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The Sin of Man and the "Sin of the World"

General Audience — November 5, 1986

—    Sin is a conscious and free act
—    Sin has a social dimension

In this series of catecheses on sin, considered in the light of faith, the direct object of examination is actual (personal) sin. But this is always in reference to the first sin which has left its consequences in every descendant of Adam, and which is therefore called original sin. As a result of original sin human beings are born in a state of hereditary moral weakness. They easily follow the path of personal sin, if they do not correspond with the grace offered by God to humanity by means of Christ's redemption.

The Second Vatican Council noted this when it wrote, among other things: "As a result, all of human life, whether individual or collective, shows itself to be a dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness. Indeed, man finds that by himself he is incapable of battling the assaults of evil successfully.... But the Lord himself came to free and strengthen man, renewing him inwardly" (GS 13). All reflection on personal sin must be situated in this context of tensions and conflict linked to the condition of fallen human nature.

Personal sin has this essential characteristic, that it is always the responsible act of a definite person, an act incompatible with the moral law and therefore opposed to God's will. The Bible helps us to discover what is implied and involved in this act. Already in the Old Testament we find different expressions used to indicate the various moments or aspects of the reality of sin in the light of divine revelation. Thus sometimes it is simply called "evil" (in Hebrew, ra). One who commits sin does "what is evil in the sight of the Lord" (Dt 31:29). Therefore the sinner, also designated as "ungodly" (rasa) is one who "forgets God" (cf. Ps 9:18), who "does not wish to know God" (cf. Job 21:14), and in whom there "is not the fear of God" (cf. Ps 36:2). The sinner does not "trust in the Lord" (cf. Ps 32:10), indeed, is one who "despises God" (cf. Ps 10:13), in the conviction that "the Lord does not see" (cf. Ps 94:7) and "he will not demand an account" (cf. Ps 10:4). Again, the sinner (the ungodly) is one who does not fear to oppress the just (cf. Ps 12:9), nor to "cause injustice to the widows and orphans" (cf. Ps 82:4; 94:6), nor even "to repay good with evil" (cf. Ps 109:2-5). In Sacred Scripture the opposite of the sinner is the just man (sadiq). Sin is injustice in the broadest sense of the word.

This multifaceted injustice is also expressed by the term pesa, which contains the idea of wrong done to another, to one whose rights have been violated by the sinful action. The same word, however, also signifies "rebellion" against superiors, which is all the more grave if directed against God, as we read in the prophets: "Sons have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me" (Is 1:2; cf. also, e.g., Is 48:8-9; Ez 2:3).

Sin, therefore also signifies "injustice" (Hebrew awon, Greek adikia, anomia). At the same time this word, according to the Bible, underlines man's sinful state inasmuch as he is guilty of sin. Etymologically it signifies a "deviation from the right path" or "wrongness" or "deformation"—being really outside of justice! The consciousness of this state of injustice comes to the surface in Cain's remorseful confession: "My sin is too great to be pardoned!" (Gen 4:13); and in that other confession of the Psalmist: "For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me" (Ps 38:5). Guilt—injustice—implies a breaking with God, expressed by the term hata, which means, etymologically, a "defect with regard to someone." Hence, too, the Psalmist's awareness: "Against you, you alone have I sinned!" (Ps 51:4).

Furthermore, according to Sacred Scripture, sin is an offense against God, by its essential nature of "injustice." It is ingratitude for his benefits, even contempt for his most holy Person. "Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight?"—the prophet Nathan asked David after his sin (cf. 2 Sam 12:9). Sin is also a stain and an impurity. Therefore Ezekiel speaks of "defilement" with sin (cf. Ez 14:11), especially with the sin of idolatry which the prophets frequently compare to "adultery" (cf. Hos 2:4, 6-7). Hence even the Psalmist asks: "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow" (Ps 51:7).

In this same context the words of Jesus in the Gospel can be better understood: "What comes out of a person is what defiles him...out of the heart of man come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these things...defile a person" (Mk 7:20-23; cf. Mt 15:18-20). It should be noted that in New Testament lexicons there are not as many names for sin as in the Old Testament. It is named especially with the Greek word anomia (iniquity, injustice, opposition to the kingdom of God (cf. e.g., Mk 7:23; Mt 13:14; Mt 24:12; 1 Jn 3:4). It is also called hamartia (error, defect) or opheleima (debt e.g., "forgive us our debts..." i.e., sins) (Mt 6:12; Lk 11:4).

1.  Sin is a conscious and free act

We have just heard Jesus' words describing sin as something coming "out of the heart," from within man. They emphasize the essential nature of sin. Originating within man, in his will, sin, by its very essence, is always an act of the person. It is a conscious and free act, in which man's free will is expressed. Only on the basis of this principle of freedom, and therefore of the fact of deliberation, can its moral value be established. Only for this reason can we judge it evil in the moral sense, just as we judge and approve as good an act in conformity with the objective moral norm, and ultimately with the will of God. Personal responsibility is verified only in what derives from free will. It is only in this sense that a person's free and conscious act—which is opposed to the moral norm (to God's will), to the law, to the commandment, and ultimately to conscience—constitutes a sin.

It is in this individual and personal sense that Sacred Scripture speaks of sin, since on principle it refers to a specific subject, to man who is its cause. Even when the expression "the sin of the world" appears in some passages, this personal meaning is not denied, at least as regards the causality and responsibility of sin. The "world" as such cannot be the cause of sin. It can be caused only by a rational and free being in the world, that is, by man (or in another realm of beings, also by a created pure spirit, namely an angel, as we have seen in previous catecheses).

The expression "the sin of the world" is found in St. John's Gospel: "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn 1:29). The liturgical formula says, "the sins of the world." In the First Letter of St. John another passage reads: "Do not love the world or the things in the world...for all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world" (1 Jn 2:15-16). And still more severely: "We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil one" (1 Jn 5:19).

How are we to understand these expressions about the "sin of the world"? The passages quoted clearly indicate that here it is not a case of the "world" as a creation of God, but as a specific dimension, almost a spiritual space closed to God, in which evil arises on the basis of created freedom. This evil transferred into the "heart" of our first parents under the influence of the "ancient serpent" (cf. Gen 3 and Rev 12:9), that is, Satan, "the father of lies," has borne evil fruits from the beginning of human history. Original sin has left in its wake that "spark or incitement of evil desire," that is, the threefold concupiscence, which induces people to sin. In their turn the many personal sins that are committed form a kind of "environment of sin." This creates the conditions for new personal sins and in a certain way induces and attracts individuals to sin. Therefore "the sin of the world" is not to be identified with original sin, but it is, as it were, a synthesis or summing up of the consequences of original sin in the history of each generation and so in the whole history of humanity. From this it also follows that the various human initiatives, tendencies, achievements and institutions, even in those "ensembles" which constitute cultures and civilizations, bear a certain imprint of sin. In this sense one can perhaps speak of a sin of the structures as a kind of "infection" which is spread from human hearts into the environments in which they live and into the structures which support and condition their existence.

2.  Sin has a social dimension

While preserving its essential character of a personal act, sin possesses at the same time a social dimension, of which I spoke in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on Reconciliation and Penance, published in 1982. As I wrote in that document: "To speak of social sin means in the first place to recognize that, by virtue of a human solidarity which is as mysterious and intangible as it is real and concrete, each individual's sin in some way affects others. This is the other aspect of that solidarity which on the religious level is developed in the profound and magnificent mystery of the communion of saints, thanks to which it has been possible to say that 'every soul that rises above itself, raises up the world.' To this law of ascent there unfortunately corresponds the law of descent. Consequently one can speak of a communion of sin, whereby a soul that lowers itself through sin drags down with itself the Church and, in some way, the whole world" (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 16).

Then the Exhortation speaks of sins which particularly deserve to be described as "social sins"—a subject to which we shall return in the course of another series of catecheses.

It is sufficiently clear from what has been said that "social sin" is not the same thing as the biblical "sin of the world." However, one must recognize that to understand "the sin of the world" one must take into consideration not only the personal dimension of sin, but also the social. The Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia continues: "There is no sin, not even the most intimate and secret one, the most strictly individual one, that exclusively concerns the person committing it. With greater or lesser violence, with greater or lesser harm, every sin has repercussions on the entire ecclesial body and the whole human family. According to this first meaning of the term, every sin can undoubtedly be considered as social sin" (RP 16). At this point we can conclude with the observation that the social dimension of sin explains better why the world becomes that specific negative spiritual environment, to which Sacred Scripture alludes when it speaks of the "sin of the world."