Against “Shakespeare was Catholic” conspiracy theorizing

Remember, any “hidden meanings” in a play that you could catch at a four century cultural remove would have been completely obvious to the original audiences and to the Elizabethan police.  Don’t be like those people who think they can figure out how the Apostles misinterpreted Jesus.

The scandal of the idea of venial sin

This will be more a collection of questions than an exposition of my settled thoughts (which I don’t have).

Clearly, natural reason, especially of the “natural law” type, can tell us that something is a sin (because it contradicts our natural end, trades real goods for subjective pleasures, treats others as mere means, erodes the social order, and so forth), but not whether the sin is mortal or venial.  Natural law can’t say if a sin is sufficient to destroy sanctifying grace, because grace is not one of its categories.

Therefore, we are in one of four situations

  1. We do not know which sins are sufficiently grave to be mortal.
  2. We do know, but only by direct revelation on this point, i.e. by finding lists of infractions in the Bible (“Those who X shall not inherit the Kingdom of God.”) or in papal encyclicals with the appropriate formulae (“We declare X to be gravely offensive to God.”)  This list must be taken on “blind faith”.  That is, we can’t know why God finds certain acts to be so much more serious than others.
  3. We do know, because God has given us some information about the nature of being in a state of grace, and we can reason from that that certain sins are lethal to this state, while others aren’t.
  4. We do know, because “grave matter” is actually a natural category, and revelation’s only role is to identify this category to the supernatural category of grace-killing mortal sin.

So which is it?  I’m really asking.  I don’t know.

#3 or 4 feel the most satisfactory, but I’ve never seen arguments of this sort.  I see lots of arguments for why X is sinful, but not why X is gravely sinful as opposed to Y, which is sinful but not gravely so.  Why is skipping Mass on Sunday a mortal sin?  It sounds crazy to me–send a fellow to hell for all eternity just for that?  But “sounds crazy to me” doesn’t carry much weight when I lack a rational way to gauge gravity.  I’ve just got my intuition like everybody else.  Skip Church?  Tsk, tsk, try to do better next time.  Kill children?  Whoa, that’s really bad!  Intuition isn’t nothing, but of course it’s clouded by corrupt customs, habitual sin, etc.

I sense that churchmen are also bothered by what the faith teaches are mortal sins, and have been for some time.  One might say that Amoris laetitia represents the onanization of adultery.  Just look at the catechism on masturbation to see where this line of reasoning started.  There are all the same moves.  The authors relate that the solitary vice is grave enough to be a mortal sin, but this just didn’t feel right.  God’s going to send nearly all men and lots of women to hell for that?  Isn’t this what purgatory is for?  Whoever wrote this bit of the catechism felt stuck keeping the matter grave, but immediately went off thinking up reasons why people aren’t really culpable.  Habit.  Psychological state.  Immaturity.  (My observation, by the way, is that inclination to this vice neither increases nor decreases with age.  There was even a notorious episode of Seinfeld about it being rather strong even for adults.  What adulthood hopefully brings is marriage and with it another outlet.)

So, let’s take your favorite sin that you’ve been told is mortal but that doesn’t sound that bad to you.  Could be skipping Church.  Could be masturbation.  Could be remarriage.  Could be–get ready to be scandalized–social injustice.  Call it X.  What’s wrong with just saying that X is a venial sin?


  1. The authority of the Church is on the line.  The magisterium has clearly declared adultery, onanism, and so forth mortal sins.  If we now say that actually they’re venial, the whole edifice of Catholic doctrine collapses.
  2. Possibility 3 or 4 above is true and you’ve got a knock-down argument that X is grave.
  3. Saying something is a venial sin means that it’s not important, that the Church doesn’t really care about it and neither should you.  Nobody will bother avoiding a behavior that’s merely venial.  Take masturbation.  Nobody’s going to give up effort-free, consequence-free orgasms if hellfire isn’t on the line.  Nobody would do it just as a favor to God or just to be closer to Him.

Possibility 3 is sad but realistic.  It’s also not a valid argument for declaring X to be mortal.  That learning X is not mortal would sap my motivation to avoid X doesn’t prove that X is indeed mortal.  One can be motivated to a good end by a false belief.  I’m guessing most people would say that X being a venial sin is off the table because of #1.

But I’m not sure.

The fact is that I’ve never liked the legalistic side of Catholicism.  I like reasoning from general principles rather than combing through documents, weighing levels of authority, identifying loopholes.  It could be, though, that these mortal/venial distinctions are one area where consulting documents is all one can do.

Can a movement survive the embarrassment of its leaders?

It’s been a terrible, horrible spring for social conservatives.

We’re used to the Republican establishment being embarrassed of us.  I’ve long thought that it does more harm than good for Congressmen to threaten to cut off funds to Planned Parenthood, not from any ideological objection to the services they provide, but just out of a desire to balance the budget.  The only message this gets across is that no respectable person would question what Planned Parenthood does.  To take another example, everybody, I think, realizes how pointless it is to have a religious liberty bill that doesn’t allow private persons to discriminate against gays, when the whole point was to protect us from being punished for continuing to recognize (“discriminate”) the difference between real and fake marriages, even when the state fails to do so.  As I said, the fact that respectable conservatives don’t like us is nothing new.

It is new to see activists and leaders of culture war organizations betray their embarrassment over the core beliefs of their movements.  The whole point of the pro-life movement is that abortion should be criminalized.  But now the pro-life movement is rushing to reassure us that they would never want women who procure abortions to be tried for criminal activity.  It’s like they’re screaming, “We didn’t mean it!  Please don’t take us seriously!”  I don’t see how anyone can take the pro-life movement seriously after this.  Why should anyone even consider our arguments when passionate pro-lifers act as if they don’t believe them, act as if the ultimate goal of the movement (beyond minor harassments of the abortion industry) is something shameful, something we would not like the public to consider.  One way or another, we’ve lost at least a generation.

Has anyone estimated the damage done by the fact that, when American Catholic organizations started being pressured to pay for their employees’ contraceptives, the bishops didn’t dare go public with an actual argument that contraception is sinful, that no one should be paying for it, but instead argued for “religious freedom”, practically admitting that they have no reason for their beliefs (perhaps even that the Church’s teaching is not what they privately believe)?

Sexual morality is not the center of Christianity, but it is the current center of Christianity’s conflict with militant modernity.  That the Pope cannot bring himself to say that unreformed adulterers are living even in venial sin is a devastating blow to our morale and credibility.  Just as in the pro-life “women are the second victims” rhetoric, it’s not what is said that’s so damning, but the cringe that’s so visible behind it.  That the Church teaches and has always taught that marriage is indissoluble, not as an ideal but as a universal law, is a source of embarrassment, something to be hidden away and qualified as much as possible.

It is, of course, true that people are often not fully culpable for their acts.  Often they act with imperfect knowledge; always they act under pressure, and sometimes the pressure is so strong that their consent to their own acts really is questionable.  And yet, these observations are manifestly not used in a consistent way.  Has Pope Francis ever fretted over whether gossipers, extortionists, rapists, racists, or immigration restrictionists are really responsible for their sins (real or imagined)?  Do pro-lifers think that murderers of all other categories should be automatically assumed to have not consented to their deeds?  No, it’s only the popular sins, and only when perpetrated by protected groups one is not allowed to criticize, for which consent is to be automatically presumed absent.  If I steal a woman’s purse, everyone assumes I consent to my own act.  If instead of mugging her, I ditch my wife and run off with this other woman, then suddenly the concern shifts exclusively to my mental state, and all sorts of subjective factors make it impossible to assess my degree of culpability.  One could engage in this discussion about subjective states, arguing against pro-lifers and the Church that people really are choosing wicked things, but this argument is only worthwhile if our opponents really believe what they’re saying.  The fact that consent is assumed for some sins and assumed absent for others gives us reason to doubt this.  In terms of the objective and subjective components of sin, illicit sexual activity is no different from illicit economic activity and illicit violent activity.

As I keep pointing out, the new excuse-making for adultery merely follows the logic the Church has already embraced in questioning the validity of most marriages in order to make annulment easier.  Consent, it seems, is impossible for mere mortals.  From this it follows that we cannot marry, but also that we cannot seriously sin.  It seems that modern Catholics regard this as good news.  Not such good news that we’d want to apply it to areas other than sex, though.

A process of pastoral accompaniment and discernment

“‘And thus, after all Thou has suffered for mankind and its freedom, the present fate of men may be summed up in three words: Unrest, Confusion, Misery! Thy great prophet John records in his vision, that he saw, during the first resurrection of the chosen servants of God—”the number of them which were sealed” in their foreheads, “twelve thousand” of every tribe. But were they, indeed, as many? Then they must have been gods, not men. They had shared Thy Cross for long years, suffered scores of years’ hunger and thirst in dreary wildernesses and deserts, feeding upon locusts and roots—and of these children of free love for Thee, and self-sacrifice in Thy name, Thou mayest well feel proud. But remember that these are but a few thousands—of gods, not men; and how about all others? And why should the weakest be held guilty for not being able to endure what the strongest have endured? Why should a soul incapable of containing such terrible gifts be punished for its weakness? Didst Thou really come to, and for, the “elect” alone? If so, then the mystery will remain for ever mysterious to our finite minds. And if a mystery, then were we right to proclaim it as one, and preach it, teaching them that neither their freely given love to Thee nor freedom of conscience were essential, but only that incomprehensible mystery which they must blindly obey even against the dictates of their conscience. Thus did we. We corrected and improved Thy teaching and based it upon “Miracle, Mystery, and Authority.” And men rejoiced at finding themselves led once more like a herd of cattle, and at finding their hearts at last delivered of the terrible burden laid upon them by Thee, which caused them so much suffering. Tell me, were we right in doing as we did. Did not we show our great love for humanity, by realizing in such a humble spirit its helplessness, by so mercifully lightening its great burden, and by permitting and remitting for its weak nature every sin, provided it be committed with our authorization?

“We will give them that quiet, humble happiness, which alone benefits such weak, foolish creatures as they are, and having once had proved to them their weakness, they will become timid and obedient, and gather around us as chickens around their hen. They will wonder at and feel a superstitious admiration for us, and feel proud to be led by men so powerful and wise that a handful of them can subject a flock a thousand millions strong. Gradually men will begin to fear us. They will nervously dread our slightest anger, their intellects will weaken, their eyes become as easily accessible to tears as those of children and women; but we will teach them an easy transition from grief and tears to laughter, childish joy and mirthful song. Yes; we will make them work like slaves, but during their recreation hours they shall have an innocent child-like life, full of play and merry laughter. We will even permit them sin, for, weak and helpless, they will feel the more love for us for permitting them to indulge in it. We will tell them that every kind of sin will be remitted to them, so long as it is done with our permission; that we take all these sins upon ourselves, for we so love the world, that we are even willing to sacrifice our souls for its satisfaction. And, appearing before them in the light of their scapegoats and redeemers, we shall be adored the more for it. They will have no secrets from us. It will rest with us to permit them to live with their wives and concubines, or to forbid them, to have children or remain childless, either way depending on the degree of their obedience to us; and they will submit most joyfully to us the most agonizing secrets of their souls—all, all will they lay down at our feet, and we will authorize and remit them all in Thy name, and they will believe us and accept our mediation with rapture, as it will deliver them from their greatest anxiety and torture—that of having to decide freely for themselves. And all will be happy, all except the one or two hundred thousands of their rulers. For it is but we, we the keepers of the great Mystery who will be miserable. There will be thousands of millions of happy infants, and one hundred thousand martyrs who have taken upon themselves the curse of knowledge of good and evil. Peaceable will be their end, and peacefully will they die, in Thy name, to find behind the portals of the grave—but death. But we will keep the secret inviolate, and deceive them for their own good with the mirage of life eternal in Thy kingdom. For, were there really anything like life beyond the grave, surely it would never fall to the lot of such as they! People tell us and prophesy of Thy coming and triumphing once more on earth; of Thy appearing with the army of Thy elect, with Thy proud and mighty ones; but we will answer Thee that they have saved but themselves while we have saved all.”

“But all that is absurd!” suddenly exclaimed Alyosha, who had hitherto listened perplexed and agitated but in profound silence. “Your poem is a glorification of Christ, not an accusation, as you, perhaps, meant to be. And who will believe you when you speak of ‘freedom’? Is it thus that we Christians must understand it? It is Rome (not all Rome, for that would be unjust), but the worst of the Roman Catholics, the Inquisitors and Jesuits, that you have been exposing!

new categories of sin

Don’t put any weight on this, because God doesn’t take advice from me, but here’s how I categorize sins.

  • sins of defiance (open rejection of God, His Law, the Church, or other authority)
  • sins of malice (motivated by the desire to do another harm)
  • sins of weakness (driven by lack of will power–often fear or sensuality motivated)

If we are to be leaning more heavily on this idea of lack of knowledge/lack of consent mitigating the severity of sins from the mortal to the venial category, I think it’s useful to state that this must be limited to the third category.  It doesn’t even make any sense applied to the other two.  Most people feel that way, right?  We all think it’s understandable (even if not acceptable) when someone sins because of fear.  We all feel that this lessens culpability.  In fact, appeal to fear is usually what we mean by “coercion”.  (Direct physical compulsion–e.g. making someone go somewhere by dragging them–is less practical, and less interesting from a moral point of view, because it completely removes guilt.)  The question is, what would happen if one were to make the person bolder and stronger-willed?  Sins of weakness would be overcome, whereas defiance and malice would be intensified.

I can believe that two adulterers, separated from their real spouses, having sex is a sin of weakness.  Sexual sins are practically the quintessential sins of weakness (although I think sins motivated by cowardice deserve even more sympathy, because self preservation is the most powerful instinct).  On the other hand, demanding that their friends, the Church, and the world recognize the adulterers as in fact husband and wife is straight-up defiance.  One can’t say that they act in ignorance.  It’s their vexation at the Church’s refusal to recognize their adulterous union that is, after all, the “pastoral” problem in question.  Promoting a lie like this is worse, less pitiable, less ambiguous in severity, than quietly satisfying their lust together.

What’s more, if degree of temptation, psychological “need”, is what reduces the sin from mortal to venial, then adulterers are still obliged to commit adultery as infrequently as “possible”.  (Of course, they don’t actually need it, and never is possible, which is what makes the sin at least venial.  If people really couldn’t help themselves, it wouldn’t be a sin at all.)  If you hold out as long as you “can”, it might be a good enough effort to make the sin venial.  (Then again, you yourself won’t know when this threshold has been crossed, so you should go to confession more, go to communion less.)  But you don’t get to say, “Well, now that I’ve already given into this sin, and I just don’t have the strength to give it up for good, I might as well indulge it as often as I want.  It doesn’t make my spiritual state any worse at this point.”  (I’m not constructing a straw man here.  This is the sort of rationalization I myself have fallen into many times.)  If you have sex with your mistress the next day, when the urgency is gone, it may be that this second time is the one that actually damns you.  You didn’t “need” it, even in the quotation-mark sense, which makes you arguably defiant in your sin.  The result:  even if adulterers can at least hypothetically get away with their occasional adultery in this way, they still have to spend most of their time sexually frustrated, just like people playing by the rules.

It’s reasonable to ask whether adulterers can make a valid confession without rectifying their situation.  Let’s assume it’s true, as the pope says, that they often have compelling reasons to remain together, i.e. for the sake of their illegitimate children.  They must certainly resolve to live celibately in order to be absolved from their adultery.  Of course, it is possible and even common for someone to resolve to give up a sin while knowing that it is very likely that they will end up giving into the same temptation in the future.  After all, when you confess minor things, like arguing with your siblings or swearing, do you really have to be convinced that you will never allow this to happen again?  You must not be planning to let it happen.  You must be resolved to fight the temptation to let it happen.  You must be resolved to take any practical steps to lessen the near occasion of that sin.  It’s just like anything else.

A last point.  See how quickly the corruption of the Catholic mind has spread.  I wrote this whole post without mentioning, without even once thinking about, the abandoned spouse!

Abortion’s other victim

Even if we succeed in outlawing abortion someday, would it really be fair to punish abortion doctors?

Bernard Nathanson in his book Aborting America observes that women who procure abortions seem undisturbed by the procedure, but it often takes a greater psychological toll on abortionists.  Objectively speaking, both mothers (-to-be, if you prefer) and abortionists are engaged in murder, but culpability is a more subtle thing.  The abortionist may be less likely to be aware of the nature of the fetus than the mother.  He lacks her maternal instinct and her genetic closeness, indeed physical connection, to the fetus.  The humanity/personhood of the fetus is a philosophical rather than empirical truth, and the abortion doctor is likely to have been exposed to reductionist metaphysics and utilitarian ethics and to have been trained to think of everyone as “just a clump of cells”.  It’s only fair to put oneself in the place of an abortionist.  Women are continually enticing him, practically throwing money at him to perform these procedures.  He has invested time and money into being qualified to perform these procedures, and he has invested his ego in the belief that what he does is a service to rather than a crime against humanity.  Such things can be hard to change.  In the broader culture, there is an idea people have of abortion doctors as people who snuff out fetuses, and we shouldn’t be surprised if some of them live down to our expectations of them.

Of course, I’m not saying that abortionists should never under any circumstances be punished.  There may be cases where it can be proven that they are fully aware of what they are doing.  This would be true if it could be demonstrated that a given abortion doctor actually harbors pro-life convictions.  In this case, it may make sense to punish him.

Sins of our times: Why do we find it so difficult to be chaste and to be honest?

According to Steven Pinker, humans are a lot less violent than they used to be.  This seems plausible to me.  Maybe it used to be a real burden for a fellow to resist the urge to pick up his sword and start lopping off heads, but this isn’t an issue for me or for my friends.  On the other hand, some virtues have gotten harder and hence less common.  We have a lot of trouble with sex, and we also have a lot of trouble with honesty.

The two cases are separate but analogous.  Our sexual sins are not primarily about being dishonest, and our lies are not primarily about sex (although of course there is plenty of sexual dishonesty).  In both cases, one finds what may be called an ideological impediment to virtue–an official promotion of the opposing vice–and also what may be called a structural impediment to virtue–a way that the social world is rigged, even apart from what anyone desires, to make the practice of that virtue difficult.

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