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Sin Alienates the Human Person

General Audience — November 12, 1986

Our considerations regarding sin during this cycle of our catecheses keep leading us back to that first sin of which we read in Genesis. St. Paul speaks of it as the "disobedience" of the first Adam (cf. Rom 5:19), directly connected with the transgression of the Creator's commandment concerning "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." A superficial reading of the text may give one the impression that prohibition regarded something insignificant ("You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree"). But a more profound analysis easily leads to the conviction that the apparently insignificant content of the prohibition symbolizes an absolutely fundamental matter. This is made apparent by the words of the tempter, who, in order to persuade man to act contrary to the Creator's prohibition, entices him with this incentive: "When you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen 3:5).

In this light, it seems that one must understand that the purpose of that tree of knowledge and the prohibition to eat of its fruit was to remind man that he is not "like God"—he is only a creature! Yes, a creature of particular perfection, because he is made "in the image and likeness of God," but still only a creature. This was the fundamental truth of that being which is man. The commandment man received in the beginning included this truth, expressed in the form of an admonition—remember that you are a creature called to friendship with God, who alone is your Creator. Do not wish to be what you are not! Do not wish to be "like God." Act in accordance with what you are, and all the more willingly since this is already such an exalted status, that of being "the image and likeness of God." This distinguishes you from the other creatures of the visible world, placing you above them. But at the same time, the status of image and likeness of God obliges you to act in conformity with what you are. So be faithful to the covenant that God the Creator has made with you, a creature, from the beginning.

The words of the tempter recounted in Genesis 3 not only placed in doubt but radically "contested" this truth—and thus the primordial principle of man's conduct. In pronouncing those words of temptation, the "ancient serpent," as he is called in the Book of Revelation (cf. Rev 12:9), formulates for the first time a criterion of interpretation to which sinful man would later turn many times, in an attempt to affirm himself or even to create an ethics without God. That criterion states that God is "alienating" for man, so that, if he wants to be himself, man must discard God (cf. for example, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche).

The word "alienation" presents diverse shades of meaning. In every case it indicates the "usurpation" of something which belongs to another. The tempter of Genesis 3 says for the first time that the Creator has "usurped" what belongs to the creature man! "Being like God" is to be considered a human attribute, which would exclude any sort of dependence on God. The rejection of all religion as incompatible with what man is logically derives from this metaphysical presupposition. In fact, atheist (or anti-theist) philosophies maintain that religion is a fundamental form of alienation, by means of which man divests himself, or allows himself to be deprived, of what pertains exclusively to his being as man. Even in creating the idea of God, man produces his own alienation, because he renounces what originally and principally belongs to him, in favor of the perfect and happy being imagined by him. Religion, in its turn, accentuates, preserves and fuels this state of self-deprivation in favor of a God of "idealistic" creation, and so is one of the principal factors of the "expropriation" of man, of his dignity and rights.

I would like to note here that this false theory—so contrary to the data of religious history and psychology—presents certain analogies with the biblical narration of the temptation and fall. It is significant that the tempter ("the ancient serpent") of Genesis 3 does not call in question the existence of God, nor does he even directly deny the reality of the creation: these truths were much too obvious in that historical age. Instead, the tempter—in his experience as a creature who has freely chosen to rebel—seeks already "in the beginning" to implant in man's conscience, as it were in "germinal" form, what constitutes the nucleus of the ideology of "alienation."

In so doing, he produces a radical inversion of the truth of creation in its deepest essence. In place of a God who generously bestows existence upon the world, in place of God the Creator, the words of the tempter in Genesis 3 present a God that is the "usurper" and "enemy" of creation, and especially of man. In reality, it is precisely man who is the recipient of a special divine endowment, having been created in the "image and likeness" of God. In this way, truth is expelled by untruth. It is turned into a lie, because it is manipulated by the "father of lies," as the Gospel calls him who carried out this deceit at the "beginning" of history: "He was a murderer from the beginning, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies" (Jn 8:44).

This "lie" is found at the beginning of history as the root of sin in the world of created beings endowed with freedom in the image of the Creator. In seeking its source, the words of the great Augustine come to mind: amor sui usque ad contemptum Dei (love of self to the point of despising God: De Civitate Dei, XIV, 28, PL 41, 438). The primordial lie has its source in the hatred which is reflected in man's first sin. This permits one to understand better what St. Paul teaches when he describes Adam's sin as "disobedience" (cf. Rom 5:19). The Apostle does not speak of direct hatred of God, but of "disobedience," of opposition to the Creator's will. This will remain the principal characteristic of sin in the course of human history. Weighed down by this inheritance, the human will, rendered weak and prone to evil, will remain permanently exposed to the influence of the "father of lies." One notes it in the various epochs of history. In our own times it is witnessed to by the different kinds of negation of God, from agnosticism to atheism or even to anti-theism. In different ways there is stamped in it the idea of the "alienating" character of religion and morality, which finds in religion its own root, precisely as had been suggested at the beginning by the "father of lies."

But looking at things without prejudice, we must say in all frankness that in the light of revelation and of faith, the theory of alienation should be reversed. It is precisely sin and only sin which leads to man's alienation! It is precisely sin that from the very beginning led to man's being "disinherited" in a certain way of his own humanity. Sin robs man, in various ways, of the decisive element of his true dignity—that of the image and likeness of God. In a certain sense, every sin "lessens" this dignity. The more a man becomes a "slave of sin" (cf. Jn 8:34), so much the less does he enjoy the freedom of the children of God. He ceases to be master of himself as would be required by the structure of his being as a person, as a rational, free and responsible creature.

Sacred Scripture effectively underlines this concept of alienation by illustrating its threefold dimension: the alienation of the sinner from himself (cf. Ps 58:3—"The wicked go astray from the womb"), from God (cf. Ez 14:7: "he who separated himself from me"; Eph 4:18: "alienated from the life of God"), from the community (cf. Eph 2:12: "alienated from the commonwealth of Israel").

Sin, therefore, is not only "against God," but also against man. As the Second Vatican Council teaches: "Sin has diminished man, blocking his path to fulfillment" (GS 13). This truth has no need of proof by elaborate arguments. It suffices simply to observe it. Moreover, do not so many works of literature, the movies and the theater supply eloquent confirmation? In them man appears weakened, confused, deprived of an inner center, a relentless adversary both of himself and others, a slave of non-values, awaiting someone who never comes, as if to confirm the fact that once contact with the Absolute is lost, man ends up by losing himself also.

It suffices to refer to experience, whether to interior experience, or to historico-social experience in its various forms, to realize that sin is a dreadful "destructive force." It destroys with a deceptive and inexorable virulence the good of life among men and human societies. For this very reason one can rightly speak of "social sin" (cf. Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 16). Granted however, that personal sin is always at the root of the social dimension of sin, one must first and foremost emphasize what sin destroys in every human being, its subject and cause, considered in the concrete as a person.

In this regard St. Thomas Aquinas's observation should be recalled. He says that to the extent that man as such becomes better by every morally good act he performs, so likewise by every morally evil act man as such becomes worse [1] . Sin destroys in man that good which is essentially human. In a certain sense it "robs" man of that good which is proper to him, it "usurps" man from himself. In this sense "whoever sins is the slave of sin," as Jesus stated in St. John's Gospel (8:34). This is precisely what is contained in the concept of "alienation." Sin, therefore, is the real "alienation" of the rational and free human being. It pertains to the rational being to pursue truth and to exist in the truth. In place of the truth concerning the good, sin introduces what is not true. Sin eliminates the real good in favor of an "apparent" good, which is not a real good, since the real good was eliminated to make way for the "false."

The alienation which occurs in sin touches the cognitive sphere, but through knowledge it affects the will. What then happens in the sphere of the will finds perhaps its most exact expression in St. Paul's Letter to the Romans: "I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells in me.... When I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.... Wretched man that I am!" (Rom 7:19-20, 21, 24).

As is evident, man's real "alienation"—the alienation of a rational and free being made in the image of God—is nothing other than "the domination of sin" (Rom 3:9). Sacred Scripture forcefully emphasizes this aspect of sin. Sin is not only "against" God, it is at the same time "against" man.

If it is true that by its very logic and according to revelation, sin calls for adequate punishments, the first of these punishments is constituted by sin itself. Through sin man punishes himself! Sin contains its own immanent punishment. As someone has said, sin is already hell, as the privation of God!

"Is it I whom they provoke?" God asks through the prophet Jeremiah. "Is it not themselves, to their own confusion?" (Jer 7:19). "Your wickedness will chasten you, and your apostasy will reprove you" (Jer 2:19). The prophet Isaiah lamented: "We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.... For you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquities" (Is 64:6-7).

This "consignment (and self-consignment) of man into the hand of his iniquities" explains most eloquently the significance of sin as the alienation of the human person. However, the evil is not complete or at least not without a remedy, as long as man is aware of it, as long as he preserves the sense of sin. But when even this is lacking, the complete collapse of moral values is practically inevitable and there looms over man as a terrifying reality the risk of definitive perdition. For this reason the grave words of Pius XII (which have become almost proverbial) should always be remembered and meditated on with great attention: "The sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin" [2] .

[1]   cf. Summa Theol., I-II, q. 55, a. 3; q. 63, a. 2

[2]   cf. Discorsi e Radiomessaggi, VIII, 1946, 288