Pope Pius XII stated, with respect to the understanding of sin, “The sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin.” This statement took place close to 75 years ago, in a society which by and large had embraced Judeo-Christian values. Those were the days in which probably close to 75% of Catholics in the USA, Europe and Latin America practiced the faith, at least by attending Holy Mass every Sunday.
Today many so-called believers, due to mediocre to poor catechesis, have an extremely poorly formed conscience. How often have we experienced the following scenario! You have guests Saturday evening and in the early evening (about 4:30) you excuse yourself from the company. One of the guests politely asks where you are going; your response, “To Church!” “Why Church?” he asks? Your response, “I am going to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation.” The interested guests blurts out: “Why, what have you done?” Of course you respond by saying that is private between you, the Confessor, and God. With courtesy and politeness, you invite him to come along with you to Confession! Often the response is the following: “I do not have any sins. I have not robbed a bank, or killed anyone!”
The above scenario is very telling to say the least! What surfaces in this conversation is the fact that many Catholics, those who have been brought up and raised in the past half-century or more, have not received a good catechetical formation. This includes the sad fact that their conscience has been poorly formed, inadequately formed, perhaps is deformed, or not even formed at all.
Keenly aware of this sad reality of a society in which the sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin, Pope Saint John Paul II, elected Pope about 20 years after the death of now Ven. Pope Pius XII, went to work.
One of the first Synods that he convened was precisely on the topic of sin, the conscience, the loss of the sense of sin, and the call to return to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, also known as Confession, Penance, and the Sacrament of God’s Mercy.
After the Synod terminated its studies, interventions and collating of all the contributions, a Post Synod Document was published and promulgated. The official title of this Document was: “Reconciliatio Paenitentia”— in English: “Reconciliation and Penance” (December 2, 1984), an Apostolic Exhortation.
As an intellectual and theological tool to foster a knowledge of sin, the conscience, and a beckoning to return to the reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, this is a spiritual and literary masterpiece.
However, our purpose in this brief essay is to highlight and explain succinctly not simply the reality of sin and the loss of the sense of sin, but to accentuate the lethal effects that sin produces in the person, in the Church, in the society, and in the world at large.
In a society that either negates the reality of sin, or at least trivializes sin as basically insignificant, Pope Saint John Paul II does not mince words in elaborating on the lethal effects of sin.
Therefore, this essay will focus simply on one of the key aspects of sin—its deadly effects; not as seen in the eyes of the world, but as seen by God. The Holy Pontiff actually lists five effects of sin that we will explain succinctly and in any orderly fashion. Every sin has with it these five effects: 1) Theological, 2) Social, 3) Personal, 4) Ecclesial, and 5) Cosmic. We will proceed to explain these effects one at a time.
THE FIVE EFFECTS THAT EVERY SIN PRODUCES—FROM WITHIN TO WITHOUT
1. THEOLOGICAL EFFECT. The word actually refers to God Himself. “Theology is the study of God.” Now every time we make the decision to sin, be it in thought, or word, or deed, or even omission, there is an immediate offense against God. It must be emphasized: first and foremost, every sin that is committed is essentially an offense against God. He is the Primary and Principal Person who is offended. Two ideas to drive the point home! Every time we lift our gaze and contemplate Jesus hanging on the cross, shedding every drop of His Precious Blood, we see that Jesus really and truly suffered His Passion and death due to your sins and mine. The Baltimore Catechism portrays a boy nailing Jesus to the cross with the three letters SIN written on the back of his shirt—very graphic and easy to comprehend!
2. SOCIAL EFFECT. After Cain killed his brother Abel due to jealousy, envy, anger and hatred, the murderer blurted out the defiant question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gn. 4:9) The response is an unequivocal YES! It is true, as Saint Paul reminds us, that we have to work out our salvation in fear and trembling. However, Jesus taught time and time again that we should be intent on caring for our brothers and sisters. Remember the Good Samaritan! (Lk. 10: 25-37) Remember the Corporal Works of Mercy: Feeding the hungry, slaking the thirst of the thirsty, helping a stranger, those in need of clothing, attending the sick and imprisoned. (Mt. 25: 31-45) The good we do or fail to do to our neighbor, we do to Jesus.
3. PERSONAL EFFECT. Not only does our sin hurt God, and wound and hurt our neighbor, but sin also hurts us. Serious sins, Pope Saint John Paul II stated, can be seen as moral suicide. Actually, every time we personally decide to commit a mortal sin, it indeed is a form of moral suicide. In a word, the effects are both toxic and lethal! By committing a mortal sin, the poison of sin contaminates that person in their individual nature. Reflect on the various effects: the temporary loss of God and the gift of sanctifying grace, the loss of His Friendship, the darkening of the mind and weakening of the will. There are still other effects on the person committing mortal sin: sadness permeates their whole being; peace disappears; deprivation of the ability to receive Holy Communion; and the sin can become a vice, that is to say, sin repeated. Worst of all, if one dies in the state of mortal sin, they lose their soul for all eternity. How important it is for us to meditate upon the effects of sin in our own personal lives; and consequently, to repent of mortal sin, have recourse to Confession as soon as possible, and thus return to God’s Friendship.
4. ECCLESIAL EFFECT. Pope Saint John XXIII published an Encyclical Letter on the Church with the title—Mater Magistra—Mother and Teacher. Two of the primary functions of the Church is to be our Mother in the order and economy of grace, as well as Teacher of the Truth. Sad to say, our sin not only hurts God, our neighbor, and ourselves but also the Church, our Mother and our Teacher. There are countless examples of how members of the Church have done irreparable damage as a result of their sins. Perhaps two of the most evident and glaring examples would be in the persons and the actions of a King and an Augustinian priest: Henry VIII and Martin Luther. As a result of the actions and lives of these two individuals, who lived close to the same time frame, irreparable damage was done to the Church on a global scale. The Catholic Church of England almost overnight went from Catholic to Anglican—the Church of England governed by the King himself. Then in strong Catholic Germany, Luther was instrumental in cutting it in half—the Northern part became Protestant and the Southern, the majority, remained Catholic. This is the Ecclesial effect of sin, on how our sin can damage the Church, our Mother and Teacher.
5. COSMIC EFFECT OF SIN. The final effect of sin, as explained by Pope Saint John Paul II, is called the COSMIC EFFECT OF SIN. Not only does sin damage our relationship with God, damage our relationship with others in society, damage our very self, as well as the Church, but sin also damages the world in which we live. This is the cosmic effect. Perhaps the best way to portray the Cosmic Effect of Sin is through contemplating the effects of war, and wars upon the world at large. Our Lady of Fatima stated that war comes as a result of sin. She warned the world, in the midst of World War I, that if people did not stop sinning and start praying more, than a worse World War would explode. Indeed, it happened—the Second World War. The Cosmic Effect of Sin results in the damage and devastation of nature. Due to wars how many disasters in nature occur: animals destroyed, rivers and water bodies polluted, trees, plants and forests devastated. Studies have even pointed out that as a result of the atomic bomb and nuclear chemical elements even the gene pool of those exposed has been damaged.
In conclusion, as a result of the Original Sin, the Sin of Adam and Eve (our first parents), there was unleashed a moral/spiritual tsunami that has repercussions in the world until the very end of time. All times, persons, and places have been profoundly affected by the Original Sin of Adam and Eve. Indeed, every sin committed since, even in the most remote regions, leaves its effect. Pope Saint John Paul the Great described it masterfully in his Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliation and Penance. Every sin has its theological, social, personal, ecclesial and cosmic effect.
May we all make a concerted effort to form our conscience in the light of the Word of God and the Magisterial Teachings, and live according to our conscience. May the holiness, light and wisdom of Pope Saint John Paul the II be a true light on our path leading to the Light of Eternal Beatitude in Heaven!