Morality Part 5: What Makes a Sin a Sin

It was a Theology Q&A session on a retreat – a safe environment.  Participants were encouraged to write down their questions on any faith-related topic and submit them anonymously.  The group was encouraged to raise hands and ask additional questions if needed.  This was their time.  There were over 30 retreatants, plus the team; women ranging from their early 20’s to their early 80’s.  When the topic of sin came up, you could feel the emotional intensity in the room.  As each question was answered, seven more hands shot up asking more questions.

When people ask, “Is it a mortal sin if…” more often than not, they are asking out of fear.  Somewhere along the line they learned that ___ was a mortal sin, and if you did [it], you were going to hell.  Some ask the question while thinking about their own behavior; others ask out of concern for a loved one.

Struggling with the concept of sin–and the fear of hell that accompanies it–can really damage a person’s faith, which is why this post is so important.

In Morality Part 1, I explained that When we say something is a “sin” it’s because it damages our relationship with God; not because it is “breaking the rules.”  It damages our relationship because it is either directly aimed at hurting God or at hurting those whom God loves.  And as Morality Part 4 explained, it’s only a sin if you know what you’re doing is wrong and you are doing it of your own free will.

Sin

 

In the Old Testament, sin is defined in two ways.  The first is in archery terms: “missing the mark.”  For instance, when our actions are guided by selfishness rather than agapic-love, they miss the mark.

Archery Target

 

The second way sin is described in Scripture is as a “hardness of heart.”   For example, when we are indifferent to the suffering of others… when we just don’t care enough to help someone in need, we are hard-hearted.

Heart

Catholic Tradition takes these concepts from Old Testament along with the words of Jesus in the Gospels and the writings of St. Paul to expand our understanding of sin.

In the Penitential Rite, we pray:

Penitential RiteNotice how this prayer recognizes that sin is always committed with intent (through my fault…).   Additionally, the words of this prayer acknowledge both the sins of commission (doing something wrong) and the sins of omission (not doing something that we know we should’ve done) – and this happens in thoughts, words, and actions.  In all cases, we recognize that there are varying degrees of seriousness:

Sin - Venial and Mortal

Venial sins include the smaller, less serious acts of sinfulness that often result from the bad habits or laziness.  (I know I should pray, but I don’t.  I know I shouldn’t swear, but I do.)  These are important to recognize because over time they weaken our relationship with God.

As the degree of seriousness increases, Catholic Tradition describes mortal sin.  Translated literally, this is a sin which brings a “deadly” or “mortal” blow to one’s relationship with God.  A mortal sin is a complete, deliberate rejection of God.  This is a big deal.  We’re not just talking about any sin, here.  We’re talking about a relationship-breaking sin.  For it to be considered a “mortal sin” it:

  1. Must involve “grave matter
  2. Must be done with full knowledge.
  3. Must be done deliberately, with full freedom.

It is difficult to broadly and definitively classify anything as a mortal sin because the only one who knows a person’s honest level of knowledge, freedom, and intent is God.  For instance, consider one of the most disturbing “jobs” during the Holocaust.  The Jewish Virtual Library explains that at Auschwitz and several other concentration camps,

“the Nazis established the Sonderkommando, groups of Jewish male prisoners picked for their youth and relative good health whose job was to dispose of corpses from the gas chambers or crematoria. Some did the work to delay their own deaths; some thought they could protect friends and family, and some acted out of mere greed for extra food and money these men sometimes received. The men were forced into this position, with the only alternative being death in the gas chambers or being shot on the spot by an SS guard.”

Here we are certainly dealing with a grave matter done with full knowledge, but the prisoners’ lack of freedom eliminates the culpability.

Culpability, the degree to which people are morally responsible, can diminish if a sin is committed under duress, whether that pressure comes from oneself or others.  Then there are psychological wounds, such as the PTSD of war veterans or mental illness, that likewise limit one’s freedom and diminish responsibility.

Is it possibly for a person to commit a mortal sin?  Absolutely.  That possibility is a reflection of the depth of our human freedom.  However, not every decision is made with full knowledge, full freedom, and deliberate intent.

Moreover, you know what the remedy is for mortal sin?  Reconciliation.  Mess up really bad?  Take responsibility, seek forgiveness, and make amends.  God just wants us to repent and return to him.

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”  (Luke 15:4-7)

When Jesus tells the parable of the Lost Sheep, it might be helpful to understand that most shepherds don’t leave the 99 to chase after the one.  But God does.  Because that’s just the kind of loving, merciful, life-giving God he is.

Mortal sin is not the end.  Rather, it points to a deep, serious need for reconciliation.

At this point in the Theology Q&A, someone inevitably asks:

If God is all-loving and forgiving, then how can there be anyone in hell?

For one thing, we are held morally accountable for our actions (and inactions).

  • For forming our conscience and increasing our desire for good.
  • For informing our conscience and developing our moral wisdom.
  • For following our conscience and avoiding sin.

For more on how judgment works with an all-loving, forgiving God, read this post on Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory.

As I wrap up the series of posts on Morality, think about your own attitudes towards sin:

  • When it comes to the topic of moral responsibility and sin, what do you struggle with?  

Morality Part 4: Form, Inform, and Follow

When I do laundry, after washing and drying, I’ll transport the clean clothes to the couch.  The couch and coffee table are my folding zone, a task I’ll tackle while watching Netflix, talking on the phone, or visiting with a close friend (one whom I am secure enough to expose my family’s laundry to).  The reality is that the folding does not happen immediately.  Often the couch is buried amid several loads of clean laundry.  Yes, I’ll get to it.  Eventually.  The thing is that my kids will want to actually use the couch to sit on, despite the piles of clean laundry.  Sometimes I take a little too long to get around to folding; I take responsibility for this.

Other times, like today, I’m within the margin of acceptable laundry-folding time. Regardless, the clean laundry got knocked off the couch by one of my kids.

Me: Who knocked the laundry basket off the couch and onto the floor?

Max: I fink I did it.  I’m sowwy, Mommy.  I didn’t mean to.

I know that he didn’t intentionally, maliciously knock my laundry on the floor, but still.  He could’ve been more careful.  And even if it was an accident, he could’ve fixed it.

photo

 

While laundry on the couch isn’t one of the most pressing moral issues of our time, this conversation with my 6 year-old does provide a framework for examining moral responsibility.

First, let’s recall where we left off: Morality Part 3 explained the lifelong process of forming conscience.

Conscience Formation

In my explanation of forming conscience, I gave a lot of attention to the idea that a person must genuinely choose what is good.  However, saying a person must decide to do what is good for oneself is not the same thing as saying that a person makes moral decisions by oneself.

This is where Informing Conscience comes in.  If forming conscience is about wanting to be a good (not bad) person, having an informed conscience is about making right (not wrong) choices.  Quite simply, it’s about making informed decisions.

Conscience Definition Form and Inform 2

 

How do we make informed moral decisions?  The Catechism explains that we do this by consulting with three areas of our life: self, others, and God.

To make informed moral decisions, we strive “to interpret the data of experience and the signs of the times assisted by the virtue of prudence, by the advice of competent people, and by the help of the Holy Spirit.” (CCC, 1788)

1. Self - (“assisted by the virtue of prudence“)  Quite simply: stop and think.  Mindful self-examination helps in discernment, whether or not we actually write out that pro and con list.  Here, we take the time to differentiate between wants and needs… between immediate gratification and long-term impact…

2. Others – (“assisted by…the advice of competent people“)  Inviting the wisdom of others is not the same thing as allowing “superego” to decide for us.  In fact, think of this as your own Personal Board of Directors.  While unsolicited advice will be offered far and wide, you find yourself talking through difficult decisions with a select group of people.   Each member of this board is must be personally appointed by you as a closest, trusted adviser; no applications (or self-nominations) are accepted.  It’s not that the people on your Board tell you what to do (because you may not always follow their advice), but you do seriously consider whatever they have to say.

That said, it is important that we neither appoint strictly “yes-men” nor superegos that micro-manage our decisions.  Our Personal Board of Directors should give us insight into our darker selves, but do so with selfless agape-love.

Alongside your Personal Board of Directors, the independent research of a respected third party should be considered when making difficult decisions.  The voice of “competent people” extends to the sciences, particularly the social sciences.

3.  God – (“the help of the Holy Spirit“)  In making moral decisions, we must pray–inviting God into the discernment process.  Additionally, part of being Catholic means that we value the 2000+ years of wisdom from Scripture and Tradition, which is one of the big ways that the Holy Spirit speaks to us today.

There is a temptation to approach the teachings of the Church and the role of the Magisterium as the voice of superego.  For some of us, that means we blindly follow an unexamined faith.  For others, it means we ignore the voice of the Holy Spirit.  Neither of these approaches reflects having a truly informed conscience.

What we don’t want to do is end up uninviting the Holy Spirit from our Personal Board of Directors.  The key is to earnestly listen to the wisdom of the teachings of the Church.  If we find ourselves in disagreement with the Church, we owe it to our faith to explore this disconnect.  Sometimes it’s a matter of understanding why the Church teaches what it does.  It’s not ok for a person to simply dismiss a teaching that they don’t agree with; rather, this is a reason for deeper prayer, study, and exploration in faith.

  • What is your decision making process?  In what way does it align with the self-others-God explanation of CCC, 1788?  In what way does it differ?
  • Who is on your Personal Board of Directors?  Have you appointed any “yes-men” or superegos?  
  • What insights do you gain from thinking about informing conscience in this way?

Follow Your Conscience

Catholic Teaching insists that we have an obligation to follow our conscience, but stated more precisely, we have an obligation to follow our formed and informed conscience.

Conscience Form Inform Follow

It is in this context that it makes sense to return to a discussion about moral responsibility and sin, because it is our conscience that enables us to take responsibility for our actions (CCC, 1781).

How can we say something is “wrong” if you’re following your conscience?

Faced with a moral choice, our conscience can either make a right judgment or a wrong one.  Sometimes, we will be following our conscience and still end up making a mistake, which Catholic tradition calls “erroneous conscience” (CCC, 1786, 1790).   Actually, there are different levels of assessment here:

  1. Invincible Ignorance – if a person honestly did not know something was wrong (and there is not a reasonable expectation that they should have known), then it is considered a true accident.
    • Although the person may have done something wrong, they are not in violation of their conscience.
    • It is expected that they will make amends for any damage done, but they are not morally responsible. (See CCC, 1793)
  2. Vincible Ignorance – if a person claims that they didn’t know something was wrong, but when we logically assess the situation, we can safely say that they should have known better.  In the court of law, we call this negligence.
    • When a wrongdoing falls under this umbrella of  “willful ignorance,”  the person bears moral responsibility, but it is still not considered a “sin” (CCC, 1791-1792).
  3. Sin – For something to be considered a sin, it must be a deliberate decision to violate our conscience. Therein, we must have both:
    • Knowledge that it is wrong
    • Freedom to choose

There are times when we know what is wrong, but we do it anyway.   St. Augustine tells a story from his adolescence (in Book 2, Chapter IV of his Confessions) when he stole some pears.  He knew it was wrong; he admits that he was neither hungry, nor poor when he did it.  He stole them for the thrill of stealing – simply because it was forbidden.

There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night — having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was — a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden. Such was my heart, O God, such was my heart — which thou didst pity even in that bottomless pit. Behold, now let my heart confess to thee what it was seeking there, when I was being gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error — not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in thee to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself.*

We all have a pear-tree story of our own; a time which we were clearly choosing to do something that was in violation of our conscience.

The next post on Morality will explore and unpack some of the traditional vocabulary surrounding sin.  For now, consider the following:

  • Can you relate to these three categories of “doing something wrong” – invincible ignorance (accident), vincible ignorance (negligence), and sin (deliberate decision)?  Which do you struggle with most and why?

Morality Part 3: Forming Your Conscience

I have my Grandmom’s chin.  So does my mother, my aunts and uncles, most of my cousins, and my younger son.  When I was a teen, I noticed that Grandmom’s sister, Aunt Helen has this same chin, and when she agrees with you on something, she sticks out that pointy chin, presses her lips together, and v-e-r-y slowly nods her head three or four times.  Then I noticed that Grandmom often does the same thing.  And so does my Mom.  And now I even do it.

Grandmom and Aunt Helen

Aunt Helen and Grandmom

There are things we pick up from our family of origin whether we like it or not.  Some of them are innocuous and make us smile.  Other times, it’s a bad habit–or worse an immoral behavior.

What if a person was raised in a racist home?  How can we say that’s wrong if that’s what they were taught?

When discussing morality, lots of attention is given to the importance of following one’s conscience.  In Morality Part 2, I explained the difference between conscience and superego.

Conscience and Superego

Superego has its place in forming our conscience, but they are not the same thing.  From childhood to adulthood, we must transition from an external voice of moral authority to listening to the inner voice of our conscience.  The Greek philosopher Plato explored this idea in both The Republic and Meno.  Recognizing that one’s conscience reflects genuine internal decision, he asked:

Can you teach someone to be virtuous?

You can teach someone what is right, but for them to be truly virtuous, they must actually choose it for themselves.  So how do we actually teach virtue?  We teach virtue in three different ways, during three different stages of life.

1.  Stories and Examples

During childhood, especially birth to age 7, children are like sponges; they pick up on everything.  In this stage, we teach children to value what is good by through the stories and examples we expose them to.  The difficulty here is that kids will learn both the good and the bad.  While they may memorize the words to the bedtime story and the children’s songs that we intentionally select for their beautiful message, they will also pick up on the other words, phases, attitudes, and behaviors that they are exposed to which are not so “pure.”  And they will do this whether we like it–or intend for it–or not.

IMG_0725Dennis noticed that his 3 year old, Jakob was entering into that parroting stage: repeating, imitating, and copying whatever he saw or heard.  While Dennis was already cautious about what he was exposing his son to, this annoying and adorable behavior had him on high alert.  They were in the car, only driving 10 minutes down the road to the store, listening to XM radio when the DJ came on, mocking some celebrity: “In he comes wearing his [effing] cowboy hat and his [effing] cowboy boots–” and Dennis quickly and discreetly changed the station.  He parks the car, unbuckles his 3 yr old from the back seat, and Jakob announces, “Daddy! I have my [effing] cowboy boots, but I don’t have an [effing] cowboy hat.  When can I get an [effing] cowboy hat?”  Trying desperately not to overreact, Dennis explained to his super-hero loving son, “Those are not good words, buddy.  Good guys don’t use words like that; only bad guys.  You don’t ever hear Daddy using those words, do you?”  Jakob’s eyes widened, “No, Daddy!  You never use those words!”

The stories and examples that we expose our children to will either teach them to desire what is good or not.  When it comes to what children observe, it is often the implicit, unspoken example that leaves a lasting impression over and above what adults explicitly say.

  • Think about your own experience with this part of moral formation.  
    • Stories: What were some of your favorite stories from childhood?  What was the moral or message?
    • Examples: What are some of the behaviors you learned from your family of origin?  Try to identify one positive, one negative, and one “amoral,” innocuous behavior.

 2.  Practicing Habits

In adolescence, the primary way in which we experience moral formation is by practicing good habits.  Athletic coaches, band and choral directors, and educators use certain exercises to help students practice “skills” to improve overall performance.  Parents require their teens to do certain chores.  We employ the phrase “practice makes perfect.”   The goal is to practice good behavior to the point that it becomes so ingrained that we can do it without thinking.

The 1984 movie The Karate Kid offers a great demonstration of this dynamic.  Daniel is a teenager who asks Mr. Miyagi to teach him karate.  As he arrives each day for what he hopes to be “training sessions,” Daniel is told he must first perform chores in very specific ways.   Frustrated with what he perceives as days of varied slave-labor, Daniel complains and confronts his teacher.  In turn, Mr. Miyagi shows Daniel that each specific action in the chores relates to a maneuver in karate.

Parents, coaches, and educators require teens to do certain tasks that are the building blocks of perfecting the practice of virtue.  This is why Catholic schools and Confirmation programs require students to do service hours.  The reality many of us face, however, is that we don’t just form good habits over the years; we also form bad ones.

  • Think about your own experience with this part of moral formation.  
    • In what way can you relate to the Karate Kid example?  When were you required to practice an obscure skill that later proved useful?
    • Think of a bad habit that you worked to break free from; tell the process of re-learning.
    • What good, moral habits have you developed?  Who influenced you?

3.  Journey into Adulthood

The transition from adolescence to adulthood is marked by a maturity in which we go from doing things without thinking about them to examining and evaluating what we have been taught and intentionally choosing our path.  This third stage is not automatic; it is up to each person to decide whether or not to integrate what they have been taught into the person who they want to become (and by this, I mean the very best that each person is called by God to be).

Notice that this is called a “journey” into adulthood because it’s not a “once and done” moment of enlightenment.  This journey of growth and maturity happens over the course of time.  Unfortunately, some “grown-ups” have not taken that journey into adulthood at all, and instead continue to repeat the patterns (and mistakes) they inherited from their family of origin.  Most of us, however, are somewhere on that path.

Catholic Tradition calls this life-long process Formation of Conscience (CCC 1783-1785), which is ultimately a matter of improving our character and strengthening or increasing our desire for goodness.  As adults, it comes down to asking ourselves:

Do I want to be a good person?

Honestly, we can become apathetic in our response to this very basic question, a state which Catholic Tradition calls lax conscience.

  • Think about your own experience with this part of moral formation.  
    • Identify one moral behavior from childhood and adolescence that you have examined, evaluated and mindfully chosen to continue.
    • Have there been any immoral behaviors from your formative years that you have intentionally chosen to eliminate?  
    • Do you struggle with lax conscience?  
    • Who or what helps you to increase your desire for goodness?

 

Morality Part 2: Mercy, Motivation, and Conscience

In Morality Part 1, I explained how morality was about relationship, not rules.  Part 2 will begin to explore moral responsibility and the role of conscience.  But first, a word about mercy.

Yesterday, when I backed the car out of the driveway, I was too close to the neighbor’s fence and clipped, shattered, and broke off the side-view mirror.

IMG_1248

Why?  There was no good reason.  I wasn’t distracted or stressed.  I have no one to blame but myself.  I literally hung my head in shame as I showed my husband what I had done.  Worse yet, I misread the text message that my friend sent.  She hadn’t asked me to pick her up; she had offered to pick me up.

IMG_1252

I wasn’t even supposed to be backing out of the driveway.  The feeling of stupidity stung.

My husband was more merciful and compassionate to me that I was to myself.  “Try not to do that again,” he said as he hugged me.  He knew I was sorry.

As I tried to moved beyond self-condemnation to being present to the rest of my day (and of course figuring out the details of getting the car fixed) I thought a lot about my own practice of showing mercy, especially with my kids.

I find that my ability to show mercy is directly related to the person’s ability to take responsibility.  We all make mistakes; I sure as heck do.

I get really upset with my kids when they fail to acknowledge whatever wrong they have done – whether it’s due to ignorance, indifference, lying, or blaming.  But the times in which they come to me with honest remorse over something, I respond with mercy, compassion, and love – at least I try to.

IMG_1253

When we talk about Moral Responsibility in the context of our relationship with God, it is important to remember God’s mercy endures forever (Psalm 136:25).  Every person in Scripture that approaches Jesus having taken responsibility for their sins is granted mercy and forgiveness.

  • Think about your own practice of mercy.  How well do you practice – or how much do you struggle with practicing – mercy?  Do you find it harder to be merciful with yourself or others?  

The “Why” Matters

Part 1 explained that morality is about relationships.

3 Dimensions of Morality

Yes, morality is about the interpersonal “how we treat others” (the Golden Rule–do unto others, for sure), but it’s so much more than just external behavior.  In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis explains that focusing exclusively on how we treat others leads us to thinking that so long as we do the right thing, it doesn’t matter much why we do it.  On the contrary, it’s that internal motivation–the personal dimension–that reflects the quality of our character.  And God is quite concerned with the quality of our character.

When the Catechism defines Morality in CCC, 1750, it speaks of three “Sources” to be examined and evaluated.  The morality of human acts depends on:

  1. Object - WHAT - the action itself
  2. Intention - WHY – the motivation or reason why the action was done
  3. Circumstances - WHO, WHEN, WHERE, HOW – the context, all the contributing factors, as well as the consequences or outcome of the act

All three–object, intent, and circumstances–are examined when we evaluate whether an act is good or bad, and all three must be aligned with what is good for the act to be evaluated as moral.  It comes as no surprise that there are some acts (like terrorists murdering innocent people) that are objectively evil. But things get more complicated when people do good things for the wrong reasons.  Or worse, do something wrong so as to achieve some “greater good.”

The circumstances surrounding an act can contribute to increasing or diminishing the goodness or evil the act (for example, how much is stolen in a theft; how much damage is done). Circumstances can also increase or diminish the person’s responsibility (such as acting out of fear or under stress). However, circumstances themselves cannot change the moral quality of an action; they simply can not make an evil act good. (See CCC, 1756)

The Catechism is abundantly clear on explaining that it is never morally permissible to do evil to achieve good.  “The ends does not justify the means” (CCC, 1759).

  • Can you think of an example from your own life when you…
    • …did the right thing for the wrong reason?
    • …did the wrong thing to achieve some greater good?

Conscience

So we know morality is about relationships, not rules.  And we know we need to consider the object, intent, and circumstances of an act when we evaluate whether or not it is good.  But how we decide what to do is a matter of conscience.  In fact, in all we say and do, we are obligated to follow our conscience. (CCC, 1778).

Conscience: here’s another aspect of Catholic tradition that is deeply misunderstood.  We talk about conscience being the “voice within” (CCC, 1776) and people either think of miniature angels and devils sitting on our shoulders or “hearing voices” akin to Jiminy Cricket in Disney’s Pinocchio.

A more helpful explanation of conscience sees it as both:

  1. The inner desire for goodness
  2. Choosing to do the right action

Yes, we are obligated to follow our conscience, but conscience is not what modern psychology calls our “superego.”

Superego is the voice of some external authority that says “I should do this because I’m supposed to.”  Conscience is when we genuinely say, “I desire what is good, and I choose to do what is right.”  When you hear the voice of your mother in your head telling to send that thank-you-note or spend time visiting that obnoxious aunt, that is not your conscience; that is your superego.

As the mother of two boys who are 6 and 7 /2 years old, I must emphasize that superego has its place in helping us to form our conscience, but it cannot be mistaken for conscience.  There are a variety of reasons why people do what is right.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) was an American psychologist that developed the theory known as the Stages of Moral Development.  There are different, age appropriate reasons why people choose to do what is right.

Kohlberg 2

 

Kohlberg explained that there are six stages of moral reasoning, which describe the different motivations people have for doing what is right.  Those in the first stage, Obedience and Punishment, do what is right simply to avoid punishment.  In the second stage, Individualism and Exchange, the rationale is self-centered and reward seeking.  Those in the third stage, Good Boy/Girl, are motivated by making a positive impression on people who matter to them.  In the fourth stage, Law and Order, the motivation is centered on following the rules.  Kohlberg says that most adults make their moral decisions in stages three and four.  Few people attain the fifth stage, Social Contract, whereby people consider the common good when deciding.  Even fewer reach the sixth stage, Principled Conscience.  It is in this stage which people choose to do what is right simply because it is the right thing to do.

  • As you consider Kohlberg’s Stages for Moral Development, where would you place yourself?  Why do you find yourself doing what is right?  
  • What insight do you gain from thinking about Morality having Stages of Development?  Why is this significant to you?

Next up, in Part 3: How we Form and Inform our Conscience–and how does that impact our sense of Moral Responsibility.

Morality Part 1: It’s About Relationship

The other day at dinner, I tell my boys that I am looking forward to teaching a class that evening on Morality–a favorite topic, which I hadn’t taught in a while.  My 6 year old asks:

“Mommy what is mowality?”

I pause, since I usually begin by acknowledging that most of us presume morality is about following a set of rules, and it’s not… it’s about relationship. But in that moment I was challenged to accurately and succinctly describe it in a way that my 6 and 7 1/2 year old would understand.IMG_1199

“Morality is about what’s right and wrong, and why.”

Without missing a beat, he tells me:

“Oh, Mommy!  But you teach me and my brudder about that evewy day!”

I want my kids to be good people, so yes, every day I am concerned with the decisions they make and developing their character–whether they’re playing with friends, following through on responsibilities around the house, working at school, or paying attention to the needs of the world around them. Morality is concerned with what’s right and wrong, and why, but it’s not about rules; it’s about relationship.

Relationship

The reason Why something is right or wrong has everything to do with relationship.

  • Think about three of your closest friends.  What are some of the “unspoken rules” that close friends follow to maintain a healthy relationship?  List these relationship-guiding rules out: trust, honesty, care and concern for one another’s well-being… what else would you add?

Who: From the perspective of Christian Morality, we are talking about living a good life in relationship with God.  What makes something moral or immoral is whether it strengthens or damages our relationship with God.  When we say something is a “sin” it’s because it damages our relationship with God; not because it is “breaking the rules.”

HowSo how do we strengthen our relationship with God?  By loving, honoring, and respecting God and all of God’s Creation.

The number one overarching principle that guides our approach to being in right relationship is a respect for the value, worth, and special dignity within each person as a child of God, created in the image and likeness of God.  Catholic Social Teaching refers to this as respect for human dignity, which finds its Scriptural roots in Genesis.

God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

I love how Richard Rohr explains the depth of what human dignity means:

“You are a son or daughter of the Good and Loving God. The Divine Image is planted inherently and intrinsically within you. You cannot create it, you cannot manufacture it, you cannot earn it, you cannot achieve it, you cannot attain it, you cannot cumulatively work up to it. Do you know why? Because you already have it! That is the core of the Gospel” (Adapted from Dying: We Need It for Life)

As Christians, we are called to respect human dignity with the care and concern of divine, agape love.

This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. (John 15:12)  

20090528_066 When we put together the Who and the How of morality, we can see that living a good life in relationship with God has three dimensions:

  1. Interpersonal- respecting the human dignity of others, which is demonstrated by how we treat one another.
  2. Personal – respecting one’s own human dignity, which is demonstrated by how we develop our internal quality of character
  3. Transcendent – respecting God, which is demonstrated by practicing the virtue of faith.

The Commandments, Beatitudes, and Virtues help flesh out the What of Catholic moral teaching with more specifics, but if we don’t begin with that understanding of being in right relationship with oneself, others, and the God who created us and loves us, then our approach to morality will be limited to simply “following the rules.”

In the next post, I’ll discuss the role of conscience and moral responsibility.  For now, consider how you think about morality:

  • What attitudes or assumptions do you bring to a discussion of morality?  Are they helpful or limiting?
  • Think about your relationship with yourself, with others, and with God.  In what ways do you see love and respect for human dignity guiding your behavior in those relationships?  Where do you succeed in practicing this “respect”?  Where do you struggle?  Is there one area that you feel called to work on improving?

Have Hope

Looking ahead, at the next few months (or years), what do you hope for?

If I asked what would you wish for, would your answer change at all?

Although we often use the words hope and wish interchangeably, there’s a huge difference.  Both are future oriented—for things we want to happen.

When we wish for something we want to happen, we do so in a passive way: wanting something to happen to us without any effort on our part.

I wish we would win the lottery.

 When we hope for something we want to happen, we actively participate in bringing it about.

I hope my children grow up to be good, generous, loving people.

 So then, when we consider that hope is a theological virtue, what we’re saying is that we are actively participating with God.

 The theological virtue of hope can be defined as trusting in the promises for the Kingdom of God and cooperating with God’s grace to make the future happen.

Participating with God involves trust.

  • I trust that I am doing my best, taking personal, proactive responsibility.
  • I trust God to do the rest.

Fullscreen capture 492014 91155 PM.bmp

Balancing the two – personal responsibility and trust in God – is a challenge.  Most of us struggle with one of the two extremes:

Too Much God, Not Enough Me

–OR–

Too Much Me, Not Enough God

 Too Much God, Not Enough Me

You know the story of the man and the flood?

A man who lived by the river heard a radio report predicting severe flooding.  Heavy rains were going to cause the river to rush up and flood the town, so all the residents were told to evacuate their homes. But the man said, “I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.” The waters rose up. A guy in a rowboat came along and he shouted, “Hey, you in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.” But the man shouted back, “I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.” A helicopter was hovering overhead and a guy with a megaphone shouted, “Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder and I’ll take you to safety.” But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God will take him to safety. Well… the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter he demanded an audience with God. “Lord,” he said, “I’m a religious man, I pray, I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?” God said, “I sent you a radio report, a helicopter and a guy in a rowboat. What are you doing here?”

When our reliance on God comes at the neglect of human action, we are not practicing the virtue of hope.  Instead, we practice some wish-based “Cheap-Hope” where God will provide becomes equivalent to saying God will do it all for me.

Jesus invites us to participate in bringing about the Kingdom of God.  (Read more about participation in my post about The Good Shepherd and Sacraments.)

Sometimes, all we can do to help a situation is pray.  And we should always pray.  But when we can do something more–and it falls within our realm of responsibility–we should do so.

God created us in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27), and bestowed upon us gifts and talents that he expects us to use (recall the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30).  We need to take these seriously as we practice the virtue of hope.

Too Much Me, Not Enough God

Then, there are those of us who take it to the other extreme: relying on human action alone and excluding God.

We recognize that the person in despair lacks hope.  But too often this isn’t an inability to practice the virtue of hope.  Rather, despair–hopelessness–is a sign of a serious depression.  Help is available for those who need it.

Who struggles with the practicing the virtue of hope?

  • The Type-A who obsesses about every little detail
  • The Control Freak who cannot let go
  • The Worrier who is filled with anxiety
  • The Complainer who loses perspective

When we think that everything is up to us, we are not practicing the virtue of hope.  Here, the lack of hope involves the failure to trust God.

When Maureen was asked to be the Spiritual Director for the next Christ Renews His Parish (CRHP) retreat, she was overwhelmed.  “I can’t do this; I’m not qualified.”  The Continuation Committee recognized her gifts and talents, but Maureen was filled with anxiety.  “This is an enormous responsibility.  I cannot possibly lead and guide these women on their journey.”  In prayer and conversation with her loved ones, Maureen came to see that she was assuming that she alone was responsible for the direction of the retreat.  Rather than envision her leadership as participating with God, she feared it was all up to her.  Once she grounded herself in the virtue of hope, she was able to accept.  Throughout the process of formation, Maureen had to constantly remind herself that she was not in this alone. Rather, she was working with God: doing her best and trusting God to work in, with, and through her.

Whether it’s our parenting, our professional career, or our relationships, practicing the virtue of hope means that we are participating with God.  Moreover, we are inviting God to participate with us in every nook and cranny of our lives.

Practicing the virtue of hope also means participating with others.  We need to allow and encourage others to participate to the best of their abilities.  That means putting down our “If you want it done right you have to do it yourself” banners.  The social justice principle of subsidiarity means that we let each person do for themselves what they can.  There is goodness in that.  It’s how Jesus did things, too.

Like any virtue, practicing hope is something that we can get better at doing.  As a teen, I often prayed the Serenity Prayer.

serenity-prayer

As an adult, I find that the Prayer of Oscar Romero speaks to the depths of my heart as I struggle to become better at practicing the virtue of hope.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said. Romero 3

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

Forgiveness

The past week has been tough on my 6 year old son: difficulty with the kid across the street, whom he considers his best friend.  Feelings have been hurt in both directions and neither boy is handling it well.  Thus far, they have each perpetuated the cycle of my-feelings-are-hurt-so-I’m-going-to-hurt-your-feelings.

When our kids make mistakes, we teach them:

ForgivenessForgiveness is hard, and it’s hard for different people for different reasons.  Everyone has that one aspect that they struggle with, whether it’s forgiving oneself, forgiving others, or seeking forgiveness.

So when discussing why the cycle of my-feelings-are-hurt-so-I’m-going-to-hurt-your-feelings was wrong (and unhelpful, and hurtful), it didn’t surprise me when my son started crying.  But instead of assuming, I compassionately asked “Why are you crying?”

“Because I know what I did was wrong and I’m ashamed.”

Oh honey.  No.  That’s not what I want.  That’s not what God wants.

Forgiveness of Self

Shame breaks forgiveness.  It stops us from learning, growing, healing, and loving.  Shame paralyzes us in Part 1: Take Responsibility, and it brings its friend Fear to prevent us from Part 2: Seeking Forgiveness from whoever you’ve hurt… so that we might as well forget about making any progress on Part 3: Fixing It.  That paralysis not helpful.

For many of us, the hardest part about forgiveness is honestly forgiving ourselves.

How could I have been so stupid?  How could I have made such an awful mistake?

Some wonder: can we forgive ourselves?  Isn’t it up to God to forgive us?  To that I’d respond: certainly.  God is ultimately the one who forgives.  But Jesus offered extra clarification here: we’re not supposed to be judging and condemning ourselves in the first place.

Read the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery:

“Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8:4-11)

Look closely at the final words Jesus said to the woman, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

God is a God of love and life.  Shame and condemnation are not what God wants for our lives.  Rather, Jesus tells us to learn and grow from this experience (sin no more) and go on your way–move forward in life with love.

Forgiveness of Others

Jesus speaks most clearly on the topic of forgiving others, particularly telling us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27) and forgive seven times seven times (Matthew 18:21-22, Luke 17:4).  Taken as a whole, Jesus’ message of forgiveness is radical:

We are to be people of love and reconciliation, not people of hate and vengeance.

There is no wiggle room in Christianity when it comes to hatred and vengeance.  Most Christians agree with this in theory, but have difficulty when putting it in to practice.  Especially in instances of abuse.  Particularly when it comes to the teaching about retaliation.

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. (Matthew 5:38-39)

At no point in the Gospels does Jesus preach a message contrary to love.  Abuse is not love.  So to interpret this passage in a way that encourages someone to endure ongoing, continued abuse would be a gross misinterpretation.  Still, what is Jesus saying here?  Protestant biblical scholar, Walter Wink (d. 2012) offers an interesting exegesis of this passage in The Powers That Be (1998).

Contemporary readers usually imagine these “strikes” as a fist fight.  Actually, in biblical times it was common for a “Master” (Roman/male) to backhand-slap an inferior (slaves, wives, children, Jews).  Jesus is speaking to people who are used to being degraded, telling them to refuse to accept that kind of treatment any more.  However, Jesus does not encourage them to retaliate and respond with violence.  Instead, he instructs them to be subversive with creative non-violence.  By literally, physically turning and offering “the other cheek” to  the oppressor, the “master” can no longer backhand-slap; the only possible “hit” would be with a fist to the left cheek.  In that society, only equals fought with fists; thus “turning the other cheek” was an act of defiance that honored human dignity.  (Click here for the full explanation.)

Using love and respect for human dignity to guide forgiveness, let us also explore what it means to forgive a person who is unrepentant.

As a child, Grace was molested by an uncle who lived with her large Catholic family for years, but she never told anyone.  As an adult, when Grace tells her story, she recognizes that though it remained a secret, there were signs of extreme self-loathing that permeated her childhood and adolescence, lasting into much of her adulthood.  Grace’s uncle had long since passed away, never acknowledging or apologizing for his actions.  She knew that she needed forgiveness and healing in this area of her life.  However, when Grace talked about forgiveness, she focused on her need to forgive her molester.  “I struggle with that, because it seems like saying that I’m okay with what he did.  And I’m not.”  

When Jesus spoke to his disciples about forgiveness, he was calling them to reconcile, love, and be at peace with one another.  While “reconciliation” is only possible between two people who come together in mutual respect, forgiveness itself isn’t dependent on anyone else’s actions or words.

PBS did a segment on “Understanding Forgiveness” in a series called “This Emotional Life,” in which psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky calls forgiveness “a shift in thinking” toward someone who has wronged you, “such that your desire to harm that person has decreased and your desire to do him good (or to benefit your relationship) has increased.” Forgiveness, at a minimum, is a decision to let go of the desire for revenge and ill-will toward the person who wronged you.

  • Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. Forgiveness is one person’s inner response to another’s perceived injustice. Reconciliation requires both parties working together. Forgiveness is something that is entirely up to you.
  • Forgiveness is not forgetting. “Forgive and forget” seem to go together. However, the process of forgiving involves acknowledging to yourself the wrong that was done to you, reflecting on it, and deciding how you want to think about it. Focusing on forgetting a wrong might lead to denying or suppressing feelings about it, which is not the same as forgiveness. Forgiveness has taken place when you can remember the wrong that was done without feeling resentment or a desire to pursue revenge. Sometimes, after we get to this point, we may forget about some of the wrongs people have done to us. But we don’t have to forget in order to forgive.
  • Forgiveness is not condoning or excusing. Forgiveness does not minimize, justify, or excuse the wrong that was done. Forgiveness also does not mean denying the harm and the feelings that the injustice produced. And forgiveness does not mean putting yourself in a position to be harmed again. You can forgive someone and still take healthy steps to protect yourself, including choosing not to reconcile.*

Forgiveness is about letting go of the anger, hatred, and desire for revenge.

Grace realized that she did not hold on to hatred, anger, or a desire for revenge for her uncle.  She did, however, hold on to anger and hatred for herself.  When she released the idea that she was expected to “be okay” with the molestation, Grace began to heal.  

Seeking Forgiveness

Sometimes we have a hard time with actually seeking forgiveness.  Doing so requires vulnerability.

  • Am I too proud or angry to take responsibility for my role?
  • Will my apology be received?
  • Will I be made to feel worse than I already do? (Is that even possible?)
  • What will they think of me?
  • Does apologizing make me look weak?

Jesus told us to make peace with one another before coming to the altar (Matthew 5:23-25).  This peace is a matter of love and wholeness.  We are told to reconcile with one another, and we are also invited to receive the healing grace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  And what a gift of grace it is!  The peace!

So while yes, it is scary to be vulnerable, Christian discipleship is about being real, taking that risk, and living in love with one another.

Reflect: When it comes to forgiveness, what aspect do you struggle with?  What has been your most significant experience with forgiveness?  Is there someone you need to forgive?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 56 other followers

%d bloggers like this: