Ask a Franciscan

Are We Unconsciously Always Sinning?

The US bishops’ 2018 document “Open Our Hearts Wide: The Enduring Call to Love” says racism can be either conscious or unconscious. Carrying out racist actions is a sin. My older teenage son (and future lawyer) argues that we can never be forgiven because of our unconscious mind’s nature.

He claims that our unconscious mind would always betray us—even in our sleep—making our dreams potentially venial sins. How can I answer him?

“Unconscious racism” does not have to remain unconscious. Once a person becomes aware of reflecting it, then he or she has an obligation to stop the lying (to oneself and others) that racism always requires to stay alive.

No one person can eliminate racism, but everyone needs to do what is necessary in order to call it what it is—and then take the most effective action possible here and now. No one can change a past event, but everyone has the ability to decide whether to reinforce—and celebrate—whatever needs to be challenged. If your son becomes a lawyer, as a 19-year veteran of high school teaching, I predict that it won’t take him long to see the holes in the argument he is now making, an argument that always turns out to his advantage. No one can sin while dreaming.

Some lines of reasoning are too simple to be true; this sounds like one of them. Would your son feel the same way if he were on the receiving end of unconscious racism? Certainly not.

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