View good and evil in context of the divine

Father John A. Kiley

In January of this year, Pope Francis advised worshippers at his daily Mass: “The greatest sin today is that people have lost the sense of sin.” His Holiness continued that therefore men and women have lost “the meaning of the kingdom of God” and in its place a “powerful anthropological vision” has emerged according to which people say, “I can do anything.”

The pontiff was echoing here the words of the very first book of Scripture when Eve conversed with Satan: “He asked the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any of the trees in the garden?’” The woman answered the snake: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, or else you will die.’” But the snake said to the woman: “You certainly will not die! God knows well that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil.” Eve wanted a “powerful anthropological vision” by which she, like a god, could decide what is good and what is evil. Eve wanted to be able to say, “I can do anything.” She wanted to make her own rules, follow her own designs, determine personally and solely what was right and what was wrong for her. Individual rights, indeed!

Pope Francis is certainly not the first pontiff to decry the modern world’s dull conscience. In 1984, soon to be canonized Blessed John Paul II, in his Apostolic Exhortation “Reconciliation and Penance,” pointed out among other things that one consequence of a diminished belief in God was an equal loss of the sense of sin. He insisted at that time that the restoration of a “proper sense of sin is the first way of facing the grave spiritual crisis looming over man today.”

He further stressed that this sense of sin “can only be restored through a clear reminder of the unchangeable principles of reason and faith which the moral teaching of the Church has always upheld.” Blessed John Paul’s citing of “unchangeable principles” flies directly in the face of Eve’s desire to be like a god, deciding for herself what is good and what is evil. The Pope’s “unchangeable principles” are of course the natural law placed in the heart of every man and woman by God himself. Mankind’s appreciation of this natural law is somewhat weakened by original sin, but the natural law is nonetheless still discernible when viewed with the help of the believing community’s constant traditions and the grace of God.

Going back still further in the last century, in the 1940s, in a radio address to an American catechetical conference, Pope Pius XII stated that “the sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin.” Then again, in the later 1950s, Pope Pius declared that the most serious spiritual problem of Catholics was the loss of a sense of sin.

On this Second Sunday of Easter, when the Gospel passage relates Christ’s bestowal of his ministry of reconciliation on the 12 apostles and the early church, a desire for a keener sense of sin and a livelier awareness of right and wrong should be the paschal goal of every believer. St. John recounts, “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” Christ’s victory over sin was shared with the church and the mission of the church was to alert mankind to the presence of sin in the world – greed, lust, anger, pride, envy — and to awaken mankind’s desire to overcome sin — to regret, to repent and to convert.

Today, much of mankind is left merely with a powerful “anthropological vision” that allows humanity to view reality only from an immediate, human, earthly perspective. The Divine and eternal laws of the universe, revealed through Scripture and Tradition, are unknown, ignored or despised. A renewed sense of sin will heighten a new sense of the Kingdom that a sinful mankind too easily discounts.