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
- We do not know which sins are sufficiently grave to be mortal.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- Possibility 3 or 4 above is true and you’ve got a knock-down argument that X is grave.
- 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.
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