Sin and Repentance

Last week, we talked about the revolutionary idea at the heart of Catholic anthropology: the truth that sin, while normal, is never natural since sin is what destroys, not constitutes nature.  This does not mean that “sin is unreal”.  It means that man as created and, more importantly, man as redeemed in Christ is only really knowable through Christ. Sin is quite real (we are not Christian Scientists or some other form of gnostic that denies the reality of sin). Sin is virtually universal (with the exception of the Blessed Virgin and Christ). Sin warps us by darkening our intellects, disordering our appetites, and weakening our will. Even after Baptism frees us from original sin, we are still left struggling with these three disorders. This is what the Church means by concupiscence. Sometimes we give in to concupiscence and sin. But never does sin name us. It is not Who We Are. Rather, it destroys and distorts who we are.

I emphasize this point because American religious lingo, being largely Protestant, is full of talk about our “sinful nature” and Catholics buy into it in their everyday conversation. However, “sinful nature” is a highly problematic term, and one almost completely alien to a biblical and Catholic understanding of the human person. It never appears in the Catechism and it is not used by the biblical authors. The term that gets translated “sinful nature” in, for instance, the New International Version of the Bible is “sarx” which means “flesh”, not “sinful nature”. And “flesh” is used by Paul to connote the darkened mind, disordered appetites, and weakened will of fallen man, not “the body” as John uses it. In other words, Paul has in view a Catholic understanding of the human person, not a popular, vaguely Calvinist “semi-Manichaean” one which identifies nature with the fall.

A niggling technicality, you say? The problem is, once you start talking about a “sinful nature” it is fatally easy to identify creation with the fall and to start speaking as though sinfulness is what constitutes our nature. And so, we are told the Virgin Mary had to have been a sinner. Why? It’s “human nature”. When man goes to war, or engages in homosex, or gets drunk and issues a slew of anti-semitic profanity, he’s just expressing his deepest “nature”.

If we believe that, then we must regard every act of repentance as a fake.  After all, if the “true nature” of somebody is evil, then their repentance is just a show for sympathy, not a real change of heart. And quite often, penitents are attacked on exactly that basis.  Oh sure, so-and-so says he’s sorry for what he spewed in a drunken rage.  But he’s not kidding me. We’ve seen what he really is made of and we won’t get fooled again. 

The difficulty is that this standard comes back and bites us when we too commit sin.  The strategy we usually employ to avoid the consequences of that mercilessness is to divide the world into those who commit Real Sin and… well, ourselves and those we like.  So, for instance, Real Sinners are people who molest children, or hate Jews, or commit terrorist acts.  Over against these relatively rare (and, of course, irredeemable) people are people like us, who commit charming little foibles like covetousness.  Of course, everybody today knows that covetousness isn’t really sin. It’s just a little peccadillo. But anti-semitism and child molesting?  That’s Sin. And once it is revealed, it defines who you are forever. It names you. Covetousness? Hey! Who hasn’t envied his friend’s new stereo? It’s just a fetching weakness.  It makes me colorful and interesting and three dimensional.

Paul thinks otherwise in Romans 7. And he also thinks he is locked in a struggle with his own darkened intellect, weakened will and disordered appetites so that “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Sounds a lot like a penitent drunk saying “I don’t believe the horrible things I said when I went on an anti-semitic tirade.” But, of course, since the drunk’s sin names him while Paul’s (and our) adorable foibles do not, it’s two totally different things. We can “forgive” Paul because his sins of covetousness are no big deal–like ours. But if the penitent drunk says he too believes the law (against race hatred) is holy, righteous, and good and he repudiates his terrible slurs, then he’s simply a liar in denial.

The gospel cuts through all our self-justifying pettifogging, double standards, and mercilessness in a straightforward, yet paradoxical way that is both far harder and far more merciful than anything else in the world.  Next week, we shall look at how.


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