As a teenager, I came to believe that the rules and discipline imposed on children and youth by adults were the greatest impediment to the free flowering of the human person.
Freed from the tyranny of having to conform to the conventions of straight society, children would naturally be not only uninhibited, but also more loving and caring than anyone today could imagine. The best form of political organization was anarchy and the highest human virtue was spontaneity.
I read a lot of respected political and psychological thinkers who, in one way or another, shared my point of view and who thus encouraged me on my merry way.
Every once in a while, I would trip over an author like Plato or St. Augustine who had a decidedly different understanding of the human person. Both of them saw the human person as having a somewhat devilish nature which needed to be reined in. But I brushed them aside as fascists who were driven by guilt and suspicion.
I'm not sure what changed my mind on this — even 10 years ago I was reading Matthew Fox's theory of "original blessing" somewhat uncritically. Perhaps I just began to realize how badly children are cheated when their parents leave them to their own devices and how the deification of spontaneity has undermined the child-rearing process in Western society.
I haven't done a total turn-around on this issue. But now with two young children of my own, I think one of the greatest gifts I can give them is the respectful imposition of limits. Limits on their behavior and limits on the number of their possessions. They will chafe at the bit and they may never be grateful for having those limits imposed on them, but they will, nevertheless, be better people for being reined in.
Some wag, with more than a little truth, once described a neoconservative as a radical with a teenage daughter.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church talks about the "harmony of original justice" (no. 379) in God's creation. We are created good, not evil. But evil sneaks into the picture as humanity refuses to accept the few limits God has placed on it. This failure to trust in God is breached by one human action. The action shatters the original harmony and the world is "inundated by sin" (no. 401).
The catechism says that the story of Adam and Eve is a figurative one, told to explicate the mystery of lawlessness among God's people. But while the story is not literally true, what is essential is that there was "a primeval event," an actual historical deed through which humanity turned its back on God (no. 390).
The prospects for humanity would be bleak if Jesus had not come on the scene. There would be no way out of the maze of sin without Christ's act of redemption. Our own actions will never lift us out of dust; we can only be saved by the power of God. But even though Christ offers us the possibility of salvation, human nature remains "weak and inclined to evil" (no. 405).
Sin is real. Evil is not simply the result of poor social conditioning or a bad upbringing. Each person carries the tendency not just to goof up, but to consciously and deliberately turn away from God.
We need good social programs and improved parenting. But these will not usher in a new heavens and a new earth. Sin and evil will persist until the final trumpet blows.
In his encyclical Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul drew the notion of original sin into the discussion of social and political issues. "The human person tends towards good, but is also capable of evil," he said.
"When people think they possess the secret of a perfect social organization which makes evil impossible, they also think they can use any means, including violence and deceit, in order to bring that organization into being. . . . No political society . . . can ever be confused with the kingdom of God" (no. 25).
Christians are not engaged in building Utopia, but in an ongoing spiritual battle against the powers of darkness and temptation. Our hope comes though Christ as the source of grace. Trust in God and reliance on that grace are our main weapons in the spiritual battle. They were the virtues missing in the act of original sin and they are what will help restore the harmony that was shattered.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.