Recent and public conversations about the nature of mortal sin, the reception of Holy Communion and worthiness to receive the Eucharist have shown how some in our culture, even if they accept the concept that sin could be mortal, so limit the possibility of committing it that it barely exists at all in their moral landscape. This is usually done by distorting or blurring the three conditions under which sin is considered mortal. Briefly stated these conditions are:
Mortal sin is:
- sin whose object is grave matter
- which is also committed with full knowledge
- and deliberate consent. (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1857)
In all three of these conditions, there is a tendency to endlessly raise questions and doubts as to exactly what each phrase means and demand an exactitude without which we refuse to accept that a mortal sin has been committed. To some degree we humans love to cultivate uncertainty for this helps us remain undecided and avoid the moral judgement of our actions, which is required of us as free moral agents. And thus we think, “Well, who’s to say? There are a lot of opinions out there. What exactly do we mean by ‘deliberate consent’ and ‘full knowledge’?” And we forever delay pondering the answers to such things by using our moral reasoning and coming to a mature and adult faith. But God who gave us an intellect and a will is not pleased by this constant shrugging and delaying of the examination of conscience that is our responsibility and dignity to make.
As to grave matter, some insist on having an exact list of sins that are grave. And while some sins are obviously so (e.g. killing the innocent, adultery), other sins are affected by the circumstances. For example, if I steal a pen from work, it is wrong, but is not a mortal sin because it is a very small matter. However, if I steal millions of dollars, the matter is grave due to the amount. But even if I steal a small amount from a poor man who has little on which to survive, it is mortal due to serious harm I cause him. Insisting on an exact “list of mortal sins” lacks moral sophistication, is persnickety and seems more rooted in refusal to engage in an honest moral reflection that accepts that grave matter is an ever-possible reality for us in this world of sin and temptation. Sincere moral reflection reveals that we can say and do things that cause serious harm to us, to others, and to our relationship with God and the truth. Further, just because we don’t like that the Scriptures and the Church teach that certain things are sinfully wrong, does not give us the right to us to jettison the sound teaching of the Lord. We must not call good or no big deal what God calls sin no matter how much the world celebrates or makes light of it. Once it is made clear to us what God teaches we are obliged to follow it and confess any violation of it in our lives. To do otherwise is pridefully disobedient
As to full knowledge, this does not mean we have to possess a doctoral degree in moral theology. Too often we like to pretend we don’t know things that, deep down we do know. St. Paul lamented to St. Timothy the human tendency to accumulate for ourselves teachers who say what our itching ears want to to hear. But he also states the sinful reason for this: “they do not tolerate sound doctrine.” Deep down, in the human conscience, the voice of God echoes; God has written his truth in the hearts and minds of us all. This grasp of fundamental moral principles St. Thomas calls synderesis (De Veritate q. 17, art 1-5). Almost every recent study has shown that even the youngest children and infants have a basic sense of right and wrong, justice and fairness, and love vs. cruelty. And though our moral knowledge and formation grows as we age, basic principles still speak in our souls and we are responsible to heed this voice. Certain moral situations can get complex (e.g. bioethics) and advice may be needed, but pleading ignorance or “lack of sufficient knowledge” in most cases is rooted more in avoidance than in truth. Even in a world filled with foolish teachers, deep down we know what we are doing in most cases and we are responsible for what we know. All the wrath of the world directed at the moral vision of the Scriptures and the Church is a pretty good indicator that we have touched a nerve when we point to what is ultimately obvious under all the rationalizations and distortions of this age. If one is sincerely ignorant of teachings, that is a mitigating factor, but too much ignorance today is indulged and we far-too-easily appeal to it.
As to deliberate consent, the Catechism uses a phrase here at slight variance from the common expression: “full consent of the will.” This is good since some get lost in the word “full.” Our human wills are often beset with conflicting intentions and influences. Seldom is our will, or the consent we make by it, free from any temptation or pressure to do what is wrong. “Full” consent or total freedom unaffected by feelings, passions, external pressure, emotional disorders, is hard to come by in many if not most matters. This does not mean that we are never free enough to commit mortal sin. Deliberate consent implies that there is time to think or “deliberate” on a matter and that our will is not significantly impaired. While passions, bad habits, compulsion or immaturity can lessen guilt at times, we ought not easily suppose that we or others are without sufficient or deliberate consent to commit mortal sin. But we often do just that, tending to talk out of both sides of our mouth today. On the one side we boast of our freedom and that nobody will tell us what to do. On the other side, we bemoan how we are not responsible for what we have done since “our mother dropped us on our head when were two,”or that “the devil made us do it,” or that it’s just too hard to do what is right. This diminishes the dignity of the human person since an essential quality of being human is that we have free will and reason. Therefore we can and do act deliberately and are responsible for what we do. Shirking responsibility because we were tempted and found it “difficult” to resist likely points more to sloth, despair and/or a stubborn resistance to self mastery through grace.
In all three of these conditions for mortal sin, we ought not be a judge in our own case. While we are responsible to personally deliberate and and properly inform our conscience, we should seek the advice and tribunal of the confessional. Knowledge of Scripture and consultation with the Catechism and reputable advisors should also be an on-going work in our lives. Our conscience is not its own source of authority, it must be formed so that we think with the Church and her revealed doctrines and are submitted to all that the Holy Catholic Church teaches and proclaims to be revealed by God.
It is a sad truth today that some clergy have misled God’s people and they will answer to God for every bit of it. However, the faithful need to remember that the magisterium (the teaching authority) of the Church is not limited to clergy alive today, or merely to documents written recently. The magisterium is the sum-total of what has been formally taught down through all the history of the Church. In addition to the Catechism, Catholics do well to have a copy of Fundamentals of the Catholic Dogma by Ludwig Ott which is a good summary of Catholic Dogma and Doctrine.
Remember we cannot forever delay coming to a balanced and healthy understanding of mortal sin and its conditions by endlessly raising questions and doubts as to exactly what each phrase means. We are not assigned an impossible task by the Lord and his warnings in His Scriptures about the danger of persisting in mortal sin are not empty teachings that apply to almost no one. His teachings are given to us because mortal sin is a clear and present danger. Thanks be to God, his remedies are also clear and ever-present: repentance and Holy Confession. When in doubt, don’t argue about whether this or that condition have been for mortal sin, go to confession. Humility is always better than being defensive and argumentative. And, even if we occasionally err on the side of a little scrupulosity, that won’t kill us and a good confessor can guide and reassure us.
I will post at least two more columns in the next few days on mortal sin. One will explore what mortal sin does at its core, and the other will develop something of a Biblical catalogue of mortal sin. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, Go to Confession!
In this video, note how the world says “No More excuses” about worldly goals and physical fitness. A Key line says, “Get rid of the debate… You Know the right decision to make.” Well why not in the spiritual life?