Lecture 6: Sin and Grace
Praised be Jesus Christ. In our ongoing series, Introduction to Catholic Moral Theology, we have been talking about the moral life and the immoral life. We have been making distinctions between formal and material human acts, and about the moral object of the act, the circumstances, the intention. In many ways the language hasn't sounded particularly religious or Christian. I said that those actions which the Catholic Church considers to be immoral are immoral for everyone because our morality is based on the Natural Law. We understand what actions will fulfill a given person, and which ones will not, based on objective criteria which can be seen in God's creation.
There is a universality about Catholic teaching, but there is a dimension to our understanding of human morality which goes beyond that of those who are not Christian. We see immoral actions as not only diminishing the potential fulfillment of an individual human being but also as being an affront against God, a violation of His holiness, and righteousness. We see certain actions as being not simply immoral but as being sinful, that is, of having a devastating, debilitating, destructive cosmic dimension to them which far surpasses any reflections on human act understood as simply immoral. Sin and evil are two of the most frightening concepts that we ever encounter. It's perplexing, it's destructive, it's pervasive. It seems to take hold of us when we don't want it to. We try to seek the good and find that we are crippled somehow and that we can't.
In our own century we have seen unspeakable acts committed by human beings against other human beings. They surpass the ability of the human language to describe the cruelty and evil that human beings have visited upon one another. We are aware that something is out of joint. There is some cosmic dimension to this human experience that surpasses anything that we encounter in our philosophy books. We are concerned that we gain an understanding into this phenomenon of sin because in a way it is going to describe more fully what is going on than is possible in the use of philosophy.
We are creatures. We have been created by God and for God. God created us for our happiness, for our own fulfillment, and yet we have violated that and brought terrible disorder and destruction upon ourselves. God did not bring evil into the world. God did not create sin. We human beings have brought it into the world. As John Henry Cardinal Newman said, there was some dreadful primordial event that set the world into disorder and, of course, we know that this dreadful primordial event was the sin of our first parents. The sin of Adam and Eve was so debilitating that the human race has suffered the consequences ever since. Human beings have always been aware of this disorder and aware of a certain transcendent dimension to it. It is not that human beings simply were incapable of leading upright and virtuous lives. There was a way in which something beyond human beings and human ends was violated.
Virtually all of the religions in the world offer up sacrifices to God, or to their gods as they understand them, in an attempt to bring about a reconciliation and to reintroduce that primordial harmony that was lost at some point in the past. Virtually every people on earth have some story about what resulted in this initial disorder. None of the sacrifices, prayers, or incense burned were ever sufficient. None was adequate because human sin not only disordered the human person but it violated the goodness of God Himself. If one would try to make up for that offense one could try as one might but it was simply impossible, because how could finite human beings ever make up for an offense against God's infinite majesty? There is simply no way out, there is no way of finding some kind of reconciliation.
Franz Kafka, who was a Jewish German writer who lived in Prague in the last century, wrote a book called The Trial. He was a secular Jew, not a believer. His book deals with this human awareness that something was wrong, something was out of order, and that we are under judgment. The protagonist in this novel goes throughout the palace of the ministry of justice trying to find out who has condemned him, what he has done that has left him guilty. We see in this novel by Kafka a modern awareness, even among people who are not believers, that somehow we are under judgment; somehow we are under a dreadful sentence; somehow we have done some great offense which has resulted in our guilt.
Now we know, thanks be to God, that the means have been found to bring about reconciliation between us and God who is the source of order and harmony for the whole creation. Human beings were incapable of doing it. Human beings could not offer any sacrifice which would have been sufficient to propitiate the offense which was done against God's holiness, and so God Himself met the demands of His own justice. God Himself in the second person of the Trinity became man. He offered Himself upon the cross and offered the full and perfect sacrifice to the Father which was able to reconcile the world to Him. After that unspeakably great and loving deed we all now have the possibility of being reconciled with God and to one another. There is no name under Heaven by which we are saved than that of Jesus Christ.
We can't really talk about moral theology or about the moral life of a Christian without relating it to the one who empowers us to lead the moral life. There is no reconciliation with the Father and with one another outside Jesus Christ. If we talk about moral theology we have to understand it as these sinners returning to their Father God, to the only way that He has open for them and that is in his son Jesus Christ. The way in which we are united to Christ is through the Sacrament of Baptism. It is through Baptism that we enter into His mystical body, and, of course, His mystical body on earth is the Catholic Church. It is the Catholic Church which provides the framework for the Christian moral life. "It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me," said Saint Paul. This is the key to our understanding moral theology. It is not I who live any longer in terms of this fallen, frail and broken sinner, but it is Christ who lives in me. If I am capable of doing any good, if I am capable of leading any kind of virtuous existence, it is because Christ's life is within me. His Grace has been bestowed on me and fills me and enables me to lead this new life.
We have to set the setting of the Catholic moral life in the Church where we have been made one with Jesus Christ, and He then becomes the norm for our moral behavior. Saint Paul at one time was upbraiding the Corinthians for their immoral practices. Some of them were already baptized, they had already turned to Christ, and yet they were continuing to lead these dreadful immoral lives. Saint Paul was horrified at the thought. At one point he speaks of a man who would go visit a prostitute, but he doesn't say how dreadful it would be that you are violating God's commandment to go visit a prostitute. Rather Paul says, "Would you have Christ lie with a prostitute?" For Saint Paul who was so aware of our union with Jesus Christ, that whenever one would commit an immoral act it was for him an act of sacrilege, because it involved Christ in the evil act because we are one with Him.
Our Holy Father and other great moral theologians who have been faithful to the Magisterium of the Church have moved away from a law ethic to seeing that the Catholic moral life is living out the life of Jesus Christ in the world. If we live the life of Jesus Christ in the world, if we surrender ourselves to the Father and to others as Jesus Christ has done, the commandments will be fulfilled. There is this mystical yearning that we now have with Christ. Out of love for Him we wouldn't do the kinds of acts that we might be tempted to do -- not because of the law against it, but because it would be an unspeakable violation of the One whom we love beyond all telling, who is Jesus Christ Himself. "It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives within me," and Jesus Christ becomes the norm and the means of the moral life which brings us into harmony and reconciliation with other people and which will bring us back to union with God.
The exciting part of understanding the Catholic moral life is seeing it as a life lived in Jesus Christ. We have been reconciled with God in Christ. Ours is a teleological understanding of the moral life. We have the moral life ordered toward a goal. On the natural level that goal is a virtuous life, a well ordered and harmonious life. But we have been called to a life beyond the natural. The end of our life is no longer simply a virtuous, well ordered, balanced life in this life. Now the telesis, the end, the teleological orientation of our life is God Himself. We now come to live the Divine Life. We read in First Peter that in our Baptism we have become partakers of the Divine Nature. It's an inconceivable thought. We could never think that we would be able to live the life of God Himself had it not been revealed to us. God has such love for us that He has enabled us to live his life, to share in the life of the Trinity itself. We read in Colossians that it pleased God to make absolute fullness reside in Christ and by means of Him to reconcile everything in His person both on earth and in the heavens making peace through the blood of His cross. It was through Christ's offering of Himself on the cross of Calvary that the demands of God's justice were finally fully met. Saint Paul goes on to say that in Christ the fullness of deity resides in bodily form. Yours is a share of this fullness. The Christian moral life is sharing in the fullness of Deity which resides in bodily form in Jesus Christ.
This is a vocation beyond anything that we could ever have hoped for, but where do we realize the fullness of this life? Saint Paul tells us in Ephesians that Christ is the head of the Church which is his body, the fullness of Him who fills the Universe in all its parts. Through the Catholic Church we come to share in the life of Christ Himself. We come to share actually in the redemptive work of Christ Himself.
We were talking before about the natural moral life saying that we are enabled to live that life when we develop virtues within ourselves. A good habit is a virtue. In other words, when we perform the right kinds of actions frequently we develop a habit within ourselves. A habit is a certain modification of our nature which enables our nature to achieve its ends well or poorly. If it is a good modification and we are achieving our ends, we call it a good habit or a virtue. If the modification leads us away from our true ends, diminishes our capacity for the good life, modifies our nature in such a way that we don't accomplish our ends as well anymore, it is called a bad habit or a vice. The virtues are the powers that enable us to live out the good and wholesome life that we are seeking. But what about on the supernatural level? If we have the powers in us on the natural level which we have as virtues, don't we also need supernatural virtues to enable us to lead the supernatural life? The supernatural life is not ours by nature. It is something that is given to us that we could never on our own become perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect or achieve this reconciliation with God. We could never on our own come to be partakers in the Divine Nature.
But once we have become partakers of the Divine Nature, don't we need new powers? Doesn't our nature have to be modified so that we can achieve our supernatural ends? Yes, it does have to be modified through the action of God, Himself. We refer to Grace as a kind of habit because Grace actually modifies our nature, enabling us to live the Divine Life. Sanctifying Grace makes us holy. To sanctify means to make holy. There is only one who is Holy and that is God. Sanctifying Grace acts within us to join us to God in Jesus Christ. When Sanctifying Grace enters our life it modifies our nature. Our nature is empowered to lead this supernatural existence so that we can attain our new end which is life forever with God. The Beatific Vision might be compared to two lovers looking upon one another and having utter fullness and happiness and joy in being in one another's presence.
Sanctifying Grace is a modification of our nature enabling us to lead a supernatural life. Then we need specific powers to live the natural moral life. We are given gifts that enable us to lead lives and to carry out particular acts that we have been granted by God. These powers are known as the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. With faith we are able to engage the intellect. Faith is like a virtue: it's a power. It enables the intellect to assent to truths about God that we could never know through the powers of natural reason. Faith is a trust in God that is so complete that we will assent to propositions about God which He Himself has revealed to us. Faith enables us to believe that God is a Trinity, for example, one God but three persons, that Jesus Christ is both God and Man. These are not powers of the flesh. These are gifts which we have been given. We also have the power of hope so that we believe firmly that God will bring us to Him in Heaven so that we might live with Him forever, that He will provide the means for us to attain to Him. Those means are the Sacraments of the Church.
We believe that if God has called us to life with Him, He is going to provide us with the means necessary to come to Him. He will be trustworthy and empower us to come to Him. The great power that fills all of these actions that truly binds us to God in Jesus Christ is the third theological virtue of charity which is love. The love of God flows through all of these virtues and enables us to come to Him. It is not enough just to know who God is. We have to love Him. So to have faith without love is not true faith at all. Remember when the demons encountered our Lord? They knew who He was, but did they love Him? No. There was a man who was possessed of many demons. When he encountered Jesus Christ the demons shouted out, "Depart from us, oh Holy one of God." They knew who he was but they didn't love him. It's not enough just to have faith, we must also have love. One theologian said that this trinity of Divine virtues in the unity of Sanctifying Grace is an image of a most Holy Trinity, one in nature, three in person. When Sanctifying Grace is present we have the virtues of faith, hope and love that enable us to lead that life to which we have been called in Jesus Christ. Once we have been given this great gift nothing is more frightening than the loss of it.
If we are madly in love with a young woman and want to spend the rest of our life with her, nothing can become more unsettling than the thought of somehow losing her and her love. The same is true for our relationship with God. Immorality isn't simply a matter of saying, "Oh, golly, I've missed the mark. I haven't done quite as well as I should." There are certain acts of immorality which are so grave that they would destroy this life of love with God. They would be sins. They wouldn't simply be a missing of the mark. One of the Greek words that the Bible uses for sin can be translated as missing of the mark. We do miss the mark. God is our goal and when we sin we are sent off into another direction. Another word for sin found in the Bible is that of rebellion. It is acting against God; it is rising up against Him. It is saying that we don't prefer You above all things. It is saying we don't love You with our whole heart, our whole soul, and all of our mind. It means that we are willing to break this relationship. This is the horror of sin. God alone can provide us with complete peace and joy and happiness. After all, God has created us for Himself. He has redeemed us in Jesus Christ. The thought of sin should fill us with a unique horror, that we would rather do anything than offend God and run the risk of losing His love.
We read in Galatians that in Christ the fullness of Deity resides in bodily form; yours is a share of His fullness. This is what has been offered us in Jesus Christ. This is the pearl of great price. This is that good beyond all human telling. Saint Augustine said not to invest your full love in anything you can lose against your will. We can lose our loved ones, our possessions, our good name, our life, but never God Himself. Saint Augustine found this great good in Jesus Christ. He said that his heart was restless until it found its rest in God. Saint Augustine searched and studied and lived with one woman after another, but he hadn't found peace until he found Jesus Christ and a new life beyond anything that the philosophies of the world had held out to him.
We don't want to run any risk of losing this great good because when we lose it we are the ones who are hurt. This is what Saint Thomas meant when he said that God is offended by us only when we act against our own good. When we sin we are only acting against our own good. We are only hurting ourselves. I will endure anything rather than sin because this means my death. It means the end of things. It means the end of my peace and my joy and my hope. The Catholic Church is uncompromising about this. This is why the Church insists that there are moral absolutes. There are certain actions which are so destructive that to perform them results in killing ourselves. The Church insists on moral absolutes to help us cling to the good regardless of the circumstances or consequences. The Church has sometimes insisted on using such powerful language that people recoil from it.
John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote in regard to the seriousness of sin and the insistence on moral absolutes. He said that the Catholic Church holds it better that the sun and moon drop from Heaven, the earth fail and millions die of starvation in extreme agony than that one soul should be lost or commit one single venial sin, tell one willful untruth, or steal one poor farthing. Those are powerful words. What they are saying is that nothing can compare to the joy, peace, love and hope which we have in Jesus Christ. Newman says that there may be other things which are attractive to you, but there is just no comparison between temporal affliction which we might suffer in this life, even the loss of our physical life, and the loss of our eternal happiness with God in Jesus Christ . Nothing could be worse than losing that. This is what has enabled martyrs to embrace death rather than to sin by rejecting Jesus Christ or profaning His Holy Name.
The Holy Father wrote an encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor, that has three major sections. In the first section he talks about the rich young ruler coming to Jesus Christ seeking what he must do in order to attain everlasting life. Our Lord asked if he had kept the Commandments. The young man said, "Yes." He had kept all the Commandments. Jesus said that was well and good, but that it was not enough. He wanted him to sell all that he had. Then come follow me. The young man was unable to do it and went away with a sorry heart. The Holy Father tells that as a way of illustrating the search of all human beings for the final satisfying good that can be found only in God. The only one that ultimately satisfies is God Himself. The Holy Father then turned to contemporary approaches to moral theology which are leading people astray in a very philosophical section of the Encyclical. It requires some philosophical and theological background to read and to appreciate, but he takes various approaches to moral theology apart philosophically and theologically to show their weaknesses. He talks about proportionalism which denies absolute moral norms and says that we can perform premoral evils for a greater good. The Pope shows why this is an inadequate approach to the moral life which leads us to compromise with evil.
In the third part of the Encyclical he applies the tools of the intellect of philosophy and theology to these erroneous moral methodologies. He says that the secret to the moral life is our holding our gaze fixed on Jesus Christ crucified. Christ was so fixed on doing the will of His Heavenly Father that he would have suffered anything rather than violate that good, and so Christ becomes the first martyr. Christ shows us how we are to live the moral life by never turning from God. The only true good is God Himself. This is what Our Lord and the martyrs clung to.
One of the classical definitions of sin was given us by Saint Augustine. He says that sin is any thought, word, or deed against the eternal law. The eternal law is the Divine ordinance of reason which commands order and forbids its disturbance. We talked before about the eternal law being the mind of God ordering all things toward their created end. The human mind is capable of knowing that to a considerable degree. The natural law is our rational, conscious participation in that eternal law so that we act in accord with the ends for which God has created us. Sin would be any thought, word, or deed against the eternal law which is the Divine ordinance of reason commanding order to be observed and forbidding its disturbance. If we act against the eternal law we no longer acknowledge the mind of God which orders all things to their created ends for the purpose of goodness and showing forth His glory. We bring disorder into the world, and we suffer from that disorder.
But Saint Augustine gives a second definition of sin which explains some of its allure. He says that sin is a turning away from God towards some created good. It is that element of good which is providing an attraction for us. It is interesting that the Catholic Church has such a positive understanding of the world and of human nature and of God. It sees even in sin some element of good. We don't have the doctrine of the total depravity of the human person which classical Protestants had so that in no way can he ever do any good. We have been wounded by Original Sin of Adam and Eve, and we are wounded still further by the actual sins that we commit, but we still have that attraction for the good. We are still drawn to some good, and that is the problem with sin. The problem is that we are seeking a good in a disordered way. We are seeking a fleeting good. We are seeking some transient good. We are seeking some partial good rather than the good properly ordered toward God.
It is important that we have clarity of vision about the actions that are being proposed to us because we want to make sure that the goods which we choose are truly and properly ordered to God so that we can find fulfillment according to His plan. Sin is the free choice of some created transient good rather than God Himself. It is a choosing of some good rather than the ultimate good. When we act morally we are choosing transient goods, but we are choosing them in a way that allows us to be ordered to our ultimate end in God. We recognize and respect these transient goods as being reflective of and as leading us to the ultimate good which is God Himself.
There is nothing worse than sin. The Church has reflected a great deal on what constitutes sin, what we have to do to avoid it, and how we can be restored to God when we have sinned. The Church makes some distinctions between kinds of sin. Original sin is a sin for which we ourselves are not guilty because we haven't committed the sin. It nonetheless leaves us disordered and suffering from what the theologians call concupiscence. Concupiscence is this disordering of our passions which has resulted from original sin. It is that disordering of the passions that leads us to choose some transient good in a disordered way. Concupiscence isn't itself sinful. It results from original sin and subsequent actual sins, and it actually leads to actual sins, but itself is not sin. It is this disorder from which we suffer.
The Council of Trent said that Adam and Eve's sin did have cosmic consequences for which we all continue to suffer. But that is original sin of which we are cleansed but some of the consequences of original sin, such as concupiscence remain. We also face actual sins which are the specific sins which we commit. We are tempted, we reflect on the temptation, regrettably we succumb to the temptation, we commit the sin ourselves. We are fully responsible for that sin and for the consequences which flow from it. These personal sins are really the only ones for which we are culpable. We hear talk today of sinful social structures and social sins. Social sins are the result of individual personal actual sins that people commit for which they themselves are responsible. Sometimes there are sinful social structures which have to be changed. But then again, it is the people responsible for changing them who will have to do so and will incur guilt to themselves if they don't work to change these sinful structures.
There is also a technical term known as habitual sin. There is confusion over this term today. Habitual sin does not mean a sin that has become a habit, though there are theologians today who use the term in that way, but that is not what the original meaning of the term was. As I said earlier, a virtue is a modification of our nature enabling us to attain our ends well. This modification of our nature is what a habit is. So a good habit is a virtue. I was also saying that Sanctifying Grace is a habit that modifies our nature to enable us to lead the supernatural life. When we sin we are no longer able to lead the supernatural life because we have lost that life and the relationship with God in Jesus Christ. We suffer from a habitual sin when there's been a modification of our nature that has to be overcome. (In older moral theology texts, a habitual sin is one that we have not repented of. As long as we haven't repented we retain the consequences of that sin even if we never commit it again. We might commit adultery only once and never again. If we don't repent it's what the theologians call a habitual sin.)
You all also know the distinction between mortal and venial sin. Habitual sin which has lost us the life of God in Jesus Christ is a mortal sin. A mortal sin is a death-dealing sin which destroys God's life in us. It's a death-dealing blow to the supernatural life which God has given us in Jesus Christ, and we can never have that life back until we repent of that sin and are restored to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We can see this on the natural level with a husband and wife who are in a fight and regrettably speak hateful, spiteful words. If the man, God forbid, struck his wife there would be a rupture of that relationship. Obviously there would never be a restoration of that relationship until there was some act of reconciliation. The man, the next morning, could feel terrible about it, but if he came down to the kitchen table and just tried to lean over and kiss his wife good morning, you can bet that he wouldn't be kissed back or even allowed to kiss her. She needs some expression of remorse and sorrow for what he had done. But she must forgive him. The barriers must be removed before the life blood of their love can be restored to their relationship, and they will be reconciled and can live that one life again.
The same sort of thing happens in our life with God. There are some things which are so hateful and do such violence that our relationship with God has been destroyed, the life is gone. It cannot be restored until we express some sorrow for that sin and are restored by God's action in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. What kind of sin would constitute a mortal sin? We say there are three conditions that have to be met for a sin to be mortal. The persons have to know what they were doing, there has to be sufficient reflection on what they were doing. They have to freely choose to do it, and it has to be a grave matter.
Most of the debate has centered around this question of grave matter. What constitutes grave matter? Usually the theologians say those very things that are contained in the Ten Commandments constitute grave matter: murder, theft, adultery and those kinds of acts that are related to the injustices reflected in those kinds of actions. For example, fornication is a grave matter. Any sexual act always is a grave matter because our sexuality is ordered for the great good of human life itself and because our passions are so strong that if we give in to these kinds of sins they very easily can take over and become set patterns of behavior for us. We also have to be free to perform the act. It might be that we have performed an act which is gravely wrong but we have done so because we were threatened and did it out of fear. Well then we haven't acted freely and so we are not guilty of a mortal sin. If I choose to act not knowing it's grave matter, I can't be guilty of mortal sin. Even though an act might be gravely disordered, if I don't know it is, and I don't know it's offensive to God, I have not truly committed a mortal sin or lost the Divine life.
Venial comes from the Latin word which means: We have done something wrong, we have been thoughtless, we haven't sufficiently reflected on what we were doing. We have offended God in some way. It misses the mark of a good and wholesome life, but it did not manifest in any way an angry rebellion against God or rejection of His life. The Church has always upheld that this is the distinction of mortal and venial. The revisionist theologians deny that there are any absolute moral norms. They leave us thinking that it is almost impossible to commit a mortal sin. Some of these revisionist theologians talk about the fundamental option. They say that if we have fundamentally opted for God at some deep level of our being then the more surface actions that we commit, even though they may be something like adultery, may not really change that fundamental option. They say that we will not lose our life in God. They say that a mortal sin is a rejection of the fundamental option of loving God. They talk about grave sin as being somehow intermediate between mortal and venial. The Orthodox theologians and Our Holy Father Himself have rejected this distinction and insisted that we are regrettably all too able to commit mortal sin. Their teaching is that in choosing something which is gravely disordered and freely doing it, that we have acted against this life in Jesus Christ. The only way in which we can be restored to God's favor is through the Sacrament of Reconciliation where the priest with the power and authority given him by Jesus Christ Himself forgives the sin and reconciles us to the Father. And in this we have the great hope that we might be restored to the life that has been granted us in Jesus Christ.