“Ask a Priest: How can I defend the Church’s teaching on mortal sin?”

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Q: I am having trouble defending the Church’s teaching on mortal sin — specifically the idea that one can fall from grace through one act of disobedience. I am not having trouble defending this logically, but it just seems to many people to be a little rigid and mechanical, as well as a bit harsh in some cases. For example, people will often bring up the case of a good and faithful Catholic, who misses Sunday Mass, and dies the next day without confessing — according to the teaching on mortal sin, he dies out of God’s favor and then goes to hell. I am finding it hard to justify this to inquirers. Actually in general, people seem to find Catholicism to be a little “cluttered” with rules and often ask (though again, seeing the logic of its teachings) whether they are too much of an obstacle for people coming to the faith. Wouldn’t God want to make it easier for people to come in, they say, and therefore provide a simpler means, a simpler religion? -M.K.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It is good to learn that you are actively defending and explaining the Catholic faith. No doubt, some things in the Church are harder to accept than others. A full answer to your questions would fill a bookshelf or two. But let me touch on some key points.

That one can fall from grace through one act of disobedience is certainly plausible. It only took one sin of disobedience — that of Adam (see Genesis 3) — to bring an ocean of anguish into the world.

As to one mortal sin leading to the loss of a soul, yes, that is a sobering truth. The Catechism in No. 1857 tells us, “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”

By its nature, mortal sin implies some radical break with God. “It turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him” (Catechism, No. 1855). It is true that deliberately missing Mass on a day of obligation can be objectively called a grave sin — after all, we owe due worship to God. And if God asks us to give him at least an hour a week spent at a Eucharistic celebration, is that too much to deny him? After all, Christianity is all about a personal relationship with God in Jesus — and mortal sin is just a way of labeling when we purposely walk out on that relationship. We can always turn around and walk back into it — that is called repentance.

For the record, the Catechism in No. 1861 adds, “However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.”

Still, it is worth noting that hell isn’t something God inflicts on a serious sinner as much as it is something that the sinner, in effect, chooses for himself. The deeper issue here, then, is not that you need to justify this teaching to skeptics as much as the skeptics need to justify to God why they might exclude him from their lives.

As to the Catholicism being “cluttered” by rules, well, even Pope Francis agrees with that contention to an extent. In his apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, he writes, “In her ongoing discernment, the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them. At the same time, the Church has rules or precepts which may have been quite effective in their time, but no longer have the same usefulness for directing and shaping people’s lives” (No. 43).

Here, an analogy might help. We are body and soul united. Sometimes we need a hospital or pharmacy to take care of our bodies. The pharmacy stocks lots of medicines. If they work for us, do we complain about the complexity of the labels? Or if we need heart surgery or cancer treatment, will we complain about the hospital’s range of complex technology — its CT scans, heart monitors, chemotherapy treatments, etc. — if it ultimately helps us?

Put another way, if we had cancer, would we pass up a chance to go to the Mayo Clinic because its procedures are complicated, and opt for the simpler walk-in emergency clinic down the street?

Now think of our souls, which also need help. Sometimes we just need the equivalent of an aspirin — for instance, the recitation of a prayer or a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. Other times we need something more complex and involved — for instance, catechesis to prepare for confirmation or guidance on how to make moral decisions about health care for an aging parent. The Church can offer us the help we need, even if the process isn’t always simple.

If Catholicism seems complicated at times, it is because the effects of original sin have wreaked havoc on human nature. We sometimes need emergency-room care, at other times intensive care. And to help run this “hospital of the soul,” yes, the Church has rules and procedures. But it also offers lots of preventative care. And if we take advantage of that kind of care, we might rarely need the more complex care.

“Cluttered with rules” is also a relative term. Consider one comparison. The Church has about 1.2 billion members, and its entire Code of Canon Law, in English, runs about 125,000 words and could fit in about 200 pages of 10-point text. The U.S. Affordable Care Act, by contrast, already has generated 11,000 pages of regulations (see worldwidehttp://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2013/10/23/affordable-care-act-pages-long/3174499/). And that is just one law, in one country.

Another point to consider: God’s original plan might not have been to give us a “cluttered” religion. Rather, he gave our first parents, Adam and Eve, one simple directive: “You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. From that tree you shall not eat; when you eat from it you shall die” (Genesis 2:16-17). That command wasn’t followed, and the history of salvation has been a process of trying to save us from the fallout of that one act of disobedience. If the Church seems complicated, it is because we need lots of specialized care.

After the fall in the Garden of Eden, God promised a redeemer. That redeemer is Jesus Christ, the fullness of God’s revelation. The purpose of revelation is to help us reach heaven. So whatever Jesus did and revealed, he did and revealed for our salvation. Now, part of what Jesus did was to found a Church. To that Church he gave authority. “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18).

It is that Church that guides us, ministers the sacraments, teaches us, helps interpret the Scriptures for us. Its rules are generally geared to help it fulfill its mission. Can some rules be updated or simplified or eliminated? Probably. But most of them are valid and help us navigate through this valley of tears.

My guess is that many Catholics don’t feel overwhelmed with rules. As one grows in the faith, things seem to become simpler. One appreciates a predictable liturgy or an orthodox interpretation of Scripture. The Church’s rich patrimony of teachings guides us through all kinds of moral minefields.

Even at a human level, the best institutions have lots of rules yet they seem to make things easy. We feel confident stepping onto an airliner because of the thousands of rules that are being followed by mechanics and pilots and ground crews. Sometimes rules point to simplicity, not away from it. I hope this helps. God bless!

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