By Maria Sermersheim, Columnist
Who is “the world” we so like to vilify?
In a particularly involved student debate in my Catholic Morality class, some of my classmates kept referencing “society” as if it were an individual force acting on others. Eventually, I interrupted and asked, “What is society?” In my mind, there is no objective entity oppressing, liberating or dictating certain views; society is simply a group of individuals. However, many people frequently refer to society as though it is a separate power. Passionate speakers often portray “the world” in the same way, as some negative externality. They pit us against the world in a battle of good and evil. I could not accept this perception of an evil world, so I investigated.
The world is not evil, nor is it a power with which we conflict. Instead, evil only originates in the human will. Though 1 John 5:19 describes the world as “under the power of the evil one” and paragraph 401 of the Catechism states, “After that first sin, the world is virtually inundated by sin. There is…universal corruption,” paragraph 407 explains, “By our first parents’ sin, the devil has acquired a certain domination over man, even though man remains free.” Man remaining free is key; the “certain domination” is temptation and weak wills, but that still centers on each individual person. Paragraph 401 also clarifies, “For when man looks into his own heart he finds that he is drawn toward what is wrong and sunk in many evils…he has broken the right order that should reign within himself.” Paragraph 409 identifies life as a battle for “inner integrity.”
Pope St. John Paul II explored this issue in his document, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (On Reconciliation and Penance). He wrote,
“[it is] not legitimate or acceptable…that blame for [sin] is to be placed not so much on the moral conscience of an individual but rather on some vague entity or anonymous collectivity, such as the situation, the system, society, structures, or institutions…cases of social sin are the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins…The real responsibility, then, lies with individuals. A situation—or likewise an institution, a structure, society itself—is not in itself the subject of moral acts.”
We do not confront the wiles of a world scheming against its inhabitants but the weaknesses of our own wills. When paragraph 310 of the Catechism explains that God “[created the] world ‘in a state of journeying’ toward its ultimate perfection…more perfect alongside the less perfect,” it is not referring to more or less perfect beings, but rather more or less perfect wills within each person.
This is what unites humanity in its solidarity; life’s struggle is not between people, it is within people. The battle for integrity and a more perfect will rages within each person, uniting the world as a whole because we endure trials of the same nature, no matter the manifestation. The difficulties between people arise solely from their losses on the inner battlefront. Pope St. John Paul II also wrote that according to solidarity,
“‘every soul that rises above itself, raises up the world.’ To this law of ascent there unfortunately corresponds the law of descent. Consequently…a soul that lowers itself through sin drags down with itself the Church and…the whole world. In other words, there is no sin…that exclusively concerns the person committing it.”
We are the fabric of society, and we determine its quality. Blaming the world for our problems must stop, for we are accountable. The world is not so massive or invincible; it is merely the person inside and beside you.
Previously published in The Message Newspaper for the Diocese of Evansville.