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When I was a young evangelical Protestant, (I say that as a middle-aged evangelical Catholic), one of the most interesting youth group discussions I remember centered on a deceptively simple question. “Are we sinners because we sin, or do we sin because we are sinners?” In other words, do our actions indicate who we are, or do they aggregately determine who we are?
Most people will have a quick answer. But when you really stop to think about it, the question is much more complicated than it first appears. Certainly, human nature is fallen from what God intended it to be. Yet, we would all acknowledge that there are essentially good people, people who seek to know and do what is truly good. Those same good people, however, are not exempt from doing bad or harmful things. And when they do bad things, it is not only or always because they mistake something bad for what is good. That is, good people sin. Their wrong actions are not simply a matter of ignorance or self-deception, but of willfulness.
On the other hand, people who are not thought of as good, often do good things. Those whose personal morality may seem like a train wreck, have not infrequently demonstrated an active social conscience and a sincere desire to serve others with more than just words. Even the most notorious of sinners have supported charitable works. And while motives may be questioned, the goodness inherent in service to the poor cannot.
So what comes first, the sinner or the sin? In my Protestant congregation the correct answer was that we sin because we are sinners. That is, we do bad things because at root, our goodness has been so damaged and so compromised, that it is simply no longer intact. Humanity, for them, was essentially fallen and depraved. As they understood it, what we do flows not from how God made us in His image, but by how far we have tumbled from that divine intent. In other words, original sin is thought to have completely overshadowed anything that preceded it. For Catholics, this perspective seems to go a bit too far. After all, as easy as it is to see something “bad” in everyone who is “good,” it is just as easy to find something “good” about people who seem to pursue all kinds of evil with abandon.
I’ve been thinking about all this in response to two recent events. The first is news coverage of President Obama’s first 100 days in office. The second is Mary Ann Glendon’s decision to decline Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal. Sincere people can disagree on matters of policy and political approach, and still have confidence in one another. Popularity polls show just that. The president enjoys high personal ratings despite significantly lower numbers in support specific policies he has promoted. Somehow, the actions he has taken seem to remain separate, at least for now, from how people view him personally. Eventually, one would expect that people will evaluate Obama’s leadership as president based not only on who he is or how much they like him, but on what he does in matters of policy as well.
Mary Ann Glendon, honored by being selected to receive one of the most prestigious awards given to Catholic laity, took the time to fully consider the rather complicated situation in which she found herself. There is no doubt that her service to the Church and her fidelity to the Gospel of Life set Mary Ann Glendon apart. She was being honored simply because she has exhibited honor. But that same sense of honor demanded something more of her in this circumstance. It demanded the union of person and works we call integrity.
So, in the end, we do not need to choose whether sin or sinner came first. Instead, we see who we are and what we do as interdependent and interactive realities. I do something wrong because there is something wrong in me and about me. But if, as a generally decent person, I keep doing things that are wrong, I will become a worse human being. We are all sinners who sin. But sinning continually makes us worse sinners than we are when we start out.
Our actions matter. They not only flow from who we are; they also flow into who we are becoming. To be who we are in and through what we do is a guiding principle of every Christian. The truth is that to become what God created us to be, we must start by simply being who we are. As St. Francis De Sales put it, “be who you are, and be that well.” God, in time, will do the rest.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.