Judging the Seriousness of Sin Catholicism and Situation Ethics (Part 1)

By Jim Venturino

The Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary defines “Secular Humanism” as, “A type of humanitarianism which is devoted to the cause of humanity as a substitute for religion.” However, an examination of Catholic teaching regarding the seriousness of sin reveals that the Catholic Church and secular humanism are actually united. Both are devoting themselves to situation ethics as a substitute, for God and the Bible, as absolute authority.

As a foundation for this study we need to understand the Catholic position pertaining to the degrees of sin. The New Parish Catechism, by William G. Martin, addresses this subject on pp. 24-26 (lesson 8):

2. There are two kinds of sins, serious (sometimes called mortal) and less serious (called venial sins).

3. Serious sin is a moral offense that destroys the life of grace in the soul and separates the sinner from God.

4. The following serious sins are committed too frequently in the world and are to be avoided by Christians: such hatred of a person or group that brings serious harm to the group, such as racial or religious discrimination causing serious harm; disregard of the poor, the sick, the underprivileged; serious neglect of work of family or other duty; refusal to worship God; seriously injuring the reputation of another; serious violations of chastity; grave misuse of alcohol or narcotics.

9. A venial sin is a less serious rejection of God’s love and God’s law. Venial sins are not something to be disregarded. They weaken love of God and neighbor, and can even prepare one for serious sin. Examples of venial sins are disobedience, gossiping, uncharitableness that does not cause serious harm.

Another modern catechism is Christ Among Us, by Anthony J. Wilhelm C.S.P. In chapter 18, discussing judging the seriousness of sin, we find these statements:

Not all serious wrongs are mortal sins. Many people do serious wrong things without fully realizing they are such, e.g. millions many nominal Catholics who do not sufficiently know their religion, or some converts before studying Catholicism. Some do seriously wrong things, but do not fully want to do them; people often act under pressing mental strain, or from deeply-rooted bad habits. Most would rarely, if ever, make a fundamental and lasting choice of their way over God’s.

Mortal sin, then, is a fundamental choice of ourself over God that engages us to the depths of our being. Rather than thinking of mortal sin as a particular action, we should see it as a fundamental option, an attitude, a state of living, contrary to God, that we knowingly and deliberately choose.

The vast majority Of Sins are less serious rejections of God’s love, called venial (“easily forgiven”) sins. The offense is not serious, or the person does not fully know or fully want to do a serious wrong.

To complete our picture of the differences between mortal and venial sin, let’s look at their respective punishments from pp. 37-38 of the New Baltimore Catechism and Mass, by Michael A. McGuire:

Besides depriving the sinner of sanctifying grace, mortal sin makes the soul an enemy of God, takes away the merit of all its good actions, deprives it of the right to everlasting happiness in heaven, and makes it deserving of everlasting punishment in Hell.

Venial sin does not deprive the soul of sanctifying grace, and can be pardoned even without sacramental confession. Venial sin harms us by making us less fervent in the service of God, by weakening our power to resist mortal sin, and by making us deserving of God’s punishment in this life or in purgatory.

If we examine the above examples of mortal and venial sin, we discover many direct contradictions of the Bible. According to the Catholic Church, a person guilty of hating someone is not guilty of a serious sin unless such hatred caused serious harm. Compare this with the words of Christ, “But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the hell. of fire” (Mt. 5:22). Supposedly, disobedience and gossiping are only venial sins, and as such do not separate one from God, are not worthy of death, do not deprive the soul of sanctifying grace and can only be punished either in this life or in purgatory. But once again God says something different:

“Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 5:6).

“He who believes in the Son has eternal fife; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (Jn. 3:36).

“Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest (our eternal rest in heaven, JRV), lest anyone fall through following the same example of disobedience” (Heb. 4:11).

“And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being fiRed with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, malice; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them” (Rom. 1:28-32).

“The Bible teaches that “all unrighteousness is sin,” and, unless repented of, is punishable by death (1 Jn. 5:16-17; Rom. 6:23). Ignorance, contrary to Catholic doctrine, is no excuse for sin. In Acts 17:30 Paul informs us that God no longer accepts ignorance as justification for sin, but rather requires all men to repent. The reason given is that all will stand before the Judgment seat of Christ. At that time, our judgment will be based on the Scriptures, our actions and our ,thoughts (Jn. 12:48; 2 Cor. 5: 10; Heb. 4:12). For this reason we are commanded to “be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil. So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Eph. 15:7-17). God says that all righteousness, even disobeying our parents and gossiping, can endanger the soul, cause us to be “rejected as regards ‘the faith,” and keep us out of heaven (2 Tim. 3:1-9; Rom. 1:28-32; 2 Pet. 3:13). Catholicism has truly embraced secular humanism’s situation ethics through “their definitions of mortal and venial sins. For example, racial prejudice is not a mortal sin unless serious harm is caused. Likewise, the amount of knowledge, intent and a variety of other circumstances determine ,the seriousness of sin. Acknowledging the difficulty of this position, Catholic writers make a valiant attempt to explain it away:

Some might conclude that it is impossible to choose to live in mortal sin, to fully and deliberately reject God’s will for us – so that even serious sins need not be taken too seriously. But mortal sin is an attitude of rejecting God that is built up by continual sinning. Each sinful act turns us farther from God, hardens us in our basic attitude which is becoming one of rejection. So each must be taken seriously. One might become so hardened, bit by bit, that he does recognize the point of ultimate rejection (Christ Among Us, p. 284).

They have tried unsuccessfully to dodge the bullet. A still remains nearly impossible to commit a mortal sin. What happens to the person who never recognizes that he has become hardened to the point of ultimate rejection of God? The Catholic Church emphatically teaches that such a soul is free from mortal sin.

In part two of this study we shall examine Catholic answers to a question asked in The New Parish Catechism: “In an individual instance what tells a person whether the action, thought, or omission is a serious sin?” Will Catholicism and Humanism go their separate ways? Or will Catholic doctrine self destruct upon the “stone of stumbling and rock of offense” (1 Pet. 2:8)? Tune in next time for the answer.

Guardian of Truth XXIX: 1, pp. 14-15
January 3, 1985