The tragedy of sin

October 24, 2005

Read: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nn. 115-123

I was a child of the 1960s. Reaching adolescence at about the same time the hippies became popular and the radical student movement began to burst into public consciousness, I thought I glimpsed the seeds of a bright new future for the world.

It wasn't the free love and the drugs that excited my attention so much as the vague belief that we could undo injustice and usher in a better world of love and understanding. What we needed to do was overthrow the class structure, wear flowers in our hair and love, love, love.

Evil was obvious. It took the form of segregationist and war-mongering politicians as well as the Ku Klux Klan. Everyone who didn't think like me was basically in the same camp as those repressed, hung-up dinosaurs. Paint your face and give them a flower and a smile and everything would be better.

I had a naïve view of human nature. I believed that everyone was born morally neutral or even good. It was bad conditioning that brought about evil. Change the conditioning process and you would institute heaven on earth.


Suffice to say that I had no religious beliefs of any consequence in those days. Jesus was certainly a good guy, but the Church was a source of repression and hang-ups.

This world view got jolted one summer day in 1971 when, while hitchhiking around Western Canada, I was staying at some hippie camp in Calgary on the Bow River. I asked some people to look after my stuff while I went into the city. When I came back, all my stuff had been stolen. I had to get my parents to send me some money so I could continue my misadventures.

I soon realized that this hippie camp was really a gathering of petty thieves and drug users. The guys might have long hair and wear beads and the girls might wear hippie dresses, but this group was not a faithful remnant ushering in the Age of Aquarius.

Maybe the theft of all my gear was the result of someone's faulty conditioning. I tended to believe that people had some responsibility for their own actions.

The next jolt came a year or so later when I was on the university student council and the issue of funding for abortion counselling arose. Abortion was not something I had thought about much. To my mind – sans religious beliefs and all – killing unborn babies was obviously wrong and no decent person would countenance such a travesty.

I was surprised, indeed shocked, when I found out the vast majority of my left-wing friends not only had a different view but mocked me mercilessly for clinging to the Catholic beliefs of my childhood. It was a trauma that forced me to begin re-thinking the way I looked at the world.


During that re-thinking I bumped into the idea of original sin. I had previously dismissed original sin as a hangover from my Grade 1 catechism, an excuse that people gave for not turning a very imperfect world into paradise. Now my own experience was teaching me that there might be more to this idea than I had thought.

Then along came Pope John Paul II and his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. The pope said that not only is the doctrine of original sin an integral part of Christian revelation, it also helps us to understand human reality. He suggested that when people deny the existence of original sin, they tend to believe that they can violently suppress any expression of self-interest in order to create the perfect society.

Instead of creating perfection, however, they give birth to both violent and bureaucratic means of control that sap society of "wellsprings of initiative and creativity" (n. 25). It is better to leave the weeds among the wheat and understand "that it is for God alone to separate the subjects of the kingdom from the subjects of the Evil One."

No political or other forces will create heaven on earth because it cannot be done. Don't set yourself against the patience of God.

This, of course, is not a counsel to compromise with evil. But it does suggest one ought to keep his or her eyes open and realize sin is a daily reality. It is real, not only in other people's lives, but in your own too.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church also warns against becoming overly concerned with sin. Such a focus would foster a pessimism "which leads to contempt of the cultural and civil accomplishments of mankind" (n. 121). Awareness of the doctrine of original sin should not be separated from an awareness of salvation in Jesus Christ.

The way to attain salvation is to struggle against sin and seek communion with God. Each person has a natural orientation to seek God. But no one can achieve that communion on their own.

That's why any good society must have a strong foundation in faith. It must also have a proper understanding of the human person.

Wearing beads and flowers in your hair is not a step towards the good society. Nor is the false belief that people are infinitely malleable. The best way forward is to realize there are weeds among the wheat and that self-interest can be a force for creativity as well as for evil. People are inclined towards good, but they will not begin to overcome their propensity towards evil unless they seek full communion with God.