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Since Sin Requires Awareness, Is Our Clueless Culture Off the Hook?


Sin has become as ordinary as eating cheeseburgers.  And just as acceptable.  People seem to not even know what sin is anymore.  But wait a minute; in such a case, doesn’t that absolve them from any guilt?  Recall, that in order to sin, one has to know it is a sin and do it anyways. Is ignorance bliss?

Truth is a Stranger

Truth is not only unknown to many, but they aren’t interested in meeting him. Catholic teaching, however, is anchored in eternal truth.  Anthony Esolen, a professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island explained in his book Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching that the Church provides an understanding for the confusion plaguing society.

He pointed out that in this age of cultural polarization, we cannot both be right. “If the Catholic Christian view is correct, if man is made by God in His image for the enjoyment of the very life of God,” he wrote, “then any society built upon other premises will be radically deficient.” And so it is. Apart from God, he stated that we sink into the tedium and disappointment of pleasures, or the hectic excitement of wickedness. By taking God out of the mix, Esolen explained that we lose the proper definition of freedom.

Pope Leo made this argument in his encyclical Libertas praestantissimum (On the Nature of Human Liberty): “If freedom meant the capacity to choose anything at all, including evil, then God and the blessed angels would not be free.”  So sin, Pope Leo contended, is mere slavery and human liberty is based on God’s eternal law.

But is Ignorance Bliss?

I posed this question to two priests: Monsignor Thomas Richter, Parochial Vicar of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bismarck, ND, and Monsignor John Esseff of the Diocese of Scranton, PA who was the confessor for Mother Teresa and has been a priest for almost 63 years,

According to Richter, we must make a distinction between objective evil and whether one is culpable for the objective evil they are doing. “The truth is in us but it can be covered up,” he said. “If a person is raised in untended ignorance and he thinks a sin is not bad, then he is not culpable.”

But sin is still sin regardless of a person’s culpability, according to him.  “If it is an objective evil, regardless of whether a person is culpable, it is still evil and evil always harms.” Richter compared sin to cigarettes in that even before people knew they were bad, smoking still caused cancer.  “They caused the bad effect regardless of what the person smoking them believed,” he said. “The same is true on the spiritual level; sin causes damage.”

Richter pointed out that there is also a difference between a person who does not know right and wrong and one that lost his sense through a pattern of bad choices. “When I know it is evil and consent to it, I open myself up to it more,” he said.  “The Lord speaks to each heart but the more we sin, what can happen is that our heart gets hard, to where our knowledge decreases.”  A person ends up making choices out of hardness of heart, not out of unintended ignorance but as a consequence of sin that was made with knowledge and in freedom. “Sin darkens the will and knowledge.” Richter said. “That’s the consequence of sin. It’s a choice for some but for others, it becomes a tremendous disorder.”

While sin moves us away from God, Richter said that grace has the opposite effect. “As a person grows in holiness, he will grow in the awareness of moral culpability that he wasn’t aware of before.”

The Real Horror

“Through God, we receive his free gift of grace,” Msgr. Esseff explained. “To sin is to reject this gift.”  According to him, Christ lives in baptized Christians and we live in him.  “Do we really recognize the truth of the presence of Christ within us?” he asked. “Once I recognize that 24/7, I can be Christ to the world and see with the eyes of Christ, and love with the heart of Christ and work with the hands of Christ.”

Not recognizing the power that we have to transform the world and to instead choose sin is the real horror, according to him. “I have the capacity and not use it, is the deliberate refusal not to accept light in the darkness. When I choose sin, I choose the opposite of what God wants.”  He added that; we are not just hurting others but destroying Christ within ourselves.

“If I don’t love my neighbor, I’m pushing aside Christ within myself and destroying the light within me,” Esseff said. “For instance, the abortion doctor is not only killing the baby in the womb but he is killing Christ within himself.  He is called to be Christ but instead he is killing Christ.”

While sin is destroying Christ in our world, Esseff pointed out that there is a remedy. “If instead, each Catholic would radiate Christ, the world would be Christian tomorrow.” he said. “Every single Catholic has Christ in them if they would just let him through it would change the world.

“Sin is a spiritual AIDS and there is no cure except for Jesus,” Esseff said. “He is the one who can heal all sin. He has come to unite us with God.  The greater the sin, the greater his Divine Mercy. The love of God is greater than the greatest misery—misery is finite, God’s mercy is infinite”

“It would do us well to pray for ourselves today, that the Lord give us the grace to never loose the sense of sin, that His Kingdom is not diminished in us” Pope Francis.


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