The scandal of the idea of mortal sin III: Amoris laetitia

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

  1. grave matter
  2. full knowledge
  3. 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.

47 Responses

  1. […] The scandal of the idea of mortal sin III: Amoris laetitia […]

  2. I stopped going to Communion 10 or 11 years ago after reading St. Alphonsus on the subject of relapsing sinners.
    I guess I’m betting the long-shot of dying slowly enough to confess, but too quickly to backslide.
    Fr. Rutler’s bio of the Cure d’Ars mentions a man who jumped off a bridge to commit suicide, but made an act of perfect contrition before he hit the water.

  3. Bonald, you seem to have some very mistaken ideas about what constitutes grave matter. I’m almost certain no respected Catholic moral theologian has ever taught that laziness and gluttony always or usually count as grave matter.

    “Ordinarily [sloth] will not have the malice of mortal sin unless, of course, we conceive it to be so utter that because of it one is willing to bid defiance to some serious obligation.” (The Catholic Encyclopedia on “Sloth”)

    “Gluttony is in general a venial sin in so far forth as it is an undue indulgence in a thing which is in itself neither good nor bad. Of course it is obvious that a different estimate would have to be given of one so wedded to the pleasures of the table as to absolutely and without qualification live merely to eat and drink, so minded as to be of the number of those, described by the Apostle St. Paul, ‘whose god is their belly’ (Philippians 3:19). Such a one would be guilty of mortal sin. Likewise a person who, by excesses in eating and drinking, would have greatly impaired his health, or unfitted himself for duties for the performance of which he has a grave obligation, would be justly chargeable with mortal sin.” (The Catholic Encyclopedia on “Gluttony”)

    Fr. Adolphe Tanquerey, whose theological manuals were widely used before Vatican II, says that servile work on Sunday is grave matter only if it lasts more than two hours.

    And I think it isn’t hard to avoid frequently committing sins of grave matter. A pretty good rule of thumb is that a sin counts as grave matter when it would be unusual for a reasonably good Catholic to commit it (“reasonably good” by pre-Vatican II standards). On the other hand, venial sins can also be defined as everyday sins.

    The Catholic Encyclopedia writes in the entry on “Sin:” “[A]ccording to the common opinion we can avoid all such [sins] as are fully deliberate.”

  4. I found this pretty depressing to read…

  5. Terrence: Please don’t throw away your soul. You have a grave obligation to receive Holy Communion at least once a year during the Easter season. If you know this and don’t do it, you will commit at least one mortal sin a year for the rest of your life. Using the possibility of confession shortly before death as an excuse for habitually committing mortal sins is an additional mortal sin of presumption and decreases your chance of returning to the state of grace before death. Fear of relapsing into mortal sin is not an excuse for refusing Holy Communion; to the contrary, the Holy Eucharist, if worthily received, makes it easier to remain in the state of grace. I am sure St. Alphonsus would be horrified by your reaction to his writings.

  6. @Bonald

    To expound on what Dave said, it’s not a wise idea to take lists of mortal sins composed by random bloggers as authoritative.


    Catholics are obliged under pain of mortal sin to receive the Eucharist at least once a year, during the Easter season.

  7. David is right that those matters are only very rarely grave matter. Similarly, the cut off for grave matter in drunkenness while imprecise is difficult to reach as it requires losing control of one’s will.
    Finally, modernity has actually made refraining from servile labor much easier on sunday as relatively few people do servile labor, and the most common form of servile labor, working at restaurants, is specifically accepted in some traditional moral manual, whose name escapes me. Refraining from non servile labor on sunday is clearly commendable and perhaps needed to avoid venial sin in some particularly egregious cases, but certainly not required to avoid mortal sin.

  8. Guys, it’s not going to work to tell someone despairing of his ability to stop mortally sinning that he’s committing even more mortal sins. It causes the sort of demotivation I was worrying about.

    The reason I tend not to just repose in sin for too long before dusting myself off and confessing is because after a while I start to feel like I’m wasting my life just following my inclinations. It does feel like I’ve given up my freedom when my beliefs aren’t able to influence my behavior, and I start itching to take a stand.

  9. Looks like this guy got the same idea as you from Holy Father’s thingie:

    “Is it mercy to expect some to not follow Church teaching? By appearing to do so, do we end by creating two classes of human beings: those who are deemed capable of following the faith and morals of the Church and those who for whatever unexplained reason are off the hook? Or is the end result that Catholic teaching itself is now paid mere lip service by the Church herself, rendering it a dead letter?”

  10. Okay, Bonald, maybe my pastoral skills aren’t great. So here are some encouraging quotes for Terrence:

    “God never ever tires of forgiving us! ‘Well, Father what is the problem?’. Well, the problem is that we ourselves tire, we do not want to ask, we grow weary of asking for forgiveness. He never tires of forgiving, but at times we get tired of asking for forgiveness.” (Pope Francis in his first Angelus address on March 17, 2013)

    “Perhaps out of a certain scrupulosity, concealed beneath a zeal for fidelity to the truth, some priests demand of penitents a purpose of amendment so lacking in nuance that it causes mercy to be obscured by the pursuit of a supposedly pure justice. For this reason, it is helpful to recall the teaching of Saint John Paul II, who stated that the possibility of a new fall ‘should not prejudice the authenticity of the resolution’ (Letter to Cardinal William W. Baum on the occasion of the Course on the Internal Forum organized by the Apostolic Penitentiary [22 March 1996], 5: Insegnamenti XIX/1 [1996], 589).” (Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” footnote 364)

    If you’d like something more traditional, here’s an essay by St. Alphonsus on hope:
    He also has a great quote by St. John Chrysostom: “Fear not, for God’s desire to grant [forgiveness] is greater than your desire to receive it.”

  11. To be fair Bonald, inventing heretofore undiscovered mortal sins is unlikely to prove helpful either.

    In any event, here’s an excerpt from a quite traditional and pastoral book about confession, which I have found useful. (Pardon and Peace by Wilson, there’s a newer book with the same title that is not as good.)

  12. Roepke, thank you for the reference. It is well worth reading.


    From Rorate Caeli’s latest:

    “So, whatever other thorny issues the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia may raise, one thing at least is clear: It was indeed intended as at least authentic papal magisterium, to which Catholics normally would be bound to give assent of the intellect.”

    Can you (Catholics that hang out here) explain this to me (since they don’t host comments at Rorate)? What does “normally” mean and what is the alternative to “normally?” How can a Catholic not give assent of the intellect to this document and still be a good Catholic?

  14. As a general rule, when someone says that something is “normally required” but puts the emphasis on “normally” rather than “required”, they’re trying to rationalize their own failure to do what is required.

  15. If a pope says something that contradicts the very words of Our Lord, is this a “normal” situation? Is it “normal” if he says something contradictory to canon law or the rest of the magisterium? Is one a good catholic if one stops obeying one part of the magisterium in order to obey the latest version?

  16. So I think that the document says that the traditional understanding of male headship in marriage is incorrect. So I am required to force myself to intellectually assent to this?

  17. Where did he contradict the words of Christ, or the previous magesterium? Or deny male headship?

    I should clarify for the record that I don’t honestly care what he intended in the privacy of his mind. As the Pope, his statements should be interpreted in accordance with Catholic teaching, not our speculation about his thought process.

  18. 156. Every form of sexual submission must be clearly rejected. This includes all improper interpretations of the passage in the Letter to the Ephesians where Paul tells women to “be subject to your husbands” (Eph 5:22).

  19. Arkansas Reactionary, I would agree with you but there’s no escaping that he has made the privacy of his mind quite public and, since he is the Pope after all, this is what causes the confusion, at least for me. Two passages that cause me some difficulty, for example, are AL 329 and AL 298.

    If it can be ascertained that this document is mere private opinion, that is a worthy solution, but is that really the case? And, if not, how is the circle to be squared?

  20. Re 156:

    We should of course reject *improper* interpretations of any part of the Bible. We are not obliged to (and it would probably be imprudent to) speculate about what the Pope thinks is proper.

    Re 298:

    I’m not sure this one really says anything substantive about doctrine.

    There isn’t a 329.

    We need to apply a hermeneutic of continuity (AKA hermeneutic of reinterpretation) to the Pope’s words. Interpret them in accordance with Catholic teaching, and don’t concern ourselves with what he means.

  21. How can one have a second union of “proven” fidelity, when it could not have come into being, in the first place, without a proven infidelity?

  22. My apologies, that should have been footnote 329.

  23. The first sentence says “every form.” 156, read as a whole, refers to more than just unspecified (specified by the reference to JPII afterwarfds?) improper interpretations of Paul. The next sentence is the common liberal-modernist justification used to say sodomy isn’t really a sin. He goes on to tell us what St. Paul actually meant, encouraging everyone to overcome a complacent individualism and to be constantly mindful of others.

    The Rorate author seems to be saying that to be a good Catholic I need to will myself to intellectual assent on this (assuming that “normally” applies here – it’s left unsaid what “normally” means or how I discern). You’re saying that I should will intellectual assent to this document but with the hermeneutic of continuity applied (as best as my intellect can, presumably)?

  24. I’m not seeing a doctrinal statement in either paragraph 298 or footnote 302. I don’t see a doctrinal statement in the first sentence of 156 either. I don’t think “Some have pointed out”, “it often happens that”, etc. should be taken as doctrinal statements.

    “You’re saying that I should will intellectual assent to this document but with the hermeneutic of continuity applied (as best as my intellect can, presumably)?”

    Yes, exactly. Just like with the VII documents.

  25. I don’t get it. Isn’t adultery still a mortal sin, even if Holy Father says we might commit other sins in connection to it?

    Then if we take communion in a state of mortal sin, we’re compounding it with sacrilege. I don’t understand what the Holy Father’s advice is supposed to mean? It sounds like we have his “permission” to go to hell? I can’t follow the train of logic.

  26. Has he expressly sanctioned taking communion while living in adultery?

  27. I could try to will intellectual consent to this document’s continuity with Catholic tradition but I’m not sure I’m capable of that level of mental gymnastics. When his plain words contradict St. Augustine’s plain words, previous Pope’s plain words, etc.

  28. Where is there a direct contradiction?

  29. That’s what I’m noticing too. Now even correct interpretations of Saint Paul (which necessarily would come under the category of “forms of sexual submission”) are ruled out. Pope Francis is quite straightforwardly telling us to reject the Bible in favor of feminist liberalism.

    Not only do I deny that the pope should be given intellectual assent, I don’t even grant that he should be given a respectful hearing when he says things like this.

  30. What he said precisely, is that we must reject incorrect interpretations of St. Paul. Trying to concern ourselves with what the Pope may have meant in his mind is not prudent.

  31. The pope writes that “[e]very form of sexual submission must be clearly rejected” (Amoris laetitia, nr. 156). I’m not a native speaker of English, but to me “sexual submission” doesn’t sound like “submission of one sex to the other,” but more like “submission with regard to sex.” This is certainly true for the expression “sexuelle Unterwerfung,” which is used in the German translation (my native language); it makes me think of sex slavery or sado-masochism, not biblical patriarchy.

    The quote appears in the section “Passionate Love,” which is supposed “to speak of feelings and sexuality in marriage” (nr. 143) and contains the subsections “The world of emotions,” “God loves the joy of his children,” “The erotic dimension of love,” “Violence and manipulation” (where he talks about “sexual submission”) and “Marriage and virginity.” Let’s take a closer look at the subsection “Violence and manipulation” (nr. 154-157):

    “We also know that, within marriage itself, sex can become a source of suffering and manipulation.” (nr. 154)
    “Saint John Paul II very subtly warned that a couple can be “threatened by insatiability.’ […] They end up using sex as form of escapism and renounce the beauty of conjugal union.” (nr. 155)
    “Every form of sexual submission must be clearly rejected.” (nr. 156)
    “All the same, the rejection of distortions of sexuality and eroticism should never lead us to a disparagement or neglect of sexuality and eros in themselves.” (nr. 157)

  32. It is not for me to tell Catholics what they should or should not believe but I have to say the level of mental gymnastics since this Pope have been extraordinary. Only Laura Wood seems to speak plainly on this, though sometimes her pronouncements seem a bit uncharitable. I think I would certainly prefer her occasional harshness to consistent doublethink.

  33. I’d love to hear these folks talk more about the “cultural categories” of the time, as I suspect they don’t really know much about them. It was not that long ago, for instance, that we were told Paul’s commandment that women veil in church and men remain unveiled was a product of his cultural upbringing, even though this was emphatically not the practice among any of the Greeks (who didn’t veil), Romans (among whom both men and women veiled), or Jews (among whom both veiled, but especially men).

  34. I have to say, I do like the veiling practice. Paul ftw.

  35. I thank for David Konietzko for his comment as it prompted me to read further and put the remarks I quoted in context.
    As usual, it is impossible for me to understand what would be expected of me as a good Catholic. RC indicates the document is authentic magisterium. Cardinal Burke and the Remnant say it is not. I may as well flip a coin since I am infinitely less qualified than any of the three to have an opinion.

  36. Hi Bonald,

    It sounds an awful lot like you suffer from scrupulosity to me. That’s not REALLY my call, but I do unofficially recommend bringing it up to your confessor.

    Obviously I can be wrong, which is why, of course, you are correct that better safe than sorry is always the best response.

  37. Bruce, it appears your problem is with a strawman, and that knowing the Catholic faith is not as difficult as you are making it to be. You never really answered Arkansas Reactionary above, and facing his question can’t be avoided in trying to figure out what is what you call “authentic magisterium.” Where does Pope Francis, for instance, require by his authority as Supreme Pontiff that you must believe such-and-such to be a Catholic, that you must believe, for example, that those living in adultery must be believed to be in a state of grace?

    It’s not to say that the Exhortation has not been nor will not be a source of problems by its reception. It’s not to say that he doesn’t assume certain things in the document that show he is not in step himself with the Catholic faith. These are different considerations entirely however, and to conflate the workings of his inner mind, his prejudices and assumptions, his lack of self-knowledge or knowledge of the faith itself, with the requirement upon yourself to assent to the Pope’s authority as a Catholic, as though we must make all of his own personal faults and foibles our own in order to submit fully to him, is going to confound you every time. I’ll bet it would confound you every time with every other pope in history at some point or another also, especially if they each had their own Twitter accounts.

    I disagree with Bonald above that Pope Francis is “straightforwardly telling us to reject the Bible in favor of feminist liberalism” if by that he means that we must try to reconcile our understanding of the faith with whatever it is that Pope Francis was saying that Bonald is referring to. It’s difficult to imagine the current Pontiff solemnly requiring us as Catholics to believe anything. His personality is such, it seems, that he almost doesn’t seem capable of assuming the responsibility or self-awareness of what he would be doing in making a pronouncement of such binding and gravity. Too informal.

  38. Buckyinky,
    The term “authentic magisterium” was used by Rorate Caeli authors and is, apparently, a category traditionally recognized by Catholics. What I’m saying is that I can’t even know if I’m supposed to will intellectual assent to this document. Multiple Rorate authors say “yes” (although one adds the unexplained caveat “normally”). Cardinal Burke says “no.” Who knows what Bishop Lopes (I think I’d be under his authority) says.

  39. I’m sorry if I’m missing something, it doesn’t occur to me that I should assent intellectually with the Pope unless he expressly requires it as a matter of faith. Beyond that his words are to be taken with particular reverence as the supreme shepherd of the flock, but that’s also a different matter than the requirement to assent to his ideas or thoughts. It’s pretty clear that he assumes some things to be true that I think are not true, even regarding the faith. That does not mean I need to find a way to assume them also. Neither do I think this confirms him as a heretic in any way.

    But I don’t think I’m much help to you. I’m just a peon thinking aloud, while you are looking for an authoritative voice.

  40. Catholics are required to give religious submission of mind and intellect to the teachings of the magisterial, even if not infallible.

    Of course, this doesn’t change my earlier point about the distinction between magisterial statements of doctrine and the Pope’s internal mental processes.

  41. Thank you AR. My stream of consciousness approach makes for very doubtful catechesis.

  42. I assume magisterial teachings of doctrine AND morals must be assented to.

  43. “Doctrine” refers to both teachings regarding faith and morals.

    But again, the Pope’s internal thoughts are not the magisterium.

  44. Multiple authors at RC say it is authentic magisterium not his personal thoughts.

  45. […] (related pair) The scandal of the idea of mortal sin III: Amoris laetitia and New categories of sin. A thoroughgoing takedown of liberal Catholic “pieties” […]

  46. […] Both charitableness and our sense of natural justice compel us to give divorced and remarried couples the benefit of the doubt when it comes to how they determine culpability for their sins. If it is impossible for a divorced and remarried Catholic couple to ever, without remaining celibate or without obtaining an annulment, escape from mortal sin, then such a couple is living a life of the damned. Yet, there are many divorced and remarried Catholics who life a normal married life and are upstanding people devoted to God and family. It repels us to think that their reward will be eternal torment. Bonald from Throne and Altar—in a series of posts that happened to coincide with the publication of Amoris Laetitia—refers to this injustice as “the scandal of the idea of mortal sin.” (Bonald’s posts, which are well worth reading, can be found here, here, and here.) […]

  47. […] statements of the Pope that are, in themselves, quite clear.  For example, Jeff Mirus and I have at various times tried to “explain” the Pope to be teaching that Catholics who […]

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