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Drowning in Perceived Sin

There is no easy way to write what I need to say in this reflection. Almost anything I say on the topic I have chosen is pretty much guaranteed to be misunderstood. I can almost feel the wave of panic that will more than likely result. However, what I am about to say needs to be said, and it needs to be fully understood: we are drowning in “sin.” I do not mean we are surrounded by sin and need redemption. I do not mean the human race is suddenly engaging in a more sinful life than ever before. Plenty of voices are proclaiming this perception, and I do not need to add my voice to the noise and confusion.

When I say we are drowning in “sin,” I am asserting that there is too much perceived sin all around us. Everything is sinful, at least from certain perspectives and most certainly from a scrupulous point of view. Every human action, emotion, feeling, thought, desire, or whatever is somehow sinful. Mortal, serious, venial, temptation, or whatever on the scale of sin measurement, there is just too much perceived sin. From this perspective, sin is unavoidable, and even the most vigilant are doomed to failure of some kind.

Moral theologians wax eloquently, or sometimes not eloquently at all, about the “New Jansenism.” They mean the old heresy of Jansenism is popping up all over the place. Good men and women are falling prey to this distorted heresy, spawned in the 1600s, which is characterized by moral rigor and severe self-discipline. This may be true, and I do not doubt it, but some quarters say the world is well beyond Jansenism. A nitpicking spirit seems to be at work in the lives of good, faithful people. Harmful nitpickers are more disturbing among the most vulnerable, the scrupulous.

Social media platforms teem with misinformed interpreters of Catholic doctrine and so-called teachers of the Catholic catechetical tradition. I do not know what church they supposedly represent—if any—but it most certainly is not the Roman Catholic Church I know. Without a doubt, these interpreters have not felt the sanctifying warmth of the Holy Spirit from the Second Vatican Council.

Vatican II (1962–65) effectively redirected the attention and focus of the barnacled Church away from centuries of accumulated debris. The bishops at that ecumenical council called the people of God to a new life, a new baptism, and a mature and healthy way of living and believing. This mature Catholic life invited men and women of faith to enter into mystery, to walk away from false certitude, and to permit the Spirit of God to breathe and create once again. It called for the appreciation of a nuanced understanding of the truths of our Tradition that had been faithfully handed on to us. We are not called to blindly fall into lockstep with a manner and way of life that is lifeless. That is certainly not gospel living nor kingdom living.

All Catholic doctrines and dogmas are nuanced. I do not mean they are relative or not truthful. Rather, I mean to state what is obvious. They are not complete and are open to interpretation as the people of God live and move in the Holy Spirit of God. They are nuanced because the way we understand a teaching depends on the present moment, the historical reality of time and place. The truth that is proclaimed is not nuanced, but the manner in which it is practiced, taught, and believed is most certainly nuanced. For example, it is ridiculous to put something into practice today in the way it was understood and practiced in the fourteenth century.

As a partial illustration, look at the big word we proclaim confidently in our Creed during the Eucharist celebration: consubstantial. When that word was inserted into the credal formula, it was understood as the Latin equivalent of the Greek word homoousios (“the same substance”). That is all well and good, but the understanding of “substance” many centuries ago is not the same today. Originally a philosophical term, today the meaning of “substance” goes beyond philosophy and includes a material understanding, idea, form, etc. As it is with philosophy, so it is with biology, mathematics, quantum mechanics, the natural law, the observable universe, our understanding of the human person, freedom, gender, and the list goes on. The original understanding is nuanced by lived experience, new information, and an updated understanding.

We do not believe, as the systematic theologians once believed, that you can answer all questions and eventually discover all answers. Today we know there are far more questions than answers. Mystery is more abundant than certitude. The world is not static, a well-oiled machine, a mechanical clock with everything in its place between earth and heaven. Everything and everyone is subject to change.

The cloistered monk who faithfully tried to define every imaginable untruth that might exist was exercising a labor of love. He believed he was contributing to humanity’s understanding of the will of God. He was not trying to construct a list of sins that could later be consulted in an examination of conscience to identify possible sin at work. Unfortunately for some people, this kind of work became a weapon of spiritual discipline to be wielded to bring the unruly soul into submission. In the process, people lost sight of the sin and became caught up in the details and the description.

My point in asserting we are drowning in perceived sin is that we must pay more attention to nuance and mystery in our relationship with God. We get lost in the descriptive details of what we are struggling with and have become somehow convinced that it is virtuous to master the details. Let us instead set the details aside and grow a loving, mature relationship with God, self, and others. That is the real grace. A misguided understanding of sin is misplaced. Even though we are drowning in perceived sin, God gives us the ability to swim away.

Thomas M. Santa, CSsR

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