The Personalist Project

I’ve been reading Calah Alexander lately, and I'm hooked.

She makes a point in a recent blog post which cleared something up for me.

Here’s the conundrum: How do you convey the Good News to people who don’t believe in sin?  If they don’t think there’s any such thing, what exactly are you offering salvation from?  You can’t very well walk up to someone who rejects the whole premise and announce, “Guess what?!  Good news! Your sins are forgiven!” 

As John Paul II noted repeatedly

we don’t just lack repentence; we lack even a “sense of sin”—the sense that there’s something to repent of. 

Janet Smith runs into the same problem, as she explains in Are We Obsessed?, at First Things:

[M]y impression is that most people do not think they are sinners beyond redemption.  In fact, I think most people think they are not sinners and not in need of redemption.  They do not think having abortions, using contraception, using pornography, fornicating, masturbating, or engaging in homosexual acts are immoral actions.  They think what they are doing is fine and they are fine just as they are.

People involved in marriage preparation see the same phenomenon: cohabiting, contracepting couples whose consciences don't bother them in the least. It seems futile to debate whether evangelization should focus on God’s mercy or the truths of the moral law if the evangelizee doesn’t sense that anything's wrong in the first place.

Calah Alexander sees the difficulty, too:

Lots of people have said that the problem with Pope Francis’ idea of a “field hospital for the wounded”

is that the “wounded” will never admit that their wounds could be related to sin. … I’m inclined to agree with the general sentiment of that. ... But why, then, is a culture who refuses to acknowledge its own sin so desperately clinging to a Pope who promises mercy? After all, mercy isn’t mercy unless there’s something to forgive, right?

Francis undeniably appeals to a lot of unexpected people.  How do we explain that?  To some, it's no mystery.  Either they're opportunists, like NARAL, recrruiting him for their own ideological ends, or else they're fond of him because (they imagine) he’s telling them what they want to hear, glossing over the hard sayings, giving them permission to wallow in their favorite transgressions.

There’s no denying that the media intentionally twists or strategically ignores his words. Some people are taken in: they're drawn to him because they really believe he’s about to abolish unpopular teachings.

But Calah thinks something else is going on besides:

I suspect our culture has grown weary of its own sin. I think there is a general undercurrent of exhaustion with all this decadence, and despondency over the emptiness it breeds. I think our culture is absolutely desperate for mercy,

but unable to understand why. And I think that’s why they are latching onto Pope Francis so voraciously. When an entire culture has lost a common vocabulary with which to discuss things like sin, forgiveness, and morality, they’ve lost the ability to see the truth. … But if the successor of Peter steps out of the truth and looks straight at them, holds out his hand, and says, “let me heal your wounds”…

well, that’s a different story. I don’t think the secular culture will be able to see Christ until they have been seen by Him. A patient who is dying of dehydration is usually so confused and disoriented that he or she doesn’t even understand what’s wrong…. Why would it be any different with desperate afflictions of the soul?

The need for mercy is an objective reality, sensed even where it can’t be articulated.  If original sin were not in the Bible, the saying goes, somebody would have had to invent it.  You can't entirely squelch the sense that we need to be saved from something.  The children of broken, blended, and absentee Baby Boomer families, the deeply confused members of Generations X and Y, know something’s out of whack, even if they don’t know they know it, even if they can't express it with theological accuracy.

But God doesn't write them off,

and, clearly, neither does Pope Francis, who is giving us opening after opening--I know, I know, who asked for so many?--to reassure people that they're welcome in the field hospital, and to explain what that does and doesn't mean. 

Comments (2)

Sam Roeble

#1, Oct 14, 2013 12:57pm

"mercy isn't mercy unless something to forgive, right"

I'm confused by this statement.  What's your definition of mercy?  I heard in a homily recently: mercy is God's ability to draw good out of evil or imperfection

God's mercy doesn't depend on people's repentance--it endures nonetheless.  The history of salvation has numerous examples of unrepentant/ignorant sinners whom God draws good out of: Cyrus, Solomon, Pilate, Herod, etc. 

Devra Torres

#2, Oct 14, 2013 2:44pm

Right, God's mercy is still mercy whether its object repends and accepts it or not.  He offers mercy--kindness and forgiveness to someone who has no "right" to it, who doesn't deserve it--and then we accept it or reject it, or ignore it, or pretend we don't need it.  He is able to draw good out of evil whether we respond well or not, but there is some good that will come about only if we respond rightly.

But tell me if that addresses what you were asking--I'm not positive I understood.

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