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


Does Truth Change Overtime?

First, something for a good chuckle

A Side Note

I have not commented on the recent abdication of pope emeritus Benedict XVI because I was too busy lamenting the loss.  It is in moments like the recent announcement and consequent retirement of Benedict XVI that brings to mind the paradoxes of Christianity.  I was at once saddened by his leaving and joyfully proud in his humility to accept that he is no longer fit to watch over the flock entrusted to him by his Father.

So to Papa Bene: You truly are a gift to us and you have done well for the Church.  May God continue to grant you the strength to live out the rest of your earthly days as a great advocate for all of us who are fighting the good fight to return to our God.

As a result of Benedict’s resignation, many people have voiced their “hope” for a “better” pope who will lead the Church in reforming its archaic ways to fit with modern times.  Here is what I have to say on this matter.

Truth and Opinion

When I begin my classes, I tell my students this: None of you are entitled to your opinions in this class; you are only entitled to well-reasoned arguments.  I am quick to also let them know that by opinion I don’t mean their preferences to food, clothing, TV shows, or whatever else that have to do with personal taste.  Instead, what I mean by opinion is their conclusion and insistence on one philosophical and theological position as opposed to another.

Why do I do this?  It is because we live in a world filled with opinions (or assertions) without most of us providing sufficient reasons to defend them.  We live in a world where relativism reigns; where “what is good for me is determined by me and what is good for you is determined by you, and neither one of us can be wrong.”  We live in a world that says “I personally find abortion to be wrong, but if you want to abort your child, then that’s your choice and who am I to say that you’re wrong?”  This sort of understanding of morality, to name one of the many areas where relativism is very popular, is obviously problematic; and it is because relativism itself is unsound.

Relativism is philosophically problematic for various reasons, two obvious reasons why it is problematic can be detected immediately after we hear “what’s good for me is good for me and what’s good for you is good for you, and I must tolerate your opinion.”  First, relativism presupposes tolerance as the common “virtue” of all people; that everyone must tolerate everyone else’s values because every is correct.  Yet, what if one value I hold is intolerance?  What if I am intolerant of tolerance?  That I think tolerance to be a vice of sort and that it weakens the morality.  Accordingly, am I no longer correct on my moral grounds, or are you incorrect on yours?  Second, unlike preferences for types of cakes, we cannot simply argue that everyone has a different opinion on morality and that it is OK.  If Joe likes strawberry cakes and Jim likes vanilla cakes, we should not deem either one as being wronger than the other.  But if Joe preferred slavery and Jim prefers equality for all human persons, we can definitely say that Jim is correct and Joe is indeed wrong.  But why is Joe wrong and Jim right if matters of morality are subject to personal preference?  Why praise the US for its economic and political system and condemn Castro for his?

It seems to be the case that when it comes to matters of morality, beauty, justice, mathematics and other “transcendental” things, that there are truths and falsities.  When it comes to these things, we are no longer entitled to our opinions of what they are, but we must attempt to discover what they actually are and speak from such discoveries.  Contradictions, not paradoxes, are generally pretty good indications that something we hold true is actually false, e.g., relativism.

The Truth of God

While truths are beyond opinions, we also know that there are certain truths that the human reason simply cannot grasp unless it was revealed to it.  For a wonderful treatise on this, I suggest John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio.  This does not mean that we deny human reason of its autonomy or competence.  It does mean, however, that there are things that human reason would fail to understand had faith not informed it.  Blessed John Paul II beautifully illustrates this, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”  In this relationship, reason helps prepare the mind for faith by showing that the content of Christian faith is wholly compatible with good, clear thinking; and then, once one embraces the gift of faith, reason serves faith yet again by allowing faith to ask good questions, and develop good answers, about anything and everything in life – from the existence of God to the problem of evil to the belief in the resurrection of the body.

Accordingly, God’s revelation, found in the Bible and the Church’s Tradition, clarifies truths that sinful human reason has great difficulty coming to (like the truth that all human beings possess equal, God-given dignity); or God’s revelation makes known truths we could never have known (like the truth of God’s nature as Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).  These truths, discovered by human reason guided by the Holy Spirit, have become part of the Apostolic tradition and dogmatically and doctrinally taught to the faithful.  Conclusively, these truths are not changeable with the times.  To say that they are is akin to saying that the value of 1 added to 1 may be changed from 2 to 3 over time and both results would be true.

How Do We Love?

In today’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus said this to the crowd: ” This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah.”  I will not attempt at exegetical work here, but I want to highlight the significance behind this statement.

First,  we live in a world that often values comfort at the expense of truth and virtue.  What I mean here is that we often overlook or glamorize wrongs so that we won’t have to deal with the uncomfortable part of telling someone we love or care for that they are doing something wrong.   This attitude, of course, extends from personal relationships to societal relationships.  Instead of pointing out the wrong, we embrace our loved ones’ wrong-doings as their personal choices and that they are the only ones affected by them.  And they in return  buy into our embraces and are convinced that they are the only ones affected by their choices.  And because choices no longer affect others but only ourselves, no choice is ever wrong per se, only different.

Second, we blur the distinction between the actor and the action.  The reason why we are scared to tell people that they are wrong is because we are scared that they will think that we think they are bad people.  Our fear is not without merit since some of us do not seem able to make the distinction between a bad deed and a bad man–that a good man could perform a bad deed while a bad man good perform a good deed.  We must realize that people are not totally defined by their actions, even though their actions are a part of their personal constitution.

Third, we mistakenly call bad things good because we have a serious misunderstanding of what good is.  We value the right things according to the “time of season” and we value the wrong things all the time.  We value family only when Thanksgiving and Christmas is around; we value our boyfriends, girlfriends, fiances, and spouses only when Valentine’s day is around.  Yet, we value material things everyday of the year, e.g. the latest and best cellphones and TVs.  We think that obsession with our bodies is a good thing, and that anything less than a six-pack is shameful.

So What Does Jesus Teach Us?

As a student of theology, I’m always so astounded by those who suggest that Jesus was always loving and never said anything mean or offensive to those around him (to be fair, I’m also very astounded by those who seem to suggest that Jesus came to destroy all sinners and spread a message of hatred).  As apparent in today’s Gospel, Jesus was not afraid to call a spade its name.

While he is loving, for he is Love Incarnate, he is also, well, loving!  What this means is that it is because he loves so deeply that he must point out our wrong-doings so that we may learn to be virtuous.  But just because he calls out the wrong does not mean that he ceases to love us.  Just because a mother tells her son that she does not like his addictive actions does not mean that she has ceased to love him.  The very contrary is true: she loves him all the more because he is broken and needs love to heal.

Additionally, Jesus is keenly aware that our choices are not “just our own”, but that they are made to affect those we love as well as those around us.  We are not meant to live alone, such is why we are born into families, establish friendships, fall in love, marry and start families (some of us).  Thus, our decisions affect more than just us, they either build or tear down our relationships.  If we are to seriously love, we must learn to think about how to build those we love up through our own actions.  We must not misconceive the bad for the good; and most importantly, we must learn to call the bad bad and the good good.  We must not be afraid to tell those we love that they have done wrong, and they must do the same for us.  Finally, we must learn to distinguish between the sinner and the sin; we must love the sinner and hate the sin, not the other way around.