Right Scholarship

A blasting site for a new Catholic cultural criticism

New Translation Project

It’s been a while. Check out my new Translation Project, for which I’ll be rolling up my sleeves and doing some academic labour that it seems nobody else wants to do. More to come.

The Mystery of Mortal Sin


Back in January I made a commitment to post more on Catholic Cultural Studies, and while I still intend to honour that commitment I feel I must first fulfill my duty as a Catholic blogger and share an opinion on Pope Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. The Church is experiencing serious turmoil over the ideas found in this document, and I can’t ramble on about Catholic Cultural Studies while ignoring it. I’m very, very late getting to this, but sometimes it is best to wait until the culture warriors have exhausted themselves before attempting to make sense of a highly publicized controversy.

In this post I will address the main objection to Amoris Laetitia from the Catholic Right and provide an alternate view that may help bolster the spirits of those who have been feeling betrayed or simply confused by the words of Pope Francis. Although I understand the concerns of the Catholic Right, and although I’d be the last person to advocate the Catholic embrace of modern liberalism, I am a Pro-Francis Catholic. The Holy Father is not a heretic, as some on the Catholic Right claim; nor is he misguided. He is, rather, leading an expansion of the Mystical Body of Christ. A healthy contraction of the Mystical Body may follow after Pope Francis is gone, but the Church will have incorporated many souls that would otherwise have been lost, and will have moved a step toward its ultimate goal of the incorporation of all humanity.

The general terms of the debate over Amoris Laetitia are known to anyone tuned in to Catholic media. Even many mainstream Catholic bloggers have expressed concern over the document, and Catholic news comment sections have been swelling for months with rumblings of rebellion against Pope Francis (sometimes couched in cryptic references to the Secrets of Fatima and the prophecies of St. Malachy). The main concern is that Amoris Laetitia may be interpreted as recommending the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to the Eucharist, which while bad in itself would also open the door to the sanctification of every sort of sin. Admittedly, such concerns are not unfounded, and every Catholic should take them seriously as long as those expressing such concerns are motivated by love and not by an unthinking rejection of an allegedly liberal pope. However, I believe such concerns are the result of an overly strict understanding of mortal sin and an erroneous belief that Church teaching can be dismantled by the same deconstructive ‘logic of the exception’ that has done such damage in secular society.

To anyone seeking a sober and careful ‘conservative’ critique of the position expressed in Amoris Laetitia regarding admission to the sacraments for divorced and remarried Catholics, I highly recommend Fr. Gerald E. Murray’s “Reflections on Amoris Laetitia” in The Catholic Thing. Fr. Murray presents his case with exceptional clarity, but the weak spot in his argument is his dismissive attitude toward conscience, or what is sometimes referred to as “the internal forum,” and the role it plays in determining the seriousness of particular sins. Some conservative Catholics treat the internal forum as a sort of Pandora’s Box that may be acknowledged, or even peeked inside, but never opened, and Fr. Murray seems to fall in this camp. Pope Francis has opened that Pandora’s Box, and in doing so has cast light upon things that usually remain in the shadows of modern Catholic life.

The truth is that many, if not most, Catholics make use of the internal forum when determining whether or not they are in a state of mortal sin. This is especially the case with sins that involve excesses of emotion or extreme psychological states: when, exactly, does anger (in the sense of wishing evil upon others) become a mortal sin? One must use conscience as a guide, for there is no way to gauge such things in a way that would be applicable to all people in all situations. More notoriously, this is also the case with those sexual sins that are not seen as immoral in secular culture—namely those that fall under the category of non-procreative sexual activity or intercourse (including masturbation). Conscience plays a role here as well. These sexual sins are grave sins, but they are not always mortal sins. This is not to say that such Catholics feel no guilt about committing these grave sins, but only that they may feel the total avoidance of such sins is beyond their control. I am sure that, quite often, such Catholics receive the Eucharist in the belief that they are not truly in a state of mortal sin since they are doing the best they can, or because they believe Church teaching to be unreasonably strict, even if they accept its general principles. This is, indeed, murky and dangerous territory, but the fact is that the Church recognizes the importance of the internal forum and considerations of culpability when determining the seriousness of sins, and this fact cannot be erased through a tautological understanding of the internal forum as a simple internalization of official church teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states (quoting from Reconciliatio et paenitentia), that “For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: ‘Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent’” (1857). A mortal sin is always a grave sin committed by a particular person, at a particular time, and in particular circumstances; it has both an objective and a subjective aspect, and neither aspect can be excluded.

It is important to note that after the section on mortal sin quoted above, the Catechism adds, “The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger” (1858). An overly strict attitude toward mortal sin, where every grave sin is a mortal sin except in the most extreme cases (such as the case of a person forced at gunpoint to commit immoral sexual acts), allows for little sense of moral perspective. It becomes difficult to say that theft is worse than murder, if both lead to eternal damnation. Of course it is probably safest for a person to treat all their potentially mortal sins as actual mortal sins, and this would be easier if the Sacrament of Reconciliation were made available more than one or two times a week, as seems to be the case in many parishes. It would also be easier if we lived in a society with a strict and public moral code. Would it not have been easier for people hundreds of years ago, when children were considered an economic blessing, and communities or the extended family helped with childcare, to avoid all forms of birth control? Would it not have been easier to avoid the temptation of divorce when such a thing was forbidden? Or to resist masturbation when opportunities for privacy were scarce and pornographic photos and videos did not exist?

If the objective teachings of the church are put forward without allowing for considerations of culpability, the Church runs the risk of becoming a sequestered home for those who are, by circumstances or by financial privilege, better capable of avoiding grave sin. In more concrete terms, this means parishes run the risk of becoming populated largely by older couples whose days of procreation are behind them, single people who have given up on romance, and a number of very large, high-income families. But what about the smaller working class families who suffer so much in our economic environment? What about the suburban nuclear families who continue to fall further and further into the void of consumerism and solipsism? What about the masses of young people who live vicariously through popular culture? Why are we not infiltrating such hostile zones in order to save souls?

Catholicism is not a club or a refuge from the world, and it goes without saying that what Amoris Laetitia addresses is far more significant than the problem of who gets to be let into the Catholic club, as if reception of the Eucharist was a mere sign of official membership in the Church. The Mystical Body of Christ always ultimately strives to expand, even if this may cause pain among its members. The stakes are very high. We cannot deny that Catholics who are in a state of mortal sin commit a further mortal sin if they receive the Eucharist, and that those who remain in a state of mortal sin until death will not be saved. At the same time, those who close the doors of the Church to the world may be risking their own souls as well. Exclusivity can be a form of uncharitableness, not to mention cowardice.

Both charitableness and our sense of natural justice compel us to give divorced and remarried couples the benefit of the doubt when it comes to how they determine culpability for their sins. If it is impossible for a divorced and remarried Catholic couple to ever, without remaining celibate or without obtaining an annulment, escape from mortal sin, then such a couple is living a life of the damned. Yet, there are many divorced and remarried Catholics who live a normal married life and are upstanding people devoted to God and family. It repels us to think that their reward will be eternal torment. Bonald from Throne and Altar—in a series of posts that happened to coincide with the publication of Amoris Laetitia—refers to such a sense of injustice as “the scandal of the idea of mortal sin.” (Bonald’s posts, which are well worth reading, can be found here, here, and here.) The scandal follows from what seems to be the stark injustice of the Church’s understanding of sin and divine judgement. One person may live a saintly life, commit one mortal sin in a moment of weakness and die before reaching the confessional, and then spend eternity in Hell; another person may live a life of depravity and cruelty toward others, then repent and seek the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and end up spending eternity in Heaven. The latter case does not bother us as much as the former. We are eager to accept the idea that divine justice trumps natural justice in the case of the reformed sinner. In the former case, however, it would seem that divine justice not only contradicts natural justice but also contradicts itself. Where is the love, the mercy, and the ‘second chance’ that Christ offers? If an accidental death can condemn a good person to Hell, then in those cases we can say the world has triumphed—death has triumphed. According to Bonald (and I have to agree with him) the discord that this problem creates has the potential to poison the will of those who strive to be good in spite of their weaknesses. All that matters is whether or not one dies in a state of grace. I would add that ignoring this sense of scandal could potentially lead to forms of moral insanity similar to those of the Medieval Manichees, who sometimes postponed baptism until very late in life, so that they could avoid practicing the strict asceticism their heretical religion demanded until it was no longer such a struggle (see Note 1). It could also lead to a form of moral relativism (one very different from liberal moral relativism) in which missing Church on Sunday out of laziness is just as serious a sin as murder. In any case, if you adhere to a strict concept of mortal sin you must swallow this injustice, and this scandal.

Thankfully, as I have outlined above, the Church allows some flexibility in matters of morals—but some and only some. Anyone looking for loopholes is wasting their time, because although it is very easy to fool a priest, or to fool oneself, it is impossible to fool God. Pope Francis’s view of sin appears to be gradational. He seems to recognize that an adulterous situation in which a couple are in every respect living like a good Catholics except for the presence of a past failed marriage is somehow better than an adulterous situation in which, for example, the head of a household regularly visits prostitutes. He does not, however, provide a clear and universal teaching on this matter—and that is a good thing, since culpability for sin cannot be objectively determined by any authority other than God. There is no way to solve the problem of how to determine whether a particular sin by a particular person is a mortal sin, at least not with absolute certainty. If it were possible, we would not be asked to pray for those who commit suicide. All we can do is be charitable or uncharitable to those who are in unusual situations, and pray that God will have mercy on them. Rather than speaking of “the scandal of the idea of mortal sin,” we might instead talk of the mystery of mortal sin. We can understand what mortal sin is in the abstract, but it is not something we can see, touch, or test for in the physical world.

The Catholic Right appears to be under the impression that Pope Francis is a modern liberal in disguise, or at least has allowed himself to be misled by liberal advisors. Remember that the modern is the Ape of the ancient. Liberal tolerance is the Ape of Christian tolerance. The liberal conscience is the Ape of the Christian conscience. Some people of the Catholic Right, in their efforts to protect the Church, seem to have abandoned such distinctions.

Note 1: I gleaned this tidbit from Steven Runciman’s The Medieval Manichee: A Study of the Christian Dualist Heresy. Unfortunately, I do not own a copy of this excellent book and so I do not have a page reference to offer.

Right Theory: A summary before proceeding

Right Scholarship is, as its Twitter description states, “a blasting site for a new Catholic cultural criticism.” More specifically, this site is a contribution to the development of a Catholic approach to Cultural Studies, or the scholarly and interdisciplinary analysis of culture.

Cultural Studies is often mocked by conservatives, but its influence in academia is no joke. Although there are relatively few programs and departments devoted exclusively to Cultural Studies, it nevertheless provides a common interdisciplinary language for scholars in the humanities and social sciences. A Sociology professor will often be as familiar with the cultural theory of Michel Foucault or the “critical theory” of the Frankfurt School as an Art History professor. Generations of BA students in North America have developed their critical thinking skills within an intellectual environment shaped by Cultural Studies, and these students have gone on to become some of today’s most significant consumers and producers of culture, shaping the content of everything from Internet memes to Hollywood blockbusters.

Cultural Studies is a product of the intellectual tradition of the political Left, and its practitioners are often committed leftists or radical liberals who see their scholarly work as a form of activism. This being the case, what space is there for the Catholic student who wishes to engage in the interdisciplinary analysis of culture? Too often, they must hide their beliefs and simply adopt the language of the intellectual status quo, perhaps hoping to steer it in a subtly Catholic direction. Some universities offer courses or programs in “Catholic Studies,” but these are rare and tend to focus on the study of Catholic culture, rather than the Catholic study of culture.

Catholics have every right to assert themselves within Cultural Studies, even in secular universities, and to develop alternative ways of looking at culture. If Cultural Studies is merely a critical project of the Left, then it has no right to its name or to the status it currently enjoys in the humanities and social sciences as the source of a common interdisciplinary language. If it is an open field of scholarly inquiry, then the Left has no right to exclude other approaches to the study of culture.

The “theory” or speculative thought that currently guides Cultural Studies is based on fundamental principles and core theoretical models that are self-evident only to the secular Left, although the normalization of “theory”-derived concepts within the academy means that these models are often accepted implicitly or unknowingly by students and professors who may consider themselves politically agnostic. The most important theoretical models in Cultural Studies are Marx’s base/superstructure understanding of society and culture, Freud’s ideas regarding the unconscious, and Nietzsche’s perspectivism. It is also surely not irrelevant that Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche were all strongly anti-Christian. However mundane the employment of “theory” may seem in the context of everyday academic work, its fundamental principles are bold, radical, and opposed to those of Christianity. Any form of Catholic Cultural Studies, if it is to last and thrive, must be founded upon similarly bold, radical principles.

In this summary, I have provided a list of principles upon which a Catholic form of Cultural Studies might be built. These are not all specifically Christian in conception, but those that are Christian align, I believe, with Catholic philosophy and theology. All of these ideas are elaborated upon in my Right Theory posts (which I have linked to at the bottom of the page) or elsewhere on the site. I will try to update and refine this list of principles on a regular basis. As always, I invite comments.

The study of culture is always also the study of media and mediation.

Media are, as Marshall McLuhan said, “extensions of man.”

Media are extensions of man that make possible the formation of corporate entities, or Persons made of persons. All forms of media are incorporative (in that they unite people into corporate bodies), to a greater or lesser extent.

The lifeblood of a corporate (multi)media entity (a Person made of persons, united through media) is the flow of signification. The three primary types of sign, according to Charles Peirce, are icon, index, and symbol. Each type of sign is important not only in enabling effective communication within and between corporate bodies but in structuring and strengthening such bodies.

One person may belong to multiple corporate entities. In fact, there is no time in our lives in which we are not part of some corporate entity.

Through the work of McLuhan, we can see that the medium of print worked against its own incorporative tendency as a medium, fostering individualism and specialism. Also through the work of McLuhan, we can see that the new electronic media, with its immense incorporative power, is creating a new aural/oral world culture in which the individual and the specialist are increasingly irrelevant.

We now live in a Global Village (to borrow McLuhan’s term) consisting not of individuals but of corporate multimedia entities, and we await the development of the Global Person, in which humanity will be united as a corporate whole. McLuhan seems to refer to the development of the Global Person in his famous 1969 Playboy interview, when he says, “Psychic communal integration, made possible at last by the electronic media, could create the universality of consciousness foreseen by Dante when he predicted that men would continue as no more than broken fragments until they were unified into an inclusive consciousness” (262).

All people are ultimately incorporated, by the end of their lives, into one of two great corporate bodies: the Mystical Body of Christ (MBC) or the Mystical Body of Anti-Christ (MBAC). Each of these bodies seeks also to incorporate the Global Person. The distinction between the MCB and the MBAC is made with exceptional clarity by St. Thomas Aquinas, in De Venerabili Sacramento Altaris (translated by H.A. Rawes): “there are two mystical bodies in the world, namely, the mystical Body of Christ and the mystical body of the devil or Antichrist, to one of which all men in the world belong. [. . .] The mystical Body of Christ is the Holy Church, His Spouse, pure and faithful. He is the head of this Church, and all the faithful without mortal sin are His members. [. . .] On the other hand, the body of the devil is the whole assembly of the wicked men, who are, as it were, his adulterous nurse. He is their head, and all the wicked are his members. [. . .] Jesus, by His own work, and by the work of His servants, is always seeking to cut men off from the body of the devil, and incorporate them in His own. So the devil by his own work, and by the work of his servants, is always seeking to draw away the members of Christ, and join them to the vile members of his harlot” (99). McLuhan speaks of the MBC in the Playboy interview referred to above: “In a Christian sense, this [“Psychic communal integration”] is merely a new interpretation of the mystical body of Christ; and Christ, after all, is the ultimate extension of man” (262). McLuhan seems to reference the MBAC a 1969 letter to Jacques Maritain, writing, “Electronic information environments being utterly ethereal fosters [sic] the illusion of the world as a spiritual substance. It is now a reasonable facsimile of the mystical body, a blatant manifestation of the Anti-Christ. After all, the Prince of this World is a very great electric engineer” (72).

The Mystical Body of Christ is the Church understood as a single corporate entity stretching from our material realm, through Purgatory, to Heaven. At baptism, we are incorporated into the Mystical Body. The Head of the Mystical Body is Jesus Christ, and the Soul of the Mystical Body is the Holy Spirit. The Mystical Body on Earth is the Church Militant; the Mystical Body in Purgatory is the Church Suffering or Church Expectant; and the Mystical Body in Heaven is the Church Triumphant. The members of these three parts of the Church form the Communion of Saints within the Mystical Body.

Communication between the parts of the Mystical Body occurs primarily through the sacraments and the medium of prayer. Communication within the Church Militant (the Mystical Body on Earth) and between the Church Militant and those outside the Church, makes use of all the usual “earthly” forms of media we have at our disposal.

Christ is the “ultimate extension of man” (McLuhan, Playboy 262) or ultimate medium. Not only is He the medium between man and God, and not only is His Mystical Body the medium through which the members of the Church may be united, but he also provided humanity with a new perspective on the material world, through which we may discern the underlying forms or ideas that exist in the mind of God (according to the doctrine of Divine Exemplarism). Speaking of this gift of discernment that has been given to man, St. Bonaventure states, “The Word—the Truth that is the tree of life—is the medium that brings knowledge. Any other truth ushers in death—the fatal consequence of falling in love with created beauty. It is by way of the First Truth that all must return, with the result that just as the Son said: I came forth from the Father and have come into the world. Again I leave the world and go to the Father (Jn. 16.28); so anyone could say: Lord, I came forth from you, the First Principle; I come to you, the Final Goal and by way of you, the eternal Truth.—This is the metaphysical medium that leads us back. And my entire metaphysics is this: to be enlightened by spiritual beams of light and brought back to the Most High by the steps of emanation, exemplarism, and consummation” (23, 25).

Iconic signs play a crucial role in communication within the Mystical Body of Christ, since it is through the contemplation of analogical relationships or likenesses between existing things that we access the “metaphysical medium that leads us back [to God]” (Bonaventure 25).

The MBC and the MBAC interpenetrate our media environment.

The MBAC is the Satanic inversion of the MBC, with Satan as its head.

The MBAC, instead of providing a connection to the immaterial realms of Purgatory and Heaven, creates virtual realities that mimic the immaterial. The media environments within the MBAC are “closed” in the sense that they exclude Christ and the immaterial.

The forms of representation that dominate within the MBAC are primarily symbols (arbitrary signs) and simulacra. Simulacra are superficial imitations of the real, rather than faithful reproductions (or “icons” in the Platonic sense) that maintain an internal analogical relationship with their originals and with the Divine Ideas. Both symbols and simulacra ultimately form arbitrary sign-systems structured through difference rather than likeness or analogy. For more on simulacra and difference, see Gilles Deleuze’s “Plato and the Simulacrum.”

Any cultural object may be understood as being part of the MBC, the MBAC, or both. Even the lowliest of objects have some analogical relationship to God and the Divine Ideas, if only in the fact that they exist. At the same time, even the most sublime of human creations are in some way corrupt and simulacral.

The Catholic study of culture should employ a double perspective, revealing both the emptiness behind the sophistry and simulacra of the MBAC, and the traces of the “metaphysical medium that leads us back [to God]” (Bonaventure). We may heed the following words of Jesus to his disciples: “Behold I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents and simple as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

Insofar as Catholic Cultural Studies is a form of political activism, it should be rooted in the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching.

For more, see the following posts:

Jesus Christ as Medium

Mystical bodies, part 1 – incorporative media

Mystical bodies, part 2 – the Mystical Body of Christ and the Mystical Body of Anti-Christ

Mystical bodies, part 3 – “Every spirit that dissolveth Jesus”: the Anti-Christ in electronic media

Culture and sophistry, part 1


Aquinas, St. Thomas. De Venerabili Sacramento Altaris. The Bread of Life: or St. Thomas Aquinas on the Adorable Sacrament of the Altar. Trans. H.A. Rawes. Library of the Holy Ghost Vol. 1. London: Burns and Oates, 1879. Available at https://archive.org/details/breadoflifeorstt00thomuoft.

Bonaventure, St. In Kahn, Eric Earl. “Saint Bonaventure’s Collationes in Hexaemeron: A Translation of Five Lectures with an Introduction and Commentary.” Unpublished doctoral diss. St. Louis University, 1962.

Deleuze, Gilles. “Plato and the Simulacrum.” Trans. Rosalind Krauss. October 27 (Winter, 1983): 45-56.

McLuhan, Marshall. Letter to Jacques Maritain, 6 May 1969, from Toronto. The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion. Eds. Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szklarek. Toronto: Stoddart, 1999. 70-73.

McLuhan, Marshall. “Playboy Interview – A candid conversation with the high priest of popcult and metaphysician of media.” Rpt. From Playboy (March 1969). Essential McLuhan. Eds. Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone. Concord, Ontario: Anansi, 1995. 233-69.

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