It’s sometimes said, though perhaps not often enough, that one of the evils of our day is the loss of a sense of sin. Pope Pius XII famously said as much in a radio address to catechists in 1946. Pope Francis has echoed this same thought more than once, comparing the hypocrisy of some Christians to King David, who was blind to his own sin until the prophet Nathan brought it before his eyes: “You are the man!”
We all need, from time to time, to be shaken from our own blindness and complacency. As Pope Francis once put it: “May the Lord grant us the grace of always sending us a prophet – it can be a neighbor, a son or daughter, our mother or father – to slap us a bit when we’ve slid into an atmosphere where everything seems legitimate.”
Perhaps we can extend the point beyond recognition of mere blindness to our own faults and failings and the wisdom to pray for correction. It’s one thing to be blinded to, and blinded by, our own sins like David. It’s another thing entirely to have lost any sense at all that our actions might be judged by some standard – or by someone – beyond ourselves.
Fraternal correction presupposes fraternity. Such correction requires some sense of mutual responsibility and trust between parties (as one would hope to find between brothers). But on a more basic (almost pedantic) level, fraternal correction presupposes a shared sense of the nature and source of brotherhood: brothers are brothers because they share a common father.
So a Christian might be convinced of his need for repentance by being shown the ways in which he has strayed from God’s law or the law of the Church. But this depends on a preexisting recognition on the part of the sinner that such laws exist and a desire, however imperfect, to live in accord with those laws.
What of the person who does not acknowledge such laws or the authority behind them? What of the person who holds what is evil to be actually good? What of the person who does not know the Father or denies the teachings of our Mother, the Church? Such a person is not beyond hope of mercy and repentance, of course. But an appeal to law (God’s law, nature’s law, the Church’s law, or even man’s law), the authority of which he does not already acknowledge, is unlikely to move him to repentance.
In such a case, a loss of the sense of sin is not merely “blindness to my own particular sins,” but a loss of the very possibility of recognizing sin as such. If we have lost sight of God, if we have lost sight of the good from which sin is a departure or negation, then the category of sin itself (to say nothing of fraternity) ceases to be meaningful.
It’s interesting to note how we have arrived at the very precipice of what Nietzsche understood when he observed that if “nothing is true, everything is permitted,” and why he saw his philosophical project – indeed, described himself – as “Dionysus versus the Crucified.”
And this is, it seems, much closer to what Pope Pius XII had in mind when he spoke of the loss of a sense of sin in the months immediately following the horrors of the Second World War. The remedy Pope Pius proposed was not, at least not in the first instance, to remind the world of the moral law which it had forgotten or denied. Rather, the remedy was to be found in the Crucified Christ. In Him, the reality of sin is thrown into starkest contrast to that love against which all sin offends.
It’s worth returning to Pope Pius XII’s address from 1946, where he sets his lament for the loss of a sense of sin in precisely this context:
To know Jesus crucified is to know God’s horror of sin; its guilt could be washed away only in the precious blood of God’s only begotten Son become man.
Perhaps the greatest sin in the world today is that men have begun to lose the sense of sin. Smother that, deaden it – it can hardly be wholly cut out from the heart of man – let it not be awakened by any glimpse of the God-man dying on Golgotha’s cross to pay the penalty of sin, and what is there to hold back the hordes of God’s enemy from over-running the selfishness, the pride, the sensuality and unlawful ambitions of sinful man? Will mere human legislation suffice? Or compacts and treaties?
We do not live in a world in which the hearts and consciences of men can be easily touched by appeals to authority, even God’s authority. Even within the Church, among the baptized, it is not always efficacious to appeal to the authority of doctrine or Divine Revelation. We may well wish it were otherwise, but there it is.
What is left to us, then, is to proclaim the Good News in a way the world can still understand. If appeals to authority fail to gain traction, there is one path which remains compelling in every age. Pope Pius XII again:
In the Sermon on the Mount the divine Redeemer has illumined the path that leads to the Father’s will and eternal life; but from Golgotha’s gibbet flows the full and steady stream of graces, of strength and courage, that alone enable man to walk that path with firm and unerring step.
The way up that path is shown to us by the one who went before us– though he needed no Nathan to correct him – the one of whom Pilate spoke when cried: “Behold the Man.” Nothing is more convicting of the sinner than God’s immeasurable love. Nothing cuts to the heart of man’s conscience more than God’s own mercy. And the strength and courage to walk that way streams down to us from above.