Loss of the Sense of Sin
Sin is a rupture in our relationship with Christ, who is the source of our eternal beatitude. God offers us a relationship with him as a freely given gift. That is why this relationship is called grace. It is also why sin is the principal obstacle to grace and beatitude, as it distances us from relationships key to our happiness.
Recent popes have identified another obstacle to grace: “The greatest sin today is that men have lost the sense of sin.” Pope Pius XII said this in the wake of the horrors of World War II and John Paul II, Benedict and Francis have all repeated it. It express what is now common to think: “How can something be a sin if doesn’t hurt anybody?” Or: “How can it be a sin if it is done in the privacy of my own bedroom?” Or: “Everybody is doing it.”
So, instead of admitting our sins—that have damaged or killed our relationship with God and others—and then confessing them and reconciling ourselves with God, people now-a-days go to therapy instead. A therapist can be good to help heal emotional wounds and reactions—especially those produced by trauma, such as uncontrollable anger, fear of commitment, etc.—but we can also use this as a therapeutic crutch to escape the personal responsibility for our actions.
We may also look to science to excuse our behavior: if there is any evidence of a genetic component to alcoholism, homosexuality, or even violent crime, then a person wouldn’t be responsible for decisions he makes that are detrimental to his family or to others… so they think: How can there be any sin where biology has predetermined our fate?
These ways of thinking change our way of speaking about sin. Instead of talking admitting to having an adulterous affair, we learned to say that s/he is no longer “in love” with her/his spouse and is now “in love” with someone else: how can s/he be responsible for the pain and hurt inflicted on her/his spouse and children (and extended family)—as well as for breaking his covenant commitment with God!—if morality is only about “chemistry” in one’s relationships? Concupinage is now just called “living together” and homosexual activity is now called “an alternative lifestyle”; neither are considered sinful because “we are not hurting anybody” or because “we were born that way” or because “everybody is doing it.”
Sin is real. Choices we make do impact our relationships. If you make a lifetime commitment to another person before God then you are committed to avoid any situations—“occasions of sin”—contrary to that commitment, whether or not you still feel “in love.” Infidelity to this commitment is a sin and “kills” our relationship with God and with others.
Likewise, we may have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. But that does not excuse our personal responsibility to avoid situations with alcohol if they would lead to drunkenness and physical or verbal abuse of a spouse, children, or others. We make a choice when we walk down that street with the bar on the corner although the ability to choose disappears when we walked in the door. Our choices impact our relationships and thus have moral implications.
So, just because all one’s peers are having sex, doing drugs, using birth control, or have had an abortion doesn’t mean that these things are OK and not sins. Such thoughts may ease feelings of guilt but they don’t take away our moral responsibility for the choices we have made. We will have to answer to God for them. Our consciences need to recover the “sense of sin” so that we can take responsibility for our moral decisions, seeking God’s mercy now in the confessional rather than having to face his justice before the Judgment Seat.
Fr. John R. Waiss