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Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Doctrine Of Grave Sin And Hell–Has Sin Become Too Explainable, Too Easily Dismissed, Forgiven, And Overlooked?

There was a time not long ago when a mortal sin, without expiation or pardon, would consign the sinner to eternal damnation – not only the fiery Hell of popular legend, but worse, an eternity deprived of the sight of God.  Because Christ’s message was one of forgiveness and redemption, even mortal sins could be pardoned; but only if the sinner confessed honestly and with conviction promising never to sin again.

Most children of that earlier era never questioned this punitive/redemptive message.  A mortal sin was to be avoided, for even the promising life of a young man filled with opportunity, risk, faith, and forgiveness could be in jeopardy.  It was a simple faith.  One did not only sin against oneself and one’s immortal soul, but sin against God himself.  A state of grace – an interlude between forgiveness and the next sin -  was a contract between Creator and obedient servant.  Sin was an offense against both parties; forgiveness came from God himself.  The contract was holy, binding, and permanent.

According to Catholic teaching, perfect contrition, coupled with a firm resolution to sin no more, can restore a person's relationship with God, as well as God's saving grace. Under ordinary circumstances this takes place through absolution, which is received during the Sacrament of Penance. However, as God's mercy and forgiveness is not bound by the Sacrament of Penance, under extraordinary circumstances a mortal sin can be remitted through perfect contrition, which is a human act that arises from a person's love of God.[2] When perfect contrition is the means by which one seeks to restore ones relationship with God, there must also be a resolution to confess all mortal sins (that have not been confessed and absolved previously) in the Sacrament of Penance. A resolution to confess these sins should be made with an act of perfect contrition, regardless of whether or not a person believes that they will have access to the Sacrament of Penance.

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As children grew into adolescence and young adulthood, the equation lost its simplicity.  How could a beneficent, loving God consign anyone to an eternity of hellfire for natural, predictable human failings? Was there not something illogical about consignment to the same circle of Hell for murder and sexual infidelity? Were not many Biblical injunctions only orders to keep the faith, to maintain spiritual integrity, and to respect the Divinity; and if so, how could their disrespect be equated with life’s true horrors?

By the time these young Catholics grew up, they found themselves maturing in an age of relativism.  Not only was morality culturally determined but the concept of sin itself outmoded, medieval, and irrelevant.  Hell was a mythological place designed by and insisted upon by the ambitious senior clergy of the Church to assure allegiance, fealty, and obedience.  There was no such thing, no such place; and even metaphorically the whole idea of eternal anything was melodrama and fiction.

The Church has three criteria for mortal sin:

  1. Its subject matter must be grave.
  2. It must be committed with full knowledge (and awareness) of the sinful action and the gravity of the offense.
  3. It must be committed with deliberate and complete consent.

Although these criteria seem reasonable, giving every sinner a chance to reflect, to decide, and to act on his own – all consistent with Christ’s message of free will and individual destiny – they contain the seeds of discontent, rebellion, and disbelief within them. Who is to decide if a matter is grave?  The Vatican whose morality, although postulated as absolute, is as subject to culture and the times as any? The Bible, whose moral standards as expressed in the New Testament are appeals from an early form of ex cathedra statement?  The modern Vatican under siege because of its archaic stance on commonly accepted practices of behavior? Contraception is, in the eyes of the Church, a serious crime not because of its practical influence, but because of its denial of the supremacy and authority of God.  Such theological parsing, while logical and rational a la Aquinas, Augustine, and Tertullian means little to the 21st century Catholic, influenced by the persuasive rhetoric of women’s, civil, and individual rights.  Contraception cannot possibly be sinful, given its clear and unchallenged benefits to women.

Abortion, too, falls within this modernist, progressive relativistic ambit.  Abortion in an overpopulated, questionably moral, predatory, and harsh world is not only a statement for a women’s right to choose but for world progress.

Even the most heinous of crimes and most serious injunction of the Ten Commandments – murder – is parsed and contextualized.  Killing can be justified in ever more understandable ways.  When considered within the perspective of the injustices of race, gender, and ethnicity, killing can be righteous.  Killing in righteous wars is justified.  Capital punishment in the most unforgiveable cases, is permitted.

The recent cases of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church demand not only civil prosecution and removal from religious authority, but a look at something far more important – the nature of sin, the Catholic version of it, and modern versions of morality.  When Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." (Matthew 19:4), it was a universal injunction, one which noted the innocence of children, their special beauty and meaning, and the absolute need to protect them.  To harm them, to endanger them, to compromise their beauty and their future was the most mortal of sins.  Unforgiveable, unpardonable, and irrefutable.


It is bad enough for parents, guardians, and teachers to abuse their children; but ordained, anointed representatives of Christ on earth? Dostoevsky reflects on this inhumanity in The Brothers Karamazov:

A poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty -- shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, and because she didn't ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child's groans! Can you understand why a little creature, who can't even understand what's done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice?
Image result for images the grand inquisitor

This inhumanity, this abuse, this spiritual neglect was at the hands of peasants.  What can be said then of abuse by those who should know better and who, as ordained and anointed representatives of Christ on earth, are charged with the protection of children?

Dante wrote of the circles of Hell, and the Ninth, the last, was for the most irremediably sinful.  All residents are frozen in an icy lake, and those who committed more severe sin are deeper within the ice – Cain who killed his brother Abel and Judas Iscariot the apostle who betrayed Jesus with a kiss.  Certainly abusive priests belong in the Ninth Circle.


Then what to make of the current crisis of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church?

Do Cardinal McCarrick and many others in the clergy believe in retribution? Do they believe in the eternal separation of hell? If they accept hell in theory, do they believe in its actual possibility for unrepentant sinners who persist in mortal sin? Is there, for them, such a thing as mortal sin—or are our lives about choosing a “fundamental option” for God that assures eternal blessedness regardless of our thoughts, words, and deeds? (First Things).

Pope John Paul II rejected any notion of moral arbitrariness:

There are “intrinsically evil acts” that “radically contradict the good of the person made in God’s image,” wrote the pope. “They are [evil] always and per se.”

If John Paul II is right, then the Church has no recourse except to banish them.  Yet banishment is not enough.  Pope Francis must call the abusive priests to task in a way which invokes the fundamental Christian concept of good and evil.  He should not only dismiss them as any executive might fire an employee for non-performance or failure to adhere to company policy, but hold them up as a penitential example of sin, corruption, and moral evil.  Their sin was mortal, unconscionable, and a complete dereliction moral, spiritual, and contractual responsibility.

Image result for images john paul ii

What, then, does this all mean for the rest of us? Has our evolution into a relativist, amoral, and secular society endangered us? Has progressivism, with its focus on temporal progress, achievement, and values clouded our moral judgment?  Is there really no right or wrong, no absolute, and most importantly no divine judge?

If the Church ignores the abusive clerics, denies their consignment to the Ninth Circle of Hell, and uses the doctrines of forgiveness and redemption as a perennial cover for the complete dereliction of duty and an insult to Christ himself, they will never recover.

A complete, forthright, honest act of contrition will not only save the Church but will be a resonant and long-overdue message for the rest of us. 

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