I have written many times before about the difference between grave matter and mortal sin. The Catechism identifies grave matter as a breaking one of the Ten Commandments, whereas mortal sin is grave matter and “knowledge of the sinful character of the act” and “consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice” (CCC 1859). 

Nearly every time I make this distinction I’m surprised by the traction the article gets. The feedback I hear the most is that this distinction is genuinely new to people (which, frankly, is an indictment of catechesis and pastoral care in the Church).

I have also received pushback from these articles. Often the criticism comes from a misunderstanding. In Church vernacular, we often refer to grave matter and mortal sin as synonyms. We say things like:

Stealing is a mortal sin.

Getting drunk is a mortal sin. 

Sex outside of marriage is a mortal sin. 

All of these things are grave matter. That is, they are one of the three criteria that the Catechism says is necessary for mortal sin (CCC 1857). The other two are knowledge and freedom. 

That they are grave matter is no small thing. The moral law is not some arbitrary thing imposed on people from a distant authority. No, the moral law articulates the actions that are in line with the design of God’s creation and that bring life and flourishing, and the actions that are discordant with that design and cause harm. The Ten Commandments are “a light offered to the conscience of every man to make God’s call and ways known to him and to protect him against evil” (CCC 1962). Thus, as Pope Francis teaches, “the law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace” (AL 295).

However, as the Catechism explains, and Pope Francis has repeatedly taught, not every grave action is necessarily a mortal sin. There are things that limit an individual’s knowledge and freedom to such an extent that they are not culpable for that action, even if the action is intrinsically evil. Those things include: “ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” (CCC 1735).

However, a grave action, even if a person is not morally culpable for it, still objectively causes harm. I can lose my temper at someone and not be culpable because I’m stressed, hungry, and tired, but my words still cause harm, harm for which I have a responsibility to apologize and make reparations.

This distinction between grave matter and mortal sin is important. The collapsing of sin into rule breaking distorts our understanding of God. It turns him into a calculating judge who is primarily concerned with our external actions rather than a loving Father who knows our hearts and who desires for all of his children to be saved.

Much of the criticism I have received in the past for making this distinction has been in the context of explaining Amoris Laetitia and the pope’s limited allowance of some divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion if they are not fully culpable.

I think that Pope Francis is taking traditional teaching and applying it in new and, I believe, important ways. By incorporating culpability into pastoral practice, the pope is pointing a way forward for individuals in objective situations that are contrary to the moral law, but who are not subjectively fully culpable, to participate in the sacramental life of the Church. 

It is primarily through the sacraments that God gives us the grace that will ultimately free us to follow the moral law and live like Christ. But I think many Catholics have been led to believe that every fall, every weakness, every failure—particularly in their sexual lives—is a mortal sin that cuts them off from God, the Church, and the sacraments. This can lead to a distorted, legalistic view of the Sacrament of Reconciliation as the action that must be performed after any break in the Church’s sexual teaching in order to receive Communion. 

However, our weaknesses do not separate us from the Church. The Church and the sacraments exist precisely to heal our weaknesses and make us sharers in God’s divine life. Pope Francis teaches that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (EG 47). And he says that Confession “is not a dry cleaner” but an encounter with “Jesus who waits for us just as we are.” 

Our weaknesses do not cut us off from God; rather, they are the very thing that keeps us running back to the embrace of our Merciful Father to receive more of his love and strength.

All of this brings me to Cardinal McElroy’s recent article in America, in which he invokes the pastoral teaching of Pope Francis to argue for dispensing with grave matter as a category of principal relevance when considering issues of sexual morality in the first place. This is quite different from Francis’s method of recognizing an individual’s limited culpability and attempting to accompany and integrate them into the life of the Church so that they can gradually gain the freedom to more fully follow the moral law.

I agree with Cardinal McElroy that “categorical exclusion” from the sacraments because of an objective situation that is contrary to the moral law is not consistent with Francis’ pastoral approach. Indeed, Francis teaches:

“Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end” (AL 305).

However, proposing that gravely harmful actions may not in fact be gravely harmful is not in line with the law of gradualism as taught by Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis. Both pontiffs are clear that the law of gradualism describes the progressive process of an individual being healed and empowered by grace in order to live in greater and greater conformity to the objective moral law, not a graduality in the objective gravity of moral evil.

 In his conclusion, McElroy stated: 

“Those who oppose elements of the pastoral mission of Pope Francis frequently argue that doctrine cannot be superseded by the pastoral. It is equally important to recognize that the pastoral cannot be eclipsed by doctrine.”

Pope Francis has shown that the pastoral and the doctrinal are not in conflict, that his pastoral goals can be reached without compromising, or even questioning, doctrine. Cardinal McElroy, on the other hand, is proposing a change in doctrine to accommodate pastoral practice. 

Now, I am not saying that Cardinal McElroy is a heretic. And I agree with Nathan Turowsky that Bishop Paprocki’s recent article about McElroy was astonishingly reckless and appears to be setting up a “stop-the-steal” argument to cast doubts on the next conclave. However, it is more than frustrating to see Cardinal McElroy invoke Pope Francis to propose something foreign to Francis’s teaching when there is already a toxic atmosphere of suspicion and misunderstanding in the U.S. about this papacy.

The Church would be much better off if our pastors–especially those assuming the mantle of Francis’s pastors in the US Church– set aside their own political and theological agendas and started integrating more of Pope Francis’s actual teaching, including his commitment to the received moral law, into their pastoral practice. 

Image Credit: Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

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Paul Faheylives in Michigan with his wife and four kids. For the past eight years, he has worked as a professional catechist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology and is currently working toward a Masters Degree in Pastoral Counseling. He is a retreat leader, catechist formator, writer, and a co-founder of Where Peter Is. He is also the founder and co-host of the Pope Francis Generation podcast. His long-term goal is to provide pastoral counseling for Catholics who have been spiritually abused, counseling for Catholic ministers, and counseling education so that ministers are more equipped to help others in their ministry.

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