All Have Sinned: The Mystery of Impiety by Fr. Raniero CantalamessaFebruary 11, 2010
The following reflection on sin by Fr. Cantalamessa is drawn from the second chapter of his book Life In Christ which is about the spiritual messages contained in Paul’s letter to the Romans. In a series of homiletic meditations, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the papal household, explores the main themes of St. Paul’s famous epistle in a manner that draws us closer to a more mature relationship with Jesus Christ. The reading selection that follows will show you what I mean.
Only Divine Revelation Knows What Sin Is
Only divine revelation really knows what sin is and neither human ethics nor philosophy can tell us anything about it. No man can say by himself what sin is, for the simple reason that he himself is in sin. All that he says about sin can, in the end, only be a palliative and an understatement of sin. “To have a weak understanding of sin is part of our being sinners.” Scripture says: “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart. . . for he flatters himself in his own eyes that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated” (Psalms 36:2-3). Sin also “speaks” just as God does; it too delivers oracles and its place of teaching is man’s heart. Sin speaks in man’s heart and that is why it is absurd to expect man to speak “against” it. Although I am here writing about sin, I too am a sinner and I should therefore tell you not to rely too much on me and on what I write! Sin is a much more serious thing — infinitely more serious — than I shall ever be able to explain. At the most, man can reach an understanding of sin against himself or against other men, but not sin against God; the violation of human rights, but not the violation of divine rights. In fact, if we take a close look around us we can see that this is what is happening in present-day culture.
Therefore only divine revelation knows what sin is. Jesus explains all this more closely by saying that only the Holy Spirit can “convince the world of sin” (cf. John 16:8). I have mentioned that God must be the one to talk to us of sin. When, in fact, God and not man talks against sin it is not easy to remain impassive; his voice is like thunder that “crushes the cedars of Lebanon” (cf. Psalms 29:5). Our meditation will have fulfilled its aim if it manages even to challenge our unshakable basic self-assurance and make us feel a wholesome fear in front of the terrible danger that not only sin but the very possibility of sinning holds for us. With the help of God we want to reach the point of being prepared to shed our blood in the struggle against sin (“In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” Hebrews 12:4).
Sin, A Refusal To Acknowledge God
The basic sin and primary object of God’s wrath has been singled out by St. Paul as asebein, that is impiety or ungodliness. And he immediately explains what this impiety exactly consists of, saying that it is the refusal to g1orify and thank God. In other words, the refusal to acknowledge God as God and not rendering him the respect that is his. It consists, we could say, in “ignoring” God, not however in the sense of “not knowing he exists”, but, in the sense of “behaving as if he didn’t exist.” In the Old Testament Moses shouts to the people, “Know that the Lord your God is God!” (cf. Deuteronomy 7:9) and a psalmist takes up the same cry: “Know that the Lord is God! It is he that made us, and we are his” (Psalms 100:3). Sin is basically the denial of this “acknowledgement”; it is the attempt, on the part of the creature to cancel out on his own initiative and almost with arrogance, the infinite difference that exists between himself and God. Thus sin infects the very root of things; it is “a stifling of the truth,” an attempt to keep truth the prisoner of injustice. It is something much more sinister and terrible than can be imagined or expressed. If the world knew what sin really is, it would die of terror.
This refusal took shape in idolatry in which the creature is worshipped rather than the Creator (cf. Romans 1:25). In idolatry man doesn’t “accept” God but rather “makes” a god; it is he who decides about God and not God about him. The roles are reversed; man becomes the potter and God the clay which man moulds to his pleasure (cf. Romans 9:20 ff.).
The Moral Fruits Of A Fundamental Choice Against God
So far St. Paul has shown us the withdrawal that took place in man’s heart, his fundamental choice against God, Now he goes on to show the moral fruits of this withdrawal. All of this gave rise to a general dissolution in behavior, a real and true “torrent of perdition” dragging humanity unconsciously to ruin. At this point St. Paul outlines the appalling picture of the vices of the pagan society: male and female homosexuality, injustice, wickedness, covetousness, envy, deceit, malignity, haughtiness, arrogance, disobedience to parents, faithlessness. . . The list of vices is taken from the pagan moralists, but the whole picture that results from it is that of the “wicked one” so often spoken of in the Bible. The disconcerting thing at first glance is that St. Paul sees all this disorder as a consequence of divine wrath. In fact, he affirms this unequivocally three times: “God gave them up to impurity. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. . . And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind” (Romans 1:24, 26, 28). God certainly does not “want” these things, but he “permits” them to make man understand where his refusal of God leads. St. Augustine wrote that “these things, although they are punishments, are also sins because the punishment for iniquity is that of being, itself, iniquity. God intervenes to punish evil and from his punishment other sins come.” Sin is the punishment for sin. In fact Scripture says: “One is punished by the very things by which he sins “(Wisdom 11:16). God is “obliged” to abandon people to themselves so as not to have to uphold their injustice and in the hope that they will retrace their steps.
Refusal Of God In Modern Times
Let us listen to a few of those who expressed refusal of God in modern times, keeping in mind, however, that we are judging the words and not the intentions or moral responsibility of the individuals which are known only to God and which might be very different to what they seem to us. Karl Marx gave this reason for his refusal of the idea of a “creator”: “A person” – he wrote – “is an independent being only. insofar as he is his own master, and he is his own master only in so far as he is master of his existence. He who lives through the grace of another sees himself as a dependent being. . . But I would live entirely for the sake of another if he had created me, if he were the source of my life and my life was not my own creation”. “Man’s conscience” — he wrote in his youth — is “the highest divinity”; “the origin of man is man himself.” (K. Marx, Manuscript.of 1844) In this same spirit, J.P. Sartre had one of his characters say: “Today I accuse myself and only I, man, can absolve myself. If God exists man is nothing.. . God doesn’t exist! Happiness, tears of joy! Alleluia! No more heaven. No more hell! Nothing else but the earth.” (J.P. Sartre, The Devil and the Good God X, 4)
Another way of arrogantly eliminating the difference between Creator and creature, between God and the “self,” is to confuse them, which is the form that impiety sometimes takes on today in depth psychology. Paul’s reproach against the “wise men” of his times was not for exploring nature and admiring its beauty, but for not going beyond this. In the same way the word of God does not criticize certain trends in depth psychology for having discovered a new area of the human mind, the unconscious, and for trying to throw light on this, but for having made of this discovery yet another occasion for getting rid of God. Thus, the Word of God renders a service to psychology, purifying it of what threatens it, just as psychology in its turn, can be of use — and has effectively been so in many cases — in purifying our understanding of the Word of God.
The Suppression Of The Distinction Between Good And Evil.
The impiety harbored in some of the recent trends of this science is the suppression of the distinction between good and evil. Following a procedure that closely recalls that of ancient, heretical gnosis, the limits move dangerously: the limit of the divine lowers and the demonic limit rises to the point of meeting and even of, being superimposed. Then, in evil, nothing else is seen except “the other side of reality” and in the devil nothing else but the “shadow of God.” There are some who have even gone so far as to accuse Christianity of having introduced the “ill-omened opposition between good and evil” into the world. The following words of Isaiah could have been written today for just such a situation: “Woe to those who call what is bad, good, and what is good, bad, who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness” (Isaiah 5:20).
Psychologists of this trend give no importance to “saving the soul” (which is even considered ridiculous) or even to “analyzing the soul,” but to “helping the soul fulfill itself,” that is, to making it possible for the human soul — which is like saying natural man — to express itself in all ways, repressing nothing. Salvation lies in self-revelation, in man making himself and his psyche known for what they are; salvation lies in self-realization. Salvation — it is thought — is within, immanent in man. It does not come from history but from the archetype manifested in myth and symbol. In a certain sense, it comes from the unconscious. The unconscious, which at the beginning was considered to be the natural place of evil where neurosis and illusions are rooted (including the “illusion” of God) is now seen as the seat of good, as a mine of hidden treasures for man. One day, after reading some works full of the ideas just mentioned, shocked and quite terrified, I was wondering what God’s judgment on all this could possibly be when I happened to read what Jesus says in St. John’s Gospel: “Though the light has come into the world, people have preferred darkness to the light” (John 3:19).
An Extreme Form Of Sin
However, we have not yet reached the heart of the matter. Alongside the intellectual denial of God by people convinced that God does not exist, we have the voluntary denial of those who refuse God, even though they know that God exists. This extreme form of sin, which is hatred of God and blasphemy, is expressed in an open and threatening insult to God, in the loud proclamation of the superiority of evil over good, of darkness over light, of hatred over love, of Satan over God. This is all directly maneuvered by the evil one. Who else, in fact, would be able to harbor the thought that “good is a deviation of evil and, like all deviations, is of secondary importance and destined to disappear one day,” or that “evil, in fact, is nothing but good ill-interpreted”?
The most evident signs of this form of impiety are: the profanation of the Eucharist (the excessive and inhuman hatred towards the consecrated host is a terrible, negative proof of the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist); the obscene and sarcastic parody of the stories and words of the Bible; the staging of the figure of Jesus in films and spectacles which are willfully blasphemous and offensive. To send a soul to their infernal lord, these persons are capable of such constancy as only the holiest of missionaries would employ to lead a soul to Christ.
On the other hand, this situation is not as remote as many Christians might think; it is, rather, an open abyss only a stone’s throw away from the indifference and “neutrality” in which they live. One starts with abandoning all religious practice and ends up, one sad day, among the openly declared enemies of God either by adhering to organizations whose aim (mostly kept secret at the beginning) is to make war against God and cause an upheaval in moral values, or through sexual aberrations or use of pornography, or following contacts with magicians, spiritists, esoteric societies, occult practices or other such things. Magic is, in fact, another way and the most blatant, of succumbing to the old temptation of wanting to be “like God.” “The hidden force which guides magic — as is written in one of their manuals — is the thirst for power. The magicians’ aims are defined quite appropriately for the first time by the serpent in the garden of Eden. . . The eternal ambition of the follower of the black arts consists in gaining power over the whole universe and making a god of himself.” The fact that in most cases we are dealing with charlatans and nothing more is of no importance. The irreverent intention behind its practice or with which one turns to it is sufficient to place one in Satan’s power. Satan works through lies and bluffing but the effects are anything but imaginary. In the Bible God says: “There must never be anyone among you. . . who practices divination, who is soothsayer, augur or sorcerer, weaver of spells, consulter of ghosts or mediums, or necromancer. For anyone who does those things is detestable to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 18:10-12). In the prophet Isaiah we find this severe admonishment: The Lord will strike the country because it is “full of sorcerers from the East and of soothsayers” (cf. Isaiah 2:6).
Claiming To Be Wise, They Became Fools
Man has only the two licit means of nature and grace for gaining power over himself, over sickness, over events and business. “Nature” indicates intelligence, the sciences, medicine, technology and all the resources that man has received from God in creation to dominate the earth in obedience to him. “Grace” indicates faith and prayer through which cures and miracles are sometimes obtained, but always from God, because “power belongs to God” (Psalms 62:12). When a third way is taken, that of the search for occult power, almost hiding from God, without needing his approval or indeed abusing his name and signs, then in one way or another the master and pioneer of this way comes on to the scene. I mean the devil who one day said all the power of the earth had been handed over to him, for him to give to anyone he chose if they would worship him (cf Luke 4:6). In these cases ruin is assured. The fly has been caught in the web of the “big spider” and will not easily manage to get out alive. Exactly what Paul pointed out is happening in our technological and secularized society: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Rornans 1:22): they have abandoned faith to embrace every kind of superstition, even the most childish.
The Wages Of Sin
But let us also examine the consequences of impiety, so that not even the slightest shadow of doubt remains in our minds that no one can prevail against God. In the prophet Jeremiah we read these words addressed to God: “All who abandon you will be put to shame” (Jeremiah 17:13). The abandonment of God leads to personal confusion and the feeling of having gone astray. “Lost” and “gone astray” are the words most frequently used in the Bible when sin is spoken of: the lost sheep, the lost son. – . The very word to translate the biblical concept of sin in Greek, hamartia, contains the idea of being lost and having failed. The same term was used when speaking of a river that flows away from its original course and is lost in the marshes, and of an arrow which misses its aim and is lost. Sin is therefore radical failure. A man can fail in many ways: as a husband, as a father or as a businessman. A woman can fail as a wife or as a mother; a priest can fail as a pastor, as a superior or as a spiritual director. But these are all relative failures; there is always the possibility of compensation; one may fail in all these ways and still be a most respectable person, even a saint. But it is not so with sin; through sin one fails as a creature, that is fundamentally, in what one “is” and not in what one “does.” This is the only case where the words of Jesus about Judas apply to a person: “It would have been better for that man if he had never been born” (Matthew 26:24). Man, in sinning, believes he is offending God, whereas, in fact, he is “offending” and mortifying only himself, to his own shame: “Is it really me they spite”, God says, “is it not in fact themselves, to their own confusion”? (Jeremiah 7:19). By refusing to glorify God, man himself becomes “deprived of the glory of God.” Sin offends God, that is, it saddens him greatly, but only in so far as it brings death to man whom he loves; it wounds his love.
The Existential Consequences Of Sin
But let us take a closer look at the existential consequences of sin. St. Paul affirms that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Sin leads to death; not so much to the “act” of dying – which lasts only a moment — as to the “state” of death, that is precisely to what has been called “mortal illness,” a state of chronic death. In this state the creature desperately tends to return to being nothing but without succeeding and lives therefore as if in an eternal agony. From this state comes damnation and the pains of hell; the creature is obliged by One stronger than himself to be what he does not consent to be, that is dependent on God, and his eternal torment is that he cannot get rid of either God or of himself. Kierkegaard rightly said that “the formula for all desperation is to desperately refuse to be what one is.” (S. Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death I, A)
Satan embodies this state. In him sin has run its entire course and is shown in its extreme consequences. He is the prototype of those “who do know God (and how he knew him!) but do not give him the glory and thanks that belong to God.” It is not necessary to fall back on the imagination or on theological speculation to learn Satan’s feelings on this point because he himself shouts them into the hearts of those whom God still allows him to tempt today, as Jesus was tempted in the wilderness: “We are not free”, he shouts, “we are not free! Even if you kill yourself, your soul lives on, you cannot kill it, we cannot say no. We are obliged to exist forever. It’s all deceit! It’s not true that God created us free!” Such thoughts make us shudder as it would seem that we are directly listening to the eternal argument between Satan and God. He, in fact, would wish to be left free to return to nothingness. Not because he doesn’t want to exist or to be God’s antagonist, but because he does not want to be what he is, dependent on God. He wants to exist, but not “through the grace of another.” As the Power above him is stronger than he is and obliges him to exist, this is the way to pure desperation
In choosing absolute autonomy from God, the creature is aware of the unhappiness and darkness involved but he is willing to pay this price. As St. Bernard said, “he prefers to he unhappy in his own sovereignty rather than be happy in submission.” The much talked about eternity of hell does not depend on God, who is always ready to forgive, but on the person who refuses to be forgiven and would accuse God of lacking respect for his freedom if God were to do so.
We have, today, the chance to actually verify through our own experience the results of sin by observing what is happening in our present society after the extreme consequences the refusal of God has led to in certain places. Nietzsche, for whom sin was nothing other than an ignoble “Jewish invention” and good and evil just simple “prejudices of God” (once again we are judging words and not intentions) said: “We have killed him; we are God’s assassins!” But then, having perceived or personally experienced the evil results of this, the philosopher added: “What have we done by unlinking this earth of ours from the chain that links it to its sun? Where is it going now? Where are we going? Isn’t ours an eternal descent? Backwards, sideways, forward, from all sides? Aren’t we perhaps wandering as if through an infinite nothingness?” (F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, nr. 125)To kill God is really the most horrific suicide. Death is really the wages of sin and the proof lies in present-day nihilism.
“You Are The Man!”
The Bible narrates this story. King David had committed adultery and to cover it up he had the woman’s husband killed in war. In this way, to make this woman his wife, could even have seemed an act of generosity on the king’s part towards the man who had died fighting for him — a real chain of sins. The Lord then sent the prophet Nathan to him who told him a parable, although the king did not know it was a parable. There were, he said, two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds and the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb and it grew up with him and used to lie in his bosom. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and instead of taking one of his own flock, he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him. On hearing this story David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man and he said to Nathan: “The man who has done this deserves to die!” Then Nathan, pointing his finger, said to David: “You are the man!” (cf. 2 Samuel 12:1 ff.).
This is what the Apostle Paul is doing with us. After making us feel a righteous indignation and horror for the impiety of the world, as we pass from the first to the second chapter of his Letter, as if suddenly addressing us, he repeats: “You are the man!” “Therefore you have no excuse, Oh Man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who do such things. Do you suppose, Oh Man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?” (Romans 2:1-3). The recurrence, at this point, of the word “inexcusable”, which was used earlier for the pagans, leaves us in no doubt as to St. Paul’s intentions. While you were judging others, he says, you were bringing about your own condemnation. It is time now to turn the horror you feel for sin against yourself.
Safe From God’s Anger Just Because They Can Distinguish Between Good And Evil?
The “person judging” in the second chapter, turns out to be a Jew who, however, is seen here as a kind of stereotype. The “Jew” is a non-Greek, or a non-pagan; he is the pious believer who, with his strong principles and revealed morality, judges the rest of the world and feels safe in doing so. In this sense each one of us is the “Jew.” Origen actually said that in the Church the Apostle’s words were intended for bishops, presbyters and deacons, that is, for the guides and teachers. (Origen, Commentary on the Letter to the Romans II, 2; PG 14 873)Paul himself experienced it when, from being a Pharisee he became a Christian and can therefore confidently indicate to believers the way to abandon Pharisaism. He unmasks the strange and frequent illusions of pious and religious people who consider themselves safe from God’s anger just because they can clearly distinguish between good and evil. They know the law and, when necessary, they know how to apply it to others, whereas, as far as they themselves are concerned, they think that the privilege of being on God’s side or, at least, God’s goodness and patience with which they are very familiar, makes an exception for them.
“Or do you presume”, says the Apostle to us, “upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:4-5). What a shock it will be the day when you realize that these words of God are actually directed at you and that you are really the “you” mentioned! It’s like a jurist who is totally absorbed in analyzing a past sentence which is standard. On taking a Closer look he suddenly realizes that the sentence also applies to himself and is still effective. His state of mind undergoes a sudden change and he ceases to be so sure of himself. The Word of God is engaged here in a real and true “tour de force.” It must reverse the situation of the person dealing with it. There’s no escape. It’s necessary to surrender and repeat with David: “I have sinned!” (2 Samuel 12:13), otherwise the heart is hardened again and impenitence reinforced.
A Masked Form Of Idolatry
The specific accusation the Apostle makes against the “pious” is that “they themselves are doing the exact same things” they judge others for. But in what sense? Is it that they materially do the exact same things? This is also sometimes true (cf. Romans 2:21-24); but he is especially talking about the essence which is impiety and idolatry. There is a masked form of idolatry at work in our present world. If it is idolatry “to bow down to the work of our hands” (cf. Isaiah 2:8; Hosea 14:4), if it is idolatry “to put the creature in the place of the Creator,” then I am idolatrous whenever I put the creature — my creature, the work of my hands — in the Creator’s place. My creature could be the home or the church I have built, the family I have formed, the child I have given life to (how many mothers, even Christian mothers, unconsciously make a god out of their children, especially an only child!); it could be the work I do, the school I direct, the book I write. Then there is my “self,” the prince of idols. In fact, idolatry is always based on autolatry, self-worship, self-love, placing oneself first at the center of the world sacrificing everything else to this. The “substance” is always impiety, the non-glorification of God, but always and only one’s self. It is even making use of God for our own success and personal affirmation. The sin St. Paul denounced in the “Jews” throughout the whole Letter was that they sought self-justice and self-glory and they did this even in their observance of God’s law.
Perhaps, deep within myself, I am ready at this point to acknowledge the truth, to admit that so far I have lived “for myself,” that I am also involved in the mystery of impiety. The Holy Spirit has “convinced me of sin.” The ever-new miracle of conversion is beginning for me. What should I do in such a delicate situation? Let us open the Bible and intone the “De profundis”: “Out of the depths I cry to thee, Oh Lord” (Psalms 130). The “De Profundis” wasn’t written for the dead but for the living: the “depths” from which the psalmist cries is not a reference to Purgatory but to sin: “If thou, Oh Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, Lord who could stand”? It is written that Christ “in the Spirit went and preached to the spirits in prison” (cf. 1 Peter 3:19). Commenting on this, one of the Fathers of the Church said: “When you hear that Christ, going down to Hades, freed the souls who were prisoners there, do not think that these things are far removed from what is being done now. Believe me, the heart is a tomb.”(Macanus of Egypt, On the Freedom of Mind 116; PG 34, 936). We are now spiritually in the position of the “spirits in prison” in Hades, awaiting the coming of the Savior. The traditional icon of the Resurrection shows Adam and Eve desperately outstretching their hands to grasp the right hand of Christ who is coming with his cross to snatch them from prison. Let us also raise a cry from the deep prison of our sinful “self” in which we are kept prisoners. The psalm we are saying is full of confident trust and expectation: “In his word I hope. . . My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning . . . He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” We already know that help exists, that there is a remedy for our ills, because “God loves us.” So while we are shaken by God’s Word, let us confidently say to God: “For you do not give me up to sheol, or let your godly one see the pit” (Psalms 16:10).