Perhaps the greatest sin in the world today is that men have begun to lose the sense of sin. Smother that, deaden it — it can hardly be wholly cut out from the heart of man — let it not be awakened by any glimpse of the God-man dying on Golgotha’s cross to pay the penalty of sin, and what is there to hold back the hordes of God’s enemy from over-running the selfishness, the pride, the sensuality and unlawful ambitions of sinful man? (Pope Pius XII)
The words of Pope Pius XII about the greatest sin being the loss of the sense of sin is a good warning for our times, but I wonder if we actually consider the fullness of what it implies. For years I interpreted it as an indictment of modern psychology and sociology denying morality in general. No doubt that is one aspect of it. But I’ve begun to wonder if there’s more to it than that. It seems to me that there’s another aspect to it, and that aspect is, “others sin, but I don’t—at least not in important ways.” That kind of mindset allows us to be religious, but focussing on the sins of others and never asking whether God is just as offended with us as he is with others. That’s dangerous because, if we think this way, we don’t examine our consciences seriously and don’t repent of what we do—except superficially.
This temptation can be found in all different factions—and the danger is to only see it only in them, not us. It’s easy to do. We might ask, “Why does the Church speak out on X (whatever we think is minor, or perhaps justified) but not on Y (what others do, but we don’t)?” The conservative Catholic might think of X as social justice, and Y as sexual morality. The liberal Catholic might think of X as sexual morality and Y as social justice. The Church speaks on evils involving both, but we tend to resent it when the Church teaching jogs our conscience and tells us we have to change.
9 He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. 10 “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ 13 But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9–14).
I think the hostility of the Pharisees to Jesus serves as a good example for our own hostility. The Pharisees sought to live what they thought was a pure life pleasing to God. I don’t think we can doubt their sincerity. The problem was, they lost sight of the fact that they needed to repent as well. So, when Jesus spoke to them in parables showing that they were falling short, they responded with anger. After all, they were trying to live rightly! The tax collectors weren’t even trying! Why didn’t Jesus speak against them! But instead, Jesus told them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. (Matthew 21:31b)” He didn’t say that because He was morally lax and wanted to change teaching. He said that because the one who knows he is a sinner and wants to repent will enter Heaven before the self-righteous who thinks he doesn’t need to change.
Yes, we do need to speak out on sin to the world that has been deceived to think that guilt over sin is merely a psychological disorder. But we also have to look to ourselves and consider how we have acted against what God calls us to be, constantly repenting and rejecting what is against His will. We must do this regardless of what the world does. We certainly cannot say that we’re fine because we’re not as bad as them (whoever we consider “them” to be).
As long as we cannot do this, we will be like the Pharisee who lost the sense of his personal sin.