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.