The Church, the Draft Board, and Me (Installment 4 of 12)
Sidebar 1: The Absurdity of Catholic Morality
The house of cards that is the Catholic moral system was my childhood home. That system has profoundly influenced the psychology of much of the Western world. And yet, for those who, unlike the White Queen, have outgrown the ability to believe six impossible things before breakfast, it quickly collapses under critical analysis.
Sin: a Primer
Quoting Psalm 51, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “Sin is an offense against God: ‘Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight.'”S1 The aggrieved party is God. Catholic morality is concerned primarily with the questions of which acts God finds offensive and which type of punishment — temporary or everlasting — he attaches to each offense. From that perspective, a sinner’s human victims are, literally, of no consequence. Further, many grievous sins, such as the desecration of a sacrament (as when I took communion while in a state of mortal sin) or the violation of a Church law, have no real victims.
Indeed, the archetypal sin is the disobedience of Adam and Eve, an act that would have had no victims had the offended God not chosen to impute it to the entire human race (and, inexplicably, to punish all creatures for the humans’ transgression).S2 Because of that imputation, the Church speaks of two categorically different types of sin. The first, a basic defect transmitted from Adam and Eve, is called original sin. Post-Eden, no one except Jesus, who was divine, and Mary his mother, who received a singular exemption called “immaculate conception,” is free of it. The rest of us are “conceived in sin,”S3 bearing the “stain” (Latin: macula) of original sin as part of our inheritance from “our first parents”: because they disobeyed God in the garden of Eden, we come into this world dirty and spiritually dead.S4 Only Christian baptism washes away that stain and imparts spiritual life to the soul; without a valid form of baptism, a soul cannot enter heaven. (The fate of the souls of unbaptized infants, being an insoluble problem in this system, remains undefined despite almost two millennia of speculation.)
The Church claims that through baptism “We are reborn from the state of slaves of sin into the freedom of the Sons of God.”S5 But it is evident that human nature is not changed by the sacrament, and this is where the second type of sin comes in. Baptism notwithstanding, we will commit actual sin: acts (or refusals to act) that we commit willfully, despite knowing that they are forbidden by God. That is because, the Church asserts, we have also inherited concupiscence, the inclination to evil, as an essential characteristic of our “fallen” human nature — that nature which baptism into Christ fails, in real life, to remake. (Oddly, however, the sin of Adam and Eve was not caused by concupiscence, for their nature was not yet fallen.) It is virtually certain that a person will commit actual sin if he or she lives beyond the innocence of childhood — that is, ironically, into “the age of reason,” which is said to begin around one’s seventh year. Even after rebirth through baptism, we are natural sinners in need of supernatural help.
Fortunately, God provides that help through Holy Mother Church. Through her, God saves us from sin and its punishment in hell. She enlightens us about sin and rescues us from it, dispensing God’s “grace” through rituals called sacraments, “the channels by which [Christ’s] saving merits are now conveyed to a sinful world.”S6 As the “Minister of the Redemption of Christ,”S7 the Church — the priesthood, really — supplies both strength for resisting our tendency to sin and sacramental absolution for our inevitable failures. The Church claims to be necessary because of sin; if her doctrine of sin is logically incoherent, therefore, the Church is invalidated.S8
As noted in our main narrative, some actual sins, called venial sins, do not have eternal consequences for the doer, but others condemn one’s soul to everlasting torment in hell. An actual sin that damns one’s soul, killing the spiritual life imparted by baptism and other sacraments, is called a mortal sin. The Baltimore Catechism, the standard manual for the teaching of doctrine in U.S. Catholic schools from 1885 until the time I graduated, says that “To make a mortal sin, three things are necessary: a grievous matter, sufficient reflection, and full consent of the will.” It continues: “‘Sufficient reflection’ means that we must know the thought, word or deed to be sinful at the time we are guilty of it; and ‘full consent of the will’ means that we must fully and wilfully yield to it.”S9
I’ll briefly examine each of those criteria, but first: a thought can damn a person to hell? So says the Church; but only, she adds, with “sufficient reflection and full consent of the will,” as if one could consider and consent to a thought before thinking it. Pondering that, I recall a traumatic experience from my grade school days. While walking home after sacramental confession one summer Saturday, I said to myself, “Your soul is clean now. Don’t think any bad thoughts, like of how fascinating women’s breasts are” — and then feared that I had just done so. At that age, I assumed that “lust” referred to thinking about the female body, which was an inherently pleasant experience, and I knew that Jesus himself had warned that “Whoever lusts after a woman in his heart has already committed adultery with her.” A pleasurable “impure thought” could be a mortal sin. (We had even been taught the theological term for it: “morose delectation.”S10) In panic, I ran the mile back to the church in order to make another confession, but I found it locked. It would be a dreadful week for me. I was even afraid to cross the street until I could confess on the following Saturday: we lived on a bus route, and nuns at school had often warned that if one were hit by a bus while in a state of mortal sin one would “go straight to hell.”
That inanity brings to mind the Church’s teaching on spontaneous nocturnal emissions of semen — “wet dreams.” We were instructed that, should we awaken during an emission, we must resolutely refuse to enjoy it; to consent to the pleasure would be to sin mortally. Luckily, I never had to attempt that impossibility. But when I was in grade school, one of my neighborhood friends would taunt a fellow who made a mistake by saying, “You could fuck up a wet dream.” Feeling that his ridicule could encourage his targets to damn themselves by consenting to non-marital sexual pleasure, I decided that he was an evil person whom I must avoid. I realize now that my continuing friendship might have mitigated some of the harshness of his family’s poverty, alcoholism, and abuse. But I was focused on saving my soul. And maybe I was also repressing the realization that yes, as a pious Catholic boy I was precisely a fool who would “fuck up a wet dream.”
Indoctrinating us as children to fear eternal torture for forbidden thoughts and involuntary bodily functions: every adult authority — priests, nuns and other teachers, parents, relatives — cooperated in that. Somehow, they couldn’t see that making Jesus into a terrifying punisher of such things does not comport with his “let the little children come to me,” or that it highlights the incoherence of the Church’s theology of sin — to which I now return.
In order to discuss the three criteria for mortal sin in more detail, we must first consider the concept of material sinfulness. Without the doer’s sufficient reflection and full consent of the will, says the Baltimore Catechism, a seriously evil thought, word, deed, or omission is materially but not actually sinful.S11 That is, something that is objectively evil is done, but the doer is not morally responsible for it; indeed, he or she continues in God’s grace, retaining spiritual vitality and therefore remaining a good person. If the person is guilty at all, it is of venial sin, a relatively trivial imperfection that will be cleansed by “temporal punishment” in purgatory (which can be avoided through an indulgence) before the soul is admitted to heaven. That notion of material sinfulness leads to the paradox of a “habit of sin” that “is completely sinless” (my emphasis), which I explored in the previous section. The material or objective sinfulness of an act and the culpability of the actor are judged separately.
The first criterion: a grievous matter
For an act to be a mortal sin, it must first of all be materially and grievously sinful. The right and ability to determine the moral nature of any act — that is, whether and how seriously an act in itself offends God — are claimed by the Church. But that claim is undermined by absurdities among the actual determinations.
Most egregiously, mortal sins run the gamut from the heinous to the victimless and the trivial. Such offenses as skipping Mass or eating meat on a “day of abstinence” earn the same punishment, eternal torture, as raping children or even murdering millions. (Arguably, that mindset of moral equivalence is a factor in the worldwide plague of child sex abuse, and its cover-up, by clerics.S12)
Further, specific sins can come and go. For example, usury, which originally meant charging any interest at all for a loan, was long said to be materially sinful, but later it was permitted and the word was redefined. Although the Holy Office of the Inquisition ruled that the original definition of usury as sin was infallible, their ruling was later ignored by the Church hierarchy, which itself makes money from interest.S13 Infallibly issued or not, the officially promulgated teaching was reversed over time. The issue of usury is historically fraught: when any form of usury was a sin, Christians were forbidden to lend at interest, but Jews, being damned anyway, were permitted, and even encouraged, to do so. As a consequence, some European Jewish families accumulated wealth that would be fiercely resented by Christians. We know what that helped lead to.
Another example is the use of torture and murder. Such measures are condemned today, but the Church made extensive use of them to enforce doctrinal conformity in the past. Indeed, they were justified by the two most influential Catholic theologians: St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) argued for the physical punishment of heretics, and St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) defended their killing. In 1252, Pope Innocent IV’s “Ad exstirpanda” formally authorized the torture of suspected heretics. Subsequent popes reaffirmed the edict.S14 Official acceptance of religious terrorism continued into the modern era. The Catholic Encyclopedia, the standard reference compendium for much of the twentieth century, offered this rationalization of the methods employed by the Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada (d. 1498), who tortured and burned thousands (and had all surviving Jews expelled from Spain): “Whether Torquemada’s ways of ferreting out and punishing heretics were justifiable is a matter that has to be decided not only by comparison with the penal standard of the fifteenth century, but also, and chiefly, by an inquiry into their necessity for the preservation of Christian Spain.”S15
Slavery is yet another. The Church’s position on slavery was long characterized by ambiguity and contradiction. Augustine and Aquinas accepted slavery as a consequence of the Fall. Some popes condemned it, while others owned slaves themselves. That ambiguity could characterize religious institutes as well. For example, Jesuits sometimes resisted the enslavement of indigenous people (as dramatized in the movie The Mission); however, in other circumstances they owned slaves and would eventually sell, rather than manumit, them. Proceeds from slave sales helped fund Fordham University and other Jesuit schools.S16
One may reasonably conclude, then, that some of the Church’s definitive teachings on major moral issues have been inconsistent, self-serving, and warped. But if the Church’s authority to define and classify sin is not absolutely trustworthy, then the first criterion is meaningless. And that subverts the second.
The second criterion: sufficient reflection
“‘Sufficient reflection’ means that we must know the thought, word or deed to be sinful at the time we are guilty of it.” I’ve already alluded to the impossibility of reflecting on a thought or involuntary bodily function before experiencing it. But is sufficient knowledge possible for any words and deeds? Given the failure of the first criterion, I argue that it is not. If we must “know the thought, word or deed to be sinful,” then certainty is necessary: it wouldn’t do for God to make us guess. But we’ve just seen that the moral judgments of the Church are not reliable. And without confidence in those judgments, it is not possible to know that a given act is evil in, as the nuns would say, the eyes of God. The invalidity of the Church’s claim to moral authority — that is, the absence of an objective, inerrant standard — defeats the second criterion as well as the first.
Before continuing to the third criterion, I can’t resist pointing out an amusing irony that would follow from acceptance of the first two. Without the Church, we would not learn that certain acts, which may seem quite innocent or justified to us, are materially sinful. And without that knowledge, we could not sin. Now as in Eden, therefore, ignorance is innocence, but with the knowledge of good and evil comes sin. (I am reminded of a dark joke about a dismayed aboriginal convert who had enjoyed an Edenic innocence until the missionary priest arrived. The punchline: “Why did you tell me?”) In other words, although it claims to be the body of Christ, the moralizing Church is, as it were, the institutional incarnation of the talking snake: the snake in shepherd’s clothing.
The third criterion: full consent of the will
The remaining criterion fares no better than the others. “‘Full consent of the will’ means that we must fully and wilfully yield … .” In other words, if for some reason (e.g., somnolence, habit, intoxication, dementia, external coercion) one acts without being able to give complete conscious assent, then the act, whatever it may be, is not seriously sinful. The notion of habitual sin follows from that stipulation: if force of habit causes me to do something that is materially evil, then I have not given full consent of the will and am not guilty. As the “habitual sin” theologian stated, whether a specific materially sinful act is or is not actually sinful must be judged “according to the amount of effective control [one] was able to exercise in each instance, considering all the internal and external circumstances of the act” (emphasis added).
But there are myriad possible mitigating factors, many of which are not obvious. As aware as we now are of the power of the subconscious as well as of other forces both endogenous and exogenous — and, especially with regard to young people, the lengthy and fragile maturation process of the human brain, particularly of the executive function — we may reasonably doubt that “full consent of the will” is a meaningful construct. It is probably more accurate to picture consent as an asymptote: full consent can, perhaps, be approached but never attained.
Each of the three criteria is, then, null. But those nulls add up to untold suffering. Further, as critical examination exposes the fundamental absurdity of Catholic moral doctrine, it calls into question the legitimacy and efficacy of the hierarchy, priesthood, and sacramental apparatus. The edifice begins to collapse.
Next: The Church, Part 3: Seminary Again
[S1]. Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), #1850,
http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c1a8.htm. The quotation is of Psalm 51:4a.
[S2]. See Romans 5:12, 1 Cor. 15:21. Note also that in Eden animals ate plants, not each other.
[S3]. Psalm 51 (again), verse 5 — “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
[S6]. John Hardon, S.J., Pocket Catholic Catechism (1989), p. 126
[S7]. The term “Minister of the Redemption of Christ” is from Pope Paul VI’s Indulgentiarum Doctrina (Apostolic Constitution On Indulgences): see https://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/P6INDULG.HTM.
[S10]. Morose delectation is explained by the Cistercian monk Fr. Edmund Walstein at https://sancrucensis.wordpress.com/2017/11/13/consent-and-morose-delectation/.
[S12]. in his book, In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy, Frédéric Martel alludes to a connection between that kind of thinking and the worldwide cover-up of clerical sex abuse: “If everything is mixed up together, sexual abuse and sin, paedophilia, homosexuality, prostitution, and the crime differs only in its extent and not in its nature, who is to be punished?” (2019, p. 250).