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Mortal or Not, Sin Always Causes Harm

July 23, 2018 33 Comments

For several generations, the Church has used a kind of shorthand in referring to mortal sin, for example, “X is a mortal sin.” The problem is that this general statement is an oversimplification. In order for the individual committing a particular act to be guilty of a mortal sin, three conditions are necessary: grave matter (the act must be intrinsically evil), full knowledge, and deliberate consent (CCC 1857).

It is important to emphasize that even if a particular sinful act does not rise to the level of mortal sin, it is still a sin. No sinful action, even if committed “innocently” will bring a blessing or become good in itself. To sin is always to veer off course and it causes some sort of wound. This is true even if the person is not guilty of committing a mortal sin.

Let’s consider a couple of specific cases of potentially mortal sin and look at the three conditions required to determine that it represents a mortal sin in a particular situation.

Case 1: Skipping Mass on Sunday

Grave Matter

Missing Mass on Sunday is a grave matter because we fail to render fitting thanks and praise to God for His goodness. We sin against justice and charity by failing to gather with God’s people at Mass to do so. In addition, at Mass we are instructed by God and fed with the Body and Blood of the Lord. Jesus says, Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his Blood you do not have life within you (Jn 6:53). Therefore, Mass is necessary for us. Skipping Mass is also a direct violation of the Third Commandment and does harm to the First Commandment. Thus, it is grave matter.

Full Knowledge

Many Catholics today have been poorly instructed and have very few cultural moorings that dispose them to be at Mass each Sunday. Many do not even know that missing Mass is a grave matter. Even if they know that going to Mass is a good thing—surely better than just sleeping in or going shopping—they may not appreciate the seriousness of missing Mass nor understand that the Eucharist is our necessary food. Depending on how responsible they are for this ignorance, their culpability may be reduced, rendering the sin less than mortal.

Deliberate Consent

It is important to consider how thoughtfully a person decides to do something. In some situations, a person may make an impulsive decision, giving little to no thought to the matter. At others, there may be more extensive deliberation. Blameworthiness will center on questions such as these:

  • How long could the person reasonably have deliberated and formed an intention based on the circumstances? Did he take advantage of the available time to deliberate and do so by applying good moral standards?
  • Could the situation have been anticipated or did it arise so suddenly that there was little change to form a careful intention?

So, a person who chooses to miss mass due to a last-minute occurrence (e.g., an old friend calls and is in town only for the day) may be less blameworthy than a person who had time to make other arrangements but chose to miss Mass after careful deliberation of the options.

We live in a culture that makes more peripheral demands on people than was the case forty or more years ago. As more and more businesses are open seven days a week, more people are required to work on Sundays. Other activities such as youth sports leagues put pressure on families on the weekend and make scheduling chaotic. Many people travel on weekends, sometimes for pleasure but also for business. These sorts of things make it difficult to keep a regular, consistent schedule. “Juggling” the schedules of various family members is quite common today.

Unusual circumstances can impede the ability to attend Mass, such as one’s own serious illness or the need to care for someone who is seriously ill. Dangerous weather conditions can prevent attendance or make it ill advised. Emergencies, last-minute transportation problems, and the like can all limit the freedom or ability to get to Mass. If one’s freedom is eroded, culpability may be reduced, rendering the sin of missing Mass less than mortal on a particular occasion. It is always deleterious to miss Mass because one misses Holy Communion, fellowship, and instruction, but to the degree that freedom is eroded, one’s blameworthiness may be reduced, even to a minimum.

Hence, to say, “Skipping Mass on Sunday is a mortal sin,” only refers to the fact that it is a grave matter. It is not possible to speak to every possible circumstance that may legitimately excuse a person from Mass. Neither can it speak to how well formed a person’s conscience is, the quality of his deliberation, or the degree of freedom with which he acts.

There are other sins, grave in nature, where the question of freedom is more subtle. This is a common issue with the sin of drunkenness. It is a grave sin to drink to the point that we are impaired, but there are often compulsions and addictions related to alcohol that may limit the full consent of the will.

Case 2: Masturbation

Grave Matter

The Catechism sets forth why masturbation is grave matter:

Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action. The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose. For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved (CCC 2352).

Because human sexuality is a great good and is ordered by the Sixth Commandment, the violation of it is grave matter. It amounts to a turning inward, to misusing that very thing which is meant to relate us intimately to another in marriage and for procreation.

Full Knowledge

Society used to take a rather dim view of masturbation. Today it is widely accepted and even promoted to children. The Catholic Church’s position has not wavered, yet it’s unclear how many Catholics today understand the seriousness of the sin.

Deliberate Consent

The Catechism goes on to say:

To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability (Ibid).

Hence, what is a grave matter may not always rise to the level of a mortal sin if the required freedom is lacking to some degree. The affective maturity and other psychological and social factors must be assessed by a confessor working realistically and honestly with the penitent. The confessor should neither disregard a person’s freedom and the possibility for growth, nor should he presume that acts of masturbation always proceed from malice or an utterly selfish desire to turn away from the marital and procreative purposes of sexual intimacy.

However, even if a particular penitent may not be guilty of mortal sin, masturbation is sinful. Engaging in it misconstrues the purpose of sex, indulges in fantasy, and feeds distorted notions of sexuality. It also becomes a growing habit and impedes the self-mastery needed for the gift of oneself to one’s spouse. It is a poor way to prepare for marriage and often hinders the maturity needed for marriage, in which one’s spouse is not always what the perfect fantasy describes. It feeds disappointment in one spouse and feelings of inadequacy in the other.

Thus, masturbation is a sin, even if not always a mortal one. No lack of freedom or extenuating circumstances can make a bad thing good. Masturbation should still be confessed, and one should not determine alone whether it rises to the level of mortal sin. A confessor can and should be consulted and a regular schedule of confession should be determined by the confessor based on the penitent’s struggle. The goal is to become ever freer by growing in self-mastery.

Excursus

The topic of divorce and remarriage requires more attention than I can give here but suffice it to say that whatever personal culpability may or may not accrue in a given situation, divorce and remarriage represents an ongoing situation that cannot admit to a firm purpose of amendment or improvement. The couple may not reasonably be able to make the commitment to live chastely. In addition, the fact that they are in a second “marriage” is typically clear if not to the general public, at least to family and friends. Hence, the common good most often demands that public acts be treated by public remedies. As a result, the Church has long held that couples in this situation cannot receive Holy Communion. (In contrast, a person who misses Mass or struggles with masturbation can make some purpose of amendment; furthermore, his sin is not usually public knowledge.)

Some today would like to hold that individual priests are free to offer Communion to such couples in particular situations. Some even go so far as to say that all couples in second (or third, or fourth, …) marriages can partake of Holy Communion. Even Jesus’ plain words to the contrary fail to convince them.

I understand that there are pastorally complex situations, but Jesus understood this as well and yet did not offer concessions or alternative policies. I would simply say to any priest who permits the reception of Holy Communion in these cases that he will answer to God for it and will have to explain to Jesus why His words did not apply. I will not be the judge. I only ask that he alone bear the burden of his advice and not ask the wider Church to prop him up or change her doctrine to suit his pastoral decisions. Let him carry his own practices to the judgment seat and not ask me or others to be complicit in his views or decisions. Indeed, it ill-behooves the Church to make general policies, norms, or laws out of complex and unique situations; no changes to Canon Law ought to be made.

Conclusion:

The statement “X is a mortal sin” is a simplification. It is only stating that a certain act is grave, intrinsically evil. The warning that some sins are grave ex genere suo (by their nature), ought not be dismissed. However, there are other factors to be considered when determining whether mortal culpability accrues to a certain individual in a certain set or circumstances.

Even if the determination in a particular situation is that all of the ingredients that render an act a mortal sin were not present, this should not be taken to mean that no sin was committed. An act that is objectively sinful cannot become good simply because one commits it in ignorance or out of diminished freedom.

Even if a person means well or acts in ignorance, a sin can never bring a blessing. It brings only harm and wounds. Even if I unknowingly ingest rat poison or if am forced by an enemy to do it, I will not get any benefit from rat poison. It is poison of its nature and it will still cause terrible things. I may not be condemned for ingesting rat poison ignorantly or by force, but I will surely suffer.

Rat poison is bad and causes harm. Sin is bad and causes harm. Don’t seek refuge in ignorance or insufficient freedom; just avoid it altogether!

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Comments (33)

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  1. Jay says:

    As always, a helpful column.

    On the topic of mass attendance, although many things in our modern life make such attendance more difficult, many other things make it easier. For instance, masstimes.org – a website that allows one to find mass or confession anywhere in the country any day of the week. Much different from when I was a kid, and if you were traveling you literally had to drive around and ask strangers in the street if there were a Catholic Church nearby. Another help is that more and more churches offer evening masses – both on Saturday and on Sunday. Families who manage to do travel sports, could get to mass if they so chose.

  2. I have had ongoing discussions with a priest about the conditions that constitute a sin as being “venial.” He claims that the three conditions needed for a sin to be mortal (grave matter, full knowledge and deliberate consent) also apply to sins that are inherently “venial”, (i.e. not a grave matter but sinful in nature, full knowledge and deliberate consent). I cannot find anything definitive in Church teachings (i.e. The New Catechism of the Catholic Church, etc.) that substantiates this claim. At best, this correlation seems to be a reasonable application of a principle; however, it could also lead a person to conclude that if one or more conditions are missing, there would be no venial sin but rather only an imperfection. Can you shed a more definitive light (based on actual Church teachings on the matter) rather than on an informed opinion? Thank you for taking time to consider this matter.

    • John LeBlanc says:

      Stephen, it isn’t necessary to have something spelled out definitively in Church teaching for one to be certain of that thing. Most, in fact, of the conclusions in moral theology have not been spelled out explicitly and definitively by the Magesterium. A “sin”, subjectively considered, is simply an act against reason. I.e., to act in a way that is contrary to what one knows is best. From this definition it is clear that knowledge and consent are required for every sin. If someone, despite his best efforts to know the truth, honestly believes that a particular disordered action is not disordered but actually ordered, then subjectively speaking there is no sin in consenting to it, since he is acting according to reason. However, even in this case, the disordered action can harm him, as Msgr points out. So, ignorance isn’t bliss.

  3. Nathan says:

    Msgr Pope,

    Thank you for this column, especially if the first part (about skipping Mass) was written as a response to my comments over the past week. That was very kind of you.

    Nonetheless, I must respectively disagree with your conclusions. I believe a God who condemns some to Hell (or allows them to condemn themselves) for one hour of skipping Sunday Mass (assuming full knowledge and deliberate consent) is a monster God. This is also a God who is excessively legalistic and narcissistic.

    My best argument for this is that this sort of punishment is already cruel and unusual. It is already an “argumentum ad absurdum.” The defense of God by orthodox Catholics comes in the form of a Divine Command Theory, i.e., God is all good so He can do anything He wants and it will always be good. This is circular reasoning. Plato defeated this in the Euthyphro.

    I like the Jesus who says to the sinner, “Go and sin no more.” I don’t like Jesus if Jesus says, “Go to Hell” for the same sin or even a lesser sin and all the good in the person’s life is basically ignored because of the one mortal sin. But I can hear the arguments again that orthodox Catholics will make–and again it involves Divine Command Theory, that God is good because He says He is good.

    A better way to argue that God is good is to show that God is Love, and show that God does loving things.

    Does the Good Samaritan go to Hell because he missed following the fullness of the Jewish law? What if the Good Samaritan lived in the present day and he was the Good cafeteria Catholic? Someone who did not go to Mass on Sunday mornings?

    There is something very wrong if God condemns such a person. Do the priest and Levite who fail to help go to Heaven still? Something is so very off. This seems the opposite of the Jesus in the Gospels.

    • Dan says:

      As you rightly say, we condemn ourselves to hell by what we do and what we fail to do. In this short space, I will not attempt to be pedantic but to remind you that Jesus said, “the kingdom of heaven will not give entrance to every man who calls me Master, Master; only to the man that does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” If you don’t want to attend Mass at least every Sunday then your heart is not in the right place. You’re simply making excuses by blaming God for being overly legalistic. “Whereupon I will tell them openly, You were never friends of mine; depart from me, you that traffic in wrong-doing.”

      As to the Good Samaritan, it is Jesus who’s the Good Samaritan. The man who was going down from the Holy City was Adam and he was beset by Satan and after he was robbed he was left for dead. The priest and the Levite represented the Old Testament which being legalistic could do nothing to save us (Adam). It was Jesus as the Samaritan who picked the man up and tended to him (forgave him his sins) but still took him to the Church (inn) to care for Adam until His return. To assist the innkeeper (the Pope) in his care for us, Jesus left him the sacraments (two silver pieces). The point of the parable wasn’t to tell you to go Church on Sunday. You need to want to go or you’re right, there’s really no point in going even if just to check a box and say you went to Church every Sunday.

      • Russ says:

        Great response Dan. I find skeptics often don’t “get” that it isn’t just about belief (faith), which is intellectual assent. Christianity is an affair of the heart, it is about love. We attend Mass and receive the sacraments because we love.

        Saint Paul puts it best: “If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:2

        • Antonia says:

          Russ – Great response. I agree, it’s not just about intellectual assent, it’s about lived faith, even when that’s inconvenient. In a concrete, lived way, we have to show our love, adoration, worship, and respect to God, and part of the way we do that is to go to Mass as He has asked us to.

          • Nathan says:

            So I need to love God–or else?

            God sounds like the abusive boyfriend who beats women and blames them.

      • Nathan says:

        Dan,

        But why *would* I praise a God who seems so immoral for making it a grave sin to miss Mass? I deny the entire premise of praising God is God is immoral. Even if you disagree with me, don’t you see my point?

        By the way, the Church has abused me seven ways to Sunday. It’s more evidence that God probably is an evil monster. I don’t see the Church as an inn, or even the priest and Levite in the parable. I see the Church as the robbers who beat me half dead. Now they tell me what a great sinner I am for not obeying their authority.

        I guess that means I may be going to Hell. It’s so messed up. I hate everything.

        • John LeBlanc says:

          Nathan, I went ahead and sent you a message on reddit (“johnleblanc89” username…like you suggested in the previous blog post on mortal sin). No rush, but I just wanted to make sure you got it. I would be glad to continue the conversation there with you. You are also getting some good replies here. Keep up the effort to seek the truth. You will find it.

          Regarding your comment here. I agree, if God is immoral then he should not be praised. You mention that God seems immoral “for making it a grave sin to miss Mass”. I think it’s a little misleading to say that God “made” it a mortal sin. As if he arbitrarily decided to make it a mortal sin. Rather, that it’s a mortal sin is simply the natural consequence of what’s involved. Let me try to explain. A grave sin is simply an act that is contrary to reason in a serious matter. Now if God is all good and keeps us in existence at every moment (this is something that can be proven…would be glad to take this up with you on reddit…it will be lengthy!) then it is right to give him the high reverence that is due to such a Being (quite the reverence indeed!) And it would be wrong to not give Him the reverence that is due to Him on account of Who He is. Further, the Church claims (with good reason…another discussion) that God gave the Church His authority to teach and make laws (for our own good! not arbitrary laws) in His name. The Church, recognizing that we ought to reverence the Being that is God, has decreed a particular way in which, as Catholics, we ought to worship Him…namely, by assisting at particular times at the Sacrifice of Calvary re-presented…not simply, as Dan rightly pointed out, to “check a box”, but rather for our own good! Our salvation! To receive grace from God! If someone is convinced that the Catholic Church has this kind of authority and yet refuses to listen to the Church, how could this be anything other than a gravely disordered thing to do? If someone is not convinced that the Church has this authority, then he is not a Catholic, and thus his fundamental problem is not that he’s not going to Mass…it’s that he doesn’t believe the Catholic Faith.

          I am sorry to hear of your abuse at the hands of those in the Church. You are not, my friend, on the path to Hell as long as you ardently desire to know the truth and that you want to do what is best, no matter the cost. Keep trying, and praying (“God, if you exist, show me the truth”), and have confidence. It is not all lost. I know of others who have likewise suffered unimaginable abuse from those in the Church…the path forward is not easy, but it is doable. Stay strong. Humbly seek truth and goodness and you will find peace.

      • Antonia says:

        Dan, Great ideas here. Thanks for the interesting idea about the Good Samaritan…I had forgotten that interpretation. What a great way to focus on Christ’s love for us, which is the way to keep us from sin. I’ll have to share it with my kids!

    • Antonia says:

      Why do we have to go to Mass?
      1) Mass might be trivial to you, but Jesus gave His life in agony to save us & the Mass takes us back in time & place, supernaturally, to His sacrifice on the Cross. God the Father gave His only son to us to be murdered, and then for us to feed on His holy and supernatural body and blood as a salve to heal our own wounds. THAT’S KIND OF A BIG DEAL TO GOD, even if we haven’t been able to see the need for the Eucharist and worshipping God ourselves. We need to at least show up and give our thanks, gratitude, worship, and respect to God once a week.

      2) The Mass and participation in the parish life of the Church (catechesis, serving others, working together, etc.) also gives us fellowship with other Christians. Developing holy friendships is absolutely essential to the Christian life. We cannot fight this uphill battle against sin and despair alone! We have God on our side, but He designed us to be earthly and social creatures and to turn for help, comfort, and friendship to other Catholics walking the same path.

      3) God only commands stuff for our own good, not for His own. He doesn’t need us for anything, but created us out of sheer love for us. Jesus delights in you, just as you are! Later He will help you (and me) to come closer to His Sacred Heart and become holy. He commands us to go to Mass because “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his Blood you do not have life within you.” (Jn 6:53) We need Him desperately.

      4) Jesus gave us His own body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Eucharist, and through His Bride, the Church, He commands that we partake of Him a paltry once a week (daily would be better, for we have NO LIFE without Him!). God made us with a hole in our hearts that He would fill constantly with Himself, to our delight and His, in love (as in a marriage!). But with Original Sin we were cut off from God, so now until we get to Heaven, we have to receive Him in the sacraments (and secondarily in scripture, prayer, nature, Christian fellowship, serving those in need, etc.) in order to be energized by our true “power source” – God. Otherwise we turn away and try to “plug in” to the world, the flesh, and the low, evil suggestions of the devil. The world, the flesh, and the temptations of the devil NEVER energize us in the end, but only leave us with addictions and emptiness, since that’s looking for love/truth/life in the wrong place. Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

    • Antonia says:

      Why go to Mass? continued…

      5) The Mass/Eucharist is the fulfillment of the Jewish Passover – and in the Passover, the sacrifice of the lamb HAD TO BE EATEN, and its blood HAD TO BE PHYSICALLY PUT ON THE DOORPOST for the family inside to be spared by the angel of death. It wasn’t a mental assent to the power of God… they had to put their whole lives into it, taking the time to slaughter the lamb, dress it and cook it properly, and put the blood over the door. God wants us to put our whole lives into His service, into His love. We have to physically GO to Mass and RECEIVE our Lord in the Eucharist physically, into our bodies. God wants to be in our real lives constantly, in every way including practical and physical ways, not just in our thoughts from time to time. He wants this not out of selfishness (b/c He doesn’t need us for anything), but for love and for our own good. Mother Teresa said that as Christ thirsted on the Cross (“I thirst” John 19:28), He thirsts FOR US, for our love, time, and attention. He actually wants to be with us! That is spectacular and amazing! And He knows we NEED to be with Him. I think He uses the mysterious Eucharist to insert His love and grace into us through our bodies into our souls, to bypass our calculating minds, because we can never really grasp why or how GOD HIMSELF would love us so much, or grasp the height and depth of what He is offering of Himself to us…it is too spectacular for our minds to comprehend.

      6) We, the Catholic Church, are the bride of Christ… Marriage to another human on earth and our mystical, spiritual marriage to Jesus in Heaven (which is even deeper and more intimate than earthly marriage!) are all about love. If a husband & wife had an extremely busy schedule helping others all week (like the Good Samaritan/good cafeteria Catholic you mentioned), and had a special weekly date night with each other which was practically the only time they could spend any time together, would that husband or wife be a good, faithful, and loving spouse if they knowingly and deliberately miss their weekly date night, or yearly anniversary & birthday celebrations with their spouse? If they didn’t know about these special dates, or somehow didn’t know it was REALLY important to their spouse to be there for them (maybe they’d never been told), then it wouldn’t be a problem. But if they knew how important it was, and knew the dates, and just DELIBERATELY turned to go out with some other romantic interest at that time, how could you call them a good, faithful, and loving spouse? Turning to other interests instead of God, to replace God, breaks the 1st commandment: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of slavery in Egypt. Have no other gods before Me.” It’s not that we can’t have other interests and watch a football game, or go shopping, or work, etc., at other times – but NOT during our one special weekly “date” with God, or on the other holy days of obligation (like the spouse’s birthdays & anniversaries). If we do that, how could we have a real relationship of love with our earthly spouse, or with our Heavenly Spouse? And if we don’t have a real relationship of love with God, why would we want to spend eternity with Him in Heaven?

    • Antonia says:

      Divine Command theory —

      You mentioned Divine command theory in a previous post…”God is all good so He can do anything He wants and it will always be good.” God isn’t good just because He SAYS He is good (and God’s actions aren’t “good” just because He SAYS/COMMANDS they are good).

      God IS existence itself, being itself… and His NATURE is intrinsically good. His nature is truth, goodness, beauty, and love. All existence, truth, goodness, beauty, and love flow from Him (and He didn’t just create us and leave us, He actively works to keep us and all of creation in existence every second). So the argument would be something more like: 1) God exists. God is, in fact, existence itself, and He is omnipotent. 2) God’s nature is intrinsically and absolutely good, truthful, beautiful, and loving. 3) Therefore, whatever God does will always be good. He wouldn’t ever do anything that is evil. He would never act against His loving nature.

      It’s not that some omnipotent being’s every command is called “goodness,” or that we define “goodness” as “whatever that omnipotent being says is good” or “whatever that omnipotent being commands”… It’s that God has a wonderful, loving, good and moral NATURE that He would never act against.

      Praise – why we need it

      In one of your other posts, you mentioned the need for praising God. God only commands stuff for our own good, not for His own. He doesn’t need us for anything, but created us out of sheer love. Praising God is good FOR US, not for Him! It breaks us out of our zone of fear, worry, disorder, confusion, anger, and distraction from Him and His purposes in our lives. It really changes your prayer life if you start with a bunch of praise – it centers your life again on what’s important, and reminds you that He is in charge and will help you with everything. Praise can be thanksgiving or just telling God His attributes and nature back to Him… kind of like telling your spouse why you love them, or reciting a love poem to them. I like Psalms 16, 19, 65, 66, 72, 93, 96, 97, 103, 104, 105, 111, 113, 121, 145, 147, 148… the Magnificat (Luke 1:47-55), the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79), many other passages of the Bible, and personal praise and thanks for what God has done in my life.

      Abuse – personal note

      You mentioned something about being an abused Catholic in your twitter handle (or something like it). I just wanted to say I’m so sorry for any abuse you’ve been subjected to in the Church! Abuse of any kind is horrible, especially in our holy Catholic Church. Please remember that priests and other Catholics are filled with sins just like everybody else, and what you’re looking for is Jesus, the Holy One! We earthlings are doing our best, and the Church is the mystical Bride of Christ, but we are on this journey to holiness ourselves and have a long way to go. The purity and holiness of the Church, just like every individual truly in it, will only come in Heaven. There are probably some people who have become priests (or teachers, coaches, etc.), just to abuse others, since from such a respected position they will have access to the vulnerable. Remember that Jesus is there for you in the Church, in the sacraments, He really exists, and He wants you to find a safe and loving parish to attend so He can heal your wounds with His body and blood at Mass. May God abundantly bless you and yours, heal you and give you deep peace and sanctity.

      • Nathan says:

        Antonia,

        Thank you for your kind words about abuse. I didn’t want to mention it but it was my Reddit handle. The worst part about the abuse (for me) is that the same people who abused me are telling me how sinful I am and how I am in mortal sin and likely headed to Hell, etc., even for things which are clearly not sinful. For example a *bishop* implied to me that I was excommunicated because I reported someone else who did something wrong to me and did not accept the coverup and stonewalling. I was wrong and excommunicated and the abused was fine. He then told me that ***Jesus*** was upset at me for this. Ever since that event, the possibly that Jesus could be a monster has become very real for me. And he knew I had severe scruples too, so it hurt me right in my Achilles heel.

        Anyway, to your comment, by Divine Command Theory I mean Jesus and God cannot be good just because they say they are good, or because you define God as intrinsically good in His nature. Maybe God is indeed all good, but I need to see it through actions. So you need to prove your premises to me first.

        You say God has an all-good nature. Please prove that to me, because right now I think that is highly unlikely.

        I think the fact that God allows sould to go to Hell for missing Mass for one hour is strong proof that God is evil. Let me also state that if this is evil, it would be infinitely evil because Hell is eternal and thus infinite pain. In which case punishing people for missing an hour to praise an infinitely evil God would be punishing people for no sin at all.

        Can you understand my argument? Can you understand how messed up this seems to me? I am not saying you need to agree with it. I am not saying I know with 100% certainty I am right. But can you understand it and repeat it back to me?

        Lastly, thank you again Antonia for being such a decent person and being kind to me about my past. I wish everyone was as nice as you are.

        • Antonia says:

          Nathan – Thanks for your kind & interesting comments. I can tell that you’ve had a tremendously difficult time with certain priests/bishops, and I am SO very sorry to hear that! And I totally agree that if God was so petty and legalistic about going to Mass (and other things) as you think He might be, then He would not be worthy of one moment of worship or praise.

          It sounds like your love of God has been flipped over by this abuse you’ve experienced, so that you doubt God’s goodness in everything. I guess this website isn’t the best place to help with this kind of serious difficulty, so could you give your Reddit contact info again in reply? I can join Reddit and continue talking with you if you’d like.

          Keep wrestling with God, just like Jacob/Israel! God loves you and delights in you! May he bless you & yours.

  4. Larry says:

    I have a question about Catholic guilt…that is, a sin may be committed not only by what a person does, but also, by what a person doesn’t do.

    For example, a couple years ago we had a snow storm that dumped 13 inches of snow on a Saturday night. Sunday morning I figured there was no way I could get my car out of the garage and up the driveway which is fairly steeply inclined and onto the street which had not been plowed. So I missed Mass that Sunday.

    Later in the week, after much shoveling, I was able to get my car out.

    Then it dawned on me that if I had made the effort on Sunday, it was possible that I could have dug out and made it to church.

    I was then overcome with Catholic guilt, thinking that I didn’t try hard enough.

    Was I wrong?

    • Nathan says:

      Larry,

      No sin here. Trust me, I have scruples and I can see scruples in other people. 13 inches of snow is a lot. Besides the streets were not plowed and your driveway was steeply inclined so traveling would have been dangerous.

      Do not worry about this any more.

  5. Joseph says:

    Years ago I heard this: The only thing good about a venial sin is that it isn’t a mortal sin. How true.

  6. vera says:

    Larry. I don’t think you can commit a sin in reverse. You made a sound judgement on Sunday that you couldn’t go to Mass so whether or not that was a sin, is determined by your state of mind and the circumstances at the time. What you suggest by worrying at a later date, is getting “scrupulous” – which is a terrible place to be. Forget it, but if it bothers you talk it over at your next Confession.

  7. Antonia says:

    Thanks for this column, it was great! I’d love more examples of what constitutes grave matter, which can lead to mortal sin.

    I’m a convert who has trouble figuring this out in my own life…especially since the only concrete example of a venial sin (e.g., non grave matter) that the CCC uses is “thoughtless chatter or immoderate laughter” or something like that (CCC 1856). My sins are much worse than that, but I’m not sure when they’re grave matter!

  8. Israel B says:

    A couple coronaries to add (with no disrespect intended to Monseigneur):

    Catholics (mostly of old) often fixate on “classifying”, or “categorizing” their personal sins…or worse, the sins of others.

    Some of the comments above imply that Msgr. Pope’s main point was missed. The article’s title says it: Mortal or Not, Sin Always Causes Harm

    With regard to the premise that an individual will be condemned to Hell because they missed a single Sunday Mass, that is God’s prerogative in the end. However, as Msgr. Pope references, God will judge TRUE intentions and sees into our hearts.

    In scrupulous Larry’s “Snow In” example above, it speaks well that he did weigh his decision after the fact. The implication being obvious his desire was not to willfully shirk the obligation.

    We should strive to pluck out sins early, rather than late in our lives. Persisting in venial sins will invariably lead to mortal sins.

    The good news is God is merciful, and longs to forgive those with true repentance. So maybe, let’s spend a little less time “calling balls and strikes”, and focus on the moment(s) at hand.

    • Antonia says:

      Israel B. – Agreed! Good thoughts. The reason I sometimes need to know whether a sin was mortal or venial is to figure out whether I need to get to Confession right now (!), before I go to Mass, or if I can wait a bit on the Confession front. It also helps me to prioritize what recurring sins & their opposite virtues to work on the hardest. Not that I’m getting anywhere fast on the road to sainthood! 🙂 Anyway, it’s just a practical matter.

      I do so appreciate the sacraments of Confession & the Eucharist and the laws surrounding them, though. We have such an advantage here over our Protestant brothers & sisters in knowing the fullness of the truth, & with aids to living out the faith. The examinations of conscience I’ve read have been an enormous help for me to understand how to live as God desires, and the sacraments help me to take baby steps towards virtue.

  9. Msgr. Charles Pope says:

    To Nathan, I did not write the post in answer to something you wrote last week. That never entered my mind. I wrote this post motu proprio. 😉

    I am glad that others have responded well to you. I would only add for emphasis that you can’t have part of Jesus (the part you like). There is only one Jesus and the same Jesus who said “go and sin no more” also taught and warned a lot about Hell. God is not a narcissist as you allege neither is he a monster. Only this, if one prefers something other than the Kingdom of God which God is offering, God will not force them to enter heaven and engage in the liturgy of heaven.

    • Bryn says:

      I appreciate your thoughts on sin as analogous to rat poison, that was honestly one of the best comparisons I’ve heard about sin. However, like Nathan I am troubled about the words of Jesus in the Goapels. Clearly, He made those statements, otherwise the Evangelists would not have added such challenging declarations. I get that there needs to be consequences for sin. But the mystery of God’s judgment inevitably causes people like myself who are already neurotic worriers to wander into thoughts of despair because of the possibility of Hell. I am so weary of being caught in this limited, narrow existential choice between Heaven and Hell. At times I regret ever having met Jesus Christ. But His mother brought me to meet Him. It’s too late, I know that Heaven and Hell are both real and that my actions have consequences. I totally get what Nathan says in response but it’s not the Church that’s to blame. Our issue is with the Person of Jesus Christ Himself, and I hate mentioning this because I am aware of the sacrifice He paid for us. I dread offending Him, but…He gave us a rational intellect to made prudential judgments.

      But the Catholic Guilt is not the Church’s fault. God isn’t evil like Nathan theorized but, looking at the two possibilities for my soul after death: the only way I see an escape for my neurotic Hell that’s been built for me is that all my neurotic thoughts that cause me suffering have also been a beginning process of purgation here, while on earth and that, most likely the majority of souls throughout salvation history have had to endure some sort of experience in purgatory but not many souls have actually fallen into Hell.

      That’s my hope but it’s theological speculation. One last thought: We have such limited choices, I don’t even buy the claim that free will is completely “free”.

      My purpose here was not at all to dissuade anyone to reject the Catholic faith in its main teachings. Just stating some logical points and issues that I have rarely seen addressed.

    • Nathan says:

      Msgr. Pope,

      I guess I will have to prepare for Hell then.

      And I think God is a narcissist. Judas wants to give money to the poor and Jesus stops him so the money can be spent on Jesus. But nothing is ever Jesus’ fault.

  10. Don says:

    Serious question: How is the “full knowledge” element met? As a baptized Catholic, if I know that the Church teaches missing Mass is gravely sinful, but I simply don’t believe it because my “conscience” tells me that the Church is wrong, am I off the hook? Because this is what most Catholics think. But this is the truth:

    10. What is a mortal sin?

    A mortal sin involves an action whose object is a grave matter that is committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent. Grave matter is generally understood to be something that violates the Ten Commandments.

    •Full knowledge means that one is aware that God or the Church he founded considers the act sinful (even if one doesn’t totally understand why it is sinful).

    •Deliberate consent means a consent sufficiently intentional to be a personal choice (CCC 1857-1859).

    • John LeBlanc says:

      Don, this is a great question. I think we have to be very careful here. If someone believes that doing “X” is right, whereas in fact it is wrong, then whether he is blameworthy or not doesn’t depend on whether he does “X” but rather on whether his erroneous judgment of “X” is itself blameworthy. In other words, if someone tries to the best of his ability to know the truth about “X” but ends up with an erroneous judgment about “X” then his acting on that judgment is blameless. If, however, he fails to do what he knows he ought to do in coming to a conclusion about “X” then his judgment is not blameless.

      Also, though, I think it’s important to remember that merely being “blameless” is not the ultimate goal…not that I mean, of course, that it’s ever good to not be blameless but rather that there is something more fundamental than simply being blameless. It is possible to be ignorant and blameless, but being ignorant isn’t good. What is most fundamental is to know the truth. As Msgr. points out, things can hurt us even if we aren’t aware that they can hurt us. The proper response to one who is supposedly blamelessly in error is not to say “Well, they’re blamelessly in error. It’s not their fault. They won’t be punished by God. Therefore, they’re ok.” No. Rather, ignorance is never per se a good thing. Lack of fault is not the ultimate goal. Living in the truth is.

      Finally, and more specifically to your point, if someone believes that “X” is right even while knowing that the Church teaches that “X” is wrong, then this person’s problem is not fundamentally that they think “X” is right. The fundamental problem is that they reject the authority of the Church. And so the question becomes not whether doing “X” in this case is blameworthy, but rather whether their rejection of the Church is blameless or not. And the answer to that is going to depend on whether this person has sufficient evidence for believing in the Church. It’s a question that becomes practically impossible to answer in a particular instance, since only God fully sees what’s going on psychologically in a particular case. All we can do is present the truth to the best of our ability and encourage others to strive to seek out the truth to the best of their ability, which might include things like: philosophical reflection, humility, seeking counsel, discussion, prayer, etc.

      • Don says:

        Thanks. What do you think of St. John Paul II’s statement in Reconciliatio et Penaetentia, par. 17, that some sins are “always mortal” by their very nature, regardless of cirumstances?

        • John LeBlanc says:

          Here’s an example. To hate what is worthy of love can never be a good thing to do, regardless of circumstances. In other words, there are some acts that can never be done simply because when you consider what the act is, it becomes apparent that the act involves something that contradicts the right order of things. It simply doesn’t make sense to try to imagine a situation in which it would be good to hate what is worthy of love. To hate what is worthy of love is therefore intrinsically immoral. I.e., its immorality comes from its intrinsic/inner nature, not from circumstances which are extrinsic/external to the act. Contrast this with something like “punching someone in the face”. To punch someone is not intrinsically immoral. There is nothing intrinsic to punching someone that contradicts the right order of things. If someone is physically attacking my family and I resist the attacker physically even though this may injure the attacker or possibly kill him, I have done nothing evil. In fact I have done exactly as I ought. It would have been wrong to not resist. In this case, the circumstances, things extrinsic to the act, made the act of “punching in the face” good. In another case if I randomly walk up to someone at work or on the street and knock him out cold, I have done something wrong. The circumstances here do not justify this sort of behavior. In such a case I have done something “extrinsically immoral”. I.e., its immorality comes from the circumstances, not from the act itself.

  11. Gus says:

    Nathan,

    In case none of the above responses to you are satisfactory, here are some additional considerations.

    You keep offering up a straw man argument and like all straw man arguments it is entirely unreasonable. And now you are saying orthodox Catholics are using circular logic. But your premises in both instances are incorrect.

    First off, Divine Command theory is a modern theory coined by G.E. Moore as a way to examine moral questions. The commenter “Antonia” touched on this, but in a nutshell, it does fit here. The theory can be applied to the God of the Koran, because the Koran says God (Allah) can do whatever He wants, even if it is contrary to His nature. But Divine Command theory cannot be applied to the Judeo-Christian God. What’s more, the Euthyphro dilemma is a false dilemma because Socrates did not understand the nature of God. Socrates was arguing based on his understanding of the Greek gods.

    The God of Judaism and Christianity is perfect. (He is, therefore, perfect justice and perfect mercy. Keep this in mind with your straw man.) He is an all-good, loving, reasonable and rationale God. You say “God is all good so He can do anything He wants and it will always be good.” This is not so. Since He is perfect, He cannot do anything that is against His nature. If He could, He would not be perfect. God’s nature cannot change and goodness is His nature. As such an action is not just morally good because God commands it and God does not command it because it is morally good. An action is good/moral because it is part of God’s nature.

    Now back to your very vague straw man. Your straw man question is moot because only God knows what’s in a person’s mind and heart and it is God who will judge each of us. Catholic teaching does not render final judgement on a soul. It only says this is how God says we should live if we want to go to heaven; but know too, that there are also offenses against God that can cause one to burn in hell. We have free will, a gift from God, so we get to choose how to live our lives.

    The Catechism says: 1861 Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.

    So a mortal sin, where all 3 conditions are present, is a grave offense that in and of itself warrants “the eternal death of hell” because it is a turning away from God and His love for us. Even so, it can be redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness. In the end, however, as the Catechism says, “we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.”

    • Nathan says:

      Gus,

      What is the straw man I am using? You are quoting the catechism as justification for your arguments. This *is* Divine Command Theory, don’t you see? You cannot use the fact that the Church commands something as part of your reasoning here when the subject is “is God good or evil.”

      I think God is bad for sending souls to Hell (or letting souls go there) for not doing things like worshiping His narcissistic self. Even a single hour missed can damn someone to Hell.

      To a good and virtuous non-Christian, this is outrageous! My argument is already complete, because the conclusion is already absurd.

      And I am quite familiar with how Christianity denies both horns of the Euthyphro. But the arguments here do not. If God is Love, and damns someone for watching a football game on Sunday morning, that is a “love” which has no connection with how anyone else in the world sees love.

      This is the thinking of a cult.

      • Gus says:

        Nathan,

        Your ‘straw man’ is the scenario you have presented: a person stays home to watch a football game on Sunday. Your argument and your conclusion are both badly flawed.

        You are also either ignoring or twisting my words. I am not using “the fact that the Church commands something as part of [my] reasoning.” I am saying that while the 10 Commandments were given to us by God, this does not make Divine Command Theory a plausible argument here because the whole premise of the theory is skewed to begin with. It says the human mind can fully understand and comprehend God. It cannot. It can only do so when God is given the mortal traits possessed by the Greek gods, which is why the Euthyphro dilemma is a false dilemma.

        Your argument is equally false. You say “I think God is bad for sending souls to Hell (or letting souls go there) for not doing things like worshiping His narcissistic self. Even a single hour missed can damn someone to Hell.” Your argument presupposes that God would in fact condemn a soul to hell for a single instance of “watching a football game on a Sunday morning,” without taking into account the person’s entire life, or the individual’s mental or spiritual state before and after the instance. But no one can say whether or not God would condemn your straw man’s soul to hell.

        In regard to mortal sin, CCC 1860 says, “The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders.”

        Your straw man example 1) does not account for any variables whatsoever, 2) can neither be proven not disproven, 3) assumes that you know God’s mind, 4) uses a theory that does not fit the argument. It is irrational and illogical from the get go.

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