In the Gospel of St John, we hear the beautiful story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). Individuals who deemed themselves free of moral fault made her stand in the midst of the crowd, where they accused her of adultery. Our Lord's reply is well known to us, being one of the most comforting sentences of our faith: "Let the man among you who has no sin be the first to cast a stone at her." Her accusers all went away one by one and she was left alone with Jesus.
It is important to point out that Jesus did not condone her sin, for he told her to sin no more but in his compassion and mercy he reached out to this woman and forgave her sin. This Gospel reading points out the reality of sin.
Sin is not a myth but a reality. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1849) we are told, "Sin is an offence against reason, truth and right conscience; it is a failure in genuine love for God and neighbour caused by perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as an 'utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law'."
Today we live in a secular society where objective moral values play less and less a role in shaping our lives, our laws and institutions. It is all too easy for the secular attitude of the age to deaden our sense of sin and moral responsibility.
The late Pope John Paul II in his Encyclical Dominum et Vivificatem states: "Conversion requires convincing of sin: it includes the interior judgement of conscience, and this, being a proof of the action of the Spirit of truth in man's inmost being, becomes at the same time the start of a new grant of grace and of love: 'Receive the Holy Spirit.' Thus in this 'convincing concerning sin' we discover a double gift: the gift of truth of conscience and the gift of certainty of redemption. The Spirit of Truth is the Consoler."
Today our information driven society influences the way we think in terms of the faith which has been handed down to us. Sections of society look at morality as just a matter of one's own opinion or personal choice. Matters of conscience, sin, grace, which refer to an objective basis for morality, are not part of this secular culture. It is all to easy to lose any sense of personal sin.
Pope Paul VI explained in his Credo of the People of God (1968) that primordial sin, which we call original sin, "is human nature so fallen, stripped of the grace that clothed it, injured in its own natural powers and subjected to the dominion of death, that is transmitted to all men." It is a condition of alienation from God inherited from Adam by virtue of our human nature.
Actual sin is the kind of sin for which we are personally responsible – for example, the sin of adultery which the woman in the Gospel committed. Simply put, sin is the turning away from God, an offence against Him.
The Catechism sets out the distinction between mortal and venial sin (1855): "Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him." Mortal sin therefore involves serious matter, and is committed with full consent of the will and sufficient awareness it is lethal to God's life within us.
Venial sin on the other hand allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds charity. Venial sin means a turning aside from God, though without at that time intending to reject one's fundamental orientation to God. Venial sin weakens charity.
St Paul's Letter to the Galatians (5:19-23) contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit: "Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatary, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the Kingdom of God. But the Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control. There is no law against such things as these."
As sin is real, so acknowledgement of sin is for realists. It was once said by the Pharisees of Jesus that he ate with sinners and tax collectors, the so-called sinners in Our Lord's time. He replied: "People who are in good health do not need a doctor; sick people do … I have come to call, not the self-righteous, but sinners" (Mt.9:12,13).
Fr Dennis W. Byrnes is a retired parish priest who resides in Port Macquarie (NSW) in the Lismore Diocese.