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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!