The Present Shame Of Sin

Marc S. Muldoon

Beginning with myself, American Christians
are indeed retrograde
before the enormous suffering of the world's innocent ones.
We are even perversely 'reconciled' to such suffering.
Our complicity and cowardice block the true reconciling act of Christ.
Nostra culpa.
(from Daniel Berrigan)

During Holy week, I had the occasion to attend two lectures at the university where I teach. The first was given by the elder brother of His-Holiness the Dalai Lama, Professor Thubten Jigme Norbu. He was accompanied by an entourage of organizers and students on a marathon walk from Toronto to New York City. Their aim was to raise public awareness of China's oppressive occupation of Tibet.

The second was by a very successful American business guru who spoke about business trends heading into this millennium.

The different concerns and values espoused by each speaker were striking. Professor Norbu's presentation was filled with stories of the continual imprisonment, torture, and death of Tibetans since communist China's occupation of the country in 1959. He emphasized the lack of faithful media attention on Tibet's plight, and China's mendacious portrayal of this occupation to Western observers.

On the other hand, the business guru painted an enticing picture of investment and economic expansion in Pacific Rim countries with special emphasis on China. His most astounding claim was that communism doesn't really exist, and if it did, it was in name only, not in practice. Communism, in short, was not a roadblock to Western economic free enterprise in Asia.

The last speaker of Professor Norbu's group, the treasurer for the International Tibet Independence Movement, advocated not buying any goods made in China. Such a boycott, she suggested, might be the only leverage left to the common citizen of the West to influence both Canadian and American policy with respect to China's historical disregard for basic human rights. The business speaker, on the other hand, indicated that countries such as China and North Korea might eventually lead the world in production of all consumer commodities because of their cheap labour base.

Later in the week, on Holy Thursday, I transported and accompanied my old and honourable parents to our parish church for the sacrament of reconciliation. As I seated myself in the church, with the voices of the different lectures still echoing in my ears, I watched my parents dutifully line up with a few other very old people to visit the priest sitting in the confessional box.

I have not used the box to receive the sacrament of reconciliation in years. It is not because I see myself above and beyond the occasion of 'sin,' rather I believe that any sinful activity that rends my relationship with God can no longer be mediated and reconciled by a stranger sitting in a box.

This is not to say that I am not in need of healing and forgiveness; if anything, the case is just the opposite. I believe I am living in a culture whose economic and political structures involve me in a more sinful lifestyle than my Catholic education of the 1960's, and the Baltimore Catechism, could ever envision.

For example, while we pride ourselves on our modern abhorrence to slavery within our own national boundaries, most of us unwittingly support political regimes that exploit workers around the world. We have long known, for instance, that our cultivated taste for designer jeans and fancy running shoes are ultimately fulfilled in sweat shops and dingy factories in underdeveloped countries. There, young labourers are inhumanly overworked and horrendously underpaid in comparison to the market value of the product. We know also that when we purchase toys under the Disney label, the products come mostly from China where there is little history of respect for the rights of workers and human rights in general. In other words, while our children gleefully play with toys, hands that may have assembled them could very well be those of people exploited in ways that make them no better than slaves.

Yet, closer to home, my sinful involvement becomes even more insidious. I live in an city where industry continues to poison the air and the water. Recently, the relationship between industrial pollution and the incident of various diseases in the area has been firmly established. Yet, any attempt to force our industrial citizens to clean up is only met with threats of closing their operations, laying off its employees, and moving southward. Hence, as our air and water resources are stolen away from us, we are held hostage because of the need to hold jobs in order to raise families.

Moreover, every time I drive my car, water my lawn, use electricity, and buy genetically altered vegetables, the environmental costs are not lost on me. If many of the eco-theologians are correct, that creation is the first order of revelation, then my unreflected and capricious use of limited natural resources should not be without consequences in respect to my relationship to God.

The real clincher, however, is the fact that I have little choice but to participate in the vicious cycle of destroy-consume-profit. Despite my better sensibilities to believe in other values, I see myself being inadvertently swallowed up in the basic value that perpetuates this cycle, namely, consumerism.

I am bombarded daily by messages devoted solely to make me purchase things. And, by and large, I do consume out of simple necessity, and equally out of necessity - because of cost - I often purchase items made in China as well as items not produced in an environmentally friendly manner. In my darkest nights of the soul, when I tally the human and environmental cost of the simple life that my family and I live try to lead, I am ashamed of the swath of destruction I leave behind me.

As I sat in the church that Holy Thursday, I realized the long transformation I had undergone since my last religious class in high school. At that time, I thought I really understood what the Church meant by sin. Then, I was concerned with the scrupulosity of precise measurement, the concentration on isolated acts with an unbalanced preoccupation on sexuality, waves of neurotic guilt, and the use of the sacrament of penance as a guilt-ridding mechanism that kept a vengeful God at bay. Sin was exclusively private, solitary, and surprisingly easily to count, articulate, and renounce - every day if necessary depending on my fluctuating sense of self-worth and the image I had of my adolescent body.

I cannot return to those days. The sin I see myself involved with is no longer exclusively private and easily dispensed by a few of even the most sincerest prayers. Rather, its nature is overtly collective and tied to political and transnational economic structures. Moreover, this collective or communitarian sense of sin is not easily translatable into the traditional understanding of sin as the violation of certain laws, whether it be the decalogue, 'divine law,' or 'natural law.' It is a type of sin that is neither amenable to the medieval art of casuistry nor dissected easily on the basis of severity as was the case between the older distinction between mortal and venial sins.

While I can easily count my faults, failings, and weaknesses toward family members and friends, I can not confine my sense of moral compunction to this level alone. Yet, my Catholicism, the one that had inbred in me such a desire for clarity and certainty in moral matters now often seems very trivial, very trite, when I turn to it for direction and counsel on the issue of collective sin.

When I look around my parish with its well-intentioned members, I cannot not help but feel that we have all inadvertently accommodated ourselves to the laws, values, and world-view as shaped by the owners and directors of private transnational corporations. We seem to have accepted without question a type of social determinism that says the rules of the market-place should be deemed valid in all our institutions across the land.

Yet, despite how cognizant many of us might be of this accommodation and acceptance (with the assistance, no less, of certain pastoral letters from bishops), the dilemma is rarely raised forcefully in homilies, there is no concerted effort to educate adults in the diocese, and there is certainly no attempt to cultivate a more intimate, friendly, and connected community. During Lent and Holy Week, for example, at least in my diocese, a modernized penitential liturgy, where we might have been called to confess, convert, and celebrate together, is no longer considered relevant.

While I have been called naive by many for expecting the Church to offer, like Jeremiah, some level of prophetic voice against this new Babylonian culture of consumerism, I would have never foreseen the Church to be so ineffective. For my part, this ineffectiveness exists because of the dissonance I perceive between the old models of sin and evil I was taught, and my adult perception of the more pervasive form of evils that exist within the very fabric of society. Consequently, I think if I have to point to one central theme of Catholic dogma that must be radically rehabilitated in order to address this dissonance, it would be the symbol of 'original sin.'

Immediately after Vatican II, the topic of original sin was debated openly and with great rigour. At that time, various authors began to reveal the deficiencies in the traditional Augustinian-Thomistic explanation of original sin based on the story of an historical fall. Hence, new ways of formulating of what lies behind the symbol of 'original sin' were presented and discussed. I believe Anthony Padavano summarized much of this dynamic thinking when he suggested that original sin be re-imagined and reformulated as a failure in a collaborative effort at human community. Original sin, as such, becomes the way we first learned how to destroy community and to diminish each other.

This type of creative revision followed the lead of Gaudium et Spes to emphasize more the sinful condition that has festered since the beginning of history rather than concentrating on a transgressive act committed at the dawn of history. Other brilliant and engaging contributions have been made by both feminist and liberation theologians. I make special note of one author who states: "Original sin itself describes the human condition in which we find ourselves; it is the stage upon which we play our the drama of our human lives. I have defined this stage not in traditional terms of 'rebellion against God,' but in more direct terms, 'rebellion against creation.' Sin is always an act that attacks creaturely well-being. ... My theological shift to sin as rebellion against creation leads me to look within the conditions of creation for the structures that predispose us all toward sin."

It is such thinking and reflection as above that gives me something to latch onto, something that empowers me to take responsibility over my accommodation to a type of sin that hounds me at every turn of the television channel, every purchase of gasoline, every consumption of food that has been biosynthetically enhanced. Most importantly, such suggestions point out that my recognition alone, of complicity in sinful structures, is not enough. The only plausible moral response, the only penitential gesture, would have to be a communal one.

Sin and community go hand in hand. This relationship was readily acknowledged by the early church. It is only by historical default that sin degenerated into a privatized affair between the penitent, priest, and God. It does not seem too unreasonable today to begin and to reestablish, theologically and sacramentally, the link between sin and community in order to widen the boundaries of how we recognize sin in the complexity of our consumer culture, how we go about seeking to be healed, and then, ultimately, how to act together differently.

As many might agree, we can no longer depend on politicians and local government to call us to action on some of these issues. We must act together out of a different value system than the very narrow consumeristic one society has been seduced into embracing. The Church's role could be absolutely important here. Its ability to influence a wide cross-section of the population, to educate and encourage a moral conscience in the young, and its ability to keep us centred in our role in salvation history is obvious.

Unfortunately, at present, Rome has not heeded any of these new voices and cries. Rather, the new Catechism of the Catholic Church embraces the older theology enshrined since the Council of Trent. Hence, paragraphs 488-412 reiterate the traditional story of the fall of angels and the "...first disobedience" of Adam and Eve as the explanation for our "... inclination to evil that is called 'concupiscence.'" Paragraph 400 reminds us that biological death is direct consequence of the fall of Adam and Eve.

Almost coincidental with the publication of the new catechism, the papal encyclical Veritatis Splendor opens with a reference to Augustine's doctrine of the fall and later points to sexual sins as the only central evil to be overcome. As such, in both cases, the traditional presumptions remain the same; sin is a private and solitary affair centred primarily on the "sins of the flesh."

I will conclude on a rather pessimistic note, a note that has underwritten most of what of I have been trying to express here. It is my suspicion that the present Catholic notion of original sin, and sin in general, is so historically debilitated and so marred by doctrinal confusion as to be inoperable for people trying to live morally responsible lives in the postmodern world. I would like to go further and suggest that the present surface splintering of the North American church into politically opposed sides, with the proliferation of numerous groups with their divergent agendas and purposes, and the general diminution in the Catholic population as a whole, while being the consequence of many factors, is primarily a reflection of the deeper malaise in the general loss of perspective on sin.

The topic of original sin is serious business. Its symbolic value is equal to what is intimated by the words, 'saviour' and 'Messiah,' and even 'God.' Religiously, it is what makes all discourse about human salvation and a redeeming God meaningful. Today, however, the manner in which the Church has not validated the symbol of 'original sin' by searching it out in the human experience of the contemporary world, it unwittingly nullifies the need for the human experience of the sacred mediated by the sacraments as a whole. No wonder that there is faltering allegiance to the Church. It is no longer perceived as able to orient our lives in concrete and meaningful ways.

Unfortunately, I suspect, the present state of continual division and deepening acrimony in the North American Church will only continue to worsen. As some commentators have pointed out, the recent excommunication of Fr. Tissa Balasuriya indicates that Rome is not open for any meaningful dialogue on such fundamental dogmatic questions as original sin.

It seems likely that in neglecting to acknowledge the need to openly discuss the nature of sin at the end of the century, and to acknowledge that this discussion goes hand in hand with our need for a more community-centred (not necessarily parish centred) approach to reconciliation, that the surface controversies will continue to rage within the Church. Eventually, as the arguments from each side become more entrenched, a new significance will arise for the term diaspora.