Man is divided in himself. As a result, the whole life of men, both individual and social, shows itself to be a struggle, and a dramatic one, between good and evil, between light and darkness.11
I was hoping for an easy morning, as today is clinic day, but it appears that I will need to explain the nature of evil itself before I pack my lunch and IPad and head out to work. The Catechism itself chose the easy route of “blaming it on the snake,” so to speak, in its explanation of how sin and evil came into the world, with its use of the term “Evil One.” The footnotes for Paragraph 1707 take us back to the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (joy and hope), “The Church in the Modern World.” While I don’t think I have it in me to explain the nature of evil, today’s post may set the parameters of the question, at any rate.
Footnote 10 comes from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter 1, which makes for captivating reading. Paul states that from the beginning of time, “[God’s] invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made.” Put another way, man has always enjoyed the capacity to discern God by the very way he is created and composed. If this is so, why do all of us miss the mark of good living, sometimes quite dramatically? Paul is writing for a Gentile audience, and he asserts that although every man knows God, “they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks.” He goes on, “They became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened,” exchanging “the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes.”
Again, recalling the setting of this letter, Paul is calling out the Roman practices of worshipping a human being (emperor worship) or various forms of idolatry. The mention of a snake is almost certainly a reference to the fertility rites of many religions of the time where public ceremonies involving a living or depicted snake invoked divine intervention on behalf of the female population. This form of phallic idolatry afflicted Israel as well, and it may be the reason that the snake, of all creatures, introduces sin into the world in the telling of the Garden account from Genesis.
Paul does not explain why humankind turned its back on the evident glory of God, but he accepts this as the human condition. Because of the denial of the true God, “God handed them over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the mutual degradation of their bodies.” Paul becomes more specific: “females exchanged natural relations for unnatural…and males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another.” It is intriguing that Paul would use homosexuality as his prime witness for human degeneracy. He may be reflecting the prominence of same-sex activity in Roman society, or he may be falling back to his training in Jewish Law, which teaches that “If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltness is upon them." [Leviticus 20:13]. Catholic tradition is not nearly as extreme; the Catechism itself [para. 2357] admits that regarding homosexuality, “its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained.”
The theology of Paul on the origin of sin—in his explanation to Gentiles-- can be summarized here as inherent hubris, a pride with no impulse to bend the knee to a God visible in all his works. In the late Old Testament writings, Scripture addresses the origin of sin and evil in both philosophic and metaphoric language, the most famous attempt being Genesis 3. An unfortunate catechetical failure over the years has been the absence of any sustained effort to mine Genesis 3 for its moral richness with adult spirituality. To unpack Genesis 3, it is necessary to state, for the last time, that the text is revealed philosophy, not chronological history.
The authors of Genesis 3 begin with the assertion that “the serpent was the most cunning of all the creatures God had made.” The idea that God is the creator of “cunning” is still a puzzle to this day. The old literal interpretation of my childhood, that Satan appeared to Eve disguised as a snake, was rather comforting—until about the eighth grade, when I had the impertinence to ask the Christian Brothers, “Well, who made Satan?” [And if you don’t believe in Karma, I get unsolicited email today from people advising me that Satan is taking over the planet, or at least the Café.]
Genesis 3 lays it on the line that in some way evil is inherent in creation. Its implication is not that God made bad things, but rather, “free people,” beings who were and are made in such dignified fashion that they enjoy God’s creative freedom, the ultimate free choice being the acceptance of and obedience to the Creator. Man is made with enough power to damn himself, too. In remarkable prose, the authors of Genesis proceed to make their point that humans do not choose infallibly. “The woman saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”
Genesis 3 shares with St. Paul the idea that the ultimate human sin is hubris. The serpent, or “best supporting actor,” puts forth the Achilles heel of human existence, “God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil.” We are a proud people, independent gods, who do not wish to acknowledge our vulnerabilities. Genesis goes on to enumerate the breakdown of the human condition caused by the human condition of sin: (1) Adam blames Eve for their collective sin, she who was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh; the capacity to love is damaged; (2) Eve blames the snake, symbolizing the break between man and nature; not for nothing did Pope Francis write Laudato Si; (3) Adam and his descendants will be at war with nature in order to eat; “Thorns and thistles it shall bear for you….”
(4) The issue of childbirth is the most psychologically complex of the couple’s curses. “I will intensify your toil in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” The very continuation of humanity will depend upon a life-threatening and intensely painful experience of childbirth. And for all of that, the urge for the husband in the sexual sense will remain intense, despite his domination over her. The text here should not be interpreted in any way as a critique of procreation, or even less as a commentary on the status of womanhood, but rather as a proof from experience that human experience—of man and women--is complex and not always trustworthy. As Paul observed, we are creatures of our passions; the spirit may be willing, but the flesh is weak. In any event, we are not independent “gods” nor can we blame our sins on the "Evil One."