Lesson 4c: Reconciliation and Sin (Mortal and Venial)

As in the prior lesson (IV:11), both Veritatis Splendor, n.70 and the Catechism ##1857-59(1874) provide definitions of mortal and venial sin. However, both VS and CCC quote explicitly and at some length from the exhortation, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, n.17. In this, a correct understanding of 'serious matter' is crucial for the proper definition of sin, and, to refute revisionist theories of the so-called 'fundamental option' which Pope John Paul teaches is "contrary to the teaching of Scripture itself" and contradicts "the substantial integrity or personal unity of the moral agent in his body and in his soul" (VS, 67). Prior errors (cf. II:5 and II:6) are repeated and exaggerated here and vice versa.

The question of serious matter is examined at some length by John Paul II in RP, n.17. Even the greatest theologians -- St. Augustine, City of God, Bk.21, c.27:5; and St. Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones de Quodlibet, VIII, q.9, a.15 -- acknowledge the delicacy and difficulty of careless definition in this regard, and they were reluctant to do so without the positive teaching of the Church to guide them.

The Pope teaches clearly, relying as ever on Holy Scripture (I Jn.5:16): "Here we have the core of the Church's traditional teaching, which was reiterated frequently and vigorously during the recent Synod (1983). The Synod in fact not only reaffirmed the teaching of the Council of Trent concerning the existence and nature of mortal and venial sins (DS.1573;1575;1577), but it also recalled that mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent. It must be added -- as was likewise done at the Synod -- that some sins are intrinsically grave and mortal by reason of their matter. That is, there exist acts which, per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances are always seriously wrong by reason of their object. These acts, if carried out with sufficient awareness and freedom, are always gravely sinful" (footnote #96 cites Trent, DS.1544 which cites I Cor.6:9ff (RP, n.17)).

This doctrine is based on the Ten Commandments, on the preaching of the Old Testament assimilated into the kerygma of the Apostles, belonging to the earliest teaching of the Church and constantly reaffirmed by her to this day -- thus, principles located in Sacred Scripture, clarified by Sacred Tradition and taught in any given age by the teaching Church: sacred sources all! (Recall I;1.)

Then, invoking the classic definition of sin -- aversio a Deo, conversio ad creaturam -- the Pope summarizes: "With the whole tradition of the Church, we call mortal sin the act by which man freely and consciously rejects God, his law, the covenant of love God offers, preferring to turn in on himself or to some created and finite reality, something contrary to the divine will (conversio ad creaturam). This can occur in a direct and formal way, in the sins of idolatry, apostasy and atheism; or in an equivalent way, as in every act of disobedience to God's commandments in grave matter" (RP, 17) (cf. VS, n.70 and CCC ##1857-59, 1874).

It is here, both at the Synod (1983) and before that in theological speculation, that some have proposed a threefold distinction of sin to replace the twofold (mortal-venial) distinction of received Tradition (advocates of this new shift would include:J. Fuchs; J. Keenan; T. Kopfensteiner; T. O'Connell; B. Haring et al.).

Surely not the most scholarly but perhaps the most popular version in American circles was published by L. Orsy, "The Sins of the Little One" America 129 (12/8/73) pp.438-441. His redefinitions were the following:

"It is a free and permanent option by man to remain alone and to exclude God from his life" (v.129, p.438);
"many acts that betray evil trends in the heart but do not necessarily bring about a radical break with God" (129:440);
"it is a refusal to grow," . . . "a kind of tardiness in our pilgrimage to God," (129:440).

One should note in this:

  • 1) what some describe as 'mortal sin' is a fair description of 'impenitence,' which if it occurs at the end of life is called 'final impenitence' (NCE 7:396; also cn.1007);
  • 2) what is newly called 'serious' sin is an acceptable description of venial sin -- acts or trends that bring no radical break with God;
  • 3) although vague and open-ended, the 'venial' sin description can stand, if it says anything at all.
But, note well, there is here a change in 'words' without a corresponding change in 'realities.' If 'serious' sin is now venial and 'mortal' sin is described as impenitence, then mortal sin as we conventionally and correctly understand it mysteriously disappears from this 'new' analysis.

This re-definition of 'mortal' sin is basically and only intentional. The classic definition -- simultaneously turning from and turning to -- is simply cut in half. Presumably, one could turn TO a creature or finite reality as his end, and not simultaneously turn FROM God, since the agent could claim that no matter what his activity, he or she is fundamentally opting toward God.

The conventional teaching involves, of course, three factors: (1) serious matter; (2) sufficient knowledge; and (3) sufficient consent (CCC #1857; VS, 70; RP, 17). What happens in this re-definition is that 'matter' has no operative function; in fact, matter does not matter. But, 'serious matter' in the conventional analysis is our only link with objective morality; surely, knowledge and consent are, by definition, subjective categories, but if 'serious matter' is replaced by 'fundamental option,' 'core option,' 'core freedom,' 'fundamental life choice' etc. then all the analytical factors are subjective ones.

This shift ('re-definition') is properly described as "formal" (or intentional) because its advocates no longer speak of 'serious matter' (nor of light matter) but of total commitment or lack thereof, of love-response or lack thereof. One is no longer guilty of a grave MIS-deed but rather of a grave MIS-intention. Such sin is grave not because some 'serious' law of God is broken but because one has failed to elicit an adequate response of love. Sin, therefore, is not so much WHAT one does as WHY one does it --the essence changing from a wrong action to a wrong intention or wrong motive. As Pope Pius XII taught (2/22/44) when one says 'yes' to the forbidden fruit, simultaneously he says 'no' to the God who forbade it. The intending of the object of evil is not separable from intending the violation of Divine Will and Law.

Some describe the so-called 'Fundamental Option' as engaging one at the core of his/her personality (the so-called "real me"). They argue we are not capable of expressing the totality of the whole person in a single act, and further, that this allegedly deep level of personal engagement is basically: UNthematic, UNreflective, UNarticulated and INaccessible since it is so deep in the 'core' of one's personality (e.g. J. Fuchs). But, this non explanation has the great advantage of not explaining that which is most in need of explanation here. (In attacking Veritatis Splendor, J. Fuchs presents a concise summary of his own confusion in "Good Acts and Good Persons" Tablet v.247, #7996 (Nov.6, 1993) pp.1444-5.)

On the contrary, Veritatis Splendor teaches: "Consequently, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, there are certain specific kinds of behavior that are always wrong to choose, because choosing them involves a disorder of the will, a moral evil." (VS, 78). The reference to the Catechism is #1761:"There are concrete acts that it is always wrong to choose, because their choice entails a disorder of the will, i.e. a moral evil. One may never do evil so that good may result from it."


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