Synthesis of the Human Act – 4, Mons Anton Borg, Kummissjoni Teoloġika Interdjoċesana

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19 ta’ Settembru 2013

Synthesis of the Human Act – 4

Il-Kummissjoni Teoloġika Interdjoċesana qed twasslilkom l-aħħar parti (minn erbgħa) dwar l-Att Uman, kitba tal-moralista Mons. Anton Borg, Viċi-President tal-Kummissjoni Teoloġika.

  1. The Sinful act

Why has modern society lost its awareness of sin? Why do less Catholics celebrate the Sacrament of Penance? If a person does not accept that he is a sinner, he would not examine his conscience to know where and when he has sinned. How can we define sin? Theologically we define it as disobedience to God’s Law. It is true that sin occurs when one does not observe God’s Law, but such disobedience must be seen in relation with the personal maturity of the sinner and in relation to the human community.

5.1 The loss of awareness of sin


Before deepening our knowledge on the reality present in the morally evil act (sin), we can reflect why our secular and permissive world has lost its awareness of sin. Nowadays, we are ready to excuse and justify any moral behaviour even if it is objectively and morally wrong with the excuse that we deem that behaviour subjectively correct. We might arrive at a point of condemning someone’s wrong doing but we never call his behaviour sinful. By sin we all understand a behaviour which is selfish, a behaviour which is intentioned to hurt someone or society, a behaviour which goes against our personal maturity, for it goes against the dignity of the human person. It is the educators’ task to instil once again in those being educated the awareness of sinful acts.

Globalisation, the meeting of new and different cultures, has helped in the loss of awareness of sin. Moral behaviour is somewhat conditioned by the cultural mentality of the people in which one is brought up. Meeting persons of different cultures, through emigration or tourism, might cause a crisis of conscience. One might ask why some action is considered sinful in a certain country and in another country it is not considered? This does not mean that the human morality is not common for all; however, cultural mentality has an effect on the application of the moral law.

It is a fact that the world has undergone a rapid change, which change has introduced new problems and often it is difficult to procure solutions.


5.2 The human person and the sinful act

In Personalist Moral Theology, sin is seen as an act which damages and goes against the realisation and fulfilment of the human person. It is an act which, instead of helping the person to mature, goes against his dignity as a human person. But one should not understand sin exclusively as an act which goes against the fulfilment of the human person or a particular action which hurts our neighbour. Above all, sin is the action that breaks the dialogue between man and God, the Father of Jesus Christ. Sin is always in reference to the dialogue between the creature and the Creator, between man and God. Sin is first of all and essentially, the rejection of God and his divine plan.

Some people argue that here lies the reason why nowadays there is less sensitivity to sin. Present society does not need God, God is dead. The progress of science and technology has helped man to cure almost all kinds of illness without seeking the help of God. If God is dead or not needed, how is He going to be offended by my wrongdoing? If I do not believe in His existence why should I be sorry of having offended Him? If a man does not believe in God, he has not sinned.

Great importance is given to the human person. The human person is autonomous and has the right to decide for himself and to plan his life without any external interference. Man knows who he is and what is the goal of his life and is able to choose the manner by which he can fulfil himself and reach his life’s goal. Various people argue that they follow their conscience because this brings to light the dignity and singularity of man. But conscience needs adequate formation, for such a conscience is capable of pointing out the wrongdoings done towards others.

Such a well formed conscience becomes aware of values to which everyone should adhere, of one’s moral experience and duty in front of a moral Law. Such a moral Law is founded on man’s human nature, a moral Law not created by man but found in man and his behaviour must be in conformity with it. A well-formed conscience believes in the existence of a Being on whom such a moral Law depends. Often we create our god, a god who matches perfectly with our interests and dreams. We create a comfortable god not to be disturbed in conscience.

Nowadays Moral Theology has a more personalist vision rather than a legalistic vision regarding moral behaviour. In the past it was easier for Moral Theology to decide whether one has sinned or not, since if one did not obey a certain law automatically one would have sinned. This does not mean that the moral norms or principles are no longer valid. The difference is that instead of being analysed through a legalistic vision, human acts are analysed through a personalist vision. The human person comes first before the law. This same attitude can be observed in Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees (Mk 2, 27-28).

5.3 The human act


To understand what is a morally wrong act or sin, we must understand the moral agent who committed the sin. It is the human person who is responsible for his actions. To understand the human person, we have to enter into the mystery of man and the best way to understand this mystery is the human moral act. Understanding the human moral act we discover the moral agent.

Action to be considered as worthy of the human person must enjoy human reasoning and free willing. If these elements are missing, the action would not be truly human, but a simple action produced by the human person. An action to be truly human must contain an internal decision, a personal element and must demonstrate the dignity and responsibility of the subject. Man’s grandeur is not established solely through his ability to think but also through his ability to act and thus fulfil himself. It is in the truly human action that man distinguishes himself from any other being. Man knows what he wants and freely wants to implement that which he wants. This is what happens in every free and intelligent action.

The fact that the action is done by a being who has a body, implies that the action must be done in a visible manner — must be external. Even though the external action does not always reflect the internal feeling, one has to assume that the external is reflecting the internal. The ambiguity of the external action which does not always reflect the internal feeling is demonstrated in Judas’ kiss (Lk 22, 48).

The external aspect of the human action demonstrates that the human person is not made up exclusively of mind and free will. It is through his body that man can be a part of the world. World here signifies all that conditions and expresses the actions and decisions taken by men. With the word world one understands all the relationships which every man has. The personal expression of himself takes place within the sphere of interpersonal relationships. Man therefore expresses himself interpersonally. The individual does not acquire his identity by looking introvertedly at himself. It is because man has a body and is part of the world, that his actions are social and historical.

Every human action will effect someone, is done by someone and is somewhat connected with someone. Every human action can be compared to a dialogue. In all dialogues there is someone who talks and someone who listens, thus in every action there is someone who gives and someone who receives. The subject that is going to receive the action can either be an individual or society in general. This shows that although the human person is an individual it also has its social aspect and lives in a series of relationships with others.

The human action is also conditioned by space and time. This comes to light through the fact that every human forms part of a particular community. The human person gradually, through every action, fulfils himself. This shows that the human person is situated in time, and takes time to reach perfection. Thus, one should not pass a judgement on a person by judging a particular action; for no particular act reveals wholly the deep orientation of the human person.

5.4 Jesus Christ as the model of the Christian


In order to understand how Christ understood the reality of sin, one must first analyse how Christ understood God’s Law and His will. The Christian is in continuous dialogue with God, the Father of Jesus Christ. By Christian moral behaviour one should understand, the call which God makes through Jesus Christ to man and the answer that man should responsibly and freely gives to God’s call. This dialogue between God and man reached perfection in the person of Christ. Thus, for every Christian, Jesus becomes the best model of a morally correct behaviour. It was Christ, being God’s son, who understood perfectly the call which God makes to men (Lk 3, 22; Jn 1, 17). It was Christ, being also a human, who gave a humane and real answer to God’s call. It was Christ who perfectly understood the dialogue between God and man, and understood how this dialogue could be broken. Jesus’ vision regarding sin comes to light in his harsh criticism towards the legalistic approach of the Pharisees. One can easily observe here the radicalism of Jesus’ moral teaching. Such radicalism applies to every Christian and to every human being, even if everybody is called to live this radicalism in a personal way.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus demonstrates what genuine moral behaviour is. He gives a genuine explanation of God’s Law. In the Torah, prominence is given to the Decalogue. According to the Jews, the Decalogue is not merely a collection of moral laws but is God’s will. The Decalogue does not demonstrate God’s arbitrary will but God’s will for the personal good of his people. In fact, apart from some laws which concern the relationship between the Jew and God, the Decalogue is an expression of the Natural law.

It was only after the Exile that the pharisaic interpretation took over. Separated from its true Author and taken out of the context of Salvation, the Law of God became for the Jews, a mere law and no longer God’s gift to the people. Therefore, God’s Law developed into something which hinders man’s liberty. The Jews tried to minimise or remove its obligations. So they created their own legalistic mentality, a mentality in which love was absent and all led to formalism; only the external acts were important, no internal disposition needed. Moral, cultic and civil laws are hardly distinguished, and righteousness is sought in a most literal observance of commandments, rulings and laws. Moral perfection was widely identified with a slavish following of prescriptions and rules, to the detriment of genuine moral obedience and of true justice and love.

It would be right to ask whether the moral behaviour of certain Christians is somewhat similar to that of the Jews. Here comes into play the interpretation which Jesus gave to God’s Law. In the person of Christ, the Decalogue finds its perfection and fulfilment. The ten Words of God are explained through the Father’s Word (his true Son): ‘In the beginning it was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God….and the Word became flesh’ (in. 2, 1.14).

Christ not only behaved according to the Commandments but also demonstrated their validity (Mt. 5, 17). The observance of God’s Law leads man to eternal life. Christ gave God’s Law its true explanation and revealed to man all that goes against the true Will of God.

Christ went against the Jewish explanation of God’s Law and in the name of this law, he was crucified. Whenever Jesus confronted the Pharisees and the Elders, he was not only criticising a certain social institution but also the theology that lies behind the Torah. The Jew knew about the reality of sin and thought that he could stay away from sin through the observance of God’s Law. The Jew thought that the faithful observance of God’s Law not only kept him away from sin but also justified him in the eyes of God. Thus, the Jew avoided the company of public sinner. It was because of this reason that Christ was criticised for dining with public sinners (Mk 2, 16-17). The Jew was afraid of sin and thus avoided all contacts with sin. Through his actions, Christ demonstrated that sin can be defeated and thus instilled a sense of optimism. Christ demonstrated that sin, before being an act of disobedience towards a moral positive law, is our failure to honour the commitment which we took in baptism. Sin is a lie because it leads to a dichotomy between what I believe and what I live.

Christ demonstrated that the Christian’s commitment should be one without limits and compromises. This is evidenced in Jesus’ discussion with the wealthy youth (Mk 10, 21). Modern exegesis states that, there do not exist two levels of moral behaviour: that is, common moral behaviour given to us through the Decalogue and a special moral behaviour present in the call to unlimited commitment. On the contrary, there exists an intimate relationship between these two aspects. It is the total discipleship which leads the Christian to fulfil with zeal the Ten Commandments. Through the light shed by such commitment, one can discover the human values present in the Decalogue.

An example of such a commitment can be observed in Jesus’ answer to the expert of the law: ‘You must love the Lord your God with your whole heart and with your whole mind and your neighbour as yourself’ (Lk 10, 27). Jesus demonstrates that love towards one’s neighbour must be a love free of any discrimination. Jesus shows that the love of God is intertwined with love of neighbour, that faith is connected with morality, that what I believe is connected to what I live, and that God is related to man. The perfect synthesis of this is Jesus Christ,  God made man. The Christian, through his sin, disrupts this intimate relation. Thus through sin, the Christian goes against the unity found in Christ. The life of the disciple should be like an image of Christ, He who calls man and transforms man into Himself.

One might conclude that sin is the separation between what I believe, what I promised in Baptism and what I live and decide to do in my life. It is the separation between my nature (the so called fundamental option, that is the wish to be fully human and fully alive) and my personality, which must be built through my particular decisions. These are decisions, which through the morally correct act fulfill and justify my fundamental option. On the other hand in morally wrong acts, these decisions go against and disrupt my fundamental option. Finally, sin goes against the same person of Christ who is the true genuine explanation of the Law.

5.5 The nature of sin

There exist three classical definitions of the nature of sin. Such definitions should be analysed in the light of the human person. The first classical definition of sin is that which states that, sin is disobedience to God’s Law. Disobedience to God’s Law should not be understood as disobedience to a moral positive law but disobedience to God Himself. Sin is an action that goes against the will of God, the true Author of the moral law. Moreover, moral law should not be understood as something external to man as if God first created man and then gave him a set of laws to obey. On the contrary when God created man he gave him the moral law in his human nature. Therefore, moral law is not something that hinders man’s liberty but on the contrary it is his nature. All the positive moral laws form part of moral law and so when one states that sin is disobedience to God’s Law one should understand that it is an act that goes against the nature of man.

Another definition states that sin is an offence to God. In order to grasp the full meaning of this definition we must consider the contrast between love and sin. Every offence done against our neighbour goes against the principle of love. It goes against God because one cannot separate love towards one’s neighbour from love towards God and His Law. On the other hand, every offence to God goes against love and so it goes again our neighbour. Thus, sin is always an absence of love. Saint Augustine used to say that sin is ‘aversio a Deo et conversio ad creaturam — man turns away from God and moves towards the creature’. Man, in trying to turn away from God, ultimately turns away from his real fulfilment, to make himself god and act according to his own plan. Man becomes alienated from himself and makes an idol of himself. Man turns towards creation, not out of love but to make use of it, he sets his eyes on nature not out of love but out of pure selfishness.

Sin is closely connected to the human person. It is an act of rebellion, it is an act which refuses God’s plan, and it is an abuse of liberty. Since it goes against God’s plan, ultimately sin leads to regression, and not to progress of the personal maturity according to God’s will. Sin even goes against the same roots of human existence because it goes against the profound orientation of the human person. Man is oriented towards the good, for he is oriented towards God. Man can never lose this orientation because it is his nature. However, through morally wrong acts, man creates a dichotomy in himself. Man’s fundamental rightness is to be found in the orientation of his whole existence toward God, so sin contradicts this orientation and represent a fundamental distortion of human existence. He creates a separation between his nature, his fundamental option and his personality which he creates through his concrete acts. Through his actions, man is building a hierarchy of values which goes against the true plan of God. The more man tries to be autonomous, the more he loses his freedom and becomes a slave of himself.

It is clear that sin is closely connected with the human decisions. Even when sin is collective, it always remains personal. In the morally wrong act, man abuses of his liberty and hinders his personal development in hurting his neighbours. Sin is the inability of the person to fulfil itself.

One must also mention the social aspect of sin. With social aspect, one understands both the bad example given to others and the disruption of human solidarity. The more sin is widespread, the more fragile the community becomes. This is evidenced by the fact that where love is missing, there arise conflicts and arguments. If part of the body is sick, it is the whole body which suffers. Ultimately, it is man through his concrete decisions who decides whether to build his personality according to the fundamental option or on the other hand to build a personality which goes against the fundamental option. We conclude that even if man strives for perfection he will always be susceptible to sin, but the liberation offered to man by Christ means that there is an alternative for man that will help him to overcome sin.


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