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Sin, Self, Free Will, Hell, and IFS: A Conversation

Jul 5, 2023

 Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

What a gift to receive a variety of reader responses to our recent series by Dr. Gerry on understanding IFS work and parts of the human person with the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary. One exchange stood out as an opportunity for us to share how our work at Souls and Hearts brings IFS and the understanding of the human person into an authentically Catholic arena.

As we widen our outreach and continue to see the beautiful fruits ripening, our hope grows that this new communion of IFS and Catholicism will lead many souls and hearts to a place of authentic self-love and a place where they are truly living for God and neighbor from that ordered love.

Today’s message relates an exchange between one of our readers (who asked to remain anonymous) and Dr. Gerry, with me chiming in as well. This ‘conversation’ offers some insights we believe will be beneficial to all our readers.

We are not moral theologians, and we admit our own limitations in making any absolute proclamations in the area of faith and morals – if you think we have taught something in error that contradicts the teaching of the Catholic Church, please let us know, we want to hear from you, especially if you can cite a source of Catholic teaching such as the Catechism or an encyclical or some other authoritative document. We always welcome our readers’ questions, comments and feedback. You can reach Dr. Gerry at [email protected] and me at [email protected] or at 317.567.9594.

Thus begins the conversation…

S&H Member: I want to say that the work of Souls and hearts is a gift from heaven. A few months prior to discovering you, I had developed my own approach, similar to IFS during an Ignatian retreat. Most of the concepts you both have discussed I had personally experienced previously on my own without any experienced guide (by the grace of God, of course).

Now that I have discovered this work, I feel it’s good to have someone that can understand this way of seeing the world and is very committed to orthodox belief and practice. With that being said, as I was reading your weekly reflections, something struck me and made my eyes buzz in excitement.

I have been for quite a while now trying to build a model of the human person in my mind, as to understand and incorporate Catholic teaching within my own experience of life and understanding of things. And so far, I have been reaching the same conclusions that are shared by you through the reflections.

I have been able to visualize the human ideal, and how the laws of God are exactly the guidelines towards this ideal etc… and how healing is needed to go there.

But one thing has been bugging me for quite a while, and I was very excited to see it among your questions:

What exactly is sin? 

How does sin fit in to the IFS model of the human person?

Jesus is perfectly positioned to be the healer and the source of love that we all need to get better and become better.

In some way, I do genuinely believe that it is only the reception of God’s love that can heal and make someone better, whole, holy, integrated and whatnot. And I think it is St Paul that talks about this in his letter to the Romans when he speaks of the law and the grace. (I have also learned to substitute “grace” with “love” as to get a clearer understanding). Christ’s grace becomes Christ’s love, and indeed then it can have an obvious healing property.

Now with all of this being said, I still struggle to identify where sin fits in within this model?

If my parts have unmet needs and are acting them out, am I really to blame?

Dr. Gerry: Are you to blame if your parts have unmet needs and act them out? The short answer is usually, yes, in my opinion. I believe it is the human person who acts. These actions and the person’s culpability can be mitigated by the influence of parts, but it is the whole human person who acts. Parts themselves influence but don’t by themselves take action. When high levels of dissociation are present, the human person may lack true consent. And we know from the catechism that without consent this would mitigate against mortal sin. 

Dr. Peter: Thanks for sending us this, this question of where sin fits in to an IFS-informed model of the human person is very important. And to be honest and direct, we don’t have that all figured out yet. Part of our mission within Souls and Hearts includes delving more deeply into that very question.

I also want to preface my responses by noting that I’m not a moral theologian; I’m just a psychologist who is certainly interested in moral issues. Thus, I don’t claim to be anything more than a Catholic layman in responding to your moral questions.

I agree with Dr. Gerry that we are responsible for our actions. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear, “the root of sin is in the heart of man” at the core of our being (paragraph 1855 and 1873), not isolated in some part of us. At the same time, it should be recognized that the Church has asserted our responsibility for our sinful acts can be mitigated by a number of factors, including internal factors such as ignorance and the “promptings of feelings and passions” which can compromise to some degree our willing the offense (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1860 for example – and see the Homiletic and Pastoral Review article by Catholic theologian Ralph Martin titled Considering Culpability for a much more in-depth discussion).

I see being swept away by my passions as another way of describing being blended with at least one very emotional part who is dominating my entire system. I also believe the innermost self has a capacity to resist that blending to some degree – the innermost self is often not helpless in the face of even intensely activated parts. I agree with Dr. Gerry that in extreme cases where there are high levels of dissociation, the subjective culpability for a given offense or material sin may drop to zero.

I also agree with Dr. Gerry that when there is sin, it is the whole person who sins, including the innermost self. The innermost self can usually sanction or not sanction the sinful action, even if the parts are overwhelming or overpowering the system and we are being carried away by our passions, as Dietrich von Hildebrand noted in his book Transformation in Christ.

By an act of our free personal center, we can either sanction or disavow our emotional attitude, which involves a far-reaching modification of the inmost nature of our attitudes. A mood of malicious satisfaction, for instance, which we expressly disavow in our mind is decapitated as it were; it is revoked and declared invalid, and thereby deprived not only of its outward efficacy, but to a large degree even of its intrinsic virulence….

A further distinction commands itself: it makes a considerable difference whether the personal sanction (that is, the ultimate act of assent or disapprobation relative to our spontaneous feeling is issued isolatedly in any random event, as it were, or whether we expressly refer it back to our permanent and moral principles, our habitual basic intention. In the latter case, it has far more meaning and weight. (p. 226, emphasis in original)

In summary, when parts generate impulses to use maladaptive or harmful means to achieve good ends, and the innermost self or the heart of a man acquiesces or even encourages those means with the will, there is both sin and culpability, because the ends do not justify the means. I don’t just see the parts having their own free wills. Each human person has one will.

And I agree with you that ultimately it is our Lord who heals us – and He can heal us directly, or through others, including other people and through our innermost selves as well.

S&H Member: I struggle to identify free will in this whole thing.

I have for some time come to replace the word “sin” with “illness” and came to understand hell, not as a personal punishment for sins committed, but as an impersonal state of being that we exist in by virtue of us being born in original sin, that is, outside of heaven.

In other words, I have come to believe that it is right to say: “God’s not gonna send you to hell for your sins, but look inside you, you are already in hell, and you know it. You’re not okay, and God wants to heal you from this, and that is salvation.”

And it worked for me for quite a while, and I still believe that such an idea does capture half the truth.

Yet something inside of me still wasn’t satisfied, as I would be rejecting free will, contrition, responsibility, justice, true guilt, and a whole area of the human experience by reframing my understanding of hell as simply something we are victim of instead of something we chose.

Dr. Gerry:I agree, somewhat, with your comments about sin being more akin to illness. But I also think sin can be a decision that is made with full conscious awareness. Or at least, a decision that my “way” is better. This can lead us to believe the “answer” to all of life’s problems is in technology, or capitalism or communism or self-improvement, or pleasure-seeking… you name it.

I tend to see evil in terms of a program. When I hear the expressions “the spirit of the age” or “spirit of the world” in the Bible, I think there is program at work in the world that is based on greed, oppressing others, pride, selfishness, etc. This is in opposition to Christ ushering in the kingdom of heaven, which is founded on love, self-sacrifice, healing, etc.  So, when we take responsibility, seek justice, and act, the essential question to consider is this: are we acting for the kingdom of heaven, or some other worldly program? 

I’m not sure I’m comfortable with saying we are a victim of hell. I’ll have to think on that one.

Dr. Peter: I don’t really see sin as “illness.” In my weekly reflection from June 15, 2022, What is Sin, Really? Seven Ways to Understand Sin, I provide reflections from our Catholic tradition on the nature of sin – sin as a breaking the law, a burden, a debt, as “missing the mark,” as violating your conscience, as breaking or harming relationships, and as a failure to love. Of all of these, I favor the last two, especially sin as a failure to love, when understanding ourselves in as a system, with both a multiplicity (the parts and the self) and a unity. The two great commandments (cf Luke 10:27) are all about love – loving God, neighbor, and ourselves, and upon them hang the entire law.

One of the consequences of sin is destruction, and that can take the many forms, including disorder inside oneself — disorder in the spiritual realm, to be sure, but also disorder in the natural realm. Illnesses of various kinds can be a consequence of sin. We can see this perhaps most clearly in our bodies – if I abuse my body (a temple of the Holy Spirit) through the vice of gluttony, I will experience physical consequences that will eventually lead to bodily disorders. The same holds true for our psyches. As Sophocles stated, “Despair [a sin against hope] often breeds disease.”

If we are alienated from God (and thus alienated from love), I think we get a foretaste of hell. I agree that God doesn’t send us to hell so much as that we choose hell if we repudiate God in favor of some other (perceived) good. We can nuance this a bit – often some split-off parts of ourselves who are not in right relationship with our innermost selves may feel quite alienated from God, while other parts of us don’t. The question remains: What path will my innermost self freely choose?

S&H Member: I am truly lost with how to place sin into this worldview, next to the fact that generally sin is an acting out of unhealed trauma.

What is full knowledge and full will required to commit mortal sin?

I have also come to an understanding of original sin as original trauma. And so far, it fits perfectly well with both this worldview and Catholic teaching.

As a consequence, I might have reached a conclusion: The more traumas you are exposed to, the less responsible you are for your sins because the less free you are, and then the more it becomes fitting to apply hell as something you are victim of instead of being responsible to be there. Just like the Church teaches, we are not “guilty” of original sin, but we are victims of it.

Dr. Gerry: We have parts with different agendas. We have parts that may have conflicting “programs” that they believe in. Some of the reasons for these programs go back to unhealed trauma – maybe most or all of them.

Although I agree that more trauma leads to less freedom, I believe in God’s grace and his mercy so I think more traumas may also lead to more grace. Often highly. traumatized survivors are the most empathetic and understanding of all people. They know pain and they receive grace more deeply. But of course, some may become bitter and turn away from God and reject love.

I believe each person has a personal encounter with God (more than once certainly) where they can receive that love, grace, and mercy. So, if there is a complete rejection of love, then hell is in that sense their choice. Personally, I can’t imagine the hubris of someone, no matter how traumatized, who could reject God’s love and grace when offered.

Dr. Peter: I’m really glad you are questioning your idea of how one might be “victim” of an interior hell, and it’s great that you are working through these questions in a serious and thoughtful way. Kudos to you.

I agree that trauma can make it much harder, at least initially, to tolerate the vulnerability needed to embrace the love of God and to love God, others, and ourselves. This was the theme of IIC episode 95: Trauma’s Devastating Impact on our Capacity to Love.

Richard Schwartz, who founded Internal Family Systems, greatly dislikes the idea of original sin or sin generally. He understands harmful actions as simply misguided parts acting with limited understanding and insufficient means. The anthropology that undergirds IFS, from Schwartz’s perspective doesn’t really allow for an understanding of sin, as I point in out in episode 73 of my Interior Integration for Catholics podcast, titled Is Internal Family Systems Catholic? The existence of evil is acknowledged by Schwartz, but he doesn’t explain its origins.

That’s why at Souls and Hearts, we put so much effort into grounding our human formation work in an authentic Catholic understanding of the human person. We harmonize secular resources like IFS with a Catholic anthropology, Christianizing them, if you will, and modifying them as needed to be consistent and concordant with what we know to be true by divine revelation in the Catholic Church.

I agree with Monsignor Charles Pope (see here) and senior apologist Jimmy Akin (see here) in their views on what constitutes sufficient knowledge and consent for an act or omission to be mortally sinful and defer to their expertise, as well as the relevant sections in the Catholic Catechism.

I strongly recommend that we never forget my favorite verse in all of Sacred Scripture: Romans 8:28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. “All things” includes our traumas. God knew, before the world was created, before you existed, every trauma you would experience. And passively, he permitted those traumas to happen (respecting the freedom of the perpetrators – God did not actively will any sins that caused you harm) for one primary reason: to make a greater good come from the trauma than would have been possible for you without experiencing it.

That is not a popular position nowadays. It is often much easier for parts of us to assume that God didn’t know what trauma happened to us (thereby denying His omniscience), or that He was powerless to stop it (thus denying His omnipotence) or that he didn’t care (thereby denying His love for us), or any number of negative and inaccurate God images that I describe in detail in episodes 23-29 of Interior Integration for Catholics (see here for a downloadable PDF with links and descriptions of the bad God images in each of those episodes).

I see those who have responded to their traumas with hope, faith, and love as among the most loved and cherished by God. They have experience trials by fire, they have run the good race, and they have been victorious by their cooperation with God’s grace. They did not rely on the limited vision of their parts – they were open to a much more expansive and accurate view of the whole picture, how their trauma fit into the arc of their salvation and in their deepening of a relationship with God.

Such individuals remind me of St. Josephine Bakhita, who said “If I were to meet the slave-traders who kidnapped me and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands, for if that did not happen, I would not be a Christian and Religious today…” I tell much more of St. Josephine Bakhita’s extreme childhood and adult trauma and how she used it to deepen her relationship with God in episode 107 of the Interior Integration for Catholic podcast, titled How to Work Through Your Anger at God.

You might consider a deeper investigation into Catholic theologians’ understanding of theodicy, which Fr. John Hardon, SJ defines as “…the study of God’s existence and attributes as known by the light of natural reason and apart from supernatural revelation. Its main focus is to vindicate God’s goodness and providence in spite of the evident evil in the universe.”

In particular, you might appreciate Catholic theologian Eleonore Stump’s 2010 book, Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering which is simply excellent in its focus on Aquinas’ understanding of theodicy (and in the process draws out so much from Aquinas on human formation). This book is also relatively easy to grasp, and uses very clear, human examples to illustrate its main points. Other valuable resources in include Why Does God Permit Evil? by Dom Bruno Webb, which also deeply into the topic and may be more accessible to a lay audience. You can also check out these weekly reflections for more resources:

November 30, 2022: How and Why We Reject God’s Providence

December 7. 2022: Moving from Rejecting to Embracing God’s Providence

December 14: 2022: Seeing Your Difficulties Through the Eyes of Providence

S&H Reader: I believe it is also fitting to mention that I have dealt with scruples for most of my life, which burdens me with a lot of false guilt, which in turn made me wary of guilt altogether and obscured my ability to discern true guilt. And so I’m trying to build a model in which I can see where guilt exists. And how it can be distinguished from blame and shame.

Dr. Gerry: You mention that you struggle with scrupulosity. In my work as a counselor, I have found that there are people who need to receive grace and trust in His mercy, and there are those people who need a kick in the butt to do the right thing. Maybe we need one or the other at different times in our lives. My experience with those with OCD and/or scrupulosity is that they need, more than anything, to trust in His love and receive that grace and mercy. It’s the “narcissists” who need the kick in the butt 😉 

Dr. Peter: I very much empathize with you on this topic of scrupulosity – I lived through a very painful bout of scrupulosity which I discuss in episode 87 of my IIC podcast titled Scrupulosity: When OCD Gets Religion. Your parts’ wariness of guilt makes so much sense to me, as does the difficulty in discerning moral questions accurately. I remember what that was like, how painful and difficult those days were.

S&H Member: I also have the idea that comes from St Augustine’s Massa damnata, [the condemned crowd] and from private revelations that say that a lot of people are in hell and I really wonder if the aforementioned model can justify these ideas or not. I know we’re not bound to believe private revelations, but I also think it’s not good to pretend they’re not here just to have our way and feel better.

Dr. Gerry: I see private revelations as often serving the same function as the Old Testament prophets. They serve to warn us. When the Israelites needed a serious redirect, a prophet would show up to warn them. The same is true of many private revelations warning about hell. They are a call to conscience, to reform, to sobering up. Other times, however, private revelations serve to show us God’s infinite love and forgiveness: the Sacred Heart, the Divine Mercy, St. Teresa’s ecstasies, etc. With a good spiritual director, you can perhaps discern where you need to focus. 

Dr. Peter: I don’t need to invoke private revelations to feel the heebee jeebees about the population of hell. Perhaps the Scriptures verses that haunt me most are the words of our Lord in Matthew 7:13-14: Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy,[a] that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. What does that mean?

The efforts of proponents of universal salvation to argue away the clear meaning of these verses to conclude exactly the opposite – that everyone goes to heaven — are far from convincing to me. I’ve run across many people who say, in one way or another they’ve given up on love. Paul Simon wrote a smash hit single titled “I am a Rock” in 1965 and Simon and Garfunkel released it as a single in 1966, and it rose to #3 on the charts. Why? Because the following lyrics resonated with people:

I am a rock I am an island.

I’ve built walls —

A fortress deep and mighty

That none may penetrate.

I have no need of friendship — friendship causes pain.

It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.

I am a rock I am an island.

These lyrics spoke out loud what many people’s parts feel – the desire to become a rock, the impulse to build the walls, to keep everyone out, to repudiate love and laughter, to not need anything or anyone. These words capture the emotions of those who say similar things, like the English screenwriter and director, Muriel Box who declared: I hate love. Hate being in love. I never want it to happen to me again. Or an anonymous writer who said Hate is a four-letter world. Love is a four letter lie. And here are 70 more quotes like those from despairing people. There’s no shortage of despair out there. I cover this in IIC episode 96, I Am a Rock: How Trauma Hardens Us Against Being Loved.

At the same time, though, I am absolutely convinced that God loves each of us as a cherished, treasured son or daughter with a personal love beyond our imagining — and that He does everything He can in His power without violating our freedom to save us from failing to love and falling into sin.

In the end, we each have a choice – as Blaise Pascal famous wrote in his Pensées, In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t. And those who choose the shadows are many – John 3:19 reads, And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.

Dr. Gerry and I thank you, dear Souls and Hearts Member, for your graciousness and your generosity in sharing this exchange with our broader readership. Our hope is that it will foster deeper reflections in all of us, leading us to be more open to God’s graces and His love, and help us on our pilgrimage through this vale of tears.


The Interior Integration for Catholic podcast and you.

On July 3, I released the first in a new series of episodes on “personality” titled Why a Single Personality Is not Enough. It is 80 minutes long and in it I share five reasons why the conventional understanding of a single, homogeneous personality is insufficient to fully understand your internal experience. I offer an alternative conceptualization of the human psyche that recognizes internal multiplicity, parts, and systems that is not only more helpful, but also harmonizes with our Catholic Faith. I invite you to check it out and let me know what you think.

Be With the Word for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Receiving Comfort From God

Come join Dr. Gerry and me for a 34-minute discussion as we invite you to reflect on where you go for comfort and consolation. We discuss how most of us have a great deal of trouble receiving comfort from God as well as how we can change that for the better in our episode for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Dr. Gerry and I read the Mass readings for this Sunday aloud here.

Saving the best for last…

Please pray for all of us at Souls and Hearts. We are praying for you. Our whole enterprise is founded on and fueled by prayer. We know that all of this pioneering work in human formation is utterly dependent on God’s grace to be fruitful. So please pray for us regularly, that we carry out God’s will in every thing we do, be it big or small. And I continue to pray for you – for you collectively, and for many of you by name.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S. And remember, I am available every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM on my cell (317.567.9594) for private conversations about these weekly reflections and the IIC podcast. I don’t do clinical consultations, provide therapy or give professional advice during these times due to licensing jurisdiction issues, but we can enjoy talking about the themes and the content of the Souls and Hearts human formation resources together.

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