A History of Sin: How Evil Changes, But Never Goes Away
By John Portmann
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield
Review Author: Arthur C. Sippo
First of all, the title of this book is a misnomer: It should have been titled The Deconstruction of Sin. Author John Portmann, who claims to be a Catholic, is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. His real intention with A History of Sin is ostensibly to rethink the idea of sin in order to justify the modern tendency to tolerate all manner of vices, and to explain away the moral indifference of the modern world as “fatigue” over the tiresome moral standards of the past. In Portmann’s view, people are tired of all this wrangling over old-fashioned notions of sin and atonement, and they just want to get on with their lives. Meanwhile, Portmann identifies “new” sins that are supposedly far more important to modern people: racism, sexism, homophobia, smoking, obesity, environmental pollution, and other liberal shibboleths. He offers no real discussion of the evolution of our understanding of sin in the Bible or throughout history. He does pick and choose a few individual thinkers to discuss briefly, but there is no systematic presentation of the development of the doctrine of sin, and the magisterial documents of popes and Church councils are scrupulously ignored. (The Ten Commandments do not even warrant a reference in the book’s index.)
Sadly, he seems very poorly informed about Catholic moral theology, and it is obvious from very early in the book that he judges the morality of an act by its consequences and not by any principle of right action. In short, for Portmann, the end justifies the means. Further, Portmann exhibits no awareness of absolute negative prohibitions, natural law, the distinction between venial and mortal sin, or the importance of virtue in moral actions. It is doubtful that he has ever read John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which is utterly inexcusable for any Catholic who wants to comment intelligently on Catholic moral teaching.
Likewise, there is no discussion of the important milestones in the development of the Church’s teaching about sin. Though St. Augustine and Pelagius are mentioned briefly, more time is devoted to Luther and Calvin, but again Portmann delivers no in-depth discussion of what they actually thought and how it differs from traditional Catholic teaching. To be blunt, Portmann is more interested in American liberal ethical apologetics than he is in truly understanding what sin is.
Furthermore, his understanding of the doctrine of original sin is far more Protestant than Catholic. He gives the impression that original sin teaches that men are born guilty of the sin of Adam, which was a Protestant innovation. Catholic theology insists that men inherit the consequences of the sin of Adam — physical death, the pains of the body, and the privation of sanctifying grace — but not the responsibility or the punishment due for the actual sin of Adam. The failure to understand this distinction leads Portmann to assert incorrectly that original sin means we are all born actual sinners in Adam, whereas Catholic theology teaches that we are born virtual sinners who are inclined to sin by the privation of sanctifying grace, which was the primary consequence of Adam’s sin. This leads to other serious misunderstandings. Since he thinks all men are born actual sinners, the concept of Limbo makes no sense to him and he claims that the Church has recently “eliminated it.” But the recent discussions sponsored by the Vatican have not eliminated Limbo. The Vatican has instead tried to deal with the pastoral problem of the fate of Christian parents’ unbaptized children who die before the age of reason. It was the procrustean excesses of the media that made it seem as if Limbo were eliminated. The question about the ultimate fate of the unbaptized who live and die outside the Church remains open, and Limbo remains their most viable destination based on Catholic theology.
Overall, Portmann just does not understand what sin is. Sin is an offense against God. It is not a necessary assertion of human autonomy in determining moral norms for ourselves, as he and other modernists want to claim. Sin is what happens when we knowingly and willingly do what is wrong in the eyes of God, based on what He has revealed to us in Scripture, Tradition, and nature. It is the consummate act of rebellion against the Lordship of God. In this sense, every explicit act of sin — mortal or venial — represents an implicit fundamental option against God. What makes sins mortal or venial is how God judges them, not how we do. Our disordered natures after the Fall cloud our minds, and we are tempted to think of ourselves as “like God knowing good and evil.” But in reality we are like the serpent: self-serving, self-justifying, and self-centered. Our “fatigue” with sin and atonement is nothing new. It was in fact one of the first fruits of original sin. That was one reason why God sent His Son to suffer and die for us. He was trying to get our attention away from our self-serving casuistry and show us that sin is not about “being a bad neighbor” as much as it is being a prodigal son of our Father in Heaven.
The bourgeoisie have always tried to set moral standards based on their own values and desires. But this has nothing to do with being a New Creation in Christ. It is this we are called to, not affirmative action, the rain forest, or amoralist tolerances. Sadly, Portmann doesn’t see this, and he is typical of those in our time who would remake Christianity into something “relevant to modern man.”
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