What was the first sin? Not what was the first act (eating of the fruit), but why was the first sin a sin and what did it do?

While it might seem like an easy question, there are a number of ways of looking at it. Some might see it as an act of disobedience against God, that humanity sinned in breaking God’s law. Others might see it as a poor use of the intellect, that it was the act of choosing something that was not pure and true, turning away from the source of Truth. Others, still, might see it as an act that affected future generations, breaking down the ways of a perfect society to create a world of injustice. All of these things are true, and yet they reveal a different operative theology.

This week on Catholicism in Focus, I look at the work of Justo Gonzalez, Roger Schroeder, and Steve Bevans, theologians that suggest that there are three types of theology for which all theologians generally conform. These types identify how we may begin the theological process from a different assumptions and values, and how this leads us to a different conclusion.

Take, for instance, the role of evangelization. What is mission and why should we engage in it? For those of Type A (sin as disobedience), the outside world is depraved and without the light of Christ, so we must save souls by informing them of what they do not know, namely, that Christ saves. For Type B (sin is untruth), the truth of Christ can be found everywhere and so we must ask questions, engaging in mutual discovery with all of creation. For Type C (sin as social disorder), the kingdom in which we live is far from the Kingdom of Heaven and we must undertake the process of bringing, proclaimed and lived by Jesus, of reconciliation and justice.

Are all three of these answers capture an important aspect of our theology. All three of these answers have defined our mission theology for centuries. And yet, all three of these answers end up at a completely different place with widely divergent expectations.

And for me, that is not only fascinating, but encouraging. When we think of Catholic theology, we must fight the temptation to think of it as a singular relation of answers and open ourselves up to the true meaning of “catholic”: we are a universal Church. When we look to the full history of our Church, we see that we consist rather of Catholic theologies, many perspectives that offer a deeper, more universal take on God and our reality.

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no.

Okay, maybe a little more needs to be said…

For one, we have to understand that major geo-political shifts occur for complex reasons. The problems felt in the 6th to 11th century Europe were the result of the world’s largest empire collapsing and taking with in the infrastructure on which many nations were built. Without safety, investments in roads, and a surplus of food, it doesn’t take long for an entire civilization to crumble.

Second, we also have to question what we even mean by the “Dark Ages.” What was felt in Italy, France, and Germany was not felt in the Byzantine Empire or Ireland. In fact, in both of those places, culture thrived, and much of what remains from the ancient world comes through these nations (each of which were Christian.)

And finally, and maybe most to the point, we need to look at the positive effect that Christianity had on the world throughout history. While the overall output of societal growth may have been much lower in the year 950 than in 150, that doesn’t mean that there weren’t any advancements or that the Church was getting in the way. The reality of it all is that the Church was the only major force keeping the Western world from complete collapse, and had it not been for its insistence on art, culture, and studies, the scientific revolution may never have happened.

If you’ve ever been to confession, you know that it is a “safe space.” When you bear your soul, confessing sins committed, the priest is forbidden to tell anyone what you’ve said. This is the “inviolable” seal of confession.

What most people don’t know, however, is that this seal extends far beyond words and is completely free of exceptions. A priest may not act upon anything he hears in the confession, neither telling anyone else or changing the way he would normally act, no matter what is confessed. While a mandatory reporting for things like suicide in abuse in every other case, if such things are revealed within the confessional, he risks excommunication if shared with authorities.

Recently, this is come under great scrutiny by civil authorities, and some states have even made it illegal, forcing priests to break the seal under certain circumstances or risk being imprisoned. At the moment, California is considering this exact legislation.

And in one way, it makes sense, right? Why would we want to protect a potential murderer, child molester, or someone at risk of suicide? We should want to do everything we can to turn this person in, either to get them help or to punish them for their actions.

And yet, I have to argue that something quite essential would be lost within the sacrament if the inviolable seal were removed: with anonymity comes the freedom to return to God with one’s whole heart and take the first step towards retribution for one’s sins. Without the fear of civil punishment, the Church is able to engage with people who would have otherwise carried their sins alone until their death, never taking a step forward and never finding the peace necessary to make things right. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, a firmly believe that the seal of the confession actually makes it more likely that people who have committed horrible sins will seek the help they need and reconciliation will be achieved by all involved.

As the Church continues to move forward with scandal, showing that it has been irresponsible to keep the safety of the public in mind, this case is going to be more and more difficult to make, but it is one that I think we must continue to hold. There is truly nothing like the opportunity that the sacrament allows, to step outside of our time and space, and to speak directly to God.

No.

Not even a little bit.

And I’m not saying anything against Catholic theology.

You see, whenever we get into important theological definitions, the language we use is incredibly important. Precision matters, and while it may sound like two explanations are saying the same thing, they might be actually quite different.

Take, for instance, the Catholic stance on justification. For many, the difference between us and Lutherans is that they believe in “faith alone” while Catholics believe in “faith plus works.” You’ve probably heard this before. And it’s… sort of true. More precisely, Catholics believe that justification is through faith, something that issues forth in works. We could simplify it to say that Catholics believe in “faith plus works,” but it might imply that what we are saying is that we can do good works to achieve our own salvation, something that is actually heretical. Rather, salvation is through faith, and if it is a true faith, it will manifest itself in the form of good works. Similar to “faith plus works”? Yes. A bit wordier? Absolutely. Theologically different? You betcha.

Whew. That was a long example to make a point. I hope I didn’t lose you.

The reason I say this is because Catholics do not believe that the pope is infallible. Rather, Catholics believe that the teaching authority of the papacy enjoys infallibility. It may sound like the exact same thing and that we are needlessly splitting hairs, but it’s actually quite significant. In the latter, what we are saying is that the office of the papacy, regardless of who holds it, may speak without error under specific circumstances; in the former, what we are saying is that the human person who is the pope cannot be wrong. This is a major difference, and why I believe that so many people scoff at the idea of papal infallibility. Frankly, they just don’t understand it.

But this is not the case for you! At least, it won’t be the case after you watch this week’s Catholicism in Focus. More than anything, I hope that it will serve as another example of how important it is that we get our language right and are attentive to the words we are saying. Too often we get trapped standing by things that are false, rightfully attacked by non-Catholics for our beliefs, simply because we have used sloppy language. These things are important, and we must take them seriously!

A number of years back, I was at a parish for mass on Sunday when I heard something that shocked me to the core: the priest, referring to the Holy Spirit, said “she.”

Gasp!

At this point I can’t remember when exactly this was or when I first heard it, but I remember being very confused, even offended by it. Who did this priest think he was? God is not a “she.” He’s just trying to be hip or go with the trends of the world. Stick to the faith father and stop pushing an agenda.

Over the years, I began to hear this more, both by priests within Church and by other faithful Christians in other contexts, and I began to question my feelings on the matter: why does this offend me? I remember someone asking me one time, “You believe that God is neither male nor female, right? God is above gender? Then why does it offend you when we use the analogous language of “she” but not when we use “he”?

Fair question. God is not masculine by nature. God is not an old guy with a beard. God is pure being, completeness, beyond any particulars or potencies. Sure, God is often depicted in Scripture in traditionally masculine terms (most notably as “father” by Jesus), but God is also described in traditionally feminine terms as well. We tend to latch on to one, but not the other.

So, what’s my response today? Am I an advocate for beginning prayer “In the name of the Mother…” or “following her word”? Not necessarily. But I am more conscious of the fact that our language is wildly insufficient. I fear, sometimes, that we forget that we are using an analogy and begin to deify the wrong aspects of God. I fear, sometimes, that the title “Father” has become less of a term of endearment and more of an idol. For what is an idol but making something that is not God into God? If we believe that God is beyond gender, then what does it mean when we insist that God only be referred to through one gender?

Interesting questions for sure, and hopefully something that we can continue to approach with humility in the future!