The Facts of Life Series: Sin
Whether you’re religious or not, whether you’re Catholic or not, the undeniability of sin is a certainty of life and living on a par with any other scientific, mathematical, philosophical or religious truth. And you don’t have to look all that far or all that long to see the factual truth of sin and its preponderant and prolific presence.
Just take a moment to look at the day’s headlines to see sin’s latest noteworthy examples. Or, read a little history and you’ll soon see sin’s abiding aura across time and place, across people and personality. You can even look to fiction or to great literature to see the constancy and catastrophe of sin, sin of all types and sizes. After all, sin is usually the struggle driving the plot. And it is what differentiates the characters. For sin is the distinction between the protagonist and the antagonist, the hero and the villain.
But, if that isn’t proof enough of sin’s factual nature, another good place to find the reality of sin and its many subtleties and severities is in the mirror. You see, sin is a fact undeniable, inescapable, irrefutable. And, like it or not, it is a practical and factual reality of all human life, individually or interpersonally, collectively and even culturally.
Just take a moment to ask yourself if you are perfect. Most honest people implicitly acknowledge a strong sense of what true perfection is and readily admit they are not perfect. And, the just and fair minded will admit their failings, their shortcomings, their weaknesses, particularly in light of the truth of real perfection, real virtue.
Just think about the classical list of virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude. Or think about the vices associated with failing to live up to the dictates of these virtues. Think about sins of pride, envy, anger, sloth, gluttony, avarice, lust. Or, better yet, think of the times you have been the victim of these types of behaviors or attitudes at the hands of others.
Sin is a fact. And, it is a fact so certain, it should be thought of as a given fact of human life on a level with breathing. Yet, here I am making the case for sin as a fact of life and living. Should this single, simple, certifiable fact need such an exposition and explanation? In our modern moment, indeed, it does. Why?
Because the truth, the idea and substance of sin, rests on other crucial facts we all too readily attribute now to mere differences in perception and philosophy, without seriously considering their legitimacy and truth. Ideas about human existence and human nature, about human rationality and decision making. Ideas about the nature and substance of goodness and evil. Ideas about God and the nature and history of our relationship with Him. Ideas about human freedom and the standards by which freedom is judged.
Just look at the evidence. Think of our human capacity for great good and great evil. Think of the Holocaust and the leaders who spawned it. Think of the soldiers and citizens who carried out the killings or those who stood by and did nothing. This is sin of catastrophic proportions, carried out intentionally, repetitively, without regard to age or gender. Men. Women. Children. All exterminated like so much vermin; stripped of all dignity, possessions and basic rights.
Yet, think of the courage these victims demonstrated in the face of such terror. Or, think of the brave people who helped those they could to escape this peril or the common soldiers who waged war to end this evil regime.
Such evil was executed because of an evil philosophy, a sinful and sinister set of ideas about race and the value of human life, about arrogant pride and ethical aberrations like utilitarianism. It was evil on a massive and deliberate scale based on the German government’s management of human evolution through racial and genetic purification. It was the evil of eugenics, plain and simple.
Or, think of the contemporary infanticide that is abortion. Look deeply and clearly at the moral relativism of mothers who willingly kill their unborn children because they are not held to any objective and factual moral standards. Think of this moral holocaust executed at the behest of individual women because they determine what is good and what is evil individually and who malevolently insist on their personal freedom, a freedom without moral boundaries. Think of how our law allows such sinful behavior.
Yet, sin’s factual truth is not just a function of scale. It is present in all manner of human activity and endeavor. Nor is it merely evident in human behavior. For it often finds its home in the mind and motives of daily human life. Just think of our many cultural stereotypes like the selfish motives and manipulations of politicians or salesmen. Think of the subtle sins of gossiping or feigned sympathy or loyalty. Sin is even evident in the passing covetous, selfish or lustful thoughts we all have and, at times, indulge.
Sin’s ubiquity and certainty is also revealed by the virtuous behavior, motives and thoughts we all acknowledge and know. For sin is thwarted by virtue. And, that too is how we know the reality of sin. For sin’s existence, persistence and resistance conversely reveals the truth of real goodness. Sin reminds us what we should be, what we should aspire to and strive to become.
Yet now, sin is an anachronism. A word and idea laced with judgement, a form of moral tyranny and religious oppression upon the individual’s freedoms. Now, the culturally dominant way to look at sin is to see at it as a religious and cultural artifact related to primitive superstitions arising from irrational and ignorant ideas out of touch with modern science’s findings. Now, the idea of sin is a form of religious intrusion that ignores and denies the enlightened and modern intellectuals’ conclusion that morality is merely a product of cultural preference without any objective factual certainty. Now, the primary sin is judgement in the modern pejorative sense of that word.
In spite of this modern line of thinking, the Catholic Church does not solely appeal to revelation to establish the nature and substance of sin. The Catholic Catechism defines sin as “an offense against reason, truth and right conscience…. a failure in genuine love for God and neighbor … (that) wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity … an utterance, deed or desire contrary to the eternal law.” It is or should be startling to our modern sensitivities that reason and truth, right conscience and love are how the defining errors of sin may be known most fully.
For the Church appeals to reason. And that means, reason rightly used can prove the nature of sin, a thought such modern intellectuals and cultural leaders should consider. And, consider carefully. For when reason is used properly, it can prove the factual certainty and objectivity of moral virtue; it proves the truth of virtue and the truth of a rightly formed conscience. And, it proves deviations from these truths are inherently wrong and evil. It also enumerates some of the inevitable effects of such egregious errors and illicit intentions.
Yet, the reason to which the Church appeals is not the sophistry of the modern philosopher or the casuistry of the lawyer. It is the simple certainty of right reasoning, the commonsense rationality of the common man and woman that makes sin apparent, even the sins of the mind like insincerity, selfishness, manipulation. For even children can readily identify not only grievous and obvious sin, but sin of a smaller scale and subtler nature, even the small sins they commit themselves.
For right reasoning is crucial to avoiding sin and to advancing virtue. It informs our will. And, our rightly and rationally ordered will guides how we enact our freedom in our behaviors and our attitudes. But, when people fail to reason rightly because they have adopted a flawed philosophy, they misapprehend many things.
And, they remove the critical guidance that reason and truth provide. They remove rationality or put it in the service of their desires and flawed philosophies. They remove the very idea that truth is certain and knowable and they embrace a truthless existentialism and its assertions of individual hegemony and amoral freedoms. Collectively, they embrace the myopic morality of utilitarianism where “happiness” is the sole moral determinant and its applied ethic that defines goodness as “the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people,” rather than what is true and right and good.
And, they remove the essence of true love and its many implications, promoting a myopic and selfish distortion of love, whose nature is ruled by personal freedom and fulfillment without any morality or sacrifice. And, in doing so, sin abounds. For they become paragons of sin, not of love and truth, goodness and beauty. And, they embody the very sin they so confidently and comfortably deny.
We also recommend Mr. Cronin’s latest book, The World According to God: The Whole Truth About Life and Living. It is available from your favorite bookstore and through Sophia Institute Press.