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!
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