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  • Christian Patin

Did the Catholic Church Invent Sin?

“For the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many” (Mt. 7:13, RSV). This is the warning in the Gospel of Matthew for anyone who seeks to make light of the hard work ahead of the moral person.

You would think that such strong words would call for discernment and sober introspection. In most cases that’s probably the case, but not for Fr. Bryan Massingale. He believes that the road to heaven is easy, and the way wide. At least, that was the implication of the opening prayer he gave before one of his talks at the Religious Education Congress in Anaheim California, in which he invoked the eternal name of God to help us “make all roads wide” that lead to his mercy and forgiveness.

On its own, it’s not much of a problem. I could make the argument that it’s fine to hope that everyone is brought back to God, to hope everyone doubles back away from sin and toward Him. I could make that argument. And I would if Massingale gave me so much as a shred of hope that that’s what he meant. Unfortunately, I stuck around for the whole talk.

On the second day of the RE Congress, Fr. Bryan Massingale—the same Fr. Massingale who just one day before gave a talk called “Transsexual in Our Schools: One Bread, One Body,” about the increasingly relevant discussion on how to accept and approve of transsexuality (and those who subscribe to other gender ideologies) in the Church and in society—gave a talk called “Sin: From Breaking Rules to Violating Justice.” During the hour and a half talk, Massingale discussed everything from the nature of sin (as he sees it) to its historicity.

Being familiar with some of the other problematic talks he’s given at Congress in recent years, such as one he did on the “Primacy of Conscience,” I was nearly certain that this talk would also completely stray from actual Catholic moral theology—which is interesting considering he calls himself a “noted authority on Catholic moral theology.”

Not to my surprise, he did precisely that. Not only did he completely abandon the ancient understanding of the Church, he tries to strong-arm her history into supporting a mutable, wavering version of the Church—a Church that has supposedly never really been sure about what sin is.

I recognize that my impression is meaningless without context; to be sure, many Catholics who love the Church spent their hard-earned money to come and see this guy (and others like him). One wonders what makes Massingale such a problem if so many Catholics like what he’s saying. But then I would remind you that Arius, of the Arian Heresy, was also popular among many Catholics—he was obviously still in the wrong. At any rate, here are some things we learned from Fr. Massingale’s talk, and why he’s got it totally wrong.

The Church Treats Us Like Children

One of the first distinctions Massingale makes in his talk is between a “childhood understanding” of morality (and sin) and an “adult understanding.” On this, he notes that, as children, we tend to see things differently than as adults. This is obviously true, but the interesting thing is where he takes his point. He suggests that, for children, morality “comes from the outside,” from parents and from authority.

He further posits that when we are kids, morality has negative connotations (don’t do this; no; etc.) and that we abide by rules and rely on obedience to do well. He adds that fear is the driving force for children—he even quips that “we may dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but don’t worry, we’re coming back to that,” implying that dreading the loss of heaven and the pains of hell is a childish way to look at morality.

In contrast, he offers what he calls an “adult understanding” of morality, which focuses on the inner-self. He says an adult’s morality “comes from within,” and that the adult moral person tells himself, “this is the kind of person I am and want to be.” The moral adult is inspired, not “governed by fear, but by role models.”

Did you catch the new-age tone there? Not only is adult morality always positive, but it comes from within. It doesn't come from God or from any authority, but from you and your conscience.

It comes as no surprise that Massingale would set up his talk by appealing to conscience; last year, he all but disowned the authority of the Church when he suggested that “Primacy of Conscience” permits us to disregard Church teaching. This year, he completes his metamorphosis, suggesting that all morality comes from within. We’re in charge. To this point, he even builds himself a straw man, poking fun at anyone who suggests that relativism is the problem (it is), because the real problem is the Church (it isn’t).

Sin for Dummies

In his kindness, Fr. Massingale takes the audience on a guided tour of the “basic concept of sin.” To my surprise, he makes some solid points about the nature of sin: That it impacts our relationship with God, that it implies a “negative relationship” with Him—that it separates us from Him. That’s all true. But not to my surprise, he follows all that solid Catholic theology with one seriously problematic sentence: “This all depends on our understanding of God.” He continues, “few have come to understand that God is this awesome mystery that we don’t understand…and that changes our idea of God.”

Massingale wittingly sets up the premise: If God is completely unknowable, then sin is completely undefinable. The problem is that God isn’t completely unknowable—except apart from the Church, a Church that Massingale accuses of being “afraid of what [it doesn’t] understand.” More than that, he disparages her history of appealing to authority, which perfectly undermines his point. You can’t come to know God apart from the Church, and you can’t be an active member of the Church if you don’t accept her authority.

In Massingalian theology, sin as a concept depends on how we see God; it isn’t an objective, immutable truth. Rather, it is a construct that depends on the times, on the era—sin isn’t always sinful. And it isn’t always real either. Yep, you heard me.

During his talk, Massingale, when breaking down what sin is, teaches us that “[a]s Catholics we don’t believe in sin, we believe in the forgiveness of sin” (my emphasis). To my utter frustration, he kept trying to pull this quasi-truth nonsense, making a true statement—that we believe in the forgiveness of sin—and admixing it with total noxiousness—that we don't believe in sin itself, which is false. After that little comment, he says, “I’ll fix that later,” implying (rightly) that it sounds problematic. But the damage is done.

As if he hadn’t trampled Catholic theology adequately, the deranged priest continues further into his dissent. Having forgotten most of his priestly formation—or maybe having gotten none to begin with—Fr. Massingale permits his audience to only talk about sin “in the context of a lighter, bigger picture: mercy.” This teaching is in stark contrast to that of actual saints, like St. Alphonsus Liguori, who writes:

"God is merciful." Behold the third delusion of sinners by which an immense number are lost! A learned author says, that the mercy of God sends more souls to hell than his justice; for sinners are induced, by a rash confidence in the divine mercy, to continue in sin and thus are lost… God is merciful: but he is also just…

But Father Bryan Massingale is a “noted authority on Catholic moral theology,” so it's fine. It doesn’t really matter that his “sola misericordiae” (mercy alone) pedagogy is at odds with the Church. After all, sin is apparently changing all the time.

Sin in the Old Testament

According to Massingale’s history of theology, sin can change. In the Old Testament, he claims, sin was a “ruptured relationship,” not a “broken law.” In the first half of the Bible, he maintains, sin was always a breach of the covenant we had with God, never an "immoral" action. This, of course, is a dig on Catholic moral theology. In complete agreement with protestant moral theology, Massingale accuses the Church—in her entirety—of legalism, through and through. Perhaps without even realizing it (I think he realizes it), he impugns the weight and value of Church law, and I must assume that includes Canon Law and the Catechisms—all of them.

Sin and Jesus

In the New Testament, sin apparently changes—and we’re supposed to be fine with that. “Jesus,” Massingale tells us, “had two things: Do not be afraid, and your sins are forgiven.” I wish I could tell you that this was an exaggeration, but it isn’t. In all of Scripture, of all the Gospels, Massingale boils Christ down to two (tragically misunderstood) sentences. Need I remind you of St. Liguori’s comments above?

In true Neo-Catholic fashion, Fr. Massingale wants you (and me) to believe that morality is simple. But not just simple. We’re supposed to believe that it is unimportant. If you asked whether morality is important or not, Massingale would undoubtedly say it is, but his message is on the contrary. Such is typical of a heretic.

Keeping with the new, charismatic understanding of morality, Father Massingale thinks nothing more of Christ’s ministry than that he “acts it out with scandalously inclusive fellowship.” He predictably reiterates, “Jesus ate with sinners.” Never mind that Jesus also called us to conversion and self-abandonment. That bit doesn't fit the narrative.

Don’t forget, too, that sin is different in the New Testament than it was in the Old Testament; Father Massingale says so. And now sin is different than it was in the Old and New Testaments.

In the New Testament, Massingale tells us, the word “sinner” described a social class of people, “not an immoral person.” He explains that shepherds, swine keepers, and tax collectors were all “sinners.” He keeps going, “[the] nativity was a scandalous story,” and as for women, “women who didn’t conform to social norms…we call them ‘prostitutes’, those who were ritually unclean, etc.”

What he’s implying here reeks of post-feminism, but I’ll leave that alone.

Sin and the Church

If you weren’t salty already, this little segment of Massingale’s “workshop” should do the trick. At this point in the talk, the focus changes from morality to the silliness of sin—because sin is a joke. It’s only that negative quality about man that separates us from our Divine and Perfect Creator. No big deal.

To kick off the segment, Massingale says, as if a matter of fact, “sin is a development of the Council of Trent.” I put that in bold, so you’d see it. In case this isn’t completely clear, Massingale is admitting, for the entire world, that sin didn’t exist before Trent. At the very least, he is claiming that sin, as far as the Church was concerned, existed differently before the sixteenth century. He says that sin after Trent “was driven by the practice of confession.” He continues (in jest), saying that after Trent “the individual had to examine [their] conscience, the priest had to discern the gravity, and, depending on how serious they were, you got a penance!”

He detracts from the Sacrament of Reconciliation by saying (again, in jest) that the whole thing was premised upon “how did you know what to confess? You knew because sin was based on broken rules.” Notice the acute break from authority. Because Trent couldn't possibly have been addressing problems with the laity not taking sin as seriously as they should—it must have been about the rules all along.

I’m quick to wonder where Massingale resides within the Church. The cognitive dissonance in the talk was resounding. Does he reject Church authority? He certainly seems to reject the authority of the Council of Trent, a resolutely authoritative council. This is the simplest, most open-and-closed case of heresy I’ve ever seen, and yet it was funded by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Diminishing Church authority, however, was not Massingale’s final plunge into the complete abandonment of the Church. No, he insisted on listing off a few sins, sins the Church once declared mortally sinful, for the sake of humor—because mortal sin is funny. A few he mentioned:

  • Eating meat on Fridays, laughing at the fact that the Church once declared more than 2 ounces of consumed meat of Fridays to be mortally sinful. (Audience bursts into laughter.)

  • Servile work on Sundays, because it’s hilarious that the Church considered more than 2.5 hours of work on Sunday to be grave. (Mordacious laughter from the audience.)

  • Letting the Sanctuary Lamp go out, poking fun at the letter of the law, which limits the amount of time it can be out before it is gravely sinful. (More laughter.)

  • Frequent and prolonged kissing, because 10 seconds or more was apparently the rule of thumb before. (Sarcastic and snide gasps from the audience, which was particularly egregious to me.)

After his comedy routine, he says, “we laugh at this, and rightly so.” Oh, the arrogance.

While Massingale attempts to impugn the attempt on the part of the Church to define mortal sin, he loses complete sight of what those definitions sought to do. He accuses this so-called innovation of Trent of being minimalist, of having warped ideas of sexuality, and of being morally immature, “always looking to authority”, as if authority is something the Church doesn’t, or shouldn't, have.

I’m curious as to how Massingale would resolve the minimalist, “how far can I go” mentality that flows forth from the "spirit" of Vatican II, or from Pope Francis—of whose Massingale is an enthusiastic fan—who does anything but define things. At least the medieval Church could give you a straight answer on whether you had committed a sin. Try getting one of those from Amoris Laetitia.

Sin is a Social Justice Issue…Only

Massingale isn’t done making his bed, however. It might come as no surprise that he is an active supporter of political/social movements and is a staunch supporter of LGBT (especially T) rights and privileges in the Church and in society. He made that clear in his previous workshops. His interpretation of sin, then, follows suit.

If you could take nothing more from his talk than one point, he’d give you a single nugget: he says, “sin…stems from the prior act of idolatry. But idolatry, [people don’t understand], always manifests itself in a broken community. The acid test is: how are the socially vulnerable being treated?” There it is. Listening to the talk and hearing him deny the wholeness of the Catholic understanding of sin, I knew he was getting at some bigger point. That was it. The only way you can sin, according to Massingale, is if you weren’t helping your brother.

Before anyone gets all up in arms about what I’m saying, I want to be clear that real social justice is important. Actual love and actual charity are the truest expressions of Divine Love we can proffer. But it never involves undermining Church teaching. Ever.

Social sin and personal sin are different, even if related. Pope St. John Paul II, whom Massingale cites often, helps to establish the differences and similarities between social and personal sin (see Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 16), but they aren’t nearly as clear-cut as saying all sin is social injustice.

But the good news is that Massingale can define for you two examples of real mortal sin, sins that “go a lot deeper than forgetting to light a candle at Mass”—because Tradition is unimportant.

His first example of “rampant” mortal sin is “domestic abuse.” He says, “the most dangerous place for women in America is the home.” Then, he accuses the Baltimore Catechism of inadequacy, complaining that it only looks “at the individual men who are doing these bad things to women, they’re the guilty ones.” The new understanding of sin, mind you, is personal and communal. If you didn’t catch it, the Baltimore Catechism is essentially wrong because it doesn’t blame all men.

The second example is racism. He mentions the more recent cases in Ferguson and Charleston and talks about Black and Latino men who would be killed in circumstances in which White men and women wouldn’t be. Somehow, he ties that issue in with the election and admits that he allowed his students to skip an exam because of distress over Trump’s election.

Racism is sinful. Domestic abuse is also sinful. They aren’t the only sins.

Finally, we come to his concluding point: the Jesuit concept of the “Magis.” I can’t say I’ve nailed down what exactly that is, but he describes it as “the most subversive and awesome work in Ignatian spiritual heritage.” He says it is “that holy restlessness that leaves us dissatisfied and longing for what lies beyond us.” To me, it sounds less Ignatian and more sinister. A “subversive” work that leaves us “dissatisfied and longing” for more? I thought our hearts were restless until they rested in God. Back to the drawing board, Augustine.

Massingale, in excitement, defines the “magis” as that which “breaks open our hearts and calls us to be creators of a new society, a new Church” (my emphasis). This is pure poison. It denies the profession of faith—a binding creed, which brings our attention to the world we were made for, a world we cannot create. To borrow a phrase from Dr. Ryann Topping’s book, Rebuilding Catholic Culture: How the Catechism Can Shape our Common Life, “Desire for heaven [has been] replaced by hope for a heavenly earth”, and that’s frightening.

One of the closing sentences of the talk was “sin is real; God is also real.” But I thought he said sin was an invention of Trent!

This perfectly encapsulates the sensibility of Massingale’s talk. It holds as much water as a sift. Between denying authority and citing Popes, I can’t begin to imagine what Massingale actually believes of sin, save for the fact that most of it is silly. And having gotten a standing ovation given by the multitudes who attended his workshop, I can only hope that each of you prays for his victims—and for his eternal soul.

All of the quotes I've provided of Massingale's talk, unless otherwise stated, were written down at the time of the event; recording of the talk was not permitted, and it was not being recorded by the providers of the workshop.

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