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By Michael Barwick

Recently, when asked who he is, Pope Francis answered “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” Here is echoing the writings of St. Paul in Romans 3:23 “All have sinned and lack God’s glory”. Although a Biblical teaching and thus a tenet of Christianity, because the concept has been so misused, many mainline Christian denominations downplay it and some do not even mention it at all.

It’s a sad truth that the concept of sin has been wielded by some to bash lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered persons. And some people have been badly hurt by the practice. Even as adult believers, rising above it and not taking it personally when it rears its ugly head isn’t always easy.

One important realization I had when I first was converting to Roman Catholicism is that we’re not the only ones who get treated this way. The sin concept is used to bash all sorts of people and it’s often taken to heart in very unhealthy ways. I soon learned about widespread “Catholic guilt” among the faithful — the nasty habit of beating yourself up for your perceived transgressions. And the trouble is that it can be destructive to our efforts on the spiritual path.

It’s a sad truth that the concept of sin has been wielded by some to bash lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered persons. And some people have been badly hurt by the practice. Even as adult believers, rising above it and not taking it personally when it rears its ugly head isn’t always easy.

While feeling remorse is an appropriate response to personal sin, it’s not the same thing as feeling guilty. Guilt feelings tend to paralyze; remorse inclines you to make better choices. Whether your feelings are being stirred up by an external or internal stimulus, if it’s not empowering you but rather just making you feel bad, it’s not healthy. Furthermore, when it’s activated by a perceived authority, and it’s related to sexual orientation and/or gender identity issues, it’s important to recognize two things: the source is typically being driven by fear and ignorance of what it is attacking and that the worst part of the sting comes from unresolved internalized shame about who and what you are. Considering the true nature of the external source and coming to terms with your inner shame can help you differentiate between guilt from remorse.

Catholicism provides powerful truths that can mitigate a negative encounter with someone who judges you with conceptions of sin or surfacing feelings of inappropriate self-condemnation.

First, the concept that we all are sinners actually can be quite liberating. Because it’s impossible to be perfect, you can be loving to yourself when you fall short. It’s human. And for Catholics, when it’s necessary, you can seek out a good confessor for the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.

Secondly, despite anything you may have done, you can still make claim to your primary goodness because every person is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). Jesus says in Matthew 7:17, “a sound tree produces good fruit” How much greater and better is our creator God than a sound tree? We are works of God and thus in our essence, we cannot change that we are good.

The concept that we all are sinners actually can be quite liberating. Because it’s impossible to be perfect, you can be loving to yourself when you fall short. It’s human.

Thirdly, there is another key understanding in Romans “So it is proof of God’s own love for us that Christ died for us while we were still sinners.” (Romans 5:8). And as for the nature of God’s love as understood by St. Paul, consider that this learned Jew would have read and understood Psalm 136, which asserts at the end of all of its verses that “God’s faithful love endures forever.”

Fourthly, God does not see as we see (1 Samuel 16:7). God sees us as divine offspring (“You must see what great love the Father has lavished on us by letting us be called God’s children — which is what we are!” 1 John 3:1) with a divine inheritance (“And if we are children, then we are heirs, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ.” Romans 8:17).

Fifthly, while the truth of Romans 3:23 is correct that all have sinned and lack God’s glory, it must be remembered in the 24th verse that follows is the complementary understanding: “and all are justified by the free gift of his grace through being set free in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus is God’s great gift of love to us (John 3:16). Our God is love itself (1 John 4:8). Despite our mistakes, our failures, our shortcomings, and our sins, God is continually seeing us through the eyes of love. May we all come to view ourselves and our world this way!


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