Discovering Our Own Sinfulness

Some people say we never hear about sin any more. Not true. It’s just that they are not the familiar sins listed in the Catechism: stealing, lying, missing Mass on Sunday—and especially nothing about sexual sin.

Yet we do hear about sins all the time—in the news, on talk shows, and in every kind of public forum. These sins, however, have only recently been brought to our attention. Radio talk show host Dennis Prager has coined the acronym “Six Herb” (taking liberties with the spelling of “herb”) to designate the most prominent contemporary sins: Sexism, Intolerance, Xenophobia, Homophobia, Islamophobia, Racism, and Bigotry. Recently a new one has been added: Cultural Appropriation. Although these despised traits are usually not termed sins, they are clearly seen as contemptible. They landed many people in Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables.” Although there are many accusers, no one actually admits to committing these sins. How many Catholics making an examination of conscience, find themselves guilty of these transgressions, ask for forgiveness in Confession, or at least resolve to reform?

A good place to hear about these transgressions on college campuses, which are rife with such accusations. According to Jonah Goldberg writing in National Review, “Seemingly every day there’s another story of a college campus caving into the notion that free speech and unhappy facts are racist.” Radio and television political commentary are also popular venues for the new Inquisitors who zealously search out these sinners and brand them guilty of crimes against society. At least medieval heretics were given a trial.

The irony is that before the civil rights movement, when our society really did have a serious problem of virulent racism, it was rarely ever spoken about—except behind closed doors by those who were its victims. Similarly, when women really did face significant barriers to admission to law school, medical school, graduate school, and prestigious professions, we heard little or nothing about sexism or misogyny. When gay people had to live in fear of having their sexual orientation known, homophobia was never mentioned. (The term was only coined in the 1960s.)

Why are we now bombarded with cries of outrage about these contemporary sins? Goldberg offers this explanation: “There’s a certain breed of guilty white liberal who actually enjoy being called racist, confessing their racial sins, and denouncing less advanced white people. The hot new term for this is ‘virtue signaling’—a way of communicating how enlightened you are.” This “guilty” liberal, however, is most likely referring to the guilt of his group, rather than personal guilt.

Pointing out the guilt of others may momentarily make one feel superior, but perhaps another factor is in play. Even secular people want to believe in some kind of moral system. They want people to be held accountable, to have a stable moral guide beyond their own whims and preferences. It is not only the physical world that abhors a vacuum. The moral world does too.

With the exception of classes in religion and moral theology, people now hear little about sin—even where one would most expect to—in church. When did you last hear a homily about sin? These days typical subjects for homilies are that we must serve others, reach out to the marginalized, and share the good news. We need to trust that God will give us what we need. We must realize how much God loves us and that we need to love others. We need to care for the poor. We are told what we should do, but not much about what we shouldn’t do. The problem is that a sin that is described negatively—as a thing not done—is difficult to identify with. One may have a vague sense that he isn’t doing enough for others, but not have an explicit awareness of having definitely committed a sin. Perhaps the reason that so few Catholics now go to Confession is that they don’t have a strong sense of their own sinfulness. Especially given the large numbers who receive the Eucharist every Sunday.

Most of the sins discussed in handbooks of moral theology are rarely, if ever, mentioned in homilies. People who went to Catholic school before Vatican II can remember all the categories of sin: mortal and venial, those against the ten commandments, those against faith, hope, and charity, those against the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. They can remember the three sources of temptation: the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Why is it important to name the sin? It will help people to recognize their own sins. They may have an “Ah ha—that’s me!” moment, but are less likely to do so at a vague suggestion of things not done. Most people in church on Sunday morning live fairly conventional middle class lives. When they think of the traditional sins associated with the ten commandments or listed in devotional materials for an examination of conscience, they may think of worshipping false gods, theft, missing Mass on Sunday, adultery—transgressions they are unlikely to have committed.

Perhaps we have something to learn from the Jews. Because Judaism teaches that salvation is achieved—not through faith—but through one’s behavior, Jewish moral teachers have a highly detailed code of ethics for every sphere of life, including, personal and familial relationships. Some of their insights could be useful for contemporary Catholics in examining their own moral lives.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in his two-volume A Code of Jewish Ethics shines a focused beam of light on transgressions in the private interpersonal sphere, which probably account for many of the sins of average churchgoers. Telushkin urges us to look there to see where we might be sinning. Because most evil deeds actually begin with an evil thought or feeling, Telushkin tells us that, according to Maimonides, one should repent not only for evil deeds, but also for evil qualities like anger, hatred, envy, and frivolity. Many sins begin with anger. Although angry feelings may spring up unbidden, we should learn to control what we do and say. Telushkin says that “when we are angry, we must be careful not to say all the angry thoughts that go through our minds. Otherwise we will say things that we will—and should—regret.” If we do say something hurtful, we should apologize as soon as possible even if we feel we are in the right in the dispute. According to Rabbi Harold Kushner, “Only God can give us credit for the angry words we did not speak.”

Telushkin says, “Loving our neighbor as ourselves means seeking out rationalizations and excuses for others’ behavior in the same way we do for our own.” He also reminds us that it is good to be specific about our sins. We “should not engage in such generalizations as ‘I’ve been dishonest’ or ‘I haven’t been a good husband [or wife] to my spouse.’ Such generalizations, even if verbalized, allow us to avoid fully confronting the damage and hurt we have inflicted.” Just as novelists bring their stories alive by describing them in vivid detail, so our account of our failings should be as precise as possible. Almost all human relationships call for forgiveness and mercy at times, and the rabbi asks us to realize that “the more difficult and deprived people’s lives have been, the more they are to be commended for their achievements, and forgiven for occasional inappropriate behavior.”

Another important sin in Judaism is Lashon Hara (literally “evil tongue”). Telushkin defines it as “statements that harm, embarrass, cause financial damage to, or lower the status of the person being discussed.” In common parlance this is gossip, a very serious sin for Jews. Telushkin offers an insight that illustrates how this offense, like all sins, hurts the sinner as well as the one sinned against. “Just as people who think and speak well of others are more likely to have an upbeat attitude and be pleased with their lives, those who speak ill of others are more likely to be unhappy and pessimistic.” Another benefit is that learning to control your tongue will help you gain self-control in other areas.

The Jewish moral teachers know how important it is that we be vigilant and monitor our moral lives, for as the Talmud teaches, if “a person sins, and then repeats the sin [one or two more times], it starts to seem to him like a permitted action.” These “little” personal offenses may seem inconsequential compared the sins like murder, theft or adultery, but think about how marriages, family life, friendship and even public life would be improved and enriched by personal behavior that is more compassionate and generous. The Talmud teaches that practicing self-restraint, especially when angry, is a world transforming activity: “The world exists only on account of him who restrains himself in strife.”

These suggestions from our Jewish brothers and sisters may inspire us to pay more diligent attention to our moral lives. In speaking of Islamic terrorism, people often say you have to name the enemy. Perhaps we also need to name the sin—our own sins. We should stop spending our moral indignation attacking racists, sexists, homophobes, Islamophobes and other bigots (real or imagined) and start looking more deeply into our own souls.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail of “Moses with Ten Commandments” painted by Philippe de Champaigne in 1648.

Marian Crowe

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Marian Crowe was a visiting scholar in the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame and is the author of Aiming at Heaven, Getting the Earth: The English Catholic Novel Today.

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