Monday, April 05, 2004

Feeling good about yourself? Haven't been to confession in years?

You've come to the right place!

People don't go to confession much anymore. Why is that? I think this has its roots in the legalistic mentality of the western world. Strictly speaking, confession is not necessary unless one is in a state of mortal sin. Most Catholics today think that the only person who ever committed a mortal sin was Judas, or maybe Hitler. Mortal sins are so awful and terrible that ordinary people just don't commit them, right?

Wrong. Consider me your prosecutor, Mister-legalistic-US-Catholic.

For a sin to be mortal, all that is required is that the matter be grave (the sin must be something serious in its nature), that knowledge be full (you need to know it is wrong), and consent must be given (you need to want to do it). See the Church's teaching here. Let's start in reverse order and look at these requirements:

1. Consent: You don't need to make a contract in blood with Beelzebub in order to commit a mortal sin. You just need to have a complete consent, sufficient to make the sin a personal choice. You make personal choices all the time. Here are some examples: what to eat for dinner, what book to read, what clothes to wear. All very simple, everyday choices, but choices. So consent is not hard to give.

The CCC says (1860) the promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest. So, it is possible that one can be carried away by passion, and in such a case the sin may be less. But then the question is: why are you the sort of person who gets carried away by passions in such an irrational way? You have a duty to form your character--if it is your fault that you give into passions habitually, then you have already failed in that grave duty to form one's character.

2. Full knowledge. Perhaps, you may say, I didn't really know it was that bad! How much knowledge is required for a sin to be mortal? Again, the Catechism sets a low bar: (1859) It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God's law. You need to know that the act is sinful. It doesn't say that you need to understand the full depths and ramifications of the nature of the sinful act; you only need to know that it is sinful. Further, if you say that evil 1970's nuns didn't teach you correctly, you still don't have an excuse: (1860) But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man.

By nature, we have at least some knowledge of right and wrong. Even non-theology PhD's are capable, it seems, of committing mortal sins.

3. Grave matter. "But I've never murdered anybody!" Jesus says in Matthew 5:21You have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire. So, one need not actually twist a knife in the guts of another in order to sin mortally. Insults could be mortal, as Jesus says.

The Catechism says that grave matter is determined by the content of the ten commandments. If you act against a commandment, it is possible that such an act is about grave enough matter to be mortal. But you might say that the commandments are vague. Luckily for you, the Church gives more specific direction. The following list was culled from the Vatican online edition of the catechism, by looking up the word "grave." It isn't complete, but gives the sorts of things that are objectively grave matter. If you've done any of these things with knowledge and consent, you need to get to confession.

2. Divorce
3. Fornication
4. Hatred
5. Drunkenness that puts the safety of others at risk.
6. Scandal--behavior that leads others to sin.
7. Suicide. (Presumably none of my readers have committed this sin.)
8. Abortion.
9. Murder. Most people seem to think that this is the only possible case of grave matter. It's one of many.
10. Missing Mass on Sunday. Yup. It's still grave matter. Sleeping in rather than going to church could put you in hell.
11. Blasphemy! If you talk bad about God, you could be committing mortal sin. Test: what would you say if you dropped a brick on your foot? That might be blasphemy.
12. Sacrilege, a very common sin these days. This consists in treating sacred things as if they weren't sacred.
13. Masturbation.
14. Pornography.
15. Homosexuality. If you indulge in homosexual pornography (I hear that all-female films are popular), you've got an act that is three-times grave matter.

Note, that this is just the result of a quick trip through the Catechism's search engine. It is not an exhaustive list--for example, contraception is also grave matter, although it didn't show up in this simple and quick search.

I dig all of this up not to make any individual judgments--I myself am convicted by the same list. The point of this post is to get rid of the foolish, devilish notion that mortal sin is impossible. It is very possible. In fact, I think that mortal sin is likely extremely common, given the Church's criteria for it.

Now go get yourself to confession!

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