All of us have had the experience of realizing that we have sinned. We understand that what we did was wrong, and we can readily discern the negative effects of our actions. We then sincerely ask the Lord for His mercy and we try to make things right with anyone we may have hurt.
As Catholics we appreciate the gift the divine mercy and peace for our souls that is ours in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which “offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1446). In other words, we realize we're spiritually sick, and so we want to apply the right medicine.
As we make our Act of Contrition, we “firmly resolve with the help of God's grace to sin no more.” We're banking on God's help, but in this prayer we're telling our Lord that we are absolutely serious about avoiding sin in the future. In other words, we're committed to doing whatever we can to help reverse the cycle of sin in our life, to wipe it out at the source.
Prudentially, then, it would be extremely helpful to have some understanding of the underlying causes of our sins. Ask yourself, “Where did I go wrong?” Surely we're all prone to sin because of our fallen nature, but it's also true that sin isn't all that innovative or trendy. My sins and your sins are not all that original. Ask any confessor! It's actually quite possible to trace most of our sins to some very basic moral errors.
That's why paragraph no. 1792 is one of the most enlightening entries in the Catechism. It lists some of the main reasons why we go astray. Here's what it says:
Ignorance of Christ and His Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one's passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.
Several of these items jump off the page to me. Doctrinal dissent has consequences in the moral life. My bad example (known as “scandal”) can lead others to sin. Ignorance is not “bliss” when it comes to the Gospel.
And this Catechism quote makes abundantly clear that an erroneous approach to conscience leads to errors in moral judgment.
Conscience is vitally important. It is God's way of revealing His truth to us in concrete circumstances, so that we can choose the good He desires for us. So having a well-formed conscience is about doing what God wants, not what “I want.” There are many voices internal (e.g., our own preferences, memories, motivations, disordered desires) and external (e.g., family, friends, media) competing for our attention. We need a certain interiority to be able to hear the Shepherd's voice, to discern God's law that is already on our hearts.
Too often we do whatever is expedient, agreeable, or enjoyable and then we claim that we're just following our conscience. All we're doing then is adopting a relativistic (and ultimately atheistic) mindset and giving it the veneer of religiosity. The rejection of the objective moral law is not an exercise of authentic freedom, but rather is the submission to slavery. As the Catechism teaches, it's the licentious assertion of one's autonomy from God and from the moral order.
In number 1792, the Catechism, gives all of us a firm basis for examining our consciences. It leads us to ask these and similar questions of ourselves:
Am I ignorant of Christ and His Gospel? Do I seek the Lord's guidance through regular, humble prayer? Do I assiduously study and internalize the Bible as well as other reliable sources of Catholic teaching and spiritual wisdom?
Do I associate with people who aren't good for me? Do I too readily follow others rather than act as my own person? Am I too concerned about what others think? Is a shared belief in Jesus Christ and His Church the most important factor in choosing my friends and associates?
Am I a slave to my passions? Am I mired in habitual sin? Do I overindulge or pamper myself?
Do I try to justify conduct that our Lord considers sinful? Is there a part of my life that I haven't turned over to God? Are there Church teachings I refuse to accept? Do I strive to form my conscience based on the firm foundation of Catholic truth, or do I look for teachers who will “tickle my ears” (2 Tm 4:3)?
Do I strive to see Christ in those around me, especially the poor and the annoying? Do I really take to heart the fact that all men and women have God-given dignity and value? Do I treat others with basic kindness, patience, and respect? Do I serve only myself?
The Divine Physician doesn't expect us to overcome these perennial difficulties on our own. In fact, we can't. However, if we can diagnose the sources of our particular sins, we can better seek out and apply the right spiritual medicine.
Leon J. Suprenant, Jr. is the president of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) and Emmaus Road Publishing and the editor-in-chief of Lay Witness magazine, all based in Steubenville, Ohio. He is a contributor to Catholic for a Reason III: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mass and an adviser to CE’s Catholic Scripture Study. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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