I’ve noticed a rather discouraging pattern lately, one that has caused a great deal of confusion among the young and the old alike. One moment we’re accusing someone of whatever sin the media has taken hold of most recently (racism, sexism, intolerance, etc.), and the next we’re making the absurd claim that there is no such thing as right and wrong. We just have to be tolerant of everybody. To each his own. Ye shall not judge. Because there’s nothing to judge- we need to be tolerant of every behavior, as long as it’s not destroying our society. And even then, sometimes we say it’s A-okay. Sure, we might be destroying our families, our lives, our happiness, but it’s my family, my life, my happiness, and you can’t tell me what to do with it. If I want to ruin my family, my life (or another person’s life if it saves me some discomfort or inconvenience), that’s my choice. And you can’t take away my choice. I have my right to choose, and it can’t be taken away from me.
Of course we have taken that right to choose away from plenty of people- the unborn, children, the elderly, but I guess they don’t count. Because some members of our society decided that they shouldn’t count, and we let them make that choice because we wouldn’t dare question another person’s choice. Choice. Our society revolves around that dangerous little word. If we can choose it, we should choose it. We should never be deprived of a choice. We should always be free to choose what will bring us happiness. We claim that there are limits- that we can’t choose to take away the happiness of another person- but then we start making claims about who qualifies as a person. The unborn child inside my womb- not a person. The child with Down Syndrome down the street- not a person. My elderly, incapacitated grandmother in the hospital- not a person. Because we can make choices that clearly act against their happiness, their lives even, and all in the name of our own happiness.
We are a culture based on choice. If we cannot choose, we are not persons. And if we are not persons, we should not be given the choice to live. Not that this is choice that we can make, since our lives really aren’t ultimately our own but have been given to us, but that’s a consideration for another day. We all want to maximize our choices. We like options. We like being able to choose between them. But at some point in the past, we decided that choosing our clothing for the day, or our career path, or our spouse, was not enough. At some point in the past, we decided that we should be allowed to choose what is right and what is wrong.
Of course, we only affirm that statement if it’s in our best interest. When it’s our happiness or our life on the line, suddenly there is right and wrong. When the values that our society holds dear- freedom, choice, tolerance- are challenged, there is right and wrong. There is a reward for those who affirm those values, and there is punishment for those who dear to question them. In the face of these values, some men become gods and some men become devils. You believe in woman’s choice to abort the life inside her? You’re a god. You believe that marriage should only exist between a man and a woman? You’re the devil. For a society that generally has no room for good and evil, for vice and virtue, we sure know how to condemn a man quickly. One day the sheer absurdity of our assumptions will destroy us.
Clearly we are a confused society, and we have had no qualms about teaching our children to be the same. What’s even worse is that this confusion has seeped into the Church under our watch. I first noticed it last weekend, while listening to a priest giving his homily. While I’ve forgotten most of what he said, one thought remains with me. He’d been addressing the children, talking about how sometimes we make mistakes, but it wasn’t mistakes that he was talking about- it was sin. I began to listen more closely, and the implication became clearer. The priest was talking about God’s mercy, but at the same time he also seemed to be implying that our actions are somehow morally ambiguous. I assume that when he said ‘mistake,’ he really meant ‘sin,’ but I knew that he was blending the two words, despite their different definitions. He was claiming that when we make mistakes, God will forgive us, but that was not what he should have said. I hope that was not what he meant.
When we sin, God forgives us. When we make a mistake, no one forgives us. No one has to forgive us. That’s the definition of a mistake, after all. It’s something that I teach my second graders while we prepare for their First Reconciliation. It’s one of our first lessons, and it’s definitely one of the most confusing for these little ones. What is the difference between a sin and a mistake? When you get excited at the dinner table and knock over your glass, is that a sin? No. What if your mother yells at you and sends you to your room because of it? Is it a sin then? Still no. If you did it accidentally, it’s not a sin. Knocking over your glass might be bad, but you didn’t do it intentionally. God understands, even if your parents don’t.
When we sin, we choose the wrong intentionally. It’s our choice, the result of our will. It is not something that happens to us. It is not something that “just happens.” It happens because we allow it to happen, because we do it ourselves. As I always tell my students, if you get angry and knock over your glass, that’s a sin. But if you knock it over unintentionally, you don’t have to feel sorry for it. You didn’t do anything wrong. It was an accident.
Even after spending a great deal of time on this concept, it’s still one that my students have a hard time understanding. And I think I figured out why that is this past weekend. Even as I dedicate entire class periods to this distinction, it doesn’t take much to unravel my efforts, and it seems that I’m working against both the world and well-meaning Church-goers. The world is telling my students that they never need to apologize, unless they say something intolerant. The world is telling these children that the day will come when they won’t have to take responsibility for their actions. They must do so now because they are children, but when they grow up, they will be free from responsibility. You have to kill the life inside you because it’s inconvenient to you? Go ahead- it was a mistake after all. You have to walk over a few hundred men and women to get to the top of the business ladder? Go for it- it’s your prerogative to come out on top. You have to tell a few lies to get what you want? Go on- you’re not hurting anyone, and you’re just helping yourself. Children have to obey their parents, yes, but when you grow up, you don’t have to listen to anyone. Especially not those pesky “religious types” that are trying to limit your freedom and ruin your life. Definitely don’t listen to them.
This is what our culture is telling us, and our vocabulary supports this new worldview. When we do something “wrong,” we call it a mistake. We tell ourselves that everything is fine, it’s not our fault, it was justified. We come up with just about every excuse in the book to make ourselves feel better. In most cases, we succeed and our culture supports our cowardice, but when we just can’t justify our actions, when we have to admit that what we did was wrong, we say that we “made a mistake.” As if it was an accident. Like you unintentionally spilled your milk. But you didn’t. You did it on purpose. You knew that what you were doing was wrong, and you did it anyway. Because society said it was okay; your culture told you so. As if that makes everything okay. As if our culture is divine and the arbiter of all truth. As if life was really morally ambiguous. As if.
Our society has gone soft. We’re all a bunch of cowards afraid to face the truth. We cover up the truth, hiding behind double-meanings and seemingly ambiguous vocabulary. But it’s not. A mistake is a mistake. A sin is a sin. When you do something wrong intentionally, you’ve sinned. Just man up, and admit it already.
But we hide behind our culture, which has declared that there is no such thing as sin. There is no such thing as a definitive moral code rooted in truth. What’s wrong for you might be right for me. Those “religious types” might call it sinful, or murder, but what do they know? They’re ignorant, backwards. We’re free. You’re free to choose as you like. If it’s good for you, do it. Not that we know what good is. Because inevitably, when we threw out evil, we threw out good too. But we’re just trying to pretend like that didn’t happen. We think that if we all ignore it, no one will notice. Well, I hate to break it to you, but we’ve all noticed. Our culture is destroying itself, and there’s nothing that we can do about it. In order to be healed, you have to admit that you’re sick. Our world is dying, but we’re all trying to pretend that nothing is wrong, that everything is okay. Meanwhile, we’re steadily approaching our death. We’re dying, and without God, we have no hope of eternal life. Unfortunately, when our world threw out good and evil, it threw out God as well. God is good, and there is no place for Him in our world.
Even within the Church, we’ve unconsciously adopted some of this mindset. Originally, I encountered it in this well-meaning priest’s homily. It started when a man called a sin a mistake, and he probably did it by accident. We’ve all gotten used to this loose vocabulary, where our choice of words seem to change the objective reality of our existence. As if calling our sin a mistake can change its nature. As if we can make it a mistake just by calling it one. As if calling our bad choices accidents make them suddenly okay. Well, here’s the truth of it: we can’t change the nature of sin. It exists whether we admit it or not. We cannot make it go away just be ignoring it. If we really want to make sin go away, there’s a much more logical alternative: stop sinning. But no, that’s too hard.
We’re all probably secretly ashamed of ourselves, but we’re too prideful to admit our own fallenness. Instead, we hide behind our “mistakes,” asking our fellow-man to encourage our cowardice by telling us that everything is okay, that we’re not bad people. Sure, you might not be a bad person, but everything is not okay. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away.
The world might continue to ignore our sinfulness, but we don’t have to be like the world. We might be in the world, but we are not of it. Just because the world says that we’re fine doesn’t mean that the Church has to. The Church has been blessed with the Truth. The Truth is Jesus Christ, the Healer of mankind, and the truth of our existence is that we have fallen and need to be lifted back up. We are ill and need healing. We have sinned and need forgiveness. We should not shy away from this truth, as tempting as that might be. The world continues to hide from it, and the world is slowly dying. We do not need to suffer the same fate. We can admit the truth, and seek forgiveness. We can teach the faithful that Baptism washes away original sin, and is not simply a ceremony for welcoming a new Catholic into the Church. We can teach them that we are all sinners, but we have also been given the wonderful gift of Confession. We can teach them that we do not need to die, that living means admitting our fallenness, seeking forgiveness, and striving to be more like Christ. And we can teach them that this life comes through Jesus Christ Himself, who has given us His Body and Blood so that we might become one with Him.
We are all sick, and we have all been given a choice. We can either ignore our illness, pretending it doesn’t exist until it finally kills us, or we can admit that we’re sick and seek out the Healer. We can choose between life and death. We have all been invited and challenged to choose life, but many people are too afraid to make that choice. Are you?
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!