Monday, July 9, 2012

The Mortal Sins of Immortal Souls

A regular non-Catholic reader of this blog asks,

Doesn't "Mortal Sin" as described by the Roman Catholic Church present some issues?
I mean, why wouldn't a Roman Catholic just spend all of his time waiting right outside a confessional booth, lest he commit one and die soon after?

I mean, is it not believable that God might still forgive a man who dies before such an event occurs? How common do you think "Mortal Sin" is?

I appreciate this question, because I end up becoming complacent about Catholic teaching, and I assume everyone understands it - which of course is hardly the case.  So this is a good opportunity for me to flex my apologetic muscles and take a swing at this.


The question implies that the reader thinks that one can commit a mortal sin unknowingly or accidentally, which is not the case.  This notion probably comes from the fact that most of the sins we commit are done out of a kind of force of habit.  Take using foul language, for example.  As much as I don't want to swear and cuss, when I get mad enough it's almost impossible for me not to.

But a mortal sin, according to Catholic teaching, requires three things:

1. Grave matter - the act itself must be seriously wrong.

2. Full knowledge that the act is seriously wrong. 

3. Full consent of the will in committing it.

Thus, if you spill your McDonald's coffee in your lap while pulling away from the drive-through lane, and you say a few choice words, these words themselves may (or may not) constitute grave matter for sin; you may (or may not) know that the act is seriously wrong; and if the words just "slip out" without forethought on your part, you certainly do not have full consent of the will when you scream those invectives at the top of your lungs - therefore by that last factor alone, this is not a mortal sin.

But let's take a more common example.

Lots of men are addicted to pornography.  Even most Christians, however, may not know that the Church recognizes that pornography is grave matter for sin - it is a seriously bad thing, for a number of reasons.  And most men these days might not have learned to heed the voice of conscience on this matter - although the element of shame that goes along with the use of porn is always an indication that we know down deep how wrong this stuff is.

Still, if a Christian is not aware that porn is deeply offensive to God and to our neighbor, he by that fact alone can not commit a mortal sin when he uses it. 

And there are many Christians who do indeed know how wrong the use of pornography is, but use it anyway simply because it is as addictive as heroin.  Many men are wracked with guilt over this addiction, but can not easily pull away.  Thus, the force of habit makes the commission of this sin, even when one knows it is seriously wrong, often an act done without full consent of the will.

And so with all these things considered, you can begin to see how hard it is to commit a mortal sin.  You can't just slip into it.  It must be a seriously wrong thing, you must know fully how wrong it is, and you must do it deliberately, without any coercion, including force of habit.


Now none of this touches on how the Church has the nerve to come up with this doctrine in the first place.  I will only say that the Church only teaches on faith and morals what Christ gave her to teach, and that this doctrine it is entirely Scriptural. 

If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that.  1 John 5:16

Here and elsewhere the Church recognizes that there are sins which can exclude a person from heaven.  See also 1 Cor. 6:9 & 10 -

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites,  nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.

So while we can not earn our salvation, we can (so to speak) earn damnation, or at least forfeit the saving grace that we have been given.


As to the question, "I mean, is it not believable that God might still forgive a man who dies before such an event occurs?" - meaning, I think, "Might God forgive a man who has lost the state of grace by committing a mortal sin, before such an event as his sacramental confession occurs?"

Of course.  God's grace and mercy know no bounds.  And the Church teaches that perfect contrition - being sorry for what one has done, both for the offense it gave to God and to neighbor, coupled with a firm resolve not to sin again (though, being weak, we often break such resolutions), and a willingness to make amends for the harm we have caused - that these things constitute "perfect contrition" and elicit the forgiveness of even mortal sin.

That's right - the Church teaches that Confession is not necessary for a sinner to be forgiven of mortal sin.  God is free to operate outside of the Sacraments.  Sacramental Confession is necessary, however, before one who has mortally sinned can be reconciled with the Church and receive communion.  And it is good for many other reasons, but strictly speaking, there are two things that bring forgiveness of sins -

1. The mercy of God through the merits of Christ and His cross

2. The sorrow of a sinner, which prompts the sinner to seek this forgiveness - even if that seeking only takes the form of an interior prayer.

That's it.  The blood of Christ is that powerful.

Those two things propel the Sacrament of Confession and the absolution offered by the priest, who functions as a delegate of God.  Without the blood of Christ and without our own inner sorrow for sin, there can be no forgiveness.


Benjamin. said...

I was doing some research and APPARENTLY one of the popes suggested that without acts of charity would could not be saved.
Now that would seem to suggest an earning. But wouldn't a proper faith in Christ mean that we would, in following, act charitably?
I mean, why would he specify it as additional, as he seems to?

Benjamin. said...

Also, I believe a man called Father Barron said that it is a reasonable hope that almost everyone could be saved, or something like that.
I think he quoted Thomas Aquinas, (is that his name?)
Does this make any sense?

Benjamin. said...

Nevermind. Looked back. Apparently Origen or something like that. He talks about Aquinas being quite "pessimistic" on the issue. Not sure

Lot of stuff here.

Benjamin. said...

Here is some stuff on law v spirit.
Interesting stuff.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Benjamin, the article on faith vs. works that you linked to makes sense to me. The whole idea is our faith should be lived out in our lives, "faith works through love," as Paul says.

Mr. Miller said...

Your claim that the Church teaches that we can be forgiven a mortal sin without the Sacrament of Reconciliation is worded in a way that could lead people to think it's ok to skip confession if you're really really sorry. one cannot assume that one's contrition is perfect, so it's dangerous to make that assumption.

If you have committed a mortal sin, it is vital toget to confession ASAP. Making a good faith effort at perfect contrition gives HOPE of forgiveness, but only the Sacrament provides certainty.