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Chapter 18: The Way of Sin to Death

Question A: What is imperfection?

1. Jesus demands holiness of his followers. We are to be perfect as the Father is perfect (see Mt 5.48), to love God with our whole minds and hearts and souls and strength (see Mk 12.30), to love one another as Jesus loves us (see Jn 13.34; 15.12). (The call to holiness and the way it can be answered will be treated in 27‑E and 28‑E.)

2. Charity is central to holiness. The movement of Christian life toward perfection consists in perfecting charity. If one’s charity were perfect, one’s whole being would express and serve it (see LG 40 and 42).

3. Still, according to the more common opinion in modern Catholic theology, imperfection is not sin.1 There can be dispositions and attitudes in a Christian which, without being sinful, fall short of perfection. This lack is not the privation which constitutes evil, for that which is merely imperfect has nothing specifically immoral about it. It simply is not what it would be if the ultimate holiness of the Christian vocation had already been realized.

4. We must distinguish two types of imperfection. One is inevitable inasmuch as people only gradually constitute themselves existentially; they do not determine themselves rightly until they make the choices by which this is done. Such imperfection can be called “moral immaturity.” The other type of imperfection is inevitable in fallen humankind—in everyone but Jesus and Mary—inasmuch as people have predispositions which block perfect integration in charity. Imperfection of this kind can be called “moral disintegrity.”

5. Being truly human and like us in everything but sin, Jesus himself was subject to the imperfection of moral immaturity. He was capable of moral growth, and progressed from the indeterminacy of childhood innocence to the determinacy of absolute and total self-oblation: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb 5.8–9).2

Having loved his own in the world, Jesus showed his love to the end (see Jn 13.1), at which alone he was able to announce: “It is finished” (Jn 19.30), and to deliver himself to glory, for at the end nothing remained to be perfected in him—nothing remained which did not wholly express and serve his love of the Father and of his fellow men and women.

Like that of any child, the humanity of Jesus had its limitations and its initial moral indeterminacy. His emotions naturally drew him to sensible goods appropriate to his determinate sentient nature. His understanding of intelligible goods initially led him spontaneously to will and act for a variety of specific objectives without any overall organization of his life. Doubtless, his early choices, although uniformly morally good, involved no all-embracing self-commitment.

6. The moral immaturity of Jesus was neither sin nor disintegrity. Rather, it was an inevitable consequence of the fact that he could only live his perfect human life by living it through, could exist in the mature perfection of integral love only after having made all the choices he had to make. By these choices he disposed in the form of finished holiness every aspect of himself which lay in his power to dispose.

7. All human beings are subject to the imperfection of moral immaturity. Unlike Jesus and Mary, however, we are also subject to the imperfection of moral disintegrity. By heredity and environment, nature and nurture, our natural dispositions are affected by the consequences of original sin and the personal sins of other people. Concupiscence inclines us to sin even before we make personal choices, and our sins will in their turn block perfect holiness not only in us but in others.

8. Unless we abort by mortal sin our divine life begun with baptism, living faith, once it is affirmed by a choice, is present in us as the fundamental option which can organize Christian life. In fact, however, much of one’s life is organized by desires, objectives, and commitments which have nothing to do with faith. To the extent that our lives are not yet integrated with faith, they are morally immature. To the extent that our desires and objectives are distorted by the effects of sin, they involve the imperfection of disintegrity.3

9. In sum, Christian holiness in this life is that ideal condition in which, being formed by living faith, all of the self one is capable of disposing through free choice expresses and serves charity (see S.t., 2–2, q. 24, aa. 4–5, 8–9; q. 184, a. 3). Perfection requires the dedication of the whole self to Christ: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col 3.17). Imperfection is characteristic of actions which, though morally good in themselves, are not integrated by the act of living faith. If they are in no way a consequence of the effects of sin exerted through heredity and environment, such actions are merely immature. To the extent that they are in some way affected by sin, however, they express disintegrity and present an obstacle to holiness. Even so, they are not themselves sins unless the distortion comes from bad will on the part of the person who does them.

Growth toward perfection involves more than existential integration. The other dimensions of the person also must be brought into complete conformity with living faith.

Much of one’s thinking can be more or less inconsistent with faith. Sincere Christians hold many opinions—for example, ones they consider science of various sorts—incompatible with their faith. The contradictions are not explicit, and so they remain unnoticed. Many such false opinions have practical implications. One’s redemption is incomplete as long as one’s whole mind is not suffused by the light of Jesus, so that no darkness remains in it.

Further, both choices and intellectual judgments depend upon sentient nature. This dimension of the person is skewed by the common human inheritance, so that experience and emotion do not readily fall in line with the better self of the Christian. Moreover, early training and the constant input of a perverse cultural environment add to the difficulties one faces. One’s whole soul is won over to Jesus only by a lifelong, constant struggle.

Finally, thinking and commitments are only principles of a full human life; words and deeds are needed to express the human person. Words and deeds are instruments; by them a person has the power to communicate with others and to change the world. Unfortunately, the available instruments are more or less recalcitrant to the purposes of one who wishes to manifest divine truth and love in the world. Language and the media of action have been shaped by the sinful uses to which things have been put. The Christian must wrestle with words and must work with tools which are not well adapted to serve Jesus’ cause. It takes one’s whole strength to work with the culture which exists and try to purify and renew it so that it will be better adapted to the redemptive work of the redeemed community.

In short, it is one thing for the love of God to be poured forth in one’s heart; it is another to love God with one’s whole heart and mind and soul and strength. Perfection requires that all one’s choices be integrated with living faith; that all one’s thinking be consistent with it; that all one’s sentient dispositions and actuations be at the disposal of Christian love and truth; and that all one’s powers have at hand suitable means for manifesting divine truth and love in the world. At every step of the way, the advance of love will meet and have to overcome the residues and effects of sin—original sin, one’s own sin, and the sins of other individuals and groups. Initial conversion is only a beginning; one becomes a Christian little by little (see AG 13).

1. See J. J. Farraher, S.J., “Imperfection, Moral,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 7:396–98, for a survey of positions and references to some important works. James C. Osbourn, O.P., The Morality of Imperfections (Westminster, Md.: Carroll Press, 1950), 1–35, argues that St. Thomas had no place for imperfection (conclusions, 225–31). He could be correct; if so, St. Thomas missed something important. However, Thomas surely recognized the purely negative, nonprivative reality of immaturity. If he did not recognize imperfections of disintegrity as distinct from venial sins, this lacuna can be explained by his lack of clarity about the role of faith as a fundamental option whose requirements for an integrally Christian life can be at odds with particular acts good in themselves and innocently chosen—for example, interests and activities of adolescents which distract them from seeking and embracing their personal vocations.

2. For a theological commentary on this text, see Walter Kasper, Jesus the Christ (London: Burns and Oates, 1976), 208–15; also see Jean Galot, S.J., Who Is Christ? A Theology of Incarnation, trans. M. Angeline Bouchard (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1981), 376–79. Someone who resists attributing imperfection to Jesus (when the imperfection in question neither involves nor presupposes sin) seems to be afflicted with a trace of Apollinarianism, for to be a perfect human is reached only through learning obedience and freely accepting God’s will, as Jesus did.

3. In modern theology, the problem of imperfection emerged in a legalistic context in which each choice was considered in isolation. In that context, it is very difficult to understand how Christians called to perfection can choose the less good, the less specifically Christian, without sin. But when one considers Christian life as a whole which ought to be organized by the fundamental option of living faith, one can see at once that many morally good acts are chosen without reference to faith. Such acts need to be integrated and, to the extent that they are conditioned by sin, they can resist integration in the specific pattern of a particular, personal vocation. This view of the problem of imperfection already was adumbrated by Etienne Hugueny, O.P., “Imperfection,” Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, 7:1286–98, but by overlooking the fact that the specific requirements of perfection become known only gradually Hugueny tends to reduce all imperfection to venial sin.