The "M" Word

Artist Unknown 

LETTER from a reader:

Hi Mark,

Mark, I feel we need to be careful when we talk about mortal sins.  For addicts who are Catholic, fear of mortal sins can cause deepened feelings of guilt, shame, and hopelessness which exacerbate the addiction cycle.  I’ve heard many recovering addicts speak negatively of their Catholic experience because they felt judged by their church and could not sense love behind the warnings.  Most people simply do not understand what makes certain sins mortal sins… 


Dear reader,

Thank you for your letter and thoughts. Indeed, there needs to be a sensitivity to every soul, and certainly a better catechesis of mortal sin from the pulpit.

I do not think we need to be careful about speaking of mortal sin in the sense that it should only be spoken of in whispers. It is a doctrine of the Church, and in proportion to it’s absence at the pulpit, there has been an increase of sin in our generation, particularly mortal sin. We should not shy away from the reality of mortal sin and its consequences. On the contrary:

The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, "eternal fire." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1035)

Of course, many see this doctrine as something conjured up by narrow-minded men with a desire to control the populace through fear. However, it is nothing more than a reiteration of what Jesus himself taught several times and therefore what the Church is obligated to teach. 

The meditation I felt inspired to write (To Those in Mortal Sin…) is not a condemnation, but the exact opposite. It is an invitation to every soul, no matter how darkened, how addicted, how wounded and destroyed… to immerse itself in the healing flames of Christ’s Sacred Heart, where even mortal sins dissolve like a mist. To approach the sinner and say, "This is a mortal sin, but Jesus has destroyed the power of it to eternally separate you from Him: repent and believe…", is, I believe, one of the chief acts of mercy the Church can perform. To simply know that adultery, for example, is a mortal sin, is enough in itself to keep many souls from entertaining it.

When it comes to someone with an addiction, our approach should not change: our message is still the "good news." But we would be seriously remiss to give into the modern temptation that addicts are "merely victims" rather than consenting participants, even though their "full consent" may have diminished, thereby reducing the culpability of the sinner. Certainly if the "truth sets us free", then the addict must be aware that the sin they are committing is serious and may put their soul in danger of eternal separation from God. To negate this truth, spoken at the appropriate moment particularly with someone who is not repentant, may be a sin in itself that would fall back on one’s own head:    

Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked man, you shall surely die; and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his wicked conduct so that he may live: that wicked man shall die for his sin, but I will hold you responsible for his death. (Ezekiel 3:18)

When dealing with any sinner (not forgetting ourselves too!), we must be merciful as Christ was. But we must also be as truthful. 

"Although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God." (1861) 

If the Church itself reserves judgment to God, then the social worker and sinner must surely be careful not to pass judgment either, giving into the temptation to reduce the seriousness of the offence in a misguided "compassion." Compassion must always be honest. 

"Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin." (1859)

There is nothing wrong with "fear of the Lord" (one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit) and working out our salvation with "fear and trembling," as Paul says. It is a healthy sense of the dangers of rebellion, balanced with a heart completely trusting in the mercy and goodness of God who came to us "in the flesh" to destroy our sin. True "fear of the Lord" is not a guilt trip, but a lifeline: it helps to uncover the subtle illusion that sin is inconsequential.

The gravity of mortal sin is as serious as the penalty Christ paid for it on our behalf. We must preach the good news, which is good indeed. But it can only be good if we are also truthful that there is still some "bad news" which will exist until Christ returns and puts all His enemies, particularly that of death, beneath His feet.

Admittedly, the reality of sin and its conseqeunces sometimes "scare the hell" out of us. But then, perhaps that’s a good thing.

"The sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin." —Pope John Paul II

[St. Bernard of Clairvaux] states that absolutely every person, no matter how "enmeshed in vice, ensnared by the allurements of pleasure, a captive in exile… fixed in mire… distracted by business, afflicted with sorrow… and counted with those who go down into hell—every soul, I say, standing thus under condemnation and without hope, has the power to turn and find it can not only breath the fresh air of the hope of pardon and mercy, but also dare to aspire to the nuptials of the Word."   —Fire Within, Thomas Dubay 


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