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Tuesday 21 September |
The Feast of Saint Matthew the Apostle
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G.K. Chesterton’s Most Terrible Thing

The Art Archive/Culver Pictures

James V. Schall, S.J. - published on 07/07/14


In his essay, “The Diabolist,” Chesterton wrote: “I am becoming orthodox because I have come, rightly or wrongly, after stretching my brain till it bursts, to the old belief that heresy is worse even than sin. An error is more menacing than a crime, for an error begets crimes…” Needless to say, not only has “heresy” fallen out of fashion, but with it orthodoxy and sin itself. The only “sins” that we find to chastise today are “ism” sins, those that are politically defined. They propose a “corporate” guilt. Their only “cure” is a reconstruction of society according to some ideological formula. They do not really deal with an individual person’s actual sins or with his belief or action. Culpability, if such still exists, is corporate in nature. It requires not change of heart and confession but change in system.

Vatican II was well known for not entering into any heresy issues. Its various documents strove to see what is positive in other religions or philosophies. It did not have much of bad to say about anybody. And while the world is considerably more prosperous than ever before, we would be hard pressed to maintain that it is “better,” certainly not that it is “sinless.”

Christian revelation is based in the notion that Christ, true God and true man, was sent by the Father into the world, at a definite time and place, with the purpose of redeeming our sins. If there were no sins among us, His coming was in vain. Thus at least part of his mission was to send the Spirit who would “convict the world of sin” (John 16: 8). In a sense, it was easier to understand what Christ was about in a Jewish, Greek, or Roman background of articulated virtue and vice that most people understood than in a relativist world for which sin is incomprehensible.

To talk of sin to those who deny that there is such a thing presents a rather different problem. Abortion, euthanasia, divorce, active gay living, and other such acts that were normally called “sins,” are now called “rights.” Since the modern meaning of “rights” is to be free to choose our own “values,” it becomes enormously difficult to call a “right” a “sin.” In one sense, no matter what we call something it remains what it is. Without being “consequentialists,” that is, without holding that a thing is good or bad depending on the consequences, we can certainly say that these “rights” have consequences.

Worldwide abortion “rights” have resulted in a huge population loss and the destruction of many more girl babies than male babies. We now even question the future existence of many nations with low birth rates, rates that are a direct result of contraception and abortion. When a people refuses to have its own children, even destroys them, its disorder of soul is very basic.

Plato had said that the worst thing that could happen to us was to have a “lie” in our souls about reality. He meant both a lie that we accepted as true from others and a lie that we put in our own souls in order to justify our actions. Plato’s words were precise. The “lie” in our soul is chosen to be there in order to allow us to do what we want. What it also implies is that the consequences of our “lie” will manifest themselves in the world whether we like it or not.

In this sense, we are in dire need of sorting things out. The worst thing we can do to a sinner is to tell him that his sin is no sin, but a “right” or a “liberty.” Once the sinner is told that what he does is all right, he has little possibility of rectifying himself. He no longer sees the Church as an abiding beacon of truth that stands firm even if he rejects it. If the Church is not clear about what is true, the sinner has scarce hope of finding his way out of whatever evil he has chosen.

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