Sin is at the root of all humankind’s divisions and conflicts

From Pope St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Pænitentia (1984):

These divisions are seen in the relationships between individuals and groups, and also at the level of larger groups: nations against nations and blocs of opposing countries in a headlong quest for domination. At the root of this alienation it is not hard to discern conflicts which, instead of being resolved through dialogue, grow more acute in confrontation and opposition.

Careful observers, studying the elements that cause division, discover reasons of the most widely differing kinds: from the growing disproportion between groups, social classes and countries, to ideological rivalries that are far from dead; from the opposition between economic interests to political polarization; from tribal differences to discrimination for social and religious reasons. Moreover, certain facts that are obvious to all constitute as it were the pitiful face of the division of which they are the fruit and demonstrate its seriousness in an inescapably concrete way. Among the many other painful social phenomena of our times one can noted.

  • The trampling upon the basic rights of the human person, the first of these being the right to life and to a worthy quality of life, which is all the more scandalous in that it coexists with a rhetoric never before known on these same rights.
  • Hidden attacks and pressures against the freedom of individuals and groups, not excluding the freedom which is most offended against and threatened: the freedom to have, profess and practice one’s own faith.
  • The various forms of discrimination: racial, cultural, religious, etc.
  • Violence and terrorism.
  • The use of torture and unjust and unlawful methods of repression.
  • The stockpiling of conventional or atomic weapons, the arms race with the spending on military purposes of sums which could be used to alleviate the undeserved misery of peoples that are socially and economically depressed.
  • An unfair distribution of the world’s resources and of the assets of civilization, which reaches its highest point in a type of social organization whereby the distance between the human conditions of the rich and the poor becomes ever greater.2 The overwhelming power of this division makes the world in which we live a world shattered3 to its very foundations.

Moreover, the church—without identifying herself with the world or being of the world—is in the world and is engaged in dialogue with the world.4 It is therefore not surprising if one notices in the structure of the church herself repercussions and signs of the division affecting human society. Over and above the divisions between the Christian communions that have afflicted her for centuries, the church today is experiencing within herself sporadic divisions among her own members, divisions caused by differing views or options in the doctrinal and pastoral field.5 These divisions too can at times seem incurable.

However disturbing these divisions may seem at first sight, it is only by a careful examination that one can detect their root: It is to be found in a wound in man’s inmost self. In the light of faith we call it sin: beginning with original sin, which all of us bear from birth as an inheritance from our first parents, to the sin which each one of us commits when we abuse our own freedom.

2 Cf Pope John Paul II, opening speech at the Third General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate: Acta Apostolicæ Sedis [AAS] 71 (1979), 198-204.
3 The idea of a “shattered world” is seen in the works of numerous contemporary writers, both Christian and non-Christian, witnesses of man’s condition in this tormented period of history.
4 Cf. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 3, 43 and 44; Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests Presbyterorum Ordinis, 12; Pope Paul VI, encyclical Ecclesiam Suam: AAS 56 (1964), 609-659.
5 At the very beginning of the church, the apostle Paul wrote with words of fire about division in the body of the church, in the famous passage 1 Cor 1:10-16. Years later, St. Clement of Rome was also to write to the Corinthians, to condemn the wounds inside that community: cf. Letter to the Corinthians, III-VI; LVII: Patres Apostolici, ed. Funk, I, 103-109; 171-173. We know that from the earliest fathers onward Christ’s seamless robe, which the soldiers did not divide, became an image of the church’s unity: cf. St. Cyprian, De Ecclesiæ Catholicæ Unitate, 7: Corpus Christianorum, Latin series [CCL] 3/1, 254f; St. Augustine, In Ioannis Evangelium Tractatus, 118, 4: CCL 36, 656f; St. Bede the Venerable, In Marci Evangelium Expositio, IV, 15: CCL 120, 630i; In Lucæ Evangelium Expositio, VI, 23: CCL 120, 403; In S. Ioannis Evangelium Expositio, 19: Patrologiæ Cursus completus, Series Latina 92, 911f.

Reconciliatio et Pænitentia 2

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