Simcha Fisher, author of The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning writes for several publications and blogs daily at Aleteia. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and ten children. Without supernatural aid, she would hardly be a human being.
Yesterday, I was chatting with the editor of my upcoming book about sex, marriage, and NFP. As a non-Catholic, she rejects the Church's teaching abut sex, marriage and NFP; but she enjoys and respects the way Catholics think and speak about the world in general. Because of the theological disparity between us, and because she's a good editor, she is very aware that she needs to separate her editorial judgment from her moral opinions of my work; and I enjoy hearing the professional perspective of someone with a different personal point of view.
We were chatting about a passage I wrote, describing a woman as "gluttonous." Here, my editor's professional poise broke down. She simply couldn't fathom one woman calling another one (even a hypothetical one!) "gluttonous." She said that she always tries to think why people do the things they do, whether it's eating too much pie or shooting up an elementary school. Maybe they had been abused as children, or had some screwy brain chemistry, or who knows? She found it totally useless to identify some behavior as "sinful," because she felt that it made us merciless toward each other. She is a compassionate and generous person, and talking about "sinful" behavior strikes her as nothing but mean.
I think her understanding of sin is this: Catholics believe there are some things that God and/or the Church does not want you to do. As long as you do them, then that makes you a bad person. No excuses.
But this is not so. The Catholic point of view only starts by identifying some behavior as sinful. We don't just say, "I notice that I do this bad thing; therefore, I am a foul sinner. Woe unto me and unto my children's children!" We say, "I notice that I do this bad thing. Ugh, I want to stop, even if only because I don't want to lose my soul. God forgive me. God help me! Why do I do this, and what can I do to change?"
The sin of gluttony is a good example of a sin that's easy to identify, but whose genesis is harder to pin down. It's one thing to sit down to a gorgeous, juicy plate of roast beef and gobble up every last bit of it with relish and delight, and then to realize, "Oof, I ate too much." But it's quite another to feed your face, mechanically and joylessly, year after year. And it's quite another to use food to comfort yourself when you're grieving, and then to keep the habit years later. And it's quite another to use food to punish yourself because you think you're ugly. And it's quite another to eat very little food at all, but to spend most of your day thinking about optimal nutrition, making other people feel cruddy for not thinking as much about it as you do.
And of course, even that overly-refined form of gluttony could have all sorts of origins: self-loathing encouraged by an abusive spouse or parent; a desire to control one aspect of an out-of-control life; or just plain old vanity.
The only thing these forms of gluttony have in common is that they have to do with food; they have nothing to do with health or enjoyment; and they are all bad for you, in body and in soul . That is why they are sins: because they will harm us. The Church warns us against them like a mother warns her children away from stinging bugs and sharp thorns.
But of course, we are not children. As adults in the faith, it's our responsibility, if we really want to conquer some habitual sin (gluttony or anything else), to work on figuring out why we are drawn to this behavior. Once we identify some behavior as sinful, we need to figure out what sort of life we would like to lead instead. That's the only point that I can see in trying to figure out why we do something that's bad for us: because it will help us to change, and will give us more compassion for others who struggle to conquer with sins of their own.
This intention to change is fundamental to the Catholic understanding of sin. In fact, it's one of the conditions of making a good confession.
In a way, examining your conscience is very much like being a good editor. Editors are trained to spot and ferret out what is objectively unacceptable in a manuscript. But the best editors do more than just mark up the page with red ink, noting all the errors. This is only helpful in the most limited way, and it may very well lead the writer, especially if they're the delicate genius type, to despair. Instead, a good editor will try to figure out what the author was actually trying to say when they went astray; and they help them to make corrections and draw out something better.
The same is true when we take a close look at our own souls. In a way, we have to do what my editor does: we have to put aside our emotional responses to what we see in our own lives and just look at it as a trained editor would: this is a sin, that is a sin, etc. We have to identify the objective errors and flaws and omissions that are making our lives second-rate. But it's not enough to just spot the errors. We have to read our lives with different eyes, and look at ourselves with that compassionate, personal point of view, and figure out why we made these mistakes -- why we do the things we do.
Because the time for revisions does run out, eventually! Night cometh, and some deadlines are final.