Sickness and Sin

by Dennis McInerny

The eminent Thomistic philosopher Jacques Maritain took as his motto the phrase Distinguer pour unir, which I translate freely as, “Distinguish so that you will be able to unite.” Unless we form the habit of making critical distinctions, so that we clearly see how things differ and are separate from one another, we will never be able to discover the underlying unity that binds all things together. We cannot have a clear and complete vision of the “big picture” unless and until we appreciate the distinct things that go together to compose that picture.

So many of the difficulties with which we are beset today, both within the Church and in society as a whole, can be explained by our systematic failure to make distinctions. The most important distinction that we need constantly to be aware of—and the failure to acknowledge results in utter disaster—is the distinction between truth and falsity. It is upon that distinction that all other distinctions rest.

Clearly, the distinction between sickness and sin is an important one, and quite real. A real distinction, in contrast to a logical distinction, is one that actually exists in the objective order, and is independent of the mind. So, for example, the distinction between a hand and a foot is a real distinction; it is not one made up by the mind simply so that it can better understand the world. Likewise, the distinction between sickness and sin is a real distinction. No sane person would confuse the conscious killing of an innocent human being, an obvious sin, with the circumstance of, say, being afflicted by muscular dystrophy. And yet in contemporary thought there is much blurring of the distinction between sickness and sin.

What is the critical criterion for establishing the distinction between sickness and sin? It is the fact that sin is always the result of conscious, willed action on the part of a human agent. Let us recall the basic conditions that have to be met in order for a sin to be a sin. (a) There must be a thought, word, or deed that is contrary to God’s law. (b) The person must know what he is about when he thinks a certain thought, says a certain word, or does a certain deed that is contrary to God’s law. (c) The person must freely will what he knows. All this can be summed up by saying that sin is something we are responsible for. Sin does not simply happen to us. We make it happen. If we sin, we have literally no one else but ourselves to blame for the sin.

In contrast to this, it is possible for us to become sick, perhaps seriously sick, through no fault of our own. By definition, one cannot sin and be morally innocent. But sickness, physical or mental, and complete moral innocence can go together, and often do.

But we must take note of a significant kind of overlapping that can take place between sickness and sin. Once again, we are always responsible for sin, and that is because sin is something done knowingly and willingly. (Conversely, if there is not sufficient knowledge and full consent of the will, there is no question of sin.) A sinner, in other words, is always at fault. This is obviously not the case with a person who is sick. We can become sick and not be in any way morally responsible for our sickness. It can indeed be something that simply happens to us.

But is this always the case? No, it is not. We all know that sometimes we can bring sickness upon ourselves, by the free actions that we perform. Furthermore, sometimes the free actions that we perform which result in sickness may be sinful actions. Think of the man who deliberately sets out to get drunk, succeeds, and as a result spends the whole following day in bed, quite sick and incapacitated. And as a result of his escapade he misses two days of work. Or, more seriously, consider the man who habituates himself to grave sexual sin, and as a result he contracts a deadly disease. These men are not innocent. The sicknesses they suffer are sicknesses they brought upon themselves.

At times, then, we ourselves can be the cause of the sicknesses we suffer. There are instances where sickness does not just happen; we make it happen.Let us consider another circumstance. Would it ever be possible that a physical or mental sickness with which a person is afflicted, through no fault of his own, could be a cause of sin in that person? The answer is No. We remind ourselves of a basic truth, often stressed by St. Thomas: the human will is the cause of sin. There is nothing in the universe, not Satan himself, that can cause us to sin, and this includes sickness. Granted, mental or physical sickness can affect a person in such a way so as to make it more difficult for him to combat the temptations to sin. But in such a case, as St. Paul assures us, the grace of God will always be sufficient.

We could imagine a situation where a person is so seriously ill, either mentally or physical, that the ability of that person to think clearly and to exercise his will with perfect freedom would be impaired. But in a situation of that sort the person would not be morally responsible for his actions, for the two conditions that must be met in order for sin to be present—sufficient knowledge, full consent of the will—would not be met. But the important point here, worth repeating, is that no state of sickness, mental or physical, just as such, can cause us to sin.

We live in an age that does not at all like the idea of sin, but—to use its own language—is quite “comfortable” with the idea of sickness. The intellectual elite that shapes our culture studiously avoids explaining adverse human behavior in terms of sin. Indeed, it is considered to be bad taste even to mention the word. But we are more than willing to explain just about all adverse behavior in terms of sickness. No one is a sinner. Everyone is merely sick. And if there is not an immediately available sickness by which a certain kind of aberrant behavior can be designated, then one will be quickly invented.

Modern psychology must bear much of the blame for this whole mode of thinking. “Mental illness” has now became a very capacious category; “syndromes” proliferate like bunny rabbits; and who can keep track of all the “addictions” and “disorders” by which the human race is now supposedly being victimized. The purpose behind the movement to remove “sin” from our vocabulary and replace it with “sickness” is as obvious as it is self-serving: to relieve human beings of the burden of responsibility for their actions. It is as if there is a dedicated effort to establish a perpetual game of passing the buck, to the accompaniment of a catchy ditty: “Everyone nicely is the same, no one really is to blame.”

Our concern here is with the importance of distinctions. There is, to be sure, a real distinction between mental health and mental sickness. Mental sickness, in other words, is not simply a fiction. But to attempt to reduce all adverse human behavior to mental illness blurs a real distinction, and serves to diminish the reality of genuine mental sickness, and its seriousness. It also has the devastating effect of destroying human dignity, for that dignity rests squarely on the fact that we are truly free, and are truly responsible for our actions. Take away the freedom and responsibility and the dignity is gone, and without the dignity men are reduced to the level of animals. Confession, repentance, and reparation are replaced by therapy.

This article originally appeared in the August 2004 North American District Fraternity Newsletter.  To receive our newsletter free by mail, please visit our subscription page.

June 10, 2010