As we find ourselves in the midst of Holy Week and Triduum, we steadily prepare our hearts for the pending joy of Easter. This time remains penitential and therefore solemn, as we look for ways to ask the Lord for forgiveness for what we have done, in order to be reconciled with him, and therefore to be better prepared spiritually to avoid temptation and sin in the future.
The sacramental life, centered on the Holy Eucharist and fortified by making recourse to the sacrament of penance, is crucial to a healthy dynamic with the Lord. With a recognition of one’s own shortcomings and an accompanying sense of sin ideally firmly established, a prime point of departure is to recall that every march toward the decision to participate in sin begins with Satan’s notorious words: “Did God really say…?” (Genesis 3:1).
The first step that someone takes on the way to committing a sin tends to be an attempt to justify it. We could contrive myriad examples of scenarios in which a potential sinner becomes an active sinner due to having surmised a justification for committing the act in question. Meanwhile, Satan is there with his ontological smirk, tempting relentlessly until the person has decided that God did not really say that [so and so] is a sin, or at least one that would constitute such a serious offense against his will.
So, did God really say that we should love God first and our neighbor subsequently (see Mark 12:30-31), that we should even love our enemies (see Luke 6:27), that marriage is the lifelong covenantal bond of one man and one woman (see Matthew 19:1-12), that we are to look with compassion on those living in challenging situations of loneliness, material destitution, or some other category of degradation (see Matthew 25:31-46) and that we must recognize Christ as our only Lord and Savior (see John 14:6)?
We can rest assured that God really has made such demands of us, knowing that we are eminently capable of following through.
As a relevant aside, a question that I commonly receive as a high school theology teacher is “Why does the Catholic Church not allow [insert the sin du jour]?” At this, I tend to begin with a quip of a retort: What did Jesus have to say about [this moral issue]? There is no doctrine of the Catholic Church that does not have as its substance some teaching of Christ’s from within the Gospels.
The Catholic Church does not simply say “no” to this, that or the other sin. Rather, the Church underscores a reality that is true, holy and therefore beautiful — if one is sufficiently “open-minded” to accept such a notion.
We are in an era in which dissent against the Church’s unpopular teachings (at least as far as the case in the West presents itself), whether against the use of artificial contraception, for the definition of marriage, for the sanctity of human life across the spectrum, or even for love for enemies (think deeply about how that teaching is too frequently despised in modern times), is at a fever pitch. Yet, God is not a God of excuses. The spiritual lightweight excuses away sin, while the aspiring saint looks to what God really says. Does this run the risk of becoming pharisaical? It should not, at least not in consideration of Matthew 7:21-23 and Luke 17:1-4, among related expectations.
The Church has no shortage of resources when it comes to drawing the faithful to understanding her teachings. Catholics must do better at acquiring a familiarity with Sacred Scripture, with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and with numerous other valid resources intended to strengthen a life of faith. Read what the pope and your bishop have written. Endeavor to form your conscience according to orthodoxy (from the Greek for “right reading”) and robust logic, so as not to misconstrue your emotion-laced opinion as that which is tantamount to the foundation of your moral framework.
The next time you are tempted by that most nefarious of quips, “Did God really say…?” make haste instead to the steadfast words of the Apostle Paul: “Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2).