Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned...

I was describing to my 17-year-old granddaughter last evening the theological circumstances of my own moral life when I was her age, the whole superincumbent calculus of sin and salvation -- states of grace, venial sin, mortal sin, examination of conscience, confession, absolution, penance, Act of Contrition, ejaculations (short prayers), indulgences, Heaven, Hell, Purgatory -- in all of which eternity hung in the balance, an everafter of horrible torment or happy repose with the Beatific Vision. Dying with a single mortal sin on one's soul was enough to risk everlasting damnation, and everyone knows how easy it was for a 17-year-old boy to commit a mortal sin.

My granddaughter was, as one might imagine, incredulous. There was lots of laughter as I told the stories, although if you were a 17-year-old Catholic in 1953 it wasn't funny. My granddaughter was brought up without any of that grim moral bookkeeping -- indeed without any formal religion -- and I must say that her ethics are remarkably sound, and for better reasons than my own at age 17. She does good and avoids evil not because she seeks to avoid the fires of Hell, but because she was raised to know that her own happiness depends upon the happiness of others. I dare say that part of her moral sense is innate, perhaps even shared with her primate cousins.

One doesn't hear much of that old moral theology any more; the Church has swept the sillier aspects under the rug. For myself, by the time I was a young man there would be no parsing of supernaturalist theology, buying this, eschewing that; it was all or nothing. But I saw no need to put behind me the resonant subtexts of my natal faith, especially the sacramental tradition -- a sense that every aspect of the natural world is alive with outward signs of inner grace. Coming of age in the Catholic Church of the 1950s was like living in a haunted house, a house haunted by powers or spirits of which one had only the vaguest perception. I have long since put supernaturalism aside, but I still live in that haunted house, a universe whose every particular evinces an unknown and perhaps unknowable animating force that is worthy of attention, celebration, thanksgiving, praise.