Judging the Seriousness of Sin: Catholicism and Situation Ethics (Part 2)

By Jim Venturino

In a previous issue we introduced the theory that Catholicism bases its teaching regarding the seriousness of sin on situation ethics. With the aid of Webster’s Dictionary situation ethics can be defined as, “the principles of moral values or conduct as determined by the relative combination of circumstances at a certain moment.” Joseph Fletcher, in his book Situation Ethics: the New Morality, agrees that all rules or absolute standards are obsolete: “It holds flatly that there is only one principle, love, without prefabricated recipes for what it means in practice, and that all other so-called principles or maxims are relative to particular, concrete situations!” (p. 36). The Catholic Church fully embraces this doctrine when they define serious (mortal) sin and tell what conditions are necessary for a serious sin to exist:

Sin, mortal – The transgression in a grave matter of law which is made with full advertance (attention or notice, JRV) and full consent. . . Full advertance or full consent is absent when there is external violence, when an act is committed while half asleep or drunk. . . (Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary, p. 529).

To sin mortally, our offense must be seriously wrong, we must fully realize it is seriously wrong and we must fully want to choose our way over God’s. In sinning mortally one makes a basic choice of his own way over God’s, and is willing to repudiate his friendship with God over this choice . . . . Not all serious wrongs are mortal sins. Many people do seriously wrong things without fully realizing they are such, e.g. the millions who have little or no knowledge of Christ’s moral teachings, the 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 (Christ Among Us, pp. 283-284).

To commit a serious sin the person must know the offense is seriously evil and must freely choose to do it. Many people do serious evil without knowing or understanding the act is serious, and therefore do not commit serious sin. Others do not have full control of their wills such as some alcoholics, suicides, mental patients; in some cases conscious or unconscious emotional drives inhibit freedom and therefore reduce responsibility. The amount of clear knowledge and freedom of will varies in different people and even in the same person at different times of his life and conditions the degree of moral offense (The New Parish Catechism, p. 25).

There’s the proof! Catholicism and situation ethics both rely on the relative circumstance of the moment in judging moral actions. Responsibility can be reduced depending upon circumstances such as drunkenness, sleep, bad habits, etc. Furthermore, a premium is placed on ignorance. A person must act with full knowledge and consent to be guilty of mortal sin. If this is true, then our Lord and the apostle Peter sinned in condemning the Jews for their rejection and murder of the Prince of life (Acts 3:14-15). Jesus said their sin would cause the kingdom to be taken from them and subject them to the sentence of hell, unless they repented (Mt. 21:33-44; 23:29-39). Because they were lost, Peter told the Jews to “repent therefore and return, that your sins may be wiped away” (Acts 3:19a). Refusal to repent and turn to Christ would condemn them to hell even though they had acted in ignorance (Acts 3:17; Mt. 23:33,39). These people were guilty of a serious sin worthy of eternal punishment even though they did not fully realize what they were doing and were not making a basic choice against God by repudiating their friendship with God. “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent” (Acts 17:30). “So then do not be foolish, but understand what the wilt of the Lord is” (Eph. 5:17).

“In an individual instance what tells a person whether the action, thought or omission is a serious or a less serious sin?” (The New Parish Catechism, p. 25). The Bible says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). God “has fixed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness” through Christ (Acts 17:31). That judgment will be based on our deeds and thoughts as compared with the word of God which is the standard of righteousness (Rom. 1:17; Jn. 12:48; Heb. 4:12; 2 Cor. 5:10).

Catholicism disagrees with God’s word in this matter. Catholics teach that “Each person must follow his own conscience in judging whether an action is sinful and how serious it might be” (Christ Among Us, p. 285). In answering its own question, The New Parish Catechism shows the awful truth of the Catholic position:

Conscience tells each person whether a sin is serious or less serious (venial). Conscience is our human intelligence judging moral evil and good. One’s background, education, family training, environment have distinct bearings on the reports of conscience. Conscience is the ultimate judge of our moral actions . . . . Only the individual can make a decision in each case, even when he is in error. Neither God nor the Church can do it for him.

Are they really serious in claiming that God cannot decide if I have committed a serious sin unless my conscience condemns me? Saul of Tarsus was guided by a “perfectly good conscience” when he was persecuting the church (Acts 23:1;. 26:9-11). Was Jesus wrong then in rebuking him for persecuting Him (Acts 9:5)? Was the Holy Spirit in error when He instructed Paul to have the Corinthians judge the immoral brother, and remove that wicked man from their presence by delivering him over to Satan (1 Cor. 5:1-13)?

Were both of these men subject to eternal punishment even though there consciences were not condemning them? The Bible clearly teaches that peace of conscience does not determine our eternal destiny. “I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from god” (1 Cor. 4:4-5).

I believe it is clear that Catholicism teaches a system of ethics (“the discipline of dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation – Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary), based on the situation of the moment and the conscience of the sinner. On the other hand the Bible teaches:

A man’s way is not in himself; Nor is it in a man who walks to direct his steps (Jer. 10:23).

There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death (Prov. 14:12).

And thus you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, this people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship me teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men (Mt. 15:6-9).

Each person must decide for himself where to cast his vote of allegiance. The candidates and their positions are clearly set before us. But remember the campaign promises of our Lord: eternal life for those that obey His word (Heb. 5:9; Jn. 8:31-32); eternal punishment for those who go beyond the teachings of Christ and follow after a blind guide (Mt. 15:14; 2 Jn. 9; Gal. 1:6-20). “Now, therefore, fear the Lord and serve Him in sincerity and truth; . . . And if it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: . . . but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:14-15).

Guardian of Truth XXIX: 3, pp. 73, 77
February 7, 1985