Our abuse of free will

By Brandon A. Evans

Fourth in a series

The fallen angels may be an inseparable part of evil in this world, but so are we.

And as strongly as Satan can tempt us, he can’t make you do anything, said Msgr. Joseph F. Schaedel, vicar general. “That would go against the concept of free will.”

By the nature of Original Sin and our actual sins, each one of us bears responsibility not just for our errors, but also for the state of the world in which we live.

Christ died for all because all are guilty of sin. In our world today, we can see the results of injustice and selfishness. And yet it is not new.

“From its outset, human history attests the wretchedness and oppression born of the human heart in consequence of the abuse of freedom,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1739).

In our own lives, each one of us can see the immediate effects of our sin when we hurt a friend or family member or harm our relationship with others.

Mark Shea, senior content editor at CatholicExchange.com, said that there are times that we may not even realize how some of our actions have affected those around us.

“Not only do we not know the effects of our sins, ultimately, we don’t know our own hearts,” Shea said.

But there is a connection deeper than that—the effects of our sins can harm the very nature of the world. They disturb, Shea said, grace operating in the world.

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, director of the Newman Foundation at the University of Illinois in Urbana/Champaign and vicar for social justice in the Diocese of Peoria, said that it is the effects of Original Sin, that have led to the natural disorders that humans are born with: disease, mental conditions and other such things.

How our actual sins may affect the order of nature is a mystery to us. We can see the effects of the evil of over-pollution, but “what we don’t know is our indirect effects on the order of creation,” Msgr. Swetland said.

In Jesus’ time, he said, people thought that their sins directly brought natural evil (i.e., sickness) into their life. While Jesus rejected this, every one of our actions does have some kind of an effect, even if it cannot be seen.

“[Sin] hurts our relationship with God,” Msgr. Swetland said. “If it’s a serious sin that we’ve freely chosen—knowingly and willingly—it can sever our relationship with God.

“Not that God quits loving us, but that we have separated ourselves from loving communion with him, and remain separated until we make an opposite choice, namely, to have a change of heart, a change of mind, a metanoia, a real conversion.”

The Church calls these serious sins “mortal sins” and less serious sins “venial sins.” Those who have committed a mortal sin and not been forgiven or those who refuse God’s mercy condemn themselves to eternity without him.

“But even with venial sins or with grave matter that’s not freely and willingly chosen, it hurts our relationship with God,” Msgr. Swetland said.

It does not hurt God himself, Msgr. Schaedel said, but it is a rejection of his love—a rejection that the catechism says can come in many forms.

“Sin is an offense against reason, truth and right conscience;” the catechism says, “it is a failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity” (#1849).

Why would men and women of every generation continue to make the same mistakes, continue to have such bad attachments—especially when the result is suffering?

Msgr. Schaedel said that it is in part because people are not thinking long-term.

“I think in the short-term sin can be very enticing, can be very pleasurable,” Msgr. Schaedel said. “It brings a great deal of pleasure or satisfaction to a person—for a time.”

In the long run, sin will not make us happy in this life or the next, especially when we damage our relationship with God, he said.

“Life is forever, and the choice that we make needs to reflect our belief not that life is too short but that life is too long,” he said. “There’s more to life than in the here and now.”

He also said that some people think that “little sins” can’t hurt us.

“So many things that seem harmless in the beginning, as far as sin goes, can become addictive, or can become a way of life,” Msgr. Schaedel said.

In this sense, sin begets more sin when it is not stopped.

“There is the problem of compulsion or vice,” Msgr. Swetland said, “in the sense that it becomes a habit.”

There is a part of us that grows to love our sins—this is called concupiscence.

“At the moment when we’re tempted to sin, we’re really choosing between two loves,” he said. “What do I love more at that moment, do I love God more, or do I love my sin more? And as much as I’d like to say I hate my sin, you know, if I really did hate my sin I wouldn’t do it.”

Shea said that sin is the warping of a good desire in people.

“They want a good thing, but they want it in a bad way,” he said. A husband may want love, but when he seeks it through an affair, it becomes disordered and wrong.

Sometimes, when a person has sinned a great deal, his or her own conscience and common sense are dulled.

Shea said that this is something that can be seen in profoundly evil people, who may be brilliant but who are also misguided or amoral.

“From a logistical standpoint,” he said, “the Germans during World War II crossed all their T’s and dotted all their I’s; [they] had a very efficient system that was ordered toward a fundamentally insane goal.

“As a system, it was brilliant, but they entirely missed … the point of our existence, of why we’re here on earth, which is to love and be loved, not to murder six million people.”

Shea said that, in the end, why we continue to choose evil is a mystery.

“The thing about both good and evil in their ultimate forms is that they’re mysterious,” he said.

Perhaps it is that mysterious and partly hidden nature that has caused us to wish away the idea of sin, even though the reality of evil is plainly visible.

“The evidence of sin, of course, is as easy as turning on a TV or reading a newspaper,” Shea said.

The recent Sept. 11 terrorist attacks helped remind people that evil still is a very real force in the world. Still, our current perception of sin can be off.

Msgr. Swetland said that Western culture has rejected theological explanations and thus the best way to understand sin.

“Mainly in our culture,” he said, “which is so therapeutic, we have the tendency to reduce [sin] to a sociological or psychological thought process.”

Shea said that we don’t speak of sin, but of poor communication and mental health and any number of other issues.

“That’s not to say that all those issues don’t also exist,” Shea said. “All those things are real, and insofar as they are true of a person, you’re looking at things that take away someone’s culpability for evil performed.

“But there still remains, at the end of the day, this cold, hard kernel of willed, chosen evil,” he said.

Msgr. Swetland said that our culture also tends to downplay so-called “private sins.”

“We permit all kinds of things that we ought not to permit in our society just because we say they’re victimless crimes,” he said.

He cited pornography as an example, adding that it also hurts a lot of people directly beyond the people that view it.

“I think we have the tendency today to pretend like a lot of things that are not OK really are,” Msgr. Schaedel said.

“There’s a great emphasis in preaching sometimes on love and the reality of God’s love and all that, which is very true,” he said, “but evil really does exist in the world today and we need to warn people about that.”

Msgr. Schaedel suggested “better catechesis and better use of the sacrament of penance, where we assess the influence of evil in our lives and make an attempt to do better and seek forgiveness.”

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said in a homily that he once spoke with a bishop about Mark 1:15, in which Jesus states, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

The bishop told Cardinal Ratzinger that the message is too often “halved.”

“We speak a great deal … about evangelization and the Good News in such a way as to make Christianity attractive to people,” the cardinal said. “But hardly anyone, according to this bishop, dares nowadays to proclaim the prophetic message: Repent!

“Sin has become almost everywhere today one of those subjects that are not spoken about,” he said. “Sin has become a suppressed subject, but everywhere we can see that, although it is suppressed, it has nonetheless remained real.”

“I think we’re on a bit of a pendulum swing away from the sort of wholesale denial of responsibility that kind of characterized the Sixties and Seventies,” Shea said. “It’s always a battle that has to be fought with each generation.”

Our hope, though, is that while there is a devil, a flesh and a world that is set against us, there is also great strength from God, from the angels and from the saints.

It is that strength that enables us to pivot our lives toward helping to continue Christ’s victory and bring light into the world.

(Next week: Using our free will to fight the devil and build up the Kingdom of God.) †


Local site Links: