I didn’t start out this series with Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation in mind, but the topics have converged. My concern has been the “scandal” of an idea, the idea of mortal sin, by which I mean its potential to demotivate. Because we must be motivated and we must live in the truth, “scandals” of this sort must be overcome.
The conditions of mortal sin are
- grave matter
- full knowledge
- deliberate consent
It is not a matter of doctrine which of these conditions most often reduces a sin from the mortal to venial category. However, we often need an assumption about which is most often key when building models of the spiritual life to guide us. For most of my life, I have assumed that #1 is the “main” criterion. Some acts are just really bad, but most of the time people know what they’re doing and are in control of themselves, so it seemed to me perverse to focus much on #2 or #3. In fact, I would tend to question the motives of someone who worried too much over whether sinners really have the awareness and freedom to perfectly consent to what they’re doing.
Suppose it were true that #1 is nearly always the decisive criterion. The list of mortal sins (considering only the gravity of offense) is either short or long. I used to assume it was short and included only heinous things like murder and rape. This belief is (in addition to being false) demotivating, because then there’s nothing for most of us to worry about. Then I learned a little more and found out the list actually includes some other stuff that doesn’t sound heinous to me but that God thinks (or, rather, I should say, God knows) is a big deal–things like usury, non-procreative sex, and skipping Church on Sunday. Now we’re dipping into things that a regular person might do, and I began to actually feel constrained. Especially when I realized that basically all of the sexual sins are mortal. That seemed strange, but I reasoned that sex is a very special thing. Avoiding the mortal sins I knew about was hard but doable (with an occasional relapse now and then). The doctrine successfully motivated me, but it was demotivating in other ways. Yes, I knew God also cares about our positive acts of love and virtue, but it seemed He cares infinitely more about me avoiding a few proscribed behaviors, because that’s what sets the hell/purgatory cutoff. This didn’t feel right.
In fact, the list is long (e.g. the lists here and here) and includes stuff that everybody does all the time. Swearing, getting drunk, having sexual fantasies, working on Sunday, being lazy, being gluttonous… Dear God, I must commit a few mortal sins every day before lunch. There’s no way I could stop, or even keep track of them to repent. I’d make myself miserable trying to avoid all this stuff, and there’d be no energy left for any kind of positive striving. And in fact, the saints did often seem to boast about how much they hate being alive (despising “things of this world”) and look forward to dying. No wonder! Is it true that children are subjected to eternal agony in hell because they once “defiantly” refused to pick up their room, or that adults are sent to hell for getting drunk once or for eying someone other than their wives? Perhaps it is true. If we could see things clearly, as God does, perhaps we would see that they really do deserve it. Perhaps, as more modern apologetics have it, it’s actually true that all these souls actually choose eternal torment rather than bend their wills to God. Either way, must we not conclude that Christianity is in fact horrible news? Should we not at least wish that it were false? Through our unaided reason, we would never guess that the masses of humanity shall suffer eternal torment, that they deserve it, or that they would ever choose it. The whole thing is crushingly demotivating. Who can see a list of potentially mortal sins and not despair?
So I was positively inclined to give Pope Francis’ new model a hearing, because my own had turned out to be such a monster. The Franciscan model I take to have two pieces. One piece I will reject out of hand. This is the suggestion that there is a moral form of concubinage, in which a man and a woman may without sin continue to commit adultery because it’s important to them staying faithful for the kids’ sake. Catholic doctrine recognizes no moral form of sexual activity outside of marriage. Then there’s the second piece, the invocation of the Church’s established teachings on diminished culpability, which is supposed to motivate the claim that people in irregular unions are not necessarily in mortal sin. I assume His Holiness means, if he were to speak plainly, that they are engaged in venial sin. They are in venial sin not because adultery does not meet the criterion of grave matter, but because their knowledge or will is impaired.
If it were foreordained that the divorced and remarried are to be given the Eucharist, this is actually the least damaging justification. Remarriage is still recognized as adultery. Mortal sinners are still disbarred from the Eucharist. It can even still be recognized that every sexual act that contradicts what Pope Francis (unfortunately) calls the “ideal” is sinful to some degree.
On the other hand, is it not also dangerous to play with the idea of consent in this way? Hasn’t this been the main strategy for decades of Catholics who want to weaken the Church’s doctrine on marriage, to rarify “consent” into a spiritual state so idealized and pure that real humans can never attain it? Before, they said my consent to marriage was lacking because I was influenced by social pressure. Now they say my consent to adultery is lacking because I was influenced by biological pressure. Is temptation itself now a form of coercion? If so, does anybody ever actually sin?
It is intolerable for people to not be able to know if they are actually married. The Church would be failing in her basic function of sanctifying life if she allows that to happen (no matter how convenient it might be to those who want to trade spouses). On the other hand, not knowing whether one is in a state of mortal or venial sin is actually a good thing, good as in motivating. We are invited to believe that most people are somewhere on the border between mortal and venial sin. The list of grave sins is huge; we all do them; we’re never going to stop; nobody can be complacent. But the harder we fight, the greater the temptations get, and the less culpable we are when we succumb. Did I fight hard enough before indulging this or that sin? I can’t know, but it’s reasonable to assume that I’m in the state where a little bit more effort, or a little bit less effort, might make a big difference. It’s a thought that encourages me to try just a little bit harder. We’re not Calvinists; we don’t expect to have any assurance of salvation. What happens if I die this minute is anybody’s guess.
Ambiguity is bad, catastrophically bad, for a public relationship like marriage. It’s actually good when considering one’s private spiritual state, where certainty of any kind is demotivating.
But don’t I need to know if I’m in a state of mortal sin, at least for purposes of receiving the sacraments? A few points on this. Certainly, one is not culpable for receiving unworthily if one does not know that one is unworthy. However, we each have a duty to take precautions. When in doubt, don’t. Frequent communion was not common practice in the Church until modern times, and it’s not a good idea. Going soon after confession is best. Ideally, the ratio of rate of communion reception to rate of confession should be lowered for most. (Bringing it near unity may be best for us really naughty types.) Get the Eucharist less; go to confession more.
Unfortunately, that was not the pope’s conclusion.
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