The scandal of the idea of mortal sin I: theoretical problems

Mortal sins themselves are often scandalous.  For example, my mortal sins might set a bad example for my kids.  However, in this series, I want to talk about the scandal of the idea of mortal sin, ways that the idea of a single act condemning a person to hell offends our sense of fairness and motivation, and how this sense of scandal can be diffused.  In this first part, I’ll consider one’s response to the idea of some people in the abstract die in mortal sin.  In the next part, I’ll discuss the motives of a person realizing that he is personally in a state of mortal sin.

To begin with, the scandal of mortal sin is a part of the scandal of Final Judgment.  Real people are complex mixtures of good and bad acts, and even an individual act will usually have a mixture of good and bad motivations.  We often think it inappropriate to label even fictional characters simply “good” or “bad”, and yet God has only two ultimate destinations to which He can send any individual soul.  How can either choice be really appropriate?

As I’ve written

We have seen that the mind is less the ultimate bestower of meaning than the ultimate locus of ambiguity.  Everyone is a mix of good and evil; even my good deeds are vitiated by resentment or expectation of reward.  My very freedom traps me in ambiguity by making it impossible for me to make an irrevocable choice for obedience to God.  To the extent that I control myself enough to choose good today, to that same extent it will be in my power to repudiate good tomorrow.

Once again, the rescue must be to appropriate meaning from without.  God it was Who, through the sacrament of marriage, allowed my life to have  an overall plot. God it will be Who will give my life an overall resolution.  At the end of life, or so Catholics believe, each soul will be judged, and at that moment that life’s definitive truth–as a story of transformation in Christ or rebellion to the end–will be established.

We are told by the Church that a person is saved by dying in a state of grace, even though even people in a state of grace tend to be quite imperfect.  Yet with such people God will share paradise.  This is appropriate first as a matter of His authority.  It is appropriate second because of His own actions:  the predestined soul will be thoroughly purged and perfected before finally resting in the beatific vision.

It’s the other outcome that bothers us.  First of all, I can’t think of any sin so horrible that an eternity of torture would be a proportionate punishment.  There are a couple of answers to this.  The most popular for contemporary Christians is to change the question from one of justice to one of possibility.  God, they say, would like to bring even the worst sinners into heaven, but there is a basic incompatibility between the spiritual state of mortal sin and the state of the beatific vision.  God won’t override a man’s freedom to remove the former, which makes it formally impossible for Him to grant the latter.  His hands are tied.  The traditional answer is that God sends souls to hell because He is just, and justice demands it.  That it doesn’t seem just to me just shows that I lack God’s clear understanding of the horror of sin and the majesty of the Divine Nature against which it offends.

Suppose we grant this.  It is still possible to be scandalized by the asymmetry between good and bad.  People in a state of mortal sin are mixes of good and bad.  How can it be that one unrepented sin can outweigh any number of virtues and good deeds?  If evil deeds carry infinite weight because they offend against God’s infinite good, shouldn’t good deeds also carry infinite weight, because they please His infinite good?  Some would say that if a person commits a mortal sin and won’t repent, that shows how rotten he is underneath, and whatever good deeds he has, whatever appearance he makes of love or conscientiousness, must ultimately be hollow, the result of hidden, selfish motives.  I don’t think this is true.  Like the Calvinist “once saved, always saved” doctrine, it doesn’t match my observations, and the arguments in its favor don’t seem strong enough to justify me distrusting appearances.

Some time ago, I wrote a post about Dives, the rich man in Jesus’ parable about the beggar Lazarus.  The straightforward point of the parable seems to be that Dives is sent to hell for the sin of omission of not giving alms to Lazarus.  Jesus’ point is that this is a serious enough matter to justify damnation.  (The alternative, perfectly well supported by the text, is that Dives is punished just for being happy in life, and Lazarus is rewarded just for being miserable.  I reject this reading just because I find it morally incomprehensible.)  If this is Jesus’ point, then it means that Dives would be damned no matter how caring and righteous he was in every other part of his life.  I retold the parable with added details to make this point.  It needs to be made because many readers insist on making Dives thoroughly wicked, implying for instance that he couldn’t really be concerned about his brothers.  Implicitly, this negates the parable, by presuming that omitted almsgiving isn’t enough in itself to damn a person.  I, on the other hand, prefer to agree with Jesus–helping someone in desperate need when God puts you in particular in a situation to do so is crucial, nonnegotiable.  But I am scandalized.  It really doesn’t seem fair that almsgiving should override everything else, that any amount of virtue in the non-almsgiver should count for nothing.

Yet this is what the category of mortal sin demands.  Nor is there anything special about almsgiving.  Dives could just as well have damned himself with one act of adultery, and then no amount of alms to Lazarus would have saved him.  This is the awesome freedom each of us possess at every moment:  the power to dispose one’s soul in a moment, to override one’s entire past.  Christianity should not be criticized for highlighting this truth, and also for highlighting its more comforting corollary:  that a lifetime of defiance can be overriden by a moment’s repentance.  This is, in fact, what must have scandalized Jesus’ hearers, when he told them the parable of the laborers coming at the end of the day getting paid the same as those who had labored since morning.  And, indeed, I’ve heard people criticize Catholicism as morally deficient because anybody can get off the hook just by going to Confession.  God’s mercy is as much a scandal as His justice.

Christianity is a strange religion.  Good deeds seem to count for little, except to the extent that they become mortal sins of omission.  Sins, the moment they become mortal, count for everything.  Repentance counts for everything.  God doesn’t weigh good deeds against evil deeds.  What matters is grace, His presence within the soul, which inspires good deeds but is itself more precious than them.  Mortal sin kills it.

But does it?  Is a soul ever really without grace?  After all, we are told that repentance is itself prompted by God’s grace, so God must in some sense be active within the soul of a mortal sinner as he works his way to repentance.  But wait:  God presumably continues to call every sinner to repentance up to the moment of death.  This can’t mean that no one is ever really in a state of mortal sin.  Such sophistry reminds me of Karl Rahner’s “anonymous Christians”.  Conversion is an effect of grace; therefore the convert is in a state of grace before he converts; therefore non-Christians are already in a state of grace, and there’s no need for missionaries.  It seems one must distinguish different modes of God’s presence.  So presumably it is with a sinner before and after Confession.

There is another scandal.  Doesn’t everything in one’s relationship with God then reduce to rule-following, the entirely negative concern of avoiding mortal sin?  One might reply that sins of omission can also be mortal, so positive action is required, but this hardly makes things better.  Even our positive acts are recast in this negative frame of mind.

A possible reply:  does the fault lie with the question being asked?  “What must I do to avoid hellfire?”  Ask a legalistic question, get a legalistic answer.  If you want to know how to become closer to God, how to become holier, Christianity has answers to that too.  Avoiding mortal sin would just be the beginning.

And yet it is true that the legalistic issue is forced into our consciousness.  Indeed we are encouraged to be concerned for our salvation.  There’s no holiness cutoff for salvation, but there is a clear quantitative answer to how many unrepented mortal sins I may have on my soul.  Avoiding mortal sin is difficult and in itself the effort could take up most of my energies.  I think most spiritual directors would agree that this is not the most productive way to go about even with the minimal process of avoiding mortal sin.  God wants to transform us, to alter our habitual nature.  Letting Him do this is hard, but not as hard as trying to avoid mortal sin while remaining the old self underneath.

9 Responses

  1. Actual grace is God’s action on the soul, moving it to good. Every living person is at least somewhat under the influence of actual grace.

    Sanctifying grace is the grace which lives in the souls of a person who is in a state of grace.

    Perhaps some heathens attain perfect charity, and are thus already in a state of grace, just as it’s possible to return to the state of grace before going to confession, if one has perfect contrition. But it’s just silly to suppose that any substantial percentage of the human race attains perfect charity in this life, indeed one could argue that it’s impossible for polytheist a and atheists to.

  2. I’m interested in what, categorically separates mortal sins from venial. I understand the consequences of each. I am not asking for a list of mortal sins either, I can read the catechism on my own. But rather, I am asking, what makes this particular sin mortal, as compared to that? Or it purely arbitrary? Is there a rule that divides them, or is the only rule “that which the Church has declared, and God has revealed”? Which would be fine I guess, but a little unsatisfactory, as in my experience the universe has more logic to it.

    What is is about mortal sins that makes them all mortal?

  3. A sin is made mortal by the degree of gravity. However, my sense of justice is too warped for me to be able to assess degrees of gravity with any reliability, so I just go by whatever is identified as “grave matter” by the Catechism. (I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that skipping Mass or looking at porn are mortally sinful on my own.)

  4. “degree of gravity” seems kind of like a skirting-the-question answer, in that one would expect sins to be distributed along a spectrum from bad to worse. And yet the Church divides them cleanly between two classes, which, my intuition tells me, implies that there is some criteria that all mortal sins share, which venial sins do not.

    this is the difference between a boolean variable and a float, and “degree of gravity” seems a lot more like a float.

    Though I suppose it could just be, any sin with a gravity-value greater than X is mortal. And only the Church/God can accurately discern X.

  5. All good points. Like I said, given the impact of a bad background culture, habitual sin, and a tendency to impious thoughts, I just take the Church’s word on this.

    As for degrees of sin, there do seem to be more than two, but it is not necessarily continuous. Degree of gravity might be an integer rather than a boolean or a floating point number.

  6. […] has some theoretical problems to set up The scandal of the idea of mortal sin. More to come on that. He also points to The irony of Disney opposing Georgia’s religious liberty […]

  7. ArkansasReactionary, be very careful: “it’s possible to return to the state of grace before going to confession, if one has perfect contrition.”

    “CANON XI.-lf any one saith, that faith alone is a sufficient preparation for receiving the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist; let him be anathema. And for fear lest so great a sacrament may be received unworthily, and so unto death and condemnation, this holy Synod ordains and declares, that sacramental confession, when a confessor may be had, is of necessity to be made beforehand, by those whose conscience is burthened with mortal sin, how contrite even soever they may think themselves. But if any one shall presume to teach, preach, or obstinately to assert, or even in public disputation to defend the contrary, he shall be thereupon excommunicated. ”

    Still, you’re not wrong: “The Council further teaches that, though contrition may sometimes be made perfect by charity and may reconcile men to God before the actual reception of this sacrament, still the reconciliation is not to be ascribed to the contrition apart from the desire for the sacrament which it includes.”

    We just have to be careful not to take it the wrong way.

    I struggled for a while with whether or not to post this. On the one hand, probably everyone who comes here regularly is up on their Catechism, and I don’t want to just be boosting the ‘more Catholic than thou’ signal. On the other, I don’t want anyone to fall into error. Very sorry if this has been unnecessary.

  8. I knew that, but it’s fair to point out. Perfect contrition will motivate you to seek the sacrament immediately.

  9. […] scandal of the idea of mortal sin.” (Bonald’s posts, which are well worth reading, can be found here, here, and […]

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