Friday, September 07, 2012


As a word, it seems to have gone out of fashion, at least in the company I keep. I don't recall it being a part of my children's vocabulary. I wonder if my grandchildren have even heard the word?

Certainly, it was a part of my vocabulary when I was growing up a Roman Catholic in the 1940s and 50s. A big part. We were raised to think about sin all the time. To examine our consciences. To avoid the occasions of sin. To confess our sins.

We were introduced to an elaborate calculus of sin. Mortal. Venial. Our souls were besmirched in fifty shades of grey. One black spot unexpunged could mean an eternity in hell.

By the time I absorbed this stuff, it was already centuries old. Then – bang! –- it seems to have vanished overnight.

Sin as we knew it was something different from immorality, although ostensibly they were the same thing. Sin was more strictly theological. Sin didn't require a victim. Sin didn't even require a deliberate act. A passing thought could be a sin. Eating meat on Friday could be a sin. In Gerard Manley Hopkins' biography I read that the young Jesuit seminarians were given "modesty powder" to render their bath water opaque, lest the sight of their own privates might stir impure thoughts. That's not immorality. That's sin.

We lined up in Church every Friday afternoon to whisper our pathetic lists of transgressions through a dark screen to the priest. What boredom it must have been for him! Sitting there for hours cleansing our dingy little souls with Our Fathers and Hail Marys. How he must have longed for Saturday evening when he might hear something really interesting from an adult.

I trust we raised our own children with a keen sense of morality. And our grandchildren seem to have soundly ethical outlooks on life. At least they don't walk around with that shroud of guilt and impending doom with which the Church worked so hard to wrap our young selves. What was the motive? Control, I think. An age-old, historically-founded, apparatus of control, typical of theocratic institutions everywhere.