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The Pope’s Theology of Sin by William Doino Jr.

Garden of Eden

August 19, 2013  By now, the Pope’s impromptu press conference, on his flight back from Brazil, has been analyzed the world over. But in all the discussion over Francis’ comments, very little has been said about the key line in his now famous exchange on homosexuality. “This is what is important,” declared Francis to reporters, “a theology of sin.”

William Doino Jr.That is what should have made headlines after the papal press conference—not that Francis used the word “gay,” or expressed a merciful (and thus deeply Christian) attitude toward those seeking reconciliation with God.

“This is what is important: a theology of sin.”

The words are striking, especially to a world often in denial of sin; but it is typical that many secular commentators blew right past them, instead focusing on Francis’ now-famous “Who am I to judge?” comment. (Never mind that Francis was speaking about individuals who humbly confess their sins before the Lord—not those who adamantly persist in them.)

Since his elevation to the episcopacy, and especially since becoming pope, Francis has promulgated a “theology of sin” with force and clarity. He often returns to the theme that we are all sinners who offend God, need to examine our consciences daily, and amend our lives accordingly. He has referred to himself as a sinner, publicly asked forgiveness for his sins, and requested that people pray for him. And when he was asked during the press conference why he “so insistently” invites prayer, he answered as a true shepherd would:

I have always asked this. When I was a priest, I asked it. . . . I began to ask with greater frequency while I was working as a bishop, because I sense that if the Lord does not help in this work of assisting the People of God to go forward, it can’t be done. I am truly conscious of my many limitations, with so many problems, and I a sinner—as you know!—and I have to ask for this. . . . It comes from within. I ask Our Lady too to pray to the Lord for me. It is a habit, but a habit that comes from my heart and also a real need in terms of my work.

Last April, Francis described his theology of sin as a three-part process. The first part is to recognize the darkness of contemporary life, and how it leads so many astray:

Walking in darkness means being overly pleased with ourselves, believing that we do not need salvation. That is darkness! When we continue on this road of darkness, it is not easy to turn back. Therefore, John continues, because this way of thinking made him reflect: “If we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Look to your sins, to our sins, we are all sinners, all of us. . . . This is the starting point.

The second stage is to realize that confession is not simply a way to remove stains from our souls—as if the confessional were a theological “dry cleaner”—but rather, an encounter with Jesus Christ, who is always ready to forgive sins and transform lives. But in order to receive his healing grace, we have to acknowledge not just our sins, but our shame in violating his will. We have to be willing to say, as Francis does,

“Lord, look . . . this is how I am.” We are often ashamed to tell the truth: “I did this, I thought this.” But shame is a true Christian virtue, and even human. . . . You need to stand in front of the Lord “with our truth of sinners.” . . . We must never masquerade before God. . . . This is the virtue that Jesus asks of us: humility and meekness.

The third and final part of this process is having absolute faith in God to renew us:

We must have trust, because when we sin we have an advocate with the Father—“Jesus Christ the righteous.” And he “supports us before the Father” and defends us in front of our weaknesses.

In an address to his fellow Jesuits, on the Feast of St. Ignatius, Pope Francis summed up his Catholic vision of life: “To put Christ and the Church in the center; to allow ourselves to be conquered by Him in order to serve; to feel the shame of our limitations and our sins, in order to be humble before Him.”

It’s instructive to contrast the Pope’s views with those of the secular world. Francis takes it for granted that sex outside of marriage (to cite only one sin) is gravely wrong; the world does not—and increasingly doesn’t even believe in the proper definition of marriage. The Pope maintains the urgency of confessing our sins; the world believes in celebrating and justifying them. The Pope believes it essential to acknowledge and promote a healthy Christian concept of shame, whereas the world mocks the very idea of shame. Perhaps that is why Francis, in his April address, reserved some of his strongest words for the “unashamed”:

I do not know if there is a similar saying in Italian, but in our country [Argentina] those who are never ashamed are called “sin verguenza”: this means “the unashamed,” because they are people who do not have the ability to be ashamed and to be ashamed is a virtue of the humble, of the man and the woman who are humble.

In a recent column, John Allen proposed that Francis become known as “the Pope of Mercy,” since “his signature idea is mercy. Over and over again, he emphasizes God’s endless capacity to forgive, insisting what the world needs to hear from the Church above all today is a message of compassion.”

That is certainly true, but it is equally true that Francis’ understanding of mercy is not the kind dissenters and secularists believe in, much less the kind of false compassion Venerable Fulton Sheen powerfully exposed and answered. True Christian mercy presupposes a strong moral order with clearly defined teachings on good and evil: It is not an open-ended, amorphous, free-floating concept; nor is it a prelude to changing moral doctrines rooted in eternal truth.

Francis’ teaching on mercy is beautiful and inspiring, but clearly takes place within his full theology of sin, from which it can never be isolated. It includes acknowledging the shame of our grievous sins, and abandoning them, with the help of the Lord Jesus. Only then can we experience the full joy and healing that awaits us from the merciful Son of Man.

William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XIIHis previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.

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2 Responses

  1. I like Pope Francis. He is articulating sin, mercy and humility. I am catholic and have been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 36 years. I understand habituation to inordinate self-centered desires (I count seven of them) … a loss of volitional control (powerlessness) … the process of reconciliation and the power of prayer … for there ain’t no resurrection without that walk up Calvary.

    Homosexuality is disordered and intrinsically evil because the Church says it’s disordered and intrinsically evil because it’s disordered and intrinsically evil … and here are a few Gospel condemnations (without reason and out of context) and some discredited pseudo-science I’ve cherry picked to prove it … that is a tautology … not a reasoned argument.

    Appeal to a magisterial authority that abrogates conscience lacks historical basis as a foundation for Tradition.

    Roman Catholic ethics are shaped to some degree by magisterial teachings that often make the claim of inerrancy precisely through another claim: that its utterances are continuously the same and resist change, despite evidence to the contrary. (Galileo, slavery, usury, evolution). That is a mystical corner neoconservatives have painted themselves into … beyond reason and evidence.

    The Church held for 1600 years that consent is the basis for marriage … fidelity, children and social stability were benefits. Procreative intent and complementarity are fairly recent doctrinal innovations that are based upon flawed “natural law” constructs.

    Michelle and I can not have children. We do not have procreative intent … and refuse to accept such magical thinking. We agree with Pope John Paul II that there is unitive value in intimate relationship within the context of marriage.

    Specifically, the format I’ve seen this argument take when discussing with people online essentially boils down to something that ultimately implies “Homosexual acts are wrong because they express having the wrong sort of experience!” rather than the truth, which is that the experiences would be problematic inasmuch, and only inasmuch, as they incline to acts immoral for objective reasons, but then non-problematic inasmuch as they don’t. But, that’s the sort of absurdity you wind up with when, in an attempt to “internalize” morality, you wind up ultimately placing the locus of virtue primarily in the “correct” temperament and disposition rather than the ordering of acts, with the passions judged only relative to those acts.

    St Paul understood human sexuality:

    Indeed, I wish everyone to be as I am, but each has a particular gift from God,* one of one kind and one of another. Now to the unmarried and to widows, I say: it is a good thing for them to remain as they are, as I do, 9but if they cannot exercise self-control they should marry, for it is better to marry than to be on fire.

    St Paul does not say will not … he says can not control themselves … they should marry.

    Define the sin in non-normative terms (other than your sentimentality). How does a homosexual act, in the context of civil union, cause harm to the individual, others or society? Objective reasons. Please be precise and provide evidence … no junk science please.

    The development of doctrine is based on a better understanding of Scripture (particularly the love that is Jesus Christ) and Tradition based on reason and evidence.

    A deeper look at your biblical citations that condemn homosexual acts without reason (it is safe to assume this is a normative value of the writer) is not conclusive. Biblical scholars have varying opinions on intent and context (many believe the original language referred to promiscuous behavior … similar to support for slavery and prohibition of usury) … Jesus had nothing to say about homosexual marriage.

    There is no evidence to support claims that “coerced celibacy or face condemnation and exclusion from marital benefits of civil society and communion” is a practical pastoral solution and much evidence of the harm done to others.

    Homosexual orientation s not a choice. See CDC, American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association and USCCB Always Our Brother

    According to the CDC:

    Negative attitudes about homosexuality can lead to rejection by friends and family, discriminatory acts and violence that harm specific individuals, and laws and policies that adversely affect the lives of many people; this can have damaging effects on the health of MSM and other sexual minorities. Homophobia, stigma and discrimination can:

    •Limit MSM’s ability to access high quality health care that is responsive to health issues of MSM

    •Affect income, employment status, and the ability to get and keep health insurance

    •Contribute to poor mental health and unhealthy behaviors, such as substance abuse, risky sexual behaviors, and suicide attempts

    •Affect MSM’s ability to establish and maintain long-term same-sex relationships that reduce HIV & STD risk

    •Make it difficult for some MSM to be open about same-sex behaviors with others, which can increase stress, limit social support, and negatively affect health

    The effects of homophobia, stigma and discrimination can be especially hard on adolescents and young adults. Young MSM and other sexual minorities are at increased risk of being bullied in school. They are also at risk of being rejected by their families and, as a result, are at increased risk of homelessness. A study published in 2009 compared gay, lesbian, and bisexual young adults who experienced strong rejection from their families with their peers who had more supportive families. The researchers found that those who experienced stronger rejection were:

    •8.4 times more likely to have tried to commit suicide

    •5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression

    •3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs

    •3.4 times more likely to have risky sex

    I personally am glad the Pope Francis is open to discussing marriage and pastoral care.

    Stephen DeVol
    CITVN Executive Producer
    Catholic Worker Movement

    • Stephen,

      I will resist the temptation to pre-judge your comments against the Catholic Church– as a “Worker Movement” group.

      I’ve scanned your comments. Not sure if you’ve read the Papal Encyclicals which address same-sex attractions.

      Attractions, per se, is of no issue. Sexual men also have attractions to females, even though currently married. An attraction itself doesn’t necessarily differ from straight to gay.

      Not all attractions should be satisfied, e.g., a lust for blood or sex with children. We are moral creatures and have the ability to ward against satisfaction in these murky waters.

      Gays are not self-professed martyrs. Attractions and acts are two different things, or as you may have it, temptation vs. sin.

      The Catholic Church has a healthy teaching of human sexuality. Human sexuality was a gift to man, and all gifts should be appreciated and not abused. Further, M/W sexuality provides them a unique opportunity to share in His creative powers.

      Though sexual pleasure between man and woman too is God’s gift to man, it needs to be used responsibly and directed towards procreation. They go hand in hand.

      Further, sexual procreation and resulting offspring need the fertile soil of parents in a compact with each other and with God as the third party, “Three to Get Married”, by Fulton J. Sheen.

      Based on the above, same-sex acts, AND the sexual acts of unmarried men and woman. Gays bear no special ground, sorry.

      Based on your comments, I suspect you will not agree with the above. What’s been said are the reasonable and dogmatic teachings of the Church. I accept this on Faith, if should my mind fail to grasp the gospel truth the Gospels, Sacred Tradition, and the Teachings of the Magesterium of the Church that Jesus Christ founded while on earth.

      I don’t debate dogma so S.V.P., I’m not interested in any message-trail or any back-n-forth discussions on your difference of opinion.


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