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The Lost Sense of Sin in Psychology (Part 1)

12/27/2005 - 6:00 AM PST

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Andrew Sodergren on Sin vs. Symptom

ARLINGTON, Virginia, DEC. 27, 2005 (Zenit) - Psychology needs to examine the role of sin in mental health, in the light of Christian anthropology, says a Catholic therapist.

Andrew Sodergren is a therapist at the Alpha Omega Clinic and Consultation Services, and a doctoral candidate at the (Institute for the Psychological Sciences).

The recently accredited institute is dedicated to the development of a psychology that is consistent with Church teachings while in constructive dialogue with the world.

In this two-part interview with us, Sodergren shares his views on psychology's tendency to "medicalize" human behavior and the implication for society.

Q: What do you mean when you say that modern man and society have lost a sense of sin? How have secularism and secular psychology in particular contributed to this?

Sodergren: We have been hearing a great deal recently from the Holy Father, various Church leaders and commentators about the growth of relativism.

It is worthwhile to recall the words of Benedict XVI shortly before the conclave that elected him Pope. In that address he accused modern culture of "building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires."

This growth in a relativistic mentality would not be possible without a prior weakening of the sense of sin. The "sense of sin" refers to having an accurate conception of sin and an awareness of sin in one's life.

It is part of what is normally understood as "conscience." John Paul II in "Reconciliatio et Paenitentia" wrote of a "sensitivity and an acute perception of the seeds of death contained in sin, as well as a sensitivity and an acuteness of perception for identifying them in the thousand guises under which sin shows itself. This is what is commonly called the sense of sin. This sense is rooted in man's moral conscience and is as it were its thermometer."

Thus, without a healthy sense of sin, man's conscience becomes clouded, and he easily goes astray. When this happens on a large scale, it can be disastrous for society.

Indeed, many writers have commented that "sin" has all but dropped out of modern discourse. John Paul II analyzed this situation and concluded that modern society has indeed lost its sense of sin for which he largely blames secularism. I believe that secular psychology has also had a particularly important role in diminishing the sense of sin.

Indeed, John Paul himself identified secular psychology among other human sciences as contributing to this loss.

Q: Can you explain what you mean by sin, in terms of character deformation rather than mere legalism?

Sodergren: In order to overcome the loss of the sense of sin, it is essential to recover a proper understanding of the nature of sin itself.

Sin is not simply a violation of a norm, rule, or law. Yes, it is that, but it is much more and its effects are far more insidious. It is crucial to widen our understanding of sin and avoid reducing sin to a merely legalistic view.

A renewed sense of sin begins with an acknowledgment of sin in its different manifestations: original sin, actual sin and social sin.

The Church's doctrine of original sin is often neglected today. By choosing themselves over God and thus rebelling from his command, our first parents marred their likeness to God. Their human nature was wounded by this rupture. We are all affected by the deleterious effects of original sin.

Every evil in the world is traceable back to this fundamental disruption at the beginning of time.

Since human nature consists of a unity of body and soul -- see the Catechism, No. 365 -- and the human soul is a spiritual soul -- see No. 367 -- original sin has then physical, psychological and spiritual effects.

In addition, man is a fundamentally relational being, which means that original sin necessarily disrupts his interpersonal relationships. Thus, disharmony is introduced between man and God, between human beings, within the human subject, and even between man and the cosmos.

Actual sin refers to the sinful actions that human persons commit. The character of the human person is shaped through his moral actions, which lead to the formation of dispositions. If his actions are righteous, the person develops virtues.

If, on the other hand, man's actions are immoral, his state in the world -- already disordered by original sin -- is worsened through the development of vices. This condition inclines him to commit further sins thus moving him toward further disintegration.

Seen in this way, sin can be seen as a dynamic, insidious force that is ...

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