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Am I a sinner? Do I really need to be redeemed?

In past articles on the foundational notions of the Archdiocese of Omaha’s pastoral plan, we began to flesh out the identity of Jesus, the one we seek to encounter. We established that Jesus is God, that he is Son of God the Father, and that he is the Messiah. Now we turn to the question of whether he is also our redeemer. To answer this, we first must figure out if we need to be redeemed – if, in fact, we are guilty of sin.
 
Now we all have an internal experience of sin. We willingly do things that are not good for ourselves and other people. At some point, we recognize that we should not have chosen what we did; we should have done something else. For who cannot identify with St. Paul when he says, “I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Rom 7:19)?
 
CHOOSING THE GOOD
Here, however, a problem enters in. How is it possible for me to choose to do something I do not want? How is it possible for me not to choose the good? The very reason I choose something is that I see it as good. Otherwise, I would not have chosen it. So I always choose good and not evil.
 
And if I really did choose something evil, it must have been beyond my ability to see the evil in it, at least when I chose it. Maybe I just made a mistake: I thought buying a fancy new speedboat would be good, but later I discovered the money should have been used for other things. This could also happen through psychological weakness, leading to mental confusion about the nature of the choice, or perhaps the influence of an outside factor, such as the behavior of other people whom I think I should imitate (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 387).
 
The whole idea of sin seems to be a misconception. We’re only capable of choosing the good, and if somehow we manage to do evil, it’s not our fault. Somehow we were mistaken, confused – not really ourselves. It’s our limited human nature, or some factor outside ourselves, that’s really to blame. So we’re not really sinners, even though it might appear that way.
 
On the other hand, by talking this way, we could easily be deceiving ourselves that we’re not responsible for the evil we do, when in fact we are. Pope Pius XII once famously said, “Perhaps the greatest sin in the world today is that men have begun to lose the sense of sin” (Radio Message of His Holiness Pius XII to Participants in The National Catechetical Congress of the United States in Boston, Oct. 26, 1946). If the pope is right, we’re not only responsible for our evil deeds, but also for convincing ourselves that they’re not as bad as they are.
 
WHAT IS SIN?
So what is the truth about sin? Is it merely an appearance or something real? To answer this question, we need a better idea of what we’re talking about. What is sin? At rock bottom, sin is inordinate love, where “love” is the will’s act of tending toward something it desires. An “inordinate” desire is the choice of a lesser good over a greater one. For example, the choice to play golf on Sunday morning instead of attend Mass is sinful (cf. CCC, no. 1849).
 
Human acts are called “inordinate” when they fail to conform to the order of proper acts and ends that God has established for the good of his creatures. Since this order is expressed in God’s eternal law, St. Augustine defines sin as “an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law” (“Contra Faustum,” 22, as found in CCC, no. 1849). It is God’s law that establishes this order of greater and lesser goods, to which one’s choices must conform if they are to be virtuous.
 
God first reveals the proper ends of acts on the natural plane through the natures of his creatures. Insofar as the moral acts of human beings are concerned, he reveals them through human nature. What truly fulfills human nature is the proper or correct object of moral choice; choices that miss this mark are sinful. Take an example: While the experience of pleasure may well indicate something suitable to human nature, such as good food, it would be wrong to pursue that pleasure by overeating, which is not healthy.
 
In ascertaining the good of human nature, it is important to consider the human person as a whole, as well as his participation in the common good. Taking vegetables from a neighbor’s garden might satisfy one’s hunger, but it is not good for the person as a whole because it destroys one’s right relationship with another. And again, a police officer might seek safety to preserve his bodily integrity; and yet he knows the good of the community, in which his own good is bound up, depends at times on placing his life in jeopardy.
 
GOD’S REVEALED LAW
On the supernatural plane, God reveals his will for the human person through revelation. The Old Law given to the people of Israel in the Old Testament is the first stage of this revelation; its moral principles are codified in the Ten Commandments (CCC, no. 1962). While it was certainly possible for men to discern right and wrong based on a rational reflection of their natural inclinations, in fact they were not very successful in doing so. So God provided the Decalogue as an act of mercy. 
 
Revealed law reached its perfection in the New Law, or the law of the Gospel. Jesus gives us this law and articulates it especially in the Sermon on the Mount (CCC, no. 1965). The New Law surpasses the Old Law in several ways: (1) it expresses a bold new vision of human flourishing: a life of beatitude in communion with God; (2) it provides a refined set of moral principles to attain that end; and (3) it offers the means for living out those principles, namely, the grace of the Holy Spirit, available through faith in Christ and the sacraments of his church.
 
Now it becomes clear that sin is always an offense against God: He establishes an order of goods for our benefit, and we violate that order by our actions. Thus sin ultimately harms our relationship with God. Implicit in every sin, then, is the mistaken assumption that we know better than he does what is good for us, and can determine it for ourselves (CCC, no. 1850).
 
THE REALITY OF SIN
We have seen, then, that every sin does involve the choice of a good. But that good, while good in some sense, is not really good for me. In the case of sin, we would call this an apparent good. Apparent goods may satisfy the desire of a passion or some other disordered faculty, but they are not truly good. True goods are morally upright: They benefit the person as a whole and convey him along the path toward union with God.
 
And while ignorance, psychological disorders, social customs and the like can reduce or even remove responsibility for an action (CCC, no. 1735), no one can claim to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are “written on the heart” of each person (CCC, no. 1860). As we have seen, all human beings by nature have an inborn sense of good and evil that reason discerns and uses to determine right conduct. These are principles of the natural law, because they arise from human nature and are naturally known through the exercise of reason (CCC, nos. 1954-1955). This law is what first gives us that “internal experience of sin,” when we realize our actions do not conform with our sense of what is right.
 
Dan Rossini is editor and general manager of the Catholic Voice. Contact him at djrossini@archomaha.org.

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