Actual Sin

Last week we talked about the church’s teaching on Original Sin, and this week we are going to talk about actual sin.

I just want to spend a few minutes giving some context on why we spent so much time on Original Sin. Our program is called Faith and Mission, and sometimes by the word faith we mean what the church confesses as true. Our faith is what we believe. And the doctrine of original sin is a part of our faith as Catholic Christians. Therefore, it is important that we know what the church teaches about the human condition. We need to know this as we try to live those teachings and proclaim those teachings in the modern world where we live.

I thought it was important to make sure that everyone understood that original sin is a condition rather than an action or attitude, and it leaves us in a condition that makes our mission of being the Light of Christ in the world just a little bit harder. The condition of original sin is that we are born outside the church. Even though we are alive physically, we are dead spiritually because of original sin.

Baptism fixes that condition. Then the condition that we are left in after our baptism is this thing we called concupiscence. As a result of concupiscence, it’s just a little bit harder for us to be the children that God called us to be. Imagine if everywhere you wanted to go was slightly uphill no matter where you were going. That’s sort of what concupiscence does to us.

Saint Thomas Aquinas was one of the great systematic teachers of the faith who wrote about 700 years after St. Augustine. And he used the system of categorization and philosophical methodologies of the great Greek philosopher Aristotle. And their wording is somewhat peculiar to our ears but was the way that thinkers discussed the ideas they were thinking about. And so once we get over the unfamiliarity of the sentence structure, we can see what the great Saint was trying to teach.

Aquinas notes that original sin wounds our nature in four important ways. One of our powers — a word Aquinas uses when he’s talking about intrinsic capabilities or potential capabilities that we have by virtue of being a human person — one of our powers is reason. And the wound to our reason that we get from original sin is ignorance. Perhaps to put it in modern words, we don’t really know how to think properly because of original sin. Another fundamental power of the human person is the will, function that chooses. And because that power has been deprived of being organized to good outcomes, that wound we all carry is malice. It is why we can freely choose to do wicked things whereas God made us to choose to do good things. And the fourth one is concupiscence. God made us to enjoy what is good, but he made us to do so guided or moderated by reason — our thinking power — and the wound is that we are no longer moderated by reason when we go after things that are good.

Between our discussion last week of the scriptures, and the early Fathers, and these words from St. Aquinas in the 13th century, we can see that Original Sin means that we have to work hard not to slip into actual sin, which is the topic for today.

Again we lean on Saint Thomas Aquinas who gives us a framework for thinking about sin and evil. Thomas explains that evil is not a thing in itself but it is the lacking of a thing. The word we frequently use when discussing this nature of evil is the word privation. Evil is the privation of God’s goodness. It’s the lack of God.

There are different kinds of evil but when it comes to actual sin we are focusing on moral evil. Moral evil is the non-conformance with God’s eternal law and correct reason. So when the free thinking and choosing creature which is us — remember that humans are the only creatures of God here on Earth that are endowed with intellect and will. So when humans who know God and His law deliberately refuse to obey God and His law, that’s when we have a moral evil.

And the decision is to refuse to obey. It is the act of actual sin. In every sinful act we have to consider two things according to Thomas. We have to consider the fundamental substance of the act, what was done or what is the action itself. And there are acts which are fundamentally evil. The act of murder is a good example of this. Murder is the intentional taking of innocent human life. There is no way for murder to be anything but morally evil. There’s no way to explain away murder. And the actual sin of murder, like any other actual sin, separates the person from God.

Some actual sins like the sin of murder are so serious that they totally separate the person from God, and he finds himself like Adam and Eve outside the garden: he finds himself outside the church. And that’s what we mean when we talk about a mortal sin. We have committed a sin sufficiently grave or serious that we are no longer connected to God; we have disconnected ourselves from God and his church. We are spiritually dead. And that’s why we go to the sacrament of reconciliation to be brought back into the right relationship with God and his church. So what leads to an actual sin is the act of choosing. And the choice is fundamentally to obey God’s will or to disobey God’s will. To walk with God like Adam and Eve before the Fall. Or to walk apart from God as they did after they were removed from the garden.

Sometimes an actual sin is an act that I commit; I do something. We call those sins of commission, which means I did something that is contrary to right reason informed by faith. For example, stealing somebody’s car is a positive act that is a sin of commission. Sometimes a sin is failure to do what is supposed to be done. Here, you have a sin of omission. I didn’t do what I was supposed to do. Whether it is a sin of commission or a sin of omission, at the heart of every sin is that act of the will where I chose to do something.

A good example of a sin of omission is not going to Mass on Sunday when I don’t have a good reason not to. I knew I was supposed to go and I chose not to do what I was supposed to do, and that’s a sin of omission. There are acts which are not as clear-cut as the act of murder in terms of their seriousness of the sin, which is why you hear the difference between mortal sins and venial sins. And this relates to the fact that some sins come from ignorance, from not really knowing. Sometimes they come from passion, when our emotions are overheated, sometimes from infirmity, when our wills are weakened in some way, and sometimes from malice, where we just want to do something evil. Actual sins don’t always have to be acts in the sense of being something you do. You can have sins of thought, mental sins, you can have sins of words where we say something. And of course you can have sins that are deeds where we do something that is sinful.

Every actual sin has an objective element and a subjective element. The objective elements of a sin are the object itself — that’s the deed that was done or the word that was spoken or the thought that was thought — and the circumstances in which those things happened. And as human persons, every act that we do has a subjective dimension too. The subjective elements are kind of what we were thinking as we were doing it.

It’s possible to have a sin where a sinful action happens but the person doing it isn’t fully aware that it’s a sin for whatever reason, and that’s ignorance. That makes it a material sin, according to St. Thomas. It rises to the level of a formal sin when the person doing it freely chooses to go against the law as understood by him in his conscience. So if perhaps in the dark in the parking lot I somehow stole another person’s car but thought it was mine or a car to be shared that would be a material sin because I did take another’s property, but it would really only be a formal sin if I took the car knowing that it was the property of somebody else.

Probably for most of us, the focus should be on these internal acts of the mind. Something can still be a sin even if I didn’t actually do it. If I thought about it, considered it, and wanted to do it, then I sinned. My intellect considered, and my will chose. Think of the Ten Commandments. There is a commandment that says we cannot steal something that belongs to somebody else. But there is also a commandment that says we cannot look at something that belongs to somebody else and desire it for ourselves. Thou shalt not steal, and thou shalt not covet. This is a great reminder for us how careful we must be when it comes to internal sins, the sins of our mind.

The importance of these internal sins is confirmed when we consider what are known as the capital sins: these are the sins of vainglory, avarice, gluttony, lust, sloth, envy, and wrath. Four of the seven do not really have a physical expression. Vainglory is a thinking kind of sin, as is avarice or greed, as is envy, as is wrath, or destructive anger. And the other three start in the mind before they are expressed with the body.

Sometimes it is hard to associate these old fashioned words with our modern lives, so this chart of the social media apps connected to the seven deadly sins is a pretty good tool to think about what those old words mean today.

As missionaries in our modern world, we most likely use some of these social media apps. And we can make the choice to step away from them if we cannot figure out how to use them in a better way. And they show us how some things are not sins until they get out of balance. Eating is good, when done with reason guiding our passions. Watching TV is not necessarily bad, unless we are bingeing on some show and not being productive when we have things to do. And these social media apps really convince us of the truth of the Church’s teaching on original sin and its wounds. I used to be on Twitter, and it is such an angry place.

Moral theologians have worked over the years to help us in our battle against sin by simplifying and re-presenting the consistent teaching of the Church so that we can more easily understand the nature of sin and how the Devil will work against us as he worked against Adam and Eve in the Garden.

St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Alphonsus Liguori wrote a great deal about moral theology, and they produced great lists and categories of sins, of vices and virtues. Sometimes the lists are so long and complex that we easily give up trying to work on our sins because there seem to be so many.

A Dominican priest, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, wrote a lot on moral theology in the 20th century, and he developed the idea of three root sins based on the writings of St. John in his First Letter. If the word concupiscence is too big, we can substitute the word “desire” and see how St. John and Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange are talking about the root sins of sensuality, of vanity, and of pride.

If you remember from the presentation last week, we are still targets for Satan even as we are missionaries for Christ. So, while we are out proclaiming the Good News, we have to be alert to the movements of the Evil One. Just as he had no creative power in the Garden of Eden, he has none here. He cannot make us do anything. He is a keen observer of what trips us, and he will arrange for us to face those temptations over and over again.

A great salesman reads the customer and figures out what product the customer might actually buy mostly by eliminating those products he has no interest in. The Devil works much like that. And that’s why we can focus on three root sins. For most of us, one of these three is the way the Devil gets us. And the better we understand what these mean, the better we can be alert to how the Devil might get us and bring us down to his level. It is harder to be a good missionary for Christ if we are wallowing in our root sin.

So I’m going to touch on each of these three root sins.

The root sin of sensuality is basically that I put my sense of self in things and feelings. I should get it from God, but instead I get it from stuff and feeling good. Many people who struggle with addiction of one kind or another will learn that their root sin is sensuality. If we use food to make us feel better, or eat when we are bored, that’s a sign. If we base our choices on whether or not it might be hard to do, that’s another indicator. If we can only do good or be productive when we feel like it, that’s another indicator. The Devil whispers in our ear, “It’s too hard!” and “Eat this, or smoke this, or buy this, and you’ll feel a lot better.”

The root sin of vanity is basically that I put my sense of self in how other people react to me. I should get it from God, but instead I get it from people. We can see how destructive social media can be for people who struggle with vanity as their root sin. What people think of me becomes much too important to me. And I will abandon my principles to fit in and get along with others. I’m a bit fickle as a friend; you might be traded in for a new and better friend if I struggle with vanity. The Devil whispers in this person’s ear, “Look over there!” and “You need to be fashionable.” and “He just doesn’t get with the program, does he?”

The root sin of pride is basically that I put my sense of self in me. I am so awesome I don’t need God or anyone else to validate me. Two major ways we manifest pride are haughtiness and self-love. People who are fighting pride present as know-it-alls, arrogant jerks; they get asked “who put you in charge of everything?” And this is how the devil works on them: he presents them with people in their lives who are incompetent or insufficiently aware of my awesomeness.

If we have a good sense of how we might be tricked by the Devil, who Jesus called the “Father of Lies,” then we can learn how to fight off the Devil and be the missionaries we are called to be.

Each of the root sins has opposing virtues. These are habits and attitudes we can cultivate so that when the Devil attacks us through our root sin we are already in better shape to fight him off.

If we struggle with sensuality, then we can start working on learning to live without constant sensual rewards. The word discipline is also called ascesis, where we get the word asceticism from. We can work on learning how to go without, which is a powerful antidote to our inclination to need something to make us feel better.

If we struggle with vanity, then we need to stop looking at others for validation. Learning to accept ourselves as we truly are is a great way to begin to get free of vanity. We can learn to be less attached to responses or reactions from others, and just do what we think is right because we know God loves us more than any other human person could love us.

If we struggle with pride, then we can practice compassion and docility as antidotes to self-love and haughtiness. Putting ourselves in the place of others helps people fighting pride to see things from another’s perspective. And just accepting what comes, especially docility to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, makes us more patient.

All these tools help us be better people sent into the world to change the world by being Christ in the world.

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