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Sin alienates the human person

Catechesis by Pope John Paul II on Jesus Christ
General Audience, Wednesday 12 November 1986 - in Italian & Spanish  

"1. Our considerations regarding sin during this cycle of our catecheses keep leading us back to that first sin of which we read in Genesis. St. Paul speaks of it as the "disobedience" of the first Adam (cf. Rom 5:19), directly connected with the transgression of the Creator's commandment concerning "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." A superficial reading of the text may give one the impression that prohibition regarded something insignificant ("You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree"). But a more profound analysis easily leads to the conviction that the apparently insignificant content of the prohibition symbolizes an absolutely fundamental matter. This is made apparent by the words of the tempter, who, in order to persuade man to act contrary to the Creator's prohibition, entices him with this incentive: "When you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen 3:5).

2. In this light, it seems that one must understand that the purpose of that tree of knowledge and the prohibition to eat of its fruit was to remind man that he is not "like God"—he is only a creature! Yes, a creature of particular perfection, because he is made "in the image and likeness of God," but still only a creature. This was the fundamental truth of that being which is man. The commandment man received in the beginning included this truth, expressed in the form of an admonition—remember that you are a creature called to friendship with God, who alone is your Creator. Do not wish to be what you are not! Do not wish to be "like God." Act in accordance with what you are, and all the more willingly since this is already such an exalted status, that of being "the image and likeness of God." This distinguishes you from the other creatures of the visible world, placing you above them. But at the same time, the status of image and likeness of God obliges you to act in conformity with what you are. So be faithful to the covenant that God the Creator has made with you, a creature, from the beginning.

3. The words of the tempter recounted in Genesis 3 not only placed in doubt but radically "contested" this truth, and thus the primordial principle of man's conduct. In pronouncing those words of temptation, the "ancient serpent," as he is called in the Book of Revelation (cf. Rev 12:9), formulates for the first time a criterion of interpretation to which sinful man would later turn many times, in an attempt to affirm himself or even to create an ethics without God. That criterion states that God is "alienating" for man, so that, if he wants to be himself, man must discard God (cf. for example, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche).

4. The word "alienation" presents diverse shades of meaning. In every case it indicates the "usurpation" of something which belongs to another. The tempter of Genesis 3 says for the first time that the Creator has "usurped" what belongs to the creature man! "Being like God" is to be considered a human attribute, which would exclude any sort of dependence on God. The rejection of all religion as incompatible with what man is logically derives from this metaphysical presupposition. In fact, atheist (or anti-theist) philosophies maintain that religion is a fundamental form of alienation, by means of which man divests himself, or allows himself to be deprived, of what pertains exclusively to his being as man. Even in creating the idea of God, man produces his own alienation, because he renounces what originally and principally belongs to him, in favor of the perfect and happy being imagined by him. Religion, in its turn, accentuates, preserves and fuels this state of self-deprivation in favor of a God of "idealistic" creation, and so is one of the principal factors of the "expropriation" of man, of his dignity and rights.

5. I would like to note here that this false theory—so contrary to the data of religious history and psychology—presents certain analogies with the biblical narration of the temptation and fall. It is significant that the tempter ("the ancient serpent") of Genesis 3 does not call in question the existence of God, nor does he even directly deny the reality of the creation: these truths were much too obvious in that historical age. Instead, the tempter—in his experience as a creature who has freely chosen to rebel—seeks already "in the beginning" to implant in man's conscience, as it were in "germinal" form, what constitutes the nucleus of the ideology of "alienation." In so doing, he produces a radical inversion of the truth of creation in its deepest essence. In place of a God who generously bestows existence upon the world, in place of God the Creator, the words of the tempter in Genesis 3 present a God that is the "usurper" and "enemy" of creation, and especially of man. In reality, it is precisely man who is the recipient of a special divine endowment, having been created in the "image and likeness" of God. In this way, truth is expelled by untruth. It is turned into a lie, because it is manipulated by the "father of lies," as the Gospel calls him who carried out this deceit at the "beginning" of history: "He was a murderer from the beginning, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies" (Jn 8:44).

6. This "lie" is found at the beginning of history as the root of sin in the world of created beings endowed with freedom in the image of the Creator. In seeking its source, the words of the great Augustine come to mind: amor sui usque ad contemptum Dei (love of self to the point of despising God: De Civitate Dei, XIV, 28, PL 41, 438).

The primordial lie has its source in the hatred which is reflected in man's first sin. This permits one to understand better what St. Paul teaches when he describes Adam's sin as "disobedience" (cf. Rom 5:19). The Apostle does not speak of direct hatred of God, but of "disobedience," of opposition to the Creator's will. This will remain the principal characteristic of sin in the course of human history. Weighed down by this inheritance, the human will, rendered weak and prone to evil, will remain permanently exposed to the influence of the "father of lies." One notes it in the various epochs of history. In our own times it is witnessed to by the different kinds of negation of God, from agnosticism to atheism or even to anti-theism. In different ways there is stamped in it the idea of the "alienating" character of religion and morality, which finds in religion its own root, precisely as had been suggested at the beginning by the "father of lies."

7. But looking at things without prejudice, we must say in all frankness that in the light of revelation and of faith, the theory of alienation should be reversed. It is precisely sin and only sin which leads to man's alienation! It is precisely sin that from the very beginning led to man's being "disinherited" in a certain way of his own humanity. Sin robs man, in various ways, of the decisive element of his true dignity—that of the image and likeness of God. In a certain sense, every sin "lessens" this dignity. The more a man becomes a "slave of sin" (cf. Jn 8:34), so much the less does he enjoy the freedom of the children of God. He ceases to be master of himself as would be required by the structure of his being as a person, as a rational, free and responsible creature.

8. Sacred Scripture effectively underlines this concept of alienation by illustrating its threefold dimension: the alienation of the sinner from himself (cf. Ps 58:3—"The wicked go astray from the womb"), from God (cf. Ez 14:7: "he who separated himself from me"; Eph 4:18: "alienated from the life of God"), from the community (cf. Eph 2:12: "alienated from the commonwealth of Israel"). Sin, therefore, is not only "against God," but also against man. As the Second Vatican Council teaches: "Sin has diminished man, blocking his path to fulfillment" (GS 13). This truth has no need of proof by elaborate arguments. It suffices simply to observe it. Moreover, do not so many works of literature, the movies and the theater supply eloquent confirmation? In them man appears weakened, confused, deprived of an inner center, a relentless adversary both of himself and others, a slave of non-values, awaiting someone who never comes, as if to confirm the fact that once contact with the Absolute is lost, man ends up by losing himself also.

It suffices to refer to experience, whether to interior experience, or to historico-social experience in its various forms, to realize that sin is a dreadful "destructive force." It destroys with a deceptive and inexorable virulence the good of life among men and human societies. For this very reason one can rightly speak of "social sin" (cf. Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 16). Granted however, that personal sin is always at the root of the social dimension of sin, one must first and foremost emphasize what sin destroys in every human being, its subject and cause, considered in the concrete as a person.

9. In this regard St. Thomas Aquinas's observation should be recalled. He says that to the extent that man as such becomes better by every morally good act he performs, so likewise by every morally evil act man as such becomes worse [1] . Sin destroys in man that good which is essentially human. In a certain sense it "robs" man of that good which is proper to him, it "usurps" man from himself. In this sense "whoever sins is the slave of sin," as Jesus stated in St. John's Gospel (8:34). This is precisely what is contained in the concept of "alienation." Sin, therefore, is the real "alienation" of the rational and free human being. It pertains to the rational being to pursue truth and to exist in the truth. In place of the truth concerning the good, sin introduces what is not true. Sin eliminates the real good in favor of an "apparent" good, which is not a real good, since the real good was eliminated to make way for the "false."

The alienation which occurs in sin touches the cognitive sphere, but through knowledge it affects the will. What then happens in the sphere of the will finds perhaps its most exact expression in St. Paul's Letter to the Romans: "I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells in me.... When I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.... Wretched man that I am!" (Rom 7:19-20, 21, 24).

10. As is evident, man's real "alienation"—the alienation of a rational and free being made in the image of God—is nothing other than "the domination of sin" (Rom 3:9). Sacred Scripture forcefully emphasizes this aspect of sin. Sin is not only "against" God, it is at the same time "against" man.

If it is true that by its very logic and according to revelation, sin calls for adequate punishments, the first of these punishments is constituted by sin itself. Through sin man punishes himself! Sin contains its own immanent punishment. As someone has said, sin is already hell, as the privation of God! "Is it I whom they provoke?" God asks through the prophet Jeremiah. "Is it not themselves, to their own confusion?" (Jer 7:19). "Your wickedness will chasten you, and your apostasy will reprove you" (Jer 2:19). The prophet Isaiah lamented: "We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.... For you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquities" (Is 64:6-7).

11. This "consignment (and self-consignment) of man into the hand of his iniquities" explains most eloquently the significance of sin as the alienation of the human person. However, the evil is not complete or at least not without a remedy, as long as man is aware of it, as long as he preserves the sense of sin. But when even this is lacking, the complete collapse of moral values is practically inevitable and there looms over man as a terrifying reality the risk of definitive perdition. For this reason the grave words of Pius XII (which have become almost proverbial) should always be remembered and meditated on with great attention: "The sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin" [2] .

[1]   cf. Summa Theol., I-II, q. 55, a. 3; q. 63, a. 2
[2]   cf. Discorsi e Radiomessaggi, VIII, 1946, 288

After the Catechesis, Pope John Paul II greeted the pilgrims in various languages

Ai fedeli di lingua francese 

Chers Frères et Sœurs,

Je livre ces réflexions, graves mais nécessaires, à vous, pèlerins | de langue française. Que les Apôtres Pierre et Paul vous aident à fortifier votre foi et votre désir d’accomplir la volonté de Dieu, lui qui nous a créés pour partager son amour!

Je suis particulièrement heureux d’accueillir les pèlerinages des diocèses de Bayonne et d’Aire et Dax, avec Monseigneur Sarabère: portez dans vos paroisses et vos groupes le salut et les vœux de l’Evêque de Rome!

* * *

Je salue également les religieuses de la Sainte Famille de Bordeaux et les Franciscaines Missionnaires de Marie qui sont en session à Rome. Je houhaite que leur travail porte des fruits abondants dans leur vie religieuse et leur apostolat.

* * *

J’encourage les jeunes militaires de Périgueux dans leur vie de communauté priante qui témoigne de la foi. Je remercie aussi de leur visite les marins de la frégate “Duquesne” et de l’aviso “Commandant Ducuing”; je forme pour eux des vœux très cordiaux.

J’invoque sur vous tous la Bénédiction de Dieu.

Ai pellegrini di espressione inglese 

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I wish to welcome all the English-speaking visitors and pilgrims present at this audience, especially the groups from England, Denmark, Canada and the United States. To all of you I offer my cordial greetings, and as a pledge of grace and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ I willingly impart to you my Apostolic Blessing.

Ai fedeli di lingua tedesca 

Liebe Brüder und Schwestern!

Indem ich diese Überlegungen eurer persönlichen Besinnung anempfehle, grüße ich euch alle sehr herzlich: die genannten deutschsprachigen Gruppen und auch alle Einzelpilger. Besonders willkommen heiße ich die anwesenden Mitglieder der Landesinnung der Tischler Niederösterreich, denen ich noch heute für ihre wertvollen Dienste bei der Vorbereitung meiner Pastoralreise nach Österreich im Jahre 1983 aufrichtig danke. Einen herzlichen Gruß richte ich ferner an die Teilnehmer der Dankwallfahrt des Bistums Aachen für die Heiligtumsfahrt und den 89. Deutschen Katholikentag. Der beste gottwohlgefällige Dank wird eure Entschlossenheit sein, mit der ihr dem kommenden Reich Gottes in eurem eigenen Leben den Weg bereitet. Von Herzen erteile ich euch und allen Pilgern meinen besonderen Apostolischen Segen.

Ai fedeli di lingua spagnola 

Amados hermanos y hermanas,

Deseo ahora presentar mi más cordial saludo a todos los peregrinos de lengua española presentes en esta audiencia.

Vaya mi saludo fraterno, en primer lugar, al Señor Cardenal Ernesto Corripio Ahumada, Arzobispo de México, al que acompaña una nutrida peregrinación de su Arquidiócesis a su regreso de Tierra Santa. También de México están presentes un grupo de colaboradores de Cáritas diocesana de San Juan de Lagos y fieles de la Diócesis de Querétaro.

* * *

Me es grato igualmente dar la bienvenida a este encuentro a los Obispos del Sur de España y de las Islas Canarias que se encuentran en Roma con motivo de su visita “ad limina”. Están también presentes numerosos peregrinos de la Archidiócesis de Sevilla y de la Diócesis de Jerez de la Frontera, a quienes saludo con todo afecto.

A simismo saludo a las Religiosas Franciscanas de la Madre del Divino Pastor que se encuentran en Roma haciendo un curso de renovación espiritual, y a las Religiosas Carmelitas Misioneras. Os aliento en vuestra generosa entrega al servicio de Dios y de la Iglesia.

A todas las personas, familias y grupos procedentes de España y de los diversos Países de América Latina imparto mi Bendición Apostólica.

Ai fedeli polacchi

Pozdrawiam serdecznie wszystkich pielgrzymów: ks. biskupa Piszcza z Olsztyna; pielgrzymów z parafii św. Stanisława w Andrychowie; z parafii św. Sebastiana ze Skomielnej Białej; pielgrzymkę kapłanów archidiecezji warszawskiej na 25-lecie święceií; z parafii Swiętego Krzyża w Warszawie; z parafii św. Małgorzaty w tomiankach, archidiecezja warszawska; z diecezji lubelskiej; rolników diecezji siedleckiej; z diecezji opolskiej, pielgrzymów z dekanatów Gogolin i Głubczyce; grupę nauczycieli z Poznania; również grupę Towarzystwa Ziemi Drohiczyńskiej; uczestników grup turystycznych z Warszawy, a także z innych części Polski . . . Korzystam z okazji, ażeby pozdrowić wszystkich moich Rodaków tu obecnych, a także wszystkich w Ojczyźnie, polecając waszej modlitwie moją najblizszą podróż duszpasterską na Daleki Wschód.

Ad alcuni gruppi italiani

Desidero ora porgere il mio saluto a tutti i pellegrini italiani, rivolgendo uno speciale pensiero al gruppo di sacerdoti che partecipano ad un corso di esercizi spirituali promosso dal movimento FAC.

Con essi saluto anche i sacerdoti salesiani, incaricati della pastorale giovanile e provenienti da varie Nazioni, che stanno seguendo in Roma un corso di rinnovamento e di aggiornamento.

Mi compiaccio con tutti voi, cari sacerdoti, e vi esorto a far sì che tutta la vostra vita sia una realizzazione trasparente e luminosa del servizio al quale siete chiamati da Cristo. Siate generosi e tenaci nella fedeltà al Vangelo, alla Chiesa, alla missione verso le anime che vi furono affidate. 

* * * 

Il mio pensiero va poi alle Suore capitolari della Congregazione della Ancelle di Maria Immacolata, di rito bizantino-ucraino e mentre esorto a perseverare nel carisma della vita interiore desiderato dalla loro fondatrice, benedico le molteplici iniziative operate dall’Istituto per sovvenire alle persone più bisognose in tanti Paesi. 

* * * 

Saluto la parrocchia di S. Maria Assunta di Zagarise (Catanzaro), che desidera affidarsi solennemente alla Madonna, e benedico volentieri la corona con la quale l’Arcivescovo ornerà, in segno di consacrazione di tutta la comunità, l’immagine della Vergine Immacolata. 

* * * 

Il mio pensiero va poi al gruppo degli anziani dell’Arcidiocesi di Chieti. Li assicuro del mio ricordo e con essi saluto l’intera Arcidiocesi. 

* * * 

Rivolgo poi una parola di incoraggiamento e di saluto al gruppo dei giovani Avieri del Ministero dell’Aeronautica, accompagnati da alcuni loro Ufficiali e dal Segretario Generale dell’Ordinariato Militare.

A tutti il mio cordiale pensiero e la mia Benedizione. 

Ai giovani 

Un saluto cordiale ai giovani venuti a questa Udienza.

La liturgia odierna fa memoria del Vescovo S. Giosafat, martire a motivo del suo infaticabile zelo per l’unità della Chiesa. Testimoniare la fede con la vita è una conseguenza che nasce dalla coscienza dei doni di grazia ricevuti perché siano messi a disposizione degli altri; è, altresì, la prova più autentica della propria adesione a Cristo, che ha dato se stesso per noi. Carissimi giovani, vi esorto ad ispirare a questa fondamentale verità gli sforzi ed i progetti per il vostro futuro. Il mondo di oggi ha bisogno della linfa della vostra gioiosa generosità e del vostro disinteressato entusiasmo per essere permanentemente sollecitato ad operare scelte che rispettino l’uomo e le sue esigenze più vere e profonde. Siate consapevoli di questo meraviglioso compito che vi attende e, per l’impegno che saprete dedicarvi, propiziatrice vi accompagni la mia Benedizione. 

Agli ammalati 

Saluto ora con affetto gli ammalati presenti e i loro accompagnatori, con un particolare pensiero per i membri dell’UNITALSI.

Carissimi, vi porgo il mio augurio cordiale per un pronto miglioramento delle vostre condizioni di salute. Ma desidero al tempo stesso ricordarvi quanto sia meritorio condividere la passione di Cristo, offrendo con Lui le proprie sofferenze al Padre: si imparano lezioni che rischiarano intimamente il senso dell’esistenza e si affretta l’ora della grazia per tanti che hanno bisogno di ritornare sulla via della vera vita. Niente di ciò che per amore è dato al Signore va perso: nella sua Divina Provvidenza, tutto Egli utilizza per il bene presente e futuro dei suoi figli e della Chiesa. Vi sia di sostegno nel vostro meritorio cammino l’Apostolica Benedizione, che di cuore imparto a voi ed ai vostri cari. 

Agli sposi novelli 

Agli “sposi novelli” un beneaugurante saluto. Carissimi, il Signore vi ha concesso di arrivare ad una tappa attesa e fondamentale della vostra vita e, certamente, la vostra riconoscenza è grande. Con la celebrazione del matrimonio voi siete diventati una cosa sola in Cristo. Quale significativo impegno ciò comporta per voi! In un’epoca lacerata da tante divisioni, la vostra sacramentale unione familiare è chiamata ad essere un contributo di pace ed un segno convincente di come si possa procedere insieme sulla via della concordia e del bene. Siatene ogni giorno più consapevoli e sui vostri propositi di amore e di reciproca fedeltà scenda la mia Benedizione.

Ad un gruppo di senatori degli Stati Uniti

Dear Friends,

I am pleased to welcome you, distinguished Senators of the United States of America who are members of the Delegation to the North Atlantic Assembly being held in Istanbul. I offer my cordial greetings to you, your wives and all those who are accompanying you. Your presence enables me once again to give the assurance of my prayers for you, and for all those like yourselves who are called to exercise roles of responsibility in the international order.

On this occasion I wish to repeat that the Holy See encourages all initiatives which aim to bring about ever closer cooperation between the nations of the world. However, such endeavors which make it possible for different peoples to live in harmony without fear of conflict are indeed only faltering attempts, founded upon sand, unless there prevails everywhere a strong sense of the universal brotherhood of man. It is only through worldwide solidarity that the bonds linking the international community are strengthened.

Furthermore, we Christians believe that individuals will not look upon one another as brothers and sisters unless they first recognize that they are truly children of the sarne heavenly Father, who is the supreme Lawgiver and divine Judge.

I express my best wishes for a fruitful participation in the deliberations of the Assembly, and upon you and all those whom you represent I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace.

Ecco le parole del Papa in una nostra traduzione italiana.

Cari amici.

Sono felice di dare io il benvenuto a voi, illustri senatori degli Stati Uniti d’America, membri della Delegazione all’assemblea del Nord Atlantico diretti a Istanbul. Rivolgo i miei cordiali saluti a voi, alle vostre mogli e a tutti coloro che vi accompagnano. La vostra presenza mi sollecita ad assicurare, ancora una volta, le mie preghiere per voi e per tutti quelli che come voi sono chiamati ad esercitare ruoli di responsabilità di ordine internazionale.

In questa occasione desidero ripetere che la Santa Sede incoraggia tutte le iniziative che hanno lo scopo di portare avanti una sempre più stretta cooperazione tra le nazioni del mondo. Tuttavia tali sforzi, che a molti popoli rendono possibile vivere in armonia senza la paura di un conflitto, sono in realtà tentativi incerti, fondati sulla sabbia, a meno che prevalga ovunque un forte senso di fratellanza universale. È solo attraverso la solidarietà mondiale che i trattati restano sicuri e i legami che uniscono le comunità internazionali rafforzati.

Inoltre, noi cristiani crediamo che gli individui non si considereranno come fratelli e sorelle se prima non riconosceranno di essere veramente figli dello stesso Padre celeste, che è il supremo Legislatore e Giudice divino.

Esprimo i miei migliori auguri per una feconda partecipazione alle deliberazioni dell’assemblea, e invoco su voi e su tutti quelli che rappresentate le benedizioni di gioia e pace di Dio.

© Copyright 1996 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana