The Progressive Stages of Sin

We are living in times when many are doubling down on their sin. As the darkness grows, many fiercely defend their sinful practices. This is especially evident in the matter of abortion. The science could not be clearer that there is a unique, beautifully formed, distinct human life in the womb of a pregnant mother, with a heartbeat, brain activity, alternating sleep and wake cycles, and the ability to feel pain. Despite this, many demand that all limits on abortion be removed. They “shout” and celebrate abortion, rejoicing in the dismemberment of babies in the womb and all the while considering themselves morally superior to those who support life.

How does it happen that so many obstinately persist in sin and promote wickedness until they are ultimately lost? As with all progressive diseases, sin is a sickness that moves through stages, further debilitating and hardening the sinner in his ways.

St. Alphonsus Liguori laid out five stages through which sin (if not resisted and repented of in its initial attacks) takes an increasing toll on the human person, making repentance less likely and more difficult.

While the names of the stages are mine, I am summarizing the insights of St. Alphonsus, who details these stages in his lengthy essay, “Considerations on the Eternal Maxims” (also called “Preparation for Death”) in Chapter 22, “On Evil Habits.” I have added some of my own additional insights as well.

Stage 1: Impairment – The first effect of unrepented habitual sin is that it blinds the understanding. Scripture says, Their own malice blinded them (Wisdom 2:21). Yes, every sin produces blindness, and the more that sins are multiplied, the greater the blindness they produce.

A further effect of this blindness is a foolish and dangerous wandering about. Scripture provides several references for this:

        • The wicked walk round about (Ps. 12:8).
        • They stagger as with strong drink, they reel in vision, they stumble in giving judgment (Is 28:7).
        • Behold, the wicked man conceives evil and is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies. He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the pit that he has made (Ps 7:14-15).

Thus, habitual sin leads to impaired vision and an impaired walk. Not seeing, the wicked stumble about and fall into a pit of their own making.

Stage 2: Indifference – After an evil habit is contracted, the sins that previously excited sorrow are now viewed with increasing indifference. Scripture says the following:

        • Fools destroy themselves because of their indifference (Prov 1:32).
        • But he who is careless of conduct will die (Prov 19:16).

To the increasingly indifferent and careless, the Lord gives this solemn and salutary warning: In little more than a year you who feel secure will tremble; the grape harvest will fail, and the harvest of fruit will not come (Is 32:10).

Thus, as unrepented sin grows, not only does the sinner stagger about and fall into pits, he cares less and less about the foolishness of his ways. The sins that once caused shame, or the thought of which caused sorrow and aversion, either go unnoticed or seem normal—even attractive.

Stage 3: Incapacity – As sin deepens its hold, the willingness and even the capacity to repent decreases. Why is this? St. Augustine answers this well when he says, dum servitur libidini, facta est consuetudo, et dum consuetudini non resistitur, facta est necessitas (when lust was served it became habit, and when habit was not resisted it became necessity) (Confessions, 8.5.10). Sin deepens its hold on the sinner in this way.

Stage 4: Incorrigibility – As Scripture says, The wicked man, when he is come into the depths of sins, has contempt (Proverbs 18:3). St. John Chrysostom commented on this verse, saying that habitual sinners, being sunk in the abyss of darkness, despise corrections, sermons, censures, Hell, and God; they despise everything.

A bad habit hardens the heart and the habitual sinner remains increasingly unmoved and mired in contempt for any correction or remedy. Scripture says of them, At your rebuke O God of Jacob, they have all slumbered (Psalm 76:7). An evil habit gradually takes away all remorse and replaces it with angry indignation at any attempted correction.

Then, instead of regretting his sins, the sinner rejoices in them, even laughing and boasting of them. Scripture says,

        • They are glad when they have done evil and rejoice in the perverseness of evil (Proverbs 2:14).
        • A fool works mischief as if it were for sport (Proverbs 10:23).

Thus, they are incorrigible. They laugh at attempted correction and celebrate their sins with pride.

Stage 5: Indisposition – When the understanding is deprived of light and the heart is hardened, the sinner ordinarily dies obstinate in his sin. Scripture says, A hard heart shall fare ill at the end (Ecclesiastes 3:27).

Some may say that they will amend their ways before they die, but it’s very difficult for a habitual sinner, even in old age, to change his life. St. Bernard said, “The man on whom the weight of a bad habit presses, rises with difficulty.”

Indeed, how can a sinner, weakened and wounded by habitual sin, have the strength to rise? Even if he sees the way out, he often considers the remedies too severe, too difficult. Though conversion is not impossible, he is indisposed because it all seems like too much work. In addition, his love has likely grown cold for the good things that God offers.

Thus, even on their deathbeds, many sinners remain unmoved and unwilling to change; the darkness is deep, their hearts have hardened, and their sloth has solidified.

In these ways sin is like a progressive illness, a deepening disease; it moves through stages in much the same way that cancer does. Repentance at any stage is possible, but it becomes increasingly unlikely, especially by stage four, when the sinner becomes proud of his sin and joyful in his iniquity.

Beware the progressive illness of sin!

A Reminder that Fornication is a Serious Sin that Can Exclude Us From Heaven

The epistle from Monday’s daily Mass (30th Week of the Year) contains an admonition against unchastity. This grave warning is essential in times like these, when many call good or “no big deal” what God calls sinful. This is especially true in the realm of sexuality; entire sectors of society not only tolerate but even celebrate sexual practices that Scripture calls gravely sinful and that will lead to Hell if not repented of. Homosexual acts, fornication, and adultery cannot be considered allowable by any Catholic or any person who sincerely accepts Scripture as the Word of God. Even those who do not share our faith should be able to observe the damage these acts cause: they spread disease, harm marriages and families, subject children to less-than-ideal households (e.g., single mother/absent father), and lead to abortion. Regarding the Pope’s recent remarks on same-sex union, I have written on that here at the National Catholic Register. On account of those remarks it seems necessary review once again important  teachings here and on the EWTN Morning Glory radio show.  

In today’s post I will focus on the sin of fornication and present the clear biblical teaching against it. Sadly, many Catholics report that little to nothing is heard from the pulpit or in the classroom about this issue. The hope in this post today is to present a resounding, biblical trumpet call to purity that leaves no doubt as to the sinfulness of sex before marriage. Scripture is clear: fornicators will not inherit the Kingdom of God. That is to say, fornication is a mortal sin and those who do not repent of it will go to Hell.

The usual conditions for mortal sin apply (grave matter, sufficient reflection, and full consent of the will). In most situations, these conditions are met. Over the years I have met with many sexually active couples preparing for marriage and have never found them to be surprised that I rebuke them for this. They know it is wrong; the voice of God echoes in their consciences. As for consent of the will, although some fall occasionally in a weak moment, consistent fornicating with no measures taken to prevent it (e.g., not cohabitating) is not weakness; it is sinful neglect of prudence and common sense.

We are in a sinfully confused cultural setting in which many either celebrate or make little effort to avoid what God calls serious sin. The Church must not lack clarity, yet pulpits and classrooms have often been silent. This has led to parents themselves to be silent—and silence is often taken as tacit approval.

Fornication cannot be approved of. It is sinful and excludes unrepentant sinners from Heaven. Our charity for souls compels our clarity about the grave sinfulness of premarital sex.

The following passages from the New Testament clearly condemn fornication and other unclean or impure acts. The gravity and clarity of such condemnations are helpful in the sense that they help us to take such matters seriously and steer clear of them. However, the condemnations should not be seen in isolation from God’s mercy, as He never fails to forgive those who come to Him with a humble and contrite heart. God hates sin, but He loves sinners and is full of mercy and compassion for them. This mercy must be accessed through repentance, however.

There is a general requirement for sexual purity.

Among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or crude joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No fornicator, no impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with worthless arguments. These are sins that bring God’s wrath down upon the disobedient; therefore, have nothing to do with them (Ephesians 5:3-7).

Unrepentant fornicators are excluded from the kingdom.

The one who sat on the throne said to me, “See I make all things new!” Then he said, “Write these matters down for the words are trustworthy and true!” He went on to say: “These words are already fulfilled! I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. To anyone who thirsts I will give to drink without cost from the spring of life-giving water. He who wins the victory shall inherit these gifts and he shall be my son. As for the cowards and traitors to the faith, the depraved and murderers, the fornicators and sorcerers, the idol-worshipers and deceivers of every sort—their lot is the fiery pool of burning sulphur, the second death!” (Revelation 21:5-8)

Happy are they who wash their robes so as to have free access to the tree of life and enter the city through its gates! Outside are the dogs and sorcerers, the fornicators and murderers, the idol-worshipers and all who love falsehood. It is I Jesus who have sent my angel to give you this testimony about the Churches (Rev. 22:14-16).

No fornicator, no impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God (Eph 5:5).

I warn you, as I have warned you before: those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God! (Gal 5:21)

Sins of the flesh crush the spirit within us.

My point is that you should live in accord with the Spirit and you will not yield to the cravings of the flesh. The Flesh lusts against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh; the two are directly opposed. This is why you do not do what your will intends. If you are guided by the spirit you are not under the law. The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, bickering jealousy, outbursts of rage, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, orgies and the like. I warn you, as I have warned you before: those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God! (Galatians 5:16-21)

Even our thought life is summoned to purity.

You have heard the commandment “You shall not commit adultery.” What I say you to is, Anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his thoughts. If your right eye is your trouble, gouge it out and throw it away! Better to lose part of your body than to have it all cast into Gehenna. Again, if your right hand is your trouble, cut it off and throw it away! Better to lose part of your body than to have it all cast into Gehenna (Matthew 5:27-30).

From the mind stem evil designs—murder, adulterous conduct, fornication, stealing, false witness, blasphemy. These are the things that make a man impure (Matt. 15:19-20).

Wicked designs come from the deep recesses of the heart: acts of fornication, theft, murder, adulterous conduct, greed, maliciousness, deceit, sensuality, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, an obtuse spirit. All these evils come from within and render a man impure (Mark 7:21).

Sexual impurity is a form of worldliness and idolatry.

Put to death whatever in your nature is rooted in earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desires and that lust which is idolatry. These are sins which provoke God’s wrath (Colossians 3:5-6).

My body is not my own to do with merely as I please.

Can you not realize that the unholy will not fall heir to the Kingdom of God? Do not deceive yourselves: no fornicators, idolaters, or adulterers, no sodomites, thieves, misers, or drunkards, no slanderers or robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you; but you have been washed, consecrated, justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. Do you not see that your bodies are members of Christ? Would you have me take Christ’s members and make them members of a prostitute? God forbid! Can you not see that the man who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? Scripture says, “The two shall become one flesh.” But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun lewd conduct. Every other sin a man commits is outside of his body, but the fornicator sins against his own body. You must know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is within – the Spirit you have received from God. You are not your own. You have been purchased at a price. So, glorify God in your body (I Cor. 6:9-11, 15-20).

The call to Christian purity is not merely a human opinion; it is God’s declared truth. Further, sexual sin is a form of injustice.

Now my brothers, we beg and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that, even as you learned from us how to conduct yourselves in a way pleasing to God—which you are indeed doing—so you must learn to make still greater progress. You know the instructions we gave you in the Lord Jesus. It is God’s will that you grow in holiness: that you abstain from sexual immorality, each of you guarding his member in sanctity and honor, not in passionate desire as do the Gentiles who know not God; and that each must refrain from overreaching or cheating his brother in the matter at hand; for the Lord is the avenger of all such things, as we once indicated to you by our testimony. God has not called us to sexual immorality but to holiness; hence whoever rejects these instructions rejects, not man, but God who sends the Holy Spirit upon you (I Thess. 4:1-8).

Fornication and other sexual sins are numbered among the more serious sins.

We know that the Law is good, provided one uses it in the way law is supposed to be used—that is, with the understanding that it is aimed, not at good men but at the lawless and unruly, the irreligious and the sinful, the wicked and the godless, men who kill their fathers or mothers, murderers, fornicators, sexual perverts, kidnappers, liars, perjurers, and those who in other ways flout the sound teaching that pertains to the glorious gospel of God—blessed be he—with which I have been entrusted (1 Timothy 1:8-11).

Fornication and adultery dishonor marriage.

Let marriage be honored in every way and the marriage bed be kept undefiled, for God will judge fornicators and adulterers (Heb 13:4).

Therefore, do not be deceived. Fornication is a serious sin, a mortal sin. It is a sin that excludes one who does not repent of it from Heaven. It offends God, harms marriage and the family, spreads disease, encourages abortion, is an injustice to children and society, and dishonors marriage. It merits strong punishment, as God’s Word declares.

Do not despair of God’s mercy but do repent. Mercy is accessed only through repentance. It is wrong—seriously wrong—to fornicate. Repent without delay.

Five Biblical Lists of Mortal Sins

The first reading for this Wednesday of the 27th Week of the Year, from Galatians, speaks to sins that exclude one from the Kingdom of Heaven. If one dies unrepentant from committing any of these sins, one cannot go to Heaven but rather must be excluded in Hell. It is an important reminder to pay heed to the toll that sin takes on our heart, our character, and ultimately our destiny.

One of the great deceptions of our time is the notion that serious sin is only a remote possibility for most people and that such sins are only committed by truly wicked people. Too many people assess their moral standing with unhelpful platitudes such as these: “I’m basically a good person,” or “Well, I haven’t murdered anybody.”

We must be more serious and mature in our discernment. Of course, God does not leave us in such a fog of uncertainty. His Word is quite clear in specifying some of the more serious sins so that we can humbly recognize our tendency to do these very things. Note that stating that a particular sin excludes one from the Kingdom of Heaven is the biblical way of saying that it is a mortal sin.

Simply listing mortal sins is not sufficient because there are important factors affecting culpability. For example, some of the sins listed below (e.g., lying) can admit of lighter matter (one might tell a lie to avoid hurting someone’s feeling). Lies can also be devastating, robbing people of their good name or depriving people of necessary information. Some of the sins listed can result from a compulsions or addictions that erode the freedom necessary to be guilty of mortal sin. Hence, a sin that is of itself serious in nature might be venial if the person were acting under some compulsion. This does not mean that it is not a sin at all, just that it may not be fully mortal in its effects.

Nevertheless, the Lord, in love, wants to warn us urgently of the sins that can most commonly exclude us from Heaven. In reading from the lists that follow, avoid adopting a legalistic mentality. Take them to heart and allow them to become part of your daily moral reflection. The Lord warns us in love that sin is a serious matter. Even smaller sins, unattended to, begin to grow like a cancer and can ultimately kill us spiritually.

Be serious about them. Do not buy into the deception that sin is a trivial matter. God loves us, and because He loves us He warns us that unrepentant sin is serious and can rob our hearts of the desire for Him, for Heaven, and for the good things awaiting us there.

Here, then, are five lists. They are not exhaustive and there are other passages in the Bible that include sins not mentioned below (e.g., refusal to forgive, cf Matt 6:15).

  1. Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were (1 Cor 6:9-10).
  2. The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5:19-21).
  3. But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No sexually immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore, do not be partners with them (Eph 5:3-6).
  4. “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star” (Rev. 22:12-16).
  5. Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Matt 25:41-46).

Finally, here is a general warning from the Lord:

Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned. By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me (John 5:28-29).

Here is a performance of Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere Mei” (Psalm 51). “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great kindness.”

Who or What Is the Antichrist? A Reflection on the Biblical Teaching

There is much lore about the antichrist (especially among certain Evangelicals) that is out of proportion to the attention Scripture pays to the concept, and more importantly is at possible variance from what is certainly taught. It easily becomes fodder for movies and novels: the antichrist figure steps on the scene, deceiving many, and mesmerizing the whole world with apparent miracles and a message of false peace.

But is this really what or whom the Scriptures call the antichrist? I would argue not, for in order to create such a picture one would have to splice in images from the Book of Revelation and the Letter to the Thessalonians that do not likely apply to antichrists.

In fact, the use of the term antichrist occurs only in the Johannine epistles. It does not occur in the Book of Revelation at all, though many have the mistaken idea that it does. There are plenty of beasts, dragons, harlots, demons, and satanic legions in Revelation, but no mention of antichrists.

Many also stitch the teaching about antichrists together with St. Paul’s teaching on the “man of lawlessness” (also called “the lawless one”) who is to appear just before the end. The lawless one may well be the stuff of movies, but calling him the antichrist may be to borrow too much from a concept that is more specific. While it is not inauthentic to make a connection between them (some of the Church Fathers seem to), it is not necessarily correct to do so.

In this reflection I take the position that it is improbable that the antichrist and the man of lawlessness are one and the same. In order to explain why, let’s first look at the occurrences of the term antichrist in St. John’s Epistles.

    • Little children, it is the last hour: and as you have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time (1 John 2:18).
    • Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son (1 John 2:22).
    • By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world (1 John 4:2–3).
    • Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist! (2 John 1:7)

Note two things about antichrists. First, St. John (writing in the first century) teaches that he has already appeared. In calling this the “last hour,” St. John and the Holy Spirit do not mean that the Second Coming will take place in the next sixty minutes or even in the next few years. Rather, the teaching is that we are in the Last Age, the Age of the Messiah (also called the Age of the Church), when God is sending out His angels to the four winds to gather all the elect from the ends of the earth (cf Mark 4:21). Sadly, St. John also teaches that the antichrist has already come as well.

Second, after saying that the antichrist has come, St. John immediately clarifies by saying that actually many antichrists have appeared.

Thus St. John does not seem to present the antichrist as a single figure who has come. Rather, he says that there are many antichrists.

And what do these antichrists do? They perpetrate heresy, error, and false teaching. St. John notes in particular that heretics who deny that Jesus is the Christ (the Messiah) are antichrists. He also calls antichrists those who deny Christ having come in the flesh.

What does it mean to deny Christ having come in the flesh? It means reducing the saving work of God to mere appearances by claiming that Jesus did not actually take up a human nature but only appeared to do so. By extension, these same antichrists reduce the Christian moral and spiritual life to mere gnostic ideas rather than a true flesh-and-blood, body-and-soul change in our lives.

Many today extend these denials of the incarnation by undermining the historic authenticity of the Gospels, doubting or outright denying what Jesus actually said and did. Some of them say that Jesus’ resurrection was not a bodily one, but rather that His “ideas live on.” There can be no more fundamental heresy that to deny the bodily resurrection of Christ. As St. Paul says, And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain … if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins … [and] we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Cor 15:14-17).

Thus St. John, along with all the early Church, emphatically upholds an incarnational faith. We could actually touch our God and He touched us by taking up our human nature. He suffered on the cross and died. And though His suffering was tied to His human nature (for His divine nature is impassible), Jesus, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, hypostatically united to His human nature, suffered and died for us. It was this same human nature that God raised from the dead, gloriously transformed.

John takes up this theme elsewhere when he says that Christ came in water and in blood, not in water alone (cf 1 John 5:6). A certain heretic of that time, Cerinthus, held that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity departed just before Jesus’ passion. John refutes this, insisting that just as at His baptism Jesus’ divine nature was affirmed (This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased), so also was it affirmed during the shedding of His blood on Calvary (the inspired word of God records the centurion, on seeing the manner of Jesus’ death, saying, Surely this was the Son of God (Mat 27:54)). Jesus Christ, the Son of God, though of two natures, is one person, and He did in fact die suffer and die for us.

Thus to St. John, the essence of the antichrist is denial that Jesus came in the flesh. An antichrist is one who would relegate Jesus’ presence among us to mere appearances or His teachings to mere abstractions or ideals rather than transformative realities.

By extension, it can be argued that the term antichrist refers to all deceivers, though only logically, not specifically in the text. St. John does not indicate that he means the term antichrist this broadly, but in a wider sense all heresy pertains to the antichrist because Jesus Christ is the truth. Jesus teaches through His apostles that to deny the truth is to deny Christ Himself; it is to deny truth itself and thus to be an antichrist.

So perhaps this is not fodder for movies and novels after all; sorry! And that’s a shame because the term antichrist is so catchy! This brings us to a discussion of the man of lawlessness (or the lawless one).

What or who is the man of lawlessness whom St. Paul mentions and how is he related to the antichrist? As I stated above, I do not think there is a connection. To see why, let’s consider what St. Paul teaches:

    • As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the Man of lawlessness is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God (2 Thessalonians 2:1–4).
    • For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved (2 Thessalonians 2:7–10).

Note the following crucial differences between antichrists and the lawless one:

  1. John speaks of antichrists in the plural whereas St. Paul speaks in the singular: the man of lawlessness or the lawless one.
  2. The lawless one’s deceptions are rather general (every kind of wicked deception), whereas deceptions of antichrists are more specifically related to denying the incarnation of the Son of God.

Jesus also speaks of those who will lead many astray, though He speaks of them in the plural and is likely referring to occurrences in the first century during the time leading up to the war with the Romans in 70 A.D: For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect (Matthew 24:24).

As you can see, there are a lot of moving parts here as well as a lot of singulars and plurals to sort out and time frames to consider. Permit me the following conclusions:

  1. Antichrist is a more restrictive term than most people today think. While the antichrist is not a single person but rather any number of persons, the concept of antichrists seems limited to those who deny that Jesus is the Christ, come in the flesh. However, the term can possibly be applied to heretics in general.
  2. Jesus warns of false prophets and messiahs, but the context of His warning seems to be the first century and the looming destruction of Jerusalem not the end times per se. Further, He speak of many false prophets, not a single one.
  3. It is the man of lawlessness spoken of by St. Paul that most fits the charismatic figure of our “movie script,” a person able to unite the world in a false peace by mesmerizing and deceiving the nations. This lawless one will signal the end times. While I am not saying that these are the end times, I will note that the advent of instant, worldwide communication has made things easier than ever before for the lawless one. One individual actually could mesmerize and deceive all the nations—right on the worldwide web!

All that said, I believe that equating this lawless one with one of the beasts of Revelation or with the antichrist may be too speculative, and possibly inaccurate.

I hope I haven’t toyed with your “movie script” too much, but Scripture is nuanced in these matters and we do well to avoid reducing its teachings to popular concepts and catchy notions.

Scripture does speak to us of the end times and of difficult times preceding them, but the information is often given in general, even cryptic, terms. It is as if Scripture wants to tell us to be ready and to let us know that we don’t need to (and shouldn’t want to) know all the details. Just be ready, and when those times set in remember that Christ has already won the battle. Viva Christo Rey!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Who or What Is the Antichrist? A Reflection on the Biblical Teaching

What I Saw While Serving on a Grand Jury (Part One)

In early September, I was summoned to serve on a criminal grand jury here in Washington, D.C. through mid-October. It was difficult and emotionally draining work; I frequently wondered why the Lord would permit such a huge addition to my already overwhelming schedule. When I complained to Him, all I got back was that He wanted me to see something.

Many expressed their surprise that a priest would be compelled to serve. Frankly, as a clergyman, I fully expected to be dismissed. As I discovered, however, grand juries are quite different from petit juries, from which priests, religious, and other sorts of people who might sway fellow jurors are often dismissed. Very few occupations (e.g., active duty military personnel) are exempted from serving on a grand jury.

As that morning unfolded, I began to realize I wasn’t going to escape this time. By noon it became clear that I was going to have to serve not just for one day or one trial but every weekday for the next five weeks, from nine to five. Don’t expect to be called and told not to come in, they warned us, because there’s just too much work to be done; you’ll be reviewing evidence on over forty cases. I didn’t think it was possible for me to get any busier, but I just had. Twenty-three of us were sworn in and marched over to the grand jury room. Suddenly, my tightly scheduled calendar was thrown into complete disarray. My staff was shocked; they were bewildered by all the implications of a pastor being essentially unreachable every working day during normal business hours.

What is a grand jury? Grand juries are called “grand” because they are typically composed of more members than are petit juries. In our jurisdiction, a grand jury has 23 members, with 16 required for a quorum. Petit juries are typically composed of 12 jurors and two alternates. Another difference is that grand juries do not determine guilt or innocence; rather, they examine the evidence and decide whether there is “probable cause” for it to proceed to trial. In effect, grand juries exist as a kind of buffer, protecting citizens from overly aggressive prosecution. If the jury finds that sufficient evidence exists in relation to the charge(s), it returns an indictment. If not, it issues an “ignoramus” (meaning “we are ignorant” or “we don’t know”).

I was not fully prepared for what the Lord wanted me to see. Indeed, I found myself peering into a deep, deep darkness. In the midst of it, though, I also saw light.

As for the darkness, it was very dark. In our jurisdiction there are five grand juries seated and working at any given time. I was assigned to the one focused on the very worst kinds of cases: first degree murder, assault with intent to kill, assault with a deadly weapon, negligent homicide, armed robbery, kidnapping, and aggravated rape. I am not permitted to reveal any details, but I can say that those details are now written deeply in my heart. On many evenings, after hearing testimony and viewing evidence all day, I went into the rectory chapel and wept. So many of the killings and attacks considered by such grand juries are brutal and cold-blooded, not acts committed in the heat of a passion but rather planned and vengeful. Serving on one, I wondered how people could have the capacity to be so cruel to fellow human beings. I don’t know how some of the victims could ever really recover. All I could do was to sigh inwardly and pray as we saw the evidence and heard the victims testify.

Another thing that both surprised me and added to my sorrow was to discover that in so many incidents there is significant video evidence – sometimes of the very crime itself being committed. It is clear to me now that there are video cameras just about everywhere. It is one thing to see a violent crime “committed” in a movie, but quite another to watch a real one. It is impossible for me to drive past certain locations in this city now and not feel a solemn reverence for what I know happened there. May God have mercy on the victims, many dead, but some still living though forever changed. May God also have mercy on the perpetrators, who somehow lost their way in a world of darkness, evil, and hopelessness that so often sets up in the poorest areas of the city.

When God told me that He wanted me to see something, I thought that I had seen it before. As pastor of St. Thomas More parish in Ward 8, I spent eight years living in one of D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods. Even there, however, I was surrounded with a loving, supportive parish family. During that time there were two murders on our parish grounds (one by stabbing, the other by shooting), but we were able to come together and heal. We even responded by building a five-million-dollar community center to try to get kids off the streets and away from gangs.

But this was different. I think it was both the sheer number of violent cases and the “up-close” experience of them through video footage and witness testimony. Although I was surrounded by the other grand jurors, the mandated secrecy outside the jury room meant that we could only discuss things within the formal setting.

Doxology

You told me, Lord, that you wanted me to see something. I did indeed see it. I am now more mindful to pray and offer Masses for what I saw. I am not sure what to do about all the situations that lead to the kinds of crimes we investigated, but I am more aware of the burdens that others carry and the things they suffer, particularly in areas of this city where there is frequent disorder and violent crime. What You had me see weighs heavily on me, but You, O Lord, surely carried the heaviest burden of all when, dying on the cross, the full horror of every sin ever committed or to be committed, including my own, flashed before You and increased Your pain. Thank You, Lord Jesus, for what You endured. I carry only a sliver of the cross You bore; I have seen and know a minuscule fraction of what You do. I can only be more grateful for what You did for us on that dreadful hill of Golgotha, where the full fury of our anger and inhumanity was violently unleashed upon You. I am grateful for Your mercy, Lord, so grateful. We need it more than ever.

I wrote above that I also saw light – in a place I did not expect. More on that in tomorrow’s post.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What I Saw While Serving on a Grand Jury

Satan is Real

Once again it is necessary to reiterate the true, Catholic, and biblical teaching on Satan and demons. Contrary to what Superior General of the Society of Jesus Fr. Arturo Sosa stated in a recent interview, the Church does not teach that Satan is merely a symbol or an idea. He is not the “personification of evil”; he is a person, an individual creature, a fallen angelic being (as are all demons). Scripture uses personal pronouns in referring to Satan and demons (e.g., he, him, they). The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that Satan is an existing creature, a fallen angel who is envious of us and is a murderer from the beginning:

      • Behind the disobedient choice of our first parents lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy. Scripture and the Church’s Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called “Satan” or the “devil.” The Church teaches that Satan was at first a good angel, made by God: The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing (CCC # 391).
      • Scripture witnesses to the disastrous influence of the one Jesus calls “a murderer from the beginning,” who would even try to divert Jesus from the mission received from his Father. “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” In its consequences the gravest of these works was the mendacious seduction that led man to disobey God (CCC # 394).

This is Church teaching. Let no one be misled by the Fr. Sosa’s erroneous statements or by the implications that follow from his unfortunate, repeated remarks. Let no one be so unwise as to dismiss the truth that we have an enemy who is very much alive who commands legions of fallen angels. We must accept this as a definitive teaching of the faith and be sober about it.

Any exorcist or anyone who has ever assisted in an exorcism can well affirm Satan’s reality and his deep hatred for humanity and all that pertains to God.

As a more extended lesson, I’d like to point out some things I have written before about certain teachings and cautions that come from the Rite of Exorcism.

The Rite of Exorcism presupposes the Catholic teaching that Satan and all demons are persons. They are addressed as persons and commanded to reveal their names, ranks, and other pertinent information. These angelic persons respond, often reluctantly and with fury at first, but later, as their power is broken, with cries and whimpers. The exorcist is clearly addressing an angelic person, a fallen angel who then reacts and responds.

As he is dealing with a being who is both a creature of God and a fallen angelic person, the exorcist must find a balance. Sadly, he must usually inflict pain upon demons in order to drive them out. This is done through the prayers of the Rite of Exorcism and through other things recommended by the rite such as the use of holy water, the use of relics, the touch of a stole, and the use of the Holy Cross.

The exorcist must be careful not to hate demons or harbor unjust anger toward them. If he were to do so, they would have him; he would be drawn into their territory. If they can get him to hate and have vengeful anger, he will be theirs, little better than they save for the possibility that he can still repent.

Hence, the exorcist and any who would pray for deliverance from demons for themselves or others, do well to stay inside the norms of the Church and Scripture. These norms warn and set limits for those who would confront demons, lest they stray by pride or anger.

What are some of these norms? Here are just a few, but they are properly cautionary to be sure:

      • A lay person should never undertake to drive out demons except by the following simple formula: “I command you, all evil spirits, to leave me at once in the name of Jesus Christ the Lord.” At no time should a lay person ever engage a demon in conversation, ask questions, or in any way seek information.
      • Priests who only engage in minor exorcisms are similarly limited. While they are permitted to use more elaborate imprecatory prayers (found in the Manuals of Minor Exorcisms), priests are not to go beyond the commands therein. They are not to ask questions or to demand names or signs from demons.
      • Only appointed exorcists, delegated by the bishop, may or should ask things such as these: names and numbers of demons, their time of entry, why they possessed the individual, their rank, and so forth. The rite makes clear that only necessary questions should be asked. Other extraneous information is both unnecessary and potentially harmful.
      • Within the formal Rite of Exorcism, an exorcist does well to stick to the formulas, expressions, and norms of the rite. Banter, insulting language, and toe-to-toe debate are to be avoided. Good exorcists indicate that returning to the prayers of the rite is essential when demons seek to engage in debate, ridicule, and/or diversionary talk. Obmutesce pater mendacii (Be silent, father of lies) is a quick command from the rite to order the demons to be silent, and it is a good way to refuse to enter into pointless conversation.

Scripture also attests to the need to refrain from reviling demons:

For even Michael the archangel, when he disputed with the devil and argued about the body of Moses, did not dare pronounce against him a reviling judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” (Jude 1:9)

Further, hate and ridicule of any person (angelic or human) whom God has created is an ungodly attitude. Scripture says,

For you O Lord love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for you would not fashion what you hate (Wisdom 11:24).

Therefore, anyone who confronts demons or suffers their oppression is warned that hatred, unjust anger, reviling, and ridiculing, is no way to fight them, for if we do so we become like them.

That said, exorcists and priests must often use strong language approved by the minor and major prayers of exorcism, most of which are drawn from Scripture or Sacred Tradition.

Consider, for example, the following rebuke of Satan from Scripture:

How are you fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How are you cut down to the ground, who did weaken the nations! For you have said in your heart, “I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the farthest sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.” Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the lake of fire (Is 14:12-15).

These verses speak truth. They do not revile; they state what happened and point to Lucifer’s prideful fall.

The Rite of Exorcism has collected many descriptions from Scripture and Tradition. They are not intended to ridicule or revile but rather to remind Satan of who and what he has chosen to become. They remind him of his pride, his destruction by God’s justice, his ultimate fate, and the many ways he seeks to harm us. Consider, then, some of the “titles” and descriptions of Satan drawn from both the old and new rites of exorcism:

      • Enemy of the faith
      • Foe of the human race
      • Carrier of death
      • Robber of life
      • Shirker of justice
      • Root of evil
      • Fomenter of vice
      • Seducer of men
      • Traitor of the nations
      • Instigator of envy
      • Font of avarice
      • Source of discord
      • Exciter of sorrows
      • Transgressor
      • Seducer full of deceit and lies
      • Enemy of virtue
      • Persecutor of the innocent
      • Horrible dragon
      • Prince of accursed murder
      • Author of incest
      • Leader of sacrilege
      • Teacher of all negative action
      • Teacher of heretics
      • Inventor of every obscenity
      • Hateful one
      • Scourge
      • Unclean spirit
      • Infernal adversary
      • Evil dragon
      • Inventor and teacher of every lie
      • Enemy of man’s salvation
      • Prince of this world
      • Deceiver of the human race
      • Ancient foe of mankind
      • Father of lies
      • Evil dragon
      • Cunning serpent

(I have compiled a pdf containing a list of these in both Latin and English here: Titles of Satan from the Rite of Exorcism.)

Thus, whether driving out Satan in a major exorcism or seeking to expel his oppression in a minor exorcism, all are cautioned not to stray from the understandings and descriptions of Satan that the Church provides in Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Again, the reason for this is that Satan seeks to draw us into his world of hatred and revilement. Do not go there in your thoughts and surely not in your heart.

It may be hard to accept, but God does not hate Satan. God does not hate even the worst of sinners. Justice requires God to recognize the final disposition of a person (angelic or human). Some are justly permitted to live apart from God’s kingdom in a hellacious parallel universe; that is their permanent choice. But God does not hate fallen angels or fallen humans. God is love, and love does not hate—and neither should we.

We ought to be sober about what sin has done to demons, fallen angels who were once glorious. Now, through the disfigurement of sin, they are in darkness and are horribly contrary to the glory for which they were made. They are to be pitied and kept at a distance. They will not change because angels choose once and for all. Their lies are to be resisted. Though they can still appear as lightsome, it is only for a time, and then their terrifying state of horror and darkness roars forth.

Remember, too, what the Catechism says about Satan’s power and why he permits some limited influence by demons:

The power of Satan is, nonetheless, not infinite. He is only a creature, powerful from the fact that he is pure spirit, but still a creature. He cannot prevent the building up of God’s reign. Although Satan may act in the world out of hatred for God and his kingdom in Christ Jesus, and although his action may cause grave injuries—of a spiritual nature and, indirectly, even of a physical nature—to each man and to society, the action is permitted by divine providence which with strength and gentleness guides human and cosmic history. It is a great mystery that providence should permit diabolical activity, but “we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him” (CCC #395).

Do not be deceived. Satan is real and we must resist him, strong in our faith. However, do not be so terrified that you forget that God, His angels, and the grace He bestows on us are more powerful and that God limits what demons can do. Trust God; call to Him; frequently recite the 91st Psalm. Be sober and watchful and stay distant from the once-glorious fallen angels we rightly call demons.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Satan is Real

Four Common Tactics of the Devil

In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in demonic possession. Movies and books, along with human fears and fascinations, are largely the cause. Although actual demonic possession is somewhat rare, it does occur. Each diocese ought to have an appointed exorcist to assess possession. This exorcist, with the permission of the bishop, should use the Rite of Major Exorcism when true and morally certain possession has been determined.

But because actual possession is quite rare, most of us should be looking out for the more common ways that the devil attacks us. His usual tactics are more subtle and pervasive, and we ought not let the exotic distract us from the more commonplace.

One of the key elements in any contest is to understand the tactics of your opponent and to recognize the subtleties of his strategy. In the spiritual battle of life we need to develop some sophistication in recognizing, naming, and understanding the subtleties of the Devil’s common tactics.

A 2011 book by Fr. Louis Cameli, The Devil You Don’t Know, is of great assistance in this matter. Having read it a couple of years ago, I think it would be of value to reflect on four broad categories of the Devil’s tactics, which Fr. Cameli analyzes in his book.

While the four categories are Fr. Cameli’s, the reflections here are largely my own, though surely rooted in Fr. Cameli’s excellent work. I highly recommend reading the work, in which the categories are more fully described.

Here are four common tactics of the devil.

I. Deception – Jesus says, The devil was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies he speaks according to his own nature, he is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8:44).

The devil deceives us with many false and empty promises. Most of these relate to the lie that we will be happier and more fulfilled if we sin or deny aspects of the truth. Whatever passing pleasures come with sin, they are just that—passing. Great and accumulated suffering eventually comes from almost all sinful activity. Yet despite this experience, we humans remain very gullible; we seem to love empty promises and put all sorts of false hopes in them.

The devil also deceives us by suggesting all sorts of complexities, especially in our thinking. He seeks to confuse us and conceal the fundamental truth about our actions. Our minds are very wily and love to indulge complexity as a way of avoiding the truth and making excuses. So we, conniving with the devil, entertain endless complications by asking, “But what if this? And what about that?” Along with the devil, we project all sorts of possible difficulties, exceptions, or potential sob stories in order to avoid insisting that we or others behave well and live according to the truth.

The devil also seeks to deceive us with “wordsmithing.” And thus the dismemberment and murder of a child through abortion becomes “reproductive freedom” or “choice.” Sodomy is called “gay” (a word that used to mean “happy”). Our luminous Faith and ancient wisdom are called “darkness” and “ignorance.” Fornication is called “cohabitation.” The redefinition of marriage as it is been known for millennia is labeled “marriage freedom” or “marriage equality.” And thus through exaggerations and outright false labeling, the devil deceives us. We too easily cooperate by calling “good,” or “no big deal,” what God calls sinful.

The devil also deceives us through sheer volume of information. Information is not the same as truth. Data can be assembled very craftily to make deceptive points. Further, certain facts and figures can be emphasized to the exclusion of other balancing truths. And thus even information that is true in itself can become a form of deception. The news media sometimes exercise their greatest power in what they do not report. And this, too, is a way that the devil brings deceptions upon us.

We do well to carefully assess the many ways Satan seeks to deceive us. Do not believe everything you think or hear. And while we ought not be cynical, we ought to be sober. We should seek to verify what we see and hear and square it with God’s revealed truth.

II. Division – One of Jesus’ final prayers for us was that we would be one (cf John 17:22). He prayed this at the Last Supper just before He went out to suffer and die for us. As such, He highlights that a chief aspect of his work on the cross is to overcome the divisions intensified by Satan. Some point out that the Greek root of the word “diabolical” (diabolein) means to cut, tear, or divide. Jesus prays and works to reunify what the devil divides.

The devil’s work of division starts within each one of us as we experience many contrary drives: some noble, creative, and edifying; others base, sinful, and destructive. So often we struggle internally and feel torn apart, much as Paul describes in Romans chapter 7: The good that I want to do, I do not do … and when I try to do good, evil is at hand. This is the work of the devil: to divide us within. And as St. Paul lays out in Romans 8, the chief work of the Lord is to establish within us the unity of soul and body, in accordance with the unity of His truth.

And of course the devil’s attack against our inner unity spills out into many divisions among us externally. So many things help drive this division and the devil surely taps into them all: anger, past hurts, resentments, fears, misunderstandings, greed, pride, and arrogance. There is also the impatience that we so easily develop regarding those we love, and the flawed notion that we should seek other more perfect and desirable people. And thus many abandon their marriages, families, churches, and communities, always in search of the elusive goal of finding better and more perfect people and situations.

Yes, the devil has a real field day tapping into a plethora of sinful drives within us. His goal is always to divide us, both internally, and from one another. We do well to recognize that regardless of our struggles with others, we all share a common enemy. As St Paul writes, For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph 6:12). Feuding brothers will reconcile when there is a maniac at the door. But the first step is noticing the maniac, and then setting aside lesser divisions.

III. Diversion – To be diverted is to be turned away from our primary goal or task. And for all of us, the most critical focus is God and the good things waiting for us in Heaven. Our path is toward Heaven, along the path of faith, obedience to the truth, love of God, and love of neighbor. And thus the devil does all that he can to turn us away from our one true goal.

Perhaps he will do this by making us too absorbed in the passing things of the world. Many claim that they are too busy to pray, or go to Church, or seek other forms of spiritual nourishment. They become absorbed in passing, worldly things and ignore the lasting reality that looms.

Anxieties and fears also distract us. Through these, the devil causes us to fixate on fears about passing things and fail to have the proper fear of the judgment that awaits us. Jesus says, Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt 10:28). In other words, we should have a holy reverence and fear directed towards the Lord. In this way, many of our other fears will be seen in better perspective, or will even go away altogether. But in this matter of fear, the devil says just the opposite: we should be afraid of the thousands of things that might afflict us on this passing earth, and not think about the one most significant thing that awaits us—our judgment.

At the heart of all diversion is the fact that the devil wants us to focus on lesser things in order to avoid focusing on greater things such as a moral decisions and the overall direction of our life.

Once again, we must learn to focus on what matters most and refuse to allow our attention to be diverted to lesser things.

IV. Discouragement – As human beings, and certainly as Christians, it is good to have high aspirations. But Satan often seeks to poison that which is good. For along with high aspirations we sometimes lack the humility to recognize that we must make a journey to what is good and best. Too easily, then, Satan tempts us to be impatient with ourselves or others. We sometimes expect to reach our aspirations in an unreasonably short amount of time and show a lack charity toward ourselves or others. Some grow discouraged with themselves or others and give up on the pursuit of holiness. Others give up on the church because of the imperfections found there.

The devil also discourages us with open-ended aspirations. The fact is, there is always room for improvement; we can always do more. But here the devil enters, for if we can always do more, then it is also possible to think that we’ve never done enough. And thus the devil discourages us, sowing unreasonable demands within us as to what we can or should do each day.

The devil also discourages us through simple things like fatigue, personal failings, setbacks, and other obstacles that are common to our human condition and to living in a fallen world with limited resources.

In all these ways the devil seeks to discourage us, to make us want to give up. Only a properly developed sense of humility can help to save us from these discouraging works of Satan. Humility, which is reverence for the truth about ourselves, teaches us that we grow and develop slowly, that we do have setbacks, and that we live in a world that is hard and far from perfect. Being humble and recognizing these things helps us to lean more on the Lord, and to trust in His providential help, which grows in us incrementally.

Here, then, are four common tactics of the devil. Learn to recognize and name them. In this way we can start to gain authority over them. Consider reading Fr. Louis Cameli’s book to learn more.

I have compiled here a list of demonic titles and descriptions from the Rite of Major Exorcism that refer to some of these tactics of the Father of Lies. You can view it here: Titles of Satan from the Rite.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Four Common Tactics of the Devil

The Progressive Stages of Sin

We are living in times when many are doubling down on their sin. As the darkness grows, many fiercely defend their sinful practices. This is especially evident in the matter of abortion. The science could not be clearer that there is a unique, beautifully formed, distinct human life in the womb of a pregnant mother, with a heartbeat, brain activity, alternating sleep and wake cycles, and the ability to feel pain. Despite this, many demand that all limits on abortion be removed. They “shout” and celebrate abortion, rejoicing in the dismemberment of babies in the womb and all the while considering themselves morally superior to those who support life.

How does it happen that so many obstinately persist in sin and promote wickedness until they are ultimately lost? As with all progressive diseases, sin is a sickness that moves through stages, further debilitating and hardening the sinner in his ways.

St. Alphonsus Liguori laid out five stages through which sin (if not resisted and repented of in its initial attacks) takes an increasing toll on the human person, making repentance less likely and more difficult.

While the names of the stages are mine, I am summarizing the insights of St. Alphonsus, who details these stages in his lengthy essay, “Considerations on the Eternal Maxims” (also called “Preparation for Death”) in Chapter 22, “On Evil Habits.” I have added some of my own additional insights as well.

Stage 1: Impairment – The first effect of habitual sin is that it blinds the understanding. Scripture says, Their own malice blinded them (Wisdom 2:21). Yes, every sin produces blindness, and the more that sins are multiplied, the greater the blindness they produce.

A further effect of this blindness is a foolish and dangerous wandering about. Scripture provides several references for this:

        • The wicked walk round about (Ps. 12:8).
        • They stagger as with strong drink, they reel in vision, they stumble in giving judgment (Is 28:7).
        • Behold, the wicked man conceives evil and is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies. He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the pit that he has made (Ps 7:14-15).

Thus, habitual sin leads to impaired vision and an impaired walk. Not seeing, the wicked stumble about and fall into a pit of their own making.

Stage 2: Indifference – After an evil habit is contracted, the sins that previously excited sorrow are now viewed with increasing indifference. Scripture says the following:

        • Fools destroy themselves because of their indifference (Prov 1:32).
        • But he who is careless of conduct will die (Prov 19:16).

To the increasingly indifferent and careless, the Lord gives this solemn and salutary warning: In little more than a year you who feel secure will tremble; the grape harvest will fail, and the harvest of fruit will not come (Is 32:10).

Thus, as unrepented sin grows, not only does the sinner stagger about and fall into pits, he cares less and less about the foolishness of his ways. The sins that once caused shame, or the thought of which caused sorrow and aversion, either go unnoticed or seem normal—even attractive.

Stage 3: Incapacity – As sin deepens its hold, the willingness and even the capacity to repent decreases. Why is this? St. Augustine answers this well when he says, dum servitur libidini, facta est consuetudo, et dum consuetudini non resistitur, facta est necessitas (when lust was served it became habit, and when habit was not resisted it became necessity) (Confessions, 8.5.10). Sin deepens its hold on the sinner in this way.

Stage 4: Incorrigibility – As Scripture says, The wicked man, when he is come into the depths of sins, has contempt (Proverbs 18:3). St. John Chrysostom commented on this verse, saying that habitual sinners, being sunk in the abyss of darkness, despise corrections, sermons, censures, Hell, and God; they despise everything.

A bad habit hardens the heart and the habitual sinner remains increasingly unmoved and mired in contempt for any correction or remedy. Scripture says of them, At your rebuke O God of Jacob, they have all slumbered (Psalm 76:7). An evil habit gradually takes away all remorse and replaces it with angry indignation at any attempted correction.

Then, instead of regretting his sins, the sinner rejoices in them, even laughing and boasting of them. Scripture says,

        • They are glad when they have done evil and rejoice in the perverseness of evil (Proverbs 2:14).
        • A fool works mischief as if it were for sport (Proverbs 10:23).

Thus, they are incorrigible. They laugh at attempted correction and celebrate their sins with pride.

Stage 5: Indisposition – When the understanding is deprived of light and the heart is hardened, the sinner ordinarily dies obstinate in his sin. Scripture says, A hard heart shall fare ill at the end (Ecclesiastes 3:27).

Some may say that they will amend their ways before they die, but it’s very difficult for a habitual sinner, even in old age, to change his life. St. Bernard said, “The man on whom the weight of a bad habit presses, rises with difficulty.”

Indeed, how can a sinner, weakened and wounded by habitual sin, have the strength to rise? Even if he sees the way out, he often considers the remedies too severe, too difficult. Though conversion is not impossible, he is indisposed because it all seems like too much work. In addition, his love has likely grown cold for the good things that God offers.

Thus, even on their deathbeds, many sinners remain unmoved and unwilling to change; the darkness is deep, their hearts have hardened, and their sloth has solidified.

In these ways sin is like a progressive illness, a deepening disease; it moves through stages in much the same way that cancer does. Repentance at any stage is possible, but it becomes increasingly unlikely, especially by stage four, when the sinner becomes proud of his sin and joyful in his iniquity.

Beware the progressive illness of sin!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Progressive Stages of Sin