The sins of our time

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James Schall SJ | Aug 22 2017

Recently Pope Francis tells of talking with his predecessor, Pope Benedict, who remarked that we are living in an “epoch of sins against God the Creator.” What did he mean? Evidently, other epochs had sins but they were not directed against the Creator. The sins we were to repent in the Redemption were not primarily directed against the Creator.

The Decalogue is divided into two parts: duties to God and duties to other human beings. Things like disobedience, murder, adultery, lying, stealing, and coveting constitute sins against others. Or to put it positively, these prohibitions are designed to protect others from the disorders in our own souls.

Most of these sins were recognized by classical philosophers from many different traditions. It really does not take a genius to see the point at issue in each sinful situation. No thief wants his own goods to be stolen. Liars do not enjoy being lied to. Clearly, Benedict had something other in mind than what we might call “ordinary sins”, the everyday kind to which most of us are tempted at one time or another.

A sin against God the Creator implies that we are not dealing with aberrations that arise from freedom in normal intercourse with others. We are dealing with what might be called “structural” sins. Even if God put us together in a certain way, He had it all wrong. Such a strange thing as a “gay marriage” is “structurally” as good as, if not better, than marriage as it has been handed down to us as the locus for preserving the human race.

Creation is a given thing. We do not participate in our own basic creation as a human being. The intricate design that distinguishes us from other finite beings was already there without our help. It is much too complicated for it ever to have just happened. It was meant to be the way it is. That is, its origin lies in an intelligence that is more than human.

We were, to be sure, required to “know ourselves” so that we might become what we ought to be. We had a hand in our own destiny. We were the rational beings who were to become what they ought to be. We had, as it were, a natural law in our very being. We were to live around four score years and ten, male and female we were created. Our future depended on begetting and families. One generation replaced another over the ages.

A sin against the Creator would thus be directed not at stealing or lying, but in denying that these issues had anything to do with what human life was about.

So we are not dealing here with a kind of Machiavellian notion of being able to use good or evil for our own purposes. Rather we are dealing with the rejection of what it is to be a man as originally constituted. The very design is said to be faulty. What was once wrong is in fact right. Our given-ness tells us nothing about what we should be.

It turns out, then, that we are faced not only with moral problems about how we ought to live, as depicted in the Decalogue, but with a metaphysical problem about what we are. We are not only asked to know and follow man’s moral good, but to affirm his existential or structural good as a being. We are asked to understand and know the original “being” as given to us is superior to anything that we might propose as an alternative.

However, the rejection of God as Creator means that we can now, to some considerable extent, reconfigure ourselves. We can propose birth without normal sexual relations in an environment of a family. We can infuse genes not our own into our offspring in order to “improve” their looks or intelligence. Whether we have multiple wives or husbands, whether we have wives or husbands at all, is up to us.

In the beginning Adam and Eve were asked not only to do good and avoid evil, but also to be what they were created to be. The full implications of this latter instruction did not become evident until we understood the very internal structures of our being, all the details of its biological and psychological structures.

Thus when Benedict said that what we are witnessing is something more basic than the issues of moral virtue, when he spoke of “sins against God the Creator”, he was exactly on target. The issue is not now whether we will accept the goodness inherent in our being, but whether we will accept the very order of our being through which we achieve our final goods.

The epoch we live in is the first one in human history that can pose this question. It has the wherewithal to reject actual creation in a way not previously known to our kind. We can go ahead and do these things — but we must live with the consequences. We should not be surprised if we create monsters in our pursuit of reconstructing what we were created to be.

Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books.

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