ASK FATHER: What does “attachment to sin” mean?

From a reader…


Please forgive me for being obtuse but what does being free from “attachment” to sin actually mean? I so want to relieve as many Holy Souls as possible in the coming month. Thank you

Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt. 5:48). That’s a pretty high standard. An equally high standard is what the Church puts before us in our theology of indulgences. We can only gain a plenary indulgence when we are free of attachment to sin.

Being “perfect”, and being “free of attachment to sin”, seem impossible.  But we know with great confidence that, with God, all things are possible (Matthew 19:26). Our Lord and His Church do not dangle before our eyes things that are impossible for us to attain. Therefore, “perfection”, and “freedom from attachment to sin” are possible to attain.  More here.

How does freedom from attachment to sin look like?

Let’s look at its opposite: attachment to sin.

Millicent has an ongoing struggle with the sins of gossip, envy, jealousy, and pride. She is self-aware enough to know these are sins. She does a thorough examination of conscience every two weeks before she goes to confession. She confesses her sins with sincerity and humility. She is truly sorry, and her sins are forgiven. She knows she should change her pattern of behavior.  But, she’s afraid that doing so might cause her to lose some friends. Like St. Paul, she wonders, “Why do I do what I do not want to do?” (Romans 7:15). Millicent, a good woman, is still attached to her sins, even though she’s doing the right thing and regularly confessing them.  In a secret place she doesn’t like to look into she still enjoys the sin, or rather the benefits of the sin and, in sense, that enjoyment, or attachment, is a flaw in her love for God and in her gratitude for His saving gifts.

In order for Millicent to be disposed to receive a plenary indulgence, she must do some hard work to cooperate with God’s grace. Breaking habits of sin is hard work.  We have, by the way, armies of saints and angels and the Good Lord Himself are ready to help.

Remember that indulgences are either for the remission of all temporal punishment (penance and purification required) due to sin or part of that punishment.  They are full (plenary) or partial.  If we try to gain an plenary indulgence and – this is important – we are not free of attachment to sin – we still can gain a partial indulgence for that work.

That’s not nothing!

So… how to get rid of attachment to sin.

For Millicent, getting free of her attachments to gossip might mean giving up some friendships, as well as avoiding situations that lead to sin (“near occasions of sin”).  It will involve praying to her Guardian Angel each and every time she goes into a conversation asking for help to avoid gossip. She might have to go to confession weekly instead of bi-weekly.  She must be willing to suffer losses.  She must learn to say no to her impulses.

She will then have more and more moments when she doesn’t hate the sins just enough.  She won’t harbor a tacit enjoyment.

Mind you… we are all poor sinners.  Also, the Enemy is really good at planting suggestions and leading us to think and feel wicked things.  Attachment or freedom will ebb and flow.   BUT… we can consciously pursue freedom from attachments to sin and, slowly but surely, get better at it.

What Holy Church asks, in your obtaining an indulgence, is that you are doing your best to love God and neighbor and to hate sin.  That’s it.  At the moment you are seeking the indulgence, try with all your mind and heart to see your sins for what they are and then sincerely to place them aside.  That’s what the Church is asking.  Doing this again and again and again, with acts of will and lot’s of requests for grace, will make it easier and the angels and saints will rejoice over you.

So, because Holy Church wants us to gain indulgences, try to gain them even if you’re not certain that you’re free from all attachment to sin.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. NBW says:

    Thank you Father! That is a great explanation that even a dope like me can understand!

  2. stjoe says:

    I completely agree with NBW. Thank you for the great explanation. For several decades, I have wondered about this “attachment to sin” question. Now I understand much better.

    I always wanted to help the Poor Souls but never felt I could get over the “attachment to sin” condition and thus would sometimes avoid even the attempt at the plenary indulgence. Thanks for the reminder that a partial indulgence is not nothing!

  3. faustinamaria says:

    Oh my. Father after reading your example as hard as it is to admit it….I am Millicent. Please pray for me.

  4. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Attachment to sin can linger for years, often decades, after the resolve to avoid sin has taken hold. If you’ve ever looked back on any sins and, while resolved never to commit it again, thought something like ‘That was very wrong, and I’ll never, never do it again, but, still, it was sort of fun’, then you are still attached to sin. If you look back on your sins with anything less the shame and horror, you’re still attached to them, even if just a little bit.

  5. Peter Stuart says:

    Thanks, Father. Having to be told all this feels like being spoon fed, but I need all of that I can get.

  6. Imrahil says:

    There’s a rather enlightening article on that over at Hermeneutic of Continuity.

  7. James says:

    Thanks, Father, that’s another life-saver. And it’s clear, with no ambiguities to throw a spanner in the works. Which is a massive relief.

    Just one thing: is there not a danger that, in making the efforts needed, one will tip over into an attitude of thinking one can save oneself by one’s own power ? We most certainly need to know – and perform – what we are commanded to do, that much is obvious : but is there not a danger of reducing Catholic practice to a self-help programme ? (I realise that this is *not* the place for a treatise on grace and good works….)

  8. acardnal says:

    Thank you Dr. Peter’s for that comment. I found that helpful.

  9. Sonshine135 says:

    I have a much better understanding of “attachment to sin” now. Thank you Father.

Comments are closed.