Word Deflation

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A while back, one of the priests here during the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass would ask forgiveness for our “limitations.” I don’t wish to personalize my reaction to this – this priest was not a native English speaker – but the substitution of limitations for sin is worth thinking about.

Sin is always a matter of “agency,” that is, it speaks of concrete instances when I have “missed the mark” in thought, word or action, or when I have failed to act when I should have done so. The Catholic moral tradition speaks of sins of commission and omission. That’s the reason, I suppose, why penitents are required to indicate the number of times a sin is committed, taking it out of the realm of vague generality and reinforcing its specificity. Here, my Christian duty obliged me to think or speak or act lovingly, and I did the opposite. There, I had an opportunity to do some concrete good for someone in need, and I blew the chance.

Catholics used to be accused of being obsessed with sin. Not so much these days. If anything, this penitential language can sound off-putting to contemporary sensibilities and may explain the “temptation” to find a linguistic replacement for sin.

We do well to avoid the temptation. Counter intuitive as it may sound, sin preserves our dignity. Or better, sin operates within an anthropological framework that presupposes my freedom to do good. I am not determined by forces outside of my control – my family dysfunction, the debased culture of which I am a part, etc. – but I have the privilege of acting in accord with “the better angels of my nature.” The possibility of choosing otherwise, to sin, is the necessary corollary that follows from my God-given freedom.

“My limitations” does an end-run around the drama of the Christian life. Like much of the discourse of the day, it flattens things out. Instead of being those strange and wonderful creatures stretched out between angel and beast, we human beings just all have our limitations.