Embracing the scandal of venial sin

Conservatives defend common sense distinctions against ideologically-driven over-simplification.  It is commonly thought that, by taking our stand on common sense, we are being intellectually lazy.  This is the reverse of the truth.  It’s the simplest thing in the world to take an established ideology with a clear established vocabulary–or even just an established slogan–and follow it to its insane conclusions.  It’s even easier to congratulate oneself on being more rational than those who notice the insanity.  Much more subtle is the process of understanding why one’s rational conclusions offend one’s more complete but less articulate general moral sense.

It’s so very easy to prove that all sins are mortal.  Doesn’t Anselm lay out the proof nicely in Cur Deus Homo?  Even the smallest infraction offends against God, who is infinitely good.  Can we not say that the slightest sin is an implicit denial of God’s sovereignty, of His claim on our obedience and love?  Is this not the rebellion of Satan himself?

Obviously, something must be wrong with this argument.  It would be exactly the same to say that the slightest legal infraction (e.g. violating a speed limit) is insurrection and treason against the established government, because disobedience implicitly denies the legislator’s legitimacy.  But this is not how we understand minor crimes at all (except, perhaps, for a minor disobedience performed ostentatiously before the sovereign specifically to carry this meaning; similarly, the smallest sin would be very grave if the sinner deliberately wished to express apostasy thereby–but then the serious sin would be apostasy, not the choice of signifier).  And yet, the argument that all sins are mortal has plausible premises, and it is a “holy-sounding” argument.  The one making it gives the impression of having greater remorse for his sins, greater reverence for God.  The one making the counter-argument is bound to sound lax by comparison.

Modern men would find it hard to believe, but throughout her history, the Church has more often than not come down on the side of “laxity”.  Heresies often impress with the uncompromising logical and moral rigor of their oversimplifications.  By dividing sins by their gravity, the Church took the more conservative and intellectually challenging path of endorsing common sense.

Didn’t Jesus Himself equate anger with murder and lust with adultery?  This might count as evidence that all sins are mortal, but it doesn’t have to.  Our common sense is that being angry at a sibling isn’t nearly as bad as killing him, and lusting after another man’s wife isn’t nearly as bad as actually sleeping with her.  One might try to explain away Jesus’ words by imagining that looking lustfully at a woman is a peculiar and monstrous state entirely distinct from what most of us do regularly, e.g. that lust really means actively plotting to seduce and anger really means actively plotting to kill.  This would strip the meaning from Jesus’ words.  He is denying that the sins we abhor are things that lurk only in exceptionally bad people.  The same spiritual deformities are in us.  If we nevertheless insist, as we should, that checking out a girl isn’t as bad as sleeping with her, we must conclude that some acts of adultery are more grave than others–a difference of degree rather than kind, one might almost say.

Gravity would seem to be a continuum, so how do we get from there to a binary distinction of mortal vs. venial?  This is a difficult question, but difficult because reality really is complicated in that way.  To return to the analogy above, we don’t treat every petty criminal as an enemy of the state, but we do treat some criminals that way, and it tends to be a pretty binary thing.

4 Responses

  1. Gravity would seem to be a continuum, so how do we get from there to a binary distinction of mortal vs. venial?
    St Thomas: “For sin, being a sickness of the soul is said to be mortal by comparison with a disease, which is said to be mortal.”
    It’s useful to remember that there’s still a continuum underlying the binary distinction. Just like diseases, mortal sins are not all equal. This fact is explicated to its uttermost effect in Dante’s Comedia. In contrast with the modern over-simplification (another one!) which reduces Heaven and Hell solely to their most abstract fundaments (beatific vision and separation from God, respectively), Dante describes the gradating pains and pleasures of the circles of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. While the modern man hopes for the ultimate equality to be found in Heaven, the reality is quite different, for, as Pater Edmund put it, “The Heavenly City is a strict hierarchy, in which no-one is equal to any one else in station, and they rejoice in their inequality.”

  2. It’s also something that we all know on a common sense level.

    There are plenty of sins that are more in the nature of a mistake. Failings that have some moral content but are more a result of inattention or fatigue.

    Rigorism seems strong but creates a moral crippling effect. Almost Manichaean in that all actions are either wholly good or wholly evil. Intuitively we all know this.

    To extend the example of adultery, Jesus says adultery in the heart. To follow through would have to be a sin of the heart and the body. It would have to be worse.

    There is always a counter reaction to laxness that involves a cramped excess of rigor. That it involves actual mortal sins of fearfulness seems to pass unnoticed.

  3. As @greenmantlehoyos suggested, I also think this discussion is related to the process some of us, who aim to be faithful, counter-revolutionary Catholics, might have been going through. First, we observe our priests and bishops have a lenient attitude towards what are actually sinful acts. This tendency causes us to be suspicious about any laxity in matters of morality, even when pronounced authoritatively. Consequently, we become stricter on ourselves and others, which in turns leads to scrupulosity far beyond what is taught and commanded by the Church. (At this stage one may be easily lured into heresy under a pretense of zeal, as also touched upon in the OP.) The scrupulous fears make us too careful, passive, evasive of any significant action, including that for the good of the Church. To overcome the scruples, it’s necessary “to act without restraint”, which is hard because it sounds exactly like the laxity we meant to confront in the first place.

    In other words, in order to become effective counter-revolutionaries we must embrace the scandal of venial sin, in the theoretical as well as in the practical sphere.

  4. […] Over at Throne and Altar, Bonald argues against binary Puritanism in Embracing the Scandal of Venial Sin. […]

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