A common confusion I see among Catholics is a misunderstanding of mortal sin that conflates mortal sin and grave matter. This misunderstanding has serious consequences and distorts the very heart of our faith. Concerning mortal sin, the Catechism says:
“Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him….For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.” (CCC 1855, 1857).
Grave matter “is specified by the Ten Commandments” (CCC 1858) and is one of the three necessary components of mortal sin, it itself is not a mortal sin. To borrow an analogy from a friend, say that you have a basic recipe for cookies that uses flour, butter, and sugar. Without any of those ingredients, it’s not a cookie, but that doesn’t mean that whenever one of those ingredients is present that there’s a cookie. Therefore, when someone commits an act of grave evil, they have not necessarily separated themselves from God because grave matter is only one of the three necessary components of a mortal sin.
St. Thomas Aquinas speaks about this as well, he says:
“Nevertheless a sin which is generically mortal, can become venial by reason of the imperfection of the act, because then it does not completely fulfill the conditions of a moral act, since it is not a deliberate….And since a moral act takes its species from deliberate reason, the result is that by such a subtraction the species of the act is destroyed.” (II-I Q.88 Article 6).
In other words, Aquinas wrote that when an action that would otherwise be a mortal sin lacks sufficient freedom, the “species” is destroyed. Brian Killian, in his recent article on conscience, uses the following example to illustrate that point:
“You can not fairly describe the action of a mother who walks out of a grocery store with a candy bar her toddler threw into the basket as “shoplifting”. That species never came into existence because she never became aware that her basket contained items that she didn’t pay for. To continue to characterize her action that way is slander.”
Likewise, we can not fairly describe the action of someone who sins sexually without sufficient freedom due to “affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors” as having committed a “mortal sin” (Catechism 2352). That species never came into existence because the person did not have sufficient freedom, and to characterize someone in this situation as being in mortal sin would be slander.
For example, let’s say there’s a middle aged man has been compulsively masturbating since he was 12 as a way to cope with depression and anxiety. He is now converting to Catholicism and is trying to get that out of his life. When he falls in this struggle he is likely not committing a mortal sin even though he is deliberately acting on grave matter. For someone to tell this man that he cuts himself off from God and is risking hell every time he masturbates out of habit and compulsion is cruel, it’s the abuse of conscience.
I’ll take that one step further. If I commit a grave action without sufficient freedom and accuse myself of being in mortal sin, I’m turning our Merciful Father into a vengeful god who is concerned only with my external actions and not my will. If we get this teaching on sin wrong we distort the very heart of our faith.
The distinction between grave matter and mortal sin is also at the heart of the most controversial teaching in Amoris Laetita. After reiterating the Catechism’s teaching on mortal sin and culpability, Pope Francis says:
“For this reason, a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in “irregular” situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives. This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings, “sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality difficult cases and wounded families”….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.” (Amoris Laetitia 305)
However, a failure to acknowledge this distinction is present among the educated Catholics who are dissenting from Amoris Laetitia’s provisions for the divorced and remarried. Stephen Walford articulates one example in an article he wrote back in January of this year. He said:
“Anyone familiar with EWTN over the years will know of its faithfulness to the magisterium of the Pope. Mother Angelica its founder was a great servant of the Lord and taught obedience to the Pope as an essential aspect of Catholic life. However anyone who has followed Raymond Arroyo’s “The World Over” in the past several years will by now be all too familiar with its disgraceful attitude toward Pope Francis and the deliberate attempt to frame his papacy as a rupture from the past. Take for instance Fr Gerald Murray, a canon lawyer from the Archdiocese of New York who stated on the 28th September 2017 edition that adultery is always a mortal sin “we cannot go by moral theology which minimises the gravity of that offense.” Fr Murray either doesn’t know what is taught in the Catechism, Veritatis Splendor, and various documents of the CDF or he is choosing to ignore them creating a false magisterium that rejects the authentic magisterium in relation to moral theology, mortal sin and subjective guilt. The question is: if he does know these teachings (it has been pointed out to him), why give the false impression to every soul in these situations that they are definitely in mortal sin? Is that the Christian way of charity and mercy?”
Fr. Murray responded to Stephen’s criticism by doubling down on his misunderstanding that adultery is always a mortal sin. On The World Over, Fr. Murray said:
“The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches the exact thing that I just said, that adultery is a mortal sin, and there are no exceptions.”
The Catechism, drawing from Jesus’ own words, has very harsh things to say about adultery, but it certainly does not say that it’s a mortal sin. There is no question that the Church teaches that an act of adultery is always and everywhere gravely evil (CCC 2380, 2381, 2400). However, while grave matter can be objectively evil, sin is always subjective because it involves the a person’s relationship with God, a person’s subjective mind and will. As the Catechism says:
“Sin is an offense against God: ‘Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight.’ Sin sets itself against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from it. Like the first sin, it is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become ‘like gods,’ knowing and determining good and evil. Sin is thus ‘love of oneself even to contempt of God.’” (CCC 1850)
Those dissenting from the magisterium of Pope Francis, and really all of us, should let the Catechism be our guide in matters of faith and morals and refrain from adding rules and doctrines on to what the Church already teaches. As we heard in the first reading at Mass a couple of Sundays ago, Moses warns God’s people not to “add to what I command you nor subtract from it” (Deut 4:2).
Paul Fahey lives in Michigan with his wife and four kids. For the past almost 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. 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.