Archive for May, 2014

Morality Part 5: What Makes a Sin a Sin

It was a Theology Q&A session on a retreat – a safe environment.  Participants were encouraged to write down their questions on any faith-related topic and submit them anonymously.  The group was encouraged to raise hands and ask additional questions if needed.  This was their time.  There were over 30 retreatants, plus the team; women ranging from their early 20’s to their early 80’s.  When the topic of sin came up, you could feel the emotional intensity in the room.  As each question was answered, seven more hands shot up asking more questions.

When people ask, “Is it a mortal sin if…” more often than not, they are asking out of fear.  Somewhere along the line they learned that ___ was a mortal sin, and if you did [it], you were going to hell.  Some ask the question while thinking about their own behavior; others ask out of concern for a loved one.

Struggling with the concept of sin–and the fear of hell that accompanies it–can really damage a person’s faith, which is why this post is so important.

In Morality Part 1, I explained that When we say something is a “sin” it’s because it damages our relationship with God; not because it is “breaking the rules.”  It damages our relationship because it is either directly aimed at hurting God or at hurting those whom God loves.  And as Morality Part 4 explained, it’s only a sin if you know what you’re doing is wrong and you are doing it of your own free will.



In the Old Testament, sin is defined in two ways.  The first is in archery terms: “missing the mark.”  For instance, when our actions are guided by selfishness rather than agapic-love, they miss the mark.

Archery Target


The second way sin is described in Scripture is as a “hardness of heart.”   For example, when we are indifferent to the suffering of others… when we just don’t care enough to help someone in need, we are hard-hearted.


Catholic Tradition takes these concepts from Old Testament along with the words of Jesus in the Gospels and the writings of St. Paul to expand our understanding of sin.

In the Penitential Rite, we pray:

Penitential RiteNotice how this prayer recognizes that sin is always committed with intent (through my fault…).   Additionally, the words of this prayer acknowledge both the sins of commission (doing something wrong) and the sins of omission (not doing something that we know we should’ve done) – and this happens in thoughts, words, and actions.  In all cases, we recognize that there are varying degrees of seriousness:

Sin - Venial and Mortal

Venial sins include the smaller, less serious acts of sinfulness that often result from the bad habits or laziness.  (I know I should pray, but I don’t.  I know I shouldn’t swear, but I do.)  These are important to recognize because over time they weaken our relationship with God.

As the degree of seriousness increases, Catholic Tradition describes mortal sin.  Translated literally, this is a sin which brings a “deadly” or “mortal” blow to one’s relationship with God.  A mortal sin is a complete, deliberate rejection of God.  This is a big deal.  We’re not just talking about any sin, here.  We’re talking about a relationship-breaking sin.  For it to be considered a “mortal sin” it:

  1. Must involve “grave matter
  2. Must be done with full knowledge.
  3. Must be done deliberately, with full freedom.

It is difficult to broadly and definitively classify anything as a mortal sin because the only one who knows a person’s honest level of knowledge, freedom, and intent is God.  For instance, consider one of the most disturbing “jobs” during the Holocaust.  The Jewish Virtual Library explains that at Auschwitz and several other concentration camps,

“the Nazis established the Sonderkommando, groups of Jewish male prisoners picked for their youth and relative good health whose job was to dispose of corpses from the gas chambers or crematoria. Some did the work to delay their own deaths; some thought they could protect friends and family, and some acted out of mere greed for extra food and money these men sometimes received. The men were forced into this position, with the only alternative being death in the gas chambers or being shot on the spot by an SS guard.”

Here we are certainly dealing with a grave matter done with full knowledge, but the prisoners’ lack of freedom eliminates the culpability.

Culpability, the degree to which people are morally responsible, can diminish if a sin is committed under duress, whether that pressure comes from oneself or others.  Then there are psychological wounds, such as the PTSD of war veterans or mental illness, that likewise limit one’s freedom and diminish responsibility.

Is it possibly for a person to commit a mortal sin?  Absolutely.  That possibility is a reflection of the depth of our human freedom.  However, not every decision is made with full knowledge, full freedom, and deliberate intent.

Moreover, you know what the remedy is for mortal sin?  Reconciliation.  Mess up really bad?  Take responsibility, seek forgiveness, and make amends.  God just wants us to repent and return to him.

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”  (Luke 15:4-7)

When Jesus tells the parable of the Lost Sheep, it might be helpful to understand that most shepherds don’t leave the 99 to chase after the one.  But God does.  Because that’s just the kind of loving, merciful, life-giving God he is.

Mortal sin is not the end.  Rather, it points to a deep, serious need for reconciliation.

At this point in the Theology Q&A, someone inevitably asks:

If God is all-loving and forgiving, then how can there be anyone in hell?

For one thing, we are held morally accountable for our actions (and inactions).

  • For forming our conscience and increasing our desire for good.
  • For informing our conscience and developing our moral wisdom.
  • For following our conscience and avoiding sin.

For more on how judgment works with an all-loving, forgiving God, read this post on Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory.

As I wrap up the series of posts on Morality, think about your own attitudes towards sin:

  • When it comes to the topic of moral responsibility and sin, what do you struggle with?  

Morality Part 4: Form, Inform, and Follow

When I do laundry, after washing and drying, I’ll transport the clean clothes to the couch.  The couch and coffee table are my folding zone, a task I’ll tackle while watching Netflix, talking on the phone, or visiting with a close friend (one whom I am secure enough to expose my family’s laundry to).  The reality is that the folding does not happen immediately.  Often the couch is buried amid several loads of clean laundry.  Yes, I’ll get to it.  Eventually.  The thing is that my kids will want to actually use the couch to sit on, despite the piles of clean laundry.  Sometimes I take a little too long to get around to folding; I take responsibility for this.

Other times, like today, I’m within the margin of acceptable laundry-folding time. Regardless, the clean laundry got knocked off the couch by one of my kids.

Me: Who knocked the laundry basket off the couch and onto the floor?

Max: I fink I did it.  I’m sowwy, Mommy.  I didn’t mean to.

I know that he didn’t intentionally, maliciously knock my laundry on the floor, but still.  He could’ve been more careful.  And even if it was an accident, he could’ve fixed it.



While laundry on the couch isn’t one of the most pressing moral issues of our time, this conversation with my 6 year-old does provide a framework for examining moral responsibility.

First, let’s recall where we left off: Morality Part 3 explained the lifelong process of forming conscience.

Conscience Formation

In my explanation of forming conscience, I gave a lot of attention to the idea that a person must genuinely choose what is good.  However, saying a person must decide to do what is good for oneself is not the same thing as saying that a person makes moral decisions by oneself.

This is where Informing Conscience comes in.  If forming conscience is about wanting to be a good (not bad) person, having an informed conscience is about making right (not wrong) choices.  Quite simply, it’s about making informed decisions.

Conscience Definition Form and Inform 2


How do we make informed moral decisions?  The Catechism explains that we do this by consulting with three areas of our life: self, others, and God.

To make informed moral decisions, we strive “to interpret the data of experience and the signs of the times assisted by the virtue of prudence, by the advice of competent people, and by the help of the Holy Spirit.” (CCC, 1788)

1. Self (“assisted by the virtue of prudence“)  Quite simply: stop and think.  Mindful self-examination helps in discernment, whether or not we actually write out that pro and con list.  Here, we take the time to differentiate between wants and needs… between immediate gratification and long-term impact…

2. Others – (“assisted by…the advice of competent people“)  Inviting the wisdom of others is not the same thing as allowing “superego” to decide for us.  In fact, think of this as your own Personal Board of Directors.  While unsolicited advice will be offered far and wide, you find yourself talking through difficult decisions with a select group of people.   Each member of this board is must be personally appointed by you as a closest, trusted adviser; no applications (or self-nominations) are accepted.  It’s not that the people on your Board tell you what to do (because you may not always follow their advice), but you do seriously consider whatever they have to say.

That said, it is important that we neither appoint strictly “yes-men” nor superegos that micro-manage our decisions.  Our Personal Board of Directors should give us insight into our darker selves, but do so with selfless agape-love.

Alongside your Personal Board of Directors, the independent research of a respected third party should be considered when making difficult decisions.  The voice of “competent people” extends to the sciences, particularly the social sciences.

3.  God – (“the help of the Holy Spirit“)  In making moral decisions, we must pray–inviting God into the discernment process.  Additionally, part of being Catholic means that we value the 2000+ years of wisdom from Scripture and Tradition, which is one of the big ways that the Holy Spirit speaks to us today.

There is a temptation to approach the teachings of the Church and the role of the Magisterium as the voice of superego.  For some of us, that means we blindly follow an unexamined faith.  For others, it means we ignore the voice of the Holy Spirit.  Neither of these approaches reflects having a truly informed conscience.

What we don’t want to do is end up uninviting the Holy Spirit from our Personal Board of Directors.  The key is to earnestly listen to the wisdom of the teachings of the Church.  If we find ourselves in disagreement with the Church, we owe it to our faith to explore this disconnect.  Sometimes it’s a matter of understanding why the Church teaches what it does.  It’s not ok for a person to simply dismiss a teaching that they don’t agree with; rather, this is a reason for deeper prayer, study, and exploration in faith.

  • What is your decision making process?  In what way does it align with the self-others-God explanation of CCC, 1788?  In what way does it differ?
  • Who is on your Personal Board of Directors?  Have you appointed any “yes-men” or superegos?  
  • What insights do you gain from thinking about informing conscience in this way?

Follow Your Conscience

Catholic Teaching insists that we have an obligation to follow our conscience, but stated more precisely, we have an obligation to follow our formed and informed conscience.

Conscience Form Inform Follow

It is in this context that it makes sense to return to a discussion about moral responsibility and sin, because it is our conscience that enables us to take responsibility for our actions (CCC, 1781).

How can we say something is “wrong” if you’re following your conscience?

Faced with a moral choice, our conscience can either make a right judgment or a wrong one.  Sometimes, we will be following our conscience and still end up making a mistake, which Catholic tradition calls “erroneous conscience” (CCC, 1786, 1790).   Actually, there are different levels of assessment here:

  1. Invincible Ignorance – if a person honestly did not know something was wrong (and there is not a reasonable expectation that they should have known), then it is considered a true accident.
    • Although the person may have done something wrong, they are not in violation of their conscience.
    • It is expected that they will make amends for any damage done, but they are not morally responsible. (See CCC, 1793)
  2. Vincible Ignorance – if a person claims that they didn’t know something was wrong, but when we logically assess the situation, we can safely say that they should have known better.  In the court of law, we call this negligence.
    • When a wrongdoing falls under this umbrella of  “willful ignorance,”  the person bears moral responsibility, but it is still not considered a “sin” (CCC, 1791-1792).
  3. Sin – For something to be considered a sin, it must be a deliberate decision to violate our conscience. Therein, we must have both:
    • Knowledge that it is wrong
    • Freedom to choose

There are times when we know what is wrong, but we do it anyway.   St. Augustine tells a story from his adolescence (in Book 2, Chapter IV of his Confessions) when he stole some pears.  He knew it was wrong; he admits that he was neither hungry, nor poor when he did it.  He stole them for the thrill of stealing – simply because it was forbidden.

There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night — having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was — a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden. Such was my heart, O God, such was my heart — which thou didst pity even in that bottomless pit. Behold, now let my heart confess to thee what it was seeking there, when I was being gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error — not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in thee to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself.*

We all have a pear-tree story of our own; a time which we were clearly choosing to do something that was in violation of our conscience.

The next post on Morality will explore and unpack some of the traditional vocabulary surrounding sin.  For now, consider the following:

  • Can you relate to these three categories of “doing something wrong” – invincible ignorance (accident), vincible ignorance (negligence), and sin (deliberate decision)?  Which do you struggle with most and why?

Morality Part 3: Forming Your Conscience

I have my Grandmom’s chin.  So does my mother, my aunts and uncles, most of my cousins, and my younger son.  When I was a teen, I noticed that Grandmom’s sister, Aunt Helen has this same chin, and when she agrees with you on something, she sticks out that pointy chin, presses her lips together, and v-e-r-y slowly nods her head three or four times.  Then I noticed that Grandmom often does the same thing.  And so does my Mom.  And now I even do it.

Grandmom and Aunt Helen

Aunt Helen and Grandmom

There are things we pick up from our family of origin whether we like it or not.  Some of them are innocuous and make us smile.  Other times, it’s a bad habit–or worse an immoral behavior.

What if a person was raised in a racist home?  How can we say that’s wrong if that’s what they were taught?

When discussing morality, lots of attention is given to the importance of following one’s conscience.  In Morality Part 2, I explained the difference between conscience and superego.

Conscience and Superego

Superego has its place in forming our conscience, but they are not the same thing.  From childhood to adulthood, we must transition from an external voice of moral authority to listening to the inner voice of our conscience.  The Greek philosopher Plato explored this idea in both The Republic and Meno.  Recognizing that one’s conscience reflects genuine internal decision, he asked:

Can you teach someone to be virtuous?

You can teach someone what is right, but for them to be truly virtuous, they must actually choose it for themselves.  So how do we actually teach virtue?  We teach virtue in three different ways, during three different stages of life.

1.  Stories and Examples

During childhood, especially birth to age 7, children are like sponges; they pick up on everything.  In this stage, we teach children to value what is good by through the stories and examples we expose them to.  The difficulty here is that kids will learn both the good and the bad.  While they may memorize the words to the bedtime story and the children’s songs that we intentionally select for their beautiful message, they will also pick up on the other words, phases, attitudes, and behaviors that they are exposed to which are not so “pure.”  And they will do this whether we like it–or intend for it–or not.

IMG_0725Dennis noticed that his 3 year old, Jakob was entering into that parroting stage: repeating, imitating, and copying whatever he saw or heard.  While Dennis was already cautious about what he was exposing his son to, this annoying and adorable behavior had him on high alert.  They were in the car, only driving 10 minutes down the road to the store, listening to XM radio when the DJ came on, mocking some celebrity: “In he comes wearing his [effing] cowboy hat and his [effing] cowboy boots–” and Dennis quickly and discreetly changed the station.  He parks the car, unbuckles his 3 yr old from the back seat, and Jakob announces, “Daddy! I have my [effing] cowboy boots, but I don’t have an [effing] cowboy hat.  When can I get an [effing] cowboy hat?”  Trying desperately not to overreact, Dennis explained to his super-hero loving son, “Those are not good words, buddy.  Good guys don’t use words like that; only bad guys.  You don’t ever hear Daddy using those words, do you?”  Jakob’s eyes widened, “No, Daddy!  You never use those words!”

The stories and examples that we expose our children to will either teach them to desire what is good or not.  When it comes to what children observe, it is often the implicit, unspoken example that leaves a lasting impression over and above what adults explicitly say.

  • Think about your own experience with this part of moral formation.  
    • Stories: What were some of your favorite stories from childhood?  What was the moral or message?
    • Examples: What are some of the behaviors you learned from your family of origin?  Try to identify one positive, one negative, and one “amoral,” innocuous behavior.

 2.  Practicing Habits

In adolescence, the primary way in which we experience moral formation is by practicing good habits.  Athletic coaches, band and choral directors, and educators use certain exercises to help students practice “skills” to improve overall performance.  Parents require their teens to do certain chores.  We employ the phrase “practice makes perfect.”   The goal is to practice good behavior to the point that it becomes so ingrained that we can do it without thinking.

The 1984 movie The Karate Kid offers a great demonstration of this dynamic.  Daniel is a teenager who asks Mr. Miyagi to teach him karate.  As he arrives each day for what he hopes to be “training sessions,” Daniel is told he must first perform chores in very specific ways.   Frustrated with what he perceives as days of varied slave-labor, Daniel complains and confronts his teacher.  In turn, Mr. Miyagi shows Daniel that each specific action in the chores relates to a maneuver in karate.

Parents, coaches, and educators require teens to do certain tasks that are the building blocks of perfecting the practice of virtue.  This is why Catholic schools and Confirmation programs require students to do service hours.  The reality many of us face, however, is that we don’t just form good habits over the years; we also form bad ones.

  • Think about your own experience with this part of moral formation.  
    • In what way can you relate to the Karate Kid example?  When were you required to practice an obscure skill that later proved useful?
    • Think of a bad habit that you worked to break free from; tell the process of re-learning.
    • What good, moral habits have you developed?  Who influenced you?

3.  Journey into Adulthood

The transition from adolescence to adulthood is marked by a maturity in which we go from doing things without thinking about them to examining and evaluating what we have been taught and intentionally choosing our path.  This third stage is not automatic; it is up to each person to decide whether or not to integrate what they have been taught into the person who they want to become (and by this, I mean the very best that each person is called by God to be).

Notice that this is called a “journey” into adulthood because it’s not a “once and done” moment of enlightenment.  This journey of growth and maturity happens over the course of time.  Unfortunately, some “grown-ups” have not taken that journey into adulthood at all, and instead continue to repeat the patterns (and mistakes) they inherited from their family of origin.  Most of us, however, are somewhere on that path.

Catholic Tradition calls this life-long process Formation of Conscience (CCC 1783-1785), which is ultimately a matter of improving our character and strengthening or increasing our desire for goodness.  As adults, it comes down to asking ourselves:

Do I want to be a good person?

Honestly, we can become apathetic in our response to this very basic question, a state which Catholic Tradition calls lax conscience.

  • Think about your own experience with this part of moral formation.  
    • Identify one moral behavior from childhood and adolescence that you have examined, evaluated and mindfully chosen to continue.
    • Have there been any immoral behaviors from your formative years that you have intentionally chosen to eliminate?  
    • Do you struggle with lax conscience?  
    • Who or what helps you to increase your desire for goodness?


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