A Closer Look At Sin and Christian Charity

A couple of posts ago, I gave a (very very) brief (and amateur-ish) examination at the nature of sin.  I have since then been thinking and reading more about it, so here is another closer examination of sin and love:

Sins are of different degrees and types and this becomes crucial in theological reflection and for the examination of conscience in preparation for the Sacrament of Penance.  The Church proposes two general categories for sinful acts: venial and mortal/grave.  As Bernard Haring points out, “mortal sin is always grave, as death is grave.”[1]  The Catholic Church teaches us this by pointing out that mortal sin “destroy the charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law” where as “venial sin allows for charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.”[2]

Simply put, sins of profoundly grievous nature are mortal in that they entail the death of a relationship—the relationship between the sinner and God.  The distinction made between mortal sin and venial sin is necessary since it would be false to assert that a sin of a serious nature is of the same grade as that of something less serious just as it would be silly for us to say that an illness that causes death is just as seriousness as a sprained ankle.  At the same time, we must be mindful that venial sins can lead to mortal sins.  Consider Haring’s comment on the difference between mortal and venial and the latter’s possible leading to the former:

Mortal sin…is a refusal of God’s friendship, opposition to the Covenant, and total alienation of the person from God, from himself, and from the community.  It is a fundamental option against God and, explicitly or implicitly, a conscious idolatrous option for one’s own egotism or idols…Venial sin is like sickness.  Not all sickness is grave, but it would be an absurdity to assert that every ailment to the point of death is in the “nonserious” or “slight” category.  It would be equally absurd to claim that no venial sin can be grave.[3]

Insofar as mortal sin is concerned, there are three conditions that qualify at act as mortally wounding the relationship between us and God: the object and matter of the sin must be of a grave degree, there must have been full and conscious intent, and the action was willfully free.[4]  Essentially, mortal sins are those actions that are contrary to those laws laid out in the Ten Commandments and other moral laws built upon these commandments.  Venial sins, on the other hand, are those that are lesser in degree and committed in ignorance or under coercion.

If we are to understand that sin is the separation of ourselves from God, then it is reasonable to conclude that it is only in God that we obtain holiness.  This holiness must be searched in relation to Christ and in imitation of him.  As John Paul II tells us in Fides et Ratio, it was God himself who came and lived among us so as to bring us into communion with himself.[5]  This incarnation of God is so that we can come to know him and imitate his holiness.  The more we desire to be holy and lead a holy life, the more we strive to be like Christ himself.

When we sin and we recognize that we are sinning, we ought to understand that not only is sin the destruction of our relationship with others and God but that we have failed to imitate Christ.  This recognition of failure ought to humble us and extend an invitation for our return to Christ—the one who is the source of all graces.  Consequently, we as sinners ask for forgiveness and accepts God’s calling to return to Him.  By accepting this divine initiative, we find not only forgiveness, but also peace in that the disorder of the relationship has been restored to its original form.

Finally, the better we understand sin and its destructive powers over us, we are more likely to avoid it and respond to others with love.  The turning away from sin is not only seen as obedience to God’s will and an imitation of Christ himself, but is also viewed as an action of love.  Love, insofar as the Catholic vision is concerned, is most genuine when we recognize our own failures and sins so that we can proceed to learn to love as we would have ourselves loved.   In this sense, the love that is freed is the love which proceeds in faith.   When we allow love to flourish in faith we can then exclaim “I see!” like that blind man that Jesus healed.  This is faith giving sight to sin so that we are able to see the Truth and goodness of God through the love of neighbor.  Therefore, through the recognition of our own sinfulness, we are able to love more abundantly.

[2] Catechism #1855

[4] Catechism #1857

[5] Fides et Ratio #10


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