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The Sin We Did Not Choose Is Still Sin: A Reflection on Disorder

Editor’s note: The following comes from an anonymous contributor.

I am a middle-aged woman with an attachment disorder.* Due to the death of my mother shortly after my birth and a series of misguided actions on the part of well meaning relatives, I have found it extremely hard to bond with people. In particular, I have little innate sense of what fatherhood and motherhood entail. Even today, “family” is a combination of challenging ties that often suffocate more than console. And yet, broken as I am, God loves me.

Given my rough beginning, my life entailed a series of choices based on imitation rather than authenticity. I have married a marvelous man, raised a bundle of reasonably well adjusted children, and participated readily in parish life despite a long series of moves. The diagnosis, discovered nearly two decades ago, was a relief to me, since previously I had believed my short-comings to be moral failings rather than what they truly were: an entirely casebook set of  responses to constantly shifting caregivers in those early years. Despite this, I am still obliged to answer the call to love.

The reason I offer this brief personal testimony is because it is essential for those who cling to Christ and His Church to truly understand sin and redemption. If we look at sin as a privation, we understand that each deficiency can inhibit a thing from reaching its potential. In this regard, a wobbly stool or a horse with a pebble in its shoe is difficult to work with because a person can neither sit comfortably on the one nor ride effectively the other. They simply cannot do what they’re meant to do, although the material in one case and the disposition in the other may be sound. And yet, deformed as they are, they still serve the plan of God.

When it comes to the human condition, sin exists whenever we are inhibited in our ability to do what we are made to do, which is to love God, obey Him, and achieve heaven. Sin – at its core a deficiency – is thereby also anything that involves a disordered use of means. Pinocchio, who squandered his resources on the way to school, certainly sinned, but the man born with a deformed hand is also touched by sin. Regardless, he (and Pinocchio) must do what they can with their situations.

What the Incarnation and Passion of Christ revealed to the world is that creation – broken as it is – is still loved by God, so much so that it was worth redeeming by His own Blood. In particular, our faith shows us that what is dark and deficient can still serve as a path to God, with the essential distinction being made between sin and grace, the latter being God’s own life present to the world. There is nothing darker than the torture and death of Jesus, and yet the salvation of the world sprang from that epic sin. Indeed, through the worst of evils comes the outpouring of a goodness that knows no limit. Nails pounded into human flesh epitomize horror, and yet God humbly receiving that horror showered life.

So where does this leave my diagnosis? It constitutes sin – insofar as it was launched by an untimely death, compounded by deficient choices, and absorbed into the fallen nature of a confused child. From this confused state itself, I have learned what it means to be an adopted child of God, how important a healthy family life is for each newborn child, how the marvelous gift of a blood tie with Christ changes chaos into kinship, and how many of my peers suffer from divorce, promiscuity, myriad dysfunctions, alienation, and disorientation from their earliest years. Woe to those who scandalize the little ones (cf. Mark 9:42). With dogged determination, I have clung to the understanding of the fatherhood of God and the motherhood of the Church as revealed by Christ so I could piece together what was deficient in my life.  My understanding of these things may still be more academic than heartfelt, but I know them to be true. I take nothing for granted.

This brings me to the challenging lie of our day: the insistence that our deficiencies are not sinful, but gifts in themselves, creating an entirely new prism through which to understand God. We are now being told that different psychological diagnoses and physical impairments are not to be seen as impairments or privations, but that they are entirely normal, even good! This means that revelation – and the faith attendant to it – must be adjusted to the disorders we inherit, rather than offering grace to bring those disorders into conformity with truth. This is a compelling assertion, but wrong.

There is no doubt that the deficiencies and obstacles we face are opportunities for growth in virtue. A rocky field must be cleared; otherwise, it cannot grow grain or provide pasture. Indeed, the man required to provide the labor will be strengthened in the process. Likewise, a blind man may develop keen hearing, a paraplegic may become a successful artist, and one who suffers tuberculosis may eventually exhibit heroic forbearance – but none of these virtues could bring us to consider blindness, paralysis, and tuberculosis good things. They can be understood as gifts only in the Christian sense, whereby deficiencies are transformed by grace into channels of grace. Such is the Crucifixion, which transformed the greatest of evils into the greatest of goods.

If we accept the deficiencies as gifts, it is only with the caveat that they are not what God intended, but they are not insurmountable. If the blind man weeps all day, the paraplegic lies wrapped in a bitter fog, and the tubercular patient rails at God until his final breath, the deficiencies – the sin – prevail. But if each turns to God and asks that the sins be transformed by His very Blood, only then can the grace take hold and the sin be overcome. The key is to reconcile the deficiency to the plan of God in light of the proper end of man, and the right use of creation, which is ordered to that end.

With a proper Christian view, I know that my childhood was not what it should have been, but also that the obstacles have not precluded God from acting amidst the chaos. My deficiencies have filtered down to my children in different ways, but even so, salvation is not beyond their grasp. The only brick wall that can ultimately impede one’s path to God is an obdurate misunderstanding of what constitutes sin.

Woe to you that call evil good, and good evil: that put darkness for life, and light for darkness: that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter. –Isaiah 5:20

If we allow others to recalibrate our society – and even our understanding of faith – to identify dysfunction as health and disorder as normal, then we jettison our ability to transform through grace the deficiencies into gifts. Imagine how the idealization of indifferent motherhood, absent fatherhood, or shattered families would affect the next generation of children! To accept such abnormalities as virtuous blurs our proper relationship with God and masks the trajectory that our lives must take if we are to achieve our proper end. That said, it is even worse to identify ourselves with our disorders, as though they define our being rather than simply impact what ideally should be otherwise. We have seen this before: “And they changed their glory into the likeness of a calf that eateth grass” (Psalm 106:20). Such a degradation is beyond tragic.

Let us not revisit that barren wilderness. Let us distinguish good from evil along the lines of unwavering Church teaching. We are called to love despite our frailty, our deficiencies, and the impediments all around is. “All things work together unto good for those who trust God” (Romans 8:28), and loving God requires that we accept key distinctions. The path of holiness is clear, and broken as we are, we must embark up on it – trusting that His grace will be sufficient.

* A great deal of information was learned about attachment disorders from the plethora of eastern European orphans adopted in the 1990s, most of whom exhibited great difficulties in adjusting properly to their new families. This article highlights those difficulties. From a faith perspective, the work of Drs. Conrad Baars and Anna Terruwe is excellent, found here.

48 thoughts on “The Sin We Did Not Choose Is Still Sin: A Reflection on Disorder”

  1. Very good piece.

    Truly you nailed in your noting that our culture now celebrates brokenness as whole and missing the mark as a bullseye.

    God be praised that you see what you see and can give witness to the truth…and you aren’t condemning the Church for the stands She has traditionally taken.

  2. I agree with you overall, but you have confused sins, which require our choices for us to be morally culpable, with weaknesses, which we are also responsible for fighting to overcome, and which may have a tendency to lead us into sin, but which are not sin in themselves.

    The Church also distinguishes between objective moral culpability, which is simply committing sin, and subjective moral culpability, in which our culpability for sinning is limited by limitations in our knowledge that something is seriously wrong, and also limited by our interior and exterior freedom to choose.

    I would appreciate it if someone with proper theological training would explain the differences between sin and weakness more clearly. As I understand it, the author is mostly speaking of weakness.

    The problem with her confusion is that is can lead to false guilt, needless shame, and people confessing psychological problems rather than immoral acts.

    • You also see the difficulty in this woman’s essay between sin and being fallen, but articulated it better than I. One thing though that I would add, is that this presents an excellent example of why God commands us not to judge another when so many of us can’t judge ourselves accurately.

      • Hmmmm…to clarify, you mean judge another person’s soul or goodness in totality, correct? If not, I would comment that we are absolutely to judge and identify sin when we see it.

        • Of course there are objective sins of commission or omission that we must make judgement on – but the subjective sinfulness of another person we are forbidden to do. One reason is that we can’t read hearts. “Judge not least ye be judged by the same measure” encourages one to find a reason for some peoples behavior that can be explained other than being mean, selfish and sinful. In other words “kindly”. This woman talked of problems from childhood that could explain the cause of certain reactions she had, which made her feel guilty as if she had sinned when she actually hadn’t.

    • Perhaps she couldn’t be more explicit without risking her anonymity. Suffering an emotional scar is not a sin as you state – it is a weakness. However, if a sin arises out of that emotional or psychological condition, then the person can no longer hide behind that “weakness”.

      • If there is enough mental damage then it will not be a case of hiding behind a weakness. You cannot say that someone who kills another while having an episode of schizophrenia has sinned.

        But I do agree that one can’t simply say I am weak and thus excuse one’s self from obeying the Law of God. Scripture also says that grace is always given to comply with God’s law.

    • While it is true that the article could cause someone to have guilt for their personal weaknesses for which they are not guilty, it is entirely true and, as taken from a plain reading, that our weaknesses and deficiencies are a result of Sin, in the “cosmological” sense. They are not personal sins. They are however a result of Original Sin and the fall which it precipitated. In addition, these weaknesses can result in personal sins if not combated and without the grace of God.

      Furthermore, this article is written in response to the prevailing idea in society that certain weaknesses are part of one’s identity and thus faith and all life experiences are filtered through that lens. The largest and loudest group that we can see this in is the homosexual “movement,” and encouraged by dissident priests such as Fr. James Martin, SJ. Seen in that light, this article is actually spot on, I think. This is not a theological treatise, but a testimony and some words of encouragement for those with disorders.

      As regards those who might feel false guilt and the like, and people confessing these weaknesses, a half decent priest should be able to discern that these are not “sins” and provide guidance in light of that. In addition, the grace of the sacrament can supply the strength necessary from avoiding sins that are resultant from that weakness. In short, I don’t see any potential from harm here except to those with already too delicate of consciences. Even for such ones, it could bring knowledge that this particular weakness (scrupulosity) is just that, a weakness, and that they should take some encouragement that others have difficult weaknesses as well.

      • Thank you. I think you response and clarifications are very good.

        Someone asked the difference between sin and weakness?

        Aquinas confirmed that in all respects following the Fall our human nature remained intact but wounded. It is our human will which is in this Fallen state not conformed to the good. So the weakness in all of us is in our will. As St Paul said doing what I don’t want to do etc. I think of the will a bit like a drunk trying to put the key in the lock he clearly misses the mark! The sins and weaknesses of others ‘infiltrate’ our own existence too. As in this testimony; others add to our own woundedness and compound our weakness; cloud our will’s desire for the good by obscuring the true object even further. In this sense sin is communal and compounds our weakness. Pope Benedict in Spe Salvi 48 writing on this shared integral – in praying for the dead he gave a new perspective.

        Sin is acting from that weakness in concrete ways. Pope Benedict also has a great chapter in his little book On Conscience which speaks on culpability. He spoke of a pastor who thought it very good that most Catholics were not culpable in their sin…as if said Benedict that that Faith was too hard and so it was better to be inculpable. This was entirely wrong and those who thought this did not know the Faith.

        St Augustine Bk X in the Confessions; asked why many got angry at hearing the truth of God. Clearly, he said, it is because men love the truth (point of witness to Aquinas on human nature) but because they love the truth they cannot bear to be deceived. So they prefer to hold their error up as truth in order to believe themselves in the truth. So they condemn the truth of God because they prefer their own truth.

        Interesting bit of insight there from Augustine.

        I am sure this testimonial is from the heart and Augustine would have understood. The point is there is here a love for Jesus and if Jesus in the truth of the Gospel witnessed to by the Church is the absolute good in our lives, the omega point of who and what we are, however far we feel ourselves to be, if Jesus is our Absolute then every sin, burden, past event, trial etc is able to be subsumed into that definitive good and so in not the great burden or self-possessed ‘truth’ we define ourselves by. This is why Jesus said his yoke was easy…easy not completely dissapated….well not yet anyway.

        • The likeness to God was lost through original sin and is restored by sanctifying grace (first in Baptism and then in Penance). The image of God is marred but is never fully destroyed.

      • The problem is that weaknesses and deficiencies are not sins per se and she seems to think that it is. The title itself is rather confused.

        Yes there is Original Sin from which we have our weaknesses, and yes our weaknesses can also stem from our own sin, but the article is not well thought out. It could do with a fair bit of editing.

  3. I can relate to this piece on many levels.

    I too experience a disordered tendency, namely same-sex attraction, that arose out of psychological wounds from failing to properly bond with my peers as a child.

    Though I now fully identify with other men and bound with them easily over sports, etc., I still experience disordered temptations on account of my childhood wounds that frustrate me and often leave me wondering why God would permit these temptations if he wanted me to be holy.

    I am about to start reparative therapy, hopefully this well help reduce temptations and strengthen my opposite-sex attraction so that I can have a family (if it is God’s will).

    Thankfully, I am starting to accept that God has permitted me to experience these temptations to humble me and remind me that I can do nothing good without his grace. Hopefully I will experience healing. But if not, I know that I must learn to use my weaknesses as a via crucis to more closely imitate Our Blessed Lord and follow the path that he has set for me so that I might be saved.

  4. “I confess to Almighty God, to blessed Mary ever Virgin, to blessed Michael, the Archangel, to blessed John the Baptist, to the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the Saints and to you, Father, that I have sinned exceedingly, in thought, word and deed, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Therefore I beseech the blessed Mary, ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, all the Saints, and you, Father, to pray to the Lord our God for me.”

  5. “That said, it is even worse to identify ourselves with our disorders, as though they define our being rather than simply impact what ideally should be otherwise”…………………

    Is it not our truthful response in humility to our own disorders/brokenness/sin before His inviolate Word (Truth) that leads us to ‘The way’ that wells up into eternal life?

    As the divine spark within a man’s heart is a constant that does not evolve rather it is waiting there to be
    enlightened by the inviolate Word (Will) of God as the essence of His reality is Truth/love and when embraced ignites the divine spark within us, this induces humility (Never self-justification as we are all sinners) and in doing so lifts us out of the “Swamp” so to say.

    If we continue on this path of Truth by acknowledging His inviolate Word (Will) within the heart it will continually confront us with our own fallen state (Brokenness) and with this self-knowledge the perceived reality of our state in relationship to His Goodness/Truth will transform our hearts and create an
    ongoing evolving state of compassion for our fellow man and if this evolved state could be seen on the spiritual plane would be seen as streams of vibrating light (living water) from the solo plexus/belly area of the body.

    Perhaps some may consider reading in the link below my ongoing dialogue relating to the divine spark and our own individual brokenness.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

    • If you value your soul you must stay away from Teilhard de Chardin, whose ideas are blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

      • Thank you for comment hows_the_boy

        Taken from the link in my post. (Post above the linked one)

        “I see it differently rather than an dynamic evolving universe for me the physical cosmos
        is in continual flux, which is held in a continuum of distortion this physical
        plane as perceived by man is the reality of his fallen state”.

        That contradicts his theories, but thank you for your advice.

        kevin your brother
        In Christ

  6. Thanks for this article. I don’t think I am in the same situation as you, or had a truly disordered childhood situation, but I definitely have difficulty bonding with people, and have had similar thoughts on this matter.

    “But if each turns to God and asks that the sins be transformed by His very Blood, only then can the grace take hold and the sin be overcome. The key is to reconcile the deficiency to the plan of God in light of the proper end of man, and the right use of creation, which is ordered to that end.”

    This (among other points you made) is important – to recognize the deficiencies in one’s life which have led one to his particular situation in life, and turn them into channels of grace, allowing oneself to be God’s instrument by which His greater glory is brought about, even with the greatest deficiencies – whether they be principally bodily deformations or only/primarily internal and/or spiritual deformations.

  7. The article demonstrates a degree of poor faith formation resulting from inadequate, post-Vatican II catechesis. The deficiencies the author described as “sin” are temporal consequences of Original Sin, the eternal consequences of which are removed through baptism. Actual or personal sins are decisions made to engage in evil in defiance of God, whose laws have been given for our good. The temporal consequences of Original Sin run throughout nature, which was damaged by the original act of disobedience. This includes illness and disabilities over which the individual has no control. St. Paul rrminds us that all creation groans as we await the redemption of our bodies. Proverbs tells us that the sins of the parents are visited upon the children, including those of the protoparents. We inherit friom them two things. First, the proneness to repeat their disobedience and second, the consequences or results of theit sins. We also reap the temporal and eternal consequences of our oen sins.

    I am somewhat surprised that the article was published without the correction of the author’s understanding of the nature of sin.

      • Sorry, I don’t understand this. I thought concupiscence was lust/desire. That wouldn’t fit here. Is there a Catholic definition of it which explains this? Surely what’s being described here is more a tendency to sin, or as others have said, a weakness due Original Sin?

        I’ve really no idea because I’m not at all knowledgeable about such things, so any enlightenment here would be appreciated.

      • Concupiscence is the battle in each of us of sin. It is our Fallen state definitely. It is the human will which is the arena of the battle. Sin is manifest in particular acts but it is also more than particular acts.

        For example, the drug addict. There is a weakness perhaps in that person of being more susceptible to addiction. Not a sin, a weakness in the body. But the first action to partake the drug is a sin, no doubt taken for pleasure for whatever reason, taken for self this is the sin. This is the moment of sin; it would be hard to find anyone who didn’t know the potential harm in drugs but weighed in the balance they rolled the dice for pleasure.

        The weakness compounds with the effects of the drug and lets say very quickly they are hooked into addiction.

        Concupiscence is clearly the facilitator of sin here which in addiction is at its origins a moral problem. Concupiscence along with the effects of the drug take away that persons freedom to do otherwise than take drugs.

        Concupiscence may be a state in all of us but it is not benign and will find its target in order to bind us.

        Concupiscence and sin are related as is desire and love. They are distinct but not possible apart from each other.

        • “Sin is manifest in particular acts but it is also more than particular acts”. Sin requires the conscious decision of the will to violate the will and law of God. Therefore, in a legalistic sense, “sin” is limited to “particular” acts of thought, word or deed. The addicted drug user is enslaved by the addiction, which is added to the concupicense. Nevertheless, such a person still has free will. Thus, every time he or she fails to say “no” to drugs, a sin is committed. He or she could, instead, get help to end the dependence on drugs. The enslavement results in a state of habitual sin, but that state is not, itself, sin. Rather, it is a net that holds all the individual sins of drug use. Faith, prayer, the sacraments, a well formed conscience and exercising and developing the habitual state of a virtuous life are all tools to fight concupicence and weapons for fighting the cinstant onslaught of the evil one.

  8. That author is quite confused and perhaps needs a few lessons on Catholic Moral theology.

    The author has a very erroneous understanding of sin hence the conclusions that she forms and tangents that she goes off to is rather incoherent. This may be due to her attachment disorder (don’t know much about the disorder so I can only guess) but the several strands of thought are linked tenuously and it all stems from a wrong understanding of sin and failure to distinguish between the objective act and culpability.

    • What she may be referring to are the consequences of Original Sin, I believe, which do not seem to be either “freely chosen” or chosen in “full awareness.”

  9. OK, I could be wrong, but would not this essay be better given to a psychiatrist / psychologist / theologian rather than posted here? The author suffers, of that there is no doubt, so I hope she finds a more suitable audience for her very legitimate concerns than she is apt to find at 1P5.

  10. Thank you so much. I know there are lots of comments on the difference between sin, weakness, concupiscence etc which are important but it would be a shame for this to distract from the author’s overall message which is beautifully written and oh so very important. I really appreciate her distinction between glorifying our brokenness and God being glorified through our letting Him work with us in our brokenness.

    To quote St Francis de Sales:
    “Although we may love the abjection that follows from the evil, still we must not neglect to remedy the evil. I will do what I can not to have the cancer in the face; but if I have it, I will love the abjection of it. And in matter of sin again, we must keep to this rule. …You want to know which are the best abjections. I will tell you that those are best which we have not chosen, and which are less agreeable to us, or (to say better) those to which we have not not much inclination, or (to speak frankly) those of our vocation and profession.”

  11. When I get going on the sheer depth of my disordered human nature, I eventually surrender. There is not much we can do about it. The spirit and the flesh only experience perfection in certain moments usually too sublime for us to notice after receiving the Eucharist. Other than that, the theological virtues of Faith and Hope are the crossbars to sail through our dangerous world. Sometimes focusing too much on sin or the disorders within open the door to the devil’s workshop and put to the test, we will certainly fail. Jesus will save us if we believe. Death of the flesh is the punishment of the original sin, so there’s not much we can do about that. Sins of our free will are easy to spot and serious ones will land us permanently in hell. Habits are hard to change and need lots of renunciation and penance….it’s temporal here folks, remember? Don’t worry, pray!

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