James V. Schall, S.J.: “Ism sins” wrongly seek to “purify” by identifying evil with unacceptable ideas, not with actions of individuals who are personally responsible for their actions.
At first sight, we might think today that nobody talks of sins anymore. Indeed, in our era, much of what was once forbidden is permitted. Just what someone would do to commit what was once called a “sin” – serious matter, full consent of the will – is difficult to pin down. A citizen is likely to end up in jail if he suggests that adultery or sodomy might just possibly be “sins” rather than “rights.”
A newer category of sinning, however, is flourishing. It is related to the older idea of “corporate guilt.” We now have the “ism” and the “phobia” sins, the general category sins by which we can judge (“Who am I to judge?”) whole groups of human beings as sinful just for being what they are.
Even earlier we had the “anti” sins – anti-Semitism or anti-Catholicism. Of course, depending on one’s politics, some of the “anti” sins were considered to be virtues – anti-fascism, anti-Nazism, anti-Communism.
These newer sins somehow, not without reason, were never mentioned in the Ten Commandments.
One can apparently contract these newer and terrible vices – racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia – without ever committing an actual sin in the older sense of the term.
Initially, sins had to do with acting persons, not with ideas or categories. To constitute sufficient matter, some identifiable individual had to act specifically against the good of himself or another identifiable person. Sins of thought did exist in the sense of willing evil in one’s heart to others, even if no overt act ever came forth.
These newer sins are more vague. Guilt is not a consequence of some particular individual’s knowledge and choice. The newer “guilt” belongs to an individual only as a member of a class or collectivity. If someone committed the sin of “racism,” just what would he have done to merit blame?
James V. Schall, S.J.
James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, and, new from St. Augustine’s Press, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught.
EDITORS NOTE: The features image is titled Christ and Sinner by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1875 [State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg]