The scandal of the idea of mortal sin II: practical problems

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.

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.

12 Responses

  1. […] The scandal of the idea of mortal sin II: practical problems […]

  2. If the state #3 leads to hell as much as state #1 or #2 then how could it be objectively better?

    One failure mode could only be better than another if it is more likely to convey a soul to state #4.

    In Great Divorce, CS Lewis held that it was the great sinners that were more likely to be made into great saints. The mere lukewarm tend to stay lukewarm.

  3. vishmehr24:

    “In Great Divorce, CS Lewis held that it was the great sinners that were more likely to be made into great saints. The mere lukewarm tend to stay lukewarm.

    These great sinners repented not because they stayed in #1 or #2 or #3, but because in a moment of their lifes they passed trough #4

  4. Additional sins are not “free.” They damage the ability to repent. So one might still resist them out of self-interest.

  5. State 3 is worse than state 2, IMO, since in state 3 I’m fooling myself, holding out the (likely false) hope that I will repent. The man in state 2 is manfully facing eternal damnation every time he thinks of it. He is more likely to flinch (repent) than the pathological optimist in condition 3.

  6. vishmehr24,

    “One failure mode could only be better than another if it is more likely to convey a soul to state #4.”

    Obviously, failure mode #1 risks condemning OTHER souls, too, by leading them into the same error.

  7. Apostasy offers the pleasures of indulgence and the pleasures of self-righteousness. Christianity offers neither. As soon as a man can feel virtuous not only indulging his sins but bullying those who still recognize them as sins, I can’t imagine he will ever turn off that path. And sure enough, defections from liberalism to Christianity are extremely rare.

    In any case, one state may be better than another even apart from the individual’s chance of repentance. As Proph said, state #1 is more of a menace to other people. There’s also the fact that sin should not be championed, and the Church should not be publicly defied, independent of the consequences. It’s bad in itself.

    Don’t be too harsh on state #3 types. I’ve spent plenty of my life there, and I can tell you it doesn’t breed complacency. The longer you tell yourself “I’ve got to stop this someday”, the angrier you get with yourself for not getting down to business and making someday happen.

  8. After reading some of your posts, I felt compelled to write this comment, whose goal is asking for help from my fellow Christians.

    I was raised as a Catholic and, even if I went to Mass, these things were not taught to me. Following a personal crisis, I returned to Catholicism about two years ago and I am still learning. I pray, confess, go to communion, study the Bible, go to Mass, to Assembly, try to get close to God. Of course, it is very hard because I am such a sinner but I get a bit better with time and practice and the help of God (sacraments help). I am still learning about the doctrine (reading this blog is part of this learning).

    I have an atheist brother-in-law that wants to believe but intellectual reasons prevent him from doing that. I have been working with him using apologetics and he slowly understands. He took the first step and now he believes in God. Now we are starting to learn about Christianity.

    The fact is: I am amazed at the hardness of the whole thing. I have repressed all my natural instincts and I have given up all things that brought me joy (sins, of course). I feel peace in my Christian life but not joy or happiness. God has sent me health problems and a lot of trials to purify my souI. I try not to sin and transform my heart but it takes a lot of effort (I am not the religious kind). But only one mortal sin can take me to Hell. Even if I die without mortal sins, I would have to endure the purgatory.

    I have become discouraged as I learn the details. And all this, for what? It’s a huge sacrifice and I don’t have assurance of salvation. I am the modern kind and I don’t have a lot of faith (I pray for that). For me, a future Heaven is not a consolation because my faith is not strong enough. Even with this, I have not any assurance of salvation (one mortal sin can get me to the Hell). And I am sacrificing all my life in this bet. If I am wrong, my life will have been wasted.

    When people try to attract you to Christianity, they tell you “God loves you as you are, he wants to give you abundant life, he wants to make you happy”, but I only see rule after rule, requirement after requirement, pain after pain, a life of pain and suffering, giving everything and not expecting anything. It seems bait-and-switch to me.

    For you that are in the Christian path, how do you do this? I would like a few words of encouragement and advice from people who are better than me in the faith.

    In addition, how do I sell this to my atheist brother-in-law? Because it is a hard sell and I don’t want to lie. I don’t think talking of a Heaven will convince him.

    If you have got to this line, thank you for reading. If you can give me some tips, God bless you.

  9. Regarding your life “being wasted”:

    1. Even if you are damned, more mortal sins would increase the severity of your punishment.

    2. Aside from whether you are ultimately saved or lost, doing the will of God is good for its own sake.

    Also, you can offer up your sufferings to God for the remission of the time you must spend in purgatory. I find that consciously doing this is comforting in times of physical pain.

    Also, you say that the promise of Heaven is not sufficient to console you, but think of it this way, by doing what is right you are making yourself better even now. While it may not seem that way due to our fallen nature, objectively, spending time in prayer is a better thing in itself than spending time in debauchery.

  10. Hello imnobody,

    It sounds like you and I are very similar. Religion seems to come naturally to some, but not to me. Priests are always going on about the “joy” (how I hate that word) we’re supposed to be feeling, to the extent that we’re supposed to be able to attract others to the faith just by letting them know about it, but Catholicism certainly hasn’t made me happy. Prayer is just tedium, and even if I could be sure I was going to heaven, it doesn’t sound appealing to me, because I honestly don’t feel much of this desire for union with God that makes it all worthwhile for other Catholics. Avoiding even serious sins is very hard; often enough I’ve failed, and even when I succeed for (what seems like) a long while, it’s nothing I can be smug about.

    C. S. Lewis had a good explanation of the apparent contradiction in the Gospel that following Christ is described both as very easy (“my burden light”) and very difficult (“the way is narrow”). As he explained it, trying to follow the moral law while remaining one’s old self underneath is very hard. Perhaps I’m having so much trouble because that’s basically what I do. Christianity holds out the promise of transforming ourselves, so that God’s law becomes more natural to us. To me, adding on top of my efforts to avoid mortal sin new efforts to follow private devotions like prayer and fasting sounds like it just makes things more difficult, but perhaps it would actually make things easier. You’d have to ask some better Catholics. Then again, I remember Lewis also making the very Lutheran (but not necessarily wrong) point that the main value of trying our hardest to follow the moral law is that we come to really appreciate our weakness when (not if) we fail.

    It’s true that people don’t give an accurate sense of the difficulties, at least for people like you and me. I’m hoping that being entirely honest about it in this series of posts, I’ll be able to work through my own motivation issues.

  11. […] Also from Bonald, as promised, a part 2 in The scandal of the idea of mortal sin: practical problems. […]

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

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