Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

The pathology of sin

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 19, 2010

We're re-posting some of Phil Lawler's most relevant past entries while he's on vacation. Here are his reflections on what happens to those—abusers perhaps?—who wall off compartments for particular sins in their souls, from October 29, 2008:

Recently a man I know-- let's call him X-- was convicted of a terrible crime.

Since X had an admirable reputation as an outstanding, devout Catholic, the indictment against him shocked many people. Many friends and acquaintances-- those who knew his reputation and knew his good works-- rallied to his defense, ready to believe that the charges were based on some awful mistake. But the evidence piled up, more and more damning, until the jury verdict was a foregone conclusion.

X himself still insists that he is completely innocent, and a few diehard allies still support that claim. But if you believe him, you must also believe that several eyewitnesses testified falsely and police in three different jurisdictions planted evidence-- all for no apparent reason. Then there's the fact that X has been charged several times in the past with lesser versions of the same horrible crime, avoiding prior criminal prosecution only by plea-bargaining. Let's face it: He's guilty as charged.

A friend spent some time with X as he was awaiting trial. He reports that the defendant was almost eerily cheerful. X rarely spoke about his coming date in court, and when he did he expressed a bluff, hearty-- and completely unrealistic-- confidence that he would be vindicated.

My friend found this behavior utterly inexplicable. An innocent man, wrongfully accused, should have been quivering with indignation; a guilty man should have been quaking at the prospect of a long prison sentence (not to mention divine judgment). Yet X behaved as if he had no particular worries or cares-- as if life was going on as usual. My friend wondered, and I wonder too: Is it possible that X had walled off a compartment within his own soul within which he kept his criminal, sinful behavior as a secret-- to some extent, even from himself? Had he allowed an evil desire to become an actual pathology, so that he was not altogether aware of his own misdeeds and their likely consequences?

We don't know. We know the court's judgment but not God's. Still the case of X made me think about the consequences of grave sin (because the crime of X certainly involved gravely sinful acts) and the damage sin may do to the psyche.

There may be a point at which a hardened sinner becomes pathological, but I suspect the pathology is of his own choosing. Could you say then, that he has diminished responsibility for his later actions, but he is responsible for that diminished responsibility? The case might be like that of someone who is not entirely responsible for a particular action because he was drunk when he did it; still he is responsible for the fact that he got drunk and thereby opened himself to irresponsible behavior.

We all know what it's like to persuade oneself that this little thing we want to do isn't really sinful. Afterward one's conscience delivers the indictment: Yes, it was a sin. Often the process repeats itself. Now what would happen if you made a conscious decision to ignore your conscience and keep doing that "little thing" until perhaps you decided to try some not-so-little things as well.

My suspicion is that someone who is a serious Catholic with a serious vice eventually has to choose one or the other. Presumably he starts off with a failing, recognizes it, repents, confesses, and then it all happens again until eventually he tells his conscience to shut up, at least about that particular sin. If it's serious, there will soon be other sins required to preserve appearances: lying to cover up the original wrongdoing, impugning the reputations of those who accuse him, bad confessions, etc. Soon he has walled off a large chunk of his spiritual life.

When someone like X is arrested, it's a warning to all of us to be wary of little locked cupboards in the corners of our spiritual lives, because cupboards tend to get crowded until you need to transfer the contents into closets, and then into whole rooms, and eventually the entire house is cluttered and unlivable.

Meanwhile if you are still serious about your faith-- or at least pretending to be-- you're devoting a huge amount of psychic energy to the cover-up. St. Teresa says that it's impossible to pray-- what she calls prayer, anyway-- if you harbor a vice. I think this is why, humanly speaking: You're too busy keeping all the compartments locked down to allow any opening to the Spirit.

At some point I wonder whether the atrophy of conscience and building of elaborate internal defenses causes real psychic damage, to the point that one is no longer fully aware that he is engaging in evil deeds. It may be possible, to some extent, to surrender your free will. Then the really grave matter is not so much that you commit sins X and Y this week, but that you chose to hand yourself over to evil last week.

Nietzsche died a madman. But he appears to have embraced madness as a conscious choice. It's possible, I think, to make the same conscious choice to live in sin. Once that choice has been made, and barring a real and complete conversion, all the other choices become afterthoughts.


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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