“I Haven’t Killed Anyone!” What Serious Sins Will Exclude Us From the Kingdom of God?
Right after Vatican II, there was an explosion of interest in moral theology. The “fundamental option” theory gained wide notice in both scholarly journals and in popular Catholic culture. Many people got the impression–and many still have it–that if one’s overall life is pointed in a good direction, particular sinful acts may not exclude us from the kingdom. This interpretation was definitively rejected in Blessed John Paul II’s important encyclical on the moral life, Veritatis Splendor.(Henceforth, VS)
The Pope definitively taught, in continuity with the Church’s tradition, that particular acts can change our fundamental option, and that we can’t dissociate a fundamental option “for God” from particular acts of the body that contradict such an option. The Pope reaffirmed the teaching of the Council of Trent and of Scripture, that our salvation can be lost, not only by acts of apostasy by which faith itself is lost, but also by any other mortal sin. The Pope repeats the usual teaching that mortal sin involves grave matter, sufficient reflection, and full consent of the will. (VS 49, 67- 68)
Another source of confusion after Vatican II were trends in moral theology that exalted the role of individual conscience in making moral choices, without sufficiently stressing that we have an obligation to seek out the truth about what is right and wrong, and act in accordance with it, as opposed to “deciding for ourselves” what we think is right and wrong.
Again, (soon to be “Saint”) John Paul II taught that the moral law is to be recognized, discovered in the reflection of reason and attention to Divine Revelation, and that conscience is the application of this natural–embedded in human nature and susceptible to discovery by the intellect–and divine–explicitly and fully revealed in the Sacred Scripture–moral law in particular circumstances. The moral law is to be discovered and obeyed, with the help of grace, not “thought up” or “made up,” or “received” from a post-Christian culture, or determined by what is legal, or by what the majority think is right or wrong, or a by pastiche of personal opinions and preferences. (VS 36, 40, 58-60)
And like Vatican II, Veritatis Splendor called for a greater attention to Sacred Scripture in the grounding of moral theology. Let’s look now at some particular texts of Scripture that spell out in some detail what acts will exclude us from the kingdom of God, if not repented from. Before we do so, let’s recall the way the Catholic Church views the authority and reliability of Scripture.
Since, therefore, all that the inspired authors, or sacred writers, affirm should be affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Sacred Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures. (Dei Verbum 11).
And now some important texts (I’m bolding some sentences for emphasis):
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived, neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers, will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9-10)
And, as Paul often does, he repeats what is particularly important for us to understand:
For you were called to freedom, brethren: only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another … Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal 5:13, 19-21)
We also find this clear warning in Ephesians:
Be sure of this, that no immoral or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. (Eph 5:5-6)
And, again, in the book of Revelation:
Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. (Rev 22:14-15)
If we’re not shocked by these texts, we haven’t been paying attention. A lot of seriously sinful acts have the potential to exclude us from the Kingdom. Take fornication as an example. We live in a culture that has come to accept fornication (sexual relations between two unmarried persons of the opposite sex) as normal and morally permissible. This belief has become common, even among Catholics. Many priests and deacons lament how pervasive it has become for Catholics to engage in sexual relationships with each other outside of marriage, who also wish to get married “in church.”
Or take the matter of the active practice of homosexuality (in contrast to homosexual inclination that is not acted on). Again, many Catholics, particularly young Catholics, just in the last 10 years have come to believe that active homosexuality is morally permissible, and should be viewed with equal regard–and even recognized as “marriage”–on an equivalent basis with heterosexual marriage.
Or how about greed or covetousness? Or anger or jealousy? When greed or covetousness or anger or jealousy is not just a passing inclination or emotion, but is something that is given in to and willed, often leading to other sinful actions, Scripture indicates that this will exclude us from the kingdom. It was out of jealousy that the Jewish leaders desired to kill Jesus, and, then “filled with jealousy,” the apostles. (Acts 5:17; 13: 45) Jesus made clear that it may not only be evil choices of the will that lead to subsequent sinful actions that will exclude us from the kingdom, but also even if we “only” harden our hearts in these wicked complex of thoughts, attitudes, and emotions that, in itself, can exclude us from the kingdom. (Mt. 5:20-32) The anger that hardens into unforgiveness, for example, may seal us off from God’s mercy. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask that God measure forgiveness to us as we measure it to others!
It is not uncommon to hear people say: “Well, most people are good, they’re not murderers!” As is clear from the lists above, murder is only one of a number of actions that can exclude people from the kingdom. Unfortunately, some of the most popular and widespread sins–which in many cases are no longer considered sins–can exclude us from the kingdom as well.
Why aren’t we more concerned about how even many of our fellow Catholics are engaging in behaviors (“lifestyles”), or accepting, or even approving them, in others, that scripture says will exclude them from the kingdom?
One reason is that we have heard that it is virtually impossible to commit a mortal sin, and that most of the people who appear to be committing mortal sins, since they are doing things that are objectively and gravely wrong, are not giving sufficient reflection to what they are doing, or giving full consent of the will–the other two conditions necessary for mortal sin. Blessed John Paul II, aware of this line of reasoning, that would make the actual existence of mortal sins very rare, reaffirms the traditional teaching:
Both in moral theology and in pastoral practice one is familiar with cases in which an act which is grave by reason of its matter does not constitute a mortal sin because of a lack of full awareness or deliberate consent on the part of the person performing it. Even so, “care will have to be taken not to reduce mortal sin to an act of ‘fundamental option’ – as is commonly said today – against ‘God”, seen either as an explicit and formal rejection of God and neighbor or as an implicit and unconscious rejection of love. “For mortal sin exists also when a person knowingly and willingly, for whatever reason, chooses something gravely disordered. In fact, such a choice already includes contempt for the divine law, a rejection of God’s love for humanity and the whole of creation: the person turns away from God and loses charity. Consequently, the fundamental orientation can be radically changed by particular acts.” (VS 70–the internal quote is from Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 17)
Another reason we seem to be rather unconcerned about the growing numbers of Catholics engaging in, or approving of, gravely wrong actions and lifestyles is that we have heard that they probably are in “good conscience” and have, in their own consciences, decided that such behavior is morally permissible.
Reflections on the Current Situation
It’s true that many Catholics today have never heard clear and authoritative teaching on what serious sin is, and why it excludes us from the kingdom of God. The failure of those charged with preaching and teaching to clearly communicate such important truth has clearly contributed to the current confusion. But does this make Catholics who engage in these behaviors guiltless? Are they truly not culpable for their ignorance? Only God can judge individual cases, but there are some considerations that should give us pause.
First of all, Scripture (and Church teaching) make clear that apart from all preaching and teaching, God himself reveals basic truths to the human race, both as regards his existence, and as to the basics of the moral law. In other words, every person, whatever their exposure to Church teaching has been, or even if it has been non-existent, has been enlightened to some extent by God himself, and will be held accountable to how they have responded to the light they have been given.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. (Rom 1: 18-21)
Not only is God’s existence revealed, and the implied obligation to seek him and discover his will, but also the basic elements of the moral law is also revealed to each person.
Romans 2 makes clear that each person will be judged on the basis of their response to the measure of light that God gave them, whether Jew or Gentile.
Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality” (Rom 2: 3-11).
This truth is clearly affirmed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputabililty of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man (CCC 1860).
Secondly, the immoral behavior can itself be evidence that underlying such immorality is a prior culpable rejection of God’s revelation of himself that is given to all human beings.
Most chillingly, Scripture reveals that the spiritual rebellion, the refusal to submit to God’s light, leads to an intellectual blindness and moral depravity. The very blindness and bondage to sin is itself a judgment of God on the fundamental sin of unbelief, and refusal to obey. The wickedness is compounded by urging others to abandon the “narrow way that leads to life,” and join the wicked on the “broad way that leads to destruction”(Mt 7:13-14). Celebrating and approving immorality is characteristic of the darkened mind, and a sign of God’s judgment. When wickedness appears to be triumphing, the truth is that the wicked are only storing up wrath for the Day of Judgment (Rom 2:5), as well as participating in a preliminary way in the moral truth of the universe that the “wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).
Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. Therefore, God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them. (Rom 1:22-32)
Thirdly, the witness of scripture, Church teaching, and reflection on our own human experience, show us that sometimes gravely wrong actions can be chosen “knowingly and willingly” (VS 70) in an instant, that then is covered by layers of rationalizations to obscure even to the person himself or herself the very knowledge he or she had, but rejected, and the sinful choice he or she made instead.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it:
Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It pre-supposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin. (CCC 1859)
Fourthly, while there can be mitigating factors that diminish, or even remove, the culpability of gravely wrong actions–through possible limitations on full consent, rooted in theories of addictive behavior or choice impeded by “passion” (CCC 1860)–Augustine, in his masterful description of how the chains of sin are woven in a human person, shows how there can be culpable choice, even in apparent cases like these. In his profoundly insightful description of how the chains of sin are woven through repeated choices over time, Augustine points out that, even though a person may have become a “slave to sin,” and is currently no longer free to stop sinning–apart from the grace of God–the slavery may be the culmination of a series of free acts that led to slavery. And, therefore, the slavery, while real, has been self-chosen by repeated decisions to do gravely wrong things, and he/she is, therefore, culpable. (Confessions, Book VIII, nos. 10-11; see also Book X, nos. 33-34)
Fifthly, the encounter of the hearts of human beings with the Gospel (as revealed in Scripture) shows that it is often rejected, as well as accepted. Therefore, it is not reasonable to suppose, then, that virtually all the apparent “rejection” is rooted in inculpable ignorance, or insufficient reflection, or freedom of choice. Or as Vatican II puts it: the possibility of people being saved who haven’t had a chance to hear the Gospel–while it’s theoretically possible, under certain circumstances for that to be the case–“very often” the conditions aren’t met because of the ever-present influence of the world, the flesh, and the devil on the choices for evil that we often make (Lumen Gentium, 16). Or again, as Vatican II puts it, it is not enough just to be a baptized Catholic, or even a faithful church-goer, but it is necessary to be living faithfully to the grace of God in thought, word, and deed. Otherwise, not only will baptized Catholics not be saved, but they will be “more severely judged.” (Lumen Gentium, 14)
While we cannot judge, as Scripture indicates, whether the subjective guilt or culpability of those doing gravely wrong actions will exclude them from the Kingdom, there is sufficient reason to suppose that many of those committing mortal sins may actually be culpable in their actions and, quite possibly, cause them to be led down the broad road to destruction. Rather than console ourselves into inaction and presumption by supposing them guiltless–nor should we presume them culpable–we must, with great urgency and love, seek every opportunity to help those in such situations to realize their grave danger, and call them to faith and repentance.
Further, no matter what the level of knowledge or consent, sin wounds the human person, and those who are committing serious sin–whatever the degree of culpability–dulling their minds, weakening their wills, defacing the image of God in whose image they are made, and degrading the dignity of their own persons, and others engaged in sin with them.
And, yes, pastoral sensitivity and compassion need to be shown. We need to understand that once a person is caught up in habits of sin, and the journey back can be long and hard. But that journey must be made; it is false compassion, of the worse kind, not to lovingly tell people the truth, inviting them to begin the journey back to the Father’s love.
We shouldn’t be surprised that some will accept, and others will reject, such truth. We shouldn’t be surprised that some, who initially reject, then later accept, or vice versa. Such was the case from the beginning. Our responsibility is to “preach the Gospel whether it’s convenient or inconvenient”–not just because we’ve been commanded by Jesus to do so, or because the “new evangelization” has become a major focus of the contemporary Church–but because the eternal destinies of multitudes are at stake.
One last comment on the immensity of God’s mercy. There has been a particularly strong and helpful emphasis on the immense mercy of God in the contemporary Church. This emphasis has been deepened in devotional power by the revelations given to St. Faustina about God’s mercy, her canonization, and the establishment, by John Paul II, of the Feast of Divine Mercy, which is celebrated on the first Sunday after Easter. Unfortunately, as with virtually every other good gift of God, Satan has tried to neutralize its impact by leading us to ignore important aspects of the revelations given to St. Faustina, and pushing us toward a presumption of mercy, rather than a repentance and conversion in the face of mercy.
The Lord made clear to St. Faustina that he wanted her to communicate the message of his mercy in the context of his Second Coming and Final Judgment. (See St. Faustina’s Diary, 965.) He also took the extraordinary step of having an angel take her on a tour of hell, which she vividly and horrifyingly describes in her Diary (741). As she puts it after she describes what she saw:
I am writing this at the command of God, so that no soul may find an excuse by saying there is no hell, or that nobody has ever been there, and so no one can say what it is like.
I, sister Faustina, by the order of God, have visited the abysses of hell so that I might tell souls about it, and testify to its existence. I cannot speak about it now; but I have received a command from God to leave it in writing. The devils were full of hatred for me, but they had to obey me at the command of God. What I have written is but a pale shadow of the things I saw. But I noticed one thing: that most of the souls there are those who disbelieved that there is a hell.
As priests, deacons and concerned lay people, we have been entrusted with the amazing privilege, and great responsibility, of telling people the truth about how we can be saved, announcing both God’s great mercy in giving us Jesus, and the absolute necessity to respond to that mercy through faith, repentance and obedience. Mercy is not automatically applied; there needs to be a real “yes” to mercy for it to be effective in our lives, for the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life.
About Ralph Martin, S.T.D.
Ralph Martin, S.T.D., is director of graduate theology programs in the New Evangelization at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in the Archdiocese of Detroit. He is also the president of Renewal Ministries (www.renewalministries.net). His most recent books are: The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints, and Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization.
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