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Faith/Spirituality Forum: uncertainty and sin

by Catherine Frakas 23 Feb 2001

uncertainty and sin QUESTION from Scott on January 29, 2003 Dear Brother in Christ,
My name's Scott, I'm 19 and have been a Catholic all my life, though recently I've gained a greater awareness of my faith. With that said, I have a question that has been bothering me for some time now.
First let me say that I was always taught that 3 conditions must exist for a sin to be mortal - serious matter, full knowledge, and full consent. Most of the time I find that it easy to analyze whether or not something I am about to do is mortally sinful. For example, missing mass on sunday, using God's name blasphemously, looking at pornography, etc. - these are all examples where one would probably have no trouble at all, either before or after the commission or ommission of an act involving them, determining whether a mortal sin was committed. But sometimes this analysis is not so easy for myself.
Sometimes I am not sure if something that I am about to do is a mortal sin - in other words, at that point I'm not certain that what I'm about to do is a mortal sin and I'm also not certain that what I'm about to do is not a mortal sin. You may say that in such a case it is wise to be safe rather than sorry, and put off acting until one is certain. I find myself thinking this to myself as well. But in some instances I also find myself considering the possibility that I may be scrupulous at that point, and that acting in accordance with the better safe, than sorry wisdom so many persons give, may actually lead to developing a greater degree of scrupulosity. And so I often find myself stuck in the middle - part of me suggesting that I do not act, because any acting would be a risk or gamble, my soul being at stake; the other part suggesting that I do act instead of risk scrupulosity, which can be extremely dangerous to one's soul as it can lead ultimately to despair.
Anyway, just wondering if there is an official Church teacing or doctrine that would clear up this difficult problem, one that has led to much mental debate on my part, so much so that I don't really know where to turn to for answers now. I hope I've made myself clear for you above, though I fear my ability to communicate all that is on my mind is somewhat lacking.
Thanks in advance for any help you may offer.
ANSWER by John-Paul Ignatius, OLSM on February 7, 2003 Dear Scott:
I must applaud your desire to not want to displease God with your sin. I wish more people were as conscientious about their moral conduct.
In the first instance, I would suggest that if the behavior you are considering is sinful at all -- venial or grave -- that you need to refrain from that behavior.
Thus the essential question is not is this a mortal sin? but is this a sin of any kind?. Although venial sin is not mortal, the accumulation of venial sins can damage the soul and make it easier to find oneself in grave sin.
In terms of is this a mortal sin, the first criteria is as you stated -- serious matter. Serious matter is also called grave matter or grave sin.
Grave sins, because they are serious in nature and potentially fatal to the soul, are sins that are not up for speculation. They are sins objectively regardless of whether mortality is charged against the soul or not.
We can know what Grave Matter is because the Church tells us. You will find in the Catechism phrases such as grave matter, grave offense, or serious offense that indicates the Church's teaching that the specific behavior is indeed grave and thus potentially mortal.
So in determining whether an act we are about to perform is grave matter or not is rather easily determined, in most cases, by knowing what the Church considers as grave matter. Such things as murder, kidnapping, and other major crimes are certainly grave matter. Deliberate refusal to attend Sunday Mass is grave matter, sexual sins are grave, etc. These are all objectively sin. There are other sins, which I will talk about in a moment, that may be venial or grave depending on the circumstances.
In any event, we need to avoid all grave matter, of course, but then we are to avoid all sin period.
If we have committed a grave sin, the question then becomes -- is it also mortal. One cannot commit mortal sin by accident. This is the second criterion -- one must have full knowledge of the gravity of the sin.
The third criterion is a little more subjective. One must offer full consent to commit the sin. Full consent can be lacking in a variety of circumstances. Diminish Responsibility, as it is called in Civil Law, can be present if the person has mental impairment, addiction, psychological problems, etc.
The Church's teaching on this is found in three paragraphs of the Catechism:

1860. Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest. 1735. Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors.
Last paragraph of 2352. To form an equitable judgment about the subjects' moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety, or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability.

In counsel with your spiritual director or confessor (assuming the priest is knowledgeable about psychological and addictive behavior) you may determine that an act, although objectively grave is not mortal because of addiction. Many sexual sins are committed by people with sexual addictions and thus their moral culpability may be reduced as a result.
As for scrupulosity, this problem can indeed be difficult, and is often found with people who either are not knowledgeable about Church teaching or lack faith to trust the Church's assessment about what is or is not grave sin.
For most sins, one need not wonder if the sin is grave. The Church specifically identifies most grave sins. There can be a question, however, on some sins where the gravity is not in the objective nature of the sin itself, but in the circumstances and extent of the sin. For example, stealing may not be grave when it is taking a ball-point pen home that belongs to our employer but may indeed be grave if embezzling $10,000 from our employer so we can buy a mink coat.
It is in this gray area that those with scruples have great difficulty. Consultation with one's spiritual director or confessor should clear-up such questions IF one accepts the advice given. Oftentimes scrupulous people will hang on to their misdirected concerns in spite of priestly counsel.
Thus to answer your question directly, if you are faced with wanting to perform a particular behavior ask yourself, Is this sin? It does not matter if it is mortal or not. ALL SIN must be avoided.
It is an inapproprite attitude to think that we only need to check ourselves against mortal sins and not check ourselves against venial sins. In this context sin is sin and ALL sin displeases God. If we adopt an attitude that because the sin is not grave it is less of a problem to perform the act, then we risk committing a grave sin apart from the behavior in question -- presumption.... to presume upon God's grace and mercy.
If you are not sure if the behavior you are considering is sin or not (sin of ANY kind -- venial or grave), then refrain from it and ask your spiritual director or confessor.
God Bless.
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