for Alfie Evans, 22 Months old.
Socialized medicine in Britain cannot diagnose his problem, refuses to let
him go elsewhere,
and now wants to take him off life-support.
[Ordinary of the Mass]
[English Text of Today's Mass]
[Latin Text of Today's Mass]
“You were as
sheep, going astray, 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.
First 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
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 sleepy.
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
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 the person had 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 as
serious. 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.
But for the moment, let me leave you
with a though 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.
So: if you have to stop and think
about whether something is sinful or not, you probably shouldn't do it!