The first reading from today’s Mass is an extraordinary moral tale from the  Book of Daniel. It is the story of Susanna. The full passage (which is quite lengthy) can be found here: Daniel 13:1-62. Interestingly it is missing from Protestant Bibles which use a truncated version of the Book of Daniel. As such it is a lesser known passage, even among Catholics since it is only read on a weekday Mass once a year.

It features the story of a beautiful young woman, Susanna, married to a man named Joakim. One day as she is bathing in a private garden two older men who have hidden themselves there out of lust try to seduce Susanna who rebuffs their brazen overture. They threaten to falsely accuse her of having committed adultery with a young man in garden if she does not give way to their desires. She still refuses and they follow through on their threatened lie. They further demand that she should be stoned. Things look bleak for Susanna until Daniel comes to the rescue and, through crafty interrogation, exposes their lie for what it is. The story is a small masterpiece. If you have never read it,  you should. In the course of its engaging tale it gives us a kind of anatomy lesson of sin. It is good to consider the teachings here.

In a remarkable description the story describes a threefold source from which their sins spring forth. The text says: They suppressed their consciences; they would not allow their eyes to look to heaven, and did not keep in mind just judgments. (Daniel 13:9). I’d like to take a look at each of these three sources from which sin springs.

1. They suppressed their consciences What is the conscience? The Catechism defines it thus: For Man has in his heart a law inscribed by God, This is his conscience, there he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths… (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) # 1776). So, in effect, the conscience is the voice of God within us. God has written his Law in the hearts of every human person.

Thus, in terms of basic right and wrong, we know what we are doing. There may be certain higher matters of the Law that the conscience must be taught (eg. the following of certain rituals or feasts days etc.). But in terms of fundamental moral norms, we have a basic and innate grasp of what is right and wrong. Deep down inside we know what we are doing. We see and salute virtues like bravery, self-control, and generosity. We also know that things like murder of the innocent, promiscuity, theft, destruction of reputations etc are wrong.For all the excuses we like to make, deep down inside we know what we are doing, and we know that we know.   I have written substantially about conscience elsewhere (HERE).

But notice that it says that they “suppressed their consciences.” Even though we know something is wrong we often want to do it anyway. One of the first things our wily minds will do is to try and suppress our conscience. To suppress something is to put it down by force, to inhibit or to try and exclude something from awareness or consciousness.

The usual way of doing this is through rationalizations and sophistry. We invent any number of thoughts, lies and distortions to try and reassure our self that something is really OK, something that deep down inside we know isn’t OK.

We also accumulate false teachers and teachings to assist in this suppression of the truth that our conscience witnesses to. St. Paul wrote to Timothy: For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (2 Tim 4:1-3).

It is quite an effort to suppress one’s own conscience and I would argue that we cannot ever do it completely. In fact the whole attempt to suppress the conscience is not only quite an effort, it is also very fragile. This helps explain the anger and hostility of many in the world toward the Church. Deep down they know we are right and often, just the slightest appeal to the conscience to awaken its voice, causes quite an eruption of fear and anger.

So here is the first stage in the anatomy of a sin: the suppression of the conscience. In order to act wickedly and not face deep psychological pain of significant guilt these men in the story first  suppress their conscience in order to shut off the source of that pain. Step one is underway.

2. They would not allow their eyes to look to heaven- In order to sustain the fictions, stinking thinking, rationalizations, and sophistry that are necessary to suppress the conscience, it is necessary for one to distance himself  from the very source of conscience, God himself.

One way to do this is to drift away from God though neglect of prayer, worship, study of the Word of God and association with the Church which speaks for God. Drifting away may become more severe as times goes on and the refusal to repent becomes deeper. Drifting soon becomes absence and absence often becomes outright hostility to anything religious or biblical.

Another way that some avert their eyes from heaven is to redefine God. The revealed God of Scripture is replaced by a designer God who does not care about this thing or that. “God doesn’t care if I go to church, or shack up with my girlfriend etc.” On being shown scripture quite contrary to their distorted notions of God they simply respond that Paul had hangups, or that the Bible was written in primitive times.

Culturally the refusal to look heavenward is manifest in the increasing hostility to the Catholic Christian faith. Demands growing increasingly strident that anything even remotely connected to the faith be removed from the public square. Prayer in public, nativity sets, Church Bells, any reference to Jesus or Scripture in schools, etc. It must all be removed according to the radical seculars who refuse to turn their eyes heavenward or even have anything around that reminds them to do so.

The cumulative effect is that many are no longer looking to heaven or to God. Having suppressed their conscience they now demand a Godless public square. Still others reinvent a fake God, a false kingdom, an idol. Either way, the purpose is to isolate and insulate the self   from God and what he reveals.

This makes it easier to maintain the rather exhausting effort of suppressing the conscience.

So for these men in the story, step two in engaged and it further supports the suppression of conscience necessary to commit sin without the pain of guilt.

3. And did not keep in mind just judgment- Finally lets throw in a little presumption which dismisses any consequences for evil acts. This of course is one of  THE sins of our current age. There are countless people, even many Catholics in the pew and clergy too who seem outright to deny that they will ever have to answer to God for what they have done. But of course this is completely contrary to Scripture that insists that we will indeed answer one day to God for what we have done.

This final stage of presumption is meant to eliminate the salutary fear that should accompany evil acts. The sinner at this stage has had some success in alleviating the psychic pain of guilt and even a lot of the fear that used to accompany sin when the voice of conscience was less layered over and muted.

But, even after suppressing the conscience and refusing heaven’s influence,  still some fear remains so now an attack is made on any notion of consequences. Perhaps the sinner exaggerates the mercy and patience of God to the exclusion of God’s holiness which sin cannot endure. Perhaps he denies the reality of hell which God clearly teaches. Perhaps he denies that God exists at all and holds that there is no judgment to be faced. However he does it, he must push back the fear the punishment and/or judgment.

Here then is the anatomy of sin. Having suppressed the conscience, the voice of God to the extent possible and having removed oneself from heaven’s influence, and then denying that anything of negative consequence will come, one is freer to sin gravely. It is as though one has taken a number of stiff drinks and anesthetized himself sufficiently to proceed without pain.

But guess what, it’s still there deep down inside. The voice of conscience remains. Under all the layers of stinking thinking and attempts to insulate oneself from the true God, deep down the sinner still knows what he is doing is wrong. Even the slightest thing to prick his conscience causes increasing unease. Anger, projection, name-calling, ridiculing of anyone or anything awaken his conscience will increasing be resorted to. Sin is in full bloom now and repentance seems increasingly difficult or unlikely. Only great prayers and fasting by others for him will likely spring him loose from the deep moral sleep he is currently in. Pray for the conversion of sinners.

Well, since this post has been a little heavy it might be good to end on a lighter note:

33 Responses

  1. Tammy says:

    Father, it is so nice to be taught! Thank you for this blog, for your time and especially for answering God’s call. You may not see it, but your efforts are bearing much fruit out here. May God continue to bless you!

  2. Donna says:

    I really enjoyed this reflection, Monsignor.

    You write: “(L)et’s throw in a little presumption which dismisses any consequences for evil acts. This of course is one of THE sins of our current age. There are countless people, even many Catholics in the pew and clergy too who seem outright to deny that they will ever have to answer to God for what they have done…”.

    We live in a time where we do what is “right” in our own minds. So few of us take the time to read scriptures, pray and reflect. We are swept away by all the current trends of thinking and living. As Jesus said, “wide is the road that leads to distruction.”

    Even Christians living in America do a fine job at suppressing the conscience. How many of us KNOW that Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Apostles and saints embraced a life of poverty, but we reason to ourselves that this is not possible, not recommended, and not that important. I am thrilled with the selection of Pope Francis, who has embraced this life of poverty and humility, and exhorts that we do the same.

  3. RichardC says:

    Neat reflection. The story echoes forward (if that image makes any sense) to the woman caught in adultery in the Gospel of John, especially since the adulterer is unknown in both stories. Would be neat if someone could show how the story in Daniel helps us understand the story in John. Another thing that I don’t clearly understand in the story in John is the passage John 8: 6: ” And this they said tempting him, that they might accuse him.” I guess they were going to accuse Him of infidelity to the law if He had asked that they show mercy to her.

  4. Mark says:

    Simply brilliant, both the diagnosis and the cure. God bless you.

  5. Loreen Lee says:

    I am familiar with this scripture, but it coming so close to last Sunday’s gospel, I thought again of the ‘fact’ that the male who was also involved in the adultery, was not, like the woman, accused. I couldn’t help but draw a parallel inference as to the possible reasons in this case. The accusation of the woman, in last Sunday’s gospel is not supported by fact or evidence. It made me wonder to what extent the writing on the sand, the legislation of law is indeed being transformed in the New Testament, to a greater degree than what I have until now imagined. And yes, this is speculation on my part, but it does support for me, why Jesus detaches himself from the on-going accusations by writing in the sand seemingly unaware of what happens, when he does finally express awareness of the woman’s presence..Did the pharisees leave because they were made aware of ‘trumped up’ charges by the action Jesus took. Just a thought. But it does give me an explanation how, why Jesus could ‘forgive’ so ‘easily’, a recognition possibly that she might have been ‘innocent’.

    • Although, in the story of Susannah the alleged perpetrator had fled before the old men could identify or apprehend him. Of course the real truth is he never existed and in the end the wicked old men are put to death.

      • K. Louise says:

        Jesus changed the subject of discussion from the woman’s sin to the sin of the Pharisees. When He did this, the Pharisees became afraid He would reveal their sins, some have said. How could Jesus forgive so easily? Perhaps the woman had been praying desperately for forgiveness, for salvation. The Christ would be well aware of this. More importantly for us, Jesus must show us a good example. What He did, we should do. What does God love to do? He loves to be merciful, and He loves for us to be merciful. We also need to help the sinner avoid further sin.

        • Loreen Lee says:

          Msgr Pope. Thanks for your reply. I thought through the story of Susanne again, and believe that if there are parallels between this story and that of the adulteress, that Jesus does not go after justice like Daniel does. Indeed, perhaps he is not powerful enough in the worldly sense, to do so. But there is more power in the action he takes in writing in the sand. If there is a possibility that there are greater similarities between the two stories, and that Jesus is pointing out through his detachment that they are ‘complicit/’ in the charges laid against the woman, it is a case of two women, one in each story, the latter a kind of continuation of the first, and judged in the light of God’s mercy. His action would have made them give up their quest. Far fetched I admit. I have returned after reading the comments on sex abuse, of which I too have familiarity, so I’m biased. This interpretation would mean that Jesus speaks generally at the end, when he says to the woman: Sin no more. He has perhaps avoided, most wisely, the implicit central issue, and the consequence of also suffering like Susanne, and the adulteress, the consequences of their power.

  6. bj says:

    Wow! thank you Monsignor, there’s a lot to think about in that post.

  7. Michael says:

    What you are describing, Father, is the sin against the Holy Spirit. How can anything short of a sovereign act of God, let alone prayer and fasting, atone for this?

  8. ruth bolan says:

    Msgr., we are so blessed to be part of this 2000 yr old group of followers of Christ! ditto tammy’s response. now i must go read Daniel. we can’t fight sin if we do not recognise it. love you love you love you ruth bolan

  9. Steven Streets says:

    I wish the occupation of the two offending men had been mentioned.
    I think of this Bible story often when reflecting on what i have seen first hand of Cathedral and diocese officials in response to sex abuse by Priests under their own roof.
    I am witness and I am victim.
    I think of everything Jesus suffered of religious authoritys and how it foreshadows everything sex abuse victims of Priests suffered the same treatment of men in positions of authority and judgement.
    “Imitation of the Cross” was the book Pope John Paul One died while reading on his 33rd day.
    That was the year I was sexually abused by a priest and it comforted me that God was saying “No More Business As Usual” and yet exactly 33 years later the same Cathedral cast me out on the 4th of July knowing I was a victim of that Cathedrals Priest. They even filed a false complaint of trespassing so that i would be arrested if I ever again set foot in my home church of 33 years. So be it.

    Come Lord Jesus quickly come and avenge us all 240000 sex abuse victims of 10,000 Holy Perps.
    Avenge us Lord of the desolation we have suffered from these abominations standing in your sanctuarys where they never should have been.

    • I am sorry for your experience. Nothing in the story indicates that the men were priests or religious leaders. Sadly abusers come from every walk of life.

      • Catharine says:

        I also am sorry to hear of your experience; I have had something similar happen in my own family. As the only one to stand up to the perp, I am now a total outcast from my own family, who did not dare stand up to the perp while the perp was still alive.
        Please remember, this is true to the gospel–if you testify to the truth, you will be persecuted. I cannot remember the exact passage, but if anything it is in multiple places.
        Also, there are now enough “whistle-blowers” against government and industry, that studies have been done. In more than one study, every single whistle-blower was out of his/her job and usually in less than one year. So, this is by no means limited to the sex abuse arena.
        I will pray for you & for healing; in the meanwhile, remember, there are no parish limits anymore in the USA and you can go anywhere you wish!

      • Steven Streets says:

        Thank you for your reply..In the versions of that chapter i have read the two offending men were described as ancients of Israel who were in fact Judges of some sort. That makes their threats to the Victim more ominous. Taken from vulgate.org, Daniel 13:5, Et constituti sunt de populo duo senes iudices in illo anno: de quibus locutus est Dominus: Quia egressa est iniquitas de Babylone a senioribus iudicibus, qui videbantur regere populum.
        Does not the word we use “Priest” come from the word “Presbyter” meaning elder? Naturally not the priesthood as it is now constituted. I refer simply to the evolution of the word and similarity to the “elders” or “ancients” in the story. Thats why the story always came to my mind.
        Olde Wise Men entrusted and whats the right word? annointed? ordained? …for the service of justice.
        I was a military divorce orphan at birth, Navy born (in strict secrecy for 35 years). I fell prey to the Priest when the last of 3 Air Force step dads died. I ran away to US Army as Chaplain Assistant where i thrived until the suppressed shame made me a casualty and alumni of Walter Reed. I attempted self healing by winning an audition as Army Tuba player but as damaged goods the Army made me drive a tank. I was a strong straight arrow young man unable to deal with on my own what the whole Church has not been able to deal with yet.
        I carried this torture of my soul for the lenght of Christs own life. I am not yet made whole.
        Because they never asked my forgiveness and mistreated me so shamefully two years ago; That Cathedral owes me reparations and restitution equal to my 30 year career as military tuba player.
        I’m not talking paper money. Like Peter I too say burn with your money, for todays anti-constitutional paper violates my oath to defend Constitutions precious metals of The People (Article One sections 8 and 10). It’s the damage to my person, education, professional development and abilty to start a right Catholic family. Its the denial of fellowship, church employment, and slanders i suffered from the Cathedral clergy. They offered and paid thousands in therapy until the satute of limitations gamed out any possible civil claim. Never once has anyone suggested the sacrament of healing. Never ONCE has the healing inherant in the meaning of the name Y’shua been offered by those professional liturgical actors. For all the reasons you mention in your thoughtful article above. My claim is now before Gods throne and I summon this church to make good.
        Until My justice happens i cannot heal the worst damage of being unable to begin my Catholic family at 55 years age.
        Amen Amen. There is no more time.
        My church has aborted all 7 of my Catholic children before they could be conceived. I accept prayers with gratitude from all, but that Cathedral must show me deeds worthy of repentance to the right and just.
        Christ commands double damages if love and justice are sincere. 14 Catholic children from my yet unknown Catholic wife.
        My 30 year career as military tuba Player would have fulfilled my need for completed education and loving family, and enable my charitable benevolences to my community to the fullest. While my rapist priest says Mass with honor in comfortable retirement.
        I speak because the Church can never get it right without making repair to each and every sex abuse victim of its own clergy. My yoke is light and easy but they refuse to accept it. For all the reasons you touch on your article above. No one asks my forgiveness because their ego defense says deny deny deny.
        Jesus showed us it would be this way for his little ones. I just find the mental torture and hypocrisy excruciating from people who invoke his Cross. He died like a brave Israelite soldier. As soldier I served him and fell a shameful humiliated casualty.
        Pro Deo Et Patria

        • James says:

          Steven streets, I am a victim of such abuse but not from the Church. I have no recourse with the person who abused me as he is long out of my life and his whereabouts are unknown. I can only tell you by reading scripture that I have healed more than any psychologist or counselor could ever hope to accomplish. You seem to know quite a bit about the Bible and your studies seem far beyond mine. But as I tell my son, there is a difference in knowing the Bible and living it. I would like to refer you to Roman 12:19 Do not avenge yourselves, beloved; allow retribution to run its course; so we read in scripture, Vengeance is for me, I will repay, says the Lord. Also please read the whole scripture to get the just of what is being taught. You already have justice just maybe not in this world. Trust in the Lord and he will take care of it. This goes to say with what I do wrong as well. He will hold us accountable because He already knows man is not perfect. Scripture has taught me that I have no control of what happens to me, but I do have to control on how I react. I pray for your healing and I hope you understand this life is miniscule to the eternal life that God promises us. You can only pray that the perps repent and find right with God, as he will certainly do with us if we truly ask for forgiveness. Enjoy every last breath you have knowing God knows everything and as Msgr. Pope explains we know what we do wrong. This is further strengthened by Genesis 4:7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.

  10. .Lori says:

    And still: God’s mercy pierces through this crust of denial, and sinners come to repent, even though it looked highly unlikely.A miracle that happens more often than we think. How else would anyone “turn from their wicked ways”? Thank God!

  11. Annette Strachan says:

    On March 17,2013 Msgr. Pope described an internal forgiveness that benefits us, “Forgiveness is letting go of the need to change the past. It heals us of our obsession with what others have done or have not done, it relieves us of our resentment and of the terrible weight of our anger.”

  12. Nick says:

    Contrast the story of Susanna with the woman caught in adultery. It’s illuminating.

  13. Annette Strachan says:

    Also, keep in mind that you are not responsible for the sins of others.

  14. Clare Krishan says:

    Msgr Pope, there’s a fascinating ancient artefact in the British Museum that recalls the days when Christians were united and all knew this story:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/4jY66b8hQumUbeudll4R_w

    as I noted under Mark Shea’s NCR article on Tobit a while back: “from the BBC Radio podcast “Innocence must be protected. The Lothair crystal is one of the first European images of the notion of the Rule of Law”” (that’d be natural law another treasure our separated brethren lost at the Reformation) http://www.ncregister.com/blog/mark-shea/a-dispute-about-how-to-understand-tobit/

  15. [...] – Mark Rienzi, PD Headline: The First Green Pope – Jacob Tawney, Roma Locuta Est Anatomy of a Sin as Set Forth in Lesser Known Biblical Passage – Msgr. C. Pope The Logic of the Court & the Prospect of Same-Sex ‘Marriage’ [...]

  16. Vincent Apisa says:

    Msgr.

    One of your strongest posts. I read it on two levels, — as sin applies to me & how I’ve tried to make myself comfortable with it, and as sin applies to our society & how it tries to make itself comfortable with it.

  17. Michael Wentworth says:

    Thank you Monsignor. I am new to Catholicism as I am completing my RCIA program. One of the most difficult challenges in my journey is getting a handle on sin. I am in my 50s and felt I had lived a moral life using modern culture as my benchmark. (I know this statement sounds absolutely ludicrous, but unfortunately I fear this is the case for many today.) I have discovered that in fact I have not lived a moral life. So now I must align my behavior with true moral behavior as defined by God, Jesus and the Catholic church. As you can imagine, this is presenting a challenge. I have focused on learning as much as possible about the mechanics of sin as well as how to manage sin as a way to work through my challenges. The Catechism does an elegant job, however your post is the most articulate and powerful explanation I have read. It provides a very clear explanation of how sin works and how it works on us. I have experienced much of what you describe here. I have a much deeper understanding and awareness. Thank you so much. Peace.

  18. Chris says:

    Monsignor:

    Beautifully and eloquently written, and I have come to expect nothing less… I saw so much of myself and how I behave when I sin that it was like looking in a mirror. I pray for forgiveness and the courage and will to do better. I also see so much of what you describe in others as well. Not that I’m judging, per se, but particularly family members of mine who use the argument that “Jesus doesn’t care if I go to church if I’m a good person” and other such nonsense. Thank you for your words and work. I will pray for you and your mission, please pray for me, too.

    Thank you!

  19. Stephanie says:

    This reflection is so helpful, Monsignor. Thank you.
    With the breath of the whistle, maybe Pinnochio and Jiminy Cricket are invoking the Holy Spirit to aid their decision-making?

  20. qwertyuiop says:

    As a side issue, the story of Susanna may explain why we separate witnesses at trials. The practice is universal so far as I know.

  21. supertradmum says:

    This is superb, and I know this from youthful experience. God bless you. I have put this link on my blog. And, you might like this I wrote earlier-it is very short.

    http://supertradmum-etheldredasplace.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/on-conversions-or-not.html

  22. Bill Robberson says:

    I certainly agree with you Msgr. Pope—-excellent!

    One question that has disturbed me for decades:

    What about the mentally ill and the pain/suffering they cause those close to them? For example those diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. My opinion? Unless one is totally psycotic then if a person knows that a red light means to stop and green means to go then they are at some level responsible for their actions and therefore if their actions/decisions are sinful then they have sinned.

  23. Peter Wolczuk says:

    Here’s another take on the spread of sins of violence in schools, malls, etc.
    A friend had it on her facebook page so I shared it on mine;

    Mary Had A Little Lamb

    Mary had a little lamb,
    His fleece was white as snow.
    And everywhere that Mary went,
    The Lamb was sure to go.
    He followed her to school each day,
    Twasn’t even in the rule.
    He made the children laugh and play,
    To have a Lamb at school.
    And then the rules all changed one day,
    Illegal it became;
    To bring the Lamb of God to school,
    Or even speak His Name.
    Everyday got worse and worse,
    And days turned into years.
    Instead of hearing children laugh,
    We heard gun shots and tears.
    What must we do to stop the crime,
    That’s in our schools today?
    Let’s let the Lamb come back to school,
    And teach our kids to pray!
    I seem to recall reading that the theme of this was the Lamb of God, what with Mary bringing forth and the snow white fleece and all but, there have been violent outbursts in schools before the anti Christian agenda however, not like we’re experiencing lately.
    Could it be that, as we remove access to a spiritual experience, we are left with only a wordly awareness that’s becoming increasingly confusing with an attitude that acting good in a poorly done manner is good until; someone can’t take it anymore and, as a result, implodes then – explodes.

  24. Tim Capps says:

    The two lechers were judges in the NABRE. Daniel was a young man, so it was quite extraordinary for him to enter his appearance for the defense, especially to challenge his elders. He used two common trial tools. First, he used “the rule on witnesses” to separate the two judges, so one’s testimony would not affect the other’s. Then he used cross examination to commit them to a stories with inconsistent details (the tree). You could illustrate a basic trial advocacy class with story. Not only was the unjustly accused defendant saved, but the lying prosecution witnesses were put to death!

  25. George says:

    Great piece. I needed that in my life. As the Psalm 51 says: “my sin is always before me”

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