With all the attention paid to sin in both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and the long tradition of Catholic moral theological scholarship, it is interesting to me that the term continues to defy precise definition. Looking at the index of my hardcover Catechism, I found 142 distinct paragraphs on the issue of sin, evidence of just how hard it is to encompass the subject. For my own work, I tend to delineate sin in three general categories.
First, there is the general “sinfulness of man,” or what my brilliant Dominican professor would refer to in class as “post-lapsarian man.” The literal meaning is “after the fall” and it refers to the state of humanity after Adam and Eve’s bites at the apple in the Garden. Scholarship in recent centuries has generally concluded that the Adam and Eve story, though it appears early in the Bible (the second creation account), was probably a philosophical work written rather late in the Hebrew Testament era, a wisdom text akin to Job and Jonah. The thrusts of the Adam text include an effort to explain the origins of the sinful tendencies found universally and the reality of evil in the created world. The snake, for example, is described as “the most cunning of all the creatures God had made.” There is no mention of outside agency, such as the Devil, despite what was taught to me in my First Communion Class of 1956.
The nature of man, including his natural tendency to sin, is an immense study; this branch of theology is called Christian Anthropology and is usually among the first courses taught in college, graduate, or seminary theological study. In truth, each of us carries within a highly personalized Christian anthropology, which rests ideally between the two poles of absolute pessimism and unbridled optimism about human beings and the potential of God’s power to heal. McGlone’s and Sperry’s The Inner Life of Priests (2012, see my review October 3, 2014) recommends the development of diagnostic tools to measure a prospective candidate’s outlook on God and human nature in vetting for the priesthood.
Second, there is the experience of sin in human life. My own professional life as a Catholic priest and then as a psychotherapist, plus my own personal wrestling with managing my own life over the years, has led me to understand the general complexity of human life and behavior. Free will does not guarantee our understanding of the motives for what we do. Age, experience, upbringing, religion and environment shape our values, to be sure, but we still do not understand with precision the human decision making process. A frequent symptom I observed over the years was rumination (I have this problem myself) or the inability to “turn down the brain” as many patients would tell me. Given the unknowns of brain function, how do we know the parameters of personal sinful acts?
On the subject of sin, is the brain capable of what my oven can do, namely self-clean? The fifth century debate between Pelagius and Augustine is the theological version of this question. I was always a little uncomfortable indentifying too closely with Augustine, whose Christian anthropology was austere, to say the least. And yet many of my patients found themselves repeating destructive behaviors (all of which the Church would identify as sin of some sort); breaking the cycle of pathology here (or in the confessional for that matter) was hard, the conduct deeply imbedded in the psyche. I had a non-denominational way of putting this to clients: “You seem to have lost your North Star” (and hoping the patient was not a recent arrival from New Zealand.)
Third, there is the body of defined sins by the Church. These are acts and pattern of thinking drawn from Scripture and Church teaching that not only violate God’s good ordering or divine Providence; they are objective and taught as such. I should add here, though, that under the heading of morality in the Catechism is an exhaustive treatment of virtuous attitudes and acts. Thus the Church gives us a fix on the North Star, so to speak, through its official moral teaching of not just what to avoid, but more helpfully, what to embrace.
Even the most precise statements of sinful conduct, however, are addressed to highly complicated people. Traditional Church teaching makes some allowance for this reality in its definition of the conditions of a mortally sinful act: (1) the subject matter must be grave; (2) the sinner must understand, or at least know, the Church teaching on the subject, and (3) the sinner must give full consent of the will to the act. Items two and three are complex in determining the degree of guilt, which is why the Church establishes the practice of individual, confidential confession in which to assess this.
In pastoral practice I would guess that wise priests have well-developed dispositions of Christian anthropology and understand the multi-layered dimensions of human conduct and knowledge. The challenge is in developing moral catechizing and sacramental ritualizing that embraces the Scriptural, liturgical and behavioral nature of the penitent and his/her acts. Without this, confession for example remains an occasional MRI of the soul without a treatment plan.