Sin and the Decent Chap

A lot of people are mad about the new translation of the Mass. For my part, I have always had a phobia of debates about liturgical arcana, which somehow seem to sap the vitality of my liturgical fervor as fast as you can say Summorum Pontificum, and I will not pronounce on the goodness or badness of the translation on the whole.

However, there is one change in particular that stands out, not least because it has drawn the fire of theological “liberals” to a degree second only to the much ballyhooed change from “all” to “many” in the prayers of the consecration. But while “many” is obviously a more faithful translation, it seems equally obvious to me that the theology involved is not as stark as some make it out to be: for in one sense Christ obviously came to save “all,” and in another sense, “many.” Besides, most laypeople have probably not even noticed the change.

The change I’m talking about, on the other hand, sticks out like a sore thumb, and is so packed with implications that it is bound to provoke ruminations even amongst the most un-theologically astute members of the congregation. This is the restoration of the repetition and the chest thumping in the Confiteor. Whereas the Confiteor used to read simply, “though my own fault,” it now reads, “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” And while previously the penitent admitted simply to having “sinned,” now he admits to having “greatly sinned.”

Now, there’s absolutely no question that this is a better translation: the old was simply an arbitrary and unauthorized abridgement of the Latin. And there should also be no question about the fact that the new translation is truer to the whole spirit of Christianity, not to mention the simple and obvious fact of the matter: that we are all “grievous” sinners. But it seems that many are questioning this.

One commentator at a relatively well-known publication complained about the change, saying: “I don’t know about you, but I don’t go around sinning ‘greatly’.” And that’s pretty much the same tone taken up by other detractors: “Sure, I might not be perfect,” they say. “But on the whole I’m a decent chap. I don’t steal, I don’t murder. My sins are small, and you would understand why I did them if you’d just give me a minute to explain. Sin ‘grievously’? I think not. So what’s with the guilt trip?”

I wish I could say that this was a delusion shared only by the species of Catholic that works at places like America magazine and the National Catholic Reporter. But, unfortunately, “sin” is a word that has long been banished from the interiors of churches, leaving most of us to labor under the misapprehension that we want just a little spot cleaning and we’ll be prepped and ready to pop into heaven at a second’s notice.

The problem, of course, is that we are usually measuring ourselves against the wrong standard. Mostly we are measuring ourselves against the standard of our neighbour, which, in practice, mostly means that we are carefully analyzing and archiving our neighbour’s every fault and foible, and, with any time left, busily thinking up compelling excuses for all of our own. However, not only is any sense of superiority engendered by such a comparison almost universally wrong and based upon deceptive appearances, it is of practically no value. If the goal is for our souls become white, is there much point in saying, “Well, thank God my soul is marginally less black than that of the next fellow”? It may or may not be true that our soul is less black, but it is still black, and a long way from the white that it is supposed to be.

If we want to be white, then, we need to compare ourselves against a standard of absolute white. In the moral life, this means that we must compare ourselves to a standard of perfect love. Most of us find this an extremely disturbing thought. Deep down most of us sincerely believe that the goal of life is just to be a little better than our neighbour, and to slip into heaven on the strength of a sort of divine Bell Curve. But we aren’t called simply to be better than our neighbour, we are called to become Godlike. We are called to be perfect, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

The problem is that not only do we not take Jesus at his word when he said we should be aiming for perfection, but we don’t have any clear conception of what perfection looks like in the first place. And this is odd, because the model of perfect love is right in front of our eyes, clearly painted for us each of the four Gospels. Remember? “No greater love has any man than this, to lay down his life for his friends.” And then He – the perfectly innocent lamb – went ahead and allowed himself to be crucified for our sake.

This is what it means to be perfect: to be willing to give all for the sake of others. And this is what we are supposed to be aiming for.

When you first start thinking in these terms, it can be somewhat depressing. I remember one such depressing eureka moment in my own life, which disabused me of many misconceptions about myself. It happened while I was reading C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain. In one passage, Lewis talks about what we are talking about here: the need to restore the “sense of sin,” which he argues is a prerequisite for the Christian message of salvation to make any sense at all.

In this passage, Lewis gently, and with all his English charm, peels back all the artifice and self-delusion by which we convince ourselves that we are “alright” and a “decent chap.” In fact, he says, if you just stopped all this futile comparing-yourself-to-your-neighbour business, and really looked inside your heart, you would realize the “real truth” about yourself: what Lewis calls, “the persistent, life-long, inner murmur of spite, jealousy, prurience, greed and self-complacence.”

That phrase stopped me dead in my tracks. It was as if Lewis was holding up a mirror to my soul, forcing me to look at that at which I did not want to look. And what I saw was that whereas I was frequently congratulating myself for whatever piddling efforts in the virtuous life I was making, these were nothing compared to the constant, largely unchecked voice inside my head that was repeating over and over and over: “me, me, me, me.” This was the base value of my moral life, and the moments of virtue and authentic love the rare exception, like the flicker of a firefly at night. Even many of my so-called “virtuous” actions – things that other people might have praised me for – were so often motivated by a desire to be noticed, and to be liked, which isn’t love at all, even if it happens to look like it to the outside observer.

What, after all, is the essence of love? If Christ is right, and the greatest love is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, then it seems that the essence of all love is this willingness to sacrifice the self for the sake of another: to put the “me” under the heel of your boot and to crush it into a pulp. Even if we aren’t actually being martyred for the sake of our friends, all love has this common factor at its root: self-sacrifice.  And if the purpose of our life is to attain to perfect love, then it isn’t good enough to be “nice” or “good” or a “decent chap.” This is pansy stuff. Perfect love means that our entire life, everything that we do, every breath we take, every thought we think, every move we make, is an act of love directed at another: whether our neighbour or God. Perfect love means to be a burning flame of love, to so completely empty ourselves of all self-seeking that the only thing that is left is love – or, in other words, God. This, in fact, is how all the famous mystics talk about the purpose of our life: to literally become a god, by emptying ourselves, and letting God (who is Love) enter in and take the place of the self: to become perfect conduits of God’s love. This is perfection.

Now stop and ask yourself, how do you measure up to this standard? If you’re like me, you don’t even register on the scale. And this is the point: compared to common standards of decency – of the “good chap” – we might be able to muster a passing grade, to convince ourselves that on the whole we’re not doing so bad (certainly we’re doing a heck of a lot better than so-and-so, who you happen to know beats his wife when he gets drunk). But compared to the perfect love which we are called to attain, we are all wretches, without exception. We are all “grievous” sinners. In this sense I think that there is something a little dangerous about those little pamphlets that you find at the back of churches that help you prepare for confession by considering each of the Ten Commandments and how you’ve broken each of them. No doubt they are useful for the man who has deserted the sacrament and is returning for a long overdue scrubbing of the conscience. But what about the regular penitent?

To me it seems that somehow the categories in these pamphlets are too neat. In the confused ebb and flow of lived life, our sins aren’t always so easily categorized, don’t always amount to a specific or pin-pointable action that violates commandment number X and that we have committed Y number of times. Sure it’s easy when it comes to some of the more serious mortal sins: it’s not hard to count number of bodies you’ve left in the wake of your murderous rampage, the number of banks you’ve robbed, the number of wives you’ve had and the number of women you’ve cheated on them with.

But what’s less easy is to meticulously categorize and number that “persistent, life-long, inner murmur of spite, jealousy, prurience, greed and self-complacence” that Lewis speaks of. This is something that, if you’re honest with yourself, you will find weaves its way in and out of your every thought and every action, continually perverting your every effort at living authentic love un-poisoned by the dross of self-serving. More often than not it reveals itself not in the thoughts we have or the things we do, but in the thoughts we don’t have, and the things we don’t do. Particularly in the fact that, despite being offered a million chances, we still haven’t begun to take God and his demands seriously, instead relegating God to the periphery of our lives, giving him a token nod from time to time, repeatedly rejecting His invitation to holiness for a fleeting and adulterous affair with his lesser creations.

It seems to me that until we come to this realization – that we are, indeed, “grievous” sinners – we cannot even begin to live the spiritual life and make progress towards holiness.  And thus I am grateful for the new Mass translation for providing the regular reminder that, indeed, I am a wretch, and in enormous need of the gratuitous mercy of God.

John Jalsevac


John Jalsevac lives in Lakefield, Ontario with his wife and three children, where he brews beer, makes cheese, sings songs and writes stories in his free time, and works as the managing editor of the rest of the time.

  • Matt5151

    Awesome article and so true.  Thanks.

  • Vishal Mehra

    Certainly the capitalist system does not make it easy. Tocqueville observed that the Americans felt obliged to cloak even the acts of self-sacrifice in the language of self-interest.

    People need to understand that the commercial transactions  and businesses are not exempt from the commandment to love.

    Creative acts of love would solve the economic problems as Dorothy Sayers suggested in Mind of the Maker. Love reconciles self-interest and common good, not some Invisible Hand.

    The libertarian philosophy views other people as obstacles and thus seeks maximum non-interference. How can love be entertained then?

    • J G

       Yet socialism cloaks envy and hate under the mantle of “compassion.” I will stick with a market based economy.

    • The definition of freedom as non-interference is radically flawed — it stems from a truncated anthropology.  It doesn’t understand that if you’re talking about freedom and you are not talking about love, you aren’t talking about freedom.

  • Skgille

    I agree!  As a recent revert who has come home I find the more I “examine” myself and learn correctly about my faith, I welcome the return to the Confetior I knew when I was a child in the 50/60s.  Jesus doesn’t want us to be “lukewarm”.    Looking deep and honest into your own soul can be un-nerving but oh so rewarding.

  • Skgille

    i should add to my previous comment that the orig Confiteor “is” still different from the new one used today, but getting closer.  I still prefer the pre-60’s Confiteor.

    • Tides21

      I was born in the late 70’s but grew up in the Traditional Mass, I hope one day in my lifetime that Mass becomes the norm again;  undeniable beauty, holiness, and clarity.

  • poetcomic1

       Much to think about here – fortunately not for me though, I am humble and pious. 

  • Wonderful! Thank you. 

  • Thank you for this.

    I find it useful, speaking to my students about justification — as I did yesterday, to run down the catalogue of the capital vices, pausing to dwell upon the inner meaning or unmeaning of each vice, starting with pride, then going on to envy (sorrow caused by beholding the good of others, especially the spiritual good), wrath, sloth (sluggishness of soul, the refusal to derive joy from what should bring us joy), avarice, gluttony (the use of food and drink and other necessities of the body in such a way as to break charity between ourselves and others), and lust.  We don’t get far into this exercise without being abashed.  Then I go to the sin that Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton believed was the fundamental form pride takes in us: ingratitude. 

    All our good deeds are as filthy rags, says the prophet.  So I’ve found, thinking of my own.

    • ChrisPineo

       I would very much like to read an article on the capital vices, and hope one is forthcoming.

  • poetcomic1

    In St. Augustine’s day when those gathered for mass would beat their heart for the confiteor,  it is sad it sounded like thunder.  Compared to then we give ourselves symbolic little taps at most, but then we are much ‘nicer’ than those early Christians, we recycle.

  • Briana

    Love this. It reminds me of a line from St. Thomas Merton’s autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. In the book he recalls a conversation he had with a friend not long after he converted to the faith. He was ok thinking of himself as a Catholic, but he didn’t really let the faith transform his life yet. His friend asked him why he had converted to Catholicism, and what he was hoping to get out of it.
    This is Merton’s reply: ‘I can’t be a saint,’ I said. ‘I can’t be a saint.’ And my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities: the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach, the cowardice that says: I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin, but which means, by those words: I do not want to give up my sins and attachments.”
    When I read this line, it felt like you did when you read C.S. Lewis. It was like St. Thomas Merton was talking directly to me from his grave, and it still feels that way to this day.

  • Tout

    I hope that the Tridentine (Latin) Mass will spread. Every church should provide and use a communion-rail, where we can kneel to receive. I never received in hand, always on tongue. Please, receive always on tongue; always kneel for Consecration. When everybody stood, I knelt in the aisle. We can not force the priest to do the Latin Mass, but we can give honor to God.

    • Dixibehr

      \Every church should provide and use a communion-rail, where we can kneel to receive….When everybody stood, I knelt in the aisle. We can not force the priest to do the Latin Mass, but we can give honor to God.\

      The best way to give honor to God is by not singularizing yourself by your acts of piety during the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

      And believe it to not, not all Catholics follow the Roman Rite or its western variants.

      There has NEVER been a communion rail in churches of the Byzantine tradition, and Communion has NEVER been received in them kneeling.

      • John E.

        And never has there been more abuse and desacration of the Blessed Sacrement and also lack of faith in the true presence.  So, if the belief and love and contrition in your heart inlines you to kneel before the Lord to receive Him, than why not??  How did the angel at Fatima give communion to the children??
        While they were standing or kneeling??  kneeling of course!! 

      • Joseph O’Neill

        I think it is good to have a baseline of proper behaviour at Mass. It isn’t “acts of piety” more than having a public standard of treating the Body of Christ like the Body of Christ. 

        The distress some feel at seeing grave abuse and disregard for the Blessed Sacrament shouldn’t be seen as a selfish concern.

        And the context of the comment seems restricted to the Roman Rite. It is clearly focused on the problems with the Roman Rite and widespread changes in church design. The comment also fails to address the fact that not all Latin Rites are the Roman Rite, ie, the Ambrosian Rite is a traditional Latin Rite (among some others) which is distinctly not the Roman Rite (Tridentine Mass), yet, I do not think Tout was trying to say that all liturgical traditions should be replaced. The context was within the Roman Rite. 

  • “sinned grievously”
    I have no problems with this change, but perhaps that’s because I’m the only one who has grievously sinned.

    • bobbylang

       Mike Don’t feel so bad!!  I can also subscribe to that situation!! It aint pleasant but at least we realize it!!

  • Anonymous

    One thing I wonder, though, when I read articles like this – what about people who really are (with the grace of God) virtuous?  I don’t mean myself, of course (but I am posting anonymously in case anyone misinterprets me), but I think we all know people who are truly good.    Don’t you think the great saints went years at a time without committing any sins?  How  can the truly virtuous accurately assess themselves and their own actions without falling into pride?

    I also worry about the potential for paradox or Catch-22 here.  Coincidentally, just the other day I was reflecting on the sins I have committed in the past, some of which were very serious, and I was wondering if, paradoxically, I should almost be glad I had committed these sins, because if were sinless, then wouldn’t I almost inevitably fall into pride, which is itself a sin?   Maybe I am not articulating myself well here, but I hope someone can understand what I am getting at and try to give an honest instead of a dismissive answer.  

  • Christopher Check

    I also would like the brilliant Tony Esolen to render his lecture on the capital vices into an article.  Better–SEVEN articles!

    How-a-bout it CRISIS editors?

    • Briana

      Sounds like an excellent plan! I second that notion 🙂

  • This is great. It describes exactly the sort of thing that I want to confess and for which it is hard to find the right words. Now I can just say that I have a 
    “persistent, life-long, inner murmur of spite, jealousy, prurience, greed and self-complacence.”


    • Carol

       I agree.  I wish I could just go in every week and confess those exact words.  That covers it. 

    • bobbylang

      Good Luck on that one!
            I’ll  bet you’ll have to get a little more specific??
            The piece was awfully good though, and C.S.Lewis was a gem! I think he was articulating the sense of the “hound of God”

  • Ron Leifeste

    I wonder how many of these Catholics who have a problem with “greatly sinned” go to confession frequently, leave Mass early, miss Holy Days of Obligation, gossip about others,don’t believe in the “Real Presence”, etc, etc?  There are myriad ways to fall short of the Perfection needed to get to Heaven. Sins of omission are easy to overlook, but are sins none the less. The point is to keep trying and keep praying.  

  • Pat B

    Thank you.  I am a grievous sinner.  Because I am a grievous sinner, I am more and more in awe of the mercy of God.  

    I do wistfully wish I were not so unfaithful to this loving God–until I’m again unfaithful.  

    What a miserable wretch I am!  Who will save me from this body of death?

    (Those last couple of sentences I wrote were really good.  Someone should write them down somewhere.)

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  • Mark

    “The problem, of course, is that we are usually measuring ourselves
    against the wrong standard. Mostly we are measuring ourselves against
    the standard of our neighbor”

    Maybe our generation’s false idol of college education has conditioned some to believe that everyone grades on a curve — including God.

  • hombre111

    I think the average Catholic pays about as much attention to through my fault thrice repeated as he does to the idea that Christ died for the many and not for all.   My gripe has not been with the new translation as much as with the way it was simply stuffed down our throats. 

    And I do think the Christ dying only for “the many” will have its due date, when more and more Catholics base their faith on this word spoken at one of the spiritual high points of their worship.  They will be like the Lefebrists in the Pius X society, who emphatically do not believe that Christ died for us all and make their point by quoting those words of Consecration (In Latin, of course). 

    About fifty years from now, when they are again rewriting the language of the Liturgy for whatever reason, people will be anxious to change the word “many” because of the damage it caused, and will wonder what kind of stupidity ever motivated the idea in the first place. 

    • Misspam

      I don’t feel the translation was stuffed down our throats.  It was mentioned weekly for a whole year before it was initiated in my diocese. There was tons of training, handouts, etc…  I could not wait for it to begin!  My children and I particularly like the thrice repeated my fault as it enables us to clearly examine our consciences and account for our sins before communion.  The new translation makes us all examine more what we are saying and why we are saying it.  I love how it is so much closer to the original and to scripture. 

      • hombre111

        The Vatican Council said it was up to Episcopal language groups to determine new translations.  The Vatican took that power away and simply forced the bishops to accept it.  Some language groups politely said no, but the ever plian English speaking bishops agreed, even though many expressed private outrage. 

  • Pat B

    Hello Hombre,

    Could I ask what you mean that the translation was stuffed down our throats?  I live in Tokyo and the English translation hasn’t even made it’s way here yet.  (I rarely get to an English Mass, but really look forward to attending one using the new translation.)  But, looking from a distance (through listening to Catholic podcasts, talking to Catholics back in the states, reading the web), it seems like the Bishops have been making great efforts not to shock people with the institution  of the new translation.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but this goes back to JPII’s time.  Strictly speaking, this translation project goes back to Vatican II because it is a refinement of the translation done then.

    I happened to be reading my Bible this morning and doggone it if the Bible didn’t say “many”.

    I think the Bishops were trying to take to heart the lessons they learned about the abruptness of the changes after Vatican II and trying to avoid that kind of shock on the faithful.

    I have really enjoyed what I have read about the new translation.  Much of the language the Roman Rite will be using now  will be the same as it has always been in the Byzantine Rite–and I love the “Divine Liturgy”.  I never hear Eastern Rite Catholics complaining about the newness of our English translation.  Most of them have told me it’s about time we have gone back to where they never left!

    Peace.  Have a truly awesome and blessed Good Friday.

  • Warren

    For the duration of this past Lent, the replacement chaplain at our college has consistently changed every word that smacks of culpability for sin. It almost goes without saying that he refused to use the Confiteor, and on occasion he omitted altogether the Penitential Rite contra the rubrics. Every sermon of his seemed to contain more than a few comments revealing a neurotic fixation on his troubled upbringing and blaming the pre-Vatican Church for making him feel guilty. Boo hoo.

    After a few weeks of his antics, I spoke with him concerning his unauthorized omissions of text and rites. His glibly toned reply was “I’ll take the issue under advisement.” When I pointed out that no one has the authority to make such changes, he responded with “I’m the priest.” A curious hypocrisy. I felt like saying ‘so start acting like a priest and be a steward of the Liturgy, not its Lord’. I opted for holding my tongue instead and thanked him for listening to my concerns.As much as we all prayed for this troubled priest, most of us simply wanted him to take his abusive actions away from the Liturgy and away from us. I find myself thinking more and more that those who care more about their personal liturgical agendas than serving the Liturgy should simply go away and leave the rest of us be. I want the Mass free of some priest’s or lay fascist’s manipulations. 

  • Carol

    RE: the last paragraph–“indeed, I am a wretch,…”
    I can’t help but lament again to myself that we won’t be reminded of our wretchedness  by the moving lyrics of “Amazing Grace”–“that saved a wretch like me”.  It’s been “cleaned up” and now reads “that saved and set me free”.    Nothing should even hint to us that we might be sinners.

  • Davedeuce

    Restore completely the Tridentine Mass. Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

  • Sonny

    “… mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Ideo precor …”  My vanity can make me recall the whole Confiteor in Latin in less than an hour. I was an altar boy then. Nowadays, I learned 3-time repetition like “sanctus, sanctus, sanctus …” signifies completeness of the thought. Thus, I don’t have a problem with the translation. Pax vobiscum!

  • Oscar Olluga

    Thank you, John. I think you are right.  Am I better than the average neighbour? Even if the answer were positive it sounds a bit like the Pharisee’s in the parable ‘I am not like the rest of men’ . But that it’s not the point. The pointis I am not what I should be, what Jesus wants me to be. I am not like Jesus
    Fr Oscar Olluga

  • Stevelsn

    In my most lucid moments, the burden of sin is crushing. To be followed by  a prideful self-congratulatory thought that I am better than my fellows because I recognize my sinfulness. Wretched is truly the word and pleading for Christ’s mercy my only succor. Thanks for an excellent post. I’ve printed it to revisit. Good ol’ C.S. Lewis.

  • TeaPot562

    A problem with the “old” (pre-60s?) Confiteor is that it fails to mention things that we should have done but failed to do.  
    Luke’s gospel tells a story of a rich man and a beggar (Lazarus).  The rich man basically ignores the beggar, and is assigned to Hell for failing to notice the beggar’s needs.  Similarly, Matt. 25:31-46 states that Jesus will judge on our failure to meet the needs of the “least of His brothers”.   (Failure to love our neighbor as ourselves.)Sins of omission on the part of those of us with material success are perhaps a larger problem than sins of commission (violations of the Ten Commandments).Nice meditation.  Note that God has infinite majesty.  A sin against Him is therefore “great” a/c of the dignity of the person offended.  A frightening thought.TeaPot562

  • Thank you for this wise and timely article. 

    “Deep down most of us sincerely believe that the goal of life is just to be a little better than our neighbour, and to slip into heaven on the strength of a sort of divine Bell Curve. But we aren’t called simply to be better than our neighbour, we are called to become Godlike. We are called to be perfect, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.”’

    This is a nearly perfect assessment of the modern Christian mindset.  And it made me laugh out loud before continuing on to your reminder that we aren’t called on to be slightly less grimy than the schlup next to us.  It reminds me of the punchline to that old joke about the two hunters and the bear – “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.”

    I’m going to make sure that this article gets into the hands of my fellow parishioners.

    thanks again.

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