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Misunderstanding sin leads the Christian witness astray

Are Catholics getting sin all wrong?
Our Faith

In 1968, teaching a fourth-grade religion class in downtown Fort Wayne, Indiana, Father Edward J. Ruetz pinned a $20 bill above the chalkboard and told the class it would go to the student who could name a sin that wasn’t also a failure to love.

Despite a cavalcade of guesses, the prize ultimately went unclaimed.

More than half a century later, this example still offers insight for many Catholics when it comes to their grasp of what sin actually is and how it works. Many Catholics remember the definitions and distinctions learned in religion class or Sunday School: venial (less serious) sins vs. mortal sins, sins of commission vs. omission (“in what I have done and in what I have failed to do”), the seriousness of sexual sins, and of course the seven deadly ones. They might also recall that the church requires them to go to confession once a year. But these scattered details do little to elucidate what Ruetz, who died in 2021 at the age of 95, was trying to impart to his fourth graders.

The Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) realigned Catholic understandings of revelation, grace, and salvation around a radically relational and Christ-centered vision. Despite this effort, sin is still an area in which people in the pews can fall short in their understanding.

“I think most people are trained to think of sin as breaking the rules or coloring outside the lines” and “as something very private,” says Marcus Mescher, associate professor of Christian ethics at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He adds that rugged individualism leads people to think that sin is between them and God alone. “I really don’t think people understand sin as social or structural.”

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Sin is not only relational and structural; it also calls for discernment, self-reflection, and ultimately a reliance on God’s mercy and peace with the messiness of life that can be discomfiting. Understanding how we fall short is necessary for individual Catholics and the church overall to seek reconciliation and healing and to offer a more authentic witness to the world.

Living in sin

Jana Bennett, religious studies chair and moral theology professor at the University of Dayton, sees people’s relationships with sin today falling into two general camps that are polar in nature and reactions to each other. Most people, she says, “envision God to be the old adage of ‘I’m OK, you’re OK,’ and if somebody else doesn’t like it, that’s their problem.” Meanwhile, a smaller group envisions “God as the angry father God, the God of wrath. . . . There’s nothing to see but sin,” she says, when they survey the world around them.

Neither view is healthy, Bennett says, because neither fosters a need for an individual to enter more deeply into relationship with God.

“Moral theology is really about how do I help all of us together in this church think about our unique relationship with God?” says Bennett, who coedited the book Naming Our Sins: How Recognizing the Seven Deadly Vices Can Renew the Sacrament of Reconciliation (The Catholic University of America Press). “It becomes a spiritual journey. It’s about this relational journey with God.”

“You can’t sin by accident,” Mescher says, noting the fear some people have of breaking a church rule they didn’t know about. He cites his mentor, Jesuit Father James Keenan at Boston College, whose definition of sin echoes Ruetz’s: “failure to bother to love God, neighbor, or self.”

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“Fundamentally, what we should be talking about when we talk about sin is a turning away from God or missing the mark,” says Emily Reimer-Barry, associate professor of theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego. (The root word of sin, the Greek hamartia, literally means “to miss the mark.”) Reimer-Barry cites a scriptural motif such as the prodigal son—with God always there to forgive—as more meaningful than a paradigm, such as mortal/venial sins, that isn’t found in scripture. “Let’s not get so bogged down in the terminology and categories that we lose sight of the big picture,” she says.

St. Pope John Paul II had to remind the hierarchy of this following the 1983 Synod of Bishops, where a proposal emerged to create a third category of sin. “Grave sin” would involve the grave matter usually associated with mortal sins but lacking the full knowledge or freedom also required to qualify as a mortal sin.

You can’t sin by accident.

Marcus Mescher

“This threefold distinction might illustrate the fact that there is a scale of seriousness among grave sins,” St. Pope John Paul II writes in his apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (Reconciliation and Penance). “But it still remains true that the essential and decisive distinction is between sin which destroys charity and sin which does not kill the supernatural life: There is no middle way between life and death.”

Questions of blame

The resistance of a pope to creating a third category of sin raises an important point: Sins are not only about objective acts but also about the violation of the conscience of the person committing the act. This distinction raised alarms with critics when Pope Francis published his 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (On Love in the Family), which offers an opening—a path of personal pastoral discernment—for divorced Catholics in second civil marriages to receive communion. But Reimer-Barry notes that this is grounded in Catholic tradition going back to St. Thomas Aquinas.

“This is a very traditional way of understanding the moral act,” she says. “[Pope] Francis is moving us both in the direction of mercy and listening [and of] the recognition of real dilemmas that people experience where they don’t always see an ideal way forward.”

“When you analyze the moral life, it gets a little tricky,” says Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Father John Crossin, a moral theologian. Helping others discern the factors behind their behaviors, he notes, helps them become “aware of the things in their past.” For example, “This trauma is manifesting itself in your drinking too much. . . . And you’re suppressing that.”

Reimer-Barry concurs: “There are situations with people engaged in grave harm and grave injustices . . . because of deficient educational upbringing, because of trauma in their family life, because of many kinds of circumstances, [in which] we might say they never had the full freedom to understand the gravity of the harm they were committing.” She adds that this awareness is even found in the old penitential manuals of the preconciliar period, an era that is often caricatured as being legalistic and excessively focused on external acts.

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“One positive thing that [came] out of that is a greater attention to the circumstances of the penitent,” Reimer-Barry says. These included the social status of the penitent and other factors. “They were really trying to account for different levels of gravity in sinfulness.”

One painful issue where many people want to see how circumstances change moral culpability is suicide, which Catholics have traditionally regarded as a mortal sin and therefore a surefire condemnation to hell. Leticia Ochoa Adams had to confront the complexities of this issue after her son died by suicide, a failure to love himself, in 2017.

We can’t have reconciliation when you are unwilling to do your own work, as painful and difficult as it is for you.

Leslye Colvin

“Anthony’s suicide was a sin. Does that mean he’s in hell? No,” says Adams. “I don’t feel he was culpable. He was mentally ill. . . . God’s not an idiot.”

Another factor that plays into culpability and sin is cultural conditioning. Crossin cites the personal example of realizing as an adult the role that racist redlining practices played in his Philadelphia neighborhood growing up.

“That was accepted, even among people who were regular churchgoers. They didn’t see that as contrary to the gospel,” he says. “This was never preached about in church and never challenged, as far as I know.”

But that is not to say there is nothing sinful about such social dynamics.

Social ills

An issue such as racism questions how individual Catholics grapple not only with sins that are about more than individuals willfully committing evil acts but also evil fostered and perpetuated by systems across generations of society.

“It’s hard to say [that] structures sin if there aren’t real human agents to point to,” says Mescher. But, he adds, “We miss that every institution is created by human beings. . . . We either support or undermine those institutions with our choices.”

With an institution such as the Catholic Church, this can mean grappling with legacies of support for slavery and other racist practices. It can also mean grappling with realities such as those unearthed by researcher Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute, who found based on decades of data that white churchgoers in the United States were more likely to deny the existence of structural racism than white people who didn’t go to church.

“It saddens me that the church is so afraid to speak up on this,” says writer and activist Leslye Colvin. While she acknowledges the inherent discomfort this issue brings, she says it could serve as a cross to bear for white Christians coming to terms with oppression past and present against people of color. “We can’t have reconciliation when you are unwilling to do your own work, as painful and difficult as it is for you,” she says.

“We should be saying more about the systemic nature of some of these sins, of these really thorny social problems,” says Reimer-Barry of preaching on the structurally sinful nature of racism. “I think Catholics really are comfortable sorting through different levels of responsibility.”

Bennett agrees: “None of us is responsible for all the evil that happens,” she says. And while the confrontation with evil on a structural level can be discouraging, she adds, “It does push us toward a kind of clear-eyed sense of ‘OK, I have contributed to some of these things.’ ”

I see people use other people’s sins to beat them over the head with. There’s no mercy or grace or healing.

Leticia Ochoa Adams

This realization can be denied by people choosing to rest on their privilege or simply not knowing where to start, but Colvin also cites the trauma associated with seeing one’s role in a sinful structure that has benefited them.

“Humans have a capacity to recognize other humans,” she says. “What does that do to [your] mindset when there is a blatant lie that you are embracing and it becomes a part of you?”

This brings the issue back to sin as a failure to love and the human capacity to cut ourselves out of our interdependence with God and one another. This might look like a failure to love migrants and refugees via inhumane immigration laws, failure to protect vulnerable people by ignoring public health protocols during a pandemic, or, according to Mescher, disregard for our common home. 

“It’s hard to think of a more pressing moral issue than the state of our common home,” Mescher says of climate change and care for creation. He cites both as issues that have been exacerbated by widespread human failure to act.

This failure to act is, according to Bennett, as close as anyone has ever come to naming an eighth deadly sin: “acedia,” a kind of blahness or sloth.

This raises another idea Bennett subscribes to: “Sin actually isn’t all that interesting, certainly not if you think about relationship with God as being an adventure. . . . Relationship with God takes time. It takes patience . . . [and a willingness] to do the work of that relationship.”

Witness protection

Pope Francis has said from the beginning of his pontificate that God does not weary of forgiving, but that people get tired of asking for forgiveness. The same could be said in building up the good habits that should supplant sinful behaviors. And in the case of church spaces, this too can be a social sin, in large part out of an impatient desire to fix people.

“Encounter doesn’t imply that there’s going to be this swift assimilation. There’s an otherness that remains,” Mescher cautions those in pastoral settings. “We need to reverence that this other person is created in the image and likeness of God in a different way than I am.”

“I see people use other people’s sins to beat them over the head with. There’s no mercy or grace or healing,” Adams says. “We’re spending all this time trying to do God’s job that we’re distracted from doing our own job, which is to love them.”

Once again, even the old penitential manuals seemed to have this figured out, by encouraging confessors to consider what a person is capable of doing at a given point.

We miss key moments of encounter by not leading with love.

Diana Hancharenko

“The confessor should be careful not to overburden the person,” Crossin says. “If you burden them, and they collapse under the weight, then what good have you done them spiritually?”

As a pastoral associate working in the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, Diana Hancharenko sees these issues plague the church’s ability to reach one key demographic: young people.

“Sinfulness is really complicated for young adults, especially those on the margins,” she says, emphasizing the importance of building trust first. “Some people can’t be bothered with taking the time to do that,” focusing instead on programs and numbers of people. “We miss key moments of encounter by not leading with love,” she says, the cost of which can be catastrophic to the church’s witness. She cites the example of her ministering to high school students who’d been told that a classmate who died by suicide was in hell.

“I can’t get those young people, many of whom I’m still in touch with, back into a church. And I don’t think I ever could,” she says. “You can’t help but wonder how many young people have had experiences like that.”

Rest in mercy

The challenge for all Catholics and people of faith when confronting the issue of sin is to turn away from the paradigm of an unforgiving world and reflect on the often surprising presence of a God who is always transforming everything and challenging people to deeper relational growth.

“We should expect that we’re going to make mistakes. We should expect that we’re going to sin. The great part is that we can always leave that in God’s mercy,” says Bennett.

“The whole point of any sin talk is to point to mercy,” concurs Reimer-Barry, who notes that Pope Francis points to human sinfulness constantly. “But sinfulness never has the last word. God’s mercy has the last word.”

Adams describes every situation the same way: “Am I going to cooperate with grace in this situation, or am I just going to throw grace out the window?” This might mean engaging in road rage and flipping off a fellow driver. When this happens, however, she goes to confession and owns up to it: “I failed to love this stranger who obviously doesn’t know how to drive.”

“We’re saved by the incarnation, God taking the human condition. If we take seriously that God has taken on the human condition, then everything is graced,” says Mescher. “If we don’t want to be overwhelmed by the state of sin in the world, the answer is to be more attentive, responsive to that gift of grace.” 


This article also appears in the March 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 3, pages 10-15). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund: Adam and Eve, by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1921

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About the author

Don Clemmer

Don Clemmer is editor of Connection magazine for the NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice.

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