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BEFORE THE CROSS | Our choices — either sinful or grace-filled — affect others

St. Paul talks about our double inheritance from Adam and Jesus

We’re in the second week of four weeks of readings from the Letter to the Romans. I want to draw our attention to just one thread of St. Paul’s thought this week.

In Romans 5, St. Paul talks about how we receive a double inheritance. Through Adam we are born into sin, and from him we inherit death. Through Christ we are reborn into grace, and from Him we inherit eternal life.

In Romans 7, St. Paul talks about how he experienced this double inheritance. “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.” It’s a great psychological definition of sin, and we can all verify it in our own experience. Like Paul, we feel ourselves pulled in two directions. We know what’s good, and we want to do it, but we fail. We know that something is wrong, and do it anyway. The two inheritances compete within us.

Against that background, St. Paul urges us: “Do not present your bodies to sin … but present yourselves to God.” He’s reminding us that, although we feel pulled in two directions, the choice of which direction to go is ours. And it matters because our spiritual life and death are on the line.

St. John Paul II, whose feast day we celebrate this week (Oct. 22), added that the consequences of our choices don’t affect us alone. For better and for worse, they affect everyone else as well. He said that, thanks to the communion of saints, it’s “possible to say that every soul that rises above itself, raises up the world.” That’s hopeful news! But he added that one can also speak of “a communion of sin, whereby a soul that lowers itself through sin drags down with itself the Church and, in some way, the whole world.”

The science of ecology shows how things are connected with each other in the natural world. St. John Paul was simply pointing out that there’s a supernatural ecology as well. In that supernatural ecology there’s no such thing as a private sin and no such thing as a private virtue: every sin and every virtue shapes the spiritual environment of the world.

Each of us experiences the double inheritance of Adam and Christ — the back and forth pull of sin and grace — in our own way. And we know that each of us has to decide which of those inheritances we will claim for ourselves. But it’s time to stop pretending that our decisions for sin or grace don’t have consequences for others. Every surrender to sin pollutes the spiritual world for everyone else; and every surrender to God’s grace in some way lifts up the whole world.

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