Staying out of mortal sin is difficult for almost everybody (something I’ll elaborate on in part III), and only a minority of Catholics really even try. Given this, it’s remarkable more Catholics don’t just throw up their hands and say “Well, if I’m living in mortal sin anyway, I might as well enjoy myself and do whatever I want.”
I can remember being a fornicator who took great pains never to miss Sunday Mass. I can remember being a student who faked lab data for fun but would never tell a verbal lie. What was the point? I was leading an inconsistent life (and often still do); I knew I wasn’t right with God (and often still am not), but refused to leave His orbit. And it is best at least that I kept one foot in goodness, even though it was inconsistent–“hypocritical”, if you prefer–but there are two ways the inconsistency could be resolved. Ironically, unrepentant mortal sinners have a privileged ability to reject sin purely out of devotion to the moral law, because we know that avoiding a second mortal sin won’t save us from Hell, and yet we do it.
Maybe the Church’s mercy craze is rubbing off on me, but I too am interested in the state of mortal sinners, and have been since before Francis was pope. I just think the medieval Church did a better job of “integrating” them than the post-Vatican II Church. There used to be a recognition that being in mortal sin is, I won’t say a normal state because that has normative overtones, but at least an unexceptional state, something we realize that most people will from time to time enter and leave. There was no expectation that everyone is always fit to receive communion or that everybody is going to Heaven. Now, knowing that mortal sin is unexceptional can certainly sap one’s resolve to avoid it, but it also motives us to learn to recognize when we are in such a state and to respond sensibly.
Let’s look at the ways a person can respond when the Church tells them their behavior is gravely sinful.
- Heretical defiance. “I know I’m a good person. The Church is wrong, and I’m going to tell everyone how stupid this rule is. Then I’ll keep doing whatever I want.”
- Despair. “There’s no way I can live the way God wants me to. I’ll indulge myself quietly, and to those men better than me who live rightly I’ll wish well.”
- Despair mixed with presumption. “There’s no way I can live the way God wants me to. I’ll indulge myself quietly and then go to Confession when I’m old.”
- Repentance with a firm resolve to immediately amend one’s life
#4 is ideal, but we must be aware of the three failure modes. They’re not equally bad. In fact, I’ve clearly ranked them from worst to best. Even the despairing sinner acknowledges that God and His Church are in the right. He doesn’t redefine reality to suit himself. Lots of us who went to Catholic elementary schools spend much of our lives in state #3. Again, we’re certainly open to criticism, and most of us are probably going to Hell, but the state is objectively better than 1 and 2. It even captures a great truth, even if it takes it too lightly: God’s scheme with the Church is not to get people into heaven by them never sinning, it’s to get people into heaven by getting them to repent before they die.
Let’s consider a consequence of not all states of mortal sin being equally bad. If a man’s wife leaves him and he can’t stand to live celibately, it’s better for him to honestly live in sin with a woman than to pretend to marry her. They’re both adultery, but only the latter is public defiance, a demand that the world accept a lie. The more respectable a sin is, the worse it is, the more the sinner and godless society reinforce each other, and the less likely is any future repentance.
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