For example, one form of the “act of contrition” ends with “I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.”
The late Gordon Zahn, co-founder of Pax Christi U.S.A., once gave this precise definition of an occasion of sin: “Any situation or setting in which one puts himself (or allowed himself to be put) where the likelihood of sinful behavior was heightened because the capacity to recognize or resist temptation was diminished.”
Looking at sin and “the near occasion of sin” is easier if we look at the act of sinning and the situation of temptation. Being in the occasion of sin means we are being, or are very close to being, tempted to do something wrong.
“The Catholic Encyclopedia” explains occasions of sin as “external circumstances — whether of things or persons — which, either because of their special nature or because of the frailty common to humanity or peculiar to some individual, incite or entice one to sin.”
Bringing it back to the level of a parent and child, remember the hot stove scenario? Your dad told you not to touch it. But the 5-year-old you decided to find out — to everyone’s pain. Touching the stove was the transgression, but the glowing hot plate was the temptation, or an occasion to sin, if you will.
Parents since Adam and Eve have given warnings about danger. But the warning to avoid occasions of sin comes from the Lord Jesus himself. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says, “If your hand or foot causes you to sin (some translations say “is an occasion of sin”) — cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life maimed or crippled than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into eternal fire” (Mk 18:8).
Jesus wasn’t advising us to maim ourselves, but warning us to avoid whatever causes us to sin. “Don’t even go there” might describe it best.
Now most teachings have focused on “occasions of sin” as temptations of a sexual nature. While this is certainly a problem for many — pornography, provocative video games and what we used to call “the red light districts” all fall into the category of occasions of sin — not all occasions of sin have sexual themes. Anything that tempts us to do wrong falls in this category.
So if you have a lack of self-control about shopping, taking all the family rent money and going to the mall is placing yourself in an occasion of sin. (There is nothing innately sinful about the mall itself, since only people can sin. Shopping isn’t a sin, either. But using up the rent money can be a form of stealing, which is a sin.)
Occasions of sin are like hanging with a bad crowd. If everyone is smoking, drinking or using curse words, you’re more tempted to do these things yourself. Pretty soon, the occasion of sin becomes actual sinning.
St. Jerome, back in the fourth century, wrote about temptations and advised getting away from occasions of sin as quickly as possible. “I fly,” he wrote, “to make certain that I may not be overcome. It is not safe to sleep with a serpent beside you.”
Stay away from temptation, Jerome said.
Now, there are also degrees of temptation — what have been called near (or proximate) and remote occasions of sin. A near (proximate) occasion of sin is pretty obvious. And if it’s what can be called “voluntary,” we are supposed to avoid it. Translation: Don’t go into the adult bookstore in the first place.
A remote occasion of sin is less obvious. Say you go to the beach. There are many scantily clad sun bathers. While some people would say this isn’t much different than going to a bikini lounge, it’s really more of a remote occasion of sin. You aren’t there to ogle; you’re there to swim and relax. The beach, for most people in most circumstances, is only a potentially remote occasion of sin. You don’t avoid the beach just because you might have a moment of temptation. (This is where maturity, self-control and something we used to call “custody of the eyes” come into play.)
As “The Catholic Encyclopedia” also notes, “All theologians are agreed that there is no obligation to avoid the remote occasions of sin both because this would, practically speaking, be impossible and because they do not involve serious danger of sin.”
Occasions of sin don’t “make you do it,” but they can pave the way. So if you come to that intersection where you could head into a clear occasion of sin or turn and avoid it, make yourself do what Jerome advised: “fly the other way.”
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia;” “America Magazine,” Aug. 9, 1980; “Against Vigilantius” at ccel.org; the “Modern Catholic Dictionary”; and catholicculture.org.