Category Archives: Sin

On Rage Mode

On several other occasions (here and here for example) I have mentioned a particular distaste for the ubiquitous habit of theological hair-splitting perpetrated by the priest and lay alike.  One might even say it makes me angry—except for the fact that this post itself is about anger.  Specifically it is about the follicle-parting habit of saying that “anger is not a sin, but depends on what you do with it.”  As usual our armchair theologians are mixing just enough truth with error that it satisfies all but the most conscientious of interrogators.  The problem of course is that anger is one of the seven capital sins, that is, the seven vices that flow from our fallen nature and animate much of what we do.  Given that anger is a core element of concupiscence, it merits a more accurate and thorough response than the Reader’s Digest version we reflexively offer.

To begin we should go to the heart of our apologist’s argument and make the necessary distinction between anger solely as an emotion and anger as an emotion that is willed.  Our emotional life in this post-lapsarian world is a source of interior conflict.  Emotions can rise within us without any engagement of the will.  But they always act so as to gain consent of the will so that they may endure.  Anger in this regard is no different.  Anger itself is a passion that is part of the irascible appetite meant to assist us in driving away an evil that is difficult to avoid.  It has two elements to it and it is the taking of offense and the taking of revenge.  Without the engagement of intellect and will, anger can arise when an evil is perceived.  Left unchecked or even consented to by the will, it can intensify making rational judgment difficult.  It can also be deliberately aroused.

Some examples might help us see how this works.  Suppose you are on a bus, keeping to yourself, when someone walks by and steps on your foot.  Without any thought, you feel angry.  You look up and see that it is an old woman who accidently put her cane on top of your foot.  You are now at the moment of judgment, should I be angry or not?  The emotion arose without any judgment or willing it, but the moment comes when you must decide whether it should persist.

Now change the example slightly.  When you look up it is a young man who is going up and down the aisle stomping on people’s feet.  You realize it was done deliberately and you must decide whether to allow the emotion of anger to persist or not.  In both of these examples the emotion of anger arose antecedently, but now you must “decide what to do with it.”  To multiply the examples, suppose further that when you get home, you begin to recall the actions of the young man and the more you think about it, the angrier you get.  As you will to reflect on the slight, you are deliberately willing the anger.

Using the three examples, we would say that in the case of the old woman once you judge it to be accidental your anger should dissipate.  With the young man your anger was probably justified.  But what about when you dwell upon it later on?  We clearly see that each of these examples highlights the inherent problem with “it depends on what you do with it”—it assumes that we know what to do with it.  That is, it neglects the fact that anger is more than just any other emotion, but also a capital vice.

Righteous Anger?

This is where the language of St. Thomas Aquinas is helpful because he speaks in terms of the “quantity” of anger and how it must be done according to right reason.  Anger may be justified (like in the case of the young man slamming your foot) but this does not make it righteous anger.  In order to be righteous anger it must seek to punish only those that deserve punishment and only in the measure in which they deserve it.  It must be moderate in its execution going only as far as is both necessary and allowed according to justice.  Finally it must be animated by motives of charity aiming at the restoration of order and amendment of the guilty.

The enumeration of these three conditions ought to give each one of us serious pause.  The only time we should “do something with our anger” is when all three conditions can be met.  Without the accompany virtues of meekness and justice, righteous anger is practically impossible.   St. James seems to be speaking in absolute terms when he says that “the wrath of man does not accomplish the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).

What then should we do with it?  According to St. Francis de Sales, we should mortify it, literally killing it when it arises— “better to learn how to live without being angry than to imagine one can moderate and control lawful anger… it is better to drive it away speedily than enter into a parley; for, if we give it ever so little leisure, it will become mistress of the place, like a serpent, who easily draws in his whole body where he can once get in his head…You must at the first alarm speedily muster your forces; not violently, not tumultuously, but mildly and yet seriously.””  Like all the vices, each time we allow our anger to go unchecked we create a bodily disposition that both increases the intensity of it and makes it easier to experience anger.  This includes not only full “rage mode”, but even seemingly small acts of impatience, flashes of temper, and harsh words.  Anger has a power to overcome reason, blinding it to every color but red, making it something that should not be lightly trifled with.

Mortification is one of those dirty Catholic words that needs to be understood, especially in this context.  The goal of mortifying our anger is not so that we will never be angry, but that we are able to bring it under the control of our judgment.  As St. Thomas reminds us, righteous anger is a “simple movement of the will, whereby one inflicts punishment, not through passion, but in virtue of a judgment of the reason” (ST II-II q.158, art 8).  This starts by doing as St. Francis de Sales suggests—“drive it away speedily”—but that is not the finish line.  We subdue our anger so as to unleash its goodness.

The Daughters of Wrath

If we are to drive it away, we must first recognize the effects of disordered anger, what St. Thomas calls the “daughters of wrath.”  These are the seemingly hidden ways innocuous ways in which we feed the beast of anger.  There are three sets of them that have to do with disordered thoughts, disordered speech and disordered acts (c.f. STII-II q.158, art 7).

The daughters of thought are with indignation and what St. Thomas refers to as swelling of the mind.  Indignation may be directed at “the person with whom a man is angry, and whom he deems unworthy.”  But it has a certain gravity to it that always causes the person to reflect on how vile the person whom he is angry at and how grave their injustices.  This leads to both a magnification and amplification of the actual offense.  Much anger is fed and expressed in our current political climate based upon the division of left and right.  “Swelling of the mind” is manifest in the angry man who “mulls over different ways and means whereby they can avenge themselves.”  So, while indignation causes focus on the imagined depravity of one’s “enemy”, “swelling of the mind” imagines ways in which one can gain vengeance against the evildoer.

The daughters of speech are clamor and contumely.  The former denotes disorderly and confused speech.”  This is essentially what we would call unintelligible ranting.  While the latter, is unnecessarily harsh and insulting language.  Likewise the daughters of acts are blasphemy (contumely directed to God) and quarreling.  Quarreling bears special mention because it means more than just “arguing.”  Argument is a good thing when it is in the service of the truth, but often degrades to quarrelsomeness as jealousy for our own ideas creeps in.  This daughter also manifests in the habit of having imaginary arguments in your head, with either real or imaginary foes.

With the awareness of the daughters of wrath, we can see how often we fall victim to them and why we may have so much difficulty in controlling our anger.  It is these daughters, because they are feeding our anger, that need to be mortified.  We need to mortify our imagination and memory not allowing it to dwell on real and imaginary slights.  We should mortify our speech by controlling our volume and tone of voice.  We should avoid arguments about things that really don’t matter and be willing to concede when arguments become quarrelsome.

“Anger can be a sin, but only if you don’t learn how to use it!”

Owning Our Hypocrisy

If a man was to read the gospels with a fresh mind, that is, without any pre-conceived notion of Who Jesus is and what He was trying to accomplish, he would quickly conclude that one of the worst sins was hypocrisy.  And in a certain sense, he would be right.  There is no group of sinners that Our Lord singles out more often than the hypocrites.  Knowing His profound distaste for this particular sin, it is not surprising that we, His followers, should vigilantly avoid it and keep any traces of it from creeping into our lives.  In many ways this should be one of the easiest sins to avoid because it is also one of the easiest sins to identify in ourselves.  We should know when we are posing to be something we are not.  But this may be oversimplifying the case because it has a subtle way of insinuating itself into our spiritual lives and spreading like a weed.  Therefore, it is fruitful for us to examine this vice more closely.

If lying is to signify by words something different from what is in one’s mind, then dissimulation is a form of lying in which the outward deed does not correspond to the inner intention.  To the topic at hand, hypocrisy is a type of dissimulation when a “sinner simulates the person of a just man” (ST II-II q.111, a 2).  Like all offenses against the truth, when practiced enough, one forgets the truth and begins to believe the untruth.  One starts seeing himself as just.  This was why Our Lord was so harsh with the Pharisees—they had become blinded to their hypocrisy and only by shining His light that the Truth could they be set them free.

Hypocrisy’s Deadly Roots

Rightly recognizing its capacity to kill our spiritual lives, we do all we can to avoid it.  The problem however is that we do too much, mostly because we have failed to make an important distinction.  St. Thomas doesn’t say that you must do everything with perfect intention in order to avoid hypocrisy.  That, unfortunately is the way most of us think of hypocrisy.  No, instead he says that hypocrisy consists in the intention of presenting ourselves as just.  An example might help see the distinction more clearly.  Two men enter an adoration chapel and prostrates themselves before the monstrance.   The first man does so in order to be seen by others and be thought a holy man.  His is an act, not of piety, but of hypocrisy.  The second man does so, not because he wants to adore Our Lord, but because he has always been taught that is what you are supposed to do with only a vague awareness of why.  This is far from being a perfect intention, but it is not hypocrisy.

This description helps to clarify why Our Lord spent so much time pointing hypocrisy out.  It can, and usually does, become a sin of those who have advanced a certain amount in their spiritual life.  At first, we have little interest in appearing to be religious and we may even have reason to hide it.  But as our friends change, our vanity can be directed towards our “spiritual” friends and hypocrisy creeps in.  A hypocrite has to see some value in faking it and thus it is a more “advanced” sin.  This makes Our Lord’s command to “go into your room and shut the door” (Mt 6:6) invaluable for avoiding hypocrisy.  We should perform acts of piety as if we have only an audience of One.

Counterfeit Hypocrisy

There is a further dimension of this that merits some explanation as well.  It is a fear of hypocrisy that keeps us from performing certain acts of piety.  This fear causes us to confuse the false piety of hypocrisy with weak acts of genuine piety.  We hold out until we can get fully behind what we are doing.  For example, a person sends you a novena to St. Joseph, asking you to pray it.  Deep down you believe novenas work, but you feel like you mostly would be going through the motions doing it.  If only your faith was a little stronger than you would do it.  Therefore, to avoid “feeling” like a hypocrite you don’t do it.

It should be clear that to do the novena would not be hypocritical, but what is not clear is that you will never get to the point where your faith is “a little stronger” without doing acts that are weaker.  Faith and the accompanying virtue of piety are habits in our soul and only grow when they are exercised.  By starting with the weak, imperfect acts, they eventually grow to full bloom.  This is not merely going through the motions, but instead adding a little more fervor, a little stronger intention, each time we do them.  With each repeated act, God does His part by strengthening these virtues further because He will not be outdone in generosity.  Before long you not only develop a devotion to St. Joseph, but the Communion of Saints becomes not just a sterile dogma, but a living reality in your life.  This cannot happen however without those first weak baby steps.  “I believe Lord, help my unbelief!”


Our Jealous God

Public revelation was officially closed with the death of John the Apostle.  This does not preclude, from time to time, God raising up prophets, fashioned in the mold of the Jeremiah, Isaiah and Elijah, to help the People of God apply the contents of that revelation to their current times.  History is rife with them—St. Athanasius, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Faustina to name a few.  The Spirit of Prophecy is a key component in the Mystical Body of Christ even in our own day.  Unfortunately, like the days of Israel of old, the spirit of false prophecy is always lurking at the door.  There will always be those who claim to speak on behalf of God and yet are lending their voices to the enemies of humanity.  It is to one of those groups that I address this post today—the self-styled prophets who claim “God does not care if…”

This spirit of false prophecy is ubiquitous, especially in our “YOLO” culture.  Who among us has not met one of these prophets?   They are quick to tell us, “God does not care if we go to Mass.” Or, “God does not care if we call Him the right name.”  They proclaim, “God does not care how we worship Him.”  And even remind us that “God does not care if you eat meat on Fridays.”  And “God does not care if you smoke weed.”  These are but a few of their prophetic utterances, but you get the point.  These Bizarro John the Baptists repeatedly reassure us that God loves us as long as we are good people and enable us all to relax a little bit, if for no other reason that we have found out that God has sanctioned our drug habit.  They are great prophets of, well, not exactly peace, but at least of “chilling out.”

God’s New Name

Just as Jonah was stopped in his tracks when his message was received, these luminous prophets are often thrown off when they are asked “how do you know God doesn’t care?’  Probing, you find that what they really mean is that if they were God, then they wouldn’t care.  God is really their prophet.  But it is not the audacity of their message that is the most distressing element, but instead the image of God that emerges if we are to worship “I CARE NOT” rather than “I AM WHO AM”.

All of us tend to chill out in our old age, and “I CARE NOT” is no different.  Given all the time of dealing with humanity, He has chilled.  At least that is what our prophets would have us believe.  But the image this God invokes is actually just as scary as the so-called “fire and brimstone” God they are trying to extinguish.  Their God may be laid back, but He is still merely a Divine Auditor concerned only with tallying up our actions.  He may not put as many things in the left-hand side of the ledger, but he still has his ledger.  Presenting him as mellow does nothing to remove this image.  It is a scarier image because we have no way, other than by listening to these prophets, to actually know which belongs in which column.  If “God doesn’t care” does that mean these are good actions then?  Or do we now have an indifferent column?  If he is mostly indifferent about what I do, then how do I even know he cares about me?  Most people will take the God who hates over the God who is indifferent—at least the former also loves.  Indifference and love, bumper stickers to the contrary, cannot coexist.  In trying to avoid sterile moralism, the Prophet of Indifference manages to castrate God Himself.

Why God Cares

These prophets can still challenge us however, even if it is by way of an end around.  They force us to ask the question why God even cares what we do.  As we probe we find that St. Thomas Aquinas asked the same question, framing it in terms of sin as an offense against God.  In Book 3 of the Summa Contra Gentiles, the Angelic Doctor says that “God is offended by us only because we act contrary to our own good.”  In other words, God cares so deeply about each one of us that He takes offense only when we do something that ultimately harms us.  And what are those things?  We call them sins, but they are essentially things that move us off the path that our nature and our supernatural calling has put us on.  There are some things that help us to advance towards this goal (we call these good), some things that stop us (venial sins) and some things that knock us off the path entirely so that we need His help to get back on the path (mortal sins).  In short, God not only cares what we do and don’t do, He says that He does so as a jealous lover.  He knows that giving ourselves to any other lover than Him ultimately ends in frustration that could be eternal.  But choosing Him as our love, we can love all those other things in Him.  “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Mt 6:33).  This is not to trivialize just how bad sin is—it is still an offense against Almighty God—but to place it within the context of a filial relationship rather than as Judge and defendant.  God, in all eternity, is Father but only with respect to creation is He judge.  It is of His nature to be Father and not to be Judge.  See, He does care what we call Him.

In his sermon entitled “Jewish Zeal, A Pattern to Christians,” Blessed John Henry Newman reminds us of the best weapon with which to combat these false prophets.  He says that Christians should not be taking up the sword in the manner of Elijah when he encountered the false prophets of his day, but instead to capture the spirit of mind that animated his actions.  Zeal, Newman says,

“consists in a strict attention to His commands—a scrupulousness, vigilance, heartiness, and punctuality, which bears with no reasoning or questioning about them—an intense thirst for the advancement of His glory—a shrinking from the pollution of sin and sinners—an indignation, nay impatience, at witnessing His honour insulted—a quickness of feeling when His name is mentioned, and a jealousy how it is mentioned—a fullness of purpose, an heroic determination to yield Him service at whatever sacrifice of personal feeling—an energetic resolve to push through all difficulties, were they as mountains, when His eye or hand but gives the sign—a carelessness of obloquy, or reproach, or persecution, a forgetfulness of friend and relative, nay, a hatred (so to say) of all that is naturally dear to us, when He says, ‘Follow me.’”

Let us go forth in this same spirit.

Sign of Contradiction

In what has been labeled as a landmark study into various institutional responses to child sex abuse, the Australian Royal Commission targeted two particular practices of the Catholic Church; deeming them as directly contributing to abuse.  There is a certain familiar ring to them with the Commission recommending that the Church remove the canonical seal of Confession as pertains to sexual abuse and make clerical celibacy voluntary.  Many in the media, both Down Under and abroad, have criticized the Church for being too quick to dismiss the recommendations of the Commission.  Of course, the Church has been listening to these “recommendations” for many years now and so has good reason for rejecting them out of hand.  Nevertheless, it is always instructive for us to look at why, particularly the recommendation to change the practice of celibacy, is not a real solution.

To be fair, the Commission was quick to point out that clerical celibacy was not a direct cause of abuse but instead called it “a contributing factor,” especially since it “is implicated in emotional isolation, loneliness, depression and mental illness. Compulsory celibacy may also have contributed to various forms of psychosexual dysfunction, including psychosexual immaturity, which pose an ongoing risk to the safety of children.”  Furthermore, “for many clergy and religious, celibacy is an unattainable ideal that leads to clergy and religious living double lives, and contributes to a culture of secrecy and hypocrisy” (p. 71).

Statistics Don’t Lie but People Sometimes Use Them Wrong

Because we live in a world that increasingly relies on empirical observation, it is always helpful to begin by examining exactly how they came to their conclusions.  There can be no doubt that the Church in Australia, like the Church in the United States and the rest of the world, fostered a culture of abuse in the past.  There have been many effective safeguards put in place in the last decade but there is always room for improvement.  Still, there is some extreme speculation in what the Commission is saying.  To say that celibacy is a contributing factor with any degree of statistical confidence, you must be able to compare the incidence with non-celibates, with all other risk and institutional factors (including size) being equal.   To simply report raw numbers and unadjusted proportions comparing the Catholic Church (964 institutions) with Hinduism (less than 4 institutions) is highly misleading and can lead to spurious conclusions (see pp. 45-46).    They mention that the Church had the highest percentage of the total abuse cases, but there is no adjustment in that percentage for the fact that it is by far the largest institution.  It is like comparing the number of murders in Billings, Montana, with those in New York City without making any adjustment for the population size.  Per capita the incidence of abuse within the Church is no higher than other religious institutions, making any claim that celibacy is a contributing factor spurious at best.  In a peer reviewed setting, what they reported in their numbers of victims would have never passed even the most cursory of scrutiny.

They may have data to support this claim, but it would have been remarkable since no other group has found the incidence among priests to be any higher than other religious denominations and some have even found it to be lower.  If you really want to know the truth as to the incidence of abuse, follow the money.  Since the 80s insurance companies have offered sexual misconduct coverage as a rider on liability insurance and they have found that the Catholic Church is not at any additional risk than other congregations.  In fact, because most abuse claims involve children, the only risk factor they do include is the number of children’s programs they have (for more on this, see this Newsweek article).

The Unattainable Ideal

There is also a familiar tone to their contention that compulsory clerical celibacy is an “unattainable ideal” for many of the clergy.  In fact, it is similar to the response that Our Lord gave to the Apostles when they questioned Him regarding “becoming a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom of God” (Mt 19:12).  It is a calling based on a very high ideal, an ideal that can never be attained unless there is a particular call—”Whoever can accept this ought to accept it” (Mt 19:12).  It is both a free choice and a calling to a high ideal, but God always equips when He calls.

The point is that it is an unattainable ideal for all of the clergy without the necessary graces attached to the call.  But it is still a fallen man who accepts the call and thus the possibility for infidelity always remains real.  But just because some men fail, does not mean that the Church should throw away the ideal.

What this really betrays is a hidden assumption that everyone is making.  Priests are human just like everyone else and when they itch they must scratch.  We do not understand what celibacy is and therefore assume the solution to the problem is an orgasm.  If we can set it so that this orgasm occurs in a licit situation then we will rid the priesthood of this problem.  But again, if that were the case no married men would do something like this.

This is where JPII’s elixir of Theology of the Body comes in.  In man who has been redeemed by Christ, sexual desire is meant to be the power to love as God loves.  Nuptial love is the love of a total giving of self.  It is in the body’s “capacity of expressing love: that love precisely in which the person becomes a gift—and by means of this gift—fulfills the very meaning of being and existence” (JPII General Audience 16 January 1980).  Marriage and Procreation aren’t the only ways to love as God loves.  These are simply the original models that God gave us “in the beginning”.  Anytime we image Christ in giving up our bodies for others we express the nuptial meaning of the body.

With this in mind we can begin to understand celibacy.  Celibate life can only flow from a profound knowledge of the nuptial meaning of the body.  Anyone who chooses this vocation out of fear of sex or some deep sexual wound would not be responding to an authentic call from Christ (JPII General Audience 28 April 1982).  Celibacy is meant to be an anticipation of Heaven where we are neither married nor given in marriage.  It is a witness to the resurrection of the glorified body.  In other words, those who forego marriage in this life do so in anticipation of the “marriage of the Lamb”.

The Commission simply sees no value in celibacy and therefore is quick to dismiss it.  It is a sign of contradiction and therefore “has to be the problem” even if there is no way to prove it.  They rightly call it an ideal, but then fail to grasp the value of that ideal.  It is an ideal because it is also a sign—a sign that is valuable to the rest of society as a whole.  It serves a complimentary role to marriage and helps to show its true meaning.  It is an anticipation of our future life where our union with Love itself will be more intimate than marriage.  But it also shows the great worth of marriage itself because it is a sacrifice of great worth.

The Truth on Lying


One of my favorite all-time commercials is a Geico ad in which President Lincoln is asked by his wife whether or not the dress she is wearing makes her backside look fat.  As cleverly designed as the commercial is, and as refreshing as “Honest Abe” might be in our current political climate, this short ad is particularly compelling because it forces the viewers to think about the nature of lying.  Drenched in a culture that has shown a particular allergy to truth-telling, we “spin the facts” and color-code our lies, bleaching them of any wrong doing.  As lies increase, trust decreases, turning us all into masters of suspicion. Lies will break down any society, the family included, but there is an ever-greater danger hidden in the weeds of lying—losing a grip on what is real.  Telling a lie over and over, we can easily forget the truth.  As philosopher Hannah Arendt put it, “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth…but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world…is being destroyed.”   It is time to tell the truth about lying.

Most of us know a lie when we tell it, but there is a shadow over truth telling that creates a grey area.  That is because we lack a really good definition.  Even the Church has struggled to come up with a good definition.  In the 1994 edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the definition of lying was “to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth(CCC 2483)When the official Latin text was released 3 years later, the italicized part was left out, rendering lying as “speaking or acting against the truth in order to lead someone into error.”  This is true as far as it goes, but it does not shine enough light to remove the shadow.  This is why St. Augustine’s definition is especially helpful.  He says that lying is deliberately speaking (verbally or non-verbally) contrary to what is on one’s mind.  In other words, there is an opposition between what one speaks and one what thinks in lying.

Loving the Truth

Because most people look at lying as mostly a legal issue, it is first important for us to discuss what makes lying wrong.  Our communicative faculties have as their end the ability to convey our thoughts.  When we lie, that is when we say something that is contrary to what we are thinking, we are abusing that power.  Notice that in this teleological (looking at the purpose of the power) approach circumstances do not matter.  Lying is always wrong.

Seen another way, we can make further sense of the intrinsically evil nature of lies.  Our Lord is pretty harsh in His condemnation of lying; calling those who lie the devil’s offspring “because he is the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44).  There are no such thing as white lies.  A lie is an offense against the truth, the same reality that God, in His Providence, has orchestrated.  That is, all lies, are primarily offenses against God because we are rebelling against the way things are and revolting against His ordering of things.  It is our love for God and with gratitude for His Providential care that we should love the truth so much that we would never lie.

In this case, removing the white does not necessarily remove the grey area until we can answer what constitutes lying.  Recall Augustine’s definition of a lie as the willful communication of an idea that is contrary to what one is thinking.  This definition is preferred because it removes the situation where the speaker is wrong in their thinking from the realm of lying.  If your son did not know he had homework and then told you he didn’t then that would not be lying.  He communicated the truth as he understood it.  Similarly with joking or story telling where the purpose is to convey irony or illustrate a deeper truth.  Many people say “I was just kidding” when they are caught in a lie, so again this is something we all naturally seem to grasp.  Regardless, at a certain point—like when the person asks “are you joking?” –it ceases to be a means of laughter or truth telling and becomes lying

Intuitively we grasp that to forget or joke around is not the same thing as lying.  But it is the so-called hard cases that make it more difficult.  For example, there is the oft-cited situation of the Nazi asking where the Jews are hidden. It was an attempt, although not precise enough, to deal with these hard cases that motivated the authors of the Catechism to include the clause “who has a right to know the truth” in the original definition.  It would seem that the only way out of this Catch-22 would be to lie because it is “the lesser of two evils.”

Living the Truth

It is necessary as this point to make the distinction between deception and lying.  All lies are deception, but not all deception is lying.  There are times when deception might be necessary, especially when the interlocutor plans to use the information in order to commit some evil.  Although our communicative faculties have as their purpose the communication of the truth as we know it, this does not mean that we have an obligation to communicate the truth.  In fact, the obligation may be to remain silent such as when you are keeping a secret.  Likewise the obligation to communicate the truth does not mean it has to be communicated in the clearest fashion.   But because lying is intrinsically evil, that is, it can never be ordered to the good, it can never be a means of deception.

Protecting the truth from those who have no right to the truth is done then not through lying but through what is called Mental Reservation.  A mental reservation is a way of speaking such that the particular meaning of what one is saying is only one possible meaning.  There are two classes of mental reservation—a strict mental reservation involves restricting it in a way that the listener could never guess what you mean.  This would be a form of lying.  A broad mental reservation means that the average listener could figure out one’s meaning, even if it is not very clear.  Blessed John Henry Newman uses the classic example from St. Athanasius’ life when he was fleeing persecution and was asked “Have you seen Athanasius?”  The great enemy of the Arians replied, “Yes, he is close to here.”  Obviously there are a number of ways this could have been interpreted, but it was not a falsehood strictly speaking.  A similar approach could be taken with the example of the Nazis and the Jews but never in a way that would constitute lying.

What if however the soldiers had continued to probe Athanasius, forcing him to answer directly?  Broad mental reservation may be employed for as long as possible but when it fails, one may, out of a love for the truth, simply remain silent and suffer whatever consequences may come from that.  Likewise, many people tell other’s secrets simply because the other person asked and “I wasn’t going to lie.”  One can keep a secret without lying, but it may mean suffering at the hands of the interrogator.  However, before my teen readers see this as a Jedi mind trick and add it to their war-chest to use against their parents, this only applies when the person in question does not have a right to the truth.  When the person has a right to the truth, you have an obligation to give it to them in as clear a manner as possible.  There are some, especially in the Church, that rely on mental reservation to mask heresy.

In the commercial, Honest Abe, wanting to avoid lying, answers that the dress does make Mary Todd look a little fat.  Is this the only possible answer he could have given, or could he have exercised a mental reservation?  I’ll leave that for the readers to answer and debate in the comments section below…

The Power of Confession

In recent months the world has had numerous opportunities to be left in awe at the destructive force of nature.  But earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes and wild fires are nothing compared to the most powerful force at work in the world—the Sacraments.  These seemingly benign ceremonial rituals have the power to render Almighty God Himself captive in what looks like bread and wine, infect the omniscient Deity with amnesia of evil committed, and make mere mortal men into something akin to gods.   And it is the Catholic Church that has been given the ability to harness this power, unleashing it upon her faithful children whenever they desire it.

Yet, if we the Faithful are honest, we mostly go through the motions when it comes to the Sacraments.  Surely something so powerful does something to us we reason.  Sure, we would like it to do more, but truth be told, our hearts are not in it.  We all want to approach Our Lord in the Eucharist with our hearts hurting because we love so deeply, but we easily succumb to distraction and our desire deflates.  We all want to enter the confessional with the tears of sorrow, but no matter how hard we try, they never come.  It is not that we don’t care, it’s just that we have not a clue as to how to engage our hearts.  How can we form hearts ready to be overpowered by Christ in His Sacraments?

What is Love?

Many well-meaning apologists have said something like “love is not a feeling.  Love is an act of the will.”  Many of us have swallowed this whole and are very suspicious of our feelings.  Subsequently, our hearts atrophy.  Even if there is a certain primacy of the will, any love that lacks feeling is somehow incomplete and its coldness can, quite frankly, be pretty scary.  What our friends really should say is “love is not only a feeling.”   For a person to fully love, they must love fully, that is, with a love that flows from both soul and body.

When Our Lord appeared to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and revealed His burning heart to her, He complained of receiving only “coldness…in this Sacrament of Love.”  In other words, what love He did receive in the Eucharist was love that was heartless.  This was not a concern of just the 17th Century, but one that was on Our Lord radar all along.  In fact when Our Lord was asked what the greatest commandment was He replied that it was to “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind”(Mt 22:37).  It is the heart that is primary.

You might object and say that I am misinterpreting what He said.  God does not command a feeling of us that we are incapable of producing.  First we must clarify what we mean when we speak of the heart.  It is not just our physical heart nor is it just a collection of bodily emotions.  When Sacred Scripture refers to the heart it locates it as the seat of joy and deep love.  That is, it is viewed as the “place” where our emotions are elevated or spiritualized by our intellect and will.  The Fall crushed our hearts.  Christ came to restore them to their rightful place under the dominion of intellect and will enabling us to do everything with a bodily intensity.

Second, and most relevant to the discussion at hand, Christ never commands something of us without in turn also empowering us to do it.  In other words, Christ is commanding us to have a feeling we are incapable of producing because He is determined to give us the power to produce those feelings.  The biggest obstacle to pure love is, according to Scripture, a hardened heart and Christ wants to make them come alive again.  It should not surprise us then that if He is going to heal that hidden place in us where body and soul meet that He would create material things that have a hidden spiritual power in them.  In other words the Sacraments, especially Confession, not only heal our souls but our hearts as well.

While the Sacraments contain grace ex opere operato, the amount of grace we receive depends upon our readiness.  One Confession contains enough grace to heal us completely.  All that stands in the way is our own subjective disposition.  Therefore, if we are to maximize our yield, it is instructive to look at the Sacrament itself.

The Sacrament of Confession

For the Sacrament of Confession to be valid three things are required of the penitent—sorrow, confession and amendment.  All three being necessary it is hard to rank them in importance, but for most of us there is an over-emphasis on the confession aspect.  The other two are equally important, especially because they directly involve our hearts.  Having sorrow, or to use the classic term contrition, is first and foremost an act of understanding and will.  We understand that what we did was wrong either because we have offended Our Beloved (perfect contrition) or because we fear punishment (imperfect contrition).  To feel sorry is not necessary.  But truth be told even though we may not feel sorry, we should.  In other words true sorrow of soul should be accompanied by tears of sorrow, especially if we are conscious that we have offended One Who is worthy of all my love.

Likewise with our amendment or penance.  The priest assigns a penance to us to provide suitable satisfaction for the sins we have confessed and through our the grace of the Sacrament there is a certain remission of the temporal punishment of sin and the curing of evil inclinations.  The actual amount is proportional to both the measure of the penance imposed (an argument for asking for giving/asking for harder penance) and the disposition of the person making satisfaction.  That disposition of course has to do with having a firm intention to repair the harm done by the sin, but again it would be more complete if we did so accompanied by sorrow and determination exhibited through our bodies.

There seems to be a Catch-22 of sorts in that for the Sacrament to have a greater effect on our hearts, we have to awaken our hearts, which we already said we can’t do.  That is why we also believe that the Sacrament itself entitles the penitent to all the actual graces needed to deepen our sorrow, increase self-knowledge, and make firmer our purpose of amendment (c.f. Pius XII, Mystici Coroporis Christi, 88).  Obviously the more deeply you experience sorrow, the more intensely you will make satisfaction for your sins.  In short, our hearts come into the orbit of the Sacred Heart and we begin to experience an acceleration due to gravity with each Confession made from the heart.  Confession absolutely forgives our sins and removes the eternal punishment for them, but it is only through frequent reception of the Sacrament that we can hope to win healing for our hearts.  Through frequent Confession, our will becomes stronger not only in resisting sin but also in stirring up our bodily passions to more fully participate in our sorrow and penance.

When Jesus healed the paralytic and forgave his sins he literally dazzled the crowds because of His Supreme Power.  Matthew says that the “crowds saw this they were struck with awe and glorified God who had given such power to men” (Mt 9:8).  We too should marvel at this tremendous power and make Confession a regular habit.

The Great Sin

There is an unwritten rule in the Catholic blogosphere that if you want people to read your stuff, don’t include the word sin in the first twenty-two words.  There is also a written rule that you should not lie, so I will admit that I made that up in order to avoid jumping right into the topic of which few of us like to speak: sin.  More specifically, it has to do with what the Book of Sirach calls “the beginning of all sin” (Sir 10:13) or, what CS Lewis called the “one vice of which no man in the world is free; which everyone in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves…There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves.  The more we have of it in ourselves the more we dislike it in others” (Mere Christianity).  He, of course, is referring to the most destructive of the Seven Deadly Sins, pride.

The fact that we can easily perceive pride in others and not in ourselves is because we only, as Lewis says, “imagine” we are guilty of it ourselves.  We usually only have a vague sense we are plagued by it, but cannot see it clearly because we only know what it looks like exteriorly.  So we shun compliments and avoid things like bragging, but make little headway in actually overcoming it.  What we really need is a sketch of what it looks like interiorly; how it animates much of what we do.  For help on this we can turn to one of the oldest Doctors of the Church, St. Gregory the Great.  In his long book called The Morals of Job, he provides the blueprints of pride by separating it into four specific kinds.

The Four Species of Pride

Because of its clandestine character, it is first necessary to understand what pride is.  Pride is, according to St. Thomas, a disordered desire for excellence.  Notice that he doesn’t say it is the disorder of desiring excellence, but a disordered desire for excellence.  That means that there is an ordered desire for excellence meaning that in the human constitution there is a natural desire for excellence (c.f. 2Cor 10:13-17).  We are made with a desire for goodness, both material and spiritual, and therefore excellence is simply a measure of the amount of goods one possesses.  This awareness that we have a natural desire for excellence helps us to better understand why denying compliments or boasting is little more than a doggy paddle amidst the torrent of pride in our hearts.

This also helps to elucidate why it is so difficult to escape pride’s clutches.  Pride is a constitutive element of man’s fallen nature because it is the first sin.  In the case of both Lucifer and then Adam and Eve, their fall was because they sought an excellence that was disordered.  Both the fallen angels and fallen men sought to “be like God” even if their manner of approach was different.  “Pride goes before the fall” (Prov 16:18) is not just a psychological fact but also a historical one.  In trying to become “self-made” men raising ourselves from the pit in which we fell, pride is always looming.

What is Pride?

Returning to the teachings of Pope St. Gregory, we find that he assigns the four species of pride accordingly, “…either when they judge that they have their goodness from themselves, or when if they believe that their goodness has been given to them from above, they think that they have received it because of their merits, or surely when they boast that they have what they do not have, or when, despising others, they desire to appear to have in a singular way what they have” (Morals of Job XXIII, 13).

The first species has to do with the source of our personal excellence, that is, we can judge that it comes from ourselves.  It is always true that excellence achieved without outside help is better than that which is received with help.  Thus the myth of the self-made man.  As Christians we acknowledge that “every good thing comes from above,” (James 1:17) and yet this species of pride has a subtle way of insinuating itself into our heart through what I would call “Christian pride.” So common is this Christian pride that it bears some unpacking to make it clearer.  I am not saying that being a Christian is not an excellence in which we should derive a form of healthy pride.  The snare comes when we see ourselves as better than others, rather than simply better off.

Can we honestly think that when so many of our contemporaries are blind to the truth that we somehow figured it because of our own sagacity?  The conflict with the culture can lead us to look down upon others seeing them as non-Christians rather than Christians to be.  It is hubris of this sort that turns many people away from Christianity.  “But for the grace of God go I” is more than a cute saying.  It is a foundational truth upon which humility is built.  Faith is a completely unmerited gift.  The teachings of the Church, especially in a time of moral turmoil are a gift.  The wisdom that enables us to see them as true is a gift.  The perseverance to remain steadfast too is a gift.

Closely related to this is the second species of pride by which we acknowledge the excellence as coming from above, but somehow see ourselves as meriting it.  In examining our hearts we can find this form in our attitude towards other people, especially in their sins.  All too often we demand justice for others and mercy for ourselves.  We look for ways to accuse others while excusing ourselves.  This is the competitive nature of pride, thinking excellence comes by knocking other people down a rung or two.  How often when someone suffers, even if it is self-imposed, do we think “they got what they deserved”?  But when we suffer, that thought never crosses our minds.

Pride also causes us to play a game of pretend by “boasting of what he has not.”  This is where we have developed a persona and thus do everything we can to keep that image up, usually causing great suffering while doing so.  This is a favorite one of Social Media users but also a particular problem in certain Catholic circles.  In attempting to present to the world an image of what they think a perfect Catholic should be like, they are ascribing to themselves an excellence they have not.  Truth be told, it is usually not even a true excellence.  The “perfect” Catholic family looks like a small army that is at war, each one conformed to Christ crucified.  That is usually not a pretty picture according to the standards of the world.

The competitive nature of pride also is the genesis of the fourth species of pride —“when a man despises others and wishes to be singularly conspicuous.”  This is the pride of the “most interesting man in the world,” or if you prefer a more biblical example, the Pharisee who thanked God he was not like the rest of humanity (Lk 18:9-14).  He had true excellences, fasting and tithing, but he was riddled by pride because he thought this made him “singularly conspicuous.”  This is the worst form of pride and is actually the sin of Lucifer himself.  This form of pride causes us to constantly need to put others down in order to make ourselves look better.  As the worst of the four types, it also results in the most serious myopathy.  The only barometer for how bad we have it is to ask how much we hate it when people snub us, don’t “respect” us, show off or patronize us.

Around the turn of the 20th Century, Cardinal Merry del Val composed what is now called the The Litany of Humility.  Praying this regularly helps us not only to obtain the grace to overcome pride, but helps motivate us by enabling us to see how deeply entrenched pride is in our hearts.  There is an inverse proportionality of sorts in the zeal in which we make this prayer and the amount of pride we have.  It is also great material for our personal examen.  “Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it…”


On Absolution without Confession

At the heart of Christianity is freedom; for it was for “freedom’s sake that Christ set us free” (Gal 5:1).    So it is rather strange that the two things we fear most are the very same things He freed us from—death and sin.  We do not like to think or talk about either except when it comes to denying their reality.  It is this self-deceptive practice that compels me to offer the previously promised second example of our painful plucking and splitting of theological hairs.

The average Catholic probably can’t name all twelve Apostles, but they can tell you the conditions for mortal sin.  That is because they are sure to have heard a homily or three about it in one of the Masses that they didn’t miss.  They have learned that for a sin to be mortal it must be grave matter and it must have been done with full knowledge and consent.  In a previous age the emphasis was always on the “grave matter” part.  With a cultural turn to the subjective, the emphasis is now on the personal aspects—knowledge and consent—and almost always with the goal of absolution without confession.  If you can absolve from the pulpit then the lines in Confession will shrink while the lines for Communion will grow.

The Pastoral Approach?

What makes this rather sticky is that technically Father is right.  For someone to be guilty of mortal sin, they must have done something that is particularly grave.  They must have known it was grave matter and they must have done it with full freedom.  That is solid moral theology, but, as will be obvious shortly, is bad pastoral practice.

The Prophet Jeremiah tells the people that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9).  His point is that the knowledge and intention of our actions are almost always hidden, even from ourselves.  Thanks to our fallen condition our capacity for self-deceit is quasi-omnipotent.  When faced with admitting our faults or justifying them, we will almost always choose the latter.  It is as if we are naturally trained in the art of moral hair splitting so that when Father or our favorite armchair theologian splits hairs on this issue it finds our sweet spot.

Once can see how this might lead to a rejection of the existence of mortal sin.  It may exist in theory, but is practically non-existent except for a few of the most hardened of sinners.  If we can’t know two of the three conditions with any surety, then there is no reason to worry about it.

This is a sure sign of the collective insanity caused by Original Sin.  The reasonable man, when faced with a large mass protruding from his abdomen would not go to the doctor because he does not feel bad.  He would go because he has an objective, measurable sign that he may have cancer.  So too with mortal sin.  When all objective signs point to mortal sin, the reasonable man would go to Confession.  Like the man with the tumor, he assumes the worst and goes to the Divine Physician’s clinic in the confessional.  It may be nothing serious, but when it comes to the health of our soul we should assume the worst.  The Good Doctor will sort out whether you actually have a spiritual cancer growing in your soul, but either way you have had an encounter with the living Christ in the Confessional.  Christ has already paid dearly for the premium and empowered His ministers to forgive sins, why not take advantage of it?

Why the Doctors of the Church Did Not Split Hairs

There are valid reasons why there was a movement away from emphasizing the “grave matter,” especially in the post-Jansenist Church.  But we ought to seriously consider why the moral Doctors of the Church always used “mortal sin” and “grave matter” interchangeably.  I am sure someone has counted how many times he did this, but St. Thomas when examining virtues and vices in the Summa almost always asks “Is X a mortal sin?”  He was well aware of the conditions of mortal sin but his goal, even in his Summary of Theology, was to be pastoral.  When in doubt Confession was the remedy.

For the world’s loss of a sense of sin to have crept into the Church is absolutely absurd.  The Church exists to forgive sins.  To explain away their existence is to make herself obsolete—“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’  And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’”(Jn 20:21-23).

Scrupulosity is an emotional hyper-sensitivity to sin.  It is a common aspect at the beginning of the Christian journey and tends to subside as the person progresses in the stages of holiness.  It is when it persists that it becomes a real problem.  It is these relatively few tortured souls that many have found their justification for de-emphasizing the “grave matter” aspect of mortal sin.   First of all, a person plagued by a case of the scruples already has a conscience that will not rest.  It is constantly being challenged by the emotional feeling of sin.  Taking away an objective measure and leaving it completely as a subjective measure leaves them in a worse state of confusion.  Their mind may tell them one thing, but the feeling can overwhelm them causing a great deal of inner turmoil that will not cease until they can set their conscience at ease in Confession.

Assuming that you are not seeing a regular confessor and combating a prolonged case of scrupulosity, I would like to make brief mention of something that is related to this.  Be very leary of a priest when he tells you in the Confessional that something is not a sin .  If you do not know your own heart, then (except in the rare cases of an enlightenment by God) neither does he.  His only judgment is whether you are contrite and have a firm purpose of amendment.  He is not a tribunal of one to judge whether something is sinful or not, that is God’s role.  If you confess something that is not sinful, then God will figure it out.  Better to find out later it was not a sin then to have it before you on Judgment Day.  While we cannot be sure of the judgment rendered on that awful day, we can be sure that there will be no hair splitting.

The Hidden Vice

Soren Kierkegaard once remarked that envy was hidden and unconscious for most men.  This might explain why we find the seeds of it scattered throughout our culture.  There is the advertising industry for example which is built entirely on the goal to stir envy for things that we don’t really want except for the fact that other people have them.  So deeply embedded is envy that it is even institutionalized in the pitting of the poor against the rich (or women against men or nearly every other class conflict) in a quasi-communistic class struggle that our liberal democracy has adopted.  Therefore, it is instructive to shine a light on the havoc this vicious habit can create in our lives.

Envy has long been considered to be one of the Seven Deadly Sins, or, more aptly named Seven Capital Sins.  These “sins” are called Capital sins not because they are sins per se, but because they act as motivating forces for the actual sins we commit.  In short, one does not commit envy, but instead commit a sin because you are envious.  Envy is like a tree that produces rotten fruit.  Until we expose the roots of the tree, we will never be rid of its fruit.  The tree of envy is known by its tendency to, as St. Thomas says, experience “sorrow in the face of another’s good.”

The Sorrow of Envy

While this definition is correct, it needs to be nuanced a bit so that we do not chop down the wrong tree.  There is a holy envy that St. Thomas calls zeal in which we experience sorrow not because another person has something, but because we don’t.  We look at some good that another person has that we know we do not have and our sorrow moves us to work zealously to obtain that good thing.  In other words we grieve not because the other person has the good, but because we don’t.

Envy, on the other hand, grieves simply because the other person has that good.  It has a competitive quality about it in that the other’s greatness seems to subtract from my own.  This is why envy follows on the heels of pride and is the “second sin.”  Lucifer committed the sin of pride and then begrudged mankind for the good that he had lost.  It is by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are allied with him experience it” (Wisdom 2:24).  The first sin of man was pride, “to be like God.”  The second sin was “crouching at the door” (Gn 4:7) when sadness over God’s favor toward Abel, led Cain not to “do well” but to kill his brother.

It is ultimately envy that led directly to the death of Our Lord.  As Venerable Fulton Sheen articulates, “Annas was envious of His innocence; Caiaphas was envious of His popularity; Herod was envious of His moral superiority; the scribes and Pharisees were envious of His wisdom…And in order that He might no longer be person to be envied, they reputed Him with the wicked.”  Envy was the cause of the death of Peter and Paul and a cause of division in the early Church.  When the Corinthian community begins to form factions, Pope St. Clement sends them a letter reminding them just how deadly envy can be.

There are two reasons why envy is an especially strong temptation for us as 21st Century Americans.  The first is that we are a people that is obsessed with equality.  When everyone is equal in all ways, envy will seem justified and you will hardly recognize it for what it is.  If we are all equal, then we must do all that we can to level the playing field.

I alluded to the second reason earlier when I mentioned about the competitive nature of envy.  In a world that is mostly governed by a philosophical materialism, envy will seem like merely a recognition of the truth.  If life is a zero sum game then what you have actually takes away from what I have.  If I am poor it is because you are rich—you have taken more than your fair share and there is nothing left for me.  But most of life is not a zero sum game, especially when it comes to spiritual goods (which tend to be the things we envy most) related to personal character.

Because envy remains somewhat hidden to us, we may only recognize it by its effects.  When I see another person’s greatness somehow diminishing mine, there will always be the accompanying temptation to detract that person.  Somehow dragging another person down acts as a way of raising ourselves up.  If we step back and see truthfully however we will acknowledge that we can only envy those when we think better than ourselves in some way.  As Pope St. Gregory says, “We witness against ourselves that the other is better” (Moralia of Job, 84).  Knowing this, we should be very slow to make judgments about other people.  Envy causes us to find chinks in the armor of everyone we meet looking for ways in which we are superior to them.  It also explains why we often don’t like someone else, even though we cannot explain why.  “There is just something about them I don’t like” usually means “there is just something about them that makes me envious.”

This tendency to misjudge another person that accompanies envy is also a good reason why we should be very slow to believe things that we hear about other people (Fulton Sheen goes so far as to say we should not believe 99% of what we hear about other people).  Envy is the most common cause of gossiping and one of the reasons why we should avoid entangling ourselves in it.  It is also the reason why you can’t go wrong thinking the best of another person until you have hard evidence to the contrary.

The Antidote to Envy

While the Devil essentially says to mankind, “As I envied you, so now you must envy one another,” Our Lord offers the antidote to envy, “As I have loved you, so must you love one another.”  Vices can only be overcome by an opposing virtue so that envy is overwhelmed by charity.  When tempted to envy, we should perform some charitable act towards that person.  It can be as simple as saying a prayer for them or offering a kind word to or about them.  Fasting or making some other sacrifice for that person, especially that the gift we envy might flourish, can remove any traces of envy in our hearts.  Once we have skin in the game, that is invest in the person and their gifts by making a sacrifice, we cannot help but to root for them.

Dante, in the Purgatorio, offers us a second virtue to overcome envy.  As he meets the envious in the Second Terrace of Purgatory, he finds them scrambling about, deprived of the gift of sight by having their eyes sewn shut with iron wire.  They become like blind beggars depending upon each other to avoid falling off the Mountain.  In this way they learn to rejoice in other’s goods.  In being forced to depend upon each other they learn magnanimity.  The magnanimous person has a “large soul” in that they can rejoice in the good of another as if it were their own.  The magnanimous person is not offended by natural or even supernatural inequality, but simply rejoices in the good that is to be found.

In each of the terraces of the Mount of Purgatory, Dante also proposes a Marian example of the virtue.  For envy he offers Our Lady’s intercession at the Wedding of Cana as the example.  It is Our Lady’s magnanimity that causes her to see the threat to the joyful celebration and take the concern (“Woman how does your concern affect me?”) on as if it were her own.  This is why the 12th Century Saint Bernard of Clairvaux once counseled “If you are tossed upon the waves of pride, of ambition, of envy, of rivalry, look to the star, call on Mary the star of the sea.”

Our Lady, Star of the Sea, pray for us.

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.

On Being Judgmental

“Do not judge, lest ye be called judgmental.”  In a world that has lost a sense of sin, there remains one unforgivable sin—being judgmental.  Many who are biblically illiterate can readily quote Jesus’ admonition “Stop judging, that you may not be judged” (Mt 7:1). According to the mainstream media, even Pope Francis is on board, citing his famous five word answer to a reporter’s question about gay priests—“Who am I to judge?”  Of course the Pope was deflecting a question that the reporter already knew the Church’s response to especially since he has repeatedly reaffirmed the perennial understanding of the Church that we are to “hate the sin, but love the sinner.”  Still the fear of being perceived as judgmental is real and causes many people to merely keep to themselves.  Is it possible to judge without being judgmental?

An important clarification is necessary at the outset.  When we examine the moral quality of any action, it must always be done from two perspectives.  First there is the object itself.  This is the objective act itself and it is what the action “looks like” from the outside. Then there is the subjective intention of the act or the end the person has in mind when choosing a particular action.

The object itself can and should always be judged according to reason, using the criteria of whether it can be ordered to the good or not.   The subjective intention on the other hand cannot always be judged.  And when it can’t, the judgment must left to God.  In other words we may objectively label an act as good or evil, but we cannot judge the subjective guilt of the person who performed the act.  But to be clear, while a good intention may lessen the moral gravity of an evil act, nevertheless a good motive cannot make the act itself good.  A bad motive however can make lessen the good of an otherwise good action.

An example might help us to see how this applies.  Suppose a young girl becomes pregnant and her parents “force” her to abort the child.  She decides that rather than being abandoned by her parents (with a baby) she will abide by their wishes.  The object, an abortion, is always a gravely evil action regardless of the circumstances.  There is never a good reason to justify getting an abortion.  However if we are to look at the subjective guilt it becomes obvious that judgment is difficult, if not impossible.  Certainly she was being coerced, but maybe she really wanted to abort the child anyway.  Or perhaps she didn’t want to but lacked the moral courage to stand up to her parents.  We can see that in both these scenarios there is some level of subjective culpability, but in truth there is no way to know by simply looking at the action.  She is guilty of something that is wrong, but she may not be fully guilty of the abortion.  And in truth, only God can really know the full extent of her guilt.  But again, even if somehow she were to have no culpability, the abortion would still be an objectively wrong act.

If we turn to St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae (ST II-II, q.60) we can glean some practical principles to live by with respect to judging others.  He begins by defining judgment as nothing more than a determination of what is just .  In other words it is related to the virtue of justice.  One of the requisite conditions for a judgment to be truly just is that it must be pronounced according to the right ruling of prudence and not proceed rashly from a judgment on some doubtful or hidden matter.  Herein lies the problem with making a judgment regarding the subjective intention—it is hidden from us (unless we are somehow told) and therefore we are guilty of making a rash judgment.  St. Thomas says that it is precisely rash judgment that Jesus condemns in the oft-quoted text “Judge not…”


It is not just that the other’s intention remains hidden that causes us to judge rashly.  In explaining why Jesus says one should remove the plank in one’s own eye before pointing out the one in your neighbor’s, St. Thomas says that only those who have a virtuous habit can justly judge whether a given act is good or bad.  Only one who knows truly what chastity “looks and feels like” can detect it in someone else.  And because they know the struggle in obtaining chastity, they can offer both understanding and encouragement to those who struggle with it.  So too with all the other virtues meaning that only a truly virtuous person can render a just judgment on the virtue of others.

The point St. Thomas is trying to make is that we will always judge according to our own way of looking at things.  We fall prey to what Pope St. John Paul II called the “Hermeneutic of Suspicion.”  One who lies, will tend to distrust everyone else and always think they are lying.  One who is disloyal, will look upon every disappointment by someone else as a deliberate betrayal.  As Ecclesiastes says “Even when walking in the street the fool, lacking understanding, calls everyone a fool” (Eccl 10:3).  We also are more readily apt to judge someone rashly whom we don’t particularly care for.  We are simply looking for validation as to why we shouldn’t like them.  The point though is that whenever we judge someone rashly (even if in the end we turn out right), we do harm to them.

Of course as a spiritual practice we can learn a lot about our predominant fault by simply watching what we accuse others of.  With this in mind, St. Thomas also has another practical suggestion for us regarding the habit of thinking well of others.  Because we do harm to a person by judging him rashly, “we ought to deem him good by interpreting for the best whatever is doubtful in him.”  While this may mean that we are deceived more often, it is still better to err in the direction of thinking well of a wicked man than to err by having an evil opinion of a good man.  In other words the cost of a false negative is greater than a false positive—both of us are harmed when I judge a good man wicked, but only I am harmed when judging a wicked man good.  In one case I am the perpetrator of evil, in the other I am more like Our Lord and the victim.

It goes without saying that everything Our Lord was teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and St. Thomas’ explanation pertains to making rash judgment.  But despite the world’s obsession with judgmentalism, there is a hidden truth there.  If we are willing to examine ourselves carefully we really are prone to be judgmental.  This is not a call to abandon judgment, but to participate in the Church’s mission that the Holy Father so clearly articulates in The Name of God is Mercy:

“The Church condemns sin because it has to relay the truth: ‘This is a sin.’ But at the same time, it embraces the sinner who recognizes himself as such, it welcomes him, it speaks to him of the infinite mercy of God.”

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.