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Confessing grave matter
A reader asked me if I would further explanation of something I wrote yesterday.
In that article, I shared that I recently heard a podcast hosted by a couple of young priests. In this episode they said that the Church asks us to confess serious sin (grave matter) regardless of knowledge and free will because we aren’t capable of discerning our own culpability in any given situation. They also went on to say that the faithful can reasonably expect God to free them from habitual grave matter in this life.
I’m not interested in criticizing this podcast. I’ve been a listener for years and think it’s valuable overall. I brought this point up in my post yesterday as an illustration of why it’s important for everyone, even priests and bishops, to be formed by the Catechism. And I’m bringing it up again now because I was asked to explain how what they said isn’t in line with the Church’s teaching.
In this podcast, the priests identified “serious sin” with “grave matter.” To remind readers, the Catechism teaches that, “For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: ‘Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent’” (CCC 1857).
Grave matter is identified as a breaking one of the Ten Commandments. Mortal sin also “presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God's law” and it “implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice” (CCC 1859).
Two things to note here. First all three conditions must be met for there to be a mortal sin. It’s like a basic recipe for cookies that uses flour, butter, and sugar. Without any one of those ingredients it’s not a cookie. Therefore, when someone commits an act of grave evil, they have not necessarily separated themselves from God because grave matter is only one of the three necessary ingredients of a mortal sin.
Second, a deliberate action isn’t always a free “personal choice.” If someone is holding my family at gunpoint demanding that I rob the bank or they will kill my family, my robbing the bank may be deliberate, but it’s certainly not free. The Catechism says that “ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” can reduce or even nullify someone’s culpability (CCC 1735).
To get back to the podcast. The priests’ statements can be broken down into three claims
The Church asks us to confess serious sin (grave matter) regardless of knowledge and free will
We aren’t capable of discerning our own culpability in any given situation
We can reasonably expect God to free us from habitual grave matter in this life
I have five critiques of the those claims
None of these three claims are in the Catechism or in any magisterial source that I’ve read. If a grave action lacks sufficient knowledge or freedom them it’s a venial sin. The Catechism does encourage folks to bring their venial sins to confession, “Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church” (CCC 1458). However, encouragement is not requirement. Now, I haven’t read everything, maybe I’ve missed a magisterial text. But given what else is taught by the Church, I highly doubt these claims are true.
If I treat grave mater as if it were a mortal sin, then I would abstain from Communion until I brought that grave matter to Confession. I lived this way for years when I was younger. And the priests presumed that in their discussion here by commenting on how it’s just fine to abstain from Communion sometimes. And yes, it is fine to abstain from Communion. However, if someone is struggling with sin, Communion is precisely the medicine that the Church prescribes for them. The Catechism says, “the Eucharist strengthens our charity, which tends to be weakened in daily life; and this living charity wipes away venial sins” and “by the same charity that it enkindles in us, the Eucharist preserves us from future mortal sins” (CCC 1394-1395).
This practical equivocating of grave matter and mortal sin can be harmful for anyone struggling with scrupulosity. It can encourage someone to believe that every time they act on habitual grave matter or addiction they are cut off from God, from the Church, and at risk of hell. Further, equivocating grave matter and mortal sin lies about who God is. It says that God is more concerned with our external actions than with our hearts, that He’s more concerned with how well we preform than with our actual capacity to follow Him in the midst of our weaknesses and circumstances.
Pope Francis teaches in Amoris Laetitia that our conscience is able to know our capacity to live out the moral law, (i.e. our level of freedom) in any given situation. He teaches, “Conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal (AL 303). So to say that we cannot know our own level of culpability is, in my assessment, not true.
Finally, regarding that last claim specifically, that we can reasonably expect God to free us from habitual grave matter in this life, the reality of addiction bears out that this is false. St. Mark Ji Tianxiang’s life and death disprove this claim. St. Mark was born in China in 1834. When he was in his 30s he became addicted to opium. This addiction lasted decades. He died a martyr in 1900, still addicted to opium. God did not free St. Mark from drug addiction during his earthly life.