Rorate Caeli

Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost - "The contemporary world not only denies the Fall, but the very concept of Sin."

by Father Richard G. Cipolla

From the 7th chapter of St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not what I want to do, but I do the very thing I hate…So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me….I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”

Modern science depends on experimentation to explain physical reality. The scientific method: observe, propose a theory to explain your observations, perform experiments that will test the theory. If the results of the experiments match what the theory predicts, then the theory has a grounding in the truth of the nature of physical reality. If not, then you propose a new theory, think up and perform experiments, match with theory and so forth. 

 Many years ago Einstein proposed what is known as the General Theory of Relativity. Observations based on the theory for the past seventy five years have indicated that Einstein’s theory has merit. One of his predictions was that there should be a faint echo of the beginning of the universe in background radiation. After a difficult and long search, using instruments of the highest sensitivity, the fluctuations in the background radiation were very recently observed and most physicists believe that this confirmed not only Einstein’s theory but confirmed that the universe most probably began with what is now known as the Big Bang. And let us not forget that the originator of the Big Bang theory was a Catholic priest, Monseigneur Lemaître. Yes. One can be a great and imaginative scientist and be a Catholic priest who believes in what Genesis teaches.

In St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he speaks of the relationship between the Law, sin, and Christ. And in the passage I began with from the seventh chapter of the epistle, Paul states in a bold and clear way the human condition vis a vis sin. Man’s inability to do what is right even when he knows what is right. In the first letter to the Corinthians St. Paul uses the history of the Jews in the Old Testament as experimental evidence, where the experiment is living a life, where the chosen people of God over and over again refuse to honor the sacred covenant and do what they know is right. And this experimental evidence that is observation of facts is not confined to Jewish history. It includes all of human history, which is a history of man’s sinning in every possible sphere of existence. St. Paul loves lists, and his various lists of individual sins leave little out. And his theology of the cross of Jesus Christ is based on man who is fallen and who is in terrible need of redemption. “For since by man came death”. A wonderful summary of the Fall of man. Without a need for redemption, the Cross is both unfathomable and shallow.

Blessed John Henry Newman, in a passage in the Apologia pro Vita Sua, presents the evidence for the theory of original sin. I dare not summarize his words but will offer them to you as he wrote them:

To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts..the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration…the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion—all this is a vision to dizzy and appall: and inflicts on the mind a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution. What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer, that either there is no creator, or this living society of man is in a true sense discarded from his presence…if there is a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purpose of its creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence: and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.

Some terrible aboriginal calamity. But the fact is that we live in a world, a culture that not only denies the fallen-ness of man but also denies the very concept of sin. Modern and post-modern man look at the evidence of the reprehensible behavior of man, which they would admit, and posit a theory of their own to explain this terrible behavior, whether it be war, or pillage of some nature, or terrorism, or mass murders, or whatever catches the public’s eye. The theory is that man is capable of not behaving in such a fashion if only everyone would not buy guns, only if everyone let go of any moral judgment on someone’s behavior, only if everyone were better educated, only if everyone came from the enlightened areas of the Northeast or the West Coast, only if everyone were dedicated to the value of organic kale, only if everyone underwent the moral lobotomy that characterizes the leaders of this world. Then the bad stuff would stop. History would be changed into a series of glorious happenings that would explode into the apotheosis of the omega point. All of this in a culture that defends the reprehensibility of epidemic pornography that is destroying the meaning of sexuality not only among young people but also in marriages, and this in the name of freedom.

And so when President Obama is confronted with the atrocities, the deep sadness, of the killings of unarmed black people and of policemen doing their duty, he does not rend his impeccable suit and tie and don the symbolic clothing of sackcloth and ashes. All he can do is to look serious and hope for a time when hatred and killing will end. This is not to put him down as insensitive. But there is not a shred of evidence that that hope he exhibits has any foundation in human nature. There is no experimental evidence that man will come of age on his own, that his deep tendency to do the wrong thing can be eliminated by education in the right school or by espousing cheerful liberal principles. Government is necessary and must be supported. But government can never solve moral problems. Especially a government that denies the evidence of original sin and the need for redemption. Repent. Repent and believe the Gospel. O this, not in some sort of wild Flannery O’Connor evangelical laced story of the deep South, not in some sort of more-than-traditional Catholic way that denies the reality of the world in which we live, but in that way that will look at the evidence, will look at the experimental data, the experiential observation that is human history, and will examine both possibilities in a realistic and objective way: either that man is perfectible on his own or that man is in the grip of sin and death that is the echo of the Fall, and the only antidote to the poison is the love and mercy of God in the person of Jesus Christ. And to think about this, to make a decision about this, should be done not in some sort of deep existential agony and angst, nor in a professional think tank, least of all in a prestigious university, but rather in the beauty of this Mass that is the Holy Sacrifice, and perhaps, later, over a glass of good wine.