Ask Alice about Catholicism
"Sin" is such a negative word. Can't we just talk about “failure”?

I wish I had a dollar every time someone objected to the word sin! And guilt, too. Our objection to both words comes from the same source: our discomfort at the implication of blame. No one likes to be accused. We'd rather say noncommittally, "Mistakes were made" than to admit, "I was wrong"!

The beauty of our religious language is that it's unblinkingly honest. There's no spin with sin; no campaign launched to cover up the mess. When we talk "sin," we're saying: "My bad. I knew that house was on fire when I entered it!" So let's say we're sinners, firstly because it's true and also because telling the truth is an incredibly healthy choice to make. Our society is so geared to the airbrushed image we may begin to accept that hiding a blemish here or a gray hair there is normal.

But the airbrushed image is phony. Sooner or later the real person will tumble out from behind the artful deception. Religious language provides us the chance to be authentic, apart from the spandex and the posturing. When we admit we've done wrong, we take a big first step into freedom.

Where does that step take us? From personal responsibility we can move into some pretty wonderful territory. Owning our sinfulness gives us access to forgiveness and the joy known only to the children of God. By contrast, where does the denial of responsibility get us? From the vague nod that "mistakes were made" we can't move to forgiveness and healing. If we refuse the identity of the sinner, we're shrugging our shoulders, burying the injury under the rug. As we know from our experiences with physical healing, wounds that are not cleansed, treated, and brought into the open air tend to fester, become infected, and lead to more serious conditions.

So it is with the spiritual wounds human sinfulness causes. One lie creates the foundation of the next. Unaddressed pride leads to uncontrolled egotism. Sexual irresponsibility prompts a habit of exploiting others. Self-righteous anger justifies an inner world of aggression that paves the way to violence.

The traditional daily habit of examining your conscience and admitting fault is the best antidote to living in the land of self-justification. I'm a sinner! I'm also, thanks be to God, forgiven.

Psalm 51; Matthew 9:1-13; Mark 7:1-23; Luke 15:1-32; 18:9-14; 19:1-10; Romans 5:6-6:23; James 3:1-4:10

Forgiveness prayers


Reconciliation by Bishop Robert Morneau (Orbis)
The Forgiveness Book
by Paul Boudreau and Alice Camille (ACTA Publications)

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Alice L. Camille
Alice Camille is a gem among contemporary writers on scripture and Catholic teaching. She has received numerous awards for her books, columns, and exegetical reflections. She received her Master of Divinity degree from the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, where she also served as adjunct faculty in ministry formation, preaching and proclamation. Alice is an author, religious educator, and parish retreat leader. Learn more at

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