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On Temptation, Sin, SIN…and Priests

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 23, 2012

Sometimes we don’t know in advance whose toes we’re going to crunch. Such was the case when I had a little fun with the intense moralism of a recent book review in my City Gates item entitled Adultery of the Heart. I confess that I was taken by surprise when several users posted Sound Off! comments insisting in no uncertain terms that a person who had considered committing adultery but ultimately decided against it had in fact already committed a mortal sin of the mind.

If you read through the discussion, you’ll see a good deal of confusion in terminology. Nobody knows the exact details of the particular case (unless they’ve read the novel in question, Toward the Gleam), because I did not summarize the scene in detail. So there is justifiable confusion over what it means to “plan” to sin in this case, and of course over how much the character in the book deliberately entertained the temptation to adultery in his mind. (There was an eruption of “chemistry” at a private business lunch in a distant country, resulting in a temptation-laden agreement to meet again later, an assignation the hero rightly decided not to keep.) But the rapidity and certainty with which some respondents have judged a moral struggle to include a mortal sin raises, in my own mind, an enormous red flag.

Initial caveats are absolutely essential here: First, good Catholics can disagree over whether a particular moral struggle includes any actual sin. Second, they can disagree over whether a particular sin is mortal. There are at least four problems of perception here which cannot be infallibly solved:

The first is the line between temptation and sin, the perception of which is a heavy cross for those who suffer from scrupulosity. I presume we have all experienced a prolonged temptation at some point. We may entertain it briefly at some times, and then collect ourselves to reject at others, and—if it concerns the commission of some external act—in the end we either commit or avoid the act. The presence of sin in this process is far from clear, and it takes a skilled confessor to assist a troubled penitent in discerning the truth.

The second perceptual problem is the line between inadvertence and the formal knowledge of and decision for evil. For a sin to be mortal for me, I must know that it is gravely evil (grave matter) and I must decide to do it “anyway”. Now punching someone hard in the face is presumably gravely evil (self-defense excepted). Moreover, I well know that punching someone in the face is gravely evil. Now let us assume that some person with a deliciously vulnerable face calls my wife a “bitch”, prompting me to punch him immediately. I knew before the punch that it was wrong, but did I advert to that knowledge and decide to do it “anyway”? It takes a skilled confessor to assist a troubled penitent in discerning the truth.

The third perceptual problem is the line between compulsion (or any other mitigating factor) and the full consent of the will. Our sins are not like those of angels, who are subject neither to passions nor to psycho-somatic disorders. Our behaviors can be influenced very strongly by disordered tendencies or even outside pressures which are extremely difficult to control. Within the normal human range, this does not eliminate responsibility, but it can reduce it. In a struggle against compulsion, the resulting sin may not involve full consent of the will, and so may not be mortal. It takes a skilled confessor to assist a troubled penitent in discerning the truth.

And the fourth perceptual problem is the line between mortal and venial sin with respect to grave matter. What is a grave offense for you might not be a grave offense for me, depending on our respective degrees of spiritual progress. But this is not what the Church means when she requires “grave matter” for a sin to be mortal. The requirement here is that the matter itself be objectively serious, on a scale of moral gravity. Murder is more serious than name-calling, adultery is more serious than private sexual sins, a sinful action is more serious than a sinful thought of the same kind, stealing $10,000 from your neighbor is more serious than taking two pieces of candy from the bowl on his table when you were offered only one. But what is clear at the extremes is often unclear elsewhere, leading theologians down through the centuries to very different opinions.

And when we combine the difficulties of defining this issue of gravity with all the other perceptual problems I’ve mentioned, what we find, once again, is this:

It takes a skilled confessor to assist a troubled penitent in discerning the truth.

Now you may think I have become a Johnny One Note, but I must insist on this vital point. The ultimate determination of these things does not belong to lay persons—even lay persons as brilliant and undoubtedly spiritually perceptive as myself—who are perhaps overly fond of making pronouncements in the public press. I raised the question with respect to a fictional character and, in this context, I believe it is both interesting and worthwhile. But we must beware lest our pronouncements on the sins of fictional characters be taken by others to pass a certain judgment on themselves. No: The determination for real persons belongs to priests in the Sacrament of Penance.

I have only one more point I wish to make about a matter that, as I have indicated, is not at all easily settled. This concerns a potential misunderstanding of certain passages in Scripture in which Our Lord speaks about the gravity of sin. From the point of view of a soul striving to love God, all sin is serious. Moreover, Our Lord certainly wants us to recognize the sinfulness which clings to us even when we do not commit abominable external acts—our sinfulness of heart and mind. But when He speaks about these things, He is not offering a catechesis on the distinction between mortal and venial sins.

Thus when He says “every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:28), He no more means to condemn every lustful thought as a mortal sin than he means to condemn every angry feeling or imprudent outburst as mortally sinful when He says: “Every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; … and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire” (Mt 5:22).

This we know, among other ways, through the subsequent teachings and spiritual wisdom of the Church. And for the rest, it takes a skilled confessor to assist a troubled penitent in discerning the truth—a confessor who may in fact choose not to express so definitive a judgment. He may say simply this: “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and do not sin again” (Jn 8:11).

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: wojo425627 - Feb. 27, 2012 10:58 AM ET USA

    Two books that make the same distinctions as Dr. Mirus are The faith in Practice by Phillip Hughes and Charity and sex and the young man by Fr. Herbert Raterman. Both these books make distinctions toward sin and personal actions that may be habitual. For example, solitary sexual sins after having been indulged in for a while can become habitual in a way, but if you have an intention to resist even though you may fall it can lessen your guilt.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 24, 2012 8:06 AM ET USA

    " . . . He no more means to condemn every lustful thought as a mortal sin . . . " True, but neither does he relegate every such sin to light sins. One CAN sin mortally in the internal forum (as the canonists say), even if it does not result in sin in the external forum. I took you to be saying earlier that sins of thought cannot be mortal if they don't terminate in sins of act - it is that position that I feel is incompatible with Church teaching.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 24, 2012 6:50 AM ET USA

    Nice work. There is great mystery in this area of sin and temptation. Even Our Lord indulged Satan in this regard, enduring his temptations in the desert. In some deep and mystical way the temptations of the flesh- and even the consequences of sin, at times- are indispensible in our lives as we work for salvation. And, in the end, this enigmatic aspect of human existence brings glory to God through the manifestation of His undying mercy and His eternal love for each one of us. Thank you.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 23, 2012 5:14 PM ET USA

    I agree with Mr. Burton on this post and Mr. (Dr.?) Montock on the other. Planning a sin is equally greivous to actually committing one. Planning requires consent of the intellect AND will. To me, you're almost trivializing sin, because mortal sin is a spiritual heart attack. You're dead. You need contrition, confession, and penance - stat! We need to be very conservative in how we judge mortal sin. I feel your approach, claiming in the comments that thoughts are rarely mortal, is dangerous.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 23, 2012 5:00 PM ET USA

    I don't think this issue is being over-analyzed; I thoroughly enjoyed the line of thinking and the issues raised. For me the main point of Jeff's letter is this : "But we must beware lest our pronouncements on the sins of fictional characters be taken by others to pass a certain judgment on themselves. " Well done!

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Feb. 23, 2012 2:31 PM ET USA

    All the more reason to confess frequently and mention areas of weakness and temptation. A good confessor is a rare thing and outside the realm of our control. A good confession is not.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 23, 2012 1:43 PM ET USA

    You are over-analyzing this. If I learn that a friend had plans to cheat on his wife then came to his senses, I am thankful to hear as such and instruct him to make it to confession as fast as humanly possible. This is not sitting in judgement but acting in love. Analyzing whether his unchastity has any mitigating circumstances is foolishness and even a poorly informed conscience would carry the heavy burden of guilt. "Honey, I didn't technically cheat on you, I only made the hotel reservation."