John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
Hamartiology is the theology of sin. Catholicism has a certain hamartiology. So, too, does The New York Times.
Catholic hamartiology is pretty well explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Times’ hamartiology needs to be pieced together from the occasional op-ed or feature story. It’s there. It just has to be excavated.
It’s worth excavating, because it’s very much the hamartiology of secularism. And one needs to understand it to make sense of some of the things going on in the contemporary world.
Former Calvinist Julia Scheeres writes ostensibly about “Raising Children without the Concept of Sin.” Professing to have become free of her fundamentalist background, where the “list of sinful offenses seemed infinite,” and married to a “Catholic by culture, atheist by intellect,” she intended to liberate her children from the notion of sin.
Well—despite the title—not quite. She admits rather that her “notion of sin has evolved.” It has become very immanent: “this is the only life we’ll know; this planet, our only existence. I am no longer motivated by fear of an unproven hell, but by real-world concerns about injustice and inequality.” So, yes, her children are not fearful and guilt-ridden, but advance justice by choreographing “20 grade-schoolers in a ‘Kids for Hillary’ pantsuit flash mob in Berkeley.” “Our church is the street,” confesses Scheeres.
Crispin Sartwell, a philosophy professor at Pennsylvania’s Dickinson College, contributed a reflection on “What’s So Good about Original Sin?”. He admits he doesn’t like the orthodox Christian concept of original sin as too “pessimistic,” but opines “a secularized conception of original sin is plausible. … [P]erhaps it’s time for a new Puritanism….”
The thin beer of Sartwell’s “secularized” original sin is an awareness, even when I see depravity in others, that this could also have been me. It should make me understanding of others who have sinned, even while reminding me of my own capacity to do so and, by reinforcing this self-awareness, hopefully deter me from that choice.
An orthodox Christian might be tempted to find these pale imitations of real sin risible, but we should not forget that they are increasingly the norms that guide America’s chattering classes. Consider, for example, how America’s history of slavery and racial relations is now frequently called “America’s original sin.”
And when we look at efforts to revise history—whether it involves taking down Confederate statues or throwing canvas over Columbus murals—the same secular notion of sin is at play.
But what’s lacking here? A couple of things.
Sartwell gives us original sin as knowledge of “there but by reading the proper editorial columnists go I.” But sin is not so much an act of knowledge as an act of will: how many times do we know X is wrong, but we do it anyway? Knowing something is wrong is no impediment to doing wrong, whether it be from perverse will or all sorts of factors (like, for example, habits) that incline me towards the wrong.
Is what Sartwell is talking about so much the function of “original sin” as “conscience?” Original sin, after all, inclines me towards evil. As traditional theology puts it, it “darkens the intellect and weakens the will.” So, apart from doing nothing to stop me from doing what I know is wrong, Sartwell’s “original sin” also does not seem to cope with an intellect that is weak, dark, or twisted.
Scheeres faces the same problem. Her naïve view of “justice” – handing out protein bars to the homeless, marching for Hillary or in “school walkouts against gun violence”— lacks a transcendental opening. Scheeres is locked in the pressure cooker of this world, devoured by what Jacques Maritain once called “the Minotaur of immanentism.”
Yet how does she know that the “justice” du jour is not, in fact, injustice? I ask that question on the secularists’ own terms. They insist that this world is all that there is. So what canon do they have to measure right and wrong but their own minds, admittedly affected by the proclivity towards wrong that Sartwell calls “original sin?” And how do they ensure that those minds are not affected by views inherently enmeshed in their “social situations” of “privilege,” “context,” “narrative,” especially when they think that everything is about “power” anyway?
And, even more importantly, is there any hope of redemption?
Catholic Christianity offers people an answer to original sin: grace in Jesus Christ, which makes living the way God wants possible (although no rose garden is promised). What does secularized sin offer man? An awareness that he is evil-prone and a schedule of protest marches.
The consequences of this lack of secular redemption are all around us: paroxysms of iconoclastic “justice” that want to rip up history in the name of contemporary standards (a bizarre kind of “virtue signaling” against which Our Lord seemed to have warned in Matthew 6:1). Secular sin demands we measure everything by today’s standards. Christianity is content to recognize that morality developed: the Mosaic lex talionis is not the Lord’s command to “forgive those who trespass against us” (although an eye for an eye represented real progress over the then-prevailing ten eyes for an eye standard). Nor was the Mosaic permission of divorce the Christian affirmation of the indissolubility of marriage. Robert E. Lee may have thought deemed slavery right, a notion repulsive to a 21st-century person; but we can also trust that a 23rd-century person may look back and ask how barbaric was our day, when some deemed killing unborn babies a “human right.”
But if moderns have only today’s immanent standards by which to see the past, by what transcendent values can they find their own times lacking? And who have they sinned against — a relevant question when it comes to whom can forgive them? The Church’s readings for the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time make a threefold affirmation of sin being against a personal God: Isaiah sees himself a sinner before God; Paul admits his unworthiness because he persecuted Christ; Simon Peter wants Jesus to leave “because I am a sinful man.”
But against whom does the immanent, secularized sinner “sin?” And from whom does he obtain forgiveness? If we sin against the world and environment, and “this planet, our only existence,” then how is this impersonal rock supposed to forgive? Is this the logic that impels its believers to “become one” with the planet, e.g., by being turned into posthumous peat moss, as the “Order of Good Death” proposes?
I came to realize the vicious circle in which moderns, who lack a transcendent way out of sin and evil, find themselves trapped during a recent debate with some people about reverse discrimination. Regardless of the origins of alleged “privilege,” I asked, why should concrete persons today, who were not personally responsible for those alleged “privileges,” nevertheless be asked to suffer concrete personal harms now for abstract wrongs done by others in the past? Individual persons, after all, have concrete rights as persons, not just as stand-in members of identity “groups.”
Underlying my thinking was a basic moral presumption, primum non nocere—first, do no harm. The obligation to help, i.e., to do something affirmative, is prudential; the duty not to hurt, i.e., to refrain from doing something negative, absolute.
My respondents, however, refused to see things that way, invoking the notion of “disparate outcomes.” Justice, in their view, does not just mean everybody gets a fair start; their notion of “justice” wants to fix the results.
My point here is that, absent a notion of redemption, is it humanly possible to break out of this eternal circle of victims, restitution-at-the-cost-of-others, and new victims? Christianity said “no,” which was why the Incarnation was needed.
But secularism offers no redemption from evil; there is only a deferral or mitigation of some of its consequences. Somehow, though, it thinks that—like a feather pillow cut open on a windy day—it might be able somehow to reassemble all that down. Good luck: Christianity affirms that, on his own, man cannot put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
But there’s another problem with this secularized notion of “sin.” In the end, if original sin is but an awareness that there is a dark side in us alongside our “angels” – with no capacity to empower those “angels” to prevail – then, in the end, does this not simply reduce good and evil to two parts of man, both simply normally there? Does it not presuppose an essentially dualistic view of man, both good and evil?
Therein lies the modern dilemma of freedom. It is what separates Catholicism from atheistic existentialism. How do freedom and the good fit together? For atheism and for Sartre, the good is what is done freely. I become “authentic” by freely choosing X. This is essentially the mindset of the abortion liberty found in Roe: what matters is not what I choose (because, prior to choice, that what lacks any moral quality) but that I choose (which, in the process of choosing, makes the choice moral and immune to others’ moral assessment).
This is not the Christian—certainly not the Catholic—notion of the relationship of freedom and the good. For the atheistic existentialists, freedom is the end, practically synonymous with good. For Catholics, good is the end, freedom a means. The goal of my action is not freedom but good. I must act freely to make the value of those acts mine—I am not a robot—but those act have a moral rightness or wrongness independently of my freely choosing them. Nobody would say theft is “good” (or at least immune to moral criticism) because a thief freely chooses to steal.
Sartwell’s “original sin” essentially tells us that we have good and bad in us, that’s just how it is, there’s no external capacity (i.e., grace) to ensure the former prevails over the latter, so suck it up and do the best you can.
But, in the end, if Scheeres is right and “this is the only life we’ll know,” then why be moral, why suck it up? In fact, don’t be a sucker: “do unto others – but do it first.” And, if that’s all there is, if our existence begins and ends here, who cares? As Edgar Lee Masters repeatedly shows in his Spoon River Anthology, you can always get somebody to lie on your tombstone.
Some readers will recognize that the title of my essay comes from a 1973 book by Karl Menninger. While many—including Popes—have lamented the “loss of a sense of sin,” the fact is that when it is misunderstood, the sense of sin is not so much lost as it comes back in warped ways, almost Harpy-like in its ferocity. That’s just what you get from “secularized” notions of sin. Catholics might do the world a service by reacquainting it with the real thing – and how to deal with it.
All opinions expressed herein are exclusively the author’s.