The Big Question: Have we lost our sense of sin?

Each month, The Central Minnesota Catholic features a big question the Church is facing. March’s question is, “Have we lost our sense of sin?” Weighing in on this month’s topic are: Benedictine Father Nickolas Becker, a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville and assistant professor of theology at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University. He also teaches moral theology at St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary; Hannah Voss, director of religious education for the parishes of St. Louis in Paynesville, St. Agnes in Roscoe and St. Margaret in Lake Henry; and Father Michael Wolfbauer, pastor of the parishes of St. John in Foley and St. Patrick in Minden Township. 

Q: How would you define sin? 

FATHER NICKOLAS: In the tradition, theologically, sin is a very rich term. Maybe my single favorite definition comes from St. Augustine, who says sin is a matter of disordered love — loving the wrong things or loving the right things in the wrong way. My ethical tradition goes back to virtue ethics which suggests that everything we do, we do because we want to be happy, and sometimes we are just confused about what brings us happiness. 

HANNAH: Intentionally doing something wrong, intentionally going against God. “Intentionality” being the key word. Things we do or fail to do — sins of commission and sins of omission. 

FATHER MICHAEL: If we look to the Catechism, it says sin is deliberate thought, word or deed, or a mission contrary to the eternal law of God. There’s another effect that is talked about — the fault of reason, or truth, and right conscience. It’s the disorder of ourselves. In some ways, when we are not properly trained on what the truth is, we believe we are living without sin when, in fact, we are. Because of the Fall, we experience the effects of sin in everyday life, just because of the degradation of light in the world. So, on one level, we can say these effects of sin just exist in our lives. However, we also have the possibility of participating intentionally in sin. 

Q: Father Nickolas, what is the origin of sin? 

FATHER NICKOLAS: All theology really needs to flow from Scripture, so I think that’s where we need to start. Of course, mainline Scripture scholarship does not read Genesis 1-11 literally; they are symbolic stories that tell us great truths about God and about the human condition. If you look at Genesis 3 and what it says about sin, it presents the notion of sin as the human person’s refusal to be a creature, that is, the human person’s desire to take God’s place, to be God, to be the creator, rather than the creature. It’s sort of radical autonomy which wants to understand the human person as separate from God. 

Father Nickolas Becker

St. Paul, in the New Testament, tends to write about sin as if sin were almost this demonic personal force that lives in the human person and makes us hostile to God. This personal force then takes form in particular choices or actions. 

A New Testament approach to sin that I think is rich is the Greek word the New Testament often uses for sin — it means “to miss the mark.” Sin is such a rich term theologically and scripturally. 

Q: Father Nickolas, has the word “sin” lost some of its power in society and even in the Church? 

FATHER NICKOLAS: I’m going to give the most annoying answer possible to that question — both yes and no. I think society still has a lively sense of right and wrong. We can debate what constitutes right and wrong, but people still have a sense of that, people still fight about that. Where sin has lost its force with people is that sin is a hopelessly theological concept. So, as Western society secularizes and as the Christian story loses a lot of power for people, to term ethical wrongdoing as sin becomes harder and harder and harder. Sin is not just ethical wrongdoing, it’s an ethical offense against God. If you no longer believe in God, or you no longer find the Christian story compelling, you’re not going to speak about sin. 

The late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago observed about American culture that [it] tends to be a culture where everything is tolerated and nothing is forgiven. I think that is a very astute cultural observation because, of course, in Christianity, the exact opposite is true — many things are forbidden but everything can be forgiven. 

Q: What blinds us from sin? What clouds our moral conscience? Can the knowledge of the reality and prevalence of sin actually help us to be better Christians, better human beings? 

FATHER NICKOLAS: An issue a lot of people have is lacking a clear understanding of what exactly conscience is. Oftentimes, I think people reduce conscience to feelings, particularly feelings of guilt. I think that can be a real and helpful part of the moral life, but conscience is actually much more than that. If you don’t have a clear idea what your conscience is, then your attempt to form it well is going to be hopelessly paralyzed. 

Pope Francis said the Church is called to form consciences, not replace them — and that is exactly right. But, in order to do that, people have to have a good understanding of what conscience is. When I talk to people about their moral discernment, oftentimes people will tell me, “I just don’t want to do anything that is going to make me feel guilty.” Guilt can be a very useful tool in the moral life, but the moral life is so much bigger and so much more than that. 

In some of the literature of the saints, you’ll read some of the great saints talk about what massive sinners they are. When you first read that, you can say, “Oh, come on. You are Mother Teresa.” But where that is actually useful is that the spiritual tradition tells us the closer we are to God, the more we experience that we aren’t able to love or that we don’t love in the way that God loves. That’s part of our self-awareness as sinners — that we are not loving in the way that God loves. It need not be a complete “Debbie Downer” — it’s a real gift to know how much we depend on God’s mercy. 

Hannah Voss

HANNAH: The words that come to mind for me are “rejecting the glamour of evil.” There is so much in the media and what we see around us that tells us what to believe is “OK,” that sin has become kind of “normalized.” I think we can do a better job of helping people know what sin really is and then give them tools to reject the glamour of evil. 

FATHER MICHAEL: There are so many things that may cloud us — not knowing the truth, not understanding the truth, not living the truth. The virtue of humility reminds us that we ourselves may have disordinance; we have things we need to work on, to recognize that we have fault. It is not meant to push us down. It is to say that there are some things I truly want to work on. Secondly, in humility is the recognition that there is a God who will assist us. It encourages us to turn our hearts to God to ask for assistance because we want to live in the light of moral truth. 

Q: Hannah, how do you (and how can we) talk to youth about sin? 

HANNAH: The most important thing we can do when we talk to youth about sin is to rejoice in the beauty of receiving forgiveness in the sacrament of reconciliation. Oftentimes, teens and young adults are starting to make more of their own choices, and they are going to make some wrong ones. Sometimes they think they are the only ones making bad decisions, especially with social media, where people only post the “good stuff.” I have shared a lot of stories with youth and young adults, trying to let them know that they are not alone and that there is forgiveness in reconciliation. 

Father Michael Wolfbauer

FATHER MICHAEL: Just to add to that, three points — one, be real. The nature of sin is real in our lives. Honor what people are saying when talking about sin in our lives. Two, no judgment. Note that we all struggle with sin. Three, recognize that sin is a loss. I lost something because I sinned. And we want to change that. If I don’t continue to work on this, it is something that will continue to hold me down. Start with the sacraments — reconciliation, then Eucharist and the Word of God. These are things that can help us — not as magic, but as ways God has granted through the ordinary ministry of the Church to assist us. 

Q: In popular media, we hear phrases like, “Life is short. Do what makes you happy.” Is this dangerous thinking? 

HANNAH: What I think we need to define for people is what happiness is. The word “happy” has become disordered. There is a difference in what makes you happy and what gives you pleasure. 

FATHER NICKOLAS: I don’t think it is dangerous thinking as long as we understand happiness rightly. Whenever I talk on this, I quote the great “prophet” Billy Joel who once said, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. The sinners are much more fun.” It’s a great phrase because he captures this common cultural lie that goodness, holiness, virtue are somehow fundamentally boring, that if you really want to have a good time, you have to sin. But the Christian moral tradition actually says the exact opposite. Goodness, virtue, holiness are all synonyms for happiness. To be happy, is to be those things. Our culture has a very hard time understanding that because so often we are confused about what will make us happy. It is not anti-pleasure; pleasure is a rich part of the moral life. The danger is if we confuse pleasure with happiness our lives will become a moral disaster. 

FATHER MICHAEL: We hear in Scripture, Jeremiah 31:33, the truth is written on our hearts. Fundamentally, when we believe and we know that the truth is written on our hearts, when we don’t live that way, we are not living in accord with who we are created to be. We are in discord to what our hearts know because we are created in the image and likeness of God. Hence, we can’t find true happiness: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord” (St. Augustine). “I will be their God and they shall be my people,” I just love that line from Jeremiah. God will be our God, and we will be his people. God just loves us so much and he wants us to be in union with him. 

Q: Father Michael, why is Lent a good time for penance and reconciliation? 

FATHER MICHAEL: The wisdom of the Church knows that we need to be reminded of new beginnings. The penitential seasons of Advent and Lent have been traditional parts of our Catholic culture to prepare ourselves. Is every day a good day for reconciliation? Yes, of course, but sometimes we need a little kick start. Lent is an especially great time as we prepare for the great Easter sacraments and the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection. It is a time to slow ourselves down, to make faith and conversion a priority, and to use the gifts of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, the tenets of our faith. These are goods not just because the Church wrote them but because they are ways our hearts can be more fully united with God. 

Q: How can we win more battles than we lose in our struggle to overcome sin in our own lives? 

HANNAH: Prayer and the forgiving of ourselves and each other, to empty ourselves to have room for Jesus. 

FATHER MICHAEL: I struggle with the terms losing and winning. There’s a dualism in our culture – darkness vs. light, good vs. evil, a hero for every villain. That contains an untruth regarding the nature of sin. The truth is Jesus Christ is the Light of the World, a light no darkness can extinguish. How do we win more battles? It’s not just good vs. evil in the world. It can be all good. Eden was. The Fall brought sin into the world. Satan wants us to believe that he’s got just as much power and authority in the world. That’s what all these messages want us to believe. But the truth, written on our hearts, tells us that’s not what we were created for. We are created for good. 

What can we do? We can recognize that God wants to help us grow in holiness. We can remind others of this truth by saying, “I know you are going through a hard time right now. I know that this is a struggle. But I can promise you this: God wants to redeem. God wants to bring you through this.” God wants to be our God, and we as people can build up one another. 

FATHER NICKOLAS: When I have conversations with people in pastoral settings, I just encourage people that, after they fall, to keep getting up. Pope Francis likes to say that God never tires of forgiving us, that it is us who get tired of seeking God’s forgiveness. I think that is true. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We just need to keep trying and not give up. So often I talk to people who are despairing over their weaknesses, and I think God is infinitely patient with us, so much more patient than we are with ourselves. We just have to keep trying. 


Readers respond 

Each month, The Central Minnesota Catholic invites readers to reflect on a “Big Question.” Two readers responded to January’s question: “What does it really mean to be pro-life?” 

“I cannot make it to 40 Days for Life on a regular basis (in St. Cloud), but I do make a big deal about it! I was in St. Cloud recently and made it over to the Planned Parenthood location to give an hour of prayer walking for 40 Days for Life. This is my way of getting that thought or action going, and at times a good dialogue! 

“Students for Life: I pray for them, and whenever I see them in a booth at an event with great intention I make my way to their booth to express my praise and give recognition for their involvement. 

“Pro-life actions in nursing homes, care centers and senior housing needs to be witnessed too. So often in visiting the elderly one hears, ‘I don’t know why I’m still here.’ I love to respond, ‘God still has a job for you here! You are serving Him well with your presence!’ Recognizing the value of each resident’s life, no matter how weak, or how old or unresponsive is an affirming message needing to be expressed by word and action (and hugs and touches).” 


“The bishops’ document ‘Faithful Citizenship’ tells us we cannot kill or collude in the killing of an innocent human being. It also says that abortion and euthanasia are eminent threats to human life. What the Church calls ‘life issues’ are not all equal or eminent threats to human life the way abortion, euthanasia or assisted suicide are. The victim of a successful abortion has no chance to enjoy life. It is better to be poor and alive than wealthy and dead. I think more effort should be put into stopping abortion. Any article, discussion or letter that does not make it clear that all life issues are not equal is not helping stop abortion. 

“Some people claim to be pro-life but think abortion is OK. Others read the Church’s list of life issues and seem to think it is OK vote for a pro-abortion candidate if that candidate supports some good thing. To others, supporting the party seems more important than morals. 

It was reported that since it was legalized there have been about 60 million abortions in the United States. Also, about 60 percent of Catholics vote for pro-abortion candidates. I don’t think any good thing a candidate supports can outweigh the evil of abortion.” 

Sacred Heart Parish


Minnesota Catholic Podcasts
MARCH 2020 

The following podcasts will be posted in March. You can access them by visiting and clicking on “Minnesota Catholic Podcasts.” You also can subscribe to Minnesota Catholic Podcasts on iTunes or Google Play. 

Topic: Adventures in confession: Getting refocused and reenergized to live our faith
Guest: Lino Rulli, host of “The Catholic Guy” show on SiriusXM radio’s The Catholic Channel 

Minnesota native, St. John’s University graduate and author of the book “Sinner,” Rulli offers hope and a little humor for everyone who strives to be a faithful Catholic but often falls short. 

Topic: The power of mercy 
Guest: Bishop Donald Kettler 

Bishop Kettler discusses his favorite Scripture passages focusing on mercy and suggests practical ways to be a bringer of mercy to those we encounter every day. 

Topic: Secrets of the fish fry 
Guest: Vicki Sanborn and Beth Schroden, co-coordinators of the Lenten fish fries at St. Katharine Drexel School in St. Cloud 

Sanborn and Schroden discuss the behind-the-scenes secrets to having a successful fish fry — one that draws a faith community together for delicious food and fellowship. 

Question for reflection 

After reading the roundtable discussion about our sense of sin, reflect on some of the particular challenges and temptations we face in today’s society. How can we win more battles than we lose in our struggle to overcome sin in our own lives? 

You are invited to submit your answer to editor Joe Towalski at jtowalski@gw.stcdio. org. A sampling of answers will be published in a future edition of The Central Minnesota Catholic. 

Author: The Central Minnesota Catholic

The Central Minnesota Catholic is the magazine for the Diocese of St. Cloud.

1 comment

We have absolutely lost our sense of sin, even among those who go to Mass on a regular basis. All one has to do to is observe the lack of people in line for confession at any given parish on a Saturday afternoon. Now people brag about sin: “Oh, I don’t think we need to follow or believe everything the Church says.” Or, on hearing that someone is getting married for a third time, “I think he has finally found the right one. I’m glad he has the chance to be happy.”
This article omitted any reference to the Ten Commandments and Precepts of the Church as guides to the formation of conscience, and to the Catholic Church as the correct interpreter of the moral law.

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