Seán Ó’Conaill: ‘Sin’? Time to Put Up or Shut Up

‘Sin’? Time to Put Up or Shut Up

The recent Church document Towards a Spirituality for Synodality admits that ‘the Church has consciously and unconsciously been an agent of oppression’ in the past.

Precisely what sin is being called out here?

This is an important question given the strong association of ‘sin’ that so many make with the sixth commandment alone. This is a major part of the reason that so many switch off entirely when ‘sin’ is mentioned. It will also be a reason for many not wanting to read a document that mentions sin at least nine times, each time without being any more specific.  (Even the term ‘social sin’ is obscure.)

Surely if the sin behind the so-called ‘doctrine of discovery’ is now to be identified Catholic moral theology should be able to rise to that? If e.g. Portugal and Spain were encouraged by  papal documents, beginning with Dum Diversas in 1452, to invade and conquer non-European lands – without regard to the rights of their aboriginal inhabitants – were they not being given a licence both to covet what belonged to their neighbours (in breach of the ninth and tenth commandments) and to consider themselves pridefully superior to those peoples (committing the sin that comes first in the early Desert list of seven ‘deadly’ sins)?

Tracking that same tendency of European monarchs even further back in time, is there not good reason to find that from the early fourth century the church that became ‘oppressive’ had closed its eyes to the pride and covetousness of monarchs and social elites – and that this was the root cause of the notorious historic imbalance of Catholic moral theology that made everything eventually a ‘fixation’ on sex, in Ireland too – with women especially being oppressed by a male clerical establishment?

In the 1994 Catholic Catechism pride is briefly mentioned only three times – without ever a connection to the egotism that is so rampant in social climbing and endless accumulation, as well as in church careerism and on the Internet.  To covet is never explained, while ‘avarice’ has replaced ‘covetousness’ in the list of seven ‘deadly’ sins. That entirely misses the connection of covetousness with envy of a neighbour – the connection so obviously emphasised in the decalogue. Is it any wonder that complaints about ‘materialism’ and ‘consumerism’ fly over everyone’s head, while clerical careerism was never identified as that very same sin of wanting what your neighbour has?

Everything points to the need to trace the imbalance of Catholic moral theology, the current ineffectuality of preaching on ‘sin’ and ‘oppression’ by the clerical church in the modern era to the same historical root – the union of church and state that developed in the wake of Constantine’s supposed ‘vision’ in 312. It was then that both pride and covetousness entered seriously into the ambition of the church, and became unseen (or at least undiagnosable) for centuries.

Ireland too was one of the oppressed victims. How could Henry II’s covetousness be called out in 1171, when the very same sin had been not only overlooked but blessed for centuries, in the name of the spreading of ‘true religion’?

With the global environment now collapsing under the weight of human pride and covetousness, and want, anger and violence rising – and the church now penitent and in search of relevance – it is surely time to get far more specific, and forensic, about ‘sin’.

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One Comment

  1. Paddy Ferry says:

    Excellent, Seán. I have taken the liberty of sharing it on the Scottish Laity Network FB page.

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