Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 18: The Loss of the Sense of Sin, Part 2: Secularism

Yesterday, in leading off our discussion of section 18, we read of Pope Pius XII’s assessment that “the sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin.” I think it’s the sin of every century, but y’all have heard me harp enough on that. Today, Pope John Paul II asks a question and proceeds to answer it:

Why has this happened in our time(?) 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.”

I find the notion behind secularism to be too broad to suggest anything less than a wide range of indulgences. Consider the culture of sport. Athletes, even amateur aspirants, will make great sacrifices that can in no way be considered epicurean. Yet the focus remains something apart from God: cultivating the body, valuing youth and ability, gathering in like-minded cultural groups to support a cause (a team or a fanhood) greater than the individual.

This secularism cannot but undermine the sense of sin. At the very most, sin will be reduced to what offends man.

I think this is true, but sometimes human conscience is aligned with God’s values. Take the environmental movement, as an example. Today, many non-believers devote themselves to the values of stewardship, of health for other people, of a long-term view of providing not only for non-sentients on the planet, but future generations of human beings. Some will make sacrifices that can hardly be defined as selfish.

When religious persons complain about secularism, I can detect an occasional bit of envy–if only Christians were as passionate. Or even as moral.

But it is precisely here that we are faced with the bitter experience which I already alluded to in my first encyclical namely, that (people) can build a world without God, but this world will end by turning against him.”(Cf Pope John Paul II, encyclical Redemptor Hominis 15) In fact, God is the origin and the supreme end of (humankind), and (one) carries in (oneself) a divine seed.(Cf Gaudium et Spes, 3; cf 1 Jn 3:9) Hence it is the reality of God that reveals and illustrates the mystery of (humankind). It is therefore vain to hope that there will take root a sense of sin against (people) and against human values, if there is no sense of offense against God, namely the true sense of sin.

As a Christian, I would certainly verify the value of recognizing the need to place God as central in one’s life. Many people deep in the secular sphere do so: environmentalists, athletes, sports fans, and people who have a vocation to helping others enjoy themselves: entertainers, gourmet chefs, vacation hosts, etc.. Rather than complain about people outside our orbit–scientist-atheists for example–perhaps we would do well to focus on the ill-presented witness of some of our own. You know: the Christians who chase others away from God.

This document is Copyright © 1984 – Libreria Editrice Vatican. The link on the Vatican site is here.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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