marxism sees the solution to human suffering in violent revolution and liberal secular humanism in technocratic manipulation. Some Catholic writers and educators have been influenced by false accounts of moral evil which attempt to explain it away and, in the process, do away also with freedom and personal responsibility.