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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
5 Jul 2004

Freedom from Sin

by Matthew M. Anger

Feti, Domenico, 'The Repentant St Mary Magdalene' (1617-21), Galleria Doria-Pamphili, Rome

"Being then freed from sin, we have been made servants of justice" — St. Paul (Rom 6:18).

Actress Monica Belucci, who portrays Mary Magdalene in The Passion, said "I like to think she was a sinner, but not because she was a prostitute, but rather because she was into material things." This is not to single out Miss Belucci for her moral equivocation. Such notions are voiced by scores of people aside from Hollywood celebrities. Generalizations about virtue and vice stem from an age-old desire to be "free from sin" — but not in the sense that St. Paul speaks of.

"No crime and no sin"

Of the many guises that moral escapism assumes, left-wing ideology presents the most obvious and pervasive example. The underlying premise of secularism since the Enlightenment is that the consequences of man's fallen nature can be eliminated through physical or political action. In other words, sin is not an inherent tendency in people, but is something that comes about through purely external influences. As the atheistic Ivan says in Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov, "men of wisdom and learning will proclaim that there is no such thing as crime, that there is therefore no sin either, that there are only hungry people."

Helping to set the stage over two-hundred years ago, the anti-Christian Voltaire opined that "God created sex. Priests created marriage." The implication is that the tyrannical dictates of traditional religion and politics brought forth evils which did not exist previously and must be countered by "enlightened" views. "As long as people believe in absurdities," he said of Christianity, "they will continue to commit atrocities." The truism, apparently, is that one must posit faults anywhere but in oneself.

Our own age abounds in Voltaire's ethical evasion. This attempted "isolation of evil" is evident in campaigns against "racism," "sexism," "homophobia" and even "species-ism." Though some of these fixations are born of legitimate concerns, the danger of rendering evil as an "ism" is that we temporarily unburden the conscience by both limiting vice and externalizing it. Sin ceases to be a personal issue and becomes something that can be mechanically quarantined and eliminated. We have seen where this logic ends. The past two centuries are replete with attempts to abolish iniquity through terror, purges and concentration camps.

False Liberation

According to Cardinal Medina Estevez, in his book Lord Who Are You? The Names of Christ (Ignatius Press) God is indeed a deliverer and a liberator. But this concept can be distorted.

This confusion... can be observed in those Christians who put all the emphasis on so-called socio-economic structural changes and on "social sins".... Overlooked is the fact that the principal form of slavery oppressing man is that of sin, as well as the fact that the remaining forms [of imperfection] proceed from human limitations (which are not always culpable).

In other words, the error of generalizing evil is twofold. We make it much harder to condemn ourselves. We also make it much easier to condemn others.

Nevertheless, it would be misleading to say that only card-carrying secularists are prone to this isolation of evil. Any attempt to generalize sin is psychologically rooted in sin itself, and so it is a fault that we are all prone to. Sometimes we err by acknowledging only the most egregious examples. But it is not just sexually exhibitionist stunts by Janet Jackson that spell the decline of a society. There are all the acceptable vices, like divorce, soft-core pornography, and apparently trifling things which lead up to this. Simply aping the Left and cordoning off vice ideologically (e.g. thinking our problems are all due to "big government" and the Democratic Party) will not deliver man from the bondage of our Parents' first rebellion. To think otherwise will simply bounce us from the frying pan into the fire.

Fleeing Temptation

In these times when our political and religious leaders seem swamped by the wave of post-modern iniquity, we may also seek escape through an "isolation of virtue." We can try to build an arbitrary, temporal wall between us and vice, by running off to the hills or establishing sects that seek immunity from the world. Unfortunately, we take our vices with us and no bunker or barbed wire will isolate us from sin. It is another form of picking and choosing our obligations to God and neighbor, and a rejection of the cross we are called to bear.

This takes us even closer to the heart of the problem — the temptation to avoid temptation itself. This is not the common sense need to avoid the occasions of sin, as our catechisms admonish us to do. Rather, it is the idea that we can legislate evil, and all possible enticements, out of existence. This is found in the escapist philosophy of Rousseau's "Social Contract" and the puritanical tenets of Wahabist Islam. Shirking of personal responsibility must always issue in totalitarian control, thus proving the dictum that men who do not control themselves are doomed to be controlled by others. It is the corollary of a worldly, as opposed to a truly spiritual, desire for freedom.

The Antinomian Impulse

Antinomianism is the idea that personal enlightenment or imminent salvation frees one from the ordinary norms of morality. Though it came to prominence in the Protestant revolts of the 16th century, it was a problem St. Paul contended with in the earliest days of the Church. Some Christians believed that with the new dispensation they were no longer subject to the Decalogue, and that Christ had simply done away with the old law altogether. As one of the earliest errors, antinomianism may well be the form of dissent that begets all others.

Popularizers of modern antinomianism, following in Voltaire's footsteps, are merely articulating an innate desire that pre-dates political and religious heresy, and hence explains the ceaseless appeal of such ethical evasion. It is the universal desire to get something without paying for it. Or, to return to Dostoyevky's Ivan, "I tell you that man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born. But only one who can appease their conscience can take over their freedom."

The Universal Cross

Without engaging in radical error, all of us at some time or another will be tempted to look for the spiritual "free lunch," even if we are outwardly obedient and devout. Fr. George Franko, in a recent issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review, reminds us that

The universal cross of mankind is simply Original Sin. We should not think that Original Sin is simply "an inclination to sin." It is living with sin and its consequences in ourselves and others. There are also "secondary explosions."... This is the "human condition" you say. I say it is Original Sin in us and others.

It is not only sin, but the consequences of sin, that we sometimes seek to avoid, be it in neglecting our responsibilities as parents, workers, parishioners or neighbors. The answer is picking up the cross that we have either dropped or lowered in a moment's weakness. It is accepting that life is seldom glamorous, even for the orthodox Catholic, and that even as we seek to be great apologists, the example we set for others is apt to be tested by such mundane criteria as whether or not we pay our bills on time, are good employees, or are considerate of others.

The response to the antinomian impulse — being "free from sin" by being free from God — is essentially straightforward. Unfortunately, our attempts to avoid the obvious and simple remedy make the path to virtue a tortuous thing, wrought with long explanations. Perhaps that is why Scripture and spiritual writings spend so much time on it, because personal accountability is something we are always trying to dodge in one way or another.

Thomas Kempis, for example, devotes an entire chapter of his famous work to this matter. "Although temptations are so troublesome and grievous, yet they are often profitable to us, for by them we are humbled, cleansed and instructed.... We often do not know what we can bear, but temptation reveals our true nature" (Imitation of Christ, I.13). A further passage unveils the seeming enigma of temptation, and its remedy:

You will never overcome your vices, unless you discipline yourself severely. For so long as we wear this frail body, we cannot be without sin, nor can we live without weariness and sorrow. We would gladly be free from all troubles; but since we have lost our innocence through sin, we have also lost true happiness. We must therefore have patience, and wait for God's mercy, until this wickedness pass away, and death be swallowed up by life (I. 22).

"Sin no more"

Christians obtain true spiritual freedom through forgiveness, by admitting our wrong-doing and seeking amendment for specific sins. When Our Lord cured the paralytic at the miraculous pool of Bethsaida, He said "Arise, take up thy bed and walk" (John 5:8), adding, "Behold thou art made whole: sin no more, lest some worse thing happen to thee" (John 5:14).

Contrary to Monica Belucci's assertion, Mary Magdalene was not driven to heart-felt repentance merely because she was "into material things," or liked to buy expensive jewelry, but because she was an adulteress. In return, Christ said, "Many sins are forgiven her, because she hath loved much" (Luke 7:47). This must be understood in line with that other Divine precept: "If you love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15). Clearly, there are no short-cuts to virtue, least of all by denying the slavery of sin and the false freedom of the world.


Matthew Anger is a freelance journalist who has written essays on history, philosophy and literature from a Catholic perspective. He lives with his wife and seven children in the Richmond, Virginia area, where he is employed as a web/multimedia designer. In addition to Seattle Catholic, he contributes to The Latin Mass and Homiletic & Pastoral Review.

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