Category Archives: Sin

The Media and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

“If it bleeds, it leads.”  If there is a single maxim that guides the main stream media in their reporting, then it is this.  The principle itself is based on a simple calculation: the more carnage, death and human depravity in a story, the higher it appears in the reporting hierarchy.  We, of course, are all quick to condemn the media for this.  But not so quick that we don’t watch it first.  The main stream media is a business, a big business at that, and guided by the law of supply of demand.  It is all based on ratings and with so many ways to monitor what we are watching, they know exactly how much is consumed.  In other words, they lead with the blood because we watch it.  The more we watch, the more we get.  Inundated by it, we feel powerless to keep from watching.  We watch while covering one eye.  But like all things we feel powerless to avoid, it is illuminating to ask why we do it.

Rather than strictly psychological, the answer is more theological in nature.  Its genesis is found, well, in Genesis.  Returning to “the beginning” of mankind, we find man and woman in Eden made in the image and likeness of God.  In His likeness, Adam and Eve are practically unlimited, able to eat from every tree in the Garden except one.  Unlike God, they have a single limitation; they cannot eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Their test then will be whether they are willing to accept this limitation or not.  The Serpent, the inventor of “if it bleeds, it leads,” leads with “You shall not die” and tells the story of how Adam and Eve can be like God if they will simply take from the tree and eat.

The Knowledge of Good and Evil

Even if the tree itself is symbolic, the limitation itself is real.  In order to understand our bloodlust we must first understand exactly what the tree represents.  Adam and Eve attempted to know evil without experiencing it.  That is, they tried to know it from the outside without participating in it from the inside.  This capacity of knowing evil while not experiencing it is something that only God can do.  Only God is all holy and can be unstained by it.  As Blessed John Henry Newman puts it,

“You see it is said, ‘man is become as one of Us, to know good and evil,’ because God does know evil as well as good. This is His wonderful incommunicable attribute; and man sought to share in what God was, but he could not without ceasing to be what God was also, holy and perfect. It is the incommunicable attribute of God to know evil without experiencing it. But man, when he would be as God, could only attain the shadow of a likeness which as yet he had not, by losing the substance which he had already. He shared in God’s knowledge by losing His image. God knows evil and is pure from it—man plunged into evil and so knew it.” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Ignorance of Evil).

This is also the sin of Lot’s wife when she is turned to a pillar of salt.  Overcome by the curiosity to know the evil of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah without being touched by it, she quickly finds out that to know it, is to share in it.  But Scripture is most clear on this when we examine the accounts of Our Lord’s Agony in the Garden.  It is the God-Man and only He Who can know evil without actually participating in it.  So great is the protest of His human nature that He sweats blood.

One might rightly ask at this point how it is that merely watching “bad news” has anything to do with the knowledge of good and evil.  It is in seeing this particular aspect of it that we can begin to separate ourselves from it.  Why is simply hearing about “bad news” not enough and why do we crave the details?  Why are we unsatisfied with a report such as“13 people were killed in an attack today” but have to know how it happened (video even if it contains the “graphic material” is especially wanted), who the perpetrators were, what their motivations were, etc.?  It is because what we learned theologically is proven empirically (or else it wouldn’t be the main part of the consumer news cycle).  In short, it shows we cannot just know about evil, we want to know it like Adam knows Eve, that is experience it fully.

What the Tree Offers Us

This doesn’t mean we want to pull the trigger but just don’t have the courage.  For most of us its meaning is more subtle than that. It means we want to experience the pleasure attached to the evil even if we do not actually commit the act.  It is what the Church calls the glamor of evil, the primal curiosity that brings pleasure from evil acts.  We can call it virtual reality evil—all of the thrills with none of the bills.  It is what keeps us from looking away at bad car accidents, watching Youtube videos of accidents, going to the movies to see the latest “psychological thriller” and the reason why serial killers gain celebrity.  The Devil really is in the details.

The illicit pleasure is not the only effect or really even the worst.  This habit of dwelling on depravity is soul deadening.  It causes us to view evil through a carnage calculator that relativizes it against the last one or against the greatest acts of reported slaughter.  We slowly become immune to evil and see it solely for its entertainment value.  I once saw a lady drive into a storefront and no one went to help her even though there were 20-30 bystanders each with his phone in hand recording the accident.  Not only does it make us slow to love, but also suspicious and fearful of our neighbor.  When bad news gets significantly more play time than good news, we become masters of suspicion and avoid other people, assuming the worst of them.

Returning to man’s Retake in the Garden of Gethsemane we find the strength to overcome the ubiquity of bad news.  Our Lord was the one who “resisted sin to the point of shedding His blood” (c.f. Hebrews 12:4) not just to show us His divine power put to win for us the grace to remain pure of heart amidst so much evil.  We should become cautious and discerning viewers of the news, even sites and channels we would consider reputable.  Avoid getting drug into the details and focus only on headlines.  All too often there is nothing we can do personally to combat a particular evil and so knowing the details is simply curiosity rearing its ugly head.  Get in the habit of asking yourself why you need to know anything more and you will quickly realize that you don’t.

When St. Paul wrote the Christians in Philippi he knew they too were living in a culture where evil had been glamorized he had what is the most practical of advice, “whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things” (Phil 4:8).  We would do well to focus on these things as well, turning away from the bad news so that we can more fully embrace the Good News.

Death and the Three Judgments

“You are going to die.”  It is the best first line to a book I have ever read (Fr. Larry Richards’ Be a Man).  Not just because of its shock value, but also because of its truth.  100% of the people who read the book are going to die.  We can’t merely believe this, but it must be before our minds regularly.  St. Paul tells the Christians in Rome that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  In short, death was a punishment for the first sin of Adam.  To see it merely as punishment however causes us to miss an important point.  Man, because he is, even if not wholly, a material creature, is naturally subject to death.  Among the original gifts bestowed upon Adam and his posterity was a supernatural immunity to death.  By turning away from God, Adam rejected both God and His gifts.  Adam was expelled from the Garden without access to the Tree of Life and death would henceforth come to all men.  Death is then not just a punishment, but a consequence of being human.  Still death was not in God’s original “plan” for mankind and thus was taken up and trampled by Christ.  For the Christian death is not to be feared but to be seen as a necessary instrument for being conformed to Christ and sharing in His reward.

If death is unavoidable then, in the hands of a just God, it is not just a punishment, but also a judgment.  It is what we are when God allows death to visit us that determines our eternal destiny.  For those who have sanctifying grace in their souls at the time of death, death will be a mercy.  For those who do not, death will be a condemnation.  This is well worth meditating upon and many of the great spiritual masters have spent serious time contemplating their own deaths.  But the fact is that for most of us living in a culture where death has been sanitized, we think of death as something that will happen “later” even if it is ultimately inevitable.  It no longer creates a sense of urgency the way that it used to.

The Third Judgment

St. Peter well understood this tendency when he first preached the Gospel to the Gentiles and introduced Jesus as the “judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42).  Most of us tend to think in terms of two judgments—the personal judgment at death and the final judgment at the end of time.  But what St. Peter is telling Cornelius and his friends is that there is a third “moment” of judgment, namely the temporal or judgment of the living.  In other words, God does not merely judge us at the end of our lives, but continually throughout our lives.  The Catholic tradition has a term for the effects of our temporal judgment that we call the “temporal punishment for sin.”

Among the theological casualties of the last century is the notion of God as judge.  That is because we only see Him as judge of the dead and not so much as judge of the living.  This means He is seen merely as the Condemner or Rewarder.  But when we see Him as judging the living, that is punishing them in time, we can see how justly He judges the dead.  Of course this means that we have to see the purpose of Fatherly punishment correctly.

Punishment has two purposes, both of which are associated with the repairing the damage caused by the transgression.  First there is the damage caused to the order of things.  Sin unjustly takes pleasure from something that one should not take pleasure in.  Punishment removes the pleasure from some lawful good.  Second, there is the damage done to the perpetrator of the offense.  Our sins turn us into something (lying makes us liars, stealing makes us thieves, etc).  Only by cultivating the opposing virtue can the damage be undone.  Therefore, the purpose of punishment, according to Aquinas is “to bring man back to the good of virtue.”  It is the admission of guilt and sorrow that acts as a bridge between these two purposes of punishment.  Without it, punishment will remain merely retributive, that is reparative to the external order.  To be reparative to the inner order, it must be voluntarily accepted as coming from a just judge.  Only the patient who admits his sickness and willingly takes the medicine can be healed.

Although this seems obvious from what was said above, it merits pointing out that death itself is part of the temporal punishment for our sins.  The manner in which we approach death as a punishment as a tremendous bearing on our eternal destiny.  It remains somewhat mysterious as to how exactly death is reparative, we can take it as a given that it is.  Any punishment from a loving Father is medicinal.  This is why it is important that we accept death on God’s terms and not our own.  This is yet another reason why assisted suicide and euthanasia by omission remain harmful to the patient.  We cannot decide when God is done making the person ready for heaven.  The time of death is God’s verdict on the lives we have lived.

Death as the Meaning of Life

All of life then should be seen as preparation for dying well.  Those who habitually accept the temporal punishments will accept the final punishment of death in the spirit God intended and will move on to eternal life.  Short a special grace to see the punishment of death clearly, those who habitually despised God’s temporal judgments will despise death as the final punishment and be condemned.  It becomes clear then that when we speak of the Particular Judgment we are speaking of judgment only by analogy.  God needs no examination but instead at the moment of death the soul knows by intuition and is enlightened of all its merits and demerits. In a sense the soul judges itself in accordance with truth.

If the eternal destiny of each man has been decided at the particular judgment, then why is it necessary to have the Final Judgment?  St. Thomas gives three reasons for the last judgment.  First, there is the fact that men are often judged contrary to truth by history (both good and bad).  Margaret Sanger has been judged well by history and many Churchmen have been judged poorly.  The truth will be made known.  Justice is also vindicated in a second way in that the dead have had imitators in good and evil and thus their errors must be made known.  Finally, and this relates to the Particular Judgment, the effects of man’s action last long after death.  The good (and evil) that we do effects our children, their children and beyond.  Once history is winding down, we will all see the role we have played in it, even after death.  The hierarchy of heaven and the lowerarchy of hell will be set and our own place determined.

Why is Penance Needed?

During the Year of Mercy, the Church has placed great emphasis on not only our great need for forgiveness, but God’s desire to always welcome us into His loving arms.  This necessarily leads to a discussion of repentance and penance.  While most people understand the need for repentance, penance remains somewhat mysterious.  Given that, a reflection upon penance and its necessity can lead to an increase in grace during this Jubilee Year.

In order to understand the logic of penance, we must first understand the nature of sin.  When Adam and Eve ate from the tree, it was an act of disobedience.  But that is not all.  They also found pleasure in eating the forbidden fruit (c.f. Gn 3:6—finding “that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom”).  So that when we speak of sin we must always remember that there is a double element; the act of disobedience and the pleasure of the forbidden fruit.  In justice both must be restored through repentance and penance.  If we look to the natural order, we see why this makes sense.  If we do not follow a map and go the wrong way, then we must first turn-around (i.e. repent).   But turning around is not enough if we are to get back to the right path; we must also we must retrace those steps (penance).

This distinction is made especially clear when we look at King David’s act of adultery with Bathsheba and the consequent murder of her husband Uriah.  When David expresses his repentance, Nathan tells him that “For his part, the LORD has removed your sin…” (2 Samuel 12:14).  But this is only the forgiveness of the act of disobedience.  God imposes a penance as well “since you have utterly spurned the LORD by this deed, the child born to you will surely die” (2 Sam 12:15).

From God’s perspective the distinction leads to the two “punishments” for sin—eternal and temporal.  By keeping them connected it will help us to avoid the temptation to see these two “punishments” as vengeance inflicted upon us by God but instead as a natural consequence of sin (CCC 1472).  Christ’s act of atonement cleared the way for the forgiveness of the eternal punishment for sin, but not the temporal.  Instead He invites us to participate in our own redemption through penance.  Failing to realize this leads to great spiritual confusion because it fails to answer a fundamental question—if Christ came to remove all punishment for sin, then why do those who are justified suffer?

In other words, when I sin, it comes from me insisting on having my own way.  In suffering I receive something I don’t want and thus there is a cosmic balance of sorts that is restored.  But because the original act was one I freely chose, I must also freely accept the suffering as satisfaction for my sins.  This not only restores justice without but order is also restored within me.

Accepting temporal affliction imposed on us in loving patience is one of the ways that we make satisfaction for our sins according to the Council of Trent.  The Council Fathers call these “the greatest proof of love” (Council of Trent, 14th Session, Doctrina de sacramento paenitentiae).  Why are these the greatest proof of our love?  Because God’s will comes to us moment by moment and we can be sure that we are submitting to His will by submitting to the moment.  This habit of accepting difficulties with love and patience is what develops in us the virtue of penance.  This is exactly David’s response after the child he conceived with Bathsheba died–patient acceptance.  And the servants are all puzzled by his response (2 Sam 12:19-23).  Penance begins and ends with the attitude of mind that God sends all things our way for our good and that we must respond with generosity.

In this way we see they are also great proofs of God’s love for us.  Each affliction “is producing for us an eternal weight of glory,” (2 Cor 4:17) meaning that they have been hand-chosen by a loving Father for our sanctification.  To live with this conviction is where we find peace and joy in the midst of suffering; knowing that God has chosen the most gentle way for us to be sanctified through penance.  Even the suffering that God allows for us is an act of Divine Mercy.

This passive penance also does not always “feel” like we are doing penance and so it further conforms us to what all appearances was Christ’s great failure in the Crucifixion.  This is why we can examine the “success” of our penitential lives by looking for the fruits of humility and charity.  Penance then properly understood is a not an act of giving (or giving up) per se, but of receiving.  It would be fair to say that penance is the means by which we lay hold of the graces missed the first time round.

Scourging at the Pillar

This is also why we must be careful in selecting our means of active penance.   These are activities that are voluntarily undertaken as penance like fasting, giving up something otherwise good, mortification, putting a rock in your shoe, etc.  These too are necessary, but they come with a strong temptation as well especially if we do not have a positive view of penance.

Penance is discouraging for most of us because we approach it from the angle of it being a disagreeable hardship rather than a turning wholly to God.  There is something inherent in self-imposed and exterior penances in that we tend to look at the disagreeable portion and then try for something that is not too bad.  This in turn only makes us feel that there are parts that are not willing to undergo suffering for God, when, what we might really be experiencing is just the natural recoil at suffering.

We will also always have a tendency to choose those penances which are in some way agreeable to us and thus end up doing nothing but feeding our self-love.  Again the key is to look for the fruits of charity and humility.  Even with these temptations, it would be a mistake to avoid all forms of active penance especially since the devil will often trick us into avoiding them out of fear or by appealing to a misconceived humility.

In his book, Spirit of Penance, Path to God, Dom Hubert Van Zeller offers an extended commentary on Jesus’ commandment regarding our appearance when we are fasting.  He says that  “we must show washed and shining faces when we fast, indicating to the world that penance is not such a terrible burden as it is made out to be, and that if only people went in for it more, they would find they need lose nothing of their happiness.”  Likewise our passive penances when borne with peace and joy show them for what they truly are.  During this Year of Mercy let us go forth and preach the Mercy of God through Penance.

Justice Scalia and Purgatory

There is a story of a young priest who was asked to preside over a funeral of a man he did not know.  He met with the widow beforehand in order to learn some things about the man.  In order to break the ice, he said “I am sure your husband is in a better place,” to which the widow replied “the hell he is!”  Whether this story is apocryphal or not, we have all had the uncomfortable experience of being around someone who is very quick to canonize a person once they have died.  In fact, this is the one thing that touched me most about Fr. Paul Scalia’s homily during his father’s, Justice Antonin Scalia, funeral mass.  He absolutely refused to canonize (some call it “eulogizing”) his father because it was uncharitable and deprived him of the prayers he still needed.  This was clearly something Fr. Scalia learned from his father because the only place in his homily where he quoted his father directly was a letter the Justice once wrote to a Presbyterian minister about why he hated eulogies.  The Justice thought that “[E]ven when the deceased was an admirable person, indeed especially when the deceased was an admirable person, praise for his virtues can cause us to forget that we are praying for and giving thanks for God’s inexplicable mercy to a sinner.”  This habit of canonizing the dead really stems from a refusal to take the existence of Purgatory seriously or to downplay its significance.  Not only do we deprive the dead of our prayers, but we do not allow the reality of Purgatory to shape our lives as it should.  The truth of the matter is that even though it is often said tongue in cheek, Purgatory is not something we should strive for; even if it is the “mudroom” of Heaven.

In order to see the necessity of Purgatory, we have to make sure we are viewing the redemptive act of Christ through proper lenses.  Christ was not a penal substitute for us on the Cross.  An innocent man dying as punishment for a guilty man is no act of justice.  Instead, like the first Adam, Christ, the new Adam was man’s representative upon the Cross.  As representative He makes redemption possible, but only to the degree that we participate. This is certainly the way that St. Paul understood his own redemption when he told the Colossians that he “rejoiced in his sufferings because they complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col 1:24).  Christ’s representative sacrifice was perfect, what is lacking was his (our) participation.

While removing the eternal punishment for sin, Christ’s sacrifice leaves the temporal punishment for sin intact.  If Christ is only a penal substitute that paid the price for our sins, then the presence of suffering (and even death) in this world has no explanation.  Because sin really is our insistence to have things our own way, by suffering something that we don’t want, justice is restored in some way.  But the sin also causes imbalance in the person as well requiring that we accept the punishment freely as satisfaction for our sins to repair the personal disorder. This imbalance is felt in the sinner a way akin to rust which St. Thomas calls the “relics of sin.”   Because of these “dispositions caused by previous acts of sin…the penitent finds difficulty in doing deeds of virtue.”  It is this twofold dimension of the temporal punishment for sin that must be healed before one can enter the presence of God.

Suffering seen in light of temporal punishment shows forth the mercy of God.  The Catechism calls it “a grace” (CCC 1473).  St Thomas gives three reasons why God thought this fitting.  The first is that it helps us to understand the gravity of sin so as to help us avoid it in the future.  Because of the downward pull of concupiscence and the pleasure we derive from sin, we do not always recognize its evil.  By attaching temporal punishments to our sins, God mercifully keeps us from falling into further sin.

A second reason according to St. Thomas is that through His invitation to make satisfaction through the merits of Christ and by the grace of the Holy Spirit, God the Father makes us co-operators in our salvation.  God is raising up adopted sons and daughters not merely servants or slaves.  By participating in our own redemption, God treats us as He does His only begotten Son.

Finally, St Thomas says temporal punishments are necessary because sin in essence is a pampering of self.  When temporal afflictions are patiently endured, it teaches us not to pamper ourselves so as to be better prepared to make gifts of ourselves through our participation in the self-giving love of the Trinity.

BVM-and-Purgatory

If the temporal punishment for sin ultimately accrues because it is a means by which God makes us fit for heaven then the debt can remain after death but prior to entering the presence of God.  Even if Purgatory were not divinely revealed to us in Tradition and Sacred Scripture (2 Macc 13:43-46 shows the general Jewish belief in the doctrine and Mt 5:26 and 1Cor 3:13-15 show the Christian belief), reason would almost dictate that it be so.  One cannot reconcile the holiness, mercy, and justice of God without maintaining a place of purgation after death.

Ultimately one might not believe in Purgatory in this life, but will soon believe in it in the next life.  But it is equally damaging to not take it seriously enough during our pilgrimage on Earth.  No amount of suffering in this life can compare to the sufferings of Purgatory.  That is because in this life we can rely on the merits of Christ to increase the satisfaction for our sins.  The Holy Souls in Purgatory on the other hand can only settle their debt by what is called ‘satispassion’ or by suffering enough.  Because their only means of satisfaction is their own suffering, praying for the dead and obtaining indulgences for them becomes a supreme act of charity.  To not do so, amounts to an act of omission.

That is not the only thing however that makes Purgatory so hard.  The pains of purgatory are similar to those suffered by the damned in hell.  They suffer what is called the “pain of loss” which is the pain of being deprived of God, our true Good.  What intensifies the pain is the knowledge that it is venial sin and their punishments that could have been readily expiated in this life that separates them from God.  As the purifying effects are felt, the pain actually increases because their love is purified, making the loss of the beloved felt more acutely.

While not a definitive dogma of the Church, most theologians and Church Fathers (and the Council of Florence hints at it) also describe what is called the “pain of sense.”  This comes from the idea that St. Paul (1 Cor 3:11) says that some men will be saved through fire.

Since the souls in Purgatory are separated from their body, one might rightfully ask how something material like fire could cause pain.  What St. Thomas and the other Scholastics argue by way of analogy saying that the matter of the Sacraments, for example the water of Baptism, has a spiritual effect and therefore it must be possible.

Despite the suffering of the souls in Purgatory, the souls also are joyful.  Not only are they approaching God, but they know their love is being purified.  They are only too happy to make things right with their Beloved.  While there is still hope in the souls in Purgatory, it is different from the virtue of hope as we experience it on earth.  The holy souls in Purgatory are assured of reaching their heavenly homeland while the hope of those in the Church Militant is of one who is tending in the right direction.

By his carefully worded homily, Fr. Scalia did a great act of charity for his father.  He begged all those in attendance to pray for his final purification.  Because of the stage upon which this homily was spoken he really did the whole Church a great service.  No one could hear or read his homily and not re-examine their own views on Purgatory.  For that, there may be many souls who will be eternally grateful.

Our Happy Fault

In his classic book, Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton quipped that Christianity begins with the doctrine of Original Sin, which, he says, “is the only part of Christian theology that can be proved.”  His point is that all men must agree on the doctrine of the Fall regardless of whether they profess it or not.  Each of us experiences tugs in different directions that reveal a war going on in our members.  As we near the close of Advent and prepare to celebrate Christianity’s beginnings, meditating on this most important doctrine can bear much fruit.

Any discussion on Original Sin has to begin by recognizing the platypus-like quality of man whose nature is a spirit/matter composite.  He is formed out of the “dust of the ground” that is animated by the breath (or pneuma, from which we get the word spirit) of God.   This leaves man with in a state of being tugged in two directions.  Like all matter, his material being always tends towards decay and death.  His spirit, because it is not composed of parts cannot be subject to decay, is immortal.  As a material creature, man will strive to preserve his material being.  As spiritual creature, man will always feed on truth and goodness.  Despite these incompatibilities there is also a mutual dependence of the various faculties in man.  The material depends upon the spiritual in order to have life and fuller sensation while the spiritual depends on the material in order to know and love.

It would seem based on this description that man, by nature, is at war within himself.  But the spirit/material composite of man is not merely some haphazard mixture.  The spirit has a certain precedence over the material and the material is in the service of intellectual knowing and loving.  This integration in man’s faculties means that the will perfectly follows the intellect while the material faculties such as the passions enable the will to act with a certain intensity that spills into the body.

Even with this integration in man’s faculties, there is still the problem of death.  Because the body is material and subject to decay, the spirit will no longer be able to act through it when that decay reaches a certain level.  This leads to a monstrosity of a soul separated from its body.  To alleviate what appears to be a fundamental “flaw” in human nature, God bestowed Adam and Eve with the preternatural gift of immortality; the whole person, body and soul.  This gift however was conditional.  It was conditioned on the fact that Adam always oriented his faculties toward God and His will.  This immortality was also a result of a share in God’s eternal life which is called sanctifying grace.

Summarizing we can say that, prior to the Fall, man was gifted with sanctifying grace at his creation and bodily immortality.  It is important to remember as well that the perfect integration of his faculties was a natural endowment rather than a supernatural gift.

the-fall-of-man

While we do not know what the actual sin was that Adam committed, we can say what it was not.  It was not a sexual sin like lust as is often suggested.  To suggest that is more telling of us as fallen men rather than Adam as unfallen.  Because he enjoyed the perfect integration of body and soul, it had to be a spiritual sin.  That is why most theologians think that it was the greatest of spiritual sins, pride.  What we do know is that when Adam sinned he lost the gift of sanctifying grace.  In trying to “be like God” in knowing good and evil, he forfeited the way in which he was actually like God (sanctifying grace).  For being like God was not something to be grasped (Phil. 2:6) but instead something to be received as a free gift.  This loss of sanctifying grace is called Original Sin.  In God’s plan, Adam and all his offspring were to be gifted with sanctifying grace at their conception.  When Adam sinned as the head of mankind, he lost that gift for all his offspring.  He also lost the gift of immunity from death so that he and his offspring were made subject to their material limitation (“For you are dust, and to dust you shall return”—Gn 3:19).

Because of the supernatural height, from which he fell, Adam also did damage to his nature.  This damage is what we call concupiscence.  No longer did he have the perfect integration of his faculties.  The intellect became darkened so that the truth became blurry, the will was weakened so that the good became less desirable and the passions ran amok, inclining man towards unreasonable pleasure.  In other words, man was left worse off for having lost Sanctifying grace than if he had not been gifted with it to begin with.

Why would God leave man worse off?  In short it is because man has a supernatural end.  He was made to be with God.  Because friendship can only occur between equals, man cannot reach this end on his own. Therefore God must raise man up by giving him a share in His nature.

If man was left with his natural faculties intact, he would tend only towards his natural end, which is virtue.  By leaving his nature wounded, God knew that man cannot even reach his natural end.  This experience of frustration leaves man to seek outside help so that when God reveals the path out, man knowingly will follow (this is why the Bad News always must precede the Good News).  God offers this help to mankind through Baptism where the spirit is given the gift of sanctifying grace.  This is why it is said to “forgive” Original Sin.  But the effects or stains remain.  He may endow the soul with actual graces in overcoming these defects, but he leaves it to us to heal from the effects.  It is like when medicine is given for a disease—it is not the medicine that heals, but the body itself.  The medicine simply aids the natural healing process of the body.  This is why the distinction between Original Sin and its effects is important.  We are given an initial “shot” of sanctity, but we must then struggle to grow the divine life within us.  The full effects of the Fall will only be healed at the resurrection of the body.

Viewed through our post-Fall lenses, it seems somehow unfair that we all lost the preternatural gifts because of the act of one man.  To that I would reply that it is just as unfair that the actions of one man should redeem us.  Looked at from a deeper level, we see that we have everything upside down.

This deeper level has to always be from the standpoint of Christ and His act of restoration.  His intention is to restore us as a single people, so closely united that we are referred to as His Mystical Body.  From the economy of salvation God does not look at us as a collection of individuals but as a single body.  This is the doctrine of the Communion of Saints—there can be no good done by an individual member of the Church that does not redound to the welfare of all.   Among the members of the Mystical Body there is a spiritual commonwealth of riches which includes all the wealth of graces acquired by Christ and all the good works performed with the grace of Christ.  We have difficulty seeing this because there exists so much division even within the Church, but it does not take away from the truth that God’s intention for mankind was for us to be one.  Therefore it ought to be very clear that God would deal with us as one.  Otherwise Jesus taking on a human nature to redeem all mankind would not make sense.  Through the Hypostatic Union humanity is now by nature united to God and we, in response, must now become a mixture of Christ nature (both human and divine).

In truth, the question of fairness should really enter into the discussion.  The nature that has been transmitted to us as offspring of Adam may be damaged, but it is still a gift that we have no right to.  If we have no right to our nature, then we certainly have no right to the super-nature that Adam had.  In the end, it makes little difference because maintaining the divine nature requires a period of trial for all of us.  Now God simply grades on a curve by giving us a share in Christ’s virtues.  That is something Adam never had and certainly more than levels the playing field.

 

On Indulgences

Saints can be so old-fashioned.  In a retreat leading up to his priestly ordination, the 20th Century saint Maximilian Kolbe plotted out his spiritual strategy that included what seems like 15th Century advice—“[T]ry to gain as many indulgences as possible, and you will become a saint.”  For many of us, Indulgences remain an untapped source of sanctification that Christ offers us through the Church.  What little we do know about them usually centers around their abuse prior to the Reformation.  The danger today however is not their abuse, but their disuse.  While the Church corrected the abuses in the 16th Century, Indulgences have fallen out of use, mainly because of ignorance about these beautiful gifts.

In his 1967 Apostolic Constitution, Indulgentiarum doctrina¸ Blessed Paul VI invited the Church to “ponder and meditate well on how the use of indulgences benefits their lives and indeed all Christian society.”  With the approach of the Year of Mercy, this seems an excellent time to accept the Blessed Pontiff’s invitation.

Certainly one need not understand the theology behind the doctrine of Indulgences to use them.  But without an understanding of why there are useful, they will quickly fall into dis-use.  To begin to understand, it is helpful to begin by clearing up some confusion surrounding justification.  The word justification is one of those loaded theological terms that is used by Catholics and Protestants alike, but not really understood.  Most simply equate it with forgiveness, but that is not the only way that it is used in the New Testament.  St. Paul devotes a significant amount of time in his letter to the Romans clarifying this important term.  While emphasizing that justification is a free gift (Romans 5:17), he also emphasizes that it is “not hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the word who will be justified” (Romans 2:13).

What this means is that the term is used to represent both an action and a process.  As an action it marks the moment when God makes a man righteous and invites (or re-invites if the case may be) him into His family.  As a process it is the ongoing sanctification by God of one who has embraced the demands of the Gospel.  Both of these aspects are necessary because personal sin always has two effects—guilt and punishment.  This punishment can be both eternal and temporal (see 2Cor 2:6).   In other words, justification involves both the removal of the guilt of sin (forgiveness) and also the purging of its effects (satisfaction).  The Decree on Justification from the Council of Trent (1547) summarizes justification as “a translation from the state in which a person is born a son of the first Adam into a state of grace and adoption as sons of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ…advancing from virtue to virtue,  they are renewed, as the Apostle says, day by day, that is, mortifying the members of their flesh, and presenting them as instruments of justice unto sanctification, they, through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith cooperating with good works, increase in that justice received through the grace of Christ and are further justified…” (Decree on Justification, Chapters IV, X).

Once we are able to see the two dimensions of justification, we must then address the role of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice in our justification.  In an earlier essay, it was mentioned how necessary it is to see Christ’s sacrifice as “vicarious representation” to have a proper view of God’s “wrath.”  The gist is that Christ died on the Cross as the representative of mankind so that we must participate in order to share in its fruit.  This means that His sacrifice was both necessary and sufficient to remove our guilt and pay the debt of our eternal punishment.  While the sacrifice on Calvary is also necessary for us to pay the temporal punishment for sin, it was not sufficient.  St. Paul says that there is something lacking in the sacrifice of Christ (Col 1:24) and that thing was his (and our) participation.  It is through our participation in the Cross that we are given the currency by which we are able to pay to Divine Justice our temporal debts.

Many think of only of “offering it up” as our participating in the Cross of Christ.  But that is not the only way.  In fact it is probably not even the primary way.  When Christ died on the Cross, His death exceeded the debt of sin.  This created a treasury of merit that was deposited in the Church.  The Church, as the Body of Christ, is now the dispenser of the means of salvation (not its cause).  It is from this treasury that all sources of sanctification flow, including the remission of the temporal punishment for sin.  This is where the doctrine of Indulgences comes in.

Handbook of Indulgences

Blessed Paul VI defined an indulgence as “An indulgence is the remission before God of the temporal punishment due sins already forgiven as far as their guilt is concerned, which the follower of Christ with the proper dispositions and under certain determined conditions acquires through the intervention of the Church which, as minister of the Redemption, authoritatively dispenses and applies the treasury of the satisfaction won by Christ and the saints.”  In other words, an indulgence properly understood is the Church’s application of Christ’s merits toward the debt of punishment we owe God.  St. Thomas says the one who gains an indulgence is not excused from paying the debt of punishment but is given the means to pay it.

There is a tendency within the Church today for many people to be satisfied with reaching Purgatory.  Personally I find this rather sad.  Obviously for one whose love of God is pure, they would not want to spend any time there because it represents a separation from Him.  And, while it is certainly true that those who require Purgatory avoid Hell and will eventually reach Heaven, it trivializes the intensity of the sufferings of Purgatory.  The sufferings of Purgatory are more intense than we can possibly imagine.  It is called the Church Suffering for a reason and that reason is because suffering is all they do.  Much of this suffering can be avoided however by actively seeking indulgences.

Once we accept that Indulgences are an effective part of a healthy spiritual life, we can ask how they are obtained.  First it is worth mentioning that indulgences can only apply to those sins which have been forgiven.  The debt of guilt must first be paid before the debt of punishment can be.

Traditionally, there has been the distinction between plenary and partial indulgences. “An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due sin” (Indulgentiarum doctrina (ID) n. 2).  What did change with Blessed Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution is that any particularities with respect to days or years attached to a partial indulgence were removed.  It is now simply referred to as a “Partial Indulgence” (n. 4).

To obtain a partial indulgence there are four conditions:

  • be baptized
  • be in state of grace
  • have the intention to obtain the indulgence
  • perform the works or prayers prescribed correctly

For a plenary indulgence all the conditions of a partial indulgence apply (so that if we fail to obtain the plenary we might still obtain the plenary) plus

  • not be excommunicated
  • have no affection for sin, even venial
  • receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Communion (in the prescribed period of time)
  • offer prayers for the pope’s intentions (in the prescribed period of time)

While we must have the intention to gain a particular indulgence, this can be done through a habitual intention represented by a sincere expression to gain every indulgence the Lord ever offers us.  It is a good idea to renew that intention frequently so as to be aware of God’s great mercy through the Indulgences the Church offers.  Personally I have added the following to my morning offering:

Lord Jesus Christ, my Redeemer, You suffered upon the Cross for me and in Your great mercy have given to Peter and his successors the power to remove temporal punishment for sin.  In great sorrow for those sins which You have forgiven, I wish to obtain the indulgences You now offer me.

It is worth pointing out that by no longer referring to the amount of time that is removed in Purgatory, the measure of how efficacious an indulged work is in removing punishment will depend on the intensity of the love with which the act is performed and the perfection of the task itself (i.e. how well we do it).  This is why Blessed Paul VI greatly reduced the number of indulgences so that the faithful could focus on doing them well—“the greater the proliferation of indulgences, the less attention is given to them; what is offered in abundance is not greatly appreciated.”

It cannot be encouraged enough to get a copy of the Handbook of Indulgences and see the specific indulged acts.  Worth pointing out are the “Three General Grants” at the beginning of the Handbook.  These represent a class of partial indulgences that are given so that “Christ’s faithful might, as it were, weave their daily life with the Christian spirit and, according to their state, grow in the perfection of charity.”   Specifically, a partial indulgence is granted to any of Christ’s faithful, who:

  • in the performance of his duties and bearing the trials of life, raises his mind to God in humble confidence and adds, even mentally, some pious invocation
  • in a spirit of faith and mercy give of themselves or of their goods to serve their brothers in need
  • in a spirit of penance voluntarily deprive themselves of what is licit and pleasing to them

Now it becomes clear what St. Maximillian Kolbe meant when he said what he did about indulgences.  It wasn’t just the juridical nature of Indulgences that he was interested in.  Instead he was saying that these works were all worthy of doing because they were things that those on the path to sanctity should be doing.  In other words, they act as trustworthy guides of the prayers and works saints do.  Judging by his own personal witness, I would say he was right.

God and Commitment Phobes

In an address on the New Evangelization to Catechists and Teachers in 2000, then-Cardinal Ratzinger said the greatest obstacle modern man faced in accepting the Gospel was “an inability of joy.”   Although this aversion to joy is particularly acute in our time, it is certainly nothing new.  In fact it is something that is captured quite beautifully in Dante’s Purgatorio.  At the midpoint of his ascent of the Mount of Purgatory, Dante encounters those who are being purged of sloth and its effects.  The slothful race about the terrace shouting out famous examples of the vice and its opposing virtue, zeal.  The souls appear to be enjoying their punishment of the breathless race they are on.  This is not because they find joy in punishment so much as the joy is their punishment.  Dante believed that the slothful are marked by an inability to joy.

Because of his reliance on the moral theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante’s Divine Comedy has often been called the “Summa in Verse.” By returning to the teachings of St. Thomas on the Capital Sin of sloth or acedia, we may be able to learn a great deal about not only the world’s aversion to joy, but why it remains so elusive for many of us.

To begin, there is an important point to be made regarding the Seven Capital Sins.  St. Thomas rarely referred to the Seven Capital Sins as sins but instead as vices.  His reason for this is because something like sloth is not usually the actual sin the person commits, but the disposition or habit that leads to other sins.  The term “capital” derives from the Latin word caput, meaning head.  The point is that these seven vices are usually the source or head of all of the sins we commit (see ST II-II, q.153, art.4).  The reason why this is important is that these vices remain hidden to us because they act as subconscious motivations for the sins we do commit.  Unless we are in the habit of examining our motivations along with our sins, they will almost always remain off our spiritual radar.  Understanding the vices and how they tend to manifest themselves allows us to work at the virtues directly opposing the vice of sloth.

Certainly one of the reasons why sloth is particularly hidden is because most people view it as simply laziness.  One of the fruits of the Protestant Reformation was that sloth became associated with laziness and neglect in doing one’s duty.  The opposing virtue was seen to be diligence or industriousness and “busyness” became a cardinal virtue.  But for St. Thomas and the Desert Fathers that went before him, sloth is a spiritual vice.  There is a link of sorts to effort, but not primarily to bodily effort.  It is not an aversion to physical effort but an aversion to the demands of love.  It causes us to see the burden of love to be too great.

In order to fully capture how this vice ensnares us, it is helpful to look at the two parts of the definition that Aquinas gives for acedia in the Summa.  He says that acedia is “sorrow about spiritual good in as much as it is a Divine good” (ST II-II q.35, a.3).

The second part of the definition describes what is the cause of our sorrow—namely the “spiritual good in as much as it is a Divine good.”  For St. Thomas this “spiritual good” that is internal to the person and yet also a “Divine good” is friendship with God.  This friendship with God is the virtue of charity by which we participate in the love God has for Himself.

The sorrow itself need explanation as well.  Sorrow is analogous to sadness but it rests in our soul.  It is more like a pain of soul that makes joy impossible.  This sorrow is experienced because what should be experienced as a good (namely the love of God) is instead viewed as bad.  Not bad in itself, but too much work and too demanding.  The word acedia literally means “a lack of care” meaning that it simply is not worth the effort.  In this way then it is not so much a rejection of God Himself, but of friendship with Him.  This partial rejection of God is what makes sloth so deadly.

Dante seems to capture this lack of love by placing sloth in the middle of the Mount of Purgatory.  The first three terraces are meant to heal love that has been perverted by being directed towards an evil object or end (pride, envy, and wrath).  The three terraces above (greed, gluttony, and lust) are directed to healing love that is excessively directed towards a good object.  Sloth sits alone in the middle because it shows a lack of love that begins with loving God less than we should and spreads to everything else.

Dante

Without delving deeply into psychological motivations, why would we do this?  To understand sloth, the fact that love is demanding cannot be forgotten.  There is a sweetness that comes from love, but for the most part it makes demands upon us.  In fact sloth makes us “commitment phobes” with God because of the burden of commitment.

Of course any explanation must include the given of Original Sin.  St. Paul tells the Galatians that “the flesh lusts against the spirit” (Gal 5:17) which means that without virtue the flesh will be dominant in us and we will loathe spiritual goods as somehow bad for us.  It is sort of like how we crave junk food and have to force ourselves to eat wholesome foods.  Acedia as sorrow at the thought of being in relationship with God because of the “burden of commitment.”

An analogy might help to better understand it.  Think of a married couple who argues and rather than doing the work of apologizing and forgiving, they would rather take the “easier” route of going off to separate rooms and sulk.  They both know of the goodness that follows from reconciliation, but refuse to do the work of getting there.

In looking at the sins that are caused by sloth or “daughters of acedia” as St. Thomas divides them into two types.  The first are those sins which represent our attempts to escape from the sorrow.  The most common way in which it manifests itself is through curiosity.  Most people would say that curiosity is a good thing and it is insofar as it represents a desire for knowledge.  But St. Thomas says we cannot look at only the desire but also must consider the motive and the effects the knowledge has on the knower and others.  Curiosity is the desire for knowledge simply for the pleasure that it brings as opposed to knowing for the sake of knowledge itself (as in the truth) which is the virtue of studiousness.  From curiosity flows listening to gossip.  There is also a fear of missing out on something interesting that will help divert us from the sorrow.  This fear is what truly drives the almost obsessive nature in which many people are constantly checking social media.

St. Thomas also says it manifests itself through an aimless wandering after illicit things.  Drinking excessively, promiscuity, drugs often represent attempts to escape the sorrow of sloth.  But it is not just illicit things but an excess of busyness too.  This busyness blocks us from seeing the reason why we have no joy is because we are slothful.  After all, how could one be slothful when they are constantly involved in activity?  St. Thomas recognized this temptation and presented acedia as primarily a sin against the Third Commandment because it is an avoidance of doing the “work” of the Sabbath rest.

At a certain point the realization that the sorrow is inescapable sinks in and a new level of vices arise.  The most obvious would be despair, but I would like to focus on a second one that is not so obvious—boredom.

To prove that the overwhelming majority of Americans is at this point, what other explanation could there be that the average person watches 4 hours of TV (25% of their waking time) than that they are bored?  What about the obsession with celebrities?  Out of boredom the cult of celebrities arises because when one’s own life lacks meaning, you become obsessed with others’ lives.

In essence for those with despair and boredom life loses its pilgrim character.  For the bored they become tourists instead of pilgrims. What we do when we are bored really doesn’t matter only that it alleviates the boredom.  Everyone knows that there is no happiness in the endless diversions, parties, drinking and promiscuity.  But at least one is less empty for a while.

There is a great spiritual principle that comes into play when we are trying to root out vices like sloth.  We cannot simply stop doing it.  Certainly identifying the root cause is important, but the only way for us as fallen creatures to overcome evil in our hearts is by replacing it with good.  I already mentioned how sloth is truly opposed to charity but there are two other virtues that we should strive to cultivate.

First is the virtue of gratitude.  One desert father said that sloth is ultimately a hatred of being.  Everything seems hard and meaningless.  By viewing everything through what St. John Paul II called the “hermeneutic of the gift” we find everything charged with meaning through its bestowal upon us.  With gratitude comes to the desire to repay that gift by making a gift of ourselves.  To quote from JPII’s favorite line of Vatican II, “man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (GS, 24).

The second is the virtue of magnanimity.  Literally magnanimity means “large-souledness.”  It is a generous acceptance of the missionary character of our lives.  It is a response to Blessed John Henry Newman’s a clarion call:

God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his—if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling”

As Dante enters the Fifth Circle of Hell, he encounters two groups confined to the River Styx—the wrathful and the slothful.  The wrathful fight each other above the surface, while the slothful simply stew beneath the swampy surface.  By Dante’s standards their punishment is rather light, but that is because they really didn’t do anything.  They simply slid into hell through a lack of effort.   Please God that we might overcome the “noonday devil” and avoid a similar fate.

 

The Sin of the Century

In a 1946 address to the United States Catechetical Congress, Pope Pius XII identified the “sin of the century as the loss of the sense of sin.”  Certainly the twenty-first century has seen no change in this.  There are many reasons why we have lost the sense of sin, but the sense itself cannot be totally lost.  What arises in its place is a therapeutic culture where the sense of personal responsibility is greatly diminished.  We are all victims and therefore absolved of any culpability.  This comes at a cost though.  Once personal responsibility is diminished so too is freedom.  Is it possible to recapture the sense of sin once a culture of victimhood has been firmly established?  If the Church is going to effectively preach the Gospel, which includes a call to repentance (Mk 1:15), then she must find an effective way to include the reality of sin in her message without reducing Christianity to moralizing.

Classically, sin is defined as an “offense against God in thought, word or deed.”  But our understanding of sin is greatly impacted by the reason that we think God is offended.  Is God offended because He is primarily a judge waiting to mark our offenses in His book?  Not exactly–God acts as a judge, but that is not of His essence.  That is something that He does with respect to creation but not Who He is.  In other words, God is not eternally a judge.  Before the creation of the world, He was not a judge.  When God is viewed primarily as judge we try our best to follow the rules and do more good than bad (keeping the ledger in our favor) but ultimately know He will not be pleased with us.

Is God offended because we have somehow messed up His plan?  No, again.  This looks upon God as a distant Creator Who sets the wheels of creation in motion and then moves things around to get what He wants.  Again, He is not Creator by nature.  Creation is something that He does in time, but it is not Who He is.   When we view God primarily as Creator we find a personal relationship nearly impossible and easily fall into a practical atheism.

In the Summa Contra Gentiles St Thomas provides us with an answer.  He says that “God is offended by us only because we act contrary to our own good.” (SCG Book 3, 122)   What kind of a God is only offended by us when we do something to harm ourselves?  A God Who is Father.  This is the same Eternal Father Whom Jesus came to reveal to us.  Once we begin to view sin from this context of inflicting harm upon ourselves, it changes our perspective.  It also readily lends itself to speaking to those trapped in the therapeutic mentality.  Someone who identifies themselves as a victim is never free.  They may be wounded, but the Divine Counselor is offering them the path to freedom and the power to seize that freedom.

Heston--Moses

To see where you fall on this continuum, let’s look at an example.  As the Israelites begin to grumble in the desert and long for a return to Egypt, God brings them to Mount Sinai and gives them the Decalogue.  Why does He do that?  How you answer depends completely on your view of God.  Is God growing weary with them questioning His judgment?  The way this text is best understood is that God gives them the Law in order to protect from falling back into slavery.  We should view the Ten Commandments as the rules by which we can protect our freedom—“do these things and all they entail and you will remain free.”

This is an important connection that we must make.  God gives us commandments only for our own sake.  The rules come from a Father who will go to unbelievable lengths to protect our freedom.  This also reveals the intrinsic connection between the Commandments and the Beatitudes.  The Commandments show us how to protect our freedom while the Beatitudes tell how we should use that freedom. God, like any good father helping his children grow would do, instructs us how to use our freedom.  He then gives us strength (grace) to use it correctly and blesses us with a certain interior sweetness when we do.  St. Paul addresses this same connection in his letter to the Galatians when he says that “For freedom, Christ set us free” (Gal 5:1).  Christ comes to fulfill the law by enabling us to follow it in Him and then shows us how to use it most excellently by making a gift of Himself on the Cross.  This is the “freedom of the gift” that Pope St. John Paul II spoke of in Theology of the Body by which we find the meaning of our lives.  Our freedom is meant to discover this meaning, not to invent it.

The best definition I have seen for sin comes from George Weigel—“sin is the failure to use freedom excellently.”  It shows us that sin costs us something, mainly this gift of freedom. Freedom is not an end in itself—but is given to us for something.  It is given to us so that we might encounter the Good.  In the “land of the free” we see freedom mainly in terms of “freedom from” something and so this is hard for us as Americans to grasp.  But there is a beauty to be found in those who are more concerned with using it well.  In truth, there is nothing more beautiful than when a person uses it well (we call these people saints) and this has to far outweigh the ugliness of using it poorly.  In fact that is exactly what God thinks.  He thinks the beauty of the right use of freedom is so great that He is willing to tolerate the bad use of it (i.e. evil) rather than to go without that beauty by not giving us freedom of choice.  If God thinks it so precious, we ought to as well.