On the “ISM” sins

At first sight, we might think today that nobody talks of sins anymore. Indeed, in our era, much of what was once forbidden is permitted. Just what someone would do to commit what was once called a “sin” – serious matter, full consent of the will – is difficult to pin down. A citizen is likely to end up in jail if he suggests that adultery or sodomy might just possibly be “sins” rather than “rights.”

A newer category of sinning, however, is flourishing. It is related to the older idea of “corporate guilt.” We now have the “ism” and the “phobia” sins, the general category sins by which we can judge (“Who am I to judge?”) whole groups of human beings as sinful just for being what they are.

Even earlier we had the “anti” sins – anti-Semitism or anti-Catholicism. Of course, depending on one’s politics, some of the “anti” sins were considered to be virtues – anti-fascism, anti-Nazism, anti-Communism.

These newer sins somehow, not without reason, were never mentioned in the Ten Commandments.

One can apparently contract these newer and terrible vices – racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia – without ever committing an actual sin in the older sense of the term.

Initially, sins had to do with acting persons, not with ideas or categories. To constitute sufficient matter, some identifiable individual had to act specifically against the good of himself or another identifiable person. Sins of thought did exist in the sense of willing evil in one’s heart to others, even if no overt act ever came forth.

These newer sins are more vague. Guilt is not a consequence of some particular individual’s knowledge and choice. The newer “guilt” belongs to an individual only as a member of a class or collectivity. If someone committed the sin of “racism,” just what would he have done to merit blame?

Indeed, someone could be quite helpful to particular members of all races and sexes but still be accused of “racism” and “sexism” because he disagreed with the way such “crimes” are politically or ideologically defined. Am I really guilty of sexism if I maintain that marriage is necessarily and always between one man and one woman? Evidently, many think so.

Christ and Sinner by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1875 [State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg]

The fact that many different “races” exist in the world is not a sinful thing. No one is good or bad simply because of his color, nationality, or sex. Anyone of any color, nation, or sex can be virtuous or vicious. It does not depend on what he looks like, but what he in fact does and why.

The central freedom given to us by reason and the commandments is that we do not make into sins what are not sins. On examination, the few things we ought not to do make possible the millions of things that we are free to do.

We do not need to be protected only from those who deny sin in the classical sense. We also need protection from those who make sins what are not sins. These latter may, in fact, be the most dangerous people among us – and not the personal dalliances of the libertines.

The word “diversity” might cover this situation, but diversity has become itself an abstraction from normal moral criteria. It now means that every occupation, every group, every category must be populated by quotas from every politically recognized differing group.

In college, I recall a controversy about whether a club designed to house Filipinos had to be open to everyone else. This view means, in practice, that nothing unique, exclusive, or different can exist. With this attitude, we deny implicitly the very meaning of a common good which was also designed to foster and protect the differing goods of particular entities whose diversity make up any public life.

In 1886, the Spanish scholar, Don Felix Sardo y Salvary, published a book entitled, Liberalism Is Sin. Again, “liberalism,” an idea, cannot commit a sin. Some gentleman liberal might violate one of the commandments, but liberalism itself is a long and controverted set of often dubious ideas. They are either defensible or not. It is not a “sin” for anyone to hold an erroneous idea unless he knows that it is erroneous. The cure is right thinking, not contrition.

It is quite true that certain ideas can influence laws and culture to make sinning, in the old fashioned sense, easier for many. Public and private controversy is designed to establish or reject the true meaning of ideas. Without an arena for examining the truth of things, we have no appeal to anything but power.

“Ism sins” seek to “purify” by identifying as evil those belonging to categories of unacceptable ideas, not with actions of individuals who are personally responsible for their actions. “Ism sins” undermine any public order by subverting the basis by which any sinning can be identified.

James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, and, new from St. Augustine's Press, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught.

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