Loren Discovers Sin

There are probably more important, and definitely more challenging, ideas to be found in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but I was most struck by Stephen’s rejection of the Catholic concept of sin. Throughout my life some of my best friends were Catholic, but I never really understood the Catholic concept of “sin” until I read this novel and, subsequently, researched it on the internet.

I was amazed how many things are considered “mortal sins,” though there doesn’t seem to be universal agreement on what are and are not mortal sins. Still, one Catholic web site I went to presented this list of mortal sins which seems pretty representative:

Abortion, Anger, Adulterers, Amending the words of the Holy Bible, Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, (Eternal sin), Carousing, Cowards, Defrauders, Dissensions, Disrespect towards parents, Drunkenness, Enmities, Envy, Factions, Faithless, False witness (liars), Fornicators, Greed, Holy Communion received while in a state of mortal sin, Idolatry, Impurity, Jealousy, Licentiousness, Love and practice falsehoods, Male prostitution, Murderers, Polluted, Quarrelling, Sodomites, Sorcery, Strife, Thieves (steal/robbers).

With a list of mortal sins like that, it’s no wonder conservative Christians see man as inherently evil. If you believed that all of these are mortal sins and that man is doomed to Hell without repenting and confessing these sins it would be hard to believe anything else, especially if you don’t happen to believe in confession and the absolution of your sins.

After reading the novel I understood for the first time in my life why my friend John Connolly had to say so many Hail Marys before going to bed when he stayed overnight in the fourth grade. Heathen that I was, I had no idea why he would kneel at the foot of his bed and incant magical phrases in the dark. Even years later, I could not understand what kind of sins he had committed that would require him to ask for forgiveness because he was probably the nicest kid in the grade school I had just entered. He did well in school and got along with almost everyone. In my eyes his only fault was that the girl I had a crush on had a crush on him instead.

Looking back at the list of mortal sins, I realize I would not have been a good candidate for a Catholic School. My greatest mortal sin would certainly have been anger, for I had a notorious temper that got me into trouble both at home and at school.

When we first moved to Walnut Creek the grade school kids picked on anyone who was new or anyone who was different, and I was having none of it. I’d spent most of my life fighting with an older brother, so I wasn’t about to be bullied by anyone who wasn’t a head taller than me.

I fought more in my first year there than I fought the rest of my life. It probably didn’t help that the teacher seemed to favor me, but I suspect I would have had to fight no matter how well I fared in the classroom. I could never stand bullies, and it was a class where bullies seemed to reign. I ended standing up not only for myself but for classmates who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, stand up for themselves. Since John was always by my side, I suspect he had to confess his part in the fighting.

It’s a good think I wasn’t enrolled in a Catholic school because I’m sure I would have butted heads with those in charge. I didn’t see my anger as a “sin,” though I fought hard to control it later in life. I’m pretty sure no one could ever have convinced me it was a sin. Personally, I prefer to think of my anger as “righteous indignation” rather than “anger,” but I’d hate be a person who wasn’t angered by injustice.

6 thoughts on “Loren Discovers Sin”

  1. This book has been sitting on my bookshelf for as long as I can remember Loren. You have tempted me to take it down and have a go at reading it. (that isn’t a sin, is it?)

    1. If it’s a sin to leave a great book on the shelf that long, I think I’m in real trouble, weaverofgrass. I still have a stack of “great novels” on the shelf that I bought in college.

      I tend to disagree with much of what Joyce says, but his novels certainly do get you thinking about what you do or do not believe — and that’s always a good thing.

  2. I’ve also been rereading Portrait of the Artist recently and thinking about how Stephen Dedalus rejects not just sin but Catholicism and Catholic Ireland (the sow that eats her farrow), family, Darnell’s politics, the Celtic Revival and how he takes on a new identity separate from sinner or penitent — because of this new identity he will leave Ireland and go into exile in 1904 to become an artist. The irony for me has to do with the art itself which will return inescapably to 16, June,1904 in Dublin and those early Irish preoccupations with impurity, sin, Catholicism, what it once meant to be Irish.

    Found your blog via woodslot

    1. Welcome. Woodslot is good people. Yesterday I ordered a poetry book he referenced on his site.

      Hope you find something worth reading/looking at here. I tend to be rather eclectic, as the moment moves me.

      I’m still working on an essay on how Dedalus confronts Sin. Unfortunately, I’ve been working on it in my head for 6 months or so now.

  3. If you want to know Catholic doctrine regarding sin, Loren, look at the Catechism. I’ve copied the section below. The sections are numbered (1849, etc.); I haven’t included the text of the footnotes. Essentially, mortal sin is open rebellion toward God.


    1849 Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as “an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.”121

    1850 Sin is an offense against God: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight.”122 Sin sets itself against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from it. Like the first sin, it is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become “like gods,”123 knowing and determining good and evil. Sin is thus “love of oneself even to contempt of God.”124 In this proud self- exaltation, sin is diametrically opposed to the obedience of Jesus, which achieves our salvation.125

    1851 It is precisely in the Passion, when the mercy of Christ is about to vanquish it, that sin most clearly manifests its violence and its many forms: unbelief, murderous hatred, shunning and mockery by the leaders and the people, Pilate’s cowardice and the cruelty of the soldiers, Judas’ betrayal – so bitter to Jesus, Peter’s denial and the disciples’ flight. However, at the very hour of darkness, the hour of the prince of this world,126 the sacrifice of Christ secretly becomes the source from which the forgiveness of our sins will pour forth inexhaustibly.


    1852 There are a great many kinds of sins. Scripture provides several lists of them. The Letter to the Galatians contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit: “Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the Kingdom of God.”127

    1853 Sins can be distinguished according to their objects, as can every human act; or according to the virtues they oppose, by excess or defect; or according to the commandments they violate. They can also be classed according to whether they concern God, neighbor, or oneself; they can be divided into spiritual and carnal sins, or again as sins in thought, word, deed, or omission. The root of sin is in the heart of man, in his free will, according to the teaching of the Lord: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man.”128 But in the heart also resides charity, the source of the good and pure works, which sin wounds.


    1854 Sins are rightly evaluated according to their gravity. The distinction between mortal and venial sin, already evident in Scripture,129 became part of the tradition of the Church. It is corroborated by human experience.

    1855 Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.

    Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.

    1856 Mortal sin, by attacking the vital principle within us – that is, charity – necessitates a new initiative of God’s mercy and a conversion of heart which is normally accomplished within the setting of the sacrament of reconciliation:

    When the will sets itself upon something that is of its nature incompatible with the charity that orients man toward his ultimate end, then the sin is mortal by its very object . . . whether it contradicts the love of God, such as blasphemy or perjury, or the love of neighbor, such as homicide or adultery. . . . But when the sinner’s will is set upon something that of its nature involves a disorder, but is not opposed to the love of God and neighbor, such as thoughtless chatter or immoderate laughter and the like, such sins are venial.130
    1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”131

    1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: “Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother.”132 The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.

    1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart133 do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.

    1860 Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.

    1861 Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.

  4. Ha…when I read the title of your post I was expecting a libertine turn to be in the works for your blog Loren!

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