Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

Second Sunday after Easter—26 April AD 2020
Ave Maria!


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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]

Seriously Wrong, Properly Formed Conscience, Full Consent of the Will


“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.

Formation of Conscience:

    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 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 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 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!




[1]   Epistle:  1 Peter ii:21-25


Dei via est íntegra


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