One of the strengths and weaknesses of the internet age is that people write to strangers with personal problems which are often complex, but there is no context or background.

So I’ll get an email out of the blue from someone I don’t know asking “Why do you hate Donald Trump? Do you think the moon landings were faked? Why are we here? How do they get those stripes in the toothpaste tube? Why does God judge us and sent us to hell when we never even asked to be born in the first place?”

The person doesn’t tell me how old they are, whether they are male or female, where they live, if they are Catholic or whether they like hot dogs…..nothing.

Someone will write asking, “What is the meaning of life?”

Or I get an email from who know who and who knows where– saying, “I need to know if masturbation is a sin.”

There is a fearful anonymity in our modern age.

Part of this fearful anonymity is a mechanical approach to most everything. There must be a list. There must be a rule. There must be a formula.

But life is not so easy.

Consider the two emails above. The first person seems to want an easy answer. She wanted a rapid solution an internet answer to a seeming riddle.

It is more complex. These are life issues that need to be explored within parish life and family life. Finding the answer to the question, “What are we here for is the work of a lifetime as well as the enlightenment of an instant.

Likewise the second question. “Is masturbation a sin?”

Behind this is the idea that there is a list of mortal sins and a list of venial sins. The first will send you to hell if you do it just once. The second is ok and you can just say, “Sorry.”

But there is not a list of mortal sins. Yes, we can identify some sins as “grave matter” and others which are not, but even then one has to analyze the person’s culpability as well as the nature of the sin itself.

A person might commit a sexual sin out of immaturity, force of habit, psychological inadequacies while stress, tension and a whole range of circumstances and factors–both internal and external may come into play.

This is not to say the action is not a sin, but to acknowledge that the objective status of the sin is considered in conjunction with the person’s culpability and that is affected by the subjective circumstances.

Here’s an example. When Mrs. Jones comes in wearing a hideous hat and says, “Do you like my new hat?” you might realize she has self esteem problems or a quick temper so you lie and say, “It’s beautiful!” It’s a lie and it’s a sin, but your culpability is low. This is because to determine culpability we assess intentions, possible outcome and circumstances. You lied to soothe her self esteem and to avoid a blow up over a trivial issue. Is it a lie? Yes. Is it a sin? Technically yes. Are you going to hell? Probably not.

However, let’s say you plan an elaborate lie to destroy a competitor’s business. He goes bankrupt, his wife leaves him and he commits suicide. Such a lie is a mortal sin and you’re in deep trouble.

Both are lies. Both are sins. One’s culpability for the first is negligible. One’s guilt of the second is severe.

Yes, there are some sins, which by their very nature are gravely disordered, but even then, one’s culpability is variable.

Let’s say a fourteen year old girl gets pregnant by her uncle. Her father and her uncle haul her off to an abortionist to “solve the problem.” She agrees. However, she hardly knows what has happened to her and does not understand what an abortion is. Her culpability for the sin is minimal. The culpability of the abortionist, the father and the uncle is severe.

So is there a list of mortal sins? Sorry. There is not.

Instead we approach each sin with sorrow and repentance and with a good confessor we work through the sin struggle to find God’s wholeness, healing and forgiveness.