A best-selling book of the 1970s had the title "I'm Okay, You're Okay." One of its readers, a young priest in Boston, gave a sermon which was essentially a rave review. At the end of Mass, standing at the door, he asked one of his older parishioners if he had liked the sermon. The man responded, "I haven't read the book--maybe it's better than the Bible. But I kept thinking of Christ on the Cross saying to those who were watching him die, 'If everybody's okay, what in blazes am I doing up here?'" The problem is I'm not okay and neither are you.
There have been thousands of essays and books in recent decades which have dealt with human failings under various labels without once using the one-syllable, three-letter word that has more bite than any of its synonyms: sin. Actions traditionally regarded as sinful have instead been seen as natural stages in the process of growing up, a result of bad parenting, a consequence of mental illness, an inevitable response to unjust social conditions, pathological behavior brought on by addiction, or even as "experiments in being." Sin, we've also been told, is an invention of repressed, hypocritical clerics who want to keep the rest of us in bondage.
But what if I am more than a robot programmed by my past or my society or my economic status and actually can take a certain amount of credit--or blame--for my actions and inactions? Have I not done things I am deeply ashamed of, would not do again if I could go back in time, and would prefer no one to know about? What makes me so reluctant to call those actions "sins"? Is the word really out of date? Or is the problem that it has too sharp an edge?
"We're capable of doing some rotten things," the Minnesota storyteller Garrison Keillor notes, "and not all of these things are the result of poor communication. Some are the result of rottenness. People do bad, horrible things. They lie and they cheat and they corrupt the government. They poison the world around us. And when they're caught they don't feel remorse--they just go into treatment. They had a nutritional problem or something. They explain what they did--they don't feel bad about it. There's no guilt. There's just psychology."
So eroded is our sense of sin that even in confession it often happens that people explain what they did rather than admit they did things that urgently need God's forgiveness. "When I recently happened to confess about fifty people in a typical Orthodox parish in Pennsylvania," the Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote, "not one admitted to having committed any sin whatsoever!"
Guilt is not quite the same thing.
Guilt is one of the themes of Walker Percy's "Love in the Ruins." The central figure of the novel is Dr. Thomas More, a descendent of St. Thomas More, though the latest More is hanging on to his faith by a frayed thread. He isn't likely to die a martyr. Dr. More is both a physician and a patient at a Louisiana mental hospital. From time to time he meets with his colleague Max, a psychologist eager to cure More of guilt.
Max tells More,
"We found out what the hangup was and we are getting ready to condition you out of it."
"Your guilt feelings."
"I never did see that."
Max explains that More's guilt feelings have to do with adulterous sex.
"Are you speaking of my fornication with Lola...?" asks More.
"Fornication," repeats Max. "You see?"
"That you are saying that lovemaking is not a natural activity, like eating and drinking."
"No, I didn't say it wasn't natural."
"But sinful and guilt-laden."
"Only between persons not married to each other."
"I am trying to see it as you see it."
"I know you are."
"If it is sinful, why are you doing it?"
"It is a great pleasure."
"I understand. Then, since it is 'sinful,' guilt feelings follow even though it is a pleasure."
"No, they don't follow."
"Then what worries you, if you don't feel guilty?"
"That's what worries me: not feeling guilty."
"Why does that worry you?"
"Because if I felt guilty, I could get rid of it."
"By the sacrament of penance."
"I'm trying to see it as you see it."
"I know you are."