Present-day culture weakens our sensitivity to sin

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

A glance at certain aspects of contemporary culture can help us to understand the progressive weakening of the sense of sin, precisely because of the crisis of conscience and crisis of the sense of God already mentioned.

“Secularism” is by nature and definition a movement of ideas and behavior which advocates a humanism totally without God, completely centered upon the cult of action and production and caught up in the heady enthusiasm of consumerism and pleasure seeking, unconcerned with the danger of “losing one’s soul.” This secularism cannot but undermine the sense of sin. At the very most, sin will be reduced to what offends man. But it is precisely here that we are faced with the bitter experience which I already alluded to in my first encyclical namely, that man can build a world without God, but this world will end by turning against him.”101 In fact, God is the origin and the supreme end of man, and man carries in himself a divine seed.102 Hence it is the reality of God that reveals and illustrates the mystery of man. It is therefore vain to hope that there will take root a sense of sin against man and against human values, if there is no sense of offense against God, namely the true sense of sin.

Another reason for the disappearance of the sense of sin in contemporary society is to be found in the errors made in evaluating certain findings of the human sciences. Thus on the basis of certain affirmations of psychology, concern to avoid creating feelings of guilt or to place limits on freedom leads to a refusal ever to admit any shortcoming. Through an undue extrapolation of the criteria of the science of sociology, it finally happens—as I have already said—that all failings are blamed upon society, and the individual is declared innocent of them. Again, a certain cultural anthropology so emphasizes the undeniable environmental and historical conditioning and influences which act upon man, that it reduces his responsibility to the point of not acknowledging his ability to perform truly human acts and therefore his ability to sin.

The sense of sin also easily declines as a result of a system of ethics deriving from a certain historical relativism. This may take the form of an ethical system which relativizes the moral norm, denying its absolute and unconditional value, and as a consequence denying that there can be intrinsically illicit acts independent of the circumstances in which they are performed by the subject. Herein lies a real “overthrowing and downfall of moral values,” and “the problem is not so much one of ignorance of Christian ethics,” but ignorance “rather of the meaning, foundations and criteria of the moral attitude.”103 Another effect of this ethical turning upside down is always such an attenuation of the notion of sin as almost to reach the point of saying that sin does exist, but no one knows who commits it.

Finally the sense of sin disappears when—as can happen in the education of youth, in the mass media and even in education within the family—it is wrongly identified with a morbid feeling of guilt or with the mere transgression of legal norms and precepts.

101 Cf Pope John Paul II, encyclical Redemptor Hominis, 15: Acta Apostolicæ Sedis 71 (1979), 286-289.
102 Cf Gaudium et Spes, 3; cf 1 Jn 3:9.
103 Pope John Paul II, Address to the Bishops of the Eastern Region of France (April 1, 1982), 2: Insegnamenti V, 1 (1982), 1081.

Reconciliatio et Pænitentia 18

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