Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Veritatis Splendor: Part 24--Sins Unto Death

JOHN PAUL II ADDRESSES THE DISTINCTION between mortal and venial sins in his encyclical Veritatis splendor. This is necessary because of some theologians' efforts to revise the Church's traditional teaching regarding sins. Traditionally, the Church distinguished between sins, most basically categorizing them between mortal and venial, in accordance with the gravity of the matter involved and the level of awareness of consent to the act involved. We may best be served by quoting verbatim the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1854 Sins are rightly evaluated according to their gravity. The distinction between mortal and venial sin, already evident in Scripture,* became part of the tradition of the Church. It is corroborated by human experience.

1855 Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.

Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.

1856 Mortal sin, by attacking the vital principle within us - that is, charity - necessitates a new initiative of God's mercy and a conversion of heart which is normally accomplished within the setting of the sacrament of reconciliation:
When the will sets itself upon something that is of its nature incompatible with the charity that orients man toward his ultimate end, then the sin is mortal by its very object . . . whether it contradicts the love of God, such as blasphemy or perjury, or the love of neighbor, such as homicide or adultery. . . . But when the sinner's will is set upon something that of its nature involves a disorder, but is not opposed to the love of God and neighbor, such as thoughtless chatter or immoderate laughter and the like, such sins are venial.**

1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent."†

1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: "Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother."†† The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.

1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God's law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart‡‡ do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.

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.

1861 Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. 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.

1862 One commits venial sin when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent.

1863 Venial sin weakens charity; it manifests a disordered affection for created goods; it impedes the soul's progress in the exercise of the virtues and the practice of the moral good; it merits temporal punishment. Deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin. However venial sin does not break the covenant with God. With God's grace it is humanly reparable. "Venial sin does not deprive the sinner of sanctifying grace, friendship with God, charity, and consequently eternal happiness."☨

While he is in the flesh, man cannot help but have at least some light sins. But do not despise these sins which we call "light": if you take them for light when you weigh them, tremble when you count them. A number of light objects makes a great mass; a number of drops fills a river; a number of grains makes a heap. What then is our hope? Above all, confession.☨☨

The Pope insists in the validity of the classical theological division, and insists, further, that a mortal sin cannot be limited to some sort of fundamental option against God and neighbor but includes particular acts--given that the particular sinful act meet the traditional requirements of being a grave matter undertaken with full awareness and deliberate consent. John Paul II quotes from the Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et paenitentia:
For mortal sin exists also when a person knowingly and willingly, for whatever reason, chooses something gravely disordered. In fact, such a choice already includes contempt for the divine law, a rejection of God's love for humanity and the whole of creation: the person turns away from God and loses charity. Consequently, the fundamental orientation can be radically changed by particular acts.
VS, 70 (quoting RP, 17)

What appears to be happening with the theologians that seek to tamper with the distinction between mortal and venial sins and who urge that a particular act cannot sever a man's tie to God and merit eternal damnation is that they are confusing psychological spheres with theological spheres. Again, relying on Reconciliatio et paenitentia:

Clearly, situations can occur which are very complex and obscure from a psychological viewpoint, and which influence the sinner's subjective imputability. But from a consideration of the psychological sphere one cannot proceed to create a theological category, which is precisely what the 'fundamental option' is, understanding it in such a way that it objectively changes or casts doubt upon the traditional concept of mortal sin.

VS, 70 (quoting RP, 17).

The Pope thus concludes this section of his encyclical:
The separation of fundamental option from deliberate choices of particular kinds of behavior, disordered in themselves or in their circumstances, which would not engage that option, thus involves a denial of Catholic doctrine on mortal sin: "With the whole tradition of the Church, we call mortal sin the act by which man freely and consciously rejects God, his law, the covenant of love that God offers, preferring to turn in on himself or to some created and finite reality, something contrary to the divine will (conversio ad creaturam).ǂ This can occur in a direct and formal way, in the sins of idolatry, apostasy and atheism; or in an equivalent way, as in every act of disobedience to God's commandments in a grave matter."
VS, 70 (quoting RP, 17).

*The Catechism references 1 Jn 5:16-17, the Scriptural locus classicus for this distinction, which distinguishes between sins which lead to death (ad mortem / πρὸς θάνατον) and those which do not lead to death (non ad mortem / μὴ πρὸς θάνατον):
He that knoweth his brother to sin a sin which is not to death, let him ask, and life shall be given to him, who sinneth not to death. There is a sin unto death: for that I say not that any man ask.
**St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia-IIae, q. 88, art. 2, corp.
Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 17, § 12.
††Mark 10:19
‡Mark 3:5-6; Luke 16:19-31.
Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 17 § 9.
☨☨St. Augustine, In Epistolam Ionannis ad Parthos Tractatus Decem 1,6 (PL 35,1982).
ǂThe interjection "conversio ad creaturam" (turning to a creature) is a reference to a classical definition of mortal sin: aversio a Deo, conversio ad creaturam: an aversion towards God, through conversion to a creature. In other words, placing too much importance, a disordered importance, upon a created good at the expense of God, the source of all good. In a way, all mortal sin really involves a sort of idolatry. Cf. Romans 1:25, where St. Paul refers to the Gentiles and their sins: "Who changed the truth of God into a lie; and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen."

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