When Are Our Actions Bad and Sinful?Not everything bad or unlawful is a sin. Jesus makes this clear when speaking about Kosher laws, such as eating with unwashed hands or eating non-Kosher foods.
“And [Jesus] called the people to him and said to them, ‘Hear and understand: not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man…’ But Peter said to him, ‘Explain the parable to us.’ And he said, ‘Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man’” (Matthew 15:10-11, 15-20)
For an action to be immoral or sinful, it must be a human action, one that “proceeds from the [human] heart.” Digestion and other biological actions of the body do not arise from our heart nor from our knowledge (from a judgment of our conscience) and our freewill. For any action to be good or evil—a moral act—it must be known and freely chosen (cf. CCC 1749).
Evil actions arise from our heart when we selfishly chose something that opposes our relationship with God: when a child disobeys a parent he disobeys God, putting his videogame or TV over his relationship with God. Likewise, when a woman is unfaithful to her husband she is unfaithful to Christ, selfishly putting her emotional “needs” over her relationship with Christ.
But these actions can only be evil if they were free. We wouldn’t think of punishing an asteroid for slamming into the earth and killing someone. Nor would we punish a man-eating shark, although we may kill it to prevent future attacks. We punish murderers and hold them responsible because they are free human beings.
“The morality of acts is defined by the relationship of man’s freedom with the authentic good. This good is established, as the eternal law, by Divine Wisdom which orders every being towards its end…. Acting is morally good when the choices of freedom are in conformity with man’s true good and thus express the voluntary ordering of the person towards his ultimate end: God himself, the supreme good in whom man finds his full and perfect happiness…. Only the act in conformity with the good can be a path that leads to life” (St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor 72.1).
Actions that are pure impulsive or reflex reactions can only be evil if the impulse or reflex was freely chosen, which happens when we deliberately foster or give in to a habit that we know will lead to sin. For example, if we know that when we drink it leads to surfing the Internet and to falling into to compulsive pornography then choosing to drink would be the sin. Likewise, if we know that watching football will lead to angry outbursts and violent reaction, then to turn on the football game is the sin. Having a sinful dream in the middle of our nighttime sleep is not freely willed and therefore is not a sin.
Cultivating virtues—habitual acts of doing good—and overcoming vices will only increase our freedom to love and to do good. We all need to overcome our slavery to sin, as our Lord told us:
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free… Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin… So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:31-32,34,36).
Fr. John R. Waiss
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