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 [1]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).

 

[Photo Credit: Shalone Cason on Unsplash]

Paul Fahey

Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is.  He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation

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5 Responses

  1. M. says:

    This helped me a lot. I was brought up with this mentality, in a sense it was “drilled into memory” and I have struggled my whole life with living a sacramental life due to being taught that way. It is a fearful place to live. When I asked those who taught me this, the questions about subjectivity, the answer was “You have to let the church form your conscience. So if the church teaches that something is objectively grave matter, and you know that the church teaches it is objectively grave matter, and if you then knowingly do that sin, you have freedom and full consent of the will.” Can you speak to this argument? I need some help with it, it seems logical to me and I always accepted it.

    • Paul Fahey Paul Fahey says:

      I’m sorry that this was your understanding of sin and God for so long. Pope Francis played a key role in me moving away from this kind of thinking.

      You said: “So if the church teaches that something is objectively grave matter, and you know that the church teaches it is objectively grave matter, and if you then knowingly do that sin, you have freedom and full consent of the will.”

      This line of reasoning is very common…but it also fails to capture the reality of freedom and consent. This argument conflates “deliberate” with “free.”

      The Catechism says that “ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” can all reduce our culpability for an action (CCC 1735). Now I can deliberately act, but if that act is heavily influenced by fear or duress it’s not a free act. If somebody with a gun threatens to kill my kids unless I rob a bank for them, I’m deliberating robbing the bank but it’s certainly not a free act.

      Another great example of this distinction is the one I used in the article:

      “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.”

      “Deliberate” is in the Catechism’s definition of masturbation, “the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure” (CCC 2352). However, that does not mean that everyone who masturbates does so freely. The Catechism makes this clear when in that same section it says:

      “To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.”

      So the Church is clear that there are actions which are deliberate but not free.

      Does that help?

  2. M. says:

    Yes it does. Thank you. I was wondering about the question regarding “force of habit.” Isn’t a person culpable for developing the habit in the first place?

    The other question is, if a person should decide for themselves in these situations…that seems sort of dangerous ground. It seems Pope Francis makes a case for “accompaniment” by pastors. Is this what he is talking about? – That a person who through “affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors” continues sinning in an “objectively grave way”- that person would need accompaniment, they can’t just decide for themselves “I’m ok. It’s all good. I’m not fully culpable.” Otherwise we Catholics would just let our teens, who certainly have affective immaturity, masturbate or whatever they want and assume it’s fine. It gets confusing. Thank you for your help.

    • Paul Fahey Paul Fahey says:

      I would think that someone would be culpable for acquiring a habit or addiction assuming the initial decisions were made in knowledge and free. If a ten year old kid is exposed to porn that starts a porn addiction he’s likely not culpable for any of it.

      >>The other question is, if a person should decide for themselves in these situations…that seems sort of dangerous ground. It seems Pope Francis makes a case for “accompaniment” by pastors.<< In Amoris he does specifically mention accompaniment by pastors. However, I would say that is because divorce and remarriage are public and therefore the Church needs to be involved in discerning culpability and allowing individuals to receive Communion. Honestly, I think most people are able to discern without a pastor assuming they are actively working to form their conscience. I'm actually thinking about writing a another post on this very point, so thank you for the chance to write it out here. Regarding the formation of conscience the Catechism says: "In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord's Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church." (CCC 1785) "...the witness or advice of others..." That's it. Nothing about going to a priest or a person who works for the Church. Basically the Catechism just says that we should follow the example and seek counsel from people we trust to be good and wise. Now, I regularly encourage others to talk with my own pastor (and one or two other priests in particular), but that's because I know these priests personally and trust the counsel that they give. But a general recommendation for people to talk with a priest for help forming their conscience seems problematic. I think that we don't trust our own consciences and are afraid of accidentally committing mortal sin (which betrays a serious misunderstanding of mortal sin). If someone is praying daily, has a relationship with God, reads scripture regularly, reads the Catechism, receives the Sacraments, and seeks wise counsel, they should be able to trust their conscience. It may not be perfect every time, but that's why conscience formation is a lifelong task. But we shouldn't be afraid of accidentally committing a mortal sin if we are sincerely forming our conscience. At least, that seems to be what the Catechism says about it.

  3. Dennis says:

    The point on deliberate and free consent. As I’ve learnt, force of habit, anxiety etc can or may mean that I haven’t committed a mortal sin. I don’t presume that I am still in a state of grace so I will not receive Communion until I’ve been to Confession. It’s possible that I haven’t committed a mortal sin but it’s always possible that I have, in the sight of God.

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