Sin sells. That's one lesson I've learned from 20 years in journalism. If you have a story about somebody who gives $1 million to a charity and another story about someone who embezzles $1 million from a similar charity, reader interest is going to be stronger and more enduring in the embezzlement story.
The Church has been criticized for focusing too much on sin. But as both a journalist and a practising Catholic, I've found a lot more interest in sin and guilt in newsrooms than in churches. Fortunes have been made by newspapers which focused on sleaze and the sensational -- two qualities which tend to make Church officials uneasy.
It makes me wonder if our churches would be fuller if preachers gave more hellfire 'n' brimstone homilies excoriating the congregation for their evil deeds. Maybe not. But I do know that if that were the approach, it wouldn't be the Gospel being preached.
Leading moral theologian Father Servais Pinckaers writes that "The Gospel devotes a large place to sin. . . . Yet it is never sin, but always grace, the proclamation of God's mercy, that predominates" (The Sources of Christian Ethics, p. 41).
That is also the approach of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in discussing the moral life. We should never deny the existence and the power of sin. But the Catechism always puts the emphasis on God's mercy in the face of sin. In discussing the Second Commandment, for example, the Catechism begins, not by condemning the foulness of swearing and blasphemy, but by focusing on the holiness of God and the respect due his name.
Likewise, even in its article on sin, the Catechism begins with a section on mercy. "The Gospel is the revelation in Jesus Christ of God's mercy to sinners," it says (no. 1846).
Some might say the Church has gone mushy by focusing on mercy. If you want people to change their lives and return to God, they would argue, then they must be led to see and repent of the evil which has shipwrecked their eternal souls.
But if it is God to whom people should be converted, the Catechism seems to be responding, then it should be the tenderly forgiving God presented in the Gospels, not a vengeful God created by fevered human imaginations.
To be sure, there has been a shift in how the Church approaches morality. Since the Second Vatican Council's call for a renewal of moral theology, there has been a noticeable shift from a morality focused on duties, obligations and sins to one based on the Gospel's call to the fullness of life.
While there may be grounds for concern about dissent from some Church teachings, this particular shift represents not an abdication of the Gospel, but a deeper appreciation of it. Jesus' mission is primarily fulfilled not by a stricter adherence to a moral code, but by the Holy Spirit being poured into our hearts and his power made evident in our lives.
The Catechism, for its part, never downplays the reality of sin. It begins its section on the moral life by pointing out that the human ability to freely choose between good and evil is a crucial part of how we are created in the image and likeness of God. If that ability is a real one, not just a sham, then people will sometimes freely choose to violate that which is good. They will sin.
One contribution of the psychological and social sciences of the 20th century is to show the power of factors which limit people's abilities to make free choices. The preponderance of aboriginal males in Western Canadian prisons, for example, does not demonstrate that aboriginal men are more sinful than are whites. Rather, it points to the disordered social conditions in which many native people have been raised and calls out to heaven for social reform.
But we also need to be wary of exaggerating the importance of social factors in determining people's behaviour to the point where we deny the possibility of sin. To do that is to deny the Gospel, to deny our need for redemption and to deny our ability to fully cooperate with God's grace.
If people cannot freely choose to do wrong then they also cannot freely choose to do good. The history of societies and of individuals is then nothing more than the mechanical playing-out of the consequences of the design set in motion by the designer of a most imperfect universe. Human beings would then have no responsibility for the mixed bag of good and evil in the world.
But that is not true and that is not what our faith teaches. We do have free choice and we are responsible. We can choose to participate in God's holiness or we can choose to stand against it. We can sin.
But the deeper reality which the Gospel presents is that of God's forgiveness. God is not a vindictive God, but rather a merciful God, always waiting with open arms to welcome home the sinner.
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