The Second Vatican Council spoke of upheavals in a new age of history in which some aspects of man’s intelligence have recoiled upon him, “upon his judgments and desires, both individual and collective, upon his ways of thinking and acting in regard to people and things.” As Vatican II noted, there is a “real social and cultural transformation” underway whose “repercussions are felt too on the religious level” (see Guadium et Spes, 4).
By F. K. Bartels
19 July 2010
The Pastoral Constitution On The Church In The Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) was issued on 7 December, 1965. It was only five years earlier that, in 1960, hormonal contraceptives were approved by the FDA as safe for birth control. And in 1973, as a malevolently logical extension of a “pill” which can often have abortifacient effects, the darkest day in American history became a reality: the day on which it became legal to intentionally kill innocent unborn children. In the thirty-seven years following such a diabolical ruling, over 50 million children have met with the shocking and barbaric fact that their earthly lives indeed teeter on the brink of a moment’s “choice.”
It is now some forty-five years since Guadium et Spes. Yet these upheavals of which Vatican II spoke have not declined, rather they have become even more widespread, grave and significant, with profound implications for men who are now living in an age saturated with moral error. As Pope Benedict has observed, the “dictatorship of relativism” is upon us.
Relativism is one of eight distinct types of atheism identified by Vatican II which can be recognized in the twentieth century. While relativism can take on several specific forms, moral and religious relativism are influencing the thoughts, desires and ideologies of a great number of people. We can see the effects of relativism upon society in the unspeakable evils of abortion, the grave consequences of contraceptives, and the far reaching implications of population control. Other effects of relativism can be more subtle, such as the manner in which people exercise their voting privileges. Yet at the heart of relativism is man’s failure to grasp the reality of his existence and purpose.
Man Is Created To Know And Love God
The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 decreed that God creates freely “out of nothing.” While it is true that “God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen 2:7), man is created ultimately from nothing. By virtue of this fact, we conclude that should God turn away from what he has made it would return to that which it was previously, which is nothing. Thus we possess our being and life, our personhood, because — and only because — God sustains us moment by moment. Such a fact is not so hard to grasp as it is to accept; for when we hear something of such immensity we tend to let it glance off, and then occupy our thoughts with something that might be described as less unsettling.
But why did God create man? The simple answer is that God created man out of a superabundance of love. St. Bonaventure explains that God created all things “not to increase his glory, but to show it forth and to communicate it.”
The First Vatican Council explains: “This one, true God, of his own goodness and almighty power, not for increasing his own beatitude, nor for attaining his perfection, but in order to manifest this perfection through the benefits which he bestows on creatures, with absolute freedom of counsel and from the beginning of time, made out of nothing both orders of creatures, the spiritual and the corporeal.”
In simple terms, God gave to man the gift of life out of love, creating man in his likeness and image. As a result, man is raised above all other visible creatures, graced with an intellect and will. But what is the purpose of man’s existence?
Man “is called by grace to a covenant with his Creator, to offer him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead.” Our loving God created “everything for man, but man in turn was created to serve and love God and to offer all creation back to him” (see CCC Nos. 356-358). The purpose of man’s existence is to know and love God.
A Failure To Understand And Accept Reality As It Is
We have seen that God created man ultimately from nothing, that he sustains man each moment, and that man’s purpose is to know and love God. Simply, God is our beginning and end. That is reality. But numerous men in contemporary society live as if they themselves were gods. In an attempt to elevate themselves to a status to which they do not belong, men set themselves against God, and relativize truth itself. In the denial of their profound relation to God, men insanely war against reality as it is. Thus they actually battle against themselves, seeking their own ruin, although those whose conscience is nearly blinded by sin often fail to notice the situation in which they place themselves.
In this battle between falsehood and truth, destruction and life, those who adhere to relativism labor to impose their own subjective view of truth upon individuals and society. They often work toward such a vacuous goal under the guise of “tolerance.” And, in so doing, they deny the existence and consequences of sin. Simply, sin, too, is relativized. We see such a situation manifested in the soft-porn so prevalent on billboards, in magazines, and in the entertainment industry, images which many designate as “no big deal.” Or the majority of Americans who, for instance, carelessly take a lackadaisical approach to the obligation to worship God on Sunday. The list could go on. The point is, serious sin is not only frequently overlooked but often considered as no sin at all.
Sin: An Offense Against Reality
The reality of sin is something many today refuse to meditate upon. Yet if we neglect to prayerfully consider precisely what sin is, we damage ourselves and society. It is rather like drinking poison while refusing to acknowledge its damaging effects. But what is sin?
“All wrongdoing is sin” (1 Jn 5:17). The Catechism explains that “sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. . . . It has been defined as ‘an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.’” When the reality of man’s existence in relation to God is known, we are able to understand that “sin is always an assertion of self against reality” (see CCC No. 1849-1850).
Perhaps the most overt way in which we assert ourselves against reality is through the sin of pride. Frank Sheed observes that “pride is the worst sin, for it is positive assertion of self, positive choice of self in place of God as the supreme object of our love and our actions. Being the worst sin, it is also the most ridiculous. In order to set oneself up in place of God, one must borrow from God the energy to do it: if we insist upon defying God, God lends us the energy to defy Him with” (Theology and Sanity, 450).
St. Augustine noted that sin is “love of oneself even to contempt of God.” In this “proud self- exaltation, sin is diametrically opposed to the obedience of Jesus, which achieves our salvation” (CCC No. 1850).
And Dom Benedict Baur, O.S.B., reminds us that the most precious possession of the Father is his only Son, Jesus Christ, whom he sent into the world for the love of humankind: “And the man who sins? He rejects with indifference this most sublime gift of the Father. What to the Father and to Heaven and earth and to the angels and to men is and must be most sublime, this means nothing to the sinner. He casts it away and has no time for it. Why? A passing pleasure or some gratification or doing his own will means more to him than the Son of God. What terrible disrespect and disdain for God and for Christ!” (Frequent Confession, Its Place in the Spiritual Life, 107).
Further, sin is not a wrong committed in isolation without effect on others. John Paul II observed in his Apostolic Exhortation, Reconciliation And Penance, that “by virtue of human solidarity which is as mysterious and intangible as it is real and concrete, each individual’s sin in some way affects others.” Therefore the Compendium Of The Social Doctrine Of The Church informs us that “the mystery of sin is composed of a twofold wound, which the sinner opens in his own side and in the relationship with his neighbor” This brings us to the fact that there is a social dimension to sin as well; for sin is also social “insofar as and because it also has social consequences” (see CSDC Nos. 117, 119).
What Are We To Do?
Though we are sinners, our Lord calls us to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). The perfection our Lord speaks of is countercultural, and difficult to attain while we live alongside the many negative social and cultural pressures which are prevalent in the world. It is necessary to take sin seriously, to wage war on it, and, little by little, defeat it. Further, it is critical that, after correcting ourselves to the best of our ability, we charitably seek to help others understand the perils of sin.
St. Paul pleads with the followers of Christ that they take sin seriously: “Brothers, I beg you through the mercy of God to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that you may judge what is God’s will, what is good, pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2).
Several saints have observed that the most effective weapon against sin, especially mortal sin, is sincere, diligent and prayerful meditation upon the Cross of Christ. St. Teresa of Avila once commented that she felt it would be very difficult for anyone to remain in mortal sin if they spent fifteen minutes alone with Christ Crucified.
In the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium the faithful are reminded that “the forms and tasks of life are many but holiness is one – that sanctity which is cultivated by all who act under God’s Spirit and, obeying the Father’s voice and adoring God the Father in spirit and truth, follow Christ, poor, humble and cross-bearing, that they may deserve to be partakers of his glory” (LG 41).
Photo by Andre Benz on Unsplash.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.