At the heart of Christianity is freedom; for it was for “freedom’s sake that Christ set us free” (Gal 5:1). So it is rather strange that the two things we fear most are the very same things He freed us from—death and sin. We do not like to think or talk about either except when it comes to denying their reality. It is this self-deceptive practice that compels me to offer the previously promised second example of our painful plucking and splitting of theological hairs.
The average Catholic probably can’t name all twelve Apostles, but they can tell you the conditions for mortal sin. That is because they are sure to have heard a homily or three about it in one of the Masses that they didn’t miss. They have learned that for a sin to be mortal it must be grave matter and it must have been done with full knowledge and consent. In a previous age the emphasis was always on the “grave matter” part. With a cultural turn to the subjective, the emphasis is now on the personal aspects—knowledge and consent—and almost always with the goal of absolution without confession. If you can absolve from the pulpit then the lines in Confession will shrink while the lines for Communion will grow.
The Pastoral Approach?
What makes this rather sticky is that technically Father is right. For someone to be guilty of mortal sin, they must have done something that is particularly grave. They must have known it was grave matter and they must have done it with full freedom. That is solid moral theology, but, as will be obvious shortly, is bad pastoral practice.
The Prophet Jeremiah tells the people that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9). His point is that the knowledge and intention of our actions are almost always hidden, even from ourselves. Thanks to our fallen condition our capacity for self-deceit is quasi-omnipotent. When faced with admitting our faults or justifying them, we will almost always choose the latter. It is as if we are naturally trained in the art of moral hair splitting so that when Father or our favorite armchair theologian splits hairs on this issue it finds our sweet spot.
Once can see how this might lead to a rejection of the existence of mortal sin. It may exist in theory, but is practically non-existent except for a few of the most hardened of sinners. If we can’t know two of the three conditions with any surety, then there is no reason to worry about it.
This is a sure sign of the collective insanity caused by Original Sin. The reasonable man, when faced with a large mass protruding from his abdomen would not go to the doctor because he does not feel bad. He would go because he has an objective, measurable sign that he may have cancer. So too with mortal sin. When all objective signs point to mortal sin, the reasonable man would go to Confession. Like the man with the tumor, he assumes the worst and goes to the Divine Physician’s clinic in the confessional. It may be nothing serious, but when it comes to the health of our soul we should assume the worst. The Good Doctor will sort out whether you actually have a spiritual cancer growing in your soul, but either way you have had an encounter with the living Christ in the Confessional. Christ has already paid dearly for the premium and empowered His ministers to forgive sins, why not take advantage of it?
Why the Doctors of the Church Did Not Split Hairs
There are valid reasons why there was a movement away from emphasizing the “grave matter,” especially in the post-Jansenist Church. But we ought to seriously consider why the moral Doctors of the Church always used “mortal sin” and “grave matter” interchangeably. I am sure someone has counted how many times he did this, but St. Thomas when examining virtues and vices in the Summa almost always asks “Is X a mortal sin?” He was well aware of the conditions of mortal sin but his goal, even in his Summary of Theology, was to be pastoral. When in doubt Confession was the remedy.
For the world’s loss of a sense of sin to have crept into the Church is absolutely absurd. The Church exists to forgive sins. To explain away their existence is to make herself obsolete—“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’”(Jn 20:21-23).
Scrupulosity is an emotional hyper-sensitivity to sin. It is a common aspect at the beginning of the Christian journey and tends to subside as the person progresses in the stages of holiness. It is when it persists that it becomes a real problem. It is these relatively few tortured souls that many have found their justification for de-emphasizing the “grave matter” aspect of mortal sin. First of all, a person plagued by a case of the scruples already has a conscience that will not rest. It is constantly being challenged by the emotional feeling of sin. Taking away an objective measure and leaving it completely as a subjective measure leaves them in a worse state of confusion. Their mind may tell them one thing, but the feeling can overwhelm them causing a great deal of inner turmoil that will not cease until they can set their conscience at ease in Confession.
Assuming that you are not seeing a regular confessor and combating a prolonged case of scrupulosity, I would like to make brief mention of something that is related to this. Be very leary of a priest when he tells you in the Confessional that something is not a sin . If you do not know your own heart, then (except in the rare cases of an enlightenment by God) neither does he. His only judgment is whether you are contrite and have a firm purpose of amendment. He is not a tribunal of one to judge whether something is sinful or not, that is God’s role. If you confess something that is not sinful, then God will figure it out. Better to find out later it was not a sin then to have it before you on Judgment Day. While we cannot be sure of the judgment rendered on that awful day, we can be sure that there will be no hair splitting.