“How can you, a sinner from birth, preach to us, we who are teachers of the law?” Most likely, all of us who are even minimally educated in the catechism of the Catholic Church, find these words of the Pharisees to the man born blind rather disturbing. If you, like me, find yourself “rooting” for the blind man and wishing to slap the Pharisees upside the head…then thank the person who taught you your catechism. I say this because if it was not for our belief in the Catholic dogma of original sin, all of us would most likely have this Pharisaical reaction to human suffering.
But let me be clear, almost every Catholic (as well as most Christians) knows a little catechism about original sin, but very few get beyond the basic idea that original sin was the sin that Adam and Eve committed long ago in the Garden of Eden. True enough…that is a good start. However, if that is all we can say about this belief we fall prey to all sorts of troublesome thinking. And when we have troublesome thinking it leads to troublesome attitudes and when we have some troublesome attitudes we do some troublesome things and we form troublesome habits. We can even end up declaring a suffering innocent person a wicked sinner who has only himself to blame for his misery.
The Pharisees in today’s gospel are talking just like the “friends” of Job in the Old Testament. Recall how Job while suffering so much was continually badgered by his companions to confess his guilt and repent in order to recover his health and well being. But Job can’t think of any sins so he can’t repent. (If you haven’t read the book of Job lately, Lent is a great time to do so. If you don’t have the time read the whole 42 chapters, read at least the first three and the last three chapters. The middle part is all the badgering stuff.) At the heart of the problem is an ignorance that in many ways is very understandable. But it is very problematic. They do not take the story of creation and the Fall seriously. We know suffering is very much connected to the fact that evil has been done. Just as light is understood in relationship to darkness, we know evil needs to be punished and good merits rewards. These guys figure, “this man is suffering, therefore he is being punished”. They falsely conclude, “Since I am doing well, I am being blessed.” (This actually is a common attitude found in many modern spiritualities). And, let’s admit it…“faith alone without works” has produced an odd dependence on being good to receive God’s blessings. They say: “Be good, be blessed, be bad and God won’t bless you.” This can creep into almost all of our hearts.
There is a subtle but dangerous example of this ignorance in the political realm. Those who are “progressive” are almost incapable of seeing suffering as an inescapable universal part of life. They are always assigning blame and always ready to enact new laws, which place huge burdens on others. They themselves do nothing to help carry the load. Their quest for the painless life is filled with assigning blame here and there. Extracting crushing fines upon nations for the past sins of slavery is as wrongheaded as our “friends” in the story of Job. Or when a worker’s union sues it’s “host” company into bankruptcy, they may feel good about placing the blame for suffering at the feet of someone, but they only end up increasing the quota of suffering. God allows the “curse” of Adam because it can (when we understand the redemptive characteristic of suffering) lead us to life everlasting.