Did Jesus Really Sin?

Did Jesus really sin? Apparently nearly 60% of all practicing Catholic within the Diocese of Camden, NJ believe so. This was the findings of a religious survey  commissioned by the Diocese of Camden, with the intent and purpose of finding out what people know and understand about their Catholic faith. These results should put all of us on alert regarding the lack of fundamental Catholic knowledge that Camden Bishop Joseph Galante called both “disturbing” and “intriguing”.

Not wasting any time in interpreting the results, Bishop Galante attributed them to a lack of Mass attendance, which, in his assessment, contributes to the faithful being born “out of the Church.”   No one should be completely surprised at these results. This survey provides us with a genuine wake-up call on the need to reclaim our lost Catholic identity and clarify the misunderstandings of Church teaching.

How We Got to This Point: The “Jesus Loves Me” Model

You may be wondering how in the world so many people could believe Jesus actually sinned. The decade of the seventies introduced us to the “Jesus loves me” catechetical model. This particular method stressed Jesus as our friend. This sounds fine until you realize that this particular teaching method leaves out several key doctrinal points i.e.

  • Jesus is the Son of God
  • Jesus is the second person of the Blessed Trinity
  • Jesus is the Divine Teacher
  • Jesus is the Lord of History
  • Jesus is the Messiah
  • Jesus is the Word made flesh
  • Jesus is our Savior and King

Many catechists during this time period emphasized the humanity of Jesus rather than the Divinity of Jesus. This mindset created a catechesis from below rather than one from above (Col 3:1-3). Our understanding of Christ was based on our own personal experience and not what the Church taught. In other words, catechesis became “me centered” rather than a “Christ-centered”.

A Continuing Problem

“Jesus loves me” does not sound heretical in nature, nor does it profess to ignore the very mission of Christ on the Cross (Jn 12:27-36; Mt 27:32-44; Lk 23:26-43; 1 Cor 13:1-13). However, when you manipulate Christ’s love to mean something it truly is not, you then end up in the catechetical dilemma of people believing that Jesus actually sinned.  An ominous sign revealing the problems the Diocese of Camden faces are seen in the comments made by a parish Director of Religious Education (DRE) who said: “We tell our kids that Jesus had a childhood just like them. So they think that includes sin.” This is a great example of the “Jesus is my friend” methodology still in existence today. Yes, Jesus was indeed fully human having all the characteristics of man — except sin! See: CCC 456-460, 461

Oh, the Humanity!

The “Humanity of Jesus Catechetical Model” became a staple in many catechetical programs and texts used throughout the country in the seventies and eighties. The catechetical text themselves contained images of Jesus holding hands with children, or Jesus running through a field and smiling at everyone and so on. At no time do you see any specific reference to the Divinity of Christ; in particular imagery of the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, or the Crucifixion were considered “too much” for children to understand. These examples, quite frankly, were the catechetical methods employed by some of my own CCD and Catholic School teachers.

How Should We Teach?

The most telling statement of the entire article was a question posed by the parish DRE: “How do we teach our kids the humanity of Jesus without sin?” And here lies the problem; teaching the humanity of Jesus while forgetting to teach one important point: He is God!

The apparent assumption here is that a child could not possibly relate to Jesus as Messiah, Lord, and Savior. Hence, no need to teach on the True Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist (this may be one explanation on why the lack of Mass attendance is so prevalent). A second possible assumption is that teaching the doctrine of sin would traumatize a child to the point of not identifying with Jesus at all. Following this methodology bypasses some of the key doctrines: The Blessed Trinity, the Annunciation, the Immaculate Conception, the Incarnation, the Hypostatic Union, Original Sin, etc.

They were taught:

  • “Jesus loves you” no matter what you do, even if you sin. This leaves out the point that Jesus expresses His love to us sinners specifically by saving us from sin and from the death that is sin’s consequence.
  • “Jesus is your friend”, leaving out that this friend is vital to us because He is Son of God, the Second person of the Blessed Trinity. (CCC 441-451)
  • Sin consists of “mistakes we make” and since Jesus loves us anyway, what happens to the urgency for Confession?
  •  Jesus would never scold you (because, remember, He is your loving buddy) so what happens to the concept of making reparations for sin, being penitent?
  • Jesus is everywhere and since He is identified as a “friend”, instead of as God, why would you need to go to Mass and worship Him?

You may think I’m kidding, but this stark reality reflects the need for sound catechist formation, especially in Catholic doctrine and methodology.

  • Systematically teaching students how the Mass is integrally tied to the death of Christ on the Cross  (1 Cor 11:23-26)
  • Teaching how His sacrifice was the result of God’s love for His children in that that he offered His Son to be crucified for the sins of many (Jn 3:16; Jn 6:45-52);
  • Teaching how the Crucifixion visibly identifies the love of God for his children;  (CCC 599-603)   

A Return to the Basics

Whether it’s Jesus sinning or the Blessed Mother not being a Virgin or other evidence of Catholics being ignorant about their faith, it all adds up to a crying need for sound, systematic catechesis. Blessed John Paul II reminded us that the aim of catechesis is to place the person into an intimate communion with Jesus Christ (Catechesis In Our Time, 5). The first step in any teaching plan lies in establishing its purpose: the teacher leading the student towards an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ by authentic witness and instruction.

Our catechetical renewal should always affirm who Christ is as the Only-begotten Son; the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who emptied himself taking the form of a servant . . . (2 Phil 2:6-11). Incorporating Sacred Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church doesn’t hurt either. These two resources provide us with a complete exposition of the Church’s teaching. We really can’t assume that the Mysteries of Christ are beyond our understanding, or the understanding of our children. We do not call them “mysteries” because they are hard to understand. We call them “mysteries” because they are revealed by God. We can trust that if we faithfully transmit the deposit of faith, the Holy Spirit will illumine the minds of the children and adults for each person to grasp these mysteries to the extent possible in this life. After all, the very purpose of Divine Revelation i.e. God’s spoken Word, delivered to us in and through the Church is so that we can understand the Mystery of Christ in an organic, visible way.

Prayer serves as the conduit towards all forms of catechetical instruction because it’s open communication with God, who is more than a mere “friend”. The Sign of the Cross, Our Father, Apostles Creed and the Hail Mary are the perfect basis for renewal — and the Camden survey should leave us with no doubt about how badly it is needed.

Blessed John  Paul II, Pray  for us!

Marlon De La Torre, MA, MEd. is the Director of Catechist Formation and Children's Catechesis for the  Diocese of Fort Worth. Over the last fifteen years Marlon has served in multiple catechetical diocesan positions in Memphis and Kansas City. He is regular guest on the "Sonrise Morning Show" with Brian Patrick and Matt Swaim.  His new book is Screwtape Teaches the Faith: A Guide for Catechists based on The Screwtape Letters and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. His EWTN discussion about the book with Fr. Mitch Pacwa is here

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