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.