A horror story bounced back to me the other day about some awful RCIA class where the instructor told the catechumen that there was no such thing as objective sin, but that sin was purely subjective.
I feel so sorry for enthusiastic Evangelicals who really love God, know their Scriptures and have come close to the Catholic Church by reading apologetics materials and watching EWTN and meeting some orthodox Catholic family members and friends. Then they turn up at their local Catholic Church and too often they find dreary liturgies, banal music, sentimental or politically correct feel good sermons, shopping mall architetcure and semi-Protestant liberal theology.
Is sin objective or subjective? The answer is that sin is both. It is objective, but there is a subjective or flexible element in determining one’s culpability or how much one is actually guilty of that objective sin. There are two dimensions which help to determine culpability: circumstances and intention. The circumstances of a particular event and the person’s intentions may lessen the person’s culpability for a serious sin and increase their culpability for what might be otherwise a minor sin.
So, for example, abortion is a grave sin. It is never right. However, a teen mother who is pressured into an abortion by parents, doctor and boyfried–a girl who is ignorant of what is really going on and does not intend to ‘kill a baby’. Would be much less culpable than the doctor who performs the abortion or the parent or boyfriend who procures the abortion and knows clearly what he is doing.
Likewise, we might think that a lie is a minor sin, and there are many lies which are venial sins. A ‘white lie’ when you compliment someone and don’t mean it, is still a sin. However, your intention was to be kind to the person and the circumstances mean that it was done without thought and was simply a social response. The lie is still wrong, but one’s culpability in that situation is negligable.
On the other hand, circumstances and intention could make one’s culpability for a lie very serious indeed. If you lied in a business contract with the intention of defrauding a business partner to get his property, and then his life was destroyed, his family broken and he ended up taking his life, your lie would be a very grave sin and your culpability very high.
This is why the church cannot give a list of mortal sins. While it is pretty clear what a sin is, what remains fuzzy is the matter of one’s culpability. Therefore a good confessor will help the penitent (both those who’s awareness of sin is acute and those who’s conscience is dulled) to examine their conscience not only about the sins they have committed, but the question of intention and circumstance. This should be done not with an attempt to ameliorate sin, but to sharpen the conscience and make the confession more precise and complete.