I have had multiple conversations with people—people who love the Lord, receive the sacraments, and live a life striving for holiness—who have said something like:
“I’m not normally scrupulous, but when it comes to _______ area of my life, I’m afraid one slip up will be a mortal sin that sends me to hell.”
I’ve experienced this same scrupulosity until just a few years ago and know first hand how it distorts our faith in ugly ways. I say distorts, because this kind of scrupulosity is not what the Church teaches. It is not the Gospel.
A god who damns a person to hell just for breaking a rule is not a good god.
But Jesus told us that God is a shepherd who goes after the runaway sheep in the ditches and thorns to gently carry him back to the flock, a widow ceaselessly scouring her home for what has been lost, a father so eager to welcome his wayward son that he does not even let him finish his apology.
I believe so much of this fear and scrupulosity comes from a lack of trust in our own conscience.
I was talking with a Catholic counselor last year about how the Church’s teaching on conscience is so much more positive and freeing than how I often hear pastors and apologists speak about it (if they speak about it at all).
The Catechism teaches that the conscience “is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths” (CCC 1776).
Our conscience must be formed so that we can properly hear God’s voice directing our lives. The Church says that we form our conscience through regular interior prayer, reading scripture, paying attention to Church teaching, and examining our conscience.
The Catechism says that the "education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart" (CCC 1784).
A conscience can still error, so formation is a dynamic and perpetual thing, but the Church trusts that the Lord will direct the formed consciences of the faithful to do the good in any given circumstance.
If someone has a formed conscience, they can trust that following it won't condemn them. Actually, we are required to follow our conscience and are condemned if we don’t.
God speaks to us through our conscience and shows us our weaknesses and circumstances and, in light of that reality, the next step he wants us to take as we progress in a life of grace—even if that step does not yet fully meet the objective demands of the moral law.
None of this is to say that mortal sin isn't possible. The Church is clear that we have the radial freedom to reject God’s grace just as we have the radical freedom to love. But I think mortal sin looks a lot different than what most Catholics suspect.
In his encyclical about hope, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict described the kind of person who goes to hell, in other words he described what a freely chosen mortal sin looks like. Benedict said:
"With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell."
Mortal sin is not a technicality. It's not merely breaking a rule. It's not a slip up or a mistake. You cannot "fall" into mortal sin or accidently trip into hell. Hell is a free and conscious choice, or choices, to destroy our desire for truth and goodness.
At every funeral Mass, towards the end, when the priest is standing by the casket, he prays:
"Into your hands, Father of mercies, we commend our brother/sister N. in the sure and certain hope that, together with all who have died in Christ, he/she will rise with him."
Sure and certain hope.
Christians ought to have sure and certain hope in their salvation because we believe baptism does what the Church says it does and that God is who he says he is. Period.
Now, we ought to be afraid of the unforgiveable sin, which is precisely the refusal to accept God’s forgiveness. It is the description that Pope Benedict offers above. “Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss” (CCC 1864).
To be clear, this hardness of heart may not look like we think it does. The pope teaches that “God is mysteriously present in the life of every person” and “even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there” (Gaudete et Exsultate 42).
As long we have not totally destroyed our desire for truth and our readiness to love, as long as we keep returning to God to receive his infinite mercy, there is no reason to fear—even if our lives appear to be a total wreck. In fact, Pope Francis teaches that “in the faith that unites us to the cross of Christ, we are freed of our sins; we put aside all fear and dread, as unbefitting those who are loved (cf. 1 Jn 4:18)."
Fear of hell is unbefitting for those who are loved.
The Catechism makes the astonishing claim that the "more we share the life of Christ and progress in his friendship, the more difficult it is to break away from him by mortal sin" (CCC 1395).
The more we grow in the life of grace — the more grace has made us like Christ — the less able we are to sin. Not because we become less free, but more free. Through grace, our minds and wills are being transformed to be like Christ's mind and will.
God shows us the behaviors that will lead to our freedom and happiness, he gives us the strength to live them out, and he transforms our hearts so that we desire to live that way.
This is true freedom: not only being able to live as Christ lived and love like Christ loved, but doing so with ease and joy because it is our own heart’s desire.
So if someone is genuinely growing in the life of grace, while mortal sin is indeed a possibility, it's going to be severe and obvious. It won’t be a mere slip up or technicality.
Ministers and catechists please take note, this scrupulous fear of mortal sin does not come out of nowhere. I learned it from others who thought they were passing on the true faith. And in my negligent ignorance, I used to pass it on to my own students.
It was in part through multiple people telling me that “the Church doesn’t actually teach that” and “this is who God really is” that the Lord healed me of my own scrupulosity.
We must do better at helping the faithful trust their consciences and live a life of freedom and peace. We need to share with others what the Church actually teaches and push back against those who are abusing the consciences of others with fear and shame.
We must do better at revealing, and not distorting, the true character of God our Father.