All Morality is Personal

One hears, at times, frustration expressed that too many Catholics think only in terms of “personal morality” or “personal piety” and that insufficient attention is paid to social or political sin. Certainly, the results of an average Catholic’s examination of conscience might seem paltry on the stage of political activism. How can people worry about paltry wrongs such as, “I lied,” “I took the Lord’s name in vain,” or “I indulged in lustful thoughts,” when there are third world workers being cheated out of their just wages, the environment being destroyed, racism being perpetuated, nuclear weapons being built and imperialist wars being fought? Isn’t it time that we stopped obsessing over these small issues of lying and swearing and sex in order to concentrate on the massive, societal evils that afflict our country and our planet?

This line of thinking strikes me as, in the end, an approach no less dangerous than that of the Pharisee who was so notoriously contrasted with the publican. Why? Because while there are unquestionably social evils that afflict us at a wider level (though there is certainly room for debate as to the precise nature and cause of social evils, I don’t think there’s any question that such things do exist) morality must, in the end, be examined at the level of individual actions. And for us, that means our actions. Societies do not perform sins, people do. While it may make sense to talk about some pervasive evil such as racism as being a “social sin”, racism does not in fact consists of “society” being racist but rather of a number of individual people within a society behaving in a racist fashion. If workers are being treated badly or paid unjust wages, it is not because society does this, but because a certain number of individual people choose to commit those acts.

I think the instinct to think of the large scale problems as social rather than personal moral problems is that in many cases the social problems that people find themselves most concerned about involve actions that they are fairly remote from. Say, for instance, one reads about a clothing plant in China in which managers routinely lock workers in for 16-20 hour shifts, forcing them to work overtime in order to meet production quotas without their consent and without paying them for the additional hours worked. I don’t think it would be controversial to say that those factory owners and shift supervisors are acting wrongly — they they are far away from us and our ability to change their behavior is minimal.

And yet, people are often uncomfortable with admitting that there is little they can do about some evil that is being committed. And so, moral weight is assigned to another set of activities which surround the issue. Do you advocate against low wages and seek to raise awareness? Are you in solidarity with the oppressed? Do you buy local, or buy fair trade, or live sustainably? Do you denounce “the system”? Do you vote for change?

I do not want to argue that people should not engage in advocacy on issues they believe to be important. Helping other people to understand what is right is a moral action, and as citizens in a polity we also have a civic responsibility to persuade our fellow citizens to support policies which will be to the common good of us all. So I would certainly encourage people to engage in political advocacy on those issues they believe to be most pressing (whether that issue is abortion, unjust wages, immigration, human trafficking, etc.) But at the same time it seems to me important for us to remember that our most basic moral responsibility is for our own personal actions, not for advocacy we engage in or groups we join.

The great temptation with these social and political understandings of morality is that they make it all too tempting for people to put all their moral energy into focusing on other people’s sins rather than their own. In the story of the pharisee and the publican, the pharisee may in fact be a person who has committed fewer unjust and immoral actions than the publican, but his great fault is that when approaching God he asks not for forgiveness for his own sins (and the strength to avoid them in the future) but rather provides God with a quick run-down of everyone else’s sins.

Given that most of us do not have it within our personal power to mistreat third world workers, declare war, torture terror suspects or destroy wetlands, a heavy focus on issues such as these necessarily means focusing on the sins committed by others rather than the sins we ourselves commit. However un-exciting admissions such as “I gossiped about the guy in the next cube behind his back” or “I lied” or “I was short tempered with my kids” might be, if those are the sins we actually have the chance to do something about it is important that they be our primary focus in our moral life. When we focus on sins which are more distant to us to the exclusion of our own, we risk turning morality into an enemies list — a danger which is the same whether that list is populated with “torture advocates”, “economic imperialists” or “baby killers”. If he can convince us to focus, in this way, on the sins of others while allowing our own to fester (after all, they are so insignificant compared to the great injustices in the world!) the great tempter scores a victory, not a defeat.

48 Responses to All Morality is Personal

  • Tim Shipe says:

    All sin is personal in the end analysis- even social sin is just a heap of personal sins compounded into a massive pile of unjust conditions. I see the way clear by treating sin with the old Catholic both/and approach. I keep assessing my personal life habits through examination of conscience and having ongoing deep conversations with my wife where we kind of offer each other a little check up- on matters where we might be singling or collectively falling short of the Christ mark. It could be in the way we vent or “joke” about people we have some issue(s) with, or in the way we respond to a movie showing vigilante justice, especially when child killers/rapists are brutally dealt with- we try not to feed our own violent tendencies on such things.

    As far as the Big Issue stuff- first we consider our own incompleteness and sinfulness the first Big Issue- and then we know that we have to be praying and if possible providing some kind of material support to the various Just Causes out in the world. I don’t think that as a Catholic layperson we can choose one path or the other in dealing with personal sins and sins in the political realm- I see both as being on the same Way of Christ. Christ cares if my thoughts stray into lust or violent anger, and He cares about unborn children being aborted, or innocent humans being killed in avoidable conflicts, and on and on and on. We have to keep trying on the Mind of Christ and use the Church as our guide in our personal piety and by way of the Church’s social doctrine.

  • Nate Wildermuth says:

    Great reflection. You’re right to point out that all sin is personal. There’s no such thing as social sin.

    I would only add that there are evil social structures that immerse men and women in an environment that is an ongoing occasion of sin: our culture leads us to lie, swear, and fornicate. This is the culture of death – the culture that seduces men and women into lying, swearing, fornicating, and aborting.

    While it is easy to fall into self-righteousness, it is also easy to fall prey to the culture. I would go further – the culture of death enslaves us as part of sin’s enslavement of the heart.

  • M.Z. says:

    Societies do not perform sins, people do. While it may make sense to talk about some pervasive evil such as racism as being a “social sin”, racism does not in fact consists of “society” being racist but rather of a number of individual people within a society behaving in a racist fashion.

    What makes social sin different from personal sin is that adverse impact occurs with our knowledge and ultimately our consent. Certainly remote cooperation with can be justified. One has to clothe their family. That someone in a far flung place has been mistreated in producing that good does remove the immediacy issue. I certainly understand (and ultimately agree with you) that we shouldn’t go to the extreme of caring more about remote evils than our more immediate sins. However, I would be cautious of treating culture and society as an imposition against us, rather than a thing of which we are a part. Certainly these things can be difficult to change, but they do change. Right, wrong, or indifferent, the way our society looks at race, gender roles, homosexuality, religious belief, and marriage have changed significantly over the past 100, 250, and 500 years.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Darwin,

    Are you trying to stir the pot ? :)

    Back when we had a discussion on Liberation Theology, I wrote the following:

    “One does not need to re-write Catholic teachings and tradition to fight for justice. That is the false assumption. It is just as false as whatever previous notions reigned about the apoliticism of Christianity. It is not possible to “render” the Gospels “as innocuous as a lap dog”, nor is it an appropriate response to sex them up with revolutionary rhetoric, with the notion that “the system must be smashed.”

    It is hearts that must be converted, and wills brought into alignment with God’s. The plain and absolute truth is that every soul won for Christ, truly won, truly comprehending of its moral obligations, is of far greater value to any eventual social transformation than any of the theorizing we engage in on this forum or anywhere else.

    A soul humble and contrite before God – that is all we need. Everything else will follow from that, everything. And without it, nothing is possible. Absolutely nothing.”

    I see no distinction whatsoever between “personal” and “social” morality.

    In my reading of history, throughout most of it, up until technologically advanced times, morality was a public matter not because people enjoyed oppressing one another, but because personal behavior affected society in an immediate and direct way.

    “Personal” immorality leads directly to public harms. Multiplied many times over, they begin to have a multi-generational effect. Then the very foundations of society are threatened. In my recent post, which I hope you will read:

    http://the-american-catholic.com/2010/04/05/a-secular-case-for-life/

    I talk about the social effects of abortion (which could be modified and extended to all forms of sexual deviancy) on marriage, family, and community – and indeed, all of civilization. In addition to the example of the Soviet Union – in which an atheist doctrine was the state religion and abortion on demand was subsidized by the state, resulting in a demographic crisis from which Russia and Eastern Europe have not recovered – I could have also used the example of China, which due to sex-selective abortion will face a gender imbalance with all sorts of harmful repercussions; and this problem affects many other countries as well.

    What happens with “justice advocates” today is that they are often – not always! – but often influenced by Marxism. They may not have ever studied Marxism or know a thing about it, but the Marxist mentality pervades among political activists, especially on college campuses.

    They might reject 99% of Marxist thought but if they retain the 1% that distorts the social nature of man into man as an almost entirely exclusive product of social conditions (and genetics, but it amounts to the same thing), then they are still within its orbit, for it is foundational.

    The Christian conception of social sin, as I find it in the Bible, in Church tradition, is that individual sins lead to social sins – and that social sins in turn further exacerbate individual sin. Throughout Scripture God condemns entire societies. Through the prophets he denounces the collective social sins of the Israelites. The Book of Wisdom speaks of unclean, sinful generations. Christ himself speaks of generational sin. And the early Christians lived in tightly-knit communities in order to live holy lives. Individual struggles against sin are incredibly difficult – which is precisely why sin is so widespread and positively embraced today.

    Though everyone cautions against reading modern ideas into ancient literature, and for good reason, in some cases we can, with care, try to understand what the ancients meant by referring to timeless aspects of humanity. When they speak of “generations”, and of generational sin, I believe they are also speaking of social sins.

    And it was these sins that Christ came to address. Matthew 25 makes this clear. Matt. 25, in turn, was prefigured in God’s message to Israel through the Prophets. Social sin does exist, collective sin, generational sin – call it what you will – and it is our obligation to address it. But it can only be addressed by those who are living, acting, working, and worshiping in a certain way – and not by any random group of college activists or bloggers.

    Sorry to ramble. But when I ramble like this it means you’ve raised an issue I’ve been thinking about, and ought to write more about in the future :) So thanks!

  • Joe,

    I definitely read your post — though I haven’t had the chance to comment on it yet, in part because it set off a similarly long and rambling reaction in my mind since it was very much along a line of thinking that I’ve been on lately. :-) Also, see below…

    Some clarifications (to all):

    - I think I should be clear, in using the term “personal morality” I do not at all want to associate my thinking here with the “it’s just my morality” kind of approach which is found in things like “personally opposed” reasoning. I meant it simply in the sense of morality applied to a single person and relating to the actions (sinful or virtuous) of that person. So when I say there is no social sin, but only personal sin, I mean that any sin is the result of the moral action of a person, however influenced or surrounded he may be by other sinners acting similarly. There is no instance in which society as a group or abstract force sins — no where the individual person committing an act is not sinning, yet at the same time what he is doing is (when done by thousands or millions of people in a society) somehow a component part of a social sin.

    - Something I’d meant to work in but somehow never got around do is that I think one of the reasons we, in our modern, democratic society, are particularly prone to seeing advocacy as a primary moral action is that we’ve become uncomfortable with the idea that the majority of us are in fact relatively powerless in society. The idea that you and I actually have practically no say on third world pay or whether the CIA tortures people makes us feel powerless, and so we assign excessive moral importance to advocacy or “raising awareness”. (This isn’t to say people shouldn’t speak out on those issues, but rather that we should not consider our advocacy efforts to trump the moral actions that we ourselves control.) While I don’t think we should lapse into total subservience, I do think there’s a sense in which we morally bite off more than we can chew when we try to make ourselves responsible for everything that happens in our country or in the world economy. There’s a history in Christianity of talking about how much more is expected of those with great power and/or wealth (camel, needle, etc.), and I don’t think we necessarily do ourselves a service when we try to make ourselves morally responsible for a lot of things we don’t actually have much of any control over. Why voluntarily put a needle’s eye between us and God if you’re not actually one of the rich and powerful?

  • Zach says:

    Well written sir. I hope all Catholics can agree with what you write here because it is orthodox.

    I agree with Nate and I think to speak of “social sin” is to make a mistake.

    My rather simple understanding of Christian social morality is this: There are bad societies, good societies, and societies somewhere in between those two extremes. Bad societies make it easy for people to commit sins, and good societies make it easy for people to do good.

  • Michael,

    If you want to write a coherent response to anything I wrote here, please do feel free. All of the other comments have been interesting and helped to shine some more light upon the truth — I’m not sure what your four brief forays are even getting at.

  • Michael,

    The reason I said your comments were incoherent is that you did not make any arguments, did not actually criticize anything the post said, did not offer any explanation of what (if the post is wrong) you do think is true, etc. You sputtered, rather indignantly, and threw a few key words around without actually saying much of anything.

    Though as I think about it, one of your comments did bring up a very interesting issue, though you failed to actually articulate any argument, in regards to Original Sin.

    You say “original sin is social sin”. Now, in the sense that I was using the terms, it seems pretty clear that this is actually not the case. In the Genesis account, Original Sin is a rupture in the relationship between God and humanity which results from the actions of two specific people: first Eve, then Adam. Each of them sins as a person, each chooses do act contrary to God’s will. There is no “society” which commits original sin, nor am I aware of any sense in which the Church has ever taught that we, humanity, as a society have “committed” original sin. Rather, when we are born into the human race we are born with the stain of Adam and Eve’s sin upon us. (I suppose one could attempt to throw out the entire Genesis account and claim that it’s a metaphor for some sort of “social sin” committed by society as a whole rather than by individual persons, but I’m not at all clear that would be an acceptable interpretation of the scriptures or the doctrine. Even as someone who treads the outer edge of orthodox thinking in keeping an open mind on the issue of polygenism, it seems clear that original sin, whatever it was, was a sin committed by individual human persons which ruptured the relationship between us and God — not some sort of amorphous group sin.)

    Which is the interesting point: While every sin clearly is the action of a person (thus my title claim, “All Morality is Personal”), it can be the case that many people share the guilt for a sin or sins.

    All of us, as humans, share the guilt of the sin of our first parents. And yet the sin itself was clearly committed by them, not us. This is because sin destroys relationships. The relationship between us and God, and the relationships between us and other persons. And because we human beings are social creatures, the destruction of relationship by one person can have effects on other people, even ones who did not share in committing the original wrong or wrongs. At a personal level, we see this in familial quarrels — children share in the estrangements between branches of a family caused by their parents and if they want to bridge those estrangements they need to actively work to heal them. We can also see situations in which an entire group is stained with the guilt of a set of sins, even though some of them are not guilty of any of the sinful acts. Two somewhat cliched but highly illustrative examples would be the guilt that the US as a whole assumed in its acceptance of slavery — a guilt shared even by non-slaveholders and abolitionists, which took (and in some ways still takes) active work to expiate/heal — and the guilt which continental Europe and Germany in particular assumed through the holocaust — one which similarly required and requires active work to heal even on the part of those who did not commit any actual sins of commission or omission in support of it. Joe also points out some good examples of societal guilt in the Old Testament and in Christ’s words.

    The relationship between the sins the persons commit and the wider guilt which those in some way connected to them sometimes share in is certainly an interesting question — but I’m not sure that it impinges directly on what I was attempting to address here, which is the sense in which a focus on condemning sins of others under the title of “social sin” can be dangerous when it allows us to ignore the “small” sins which we ourselves are the perpetrators of.

  • There are no liberal individualists here.

    That’s funny. Read this post again.

    Perhaps, Darwin, the problem has more to do with your misunderstanding of what some theologians mean when they use the term social sin. You, and other bloggers here, seem to get a lot of posts ranting about theological concepts that you don’t seem to know much about. Liberation theologians, for example, are never talking about “amorphous group sin.” They are talking about very concrete sins with both personal and social dimensions. (It is in fact so-called “traditionalist” [shorthand: pre-VII] Catholicism that speaks of sin amorphously despite the fact that it focuses exclusively on “personal” sin.) Nor are they “condemning sins of others under the title of ‘social sin.’” They condemn social sins in which we all participate and for which we are all in one way or another responsible.

    Also, the fact that I made some assertions — as opposed to arguments — in my previous comments does not make those comments “incoherent.” You seemed to have understood those comments just fine. I’ll simply assume this was a poor choice of words on your part and leave it at that. No apology necessary.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    “You, and other bloggers here, seem to get a lot of posts ranting about theological concepts that you don’t seem to know much about.”

    Yes, of course, how could it be forgotten – anyone who hasn’t attended the Michael Iafrate school of theology must not know what they are talking about, including the current and previous Pope.

    Just be sure to tell us when and where the conclave to elect you Pope Gustavo I is taking place so we know where not to be.

  • Michael,

    While it’s fun to simply say, “Read XYZ again,” it can sometimes help to actually express what it is that you expect someone to get out of that, and why. So if you’re going to tell Joe to re-read my post in order to get liberal individualism out of it which neither he nor I see, perhaps you might actually explain in what sense you find specific arguments or assertions the post makes to be liberal and individualist.

    It’s true that your comments had a certain coherence as assertions — however I labeled them as incoherent in the context (my dear boy, you must learn to read in context) of the conversation ongoing.

    For instance, you said, For the love of God, original sin is social sin. As a sentence, this has a degree of coherence, but given the sense in which I used the term “social sin” in the post, it makes no context in response to the post. At best, it’s a non sequitor. Or alternatively you say: The most effective thing Satan ever did was to convince Christians that “there is no such thing as social sin.” This may or may not be true, but since you make no effort to explain why it is true or what you mean by “social sin” in this case, it doesn’t mean anything in context.

    Now, it’s entirely possible that I’m using the term “social sin” in some sense other than a technical theological sense of which I’m unaware. This post was written entirely in response to popular writing that I’ve read dealing with “social sins” such as environmental destruction, unjust wages, etc. and the tendency (which I have observed in some people) to devote their entire moral energies to denouncing these “social sins” by which they seem really to mean “sins which everyone else is committing but which I am so virtuous as to denounce loudly” while at the same time belittling as “pietism” the traditional Catholic approach of actually, well, you know: focusing on avoiding the sins which one commits oneself.

    If I’m doing massive violence to a precise and well understood body of theological terminology in this post, I would certainly invite you to explain to me a better way to express what I’m describing. Some good ways to do this might begin, “When people in my particular brand of theology talk about ‘social sin’, what we actually mean is…” or “I think that what you are describing as ‘social sin’ is actually what we theologians would denounce as…”

  • Michael,

    Actually, my point in the post was specifically that such sins are not amorphous “group sins” but rather personal. They are sins committed by specific persons who choose to do something which is wrong.

    In the post I said:

    I think the instinct to think of the large scale problems as social rather than personal moral problems is that in many cases the social problems that people find themselves most concerned about involve actions that they are fairly remote from. Say, for instance, one reads about a clothing plant in China in which managers routinely lock workers in for 16-20 hour shifts, forcing them to work overtime in order to meet production quotas without their consent and without paying them for the additional hours worked. I don’t think it would be controversial to say that those factory owners and shift supervisors are acting wrongly — they they are far away from us and our ability to change their behavior is minimal.

    My argument was instead with people assigning excess weight to their advocacy or “solidarity” actions which are in fact remote to the real sin — especially when they allow themselves to excuse their own real actions because their advocacy efforts are “more important:

    And yet, people are often uncomfortable with admitting that there is little they can do about some evil that is being committed. And so, moral weight is assigned to another set of activities which surround the issue. Do you advocate against low wages and seek to raise awareness? Are you in solidarity with the oppressed? Do you buy local, or buy fair trade, or live sustainably? Do you denounce “the system”? Do you vote for change?

    I do not want to argue that people should not engage in advocacy on issues they believe to be important. Helping other people to understand what is right is a moral action, and as citizens in a polity we also have a civic responsibility to persuade our fellow citizens to support policies which will be to the common good of us all. So I would certainly encourage people to engage in political advocacy on those issues they believe to be most pressing (whether that issue is abortion, unjust wages, immigration, human trafficking, etc.) But at the same time it seems to me important for us to remember that our most basic moral responsibility is for our own personal actions, not for advocacy we engage in or groups we join.

    Thus the concern about focusing on the sins of others rather than one’s own:

    Given that most of us do not have it within our personal power to mistreat third world workers, declare war, torture terror suspects or destroy wetlands, a heavy focus on issues such as these necessarily means focusing on the sins committed by others rather than the sins we ourselves commit. However un-exciting admissions such as “I gossiped about the guy in the next cube behind his back” or “I lied” or “I was short tempered with my kids” might be, if those are the sins we actually have the chance to do something about it is important that they be our primary focus in our moral life. When we focus on sins which are more distant to us to the exclusion of our own, we risk turning morality into an enemies list — a danger which is the same whether that list is populated with “torture advocates”, “economic imperialists” or “baby killers”. If he can convince us to focus, in this way, on the sins of others while allowing our own to fester (after all, they are so insignificant compared to the great injustices in the world!) the great tempter scores a victory, not a defeat.

    [emphasis mysteriously added by WordPress formatting]

  • Nate Wildermuth says:

    Darwin – certainly the Church has spoken of ‘social sin’, in exactly the sense that Michael has used. Using your definition of ‘social sin’, however, I’d rightly say there’s no such thing.

    As Pope Benedict wrote in Spe Salvi – no one sins alone, and no one is saved alone. I think an argument about definitions of ‘social sin’ are beside the point.

  • Phillip says:

    A good example of social sin might be Obamacare. A system put in place by a multitude of personal lies, distortions and betrayals that furthers abortion.

  • Nate,

    I think you’re right that this is a terminology issue. Another title I’d considered was “Advocacy Does Not Trump Morality”. I don’t know if this would have prevented the misunderstanding or not.

    My point here is not to assault a theological concept of “social sin” — about which I am certainly not an expert — but rather to talk about the temptation I think we all face (whether advocating against abortion or against torture or against unjust wages) to see our area of advocacy of being more important than “personal sin” or “piety” because it’s dealing with “bigger issues”. It seems to me that this is a temptation which advocates often face — not because advocacy is a bad thing in and of itself, but because the tempter can use even virtue as a foothold for temptation if that virtue becomes entangled with pride. And advocacy always involves a flirtation with pride since it is only a step away from, “Good people like me advocate against the evil committed by bad people like them.”

  • Yes, it is a terminology issue. You don’t understand how the term is used by the church and in academic theology. You refer to “popular writing” for examples but do not cite anything specific.

    You point may not have been to dwell on the question of what “social sin” is, but in making your argument you said some silly things about the idea of social sin.

  • Michael,

    If you have an interest in the truth of the matter, I would assume that you can successfully overlook the term used and address the issue. There’s been enough verbiage spilled at this point I think its eminently clear what I’m saying, and (while you’re certainly welcome to explain to me what term I should be using instead of “social sin” here, and I would be happy to adopt a more correct term) I don’t think it ought to be a stretch for you to address the topic itself and help clear up any “silly ideas” which have been floated rather than continually harping on the terminology used.

  • Zach says:

    Michael are all your machinations here to simply note that all sin has a social dimension, i.e. has social consequences? If so, why wouldn’t you just say that? No one here would dispute that all sin has a social dimension. “No man is an island”

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Michael,

    As usual, you resort to academic snobbery. Anyone who isn’t acquainted with your academic circles obviously can’t know what they are talking about.

    I wonder how many graduate seminars the apostles had to attend before Jesus thought they were worth his time? Oh wait…

    If you want to introduce academic terms into the debate, fine. Explain what you mean, and don’t insult people’s intelligence.

    If you’re here to talk down to people, don’t be surprised if ridicule is all you ever get from me. People who act ridiculous are by definition worthy of ridicule.

    The way you act here, I wouldn’t be surprised if some conservative was paying you to write and act the way you do.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Nate,

    While I respect your opinion, I think it would best to withhold from informing us about what the Church says about social sin until you have a serious look at what it says about free will and moral responsibility.

    At NO point does the Church argue, or accept, the idea that sin does not have a personal dimension; a sin is “social” to the extent that it affects others. There can be no sin without choice. So the Church speaks of the social effects of sin, but NEVER reduces the cause of sin to social structures.

  • Nate Wildermuth says:

    Joe, I don’t know if you’ll get a chance to read this – this post is somewhat buried. I hope you do!

    I have never claimed that sin does not have a personal dimension. I have never claimed that people do not makes personal choices to sin. I have claimed, however, that original sin enslaves people to sin. My controversial position, I think, is in identifying original sin as social rather than personal.

    I’m not saying people are not personally responsible for their sins. I’m only saying that their sins are caused by the systemic reality of original sin.

    In short, if we want to blame someone for something, we should blame them less for their most obvious sins and more for their less obvious sin – that of rejecting the grace of Christ which would have brought them into a new life of supernatural virtue.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Nate,

    First you said,

    “evil social structures force men and women to sin”

    This means that they have no choice – that there is no personal dimension.

    Then you said,

    “I think original sin makes it impossible to obey the natural law without the grace of (I want to say Christ, but I mean Christ as we receive him on earth – his Body, the Church).”

    But this too is false. What of the pre-Christian patriarchs and prophets? What of Noah, who God spared from the flood, or Abraham, who he made a covenant with? You might make the argument, I suppose, that God bestowed grace upon them; in my reading of the text, however, God chooses these men because of their righteousness. What is the source of their righteousness? We are never really told. They simply listened when God spoke, they remained faithful to God and obeyed him when others did not.

    Are we to believe that, first, God gave them grace while not giving it to others in an arbitrary fashion, and then singled them out for behavior that they really had almost no role in? No. They made a personal choice to hear and obey God, who then bestowed his blessings and protection upon them.

    So it is not “impossible” to obey the natural law or even divine commands without Christ. Additionally, the Church would not have the doctrine it does about salvation outside of the Church. If it is possible to be saved outside of the Church, then that possibility has to rest upon some other criteria, which is obedience to natural law, or the Noahide laws.

    You say now:

    “I’m not saying people are not personally responsible for their sins.”

    But when you use words such as “force”, “cause”, “impossible” – you remove the personal dimension. I do understand, however, that you are trying to work things out, that you aren’t set in stone. That’s why I tell you to go back and look. It is why I quoted both the Bible and the Catechism for you over at Vox Nova.

    “I’m only saying that their sins are caused by the systemic reality of original sin.”

    Not directly. The origin of sin is the individual human will, the heart, as Christ tells the apostles. Original sin removes many of the gifts God originally bestowed upon man, and adds additional burdens – but it does not remove our free will.

    It is not a mechanistic force that “causes” anything, but rather a condition, a tendency towards sin.

    “In short, if we want to blame someone for something, we should blame them less for their most obvious sins and more for their less obvious sin – that of rejecting the grace of Christ which would have brought them into a new life of supernatural virtue.”

    I think you make a mistake in reducing this to a problem of “blame.” We have a Christian mandate to evangelize and to admonish sin. Now, I’ll grant that if we are talking about non-believers, then only focusing on the “obvious sins” would be like treating the symptom instead of the disease.

    Among fellow Christians, we tend to take their acceptance of Christ as a given – as well we ought, in most cases – and so there is nothing left but the “obvious sin” to admonish. The early Christians were not shy about this; they reprimanded, corrected, scolded, and shunned.

    But this is not about “blame.” If you feel as if you are being “blamed” when someone points out an error, or if you feel as if your are “blaming” when you do so for others, then that is a separate problem. It is an incorrect view of what Christians are called to do.

  • As usual, you resort to academic snobbery. Anyone who isn’t acquainted with your academic circles obviously can’t know what they are talking about.

    I wonder how many graduate seminars the apostles had to attend before Jesus thought they were worth his time? Oh wait…

    The proof is in what you and Darwin say, not in whatever degrees you have. You seem to feel perpetually threatened by the work that I do and you lash out at that fact at every opportunity.

    If you’re here to talk down to people, don’t be surprised if ridicule is all you ever get from me. People who act ridiculous are by definition worthy of ridicule.

    Perhaps you should reflect, then, on your personal, individual, and private tendency to sin when you ridicule others, for whatever reason.

    The way you act here, I wouldn’t be surprised if some conservative was paying you to write and act the way you do.

    Not a bad idea.

    While I respect your opinion, I think it would best to withhold from informing us about what the Church says about social sin until you have a serious look at what it says about free will and moral responsibility.

    What was that you were saying about snobbery and talking down to people?

    “evil social structures force men and women to sin”

    This means that they have no choice – that there is no personal dimension.

    You seem to have a Pelagian view that we can avoid sin by our own “choice.” And there is too a personal dimension in what Nate is saying.

    Nate is not saying we don’t have free will. As I read him, he is simply pointing to the fact that personal sin is rooted in systemic realities, or what I’d call social sin. This is more in keeping with scripture, the church fathers, and with the teaching of the church. As opposed to your liberal priority-of-the-individual approach.

  • Nate Wildermuth says:

    I’m happy that you replied, Joe, and grateful. Yet I find it difficult to engage with you. I feel that you aren’t trying to understand me, and that you’re quick to judge the meaning of my words. Basically, I think we’d get further if you asked more questions. A lot of what I write can be ambiguous and abstract, so I can see why this is difficult.

    I want to write more, but I have to run and clock out. Peace, and blessings!

  • As usual, you resort to academic snobbery. Anyone who isn’t acquainted with your academic circles obviously can’t know what they are talking about.

    It isn’t “academic snobbery” to point to the problems in Darwin’s assertions about what “peace and justice” Catholics mean when they refer to “social sin.”

    You are merely using the anti-intellectual biases of your audience to gain you points and to put down others (who didn’t even invoke academia in the first place) while at the same time invoking your own masters work in political science when you feel like it.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Nate,

    I can only understand you through the words you use.

    What I don’t understand is how you can simultaneously say that I am not “trying” to understand you, while admitting that you can see why it would be “difficult” to understand you. Perhaps I have been trying, only to be met with the difficulties of which you speak.

    How many other people take the time to copy and paste your exact words and reply to them directly? I’m one of the few people I know who does take the time, because I do want to understand.

    My problem is with your language. “Cause”, “force”, “impossible” – this is the lexicon of determinism, the denial of the will. My only question is, if this is not what you mean, then why use these words?

    This is my argument, as clearly as I know how to make it:

    1. Either we have free will or we don’t (these are mutual exclusives).

    2. If we do, then the use of these words to describe human behavior is false.

    3. If we don’t, then they are correct.

    4. The position of the Catholic Church, to which I always assume we are both attempting to remain faithful to, is that human beings are created by God with free will. (CCC 1704, 1711, 1731)It is a property of our soul, of our spiritual essence – it is what it means to be made “in the image of God.”

    Through original sin, we lose many of the original graces God grants us, but we do not lose our freedom. (CCC 405-408)

    5. Ergo, to describe or explain human behavior with deterministic language is false. It is also false to speak of human freedom as if it were entirely arbitrary and unlimited. It would be better to use the language of freedom within objective parameters – to speak of probabilities, influences, and tendencies.

    I understand that part of the problem is that we now have a discussion that is spread out over four posts, three here, and one at Vox Nova. So it is possible for me to miss certain things you say, and vice-versa.

  • j. christian says:

    If conservatives are sometimes guilty of assuming that social ills can be solved if only individuals would “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” then it is also true that progressives are sometimes guilty of assuming that social ills can be solved completely through systemic or institutional change. (Joe is correct that language such as “forced” and “impossible” imply this bias.) The former viewpoint denies our reality as social beings, and the latter viewpoint denies our free will. Fortunately, the Church in her wisdom appreciates both perspectives (see Chris Burgwald’s post).

  • If conservatives are sometimes guilty of assuming that social ills can be solved if only individuals would “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” then it is also true that progressives are sometimes guilty of assuming that social ills can be solved completely through systemic or institutional change.

    Except, we have a clear example of the former — in this very post and in Joe’s view. Which “progressives” are guilty of the thing you criticize them for? Name some “progressives” who think institutional change is the answer and that it takes priority over personal conversion. No, not everyone is guilty of the dualisms that you impose on them.

  • Phillip says:

    I guess Michael that if one says that personal sin is the result of social structures that are distinct from Original Sin, we will disagree. I suspect that the Church does not hold with your teaching and is more in line with Joe.

  • Michael (and Joe),

    I don’t want to have to start deleting comments on the thread, so please do not allow argument to move into a sand-kicking match.

    It isn’t “academic snobbery” to point to the problems in Darwin’s assertions about what “peace and justice” Catholics mean when they refer to “social sin.”

    I’m not clear that I made any assertions about what “peace and justice” Catholics mean when they refer to “social sin”. Rather, I wrote about how it’s problematic when anyone allows himself to consider his advocacy in regards to social sin to be so important as to effectively absolve him from responsibility for “little stuff” like the sins he personally commits.

    I used the term “social sin” to talk about large problems within society such as unjust wages, abortion or racism — and in this regard it seems I was incorrectly using the term “social sin” in that by this it seems that theologians mean what economists would call “perverse incentives” rather than some kind of group sin. That said, I don’t think that my mis-use of terminology in any way detracts from what I was actually talking about, which was that in advocacy there is always a temptation to consider one’s advocacy against the sins of others (and the structures of sin they create) is so important that one doesn’t need to worry about “little” things such as one’s own personal actions.

    You seem to have a Pelagian view that we can avoid sin by our own “choice.” And there is too a personal dimension in what Nate is saying.

    Nate is not saying we don’t have free will. As I read him, he is simply pointing to the fact that personal sin is rooted in systemic realities, or what I’d call social sin. This is more in keeping with scripture, the church fathers, and with the teaching of the church. As opposed to your liberal priority-of-the-individual approach.

    I think you’re right that Nate doesn’t think that we don’t have free will, but some of his ways of phrasing his point make it sound somewhat as if he is saying that. I don’t think anyone is trying to indulge in a heresy hunt. Nate is actually a very pleasant and honest person to discuss things with. (ahem…) But I don’t see that it’s a problem for Joe to work on the terminology question. Nor does what Joe says seem any more Pelagian than the quote from John Paul II which was posted and discussed yesterday.

    Not everyone you don’t like is being a liberal individualist all the time.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Michael I,

    You said to Darwin,

    “You don’t understand how the term is used by the church and in academic theology.”

    You then tried to deny it by saying,

    “to put down others (who didn’t even invoke academia in the first place)”

    You did it, “in the first place.”

    I mention my own degrees when it is relevant. But that isn’t the issue – I NEVER make claims that a person is improperly using a term from an academic standpoint without explaining WHAT THAT TERM MEANS.

    Without that explanation, your invocation of academia is nothing but an act of snobbery. No one is impressed. Now run along.

  • Nate Wildermuth says:

    Joe, my feelings about your not engaging me were incorrect, and I see now that you’ve spent a good deal of time trying to understand what I’m saying. I really appreciate your efforts, and as Phillip says, I will try very hard to be more lucid! Let the discussion continue! :)

  • Michael,

    Except, we have a clear example of the former — in this very post and in Joe’s view.

    I’m not clear where in the post or in Joe’s comments on it you’re seeing conservatives assuming that social ills can be solved if only individuals would “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” . Could you provide a quote?

  • Okay, guys. At the risk of spoiling a perfectly good flamewar, I’m going to leave any comments which are about Michael (including the four by Michael about Michael) in moderation. (Much as I enjoyed the part about my well known reputation for bullying around the Catholic blogsphere…)

    I’d be happy to provide venue for discussion of the topic introduced by the post, but given that we have one digression about Michael and a second one about what I apparently said about “peace and justice Catholics” (a phrase that doesn’t appear in the post) and things seem to be getting rather acrimonious, I think it’s time to put the lid down.

    Sorry.

  • RL says:

    You are a bully Darwin. I’ve witnessed you challenge people’s assertions many times. If someone asserts something it is necessarily true, and your challenging it serves no purpose but to make the person feel they have to justify themselves and this makes them feel uncomfortable. Bully!

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