Second Sunday after Easter—26 April AD 2020
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The Good Shepherdess
Adolphe-William Bouguereau 1825-1905[*]
[Ordinary of the Mass]
[English Text of Today's Mass]
[Latin Text of Today's Mass]
Properly Formed Conscience, Full Consent of the Will
“You were as sheep,
but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your soul.”
Last Sunday we spoke
about Sacramental Confession, which our Lord instituted on the evening
of Easter Sunday, when He gave His apostles the power to "forgive or
retain" the sins of the faithful.
One of the questions that often comes
up about Confession, is "just what exactly am I required to confess."
And that is what we will try to define today. But, please remember that
we don't have to have really serious sins to confess in order to receive
the Sacrament and its graces. Even previously confessed venial sins are
adequate matter for Confession.
The Catechism distinguishes between
the two different kinds of sin which we may commit; venial sin and
mortal sin. Both kinds of sin harm us and offend God, but only mortal
sins cut us off completely from God's graces and must be confessed.
A mortal sin, we are told, is a
“thought, desire, word, action, or omission, which is seriously wrong.”
We must be aware that is seriously wrong, and we must consent to doing
it. A venial sin is different in that the action, or whatever, is not
seriously wrong, or we don't realize that it is seriously wrong, or we
are somehow forced into doing it.
We will come back to the idea of what
is serious and what is not in a moment, but first let's look at the
second part of these definitions; the part about knowing that something
is wrong, and consenting to do it anyway.
of all, as to knowing what is right and wrong, we have a duty to have an
“informed conscience.” That means that we are obligated to learn about
the “rightness” and “wrongness” of things which we might do in our own
lives. Some of this may vary with our occupation; a medical doctor
might need to know about different things than an engraver or a shoe
salesman. The knowledge which we are expected to have may vary
somewhat, but the point is that we are responsible for making informed
moral judgements in our lives.
“Where do we obtain this knowledge of
what is right and what is wrong?” Well, some of it is very basic, and
seems to be an inborn instinct in human beings—we know that we should
not harm those around us; either in their person or in their property.
Our knowledge is expanded by our contact with our parents or with the
parish priest—perhaps with a school teacher, or even our more
trustworthy friends. More formally, we shape our consciences by
learning from the Church—by studying the catechism, or reading sacred
Scripture, or by listening to the sermons preached at Mass. Hopefully,
we will read good Catholic periodicals, and perhaps books on religious
ethics and theology.
Sometimes, even after making a careful
effort, we may have a mistaken notion about what is sinful and what is
not. That is unfortunate, but we know that God will not hold an honest
mistake against us. I emphasize the word “honest,” because we must
always make the best effort to know the truth of the matter. If we make
lesser effort, or purposefully refrain from knowing the truth, we can
sin in our ignorance.
For example: If as a young person,
preparing to enter marriage, I make a point of not learning about the
moral responsibilities of married people—because I don't want to have to
bear those responsibilities—then I am guilty when I violate those same
responsibilities. It doesn't matter that I am unaware of them, because
it was my responsibility to become aware of them—before I took them on.
Sometimes our sins are made less
serious by lacking what we call “full consent of the will.” What this
means, simply, is that we are less responsible and less guilty, if we
are forced into doing something sinful. This might include physical
force, or psychological coercion, or being shamed into doing something.
It might include extreme wants, like hunger, thirst or cold. We also
lack “consent of the will,” when we do something in extreme haste, or
under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or when we are extremely
But here again, we have a
responsibility. A little bit of force should not be enough to get us to
do something which is very wrong. And certainly, I can't go and take
drugs or alcohol with the intention of using them to remove the
responsibility of “full consent of the will.”
Lastly, how do we know what is
serious and what is not? First of all, we will get some idea of
seriousness when we go through the process of forming our consciences.
When we read or listen to a sermon or whatever, we will not only get an
indication of what is right and wrong, but “how right” or “how wrong” it
is. For example, I don't think you will ever hear a sermon about
abortion, or murder, or adultery, or worshipping idols—without getting
the message that these things are always seriously wrong.
There are three kinds of sin which we
can say are always seriously wrong. The first kind includes offenses
directed at the divine dignity of God Himself. For example, when we use
His name as a curse, or if we worship some thing in His place. The
second kind includes offenses directed at another person's life or
salvation. This might include anything that unjustly took away
another's life, like murder; or caused them to lose their immortal soul,
like heresy. The third kind are those sins which undermine the
essential organizations of society, chiefly the family. Sins against
the 6th and 9th Commandments fit into this third category.
Notice that of any of these sins which
I say are always serious, it is hard to think of only doing them
partially, or in small measure. You can't kill somebody just a little
bit, or only partially commit adultery, or half worship an idol. They
seem to be “all or nothing.” They should always be mentioned in
Confession if we find ourselves guilty of them.
Other things may be sinful, yet not
always serious enough to be mortal sins. If we steal a large proportion
of a person's property, or lie about something important which they have
a right to know, we sin seriously—yet, stealing a penny from a rich man,
or making up a story to get rid of the door‑to‑door salesman are hardly
the same. In things like this, where the degree of injury varies, there
can be degrees of seriousness. If we are talking about preparing for
Confession, we may have to make a subjective judgement as to whether or
not something must be confessed—but since Confession is free anyway, we
may as well throw in those “borderline” sins that we are not sure about.
Next Sunday, I hope to speak with you
about how to make a good examination of conscience and properly prepare
to make a good Confession. But for the moment, let me leave you with a
thought that stems from this idea that sometimes it is difficult to
determine if a sin is serious or not. That idea is simply this: It
should always be our intention not to sin at all—because sin offends
God, who loves us, and whom we should love deeply in return—and because
sin strikes fundamentally at our own humanity, turning us from men and
women into radically lesser beings.
If you have to stop and think about whether something is
sinful or not, you probably shouldn't do it!