The Sense of Sin, by Venerable Fulton Sheen, 9 February 1936

1952 photograph of Venerable Fulton John Sheen produced as promotional material for the television show 'Life is Worth Living'The final condition of the return to the Father’s House was a recognition, on the part of the prodigal, of the sense of sin. This condition is revealed by the following words of the parable: “I will arise and will go to my father, and will say to him: I have sinned against heaven and before thee; I am not worthy to be called thy son; make me as one of thy hired servants.” Herein is combined the double element of true redemption: an admission of sin; “I have sinned”, and the need of penance, “make me as one of thy hired servants”.

Our Blessed Lord never once hints in the parable, when the young man returned with a face furrowed with the hard lines of sin, that he ever offered any excuse for his sinfulness. There is no record, there is not even a hint, that he attempted to excuse himself or to extenuate his prodigality. He offered no theory about sin; he did not say it was a fall in the evolutionary process; he did not blame his environment or his wicked companions; he did not tell his father that he had inherited a queer Freudian complex from him; he did not say that moral decline is only a myth and that sin is just an illusion; he asked no Lippmann to write a Preface to Morals saying men could no longer live according to traditional morality, and must therefore have a new moral to suit unmoral ways of living. He did not excuse himself by saying that a man was justified in sowing his wild oats and then forgetting, living for the present and having no responsibility for the past. There was none of these things in the mouth of the prodigal, and much less was there any such thought in his heart. Out of its torn and bleeding self there came only tear-drippings, a deep recognition of the horror of sin and the need of pardon and redemption. have sinned against heaven and before thee.”

But sin is the one thing modern civilization will not admit. Instead it believes itself incapable of sinning, and places the blame not in man who violates the moral law, but in the moral law which it says is behind the times. The result is, we are living in a time when old forms of sensationalism of a generation ago are now regarded as banal; when words such as “obedience” and “purity” which once stood for the sacred, now, in our era of carnality, stand either for weakness or restraint of liberty. If there is any way of describing our civilization it is to say we are at the penumbra, i.e., at that point where light fades and shadows begin. We have not yet crossed the line, because whether the world admits it or not, it is still living on the spiritual capital which the Church divided unto it four centuries ago. Everything that is good, everything that is charitable, everything that is noble in our civilization, is a reflection of abiding Christian principles and a splinter from the Cross of Christ. But the vision of the Cross is fading; the borderland between light and darkness is growing dimmer and the world is about to pass over into the hinterland of darkness and ruin.

The Church has felt this moral decline. She notes the complete absence of rational objections against her. Never before has she been so impoverished for good strong intellectual opposition as at the present time. There are no foemen worthy of her steel. The opposition today is not intellectual, but moral. Men are no longer objecting to the Church because of the way they think, but because of the way they live. They no longer have difficulty with her Creed, but with her commandments. They remain outside her saving waters, not because they cannot accept the doctrine of Three Persons in one God but because they cannot accept the moral of two persons in one flesh; not because Infallibility is too complex, but because avoidance of Birth Control is too hard; not because the Eucharist is too sublime, but because Penance is too exacting. Briefly, the heresy of our day is not the heresy of thought – it is the heresy of action.

Our whole civilization is pervaded by a general atrophy of the vital conviction that there is a righteous purpose sovereign in history. Men today model their lives solely in relation to economic interests rather than the common good and the glory of God. What adds to the seriousness of it is that the world’s fallen state is accompanied, not by an increased, but by a decreased sense of sin. It is sinning more, but is less mindful of its gravity. It offends God more, but it is worried less about its offense. How rarely do we find anyone outside of the Father’s House doing penance for his sins? How often does a writer of immoral books, when he comes to the consciousness of the souls he has polluted, end his days in prayer and sacrifice? How often do we hear of an industrialist coming forward and saying: “My violation of the virtue of Justice is the cause of the depression and I must make amends for my sins before God?” Rarely indeed is it recorded of a modern sinner, that he seeks to enter the Kingdom of God by doing penance. And why? Because the modern ideal is not goodness, but success. Such an ideal makes penance impossible. Paganism sinned too, but the sin of modern paganism has the added seriousness of having betrayed an ideal which the older pagans had not – namely the ideal of Christ.

By this I do not mean to say that when the world accepted the faith and morals of the Church that the world was free of sinners. As a matter of fact there were men just as wicked in the 13th century as there are in the 20th; there were Christians just as immoral in the age of martyrs as there are today – though there were not so many. But there is this great difference between the sinners of a Christianized civilization and the sinners of our day – the sinners of the Christian civilization knew they were sinners; the sinners of modern civilization thinh they are saints. The sinners of the Christian civilization broke the law, but admitted the law was right; the sinners of modern civilization break the law and say that the law is wrong. The sinners of Christian ages knew they were wrong, but they wished to be right. The sinners of our day on the contrary do wrong, and do not want to be right. There is hope for any civilization which breaks a law but never calls into question the truth of the law; but there is no hope for a civilization that breaks a law and then denies it. Man is powerless to resist evil if he does not recognize it as such, just as he is hopeless if he is wounded and does not wish to be healed.

It may take a long time before the modern world is willing to cry out with the prodigal: “I have sinned”; but until that day arrives it can expect no healing ointment for its broken wings. There is no redemption except from sin; there is no hope for betterment until there has been an admission of failure. Our social structure must one day admit the fallacy of “business is business”; it must judge its economic policies, not by their feasibility, but by their morality; and it must confess that economics and politics are but branches of moral theology and philosophy, i.e., that they can be sinful if they are in violation of the ultimate end of man. It must admit that the moral necessity of attaining the full perfection of man’s personality circumscribes human action in the domestic, political, economic, and religious spheres; that every act is a moral act, even a religious act; that nothing is excluded, whether it be the selling of a can of milk or of a great corporation. Hence economic policy can save a man’s soul as well as damn it. Morality is involved in the realities of industry, finance, and government, and the assumption that these things are governed by non-ethical forces is false. Business can crucify Christ just as well as Pride, and therefore it has just as much need of Redemption.

And what is to be done about it? Weil, what would we do if we found a live whale on top of the Alps – that is, if we wanted to save it? We would try to restore it as quickly as possible to its environment. And that is the only thing to be done with the world. Put it back in its environment of religion and morality. And all the discussion about politics and economics divorced from the moral order is just as stupid as to legislate for v/hales on mountain tops. It is a change of heart, of mind, of soul, and not a new economics which is needed, and this new heart can be found only at the foot of the Cross where things are measured according to their true worth. Once men see that Cross elevated before their eyes at the elevation of the Host, they begin to see that three score and ten years of life is a time for testing – a moment taken out of eternal life in which to say “yea” or “nay” to Divine Love.

Once the world is restored to the environment of Calvary it will see that it need not step down to ruin and despair, for the important thing about sin is not its sinfulness, but the fact that it can be redeemed. Once the Cross is set up again before the eyes of men and placarded at the cross-roads of civilization, as it was centuries ago, men will realize that redemption is social, and that we are our brothers keepers, in helping one another to a fresh start even though it is a late start. Economics can still provide men with the means of existence, but only the Cross can offer the object of existence, which determines the morality of the means.

But take away the vision of that Cross which leads to the crown beyond the grave, and what answer can we make to the poor who would steal from the rich out of envy, and the rich who would crush the poor out of lust? Take away the Cross and what hope shall we give the sinner who wishes to be clean, the sick who have borne their pain with patience, the just who have suffered unjustly? Take away the Cross which stands suspended between heaven and earth and you take away the bridge by which God descends to man and man ascends to God.

The Cross will not relieve the world of suffering, for its kingdom of happiness is not here; it has not saved modern civilization, because modern civilization has not tried it, but only its substitutes and imitations. However, it does secure a recognition of a supernatural criterion and a normal pattern of life, which, if accepted, would enable “the mass of men to fulfill their destiny on earth without being obliged to heroism”; it does provide an eternal end rather than a temporal end as the basis of social action, and that means everything; if does make life reasonable by assuring man that he lives in a world of good and evil opportunity, where his choice must be a matter of significance for himself and his fellowmen; it does influence the economic order by denouncing the immorality of slave wages for workingmen in industry, of calling men “superfluous” in a universe where every man has an immortal soul, and of suppressing man for the sake of the State when a man is a citizen of the Kingdom of God as well as the Kingdom of Caesar.

In comparison to it, all subsequent revolutions are but trivial upstarts, for they failed to affect the soul of society; even the Communistic revolution was incomplete for it still leaves hate, and does not say, “Forgive”; it still leaves earthliness and does not say: “This day thou shalt be with me in paradise”; it still leaves despair, and does not say: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Communism is not revolutionary enough – it still leaves man where he falls.

Be not fooled by those who would save us without the Cross. There is no escaping the Cross, for the simple reason that there is no goal gained without the effort and no victory won without the battle. To keep whispering to ourselves sweet but false consolations, to look for the end when we are only at the beginning, to go round the Cross instead of taking it up, these are but the materials out of which a cross is made – and a cross where one bar is at variance and contradiction with another, the most insoluble mystery of all.

But to enter into that higher plane of making earth a stepping stone to heaven, where nobility stands the test, where love spells sacrifice, where the horizontal bar of death meets the vertical bar of life in the Person of Christ on the Cross reconciling both – this is the Crucifix, wherein we confess not the mysterious ways of Job, but enter into them for our eternal joy and consolation. Once united with the Crucified as we are in the Mass, then we begin to understand that everywhere else others promise us sin excused, sin discounted, sin denied, sin explained away, but only at the foot of the Cross do we ever experience the beautiful divine contradiction of sin forgiven.