“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them." Matthew 7:15-20
We are told in the beginning of the Book of Genesis, that there was a unity and perfection within the created order. Satan introduced a fear into humanity, the only species able to freely choose, that God wasn't enough for them. They would need to supplement what God lacked. Fear bred sin. Sin introduced division. Division started between humanity and God, then between man and woman, then between the ground and man, then between brother and brother, then between man and the animal kingdom, and so forth. Sin's natural fruit is division. Sin pits parties against each other.
In sending His Son, God the Father sought to restore that relationship between us and Himself. In His Son creating a Church, He shows us that He wants us to act in union with each other. Jesus likens His Church to a body of which He is the head. On the night before He died, He prayed that we might be one as He and the Father are one. Yet early on, sin introduced division into that early Church. St. Paul wrote his letters to the Corinthians to dissuade them from cultivating such division. Human hubris displayed in the adaptation of heresy after heresy, schism after schism into the Body of Christ has shattered Christianity into tens of thousands of pieces. We, who are supposed to model the behavior of Christ find ourselves unable or unwilling to model the behavior and the world suffers for it.
In our culture, we seem to now have a love affair with division. We have allowed the demonic to find and exploit any and all divisions there can be. Look at the fault lines that constantly erupt in our society: divisions based in race, gender, culture, politics, religion, economics, and anything else we can imagine. We will even create falsehoods to further more division. We have become a society that makes the Lord of the Flies look like the Von Trapp family. It infects every avenue of life without mercy, draining any avenue of joy we might have into yet another scorched earth battlefield where opposing parties cry 'give no quarter!' to their perceived enemies. Gone is "Father, may they be one and you and I are one, "(John 17:11) and in its place we now hear, "Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!" (Shakespeare: Julius Caesar)
The devil hates us. He always has and always will. His hate is born from his fear, so it is his fear with which he infects us with. He breeds division because a divided humanity is easy to manipulate. An enemy manipulated is an enemy defeated. His cancer has spread throughout our culture, he knows exactly where to attack.
First, he divides the family. In Genesis, he sets the woman and man against each other. He sets sibling against sibling. The family unit is a grave danger to him. The more discord he can accomplish, the better. No institution in the Christian west has been more attacked than the family. The family is the most basic building block of any society or group. If you wish to weaken the group, weaken the family. Convince men and women that children are burdensome and onerous while convincing them to use the bond of sexuality in a way that objectifies the other! Check! Convince women that motherhood is beneath them. Check! Breed a mistrust of authority even within the family unit. Check! Convince men it is okay to abandon their children to pursue a self gratifying lifestyle! Check! Convince people that the death of unwanted children is desirable and just! Check! Make divorce easy. Check! Make birth control the normal. Check! Regularly mock parents, especially dads in entertainment. Check!
Fracture the family and it is only a matter of time before every other institution falls like dominoes. If we can turn the family on each other, then one can exacerbate other divisions. Politics has rarely been about union. Nowadays, it has become a nasty blood-sport where the winner is irrelevant and the divisions so grinds the mechanism of the body politic to a screeching halt that even the most basic operations of government are stopped. Once the infection has been introduced, it is hard for it not to infect any member of the body. Good heavens, we can't even play a football game without it becoming a moment of contention!
All of this division is toxic. Some will cite Jesus saying He will be a cause for division as a platform to justify their own introductions of strife and disarray as a Godly quest, except He was talking about he division between those who believe and don't believe...not among those who say they believe!
All of the nurturing of division will produce no good fruit. It is exhausting and infuriating to have such division. Even within our Church we have divisions based in ideological camps, even incorporating the divisions we see elsewhere. Mass has become a battlefield in many parishes; it certainly has in the social media sphere. Every time I see these posts, I think, "Good heavens, if I weren't already a Catholic, I would want no part of Catholicism if this is how they treat each other." It is one thing to point out doctrinal error, it is quite another to assassinate the character of the individual making the error. What does all our public infighting say to those who do not believe?
As the Body of Christ, we are to stand with Christ our head. His way is our way. Period. It is when we want our way, believing that Jesus' way isn't enough, that we get into problems and scandalize others. In Christ, to paraphrase St Paul, there is no "Jew nor Greek, slave nor free"...or any of the other man-made distinction we use to create rifts and tribes. As a Catholic Church, we have members of every culture and race, of every socioeconomic class, of every country and people! We have people who struggle with every imaginable sin there is. If we are to bind the wounded and draw together the lost; it will be by not merely presenting a united front, but by living a united front; not looking for what separates us and picking at it until it is gushing wound. We should be working towards that prayer of Christ, "May they be one" and not allow ourselves to eat nor serve up the demonic fruit that only brings division.
If we are to be effective witnesses to the world, we cannot look like the world. Their hate and division can't be adopted by us. We have such a great opportunity here. Where the world is isolating individuals, we should be able to say, "Come here...find rest from turmoil here!" We have that perfect opportunity to say, "Come here...we don't care what race you are, we don't care how poor or wealthy you are...and so on." We can say, "Come here, we will recognize your dignity and humanity...we will help you rise above the sins that enslave you." We can cry out, "Come here, lost sheep...we have a home for you." We can't do that and support the melee of division the world delights in.
We cannot offer the same demonic fruit the world does.
People must be able to see that difference clearly.
It starts in our families and our parish family.
We must be different.
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
At the end of Mass, during the closing collect, a phrase leapt out at me, "Nourished with the food of the valiant..." The food in question was the Body and Blood of Christ. Food for the valiant. Those words have burned into my thoughts ever since. Am I valiant? I would imagine the answer to that would be the same as the question, "Am I dangerous to those who hate Christ and His Church?"
Am I dangerous?
I guess you can be dangerous in a few ways. You can be a threat to the health and well being of others through selfishness and violence. That is not the kind of dangerous the martyrs were. No, they were a different type of dangerous. That their actions exposed the selfish and violent made them dangerous. Their ability to love made them dangerous. That's the kind of dangerous I am talking about.
Jesus was dangerous, I used to hear that and cringe. It wasn't that I merely saw Jesus as some sappy do-gooder who the killjoy religious authorities resented, but I did see a kind of 'peace, love, and crunchy granola' kind of hippie who died a tragic death at the hands of persecutors. Let's be honest, though, he was incredibly dangerous. People wanted him dead. They were so afraid of him that they plotted against him, put him on a show trial, and made sure he was executed in such a way as to scare anyone who might want to pick up his mantle. Jesus knew this. He was warned by his own disciples that going to Jerusalem meant death. He went anyway. He didn't back down.
His followers were seen as dangerous, as disruptive to the good order of the empire. In their book, "Seven Revolutions', Mike Aquilina and mark Papandrea talk about the seven ways that Christianity wildly upset the Roman Empire. The threat came not in swords and weapons, but in redefining huamn beings, family, and who God is. No amount of persecution could kill off the faith. In fact, the courage of those deemed dangerous by the Roman Empire (and many other empires thereafter) fed the rolls of converts who saw in the brave something worth giving up all for. Their bravery showed something worth living and dying for.
But am I dangerous?
Am I willing to go out on a limb for my faith? Will I stand for truth when truth is unpopular or reviled? Will that stand take on compassion in the face of sin? It is easy to stand behind the relative safety of a keyboard or even a pulpit and talk big words. It is quite another to go out and live them.
I will give you an example. I follow the story of a man named Joseph Sciambra. He was a former gay porn star who had a massive conversion experience. He reaches out to the gay community, going where they are, preaching that there is something better in Christ, something worth breaking the chains of enslavement to the flesh. He assures them Christ loves them and wants better for them. He goes to the parades and street fairs wearing a "Jesus loves gay men". He talks to them. He shows compassion to them. He knows they know what he is coming to preach and he treats them with the love of Christ. Instead of taking the noxious tactics of a certain baptist church which I will not dignify with any press, he shows the way home. I could use the same example with Abby Johnson and her work with those who work for Planned Parenthood and other abortion industry outlets giving them the route to freedom she took. She made some powerful enemies there. Love, though, will provoke a person to such bravery. Love and bravery seek the redemption of those to whom they speak.
As love is at the heart of the Gospel, and we are told that perfect love conquers all fear (I John 4:18); then such love should lead us to risk being dangerous in the world's eyes. If I am not dangerous to those who hate Christ and His Church, then I am dangerous to those who love Christ and His Church.
Let that sit for a second. How can I be dangerous to those who love Christ and His Church? The greatest way is in teaching others to compromise truth for convenience or popularity. I can be dangerous when I allow my own self love to lead me to use, deceive, and abuse those I am called to protect and serve. I see it in clergy who are all too ready to be the darling of the progressive cocktail party crowds by espousing the teachings of the Church to be outdated and archaic. I see it in clergy and parents who said they are Catholics but abuse those placed in their care. I see it in those who steadfastly hide any public display of faith, worried that it will draw unwanted attention. I see it in those who hijack a moral issue, even taking the moral side, and use it as a weapon to beat down those who dare to disagree with them! It is not about calling people to conversion. It is not about defending what is right. It is only about being right. That is not fortitude. That is not the boldness we are called to exhibit in the proclamation of the Gospel.
I can't help sometimes but wonder if we have such a shortage of clergy because the clergy doesn't exhibit the fortitude necessary. It is necessary. I think that deep in the heart of every young man is that person who wants to be the hero. They want to be that brave man who is noble. Many leave it in their heart for fear of the cost that being the hero carries. They look for men who will stand tall, who will go to the wall for what is right, and who will fight to their dying breath for those they love: God and their neighbor. Banal milquetoast inspires no one. I also believe that might be why so many men abandon faith. We don't want to be nice. We want to be heroes. That heroism must be modeled. For that heroism to be modeled...I and my brothers, lay and clergy, are going to have to be dangerous to those who hate Christ and His Church.
The oft quoted and misquoted line of William Shakespeare's play, "Julius Caesar", "A coward dies a thousand deaths, a hero dies but once." should be how we men approach the living of our Catholic faith. The future of the Church does not belong to the banal, the squeamish, the bullies, or the compromisers. No, it belongs to the dangerous, the bold, and to those loyal to the truth o the Gospel. What side do you want to be on when you stand before God? If we are indeed 'nourished with the food of the valiant' in the Eucharist, then we better aim to be valiant!
Tuesday, September 19, 2017
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus bids His apostles to stay awake but warns them, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41, Mark 14:38) One of the things we must contend with in our life as followers of Christ is the fact that we are susceptible to temptation. We call this susceptibility ‘concupiscence.’ The Catechism tells us, “The new life received in Christian Initiation has not abolished the frailty and weakness of human nature, nor the inclination to sin that tradition calls concupiscence, which remains in the baptized such that with the help of the grace of Christ they may prove themselves in the struggle of the Christian life.” (CCC 1426) When are baptized, we are given sanctifying grace, a sacramental grace by which we are united to God in an eternal bond. In previous columns, I have written how that grace can be ejected from the life of the baptized though their decision to mortally sin. I have also written that through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, God restores the sanctifying grace lost through mortal sin.
This begs the questions: Why do I keep sinning then? Why am I still tempted? The world and the Church answer this question in wildly different ways. The answer is based on how the human person is defined.
For the world, the human person is a mere animal. Humanity is a beast like any other, albeit with advanced communication skills and opposable thumbs. It is bound by instinct like any other species that walks the planet. Humanity is a slave to this instinct. This is why the ‘born this way’ argument is so important to the world. If I am born a certain way, then instincts dictate the rightness of my actions. Hence, right and wrong are dictated by the individual based on whatever instincts he or she has. That one should rein in their instincts is increasingly seen as unnecessary. In this world, personal sin, as such, does not exist and the only sins that do exists are corporate sins that are intolerant of a person’s instincts. This is why the ‘science’ of eugenics (a belief that a species can be purified or improved through elimination of lesser strains of the species) is at the heart of beliefs about human reproduction. We cannot expect the human person to will against his or her instinct, so we need to breed it out of the human species.
The Catholic world view is different. We believe that humanity was given a singular gift of free will. It is free will that makes us “made in the image and likeness of God.” (Gen 1:26-27) Free will gives us the ability to rein in instincts and rise above them. Free will gives us the capability to go beyond emotion and into virtue. Concupiscence might well be with us through our instincts, but we possess the ability to rein them in; we have the ability to be their master and not their slave.
Because God calls us into a relationship with Him, we must be able to freely will to love Him as He loves us. What stands in the way is the selfishness of concupiscence. To rein this in requires the development of virtue. Virtue is a good habit which breathes life into us, which sets us free from the tyranny of instinct. Virtue is built choice by choice. It requires reason and self-reflection. If we are to break free from sin, it will not come in denying the existence of personal sin nor in the excusing instinct as the reason we are just powerless to do anything but sin; it will come in exercising the growth of virtue. Virtue conquers concupiscence.
In Catholicism, we have 7 specific named virtues that we believe are absolutely essential to our freedom from sin. Four are called Cardinal virtues. They are considered hinges by which we conquer mere instinct: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Three are called theological virtues, denoting that divine intervention will be needed in our growth of these virtues: faith, hope, and love.
Let’s take a brief look at them.
Prudence: Called the charioteer of the virtues, prudence is “the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.” (CCC 1806) Prudence “guides the judgement of the conscience” (CCC1806). The virtue of prudence gives us the ability to judge right and wrong and to act in such a way so as pursue the right, even when our instincts would tell us different. Prudence helps us to see the truth and to act accordingly.
Justice: “Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.” (CCC 1807) Justice helps us to see what is due from us as members of a society and as children of God. It helps us to seek equity and harmony. Justice concerns itself with not what I am owed, but what is owed by me. Justice seeks the good of the other.
Temperance: “Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and desires within the limits of what is honorable.” (CCC1809) This is the virtue we exercise in reining in our appetites. Temperance looks to the correct use of worldly goods. It is temperance that is on full display when we use the tools of fasting, abstinence, alms-giving, and mortification. We know that healthy self-denial or limiting our use of worldly goods is a positive for us. Temperance helps us to be owned by no addiction. It raises us above whatever instincts might reside in us and order them in a way where we are their master and not their slave.
Fortitude: “Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness is difficulty and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and overcome obstacles in the moral life.” (CCC1808) Knowing the right thing to do and doing it are necessary. Fortitude gives us the ability to make the leap we need to make so as to rein in sin. Fortitude gives us the will to rise above weakness and sin; to hold off the naysayers who say we cannot or should not have to overcome our instincts and sins.
Each of these virtues are God-given abilities that each of us can use to rise to the promise of our creation. The weakness of our nature shown in concupiscence is strengthened by our acts of will in developing and maintaining these four virtues. That we can do these means we have the ability to rise above mere instinct. It also means that when we cave to concupiscence, as do we do when we sin, that the medical quality of sacramental grace is necessary to rebuild our resolve. We are not slaves of instinct as the world would have us believe.
I did mention the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. I will deal with these three in the next columns.
Thursday, September 14, 2017
We do this because we do not have unlimited amounts of time or energy. We have to allot that time and energy on those things we believe to have the greatest benefit in our lives. If we hold a goal particularly valuable, we will endure the sacrifice and even suffering to attain that goal. Athletes do this all the time. Becoming great at a sport requires the extra sweat and sacrificing of time, energy, and resources. I could draw similar comparisons for many other things. The point is we prioritize the expenditure of time and energy on what we believe is worth it.
In our society, faith has been deemed as unworthy of such effort, time, or priority. Faith is to serve the purpose of the spiritual dopamine; something that makes me feel good. Once it ceases to make me feel good, it loses its value. Faith is supposed to easy and promise great things that are easily acquirable. Certainly, there are faiths that cater to such a desire. In Christianity, it is faith without a cross. It is cheap grace. It is eternal life with no effort; a spiritual comfort food with no nutritional value. It is a custom made faith that allows me to mold something that feed my whims. It is spiritual but not religious.
This kind of faith is easy to fit into a lifestyle that places many other things before it. However, it is largely unfulfilling. It is the quickest way to agnosticism or atheism. It doesn't work. Why? Because the reality of life intrudes upon cheap grace and rolls it. Cheap grace, a crossless Christianity, has no ability to answer life's tough issues. As it doesn't grow strong, it goes into atrophy. If we want a faith that can take on the hardest life is going to throw at it, we cannot strengthen it without the weight of the cross.
The cross, in Christianity, is the willingness to love. Love requires us to put ourselves second to the good of another. That is not easy. It fights our every instinct of self preservation. Yet, the ability to embrace the selflessness of love is essential to our ability to grow in faith. Decades ago, within the Catholic Church, there was premium put on acts of mortification, fasting, and abstinence. These were not constructs there to make us miserable, but actions by which we endure the self denial necessary to become stronger. They reminded us that the cross entailed deliberate self denial. These were simple and little crosses. For some reason, they got swept away by the spirit of Vatican II, a demonic force that sought to cheapen the Catholic life into a trite kingdom of nice. That we whine about Lent and its oh so hard disciplines shows we have gotten seen the cross as undesirable.
Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that we do these in place of love. It is not an either/or proposition. Consider them to be spiritual weight training. Taking time to pray and learn about our faith are also necessary. Participation in the sacraments is absolutely essential. O Father...all these demands!! Think about it: if being physically fit is your goal, does that come without effort?! If mastering an art is your goal, does that come without effort?! Let's be honest, these are goals, noble though they may be, that have no real eternal stake. Your ability to love God and neighbor does. Your ability to pick up your cross does.
We must stop preaching and teaching cheap grace. We must stop preaching and teaching a crossless Christ! We have done such and wondered why our churches have emptied..especially of men! We wonder why priestly vocations dry up?! We wonder why marriage and family life are falling apart?! It is because a church of cheap grace and no cross might look great on paper to the spiritually slothful, but it has no meat or nutrition. It is easy to dismiss and toss aside like rubbish. Christ didn't say it would be be nice if you picked up your cross, He said it was absolutely necessary! This nonsensical 'we're a resurrection people' is cheap grace at its worst! There can be no resurrection without a death first; you have to die to be resurrected. They go hand in hand. No cross, no crown!
It is hard. I saw a story today of a group of young men, standing arms locked together, in front of a Catholic Church in Argentina. They placed themselves between the church and a group of topless and abusive pro-abortion demonstrators who were looking to desecrate the church. Those young men were being slapped, punched, kicked, and vandalized. They stood strong without returning violence for violence. That took guts and strength. That's the Cross. When so many clergy belch candy coated bile as preaching and teaching, so afraid that they might not be liked or the collections might go down, they do a disservice to every man, woman, and child who embraces the Cross. They mock Christ Himself, turning the Cross into shame. Our faith and has and always will call us to excellence. It calls us to strive for the high standard. There is no place for cheap grace and a crossless Jesus. We have work to do. That work can only get done with real grace.
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
When I was a child, I hated taking medicine. I hated its taste. Some of them made me drowsy. I was like most children. I was a Petri Dish with legs. Try though my mom would, convincing me to willingly take my medicine was a chore. However, without that medicine, the illness could stick around and even morph into something that might well be more serious.
Truth be told, I still don’t like taking medicine. The way I avoid it is by making healthy choices about diet and exercise. Even with this, there are times that I still get ill from some bug going around. I will begrudgingly take the medicine needed, if for no other reason, so that I do not infect the people around me.
What is true for the body is true for the soul as well. Our souls get sick. An outside agent we have introduced into our system causes an infection which simply cannot be ignored. Last week, I talked about this illness: sin. I talked about the difference between mortal and venial sin. I talked about the effects they have on our souls. There is medicine that must be taken to cure these illnesses. They come through the grace of God. For venial sins, there is the need to ask God for forgiveness, which we do at Mass during the Penitential Rite. But not all sin can be forgiven there.
Why? Like human illnesses, not all illnesses have the same effect. We don’t treat cancer with baby aspirin nor do we treat a simple headache with chemotherapy. The medicine is dictated by the disease. Venial sins do not require confession. But they must be forgiven nonetheless. Unattended they become a habit that leads to mortal sin. They are like the sniffles left unattended that morphs into pneumonia. Mortal sin, because it has severed the relationship with God requires a greater medicinal application.
When we mortally sin, we have lost the sanctifying grace given us at baptism. Venial sin damages it, mortal sin destroys it. As the grace is originally given through the sacraments, it is given again through a sacrament. Without that sanctifying grace, we forfeit heaven. Hence we have a need to reach out again for that grace. This is what the Sacrament of Reconciliation affords us the opportunity to do.
What is needed to make a good confession?
1) Sorrow. I must understand that my choice has born a rift between God and me. I must understand that it has caused a rift between me and my fellow members of the Body of Christ. I must regret the harm done. I must be sorry.
2) Humility. I must be honest. In speaking the truth about my sinful actions, I am taking ownership of those actions. Humility keeps me from shifting blame. In the confessional, if I deliberately withhold the confession of a sin because of embarrassment or stubbornness, I introduce the sin of deceit into the confession and negate the entirety of the confession. Think about it, if I go into a doctor and give him or her the symptoms of my illness but leave a symptom out because I am embarrassed to say it or too stubborn to admit it, I have left the doctor no choice but to misdiagnose the disease, give me the wrong medication, and only guarantee that I do not get better.
3) Amendment of life. I must understand that in confessing a sin that I do not want to go back to said action. For any serious illness to be cured, it often requires a lifestyle change. Sometimes those changes are hard: stop smoking, giving up certain foods, exercising more. If we don’t change the habits, we end up back where we began. By the same token, in restoring that relationship with God through the outpouring of sanctifying grace, I must want to change my future actions so that I do not sever that relationship again.
4) Penance. I must understand that as I used my free will to break the relationship, I must also use my free will to undo the damage of the sin. To give an example: If I willfully damage your car, regret my choice, ask your forgiveness, and am forgiven by you, I am still responsible for the damage to your car and have an obligation to repair the damage. While no action of ours will ever be sufficient to undo all the damage, a show of good faith is important. Penance shows I am willing to use this sanctifying grace to amend my life.
Each confession gives us the chance at a new beginning. That state of grace is restored. While it is possible that I will never have to go again, it is not probable. This is why humility is a good thing. It helps us understand when we have crossed that line and once again lost that necessary sanctifying grace.
Some Christians argue that we are, ‘once saved, always saved.’ This is a nonbiblical teaching. If we are saved once and done, then St. Paul’s Letters and the warnings to the 7 churches in the Book of Revelations make no sense. If we are once saved, always saved, then Jesus giving the Apostles the duty to forgive sins in His name (see the post resurrection story in the Gospel of John, for example) is an empty and meaningless gesture. The fact is that we can lose what we were given through baptism. If that stays lost, we choose hell over heaven.
In all of this, I am aware that for the better part of a half century most would get the impression that the Church found confession unnecessary. I think it says much that the only scheduled time for confessions in most places is 45 minutes on Saturday afternoon, regardless of the size of the parish. I know there is the ubiquitous ‘or by appointment’, but good luck with that! It is why I greatly expand the times offered. In SS. Peter and Paul, confessions are ½ hour before all weekday Masses Tuesday through Saturday. There is also the customary 45 minutes on Saturday afternoon. On 1st Fridays, I am available from 8:50-11:45. At St Joseph, I introduced a regular confession time from 5:30-6:15 before the Wednesday evening mass. Truth be told, unless I am going to give Last Rites, I will drop what I am doing if asked whether I have time to hear a confession.
If it has been a while since you have been to confession, do not worry about what to do. I will walk you through it. I will not shame you for the length of time. I will not yell at you. I will not think less of you. I have been doing this for 20 years and have felt nothing but joy when someone returns to the sacraments. It worth remembering, that a confessor is bound by the seal of the confessional. He may not speak about what happens to you or anyone else. If God has forgiven you, the priest must recognize that as well.
Just as taking medicine is important to curing diseases, so confession is to curing the effects sin leaves in our souls. This week, I have talked about curative medicine. Next week, I want to talk about preventative medicine.
Thursday, September 7, 2017
One of the more maddening aspects of American society has been the redefining of truth in such a way as to permit anything that one desires as a good. It is antidote to solve a common human problem: what do I do with with my dark side? Society would have us merely redefine our dark sides as not darkness at all. There is a problem with that though. Darkness does not become light because it has been defined as such. Darkness remains darkness. To try to redefine darkness as light doesn't set aside any mask we might wear to cover the darkness, it only hermetically seals the mask to our face.
So what is this 'dark side'? It is the ugliness we posses in the human heart that seeks the use or misuse of others. It is the ugliness we possess that tries to numb us to the pain caused in ourselves and others as we use or misuse others. It is the things we do that cause strife in our lives. It is the frustration we have in denying such ugliness. However, that ugliness is like a viper wrapped around our leg: denying it there does not make it go away and embracing it and trying to befriend it does not make anything other than a viper. As long as we do either of these, we ensure the viper continues to pump its toxins into us until we lose the ability to fight it.
So many of the problems we have in our society come from a lost concept that was obscured by decades of feel good, self-esteem driven psychobabble. The idea lost is the idea of personal sin. The acknowledgement of personal sin is almost seen as an enemy to a good self-image. Personal sin gets repackaged as a mistake or error in the hopes that calling it by another name takes away everything that word sin usually entails. In the place of personal sin arose the idea of corporate sin. This is usually the sins of an entire group, usually, let’s be honest, a group to which I do not belong. This has not been good to society as a whole or to the mental and spiritual health of individuals.
What is sin? Sin is an act which operates against the good of another, against the good of the individual, or against the Supreme Good that is God. Sin is when selfishness takes hold in the human person and their actions. Not all sin, though, is on an equal plain. The Catholic Church differentiates between what are called ‘venial sins’ and ‘mortal sins.’ It has since her inception. Even though the words are rarely used much anymore, the concepts are still supposed to be taught. Many, though, have the impression that such concepts as mortal sin were thrown out by Vatican II, and a new morality rose in its place. This is witnessed by the high percentage of Catholics who have no problem with missing Mass and the even higher percentage of Catholics who do not go to Confession ever. I believe there is a direct correlation between the two.
Let’s start with what is sin. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1849, it reads,” Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is a failure in genuine love of God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity.” What does this mean? Love of God and neighbor are motivated by the good of another. Our lives, which are given God’s sanctifying grace at baptism, are to be ordered in a way where our actions are ordered to the love of God and others. When we choose against that, we disrupt the order within ourselves and others. Selfish choices break down every relationship that person is engaged in.
This makes sense. Very few of our choices happen in a vacuum. Our choices, good and bad, bear directly on lives of others. When sins become habitual, they become even more disruptive to those around us. Sin isolates us. To give an example: pornography. I have heard it said that there shouldn’t be a big deal about porn because it is a private thing. What’s the big deal? Porn, like all sin, conditions us to see others in a certain way. In this case it conditions us to see others as a means of self-gratification. Like a cancer, it spreads into other avenues of our lives, into other relationships, almost imperceptible at first. It has the physical ability to form neural pathways in our brains that make it harder and harder to stop (especially if begun at a young age). I use this example, because there are many studies on the adverse effects of porn. This sin, like all sin, also weakens our relationship to God by telling Him that our misuse of others is more important than His demand we love as He loves.
Not all sin, though, has the same effect. As not all sin has the same effect, the prescription for healing is different as well. A mortal sin has three criteria (see Catechism 1857-1859): Grave Matter, full knowledge, and deliberate consent. The catechism tells us that the Ten Commandments give us ‘grave matter’. One must know what they are doing is sinful. Part of growing as a human being is developing an understanding of good and evil. We train our children to know this. When a grown person does not understand the difference between good and evil or sees no problem in committing evil we call this sociopathy. Finally, full and deliberate consent must be given. In short: it’s wrong, I know it’s wrong, and I choose to do it anyway. Mortal sin has the effect of severing the relationship we have with God. We lose the sanctifying grace of baptism. Without that grace present, we cannot enter into heaven! With that loss, we also lose the ability to share in the Eucharist. We cannot share in the benefits of a relationship with God and spurn that relationship at the same time. The only way for that sanctifying grace to be restored is through the sacrament of Reconciliation. Recall this grace is given the first time around by a sacrament (baptism). It makes sense that it will take a sacrament to restore that grace also. The wounds caused by sin must be healed by the grace of God.
Not all sin, though, falls into the definition of mortal. This does not mean it does not need to be forgiven, only that the effects damage, but do not destroy, sanctifying grace and hence, the necessary relationship with God. We call this venial sin. They are acts that lack one or more of the criteria. Venial sin needs to be dealt with as well. Why? Left unattended, they can leave the soul disposed to greater sin (see Catechism 1863). Forgiveness of this can be done through asking God for forgiveness through an Act of Contrition. Within the context of Mass, we deal with the forgiveness of venial sin through the Penitential Rite (Lord have Mercy) so that we might approach the reception of the Eucharist without any sin. It is worth noting that the penitential rite is insufficient to forgive mortal sin.
Why tend to this at all? Why admit sin? First, we do it because it is the truth. We all have to deal with temptation. We call this concupiscence. Concupiscence is the viper with which we must tangle. We use virtue to overcome temptation. However, we all fall. That is just the truth. We can either do something positive about it or deny it. Think about it though. If you are physically ill, is it wise to ignore it? If we don’t treat a wound, do we not invite infection? If we let it get infected, cannot the consequences be harmful or even catastrophic? As good physical health is helped by our not ignoring wounds or illnesses, so is our spiritual and mental health helped with not ignoring sin and its consequences. If we think we can heal a spiritual wound without sacramental grace, we are delusional. Only God possesses the medicine we need. This is why, he gives his Apostles the duty to forgive sins in His name (see John 20:22-23). God wants us to be whole. He wants us to be not burdened by the weight of sin. Reconciling us back to God through the forgiveness of sin is the whole reason the Son of God came among us, gave us a Gospel, gave us a Church, and gave His life on the Cross! When we deny we need forgiveness, we deny our share in the benefit of the Cross. This is blasphemous!
I talk about this topic, not so much to send the reader into a downward spiral of shame and guilt. I talk about this so as to tell the reader that acknowledgment of sin need not end in a spiral of shame and guilt. This is the lie we get told: If we acknowledge sin in our lives it only tells us how bad we are. This lie leaves us hopeless and angry. The whole idea of Confession is to say we can take that shame and guilt, natural byproducts of sin, and have them taken away by God’s grace. The message of the Church is that we should neither have to live in denial or hopelessness; that we can be forgiven and restored. If by our free will we chose against God, by our free will we must chose to be reconciled to God.
In dealing truthfully with sin and its consequences, the necessity for the mask is gone. It gives us the ability to fight the viper called concupiscence and beat it soundly. To be truthful about sin gives us the ability to free of sin. Freedom only comes through truth. We see that no matter how vehemently society wants to redefine sin away, the effects of sin do not disappear. Wisdom does ensconce itself in deceit, but in truth.