Loss of the Sense of Sin

Sin ruptures our relationship with Jesus Christ, the source of the freely given gift of grace and eternal beatitude. Sin is thus the principal obstacle to true happiness, as it hurts relationships key to that happiness.

Recent popes have identified another obstacle to grace: “The greatest sin today is that men have lost the sense of sin.” Pope Pius XII said this in the wake of the horrors of World War II. Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have all repeated it.

It is common to think: “How can something be a sin if doesn’t hurt anybody?” Or: “How can it be a sin if it is done in the privacy of my own bedroom?” Or: “Everyone does it?” Unless we acknowledge and confess our sins—and the damage it does to our relationship with God and others—we cannot reconcile ourselves to God. Instead, nowadays we go to therapy to calm our conscience. Therapy can be good to help heal emotional wounds and reactions produced by trauma, such as uncontrollable anger, fear of commitment, etc., but we can also use this as a crutch to escape any personal responsibility for our actions.

Others use “science” to excuse behavior, seeking a genetic component to alcoholism, homosexuality, or even violent crime, making a person not responsible for decisions he makes that are detrimental to his family or to others. They think: How can there be any sin where biology has predetermined our fate?

These ways of thinking change how we speak of sin. Instead of talking admitting to having an adulterous affair, people say that he is no longer “in love” with his spouse and is now “in love” with someone else: how can he be responsible for the pain and hurt inflicted on his spouse and children (and extended family)—or for breaking a covenant commitment with God—if morality is only about “chemistry” or feelings? Many no longer consider concubinage (“living together”), homosexual activity, alternative lifestyles, etc. sinful because “we don’t hurt anybody” or because “we were born that way” or because “everyone does it.”

Sin is real. Choices we make do impact our relationships. If you make a lifetime commitment to another person before God then you are committed to avoiding any situations—“occasions of sin”—contrary to that commitment, whether or not you still feel “in love.” Infidelity is a sin that “kills” our relationship with God and with others.

Likewise, we may have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. But that does not excuse our personal responsibility to avoid situations with alcohol if they would lead to drunkenness and physical or verbal abuse of a spouse, children, or others. We make a choice when we walk down that street with the bar on the corner although the ability to choose disappears when we walked in the door. Choices impact relationships and thus have moral implications.

So, just because all one’s peers are having sex, doing drugs, using birth control, or have had an abortion doesn’t mean that these things are OK and not sins. Such thoughts may ease our feelings of guilt but they don’t take away our moral responsibility for the choices we have made. We will have to answer to God for them. Our consciences need to recover the “sense of sin” so that we can take responsibility for our moral decisions, seeking God’s mercy now in the confessional rather than waiting to face His justice before the Day of Judgment.

Father John Waiss is the pastor of St. Mary of the Angels Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is also a member of Opus Dei, the prelature founded by St. Josemaria Escriva.