Apologetics - Reconciliation II: Mortal Sin, Conscience, Indulgences

Mortal Sin

Catholic Doctrine

Definition of mortal sin - Par 1855 (CAT) Conditions of a mortal sin - Par 1857-1860 (CAT)

Fundamentalist Criticism

All sin is mortal.” “The Bible teaches that the spiritual consequence of every sin is the death penalty, eternal separation from God in the lake of fire.” See Rev. 20:14,15 (My bible doesn’t say that!) (Rome, p.84) “The soul who sins will die.” (Ezekiel 18:4) “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23)

This is not to say that every sin is equally wicked or abhorrent to God. Scripture teaches that some sins are more evil than others and will be judged accordingly. (John 19:11, Matthew 10:15) Jesus taught that there will be degrees of eternal punishment in hell (Luke 12:47,48) Nonetheless, the Lord never distinguished between sins in terms of their ultimate penalty. Jesus taught that every sin warrants eternal punishment in hell. He taught that the sin of anger brings the same punishment as the sin of murder (Matthew 5:21, 22), and the sin of lust the same penalty as the sin of adultery (Matthew 5:27-30). Roman Catholicism, on the other hand teaches that some sins are “light sins, [1863] minor infractions of the moral laws of God [1862-1863]. Telling a small lie or stealing something inexpensive is somehow different from telling a big lie or committing grand theft. Small sins, venial sins, do not bring eternal punishment. A baptized Catholic who does not commit a mortal sin remains in a state of grace even if he is habitually guilty of a multitude of venial sins [1863]. The Scriptures, on the other hand, teach that if a person’s life is characterized by any kind of sin, he should not consider himself a born-again Christian: (1 John 3:7-9) “ (Rome pp. 84-85)

Roman Catholic theology, on the other hand, consistently undermines the seriousness of sin and its consequences, most notably by teaching that most sins are not punishable by death.” (Rome, p. 87)

Apologetic Response

The concept of mortal sin has been a necessary part of the Christian message since the very beginning. Literally dozens of passages in the New Testament proclaim it as a fearful reality, and these were taken with absolute seriousness by the early Church Fathers.

It was not until the time of John Calvin that anyone would claim that it was impossible for a true Christian to lose his salvation. That teaching (which was not even shared by Martin Luther and his followers) was a theological novelty of the mid-sixteenth century which would have been condemned as a dangerous heresy by all previous generations of Christians--dangerous because it would either drive people to the despair of thinking they had never been true Christians if they had committed grave sins (followed by anxiety over whether any subsequent conversion was genuine since their first ones had not been genuine according to this teaching) or it would drive them into thinking that their grave sins were really not grave at all, for no true Christian could have committed such sins.

In time the "once saved, always saved" teaching even degenerated in many Evangelical circles to the point that some would claim that a Christian could commit grave sins and still remain saved.

Fortunately, most Christians today reject the teaching error and acknowledge that there are at least some mortal sins--sins which can crush the spiritual life out of the soul and deprive a person of salvation unless he repents. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Pentecostals--all acknowledge the possibility of mortal sin at least in some form. Only Presbyterians, Baptists, and those who have been influenced by Presbyterians and Baptists maintain the opposite.

The early Church Fathers, of course, were unanimous in teaching the reality of mortal sin. They had to because they also unanimously accepted the essential Christian teaching that "baptism . . . now saves you" (1 Peter. 3:21; see the Fathers Know Best pamphlets "Baptismal Grace," and "Born of Water and the Spirit"). But since in the persecutions some baptized people denied Christ, and since Christ taught that "whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 10:33), the Church Fathers recognized that it was possible to lose salvation after baptism.

The idea one could never lose salvation would have been unimaginable to them since it was evident from the Bible that baptism saves, that the baptized can deny Christ, and that those who deny Christ will not be saved unless they repent (as did Peter).

It was equally unthinkable to predestinarian thinkers, such as Augustine, who in his book the Gift of Perseverance, just two years before he died, taught that not all who were predestined to come to God's grace were predestined to remain with him until glory. This was, in fact, the teaching of all the high predestinarians (Augustine, Fulgence, Aquinas, Luther)--until the time of Calvin.” (www.catholic.com/answers/tracts/_mortal.htm)

Sins are rightly evaluated according to their gravity. The distinction between mortal and venial sin, already evident in Scripture (1 John 16-17) became part of the tradition of the Church. It is corroborated by human experience.” (CAT, Par. 1854)

Fundamentalist Criticism

This interpretation (of 1 John 17 as a biblical basis for dividing sin into categories of mortal and venial) ignores the context of the passage. The epistle is written to Christians influenced by the heresy of Gnosticism. False prophets were teaching that only the spiritual realm mattered. One’s behavior in the flesh was irrelevant. They even denied that Jesus had come in the flesh. John exhorts the Christians to hold fast to the truth. He assures them that they can pray with confidence that God will hear and answer their requests...... 1 John 5:17, therefore, is not speaking about different punishments for sin, but rather, a special condition when intercessory prayer is inappropriate. If a person commits a “sin leading to death,” here the sin of apostasy, no intercession is to be made, for God is not willing to grant that request.” (Rome, pp. 360-361)

Apologetic Response

The scripture is clear. Note that McCarthy never develops an argument for what he is refuting - he only lists some facts and then zings in a conclusion. But it is interesting to note that he says that intercessory prayer is OK except for this condition. But why is intercessory prayer necessary at all, if, as McCarthy states, “Biblical justification is perfect and complete.” (Rome p.65)

Fundamentalist Criticism

Since the Catholic Church teaches that justification can be lost by mortal sin, a person can only know he retains his justification if he is certain he has not committed mortal sin. But in Catholic teaching, such knowledge is problematic. Mortal sin is not always clearly defined and so certain knowledge of having committed such a sin is not possible.” (P&C, p. 51)

Apologetic Response

But it is defined! Grave matter defined in [1858]. (CAT) Full knowledge and complete consent - we need to know something about the principles of moral law, “written in the conscience of every man.”


Catholic Doctrine

See CAT [1776-1802]

Some notes from a talk on “Conscience and the Church’s Teachings “ given at the Defending the Faith VI Conference at Steubenville, 1995, by Rhonda Chevin:

Are we ready to answer the question: since the Church’s teaching changed on slavery, why can’t it change on contraception?

Relative morality knows no absolutes: Was Hitler’s morality OK? If a teacher flunks all in a class because he feels like it, is that OK? If someone cuts you off on the road, do you respond by saying that they have a different value system? From experience, we know that there are moral absolutes!

Humanae Vitae Many early false teaching preached that the Church position will change. It’s not easy when we have to make even the smallest of sacrifices to be in accordance with a Church teaching.

Value Blindness In the 19th century honor was more important than anything, including life, so duels were common. Based on scripture: “an honorable name is more important than life” Value blind: today, we see this as immoral where in 19th century contraception seen as immoral. Why we are blind to contraception: 1) technical society gives quick fixes 2) out of touch with natural rhythms

Do Church teachings change? We need to study the issues until we understand the teaching: study in the Catechism or a good Catholic encyclopedia. Looking up in other places has pitfalls - 1) scripture words are different - fornication is mentioned in many places, how many people understand what the Bible means by fornication? 2) doctrine sometimes written in a foreign language we don’t understand, can’t translate

Usury Still wrong but today interest on loans is ok. Depends on definition: exorbitant interest to exploit the poor is wrong. Banking system changed: now minimal interest is a service to poor and justice to the owner But Thomas Acquinas said charging interest was wrong! But he isn’t infallible! Slavery Some evils are tolerated because better than the alternative Slavery intrinsic evils: breaking up family, concubines, etc. Given societal acceptance, OK to own slaves if Catholic gives the person a better life vs. someone else mistreats the person. Natural law ethics: nothing contrary to selling services for lifetime room and board. Why tolerate evil at all? Look at our value blindness: raising money for the truly needy vs. middle class life style. Should a pastor accept this - can congregation give more? We are so attached to our lifestyle even though it is more than what the Gospel teaches. Does the Church teach having 5 TVs is OK when people are starving?

Conscience issues in the Church Vatican II, Declaration on Religious Freedom: “In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience faithfully, in order that he may come to God, for whom he was created. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious.” If ignorant, one can’t be punished for doing something wrong. BUT, an informed conscience must be developed. See 1783 of Catechism. It’s easy to see clearly when dealing with a sin that we’re not tempted to. For sins we’re tempted to we tend to prefer our own judgment then the Church’s judgment. Examples: 1) Married woman going to priest about pill but priest says to follow conscience. Woman knows the teaching - WE MUST KNOW WHAT IS INTRINSICALLY WRONG. 2) David and Bethsheba: Adultery is evil but David doesn’t see it until the prophet points out the sin to David. 3) Pre-marital sex: everyone is doing it, we love each other but then pregnancy, don’t want marriage base on pregnancy, abortion. 4) Drinking and driving: when you hit someone your value blindness goes away quickly, didn’t see it before because fun to go to parties and drink.

So, conscience can be deceived.

Why have conscience? Conscience is important on deciding between goods but not on deciding if an intrinsic evil is OK. We need to be pure of heart and follow teachings of the Church.

What about people who don’t see contraceptives as wrong? If teachings would change, then the Church doesn’t have teaching authority on faith and morals. If the Church consistently teaches on something being intrinsically evil, it becomes part of magisterium.

What to do if you don’t agree on moral teaching: 1) Don’t try to understand the teaching (don’t do research), just follow the teaching. 2) Faith seeking understanding: follow the teaching but do research, beg the Holy Spirit to show you why you don’t understand it while you find understanding.

We need to come up with self-understanding and explanation of teachings. Example: contraceptives There is something beautiful about differences. ‘60’s civil rights movement: “Black is beautiful.” When a woman is fertile and says must get rid of this gift to be like a man, this is the wrong kind of equality because this is a sacred time. Natural family planning says I can’t use this gift of fertility now where contraception says I’ll destroy the gift. In a Church, a priest can pray or say Mass. If he brings the elements together, it is wrong for him to say a black mass, by saying, this is not my body, not my blood.

You can shock people out of their value blindness when you interiorize Church teaching such that you can formulate the teaching in your own way.

Fundamentalist Criticism

Silence on conscience!

Apologetic Response

Protestants are silent because it doesn’t fit in with their redemption paradigm. The sacrament of reconciliation is a way to help us develop our conscience.


Catholic Doctrine Defined in CAT [1471-1479]

What indulgences are and how they're obtained are explained in the Catholic Answers tract "Introduction to Indulgences." That tract refers to the official listing of indulgences, the Enchiridion of Indulgences. An appendix to that document is Indulgentiarum Doctrina, an apostolic constitution on, as the name suggests, the doctrine of indulgences. This document was issued by Pope Paul VI in 1967 and in it he explains the doctrine and provides the biblical and theological basis for this most misunderstood of beliefs. In this tract we'll look at what's said and at some of its supporting notes.

The constitution begins with a reminder that a full understanding of Catholic doctrines comes not just through an examination of formal doctrinal statements, but also through an examination of the Church's pastoral practice. One might rephrase that by saying truths are more often lived than defined. Formal definitions usually come only when a doctrine is being violated or misconstrued. What the Church believes is often best understood by seeing how the Church acts and has acted. As Pope Celestine I put it, Legem credendi statuit lex orandi: "The rule of prayer determines the rule of faith."

Augustine reminded us that sinners are punished not just in the hereafter, but in this life as well (see 1 Cor. 11:31-32). In his Tract on the Gospel of John, Augustine wrote that "man is obliged to suffer, even when his sins are forgiven . . . for the penalty is of longer duration than the guilt, lest the guilt should be accounted small, were the penalty also to end with it. It is for this reason . . . that man is held in this life to the penalty, even when he is no longer held to the guilt unto eternal damnation."

What we have to keep clear in our minds is that punishment for sins is not always removed when guilt for them is removed. We can be forgiven yet still have to suffer. (A parent might accept a teenager's apology and forgive him, but the teenager could still be "grounded" for the weekend. Nothing unfair in that; the kid needs to be taught a lesson.)

Reduction of Punishment

Suffering can be undergone after death, in purgatory, or during life. It can take many forms here. One form is the ecclesiastical penalty given to us as a penance during the sacrament of confession. Working backwards, the Church came to realize that, since penances can be reduced if the penitent expresses sufficient sorrow and does some pious act, it must be that punishments after death can be reduced the same way.

The constitution on indulgences emphasizes the social aspect of sin, how it affects the Mystical Body of Christ (cf. Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:12-21, 26). Just as a drop of water send ripples throughout the whole lake, into all its corners, so sin by one man affects all who are bound to Christ. "It is therefore necessary for the full remission and . . . reparation of sins not only that friendship with God be re-established by a sincere conversion of mind and amends made for the offense against his wisdom and goodness, but also that all the personal as well as social values and those of the universal order itself, which have been diminished or destroyed by sin, be fully reintegrated whether through voluntary reparation which will involve punishment or through acceptance of the punishments established by the just and most holy wisdom of God."

After all, "there reigns among men . . . a supernatural solidarity whereby the sin of one harms the others just as the holiness of one benefits the others. Thus the Christian faithful give each other mutual aid to attain their supernatural aim" (cf. Col. 1:24). An example of this solidarity is the way Adam's sin infected the whole human race. He fell, and we continue to suffer from his fall. This is the clearest example, but, if Christ's references to the vine mean anything--if we're really the branches--then we're all related to one another. Spiritual disease in one branch must affect the other branches.

Good Works Work Well

Conversely, restoration to health in one branch must affect the others. Good works that can reduce our own punishment must be able to be applied to other people. This is especially true of the works of the saints, who more than compensated for their own faults and whose "extra" good works, not being wasted, are available for application to others. (Also available are the infinite merits of Jesus Christ.)

Paul understood this. He wrote to the Colossians that "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church" (Col. 1:24). We can help one another now, and we can help those who are no longer here, and the saints can help us, too (Rev. 5:8). If the Mystical Body implies anything, it must imply that. It must mean the saints can pray for us and we can pray for (and do penances for) the souls in purgatory. If it doesn't imply that, then the solidarity of the Mystical Body of Christ is a sham.

Under the Holy Spirit

From these considerations came "the conviction . . . that the pastors of the flock of the Lord could set the individual free from the vestiges of sin by applying the merits of Christ and of the saints." Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, working in the Church over centuries, there arose the use of indulgences, "which represented a progression in the doctrine and discipline of the Church rather than a change."

In the earliest centuries penances were severe. Today a sinner might be given a few prayers to recite or some charitable act to perform. Then, a sinner might be commanded to stand outside the church door for a year, asking those going to Mass to pray for him and acknowledging to them his sins.

It was a tough regimen, and it was one the confessor could ameliorate by reducing the remainder of the penance if the penitent performed pious acts. The penitent's punishment in this life was lessened through a kind of indulgence. Over the years, the Church came to understand that the merits of Christ and the saints could be applied to lessen the left-over punishment that would come in purgatory, the punishment that wouldn't be endured here.

"The aim pursued by ecclesiastical authority in granting indulgences," continues the constitution, "is not only that of helping the faithful to expiate the punishment due sin but also that of urging them to perform works of piety, penitence, and charity--particularly those which lead to growth in faith and which favor the common good."

In other words, not only do indulgences reduce the actual punishment deserved, but the performance of the acts that entitle us to indulgences helps us grow spiritually by getting us into the habit of doing good works, things we otherwise might not do.

Keys of the Kingdom

The origin of the Church's power regarding indulgences may be traced to the granting to Peter of the keys and of the power of binding and loosing (Matt. 16:19). This "judicial" authority, if it means anything at all, must be more than a mere declaratory power. Non- Catholics argue that Peter, with the other apostles, was given only a power to declare sins already forgiven, but Matthew 16:19, 18:18, and John 20:21-23 say nothing about restricting the grant to mere declarations. They refer to a grant of an active power, one that decides, the kind of power a judge has. This power, coupled with the solidarity of the Mystical Body of Christ, results in the doctrine of indulgences. Although the doctrine is not stated in the Bible in the detail now given in Church pronouncements (neither are the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity explicitly stated there as they are understood by Catholics and Protestants), indulgences are not only not contrary to what the Bible says, but they follow naturally from our taking into account the whole of the Bible.” (www.catholic.com/answers/tracts/)

Fundamentalist Criticism “The necessity for indulgences assumes that the death of Christ did not forgive all divine punishment for sin. We are either forgiven or we are not forgiven. The Bible teaches God “forgave us all our sins.” (Colossians 2:13). Therefore, no punishment whatever is owed to God for them in this life.” (P&C p.105) Apologetic Response