What Ever Happened To Sin?
by Samuel Hux (August 2016)
Well, nothing actually. It’s still with us of course, since we are what we are. My question does not reveal a naïve assumption that there has been some radical reformation of human nature. Rather, it’s a question about the perception of sin among “Smorgasbord Catholics”—whom I have been thinking about off and on given the respectful attention awarded them by the press during this Pope’s and that one’s occasional visits to the States. “I’m a good Catholic, but I think the church should respect my right to believe what I wish to believe, and furthermore. . . .” Isn’t that a fair characterization of smorgasbord rhetoric?
Of course “my right to believe” has little theological relevance here. Smorgasbord Catholics don’t have much interest in theological doctrine. But they are passionately interested in the sociology of Catholicism—to give a high-sounding name to what is essentially no more than a lifestyle consideration. It is my impression (I may be wrong) that the passion is more modest about the question of an all-male celibate priesthood, which affects the visible structure of the church, but fervent about those issues which affect the private life, such as divorce, abortion, birth control, and homosexuality. Since the established positions of the church are such a burden to them, why don’t Smorgasbord Catholics just become Episcopalians? This is not meant as a slur upon Canterbury. Bear with me. If one could bear to hear the “SC” out one should have patience enough for me. (An emendation: since I did basic training at Fort Jackson, “SC” will always mean South Carolina to me, so I need another abbreviation.)
The answer of course is: You just don’t understand! There is just something about the Holy Roman Catholic Church, there just is. It’s more than a church, is a home, and even if one doesn’t always like one’s home, it’s home. Indelible impressions are left. Note the phenomenon of the lapsed-but-cultural Catholic: almost like the secular Jew still more Jewish than some Reform rabbis. A sort of brooding Augustinian resonance remaining while the particulars of faith do not. But. . . the point is that SmorgCat’ism doesn’t seem to me culturally Catholic at all, even though its adherents are ostensibly within the church. A brooding resonance? Not at all. Rather, a self-confident sense of entitlement. Another way to put it: an insufficient sense of sin, its complexity and, relatively speaking, its grandeur. Hence my paradoxical argument, through which I should proceed with caution.
How can Mac—a highly imperfect being, as most worthy people I’ve known have been—consider himself a Catholic and love the church as much as he does when he is so clearly in violation? He obviously was not capable of bearing the utter impossibility of his first marriage, and got the hell out. But one should not assume this exacted no cost. The craggy face is a map of pain. While I might judge his life a life of reason, he would judge that his subsequent modicum of happiness was bought at the risk of danger to soul. So why has it never occurred to me to ask: “Mac, why don’t you just become an Episcopalian? Look at me.” Because he belongs where he is, that’s why. How so?
While some might judge Mac a hypocrite, I would insist on a more sympathetic hearing. Who really is the hypocrite? The one who accepts all the teachings yet finds himself incapable of living up to all he accepts? Or the one who accepts only those he chooses to live up to, as if the teachings were only a smorgasbord feast? The one who suffers his failings? Or the one who suffers nothing, for hasn’t he adjusted his putative faith to the pleasures of a fulfilling lifestyle? The one who knows he’s a sinner, even if he feels incapable of being any other? Or the one who has forgotten, rather conveniently, what sin is?
One thing that always made the Roman Catholic Church large is its wise incorporation of sin as a discipline of the soul. It must have been this ironic notion that the French poet-philosopher Charles Péguy (La Note conjointe, 1914) had in mind when he argued that sin is often a kind of wound through which grace may penetrate: “Those who are never wounded, whose moral skin is intact and makes a faultless leather jerkin. . . do not offer grace the opening of an appalling wound, an unforgettable distress, an invisible regret. . . a mortal anxiety. . . . They do not offer grace that door of entry which sin leaves open. . . even God’s charity cannot succour those who are unwounded.” Something like this is what I meant several pages back when I may have stunned the reader by referring to the relative grandeur of sin. Of course one was to avoid sin if possible. And one couldn’t fully, of course, the body being weak, as Saint Paul said. So, use it. Which means: suffer your guilt, for guilt is not merely a fact but a recognition of limits violated. I am not talking about doctrine here (or I don’t think I am), but rather the inescapable logic of doctrine. While some Protestant faiths with their often literal-minded devaluation of good works as a way to salvation often removed some of the burden of imperfect humankind, Catholicism with its insistence that faith is not merely a possession but a praxis (and, hence, works) removed no burdens, indeed added weight to them. (Of course some Protestants often said Catholicism removed burdens through the institution of confession, but that was merely a bad-faith argument by those for whom the burden of sin is lightened by the faith which alone justifies.)
I hope it is clear that the specifics of SmorgCat’ism are not at issue here, not as far as I am concerned. I might sympathize with a SmorgCat here and there. While a moral opprobrium lifted from homosexuality would seem to me a humane gesture, the matter of the priesthood—whether a male-celibate clergy, or a clergy of husbands and wives—is not something I choose to get overly worked up about. (Which is to say that my traditionalist preference for a male clergy is not a position I would like to be forced to defend.) I think birth control, whether through prophylactic or rhythm. Abortion, however, except in well-defined medical (life-threatening) or legal (rape) cases, I judge to be a moral horror—but since I was many years ago male party to an abortion, I am no one to speak. But the general phenomenon, the smorgasbord, is something else. Perhaps the church should redefine its positions. . . but not because some middle-class American Catholics want a church more comfortable, which is really what the SmorgCats want, no matter how much they disguise their comfort-seeking as courageous stances of risk-taking Reformers.
Those smiling presumptive Catholics basking before the camera’s attention, with (figuratively speaking) potato salad in one hand and the other poised above the board, so obviously expect sympathy and encouragement (Right on!) as their clear entitlement, especially from those outside the faith. They so obviously expect to be taken as serious people, as advanced thinkers even, Thinkers Thinking Big Thoughts. Well, I wonder if I am in a minority in thinking them sadly and excruciatingly-embarrassedly absurd in their pretentions: a banal self-indulgence cast as brave critique.
Well, no—no such contemplation. And while my respect for the Roman Catholic Church is enormous, it’s not only my contempt for its violation that sets me off, nor only my impatience with the particular violators, but, ultimately, my contempt for the historical type the SmorgCat is a familiar, and utterly banal, instance of.
I think Edmund Burke had him sized up. . . the type, I mean. “It is with infinite caution,” Burke wrote in his Reflections, “that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice, which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society.” But this caution of course is always alien to the radical, he possessing a brave vision so much more advanced than the accumulated wisdom of the past. His arrogance is boundless, as boundless as his stature is puny—his stature and arrogance both captured precisely in a marvelous Burkean passage which is done no violation, I think, by our reading where Burke writes “commonwealth,” “society,” or “state,” Church instead. I shall for your convenience italicize the words which “church” might replace.
Samuel Hux is Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at York College of the City University of New York. He has published in Dissent, The New Republic, Saturday Review, Moment, Antioch Review, Commonweal, New Oxford Review, Midstream, Commentary, Modern Age, Worldview, The New Criterion and many others.
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