There is a discussion jumping around the Twitterverse in which certain gay activists are saying, “If Bishop X bans people in same sex marriages he should also equally condemn fornicators, those using artificial contraception, the divorced and remarried, people who watch porn etc. etc.”
Of course they don’t really want the Bishop to ban all those people. They don’t want the bishop to ban anyone. The argument is on the level of the nine year old who got caught with his hand in the cookie jar who looks up and protests, “But Jimmy did it too!”
Beneath this facile argument is the notion that all sin is the same, and if Catholics (especially Catholic priests) take this line it shows either intentional deception or an appalling ignorance about Catholic teaching on sin.
Any kid in a half decent confirmation class will be able to tell you that all sin is not the same.
First we have the distinction between venial and mortal sin. I explain venial sin as being the mistakes we make in the rough and tumble of life. We lose our temper. We overeat. We buy something we don’t really need out of vanity or self indulgence. Venial sin is like stumbling in the marathon of life. We didn’t mean to stumble and fall in the ditch, but our foot slipped. We didn’t mean it.
Mortal sin, on the other hand, is something we do consciously. It is a serious sin. We know it is a serious sin and we choose to do it anyway. Furthermore, we continue in the sin justifying it and refusing to repent. To extend the marathon analogy–venial sin is when we stumble and fall. Mortal sin is planning to take a short cut to cheat and win the race, then getting the trophy and bragging about it.
There are a couple of other things that distinguish sins–making some more serious than others.
- If our sin involves another person and causes them to sin, then we are more culpable.
- If our sin is public and causes scandal to others (especially the young) who observe our example we are more culpable–millstones around necks sort of stuff…
- If our sin is continued in without repentance we are more culpable
- If our sin is celebrated and we say it is not sin at all we are more culpable.
- If our sin is un-natural it is more serious. e.g. Cannibalism is worse than gluttony. Sodomy is worse than fornication.
- If a sin is compound it is worse. e.g. adultery is worse than simple fornication because it also betrays a spouse and blasphemes against the sacrament of marriage.
You can see, therefore, why one mortal sin may be worse than another. The typical example is the divorced and remarried person who is not admitted to communion. They might say, “I am not forgiven for this, but a murderer can come to communion?”
That would be correct because the murderer repented and didn’t do it again. The person who is divorced and remarried continues in the sin publicly before others and therefore continues to be separated from the church. That’s why we do everything we can to help people in such situations to walk with them, examine their first marriage, seek a decree of nullity and put things right. A good pastor does the same with anyone in mortal sin. We meet them where they are, accompany them in the path of repentance and do the best we can to help them in the difficult path of taking up their cross to follow Christ.
The second matter to consider is not only the sin itself, but our culpability for the sin. In other words, what are the intentions and circumstances of the sinful act?
The intention and circumstances of the sinful act do not change the essential sinfulness of the act, but they can alter the person’s level of guilt. So, for example, the teenaged girl in an abusive relationship who finds herself pregnant and is taken by her older boyfriend for an abortion might not be very guilty at all because it could be that she was pressured into having sex to start with, she does not really understand abortion, she is under extreme stress, she is pressured by the boyfriend etc. etc. The boyfriend, on the other hand is much more guilty and the abortionist who knows exactly what evil he is doing and is getting paid for it is very guilty indeed.
Circumstances and intention can lessen a person’s guilt but they can also increase a person’s guilt. As in the example I’ve just given, the crime is the same–an abortion. They girl’s guilt and the boyfriend’s guilt and the abortionist’s guilt are evaluated at differing levels. All are guilty, but one far less than the others.
In the pastoral care of souls all these things can be used to evaluate and help people move forward in faith. Dismissing sin or treating it lightly is not only damaging to the person’s soul, but it doesn’t really treat the person and their choices with much dignity. Instead each person is met with compassion, respect and sensitivity because Our Lord, as Julian of Norwich observes, “Looks on us with pity not with blame.”
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