Running from hell is a lousy way to approach God. This seemed to be the consensus of many post-Vatican II Catholics who saw the pre-Vatican II era as a generation beholden to the fear of sin and subject to rules drawing sharp lines over which a good Catholic did not cross. As a high school student and young adult I rode the euphoric wave following Vatican II, a wave that lifted us out of the murky depths of sin and guilt and set us firmly on a solid land of love and good feelings. No longer would we run from hell. Instead we would run toward love. But to look at today’s poverty of spirit wrought in our broken families, our failing churches, and the almost unanimous rejection of Catholic teachings on human sexuality, we must ask, “Where did our love go wrong?” Rather than embracing God, our flight toward love has led us even farther away from the very God we claimed to seek.
I believe our mistake was in thinking sin and love were only loosely connected, if they were connected at all. At our worst we saw sin as the violation of a set of arbitrary rules invented by sexually repressed control freaks in medieval dress, to discourage good times, to inflict guilt, and to assert control over our lives. At our best we thought that if we simply did enough of the things we saw as good, which also frequently corresponded with things that made us feel good about ourselves, we could ignore both sin and the fusty fathers, and confidently march toward heaven. We did not see that love and sin are two sides of the same coin, perhaps better seen as love and unlove. We did not understand that every time we rejected sin we were doing something good for our selves and our neighbor. We failed to see that with every sin we committed we lost an opportunity to love.
Sin is Never “Victimless”
To diminish sin, to make it insignificant, has been a particular quest of the generations since Vatican II. The concept of “victimless sins” greatly accelerated this reduction. The new morality deemed sins without victims as not sins at all since they hurt no one. We saw these sins, especially sexual ones, as infractions of arbitrary rules that merely tethered innocent desires. Only with time did I understand that the term “victimless sin” is an oxymoronic gem of deception. Sin is sin because it has a victim, someone who is hurt, whether it be ourselves, another, or many others. A sin only seems victimless when we narrow our vision to include only those things we want to see. We want to see the small “white” lie as victimless though we took the trust of the person lied to and counted it for nothing. We want to see the bauble shoplifted as something unneeded by an evil capitalist we judge unworthy of its ownership. We want to see our sexual escapades as harmless rather than as a selfish taking, which diminishes the value of others lives, particularly those yet born, and replaces a counterfeit love for real love. All sin involves taking rather than giving. When we don’t lie, we give honor to the person to whom the truth is told. When we don’t steal we have not judged the owners evil but instead give recognition to them as people capable of dealing honestly with others. When we express our sexuality with love we freely give ourselves to generations to come.
We labeled sin “victimless” to render it meaningless. In doing so we found ourselves molding our definition of “love” to the lives we led and not the lives we were called to. We defined God in our own image rather than discovered His image in ourselves. We thought we could define sin away and not change love. We were wrong. Because we cannot define love, neither can we define sin. We do not hold the power to define God or love. God told Moses, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). This leaves no room for our definition, only our discovery. St. John tells us that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). If God simply is who He is than it follows that love is what it is. We can discover it, but we cannot define it. Love defines sin as that which is not love. Neither love nor sin are subjective, but objective. Love does only good. Sin does only harm. The intentions or ignorance of the sinner may mitigate judgment but the sin exists and ripples across the moral landscape regardless of intent. We can see abortion as a sin every time it happens, but in every case we can still feel compassion for the mother. In fact, our very compassion is based on the wrongness of the abortion, its sinfulness, and our understanding of the missing love in a life that would find itself in such a situation and make such a choice. If we don’t see the sin–the missing love–there is no reason for our compassion because no one is hurt and no harm is done. Yet we know this isn’t true. We see the harm all around us.
Subjective Sin Renders Remorse Meaningless
When we define sin as subjective rather than objective we render remorse meaningless. If sin is a matter of intent than the woman who aborts a child, considering it the best interests of the child facing a hopeless life, has committed no sin, only a possible error in judgment. There is no reason for remorse, only a sense of wounded pride if and when the error is acknowledged. True remorse is only possible when we see our actions in the revealing light of love. Only when we see the harm of these actions, regardless of our intent or our ignorance, and begin to feel the pain inflicted do we truly experience remorse.
Yet, when we see only the sin and feel only the pain, we will succumb to a popular theology that proclaims the mercy of Jesus, considers it unappreciative of His mercy if we don’t pass through remorse quickly, and suggests we move on with our life. This is Peter telling Jesus he need not suffer only to have Jesus reply to him, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:22). In seeing our pain as something to simply move beyond we will succumb to Peter’s plea and we will miss the true beauty of remorse. We will miss that we are seeing something new through the eyes of love. We will overlook the miracle that where we were once blind, we now see. As Jesus understood, the miracle of sight in a broken world comes at the expense of pain. Yet in that sight there is also joy. Our remorse is both the pain and the joy of the lost sheep, broken, bruised and bogged in a ravine, who sees the good shepherd cresting the hill. In Dante’s Divine Comedy the denizens of purgatory suffer painfully, because they see their sins anew. Simultaneously, they are spiritually joyful because they revel in the love through which they see them. Remorse begins our journey to a heaven where all love completely. It opens our eyes to the light of God’s love and calls us to live it more deeply. Remorse truly understood cries not for a dimming of the light inflicting pain but for its brightening so we may see even more, so we may love even more. True remorse is never a passing moment but a compelling momentum, hopefully lifelong, to replace sin with love. When we cast sin as a matter of intent and deny its objective reality we stifle remorse, we accept spiritual darkness as normal and we stunt our growth as lovers.
Guilt: A Divine Call to Love
Like remorse, guilt has joined the modern panoply of bad feelings to be banished. Guilt points to sin, or that which isn’t love. The triumph of modern self-esteem is the elimination of guilt. This sympathy overflows even from Catholic pulpits preaching the message that to wallow in guilt is to deny a loving God. In this message the slavery of sin is not in the sin but in the refusal to accept God’s mercy. It asserts that we will always be sinners and that God’s mercy has us covered no matter what. We only need to accept God’s mercy, put away those uncomfortable feelings of guilt (to not do so is characterized as sin itself), and all will be well. I do not question God’s mercy, but a response that seemingly assumes it will not change our lives. When the last man dropped the last stone and walked away, Jesus refused to condemn the adulteress, instead telling her, “Go and do not sin again” (John 8:10). For her to follow that mandate she had to know her sin. We must assume that through the grace of God she did, and she probably perceived that knowledge as guilt. Jesus did not tell her to go and feel good about herself. He called her to change, to answer the call of grace, to love. Because we misunderstand sin, maybe we have also misread guilt, seeing it as an acid poured on the soul rather than a nutrient spurring its growth. When we consider sin the violation of arbitrary rules erected by a church confused about the modern understanding of love, guilt can only be an annoying aberration, an alarm not to be heeded but eradicated. But, when we understand that sin is an opportunity lost to love, when we see sin through the eyes of love, no longer will we see guilt as a warning of impending hellfire and damnation but as God filling our hearts and pleading, “Love me!” We will then see every tug at our heart as another opportunity to express that love.
When we diminish remorse to a passing fancy and reduce guilt to a bad feeling, we will replace love with a counterfeit based on good feelings. When we deny the objectivity of sin and assert that sin is in the intent and not the action, we will encourage the cultivation of ignorance, because knowledge may give lie to our intentions. We would consider it odd if a math teacher told his students that it is okay if they think two plus two equals three as long as they redeem themselves by asserting that three plus three equals six. Yet, when we start asserting that we simply need to do more right things to cover the wrong things, we enter a moral universe of our own design subject to a similar calculus. No longer will we seek the truth. We will seek only that which we want to find, that which works for us. We will build equations that incrementally increase the value of the good we do and simultaneously decrease the value of those things we once called sin. We will volunteer at the local soup kitchen while being unfaithful to our spouses and our children. Ultimately, those things called sin will be no more, and the voice that says, “Love me!” will fall silent. Our confessionals now gather dust because we have become a people of excellent intent with no need for forgiveness. We have become the people that Christ spoke of from the cross, “Father, forgive them: for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The ignorance of those who crucified Jesus did not preclude their need for forgiveness, nor will it preclude ours.
Truly, the post Vatican II spirit was right. Running from hell is a lousy way to approach God. It is God we should run to and not hell we should run from. Yet we cannot run toward God with shackles on our ankles. We cannot both love and unlove. We cannot see and be blind at the same time. When we no longer see our sin, we no longer see the love that God is. We will cease to see heaven as the ultimate quest, and we will find ourselves not striving for the ultimate union with God, but simply accepting something less, and, ultimately, anything less than heaven is hell.
When we no longer ran from hell we found ourselves back on its brink. In the euphoria following Vatican II many of us erred in thinking that we could simply label God as loving and merciful, go about our business, and not spend our entire lives getting to know Him. But only when knowing Him becomes the very essence of our lives will we truly see sin as love violated. Then will we hear His “love me” in feelings we considered guilt and see the miracle of sight in the pain of remorse. Then will we truly find ourselves running toward God.
Editor’s note: The image above entitled “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery” was painted by Lorenzo Lotto in 1527-29.