Defining good and evil
The good is the foundation and the goal of all moral striving. The convictions of philosophers about the good have long influenced moral dispositions and actions. For Aristotle, the good is happiness: for hedonists it is pleasure; for Utilitarians it is in what is most useful. The Catholic Christian Church teaches that the nature of the good is the full actualization of any being’s potential, or achievement of perfection. To be good is to be all that one can be. With faith informing reason on the nature of the good, the believer sees God as the fullness of being and sees God’s actions as good because they flow from the divine nature-which is love. (Richard M. Gula, 1989, Reason Informed by Faith, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press )
Evil is not some impersonal force that is outside human control; it is the result of an abuse of our free will. Free will, in itself, is a gift and is necessary for a proper response of love. Our choices have a moral dimension that involves individual responsibilities and concerns our relationship with God, others and all of creation. At a basic level, the choice for evil is a rejection of the demands of love. A choice for good is derived from and directed towards love. Jesus’ great commandment of love for God and neighbour is central to the work for peace in our world. Its demand is far reaching – “the inner logic of Christian love, which in the Gospel is the living source of moral goodness, leads even to the love of one’s enemies”.
Everybody has a part to play in overcoming evil and bringing about good in the world. The expression of neighbourly love in all aspects of our lives is a great force for peace. So is the operation of social and political structures that are guided by charity. Pope John Paul II said, “When good overcomes evil, love prevails and where love prevails, there peace prevails”. (World Day of Peace Message 2005)
Evil and understandings about sin
Any explanation of good and evil is inextricably linked to the Church’s teaching about sin. No human being is capable of being perfectly good all the time, nor absolutely evil all the time. Venial sin is a human act that is not fully consistent with a fundamental orientation toward God. In venial sin, there is a genuine decision to do a particular action, but there is no decision to become the sort of person who does that action all of the time. In every venial sin, there is a contradiction between the act and the person doing the act.
On the origins of sin Gula says that though humans may be ‘broken’ we are not disasters. We can still become who were made to be. The reason for this is that the power of original sin is in tension with the power of God’s love and redeeming grace, which enables us to grow towards wholeness and in communion with ourselves, others, and God.
The narratives of Genesis 1-11 portray the origin of the strife and suffering that mar the world. Though created to enjoy intimacy with God and the fruits of the earth, Adam and Eve disrupted God's design by trying to live independently of God through a denial of their status as creatures. They turned away from God and gave to God's creation the obedience due to God alone. (Par 33, Economic Justice for all.)
Gula describes the occurrence of social sin as human-made structures that offend human dignity by causing people to suffer oppression, exploitation or marginalization. These include educational systems, housing policies, tax structures, immigration policies, health-care systems, employment policies, and could even include smaller institutions such as clubs, schools and families. Once established, social structures and customs seem to take on a life of their own. New members of the group fall in line with current policies and practices. For example ‘initiation’ cultures in the defence forces.
We learn to live in a world with these structures. We presume that the social customs which they hold in place are good, traditional customs. That is what makes social sin so difficult to recognize and to change. Yet the evil of sinful social structures abounds in all forms of discrimination; processing practices of refugees; in the illiteracy and homelessness of the poor; in unequal access to health care; in the manipulation of consumers by the manufacturing practices, in abuse of the natural environment; in physical and emotional abuse and in many other practices which we continue to support more out of ignorance than meanness. Gula asks: Why does social sin prevail? Largely because we fail to name social evils and seek to correct them.
"Sin" and "structures of sin" are categories which are seldom applied to the situation of the contemporary world. However, one cannot easily gain a profound understanding of the reality that confronts us unless we give a name to the root of the evils which afflict us. John Paul II Sollicitudo rei socialis 36.3
When we become aware of structural evils, we should not be paralysed by the guilt of self-condemnation, but moved to conversion. Conversion from social sin involves, at one level, changing our own lifestyle in ways that will help reform society. We cannot do everything to end the structures which support sexism, for example, but we can do some things, for instance, curbing our use of exclusive and insensitive language. We can influence others' attitudes through the ways we talk to and about one another. At another level, conversion from social sin involves examining existing regulations and practices, reforming those that offend human dignity.
Most of this commentary on social sin is paraphrased from Richard M. Gula, 1989, Reason Informed by Faith, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.
Source criticism focuses on the study of the different components of a biblical text, based on the assumption that particular Biblical texts are composite works whose components originated in different historical periods and exhibit a variety of features and themes reflective of their composite historical sources. In antiquity, authors were not worried about copyright privileges; sources were never footnoted or otherwise acknowledged. The task of the source critic is to filter out the various ideological strains, to locate these in their historical settings and to evaluate the meaning of the complete text in light of the results. Source criticism attempts to uncover the origins or “sources” of ancient texts of the Bible. Source criticism assumes that particular Biblical texts underwent a complex oral and written process in their composition. Close study of many Biblical texts suggests that no one person wrote them. Some Biblical texts exhibit a complexity and variability and even “inconsistency” that suggest composition from a number of sources and thus a multi-source theory is needed to explain and interpret such texts.
Source criticism is used mainly in the study of the Pentateuch (the term Christians give to the first five books of the Bible) and the Synoptic Gospels. A so-called “documentary hypothesis’ assumes four strands of tradition in the composition of the Pentateuch. These strands of tradition are named the Jahwist (J), the Elohist (E), the Priestly (P) and the Deuteronomist (D). Characteristic vocabulary, concerns, themes, biases, theological perspectives and so on, distinguishes each tradition.
Forms of Penance
Forms of Penance
The Catechism of the Catholic Church outlines the many and various ways in which the interior penance of the Christian can be expressed. The Catechism quotes Scripture and the Fathers of the Church as insisting, above all, on three forms of penance in daily life, namely: fasting, prayer and almsgiving.
These three forms of penance express conversion in relation to oneself, to God and to others. Alongside the radical purification brought about by Baptism or martyrdom, Scripture and the Fathers mention, as means of obtaining forgiveness of sins, efforts at reconciliation with one’s neighbour, tears of repentance, concern for the salvation of one’s neighbour, the intercession of the saints and the practice of charity “ which covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8; James 5:20).
Expanding on the forms of penance in daily life, the Catechism notes that conversion of heart can be accomplished through gestures of reconciliation, concern for the poor and responsiveness to their needs, the defence of what is just and right, the admission of one’s faults to others, preparedness to correct and be corrected, efforts towards reforming one’s life, the examination of conscience, seeking guidance and spiritual direction, acceptance of suffering and willingness to take up one’s cross each day and follow Jesus (cf. Lk 9:23). The Catechism emphasises the importance of the Eucharist as a source of nourishment and strengthening in the process of daily penance and conversion. Reading the Sacred Scripture, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, the Our Father and other prayers and devotions are also commended. The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages, fasting, almsgiving and sharing of one’s material and personal resources in support of charitable and missionary works.
Freedom and responsibility
The Catholic Christian Bible describes the human person as a creature of God, as an animated body. Our bodiliness is the basis of our relationship with one another. Human existence is co-existence. Human existence is at once responsible, sinful, hope-filled and graced. Grace allows us to respond in love; this is, to be “responsible”. Catholic theology focuses its attention on the consciousness of the human person, on the person’s freedom and responsibility, not only to co-create himself or herself, but to co-create the world and its history under God. A mature understanding of freedom is integral to a person’s capacity to orient themselves on a daily basis to good or to evil.
Freedom is exercised in relationships between human beings. Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect. The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. This right must be recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order. CCC1738
Contemporary theology regarding sin
Richard M. Gula, American Franciscan theologian describes a new look at the moral life informed by the biblical renewal in the Church and by some philosophical shifts within the Church and society. For example, the biblical renewal has placed covenant, heart and conversion—not law—as primary moral concepts. Responsibility has replaced obligation as the primary characteristic of the moral life. Shifts in philosophy have emphasized the dignity of persons and the value of sharing life in society. Together these shifts in theology and philosophy support a relational model of the moral life. The relational model emphasizes personal responsibility for protecting the bonds of peace and justice that sustain human relationships.
Far from doing away with sin, contemporary theology admits that sin is very much with us and touches us more deeply than we realize. Greed, violence, corruption, poverty, hunger, sexism and oppression are too prevalent to ignore. Sin is just as basic a term in Christian vocabulary today as it has been in the past. Its root sense means to be disconnected from God through the failure to love. In sin, we simply don't bother about anyone outside ourselves. Sin is first a matter of a selfish heart—a refusal to care—before it shows itself in actions.
Because loving God and loving our neighbour are all tied together, sin will always be expressed in and through our relationships. The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that, just as the least of our acts done in charity has some benefit for all, so every sin causes some harm. The Catechism quotes Scripture to make this point: "None of us lives for oneself, and none of us dies for oneself" (Rom 14:7); "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it" (1 Cor 12:26-27); "Charity does not insist on its own way" (1 Cor 13:5; see 10:24). In this solidarity with all people, says the Catechism, "living or dead, which is founded on the communion of saints, the least of our acts done in charity redounds to the profit of all. Every sin harms this communion" (#953).
One of the most obvious changes in a contemporary approach to sin is the emphasis given to how sin affects the quality of life and love in our relationships. Sin is any action or omission that hinders, violates or breaks right relationships which support human well-being.
Suffering and injustice
St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas attempted to show that ultimately evil is not caused by God. Allowing free will meant that humans had and have, the genuine option of choosing evil over good. Choosing evil leads to our own suffering and the suffering of others.
Pope John Paul II wrote in The Meaning of Suffering in the Light of Christ’s Passion in 1988 the following:
In the Old Testament, suffering was considered as a penalty inflicted on humans for their sins by a just God. However, within this perspective, based on an initial divine revelation, it was difficult to explain the suffering of the innocent. Thanks to Christ, the meaning of suffering changes radically. It no longer suffices to see in it as a punishment for sin. One must discern in it the redemptive, salvific power of love. The evil of suffering, in the mystery of Christ's redemption, is overcome and in every case transformed. It becomes a force of liberation from evil, for the victory of the good. In the New Testament, according to Jesus, suffering should impel in a special way to love of neighbour and to the commitment of rendering to that neighbour all necessary services. Such a love and such services, carried out in every way possible, constitute a fundamental moral value which accompanies suffering. When speaking of the last judgment, Jesus set out with particular clarity the idea that every work of love performed on behalf of a suffering person is directed to the Redeemer: "I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me" (Mt 25:35-36). The whole Christian ethic of service, even social service, is based on these words, as well as the definitive turning to account of suffering accepted in the light of the cross.
Suffering and evil present challenges for those engaging in theological discourse and in understanding the image of loving God.
The following is a paraphrasing of Ronald Rolheiser OMI Easter reflection on God and suffering in April 2011.
We can let ourselves be perpetually scandalized by the seeming triumph of evil, pain, and suffering in our world. God's silence can forever scandalize us: in the Jewish holocaust, in ethnic genocides, in brutal and senseless wars, in the earthquakes and tsunamis which kill thousands of people and devastate whole countries, in the deaths of countless people taken out of this life by cancer and by violence, in how unfair life can be sometimes, and in the casual manner that those without conscience can rape whole areas of life seemingly without consequence. Where is God in all of this? What's God's answer?
God's answer is in the resurrection, in the resurrection of Jesus and in the perennial resurrection of goodness within life itself. But resurrection is not necessarily rescue. God doesn't necessarily rescue us from the effects of evil, or even from death. Evil does what it does, natural disasters are what they are, and those without conscience can rape even as they feed off life's sacred fire. God redeems, raises us up afterwards, in a deeper more lasting vindication.
This does not make God a disinterested bystander throughout our lives who waits until the end to put things right. As Richard Leonard says God accompanies us at every moment of our short or long life and has ennobled humanity with an extraordinary resilience, so that at every moment of every day, God does what God did on Good Friday, not allow evil, death and destruction to have the last word. God does not send natural disasters to kill us off. Jesus did not enter our world to die but to live and to be our Way, Truth and Life. Jesus meets us where we are, embraces us, and holds us close when the times get tough. Through prayer, both personal and communal, as Christians lament their suffering, Christians ask their holy, loving and unchanging God to change them and thereby change the world. R Leonard (2010) Where the Hell is God? , Mahwah,NJ: Hidden Spring/Paulist Press.
Mohandas K. Gandhi once wrote: "When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been murderers and tyrants, and for a time they seem invincible. But in the end they always fall. Think of it, always".
Authorship of the Pentateuch
The term Pentateuch refers to the first five books of the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures. The Pentateuch includes the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. A so-called “documentary hypothesis’ or theory assumes that four strands of tradition or four general sources have contributed in the composition of the Pentateuch. These strands of tradition are named the Jahwist (J), the Elohist (E), the Priestly (P) and the Deuteronomist (D).
The Jahwist (Yahwist) tradition comes from the time of Solomon about 950 B.C.E. and originates in royal circles in Jerusalem. The king has an important place in this tradition as the one who gives unity to the faith of the people. The Elohist tradition calls God Elohim. It came into being in the northern kingdom after the kingdom of David and Solomon had split into two. The Elohist attaches great importance to prophets and the prophetic message. The Priestly tradition came into being during the Babylonian exile in the years 587 –538 B.C.E. and later. After the deportation of many of the people of Israel to Babylon, the priests re-read and re-interpreted the traditions of the Pentateuch to sustain the faith and hope of an exiled people. The Deuteronomist tradition was begun in the northern kingdom and completed in Jerusalem.
The human and divine natures of Jesus
Christology is the theological term for discussions concerning the nature and person of Jesus Christ. In Christianity this is usually concerned with reconciling the Christian teaching of Jesus' two natures as expressed in the Creed of Chalcedon (451 CE):
'In relation to the humanity, he is one and the same Christ, the Son, the Lord, the Only Begotten, who is to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division and without separation'.
A distinguishing feature of what is considered to be orthodox and Biblical teaching about Jesus for Christians is the acceptance that not only was Jesus fully human but that he was also fully Divine (God Incarnate). It is through the Paschal mystery of Jesus' life death and resurrection that God's love and salvation are revealed. From a paschal perspective, illness, poverty, social disorder, exploitation, environment degradation and other forms of diminishment as well as efforts toward reconciliation, fidelity, forgiveness and human courage in the face of adversity, not only invite, but require of the Christian some suitable response in the Spirit of Jesus.