Sunday, August 26, 2007

From LA, Sinful "Tidings"

It may come as a shock to some, but one of the lead pieces in the current edition of the newspaper of the US' largest diocese offers a lengthy reminder that:

1. not only does mortal sin still exist, but;

2. "the contemporary understanding of the concept... is all too ambiguous among the people of God."

Among its citations: none other than the Baltimore Catechism...
An illustration:

Chaim is considering entering the Catholic Church and so is a very active participant in a local parish's RCIA process. She has found so much of the experience rich and valuable. She strongly believes that for the first time in her life she is finding church, religion and God a powerful influence in her life. She is yearning for the sacraments of initiation, especially the Eucharist.

This past week she and her fellow catechumens were continuing their discussions on the moral life of Catholics and the Church's fundamental teachings about sin. She finds herself a bit conflicted and confused for the first time in the process. She politely but firmly addresses Patricia, the Parish Life Director, who is one of the three RCIA team leaders:

"I do accept that mortal sin is real and that it does exist. My problem is recognizing it. Is it automatic when I break one of the Church's rules? Are all the rules equal? For example, I know I have to be willing to commit myself to attend Mass every Sunday to be a good Catholic and also I have to commit myself to fasting one hour before Communion. If someone goes to Communion when they know they haven't kept their fast, is that a mortal sin? Is missing Mass on Sunday just as big a sin as adultery or murder? Are some mortal sins 'bigger' than others?...

"It doesn't seem fair that a person who breaks their Communion fast or misses their Easter duty commits the same kind of mortal sin as the one who tortures a prisoner of war or cheats on their spouse."

In today's society the appreciation of mortal sin ranges all the way from a shrug and dismissal of its reality --- and, thus, its importance in the life of Christian discipleship --- to an extreme of scrupulosity that in effect externalizes discipleship by defining it according to rubrics, and turns God into a severe and punishing judge, rather than a concerned and caring Father.

One major cause of the problems surrounding an authentic understanding of the concept of mortal sin is found in the fact that, too often, two legitimate questions about mortal sin are asked as if they were a single inquiry.

If we want to understand the concept and reality of mortal sin we can first ask: What IS mortal sin? This question seeks to comprehend the heart of the concept by seeking the essential nature of mortal sin. In other words, how can a disciple recognize the real potential for mortal sin when she or he is confronted with a significant temptation? Will we know when we have chosen to sin mortally? Are there visible criteria?...

Baby boomer Catholics will generally have no trouble recalling their lessons from the Baltimore Catechism. While the question and answer format has become generally accepted fodder for jokes about the "pre-Vatican II" church, it is interesting to recognize how deeply ingrained were the learnings from that Catechism. Many theologians and contemporary catechists have reminded us that the mere memorization of formulae and doctrine can never be absolute proof of authentic Christian discipleship.

On the other hand, the contemporary church has been similarly reminded that authentic discipleship is based on "living the Word," and that catechetical instruction without both serious and age appropriate interaction with the Word is hardly effective in helping the people of God "put on the Spirit of Christ."...

Question 54 of the Baltimore Catechism can provide a starting point:

Q. What is mortal sin?
A. Mortal sin is a grievous offense against the law of God.

How does the new Catechism of the Catholic Church define mortal sin?
Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of a person by a grave violation of God's law; it turns a person away from God, who is every person's ultimate end and beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to God (n. 1855).

Both Catechisms agree that mortal sin is essentially a breaking of one of God's laws.

The second question is raised now. What are the effects of this "grave violation" of God's law on the sinner? Despite this clearly legal language, it is vitally important that we not reduce Christian discipleship, our relationship with our God and our attendant moral life, to a judicial system.

In its essence, the Church has always understood that mortal sin is so much more than the "act" of breaking a law; rather, it is a personal commitment to a deliberate divorce from God. It is a sad but thoughtful choice to abandon one's personal and ecclesiastical relationship with God. Mortal sin is mortal precisely because it is deeply and altogether personal, not judicial....

We still must address Chaim's question about how to weigh sin. What in fact is "grave matter?" This issue has been a center of discussion among the Church's moral theologians since the Penitential books of the Celtic monks in the 6th century.

Apart from the area of human sexuality where the Church teaches clearly that there "is no light matter," there is no universal norm for determining how serious an issue is. Adjudicating the seriousness of a choice is usually done when the Church examines individual decisions or commandments. The "seriousness" may in fact depend on a greater or lesser quantity of the "matter" involved.

For example, the Church, following the commandments, has always taught that stealing was a sin, but at the same time, stealing small and insignificant amounts of money or property was not generally considered as grave matter. Moral texts throughout the centuries are filled with thoughtful considerations about what level or kind of content might move a choice from light to grave matter. At the same time, the Church acknowledges that even when serious or grave matter is involved, mortal sin is not automatic since there are three essential elements: serious matter, full knowledge and deliberate consent.

The tragic reality of mortal sin is that it is a completely intentional choice that involves full knowledge of the choice and its implications for one's relationship to God and the Church. Yes, mortal sin does exist. Its truly catastrophic outcome on our relationship to God cannot be underestimated. It is important that its reality should not be made insignificant by making it trivial, nor should it be seen as contrary to an authentic spirituality of hope and charity.
...and with that, another myth blown out of the water.