Whatever happened to mortal sin?

In the discussion about hell, one or two people have raised the question of mortal sin which is, of course closely connected. Now if we are honest, people are usually talking about sexual sins here. People are not usually worried about accidentally stealing a couple of thousand quid and then being run over by a bus. We’re not normally talking about compulsively breaking people’s legs and then having a sudden heart attack.

So first of all, some basics. For a sin to be a mortal sin, there must be all three of the following:
  • Grievous matter – the thing must be serious in itself. Sometimes the Church clarifies this question. For example, it is the teaching of the Church that in sexual sins, there is no “light matter”
  • Perfect knowledge – the person must know that the act is a sin and that it is serious.
  • Full consent – the person must give the full consent of their will to the act. This would not be present if they acted under force or fear, for example.
A number of problems have arisen in recent years. Some theologians have contradicted the teaching of the Church about the gravity of some sins – or even whether they are sinful at all. Contraception would be an example where this has happened.

For many people, deficient catechesis means that they do not know the teaching of the Church about some sins. We have to be careful here. If someone is married, they are likely to know from their own conscience that it is seriously wrong to have an extra-marital affair, even if nobody in the Church ever told them. But conscience can be badly formed. Many young people might grow up thinking that masturbation is not a sin at all because their sex-ed programme told them it was OK. Still their conscience might upbraid them a bit but sadly the sex-ed teacher might have enough credibility to convince youngsters that their conscience is “repression.”

Although these two factors might mean that an individual is not committing a mortal sin, that does not mean that everything in the garden is rosy. If a sin is objectively wrong, it will cause real harm. To take an example, if I really think that green means “stop” and red means “go”, it may be excusable for me to jump the red light but I could still end up killing innocent people. I might not go to hell for it but their families would be grieving: harm would be done.

Now the problems over false teaching on the gravity of sins and deficient catechesis can be put right by sound teaching and responsible catechesis.

The most problematic development, I think, is in the area of “full consent.” The development of popular psychology after the second world war meant that many good theologians did, and still do, consider that habit or compulsion reduces the full consent of the will. Before that, most moral theologians would have said that a habit of sin is simply another name for a vice.

Then there were all the hard cases, the Graham Greene books, the Portrait of the Artist sermon, the fears of boys in boarding schools, tales of insensitive mission preachers and confessors. What a relief to be able to say “Well technically it is a mortal sin but really it isn’t in your case because it’s a habit.” It was a trade-off. Hell was probably empty, everyone could go to communion – and nobody changed their lives.

So what’s the alternative? Are we to condemn millions of people to a hitherto improbable hell all of a sudden? The practical and reasonable alternative is to return to the teaching of St Alphonsus (and the other classic spiritual writers). He treated grave matter as mortal sin. He reflected on the awfulness of hell, and the remorse of the damned because of their folly in losing God for a trifling pleasure. He held out the prospect of peace of conscience, a godly life and the lived experience of the love of God and the advocacy of Our Lady.

St Alphonsus knew as well as we do that a person could be saved at the last minute by a brief act of contrition. What he also knew, and we seem to have forgotten, is that it is absolute folly to rely on this as though it were a sensible model for life. Our Lord told of the man who built his barns. St Alphonsus quoted that and St Augustine who said “God promises us his grace, he does not promise us tomorrow.”

In response to the preaching of St Alphonsus (and other great saints – choose your favourite), people changed their lives radically by using the means of grace. Thousands of people were converted from their indifference, the clergy were reformed and whole districts became fervent in the practice of the faith. Today we have given in to an institutional despair. Nobody can free themselves from a bad habit, nobody can follow a rule of life, nobody can fast or do penance – that kind of holiness is for the old days and you can’t go turning the clock back. (Oh no, specially not that!)

Let anyone suggest it and a thousand stories from the bad old days will be conjured up to haunt you. My great auntie had a headache on the way to Mass because of the midnight fast; Father Smith told my granddad off in confession; the mission priest said that one minute in hell was worse than a million years in prison; fish on Friday meant you had Dover Sole at posh banquets ...

There is a new generation in the Church that has opted to grow out of this routine and clichéd rejection of our own way of life. They are not too sure of themselves but they know what the Church teaches on faith and morals and they are trying to live it. What can be brought into the mix is the teaching of the saints on how to go about living it.

Their general pattern of teaching is: you start by thinking about heaven and hell. Loving God will take you to the one, and mortal sins will take you to the other. So you stop the mortal sins, confess them, turn your life around and live for Christ alone – and here’s a rule for that life [take your pick they all involve prayer, penance and self-discipline …]. Oh, and by the way here are some of the happiest and most balanced guys you’ll ever meet.

It’s been put various different ways but always the same basic pattern. As Jesus said:
If anyone wishes to be a follower of mine, let him affirm himself, put down his cross and have a rest.
No. Wait... how did it go?

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