05 June 2009

Mortal Sin: two case studies

Following on the post below about confession, let's take two test cases and work out the moral implications of both.

Beth is a 45 year old lawyer working in New York City. Before joining the bar she graduated from Notre Dame with an M.A. in theology. Disgusted with the Church's historical ill-treatment of women, she leaves the Catholic Church and becomes a Unitarian. While working in NYC she becomes sexually involved with one of her legal associates and gets pregnant. Knowing that she is soon to be made a partner in her firm, and knowing that her pregnancy might detrimentally influence her promotion, she acquires an abortion.

Sue is a 13 year old schoolgirl living in Chicago. Though very bright and academically accomplished, she must attend the local public school because her unemployed single-mother cannot afford private school tuition. The school she attends is notorious for gang violence. Sue does her best to avoid trouble, but often becomes embroiled in the local gang activity. She has had no religious instruction other than a general introduction to spiritual ideas via the mass media. On her way home from school one day, she is violently raped. She becomes pregnant. Because of her family's poverty and Sue's young age, her mother decides that Sue must have an abortion. Though she doesn't want the abortion, she complies out of deference to her mother. She has the abortion.

Keeping in mind that an act can be considered a mortal sin only if the act is gravely serious, done with the full knowledge that the act is sinful, and done with deliberate consent, can we say that Beth and Sue have committed mortal sins? If so, to what degree is each culpable (guilty) or not? [NB. ALL three conditions mentioned above must be met. The absence of any one of the three renders the act non-mortal.]

Applicable Church teaching:

According to Church teaching some acts are always morally evil by their very nature, meaning that circumstance and intention do not change the intrinsically evil nature of these acts. Abortion is always a morally evil act. But the question here is: are the morally evil acts committed by Beth and Sue mortally sinful? [Bonus question: are all intrinsically morally evil acts sinful--mortal or not?]

Though circumstance and intent may not count in determining whether or not morally evil act is indeed evil, both can be considered in assigning culpability if the evil act counts as a mortal sin.

The evidence you have here is the only relevant evidence. Do not assume any other facts (e.g., the availability of abortion alternatives, etc.).

Your answers. . .? [Lots of excellent answers in the combox. . .keep 'em coming!]


  1. Anonymous4:41 AM

    "Disgusted with the Church's historical ill-treatment of women, she leaves the Catholic Church and becomes a Unitarian"
    Beth has had a slippery slope of serious sins.
    I say, yes to her. Because the above indicate that she was told before of what was wrong (she sees it as ill treatment of women) and chose to ignore it. Her first sin would have been leaving the Church and not adhering to the teachings. The abortion is one of many mortal sin it seems.

    13 yo no. Not only does she not know any better, she is counseled by her mom to get abortion.

  2. I would think that it is obvious in example number one, that based on that story and assuming that Beth was schooled correctly in Catholic teaching (but an MA from ND.. well who knows..) that we can say that the act of leaving, the premarital sex, the abortion are all mortal sins as heresy/schism, abortion and fornication are all intrinsically seriously evil acts.

    as for little sue, While the acts are evil and wrong, knowledge of their evil is necessary and if we can assume that sue is invincibly ignorant then we can say that she is not culpable for the abortion. However the evil of abortion is still the same.

  3. As for Beth in A, I'd say she's committed a number of mortal sins, BUT she's now Unitarian and they don't believe in that doctrine.

    Question 1: So does Catholic doctrine apply if a person isn't Catholic? Is there a difference in application between someone who was raised Catholic and then left as opposed to someone raised Protestant or not in the Church at all?

    But for this scenario's sake, let's say that Catholic teaching DOES apply because Beth was raised Catholic and one would hope that by getting an MA in Theology from Notre Dame, that she would in fact know what mortal sin is.

    I'd say she's culpable, not only for the abortion (murder), but for leaving the Church (apostasy) and for her affair (fornication). It's interesting to note the part that the sin of Pride seems to have played in this scenario.

    As for little Sue, you do not indicate whether she is Catholic or not, but regardless, she doesn't seem to have gotten much of a religious education.

    She knows the abortion is wrong (natural law) but doesn't know it is a "mortal" sin? But she does recognize it as sin. So it would be mortal sin? Although I'd hope that God would be merciful to her, given her age and lack of choice in the matter.

    Plus, she complied with one of the Ten Commandments (Honor thy Father and Mother) by breaking another (Thou shalt not kill).

    So I'd say the sin is technically mortal but mitigated due to age and circumstances?

    Question 2: Is there some "hierarchy of truth" regarding the Ten Commandments? I know Jesus' reference to the greatest of the commandments is honor God, and after that Love thy Neighbor as thyself (that was yesterday's Gospel reading), but sometimes it seems like the Hierarchy of Truth is often twisted to suit what is convenient.

    I'd think Sue's mother would also be guilty of mortal sin for forcing the girl to get an abortion, although I'm sure she had her daughter's well-being in mind. So it would be mortal sin, but mitigated as well, as a misguided act of Love as opposed to an act of Pride? (Yes, I know, love and abortion shouldn't be mentioned in the same sentence, but her mom was trying to consider her's daughter's good, not her own.)

    Question 3: does the degree of culpability even matter? Sin is sin. When we get into degrees of culpability, it feels like we're Rules Lawyering with God or something. (That could be my Baptist upbringing talking, though.)

    Question 4: I know this goes off into another tangent, but if all of them see their fault and confess it, I understand that the sin is washed away, but do they still have to spend time in purgatory? Or is THAT where the degree of culpability issue comes into play?

    What is really sad to me is that these scenarios aren't even uncommon. I have personally known people faced with these circumstances.

    Question 5: Could our culture itself be considered a mitigating circumstance? There is a whole generation (two, even) who grew up with birth control and legal abortion in this country. Or is that stepping into relativism?

    Sorry for being so long again. Thanks for the teaching.

  4. Anonymous7:06 AM

    I think everyone will agree that Sue can't be considered culpable. She has cooperated with grave matter, but against her own desires, under duress, and according to an incompletely formed understanding of the need to obey her mother.

    As for Beth, I'm not sure it's so clear cut. We can't assume that her reasons for leaving the Church are equivalent to knowing the teachings of the Church. Therefore, while she's cut grave matter and deliberate consent, full knowledge is in the air.

    Actually, scratch that. M.A, (Theol) from a Catholic university? You couldn't walk through the place for five minutes without accidentally hearing about this. Her responsibility may be diminished by the corruption of her conscience since leaving the Church (subscribing to heresy, as well as the lies of the world) but in this particular vignette, I don't think that'd knock it down to venial territory.

  5. Sue's initial resistance to her mother, i.e. actually wanting not to have the abortion, indicates a latent moral sense. Given the circumstances of the pregnancy, and the very great trauma that must have been involved for a girl that age, such a moral sense must actually be rather strong do feel that she wants to have the baby.

    This is not the same as her being able to articulate that moral sense according to Catholic doctrine, of course.

    Culpability must be lessened, therefore, but it cannot be altogether removed. After all, however little moral education she may have had, Sue can hardly have failed to be aware of the basic moral absolute that killing is wrong: her response to the pregnancy indicates ON SOME LEVEL that she had made a connection with her own circumstance and this absolute.

    So reluctantly I think Sue probably is guilty of a mortal sin. But I think her mother's sin is graver.

  6. Beth - yes, because one would assume that someone with an MA in theology would know that an abortion is a gravely sinful act.

    Sue - no, because she doesn't meet the "full knowledge" requirement for a sin to be mortal, and probably not the "full consent" requirement, either. You say she "didn't want the abortion but complied out of deference to her mother."

    But I'm not God, so I can't see what is in peoples' hearts and minds. Could be either, could be both, and I don't get to decide.

  7. Folks,

    No rationalization or intellectual obfuscation is required.

    Beth is guilty of mortal sin and if she fails to repent, then she damns herself to hell.

    Sue is guiltless of mortal sin, and Sue will sadly suffer far, far more in this life than Beth ever will.

  8. "CCC #1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: 'Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.'"

    Ionnes is seemingly correct. Both have fulfilled all of these despite different circumstances.

  9. Only operating on the facts given, I don't think you can forget the role of conscience and the Holy Spirit in their lives: we know many things about them given what we know of both.

    Beth was very likely guilty of mortal pride (like me, back in the day). By the time she had an abortion, she was more or less a moral wreck - it started with pride, she was in a 'state of sin' which lead to the other sins. Because God is good, it is safe to assume she rejected, repeatedly, the grace of the Holy Spirit to seek the path of repentance, and it was just a downhill slope if you do that.

    Sue is also guilty of mortal sin, but a lesser degree of culpability (yes, it extingushes the life of charity, but one would not expect the grace of repentance to go ignored in her case). Here's why: her conscience knew that abortion was wrong, which is why she doesn't want one: deference to parents in an act your conscience considers evil is still evil. That 'not wanting an abortion' is a grace, and we can choose to either accept or reject grace, with, in this case, murderous consequences. She had ignored the welfare of the child in favor of her own ends.

  10. Anonymous10:38 AM

    I am an admirer and first time poster offering my 2 cents worth. Well, maybe 1 cent....

    In the case of Beth, this is cut and dried. She is more than aware that her actions are a mortal sin but prefers the church of materialism over truth. Without repentance, I think her post-mortem spirit elevator only has a down button.....

    Sue on the other hand, IMHO would not be guilt of a mortal sin. First of all from your discription, it does not appear that she has had sufficient exposure to religious teaching to understand the severity of her action. Secondly, she shows signs of a "moral compass" in her hesitation that would suggest she has a sense that her action may be wrong, but since she trusts her mother's judgement, she assumes what she is doing is acceptable. Their is no mention in your example about the mother's religious education, so we really can't make any judgement on the sinful nature of her encouragement of the action either.

    In short, I do not believe Sue had full knowledge that her act was sinful nor was it performed with deliberate consent. Thus it is not a mortal sin.

  11. I would say Beth is definitely in mortal sin, in that she knows the Church's teachings, has chosen to leave the Church AND have an abortion for convenience sake.

    Sue given the criteria for mortal sin. Serious Matter: Yes, Full Knowledge: Questionable - Sue was not catechized, Deliberate & Complete Consent: Probably not...her mother coerced her. If anyone her MOTHER might have been in Mortal Sin.

  12. Great post, Fr. P.

    Hmm. Beth is an adult. An educated, professional adult who hopefully received sound theological training (I won't even go there with "MA from ND...), she should know the inherent wrongness of her actions and the consequences of them. However, mortal sin has three prerequisites: 1) grevious matter 2)sufficient reflection and 3) full consent of will.

    Beth certainly has 1) and 3), since the act is abhorrant and she chose, with all full adult faculties, to do it. However, does she really understand what she's doing? If she's separated from the Church, she no longer considers, herself subject to Church law. Now, we could argue that the natural law, to which all humans are subject, also precludes abortion, since a murder is contrary to the dignity of the human person.

    She's "guilty" of two of three conditions, and I'm not sure where to draw the line on the third.

    As for Sue: she likely doesn't understand the gravity of the matter (1), has not given the matter serious full reflection (2) nor has she acted with full consent of the will (3). Given the situation... I say no. A tragedy for all involved, but not mortal sin.

  13. Maria Raphael, thank God the level of culpability does matter! That is due to God's Mercy, for which He does not get nearly enough credit. St. Faustina says, let all judgment of souls cease, for stupendous miracles of God's Mercy take place even where it looks to us as though all is lost. (Which of course does not mean that we can safely keep on sinning and presume on God's Mercy.)

    As for whether mortal sin applies to non-Catholics, I would have to say yes. As has been noted, the Law is written on our hearts, and God gives a conscience to non-Catholics as well as to Catholics.

    As a lawyer, I think of mortal sin as a general intent crime. A general intent crime is one where one intends to commit the illegal act, without regard to whether there is a specific intended result. Battery, therefore, is a general intent crime: if you touch someone unlawfully, you are guilty of battery, and it doesn't matter that you didn't intend to hurt them. Theft, on the other hand, is a specific intent crime: you take something that doesn't belong to you with the intent to permanently deprive its owner. Similarly, mortal sin is a general intent crime, because you have the requisite intent to commit the act that constitutes the mortal sin, and it doesn't matter whether you have the specific intent to kill the life of charity in your soul. In fact, St. John Vianney called B.S. on the idea that, because you didn't intend to sever your friendship with God, you didn't commit a mortal sin. If you intended to do the act, knowing it was gravely wrong, then down comes the gavel: guilty. If you are Catholic and have actual knowledge that this act is a grave evil, and that it will kill the life of charity in your soul, then it seems to me that this would compound the guilt.

    I think Sue has seriously mitigating circumstances that may well reduce her offense to the level of venial. As for Beth, I'm not sure the fact that she is apparently guilty of prior unrepented mortal sins is mitigating: we are just seeing the result of the blindness that is an effect of being in a state of sin.

  14. Anonymous7:21 PM

    I think it is a mistake to conclude that in Scenario 1 the only problem is with Beth's actions. I would say that there is a second party involved. Her actions were mortally sinful, but I also see a problem with the Church.

    "Disgusted with the historical ill-treatment of women": many readers will take this to mean Beth is selfish and wants the Church to change to be like her. I don't necessarily take it that way - not all feminists are out for themselves. In fact, I'd say most are out for women as a class. Since there have been atrocities committed towards women in history, Beth's leaving the Church could have been motivated by her sense of justice. That is a good thing, and we could even argue that in that action she is following her conscience, which would not be sinful at all.

    Let's face it: women who want independence and careers will have a hard time finding sympathy for their stresses and finding support systems in the Catholic Church. It's true. It doesn't mean I think women should be ordained necessarily (though I don't think it's the clear cut issue it's made out to be), there is simply not as much support for women or outreaches to them. We want more priests so most of the outreaches tend to be to young men. Or, fewer men come to church once they're married, so most of the adult outreach is to men also. In my diocese, there was a men's prayer breakfast last month and then a Mass for Men the next week. When the priest comes to visit the Catholic school where my daughter goes, he sits with the boys most of the time, probably to encourage them and be a role model. I don't object to these outreaches, but I'm just saying I never see that type of attention given to the women in the parish. In my opinion, it's a failing of the Church.

    So, if the Church did indeed push Beth away through a series of even minor actions or attitudes, those people share in her sin too. I think that at the Last Judgement we will all be surprised at how much part we have in other people's sins, especially in cases like this. I have sympathy for Beth - she sounds isolated yet trying to devote her life to justice (you said she was lawyer). If I can feel sympathy and mercy for her, I think God can too.

    Let me just finish by saying that I'm only offering this critique because I know this is a safe environment of intelligent Catholics willing to debate. I will never criticize the Church in public, and I will be Catholic my whole life, no matter what. I'm just trying to hash some of this stuff out myself. A lot of Beth's story hit home for me, since I remember being in my 20s and having a master's degree and being still single, and being completely ignored at my parish.


  15. lois in Indy9:57 PM

    I want to participate but don't think I can come close to the in-depth thinking shown above. I feel a caveat about "judging" but here goes. I would say Beth yes, mortal sin(s). With her, it's all about her. No love, no charity. Pride. With Sue no. She's a child. She reacts as a child and without the background and knowledge to make a mature judgment. She obeys her mother. Can't get my head around the bonus question. Can one do evil without knowing it? I suppose in Sue's case one can. If that's true then one can do evil without sinning. Thank God that God knows the heart so He knows the right judgment and He is merciful. lois

  16. Anonymous12:58 AM

    Here is how I draw the line:

    Both acts are mortally sinful.

    Beth is lost (at this point) due to refusal to accept the teachings of the Church and the forgiveness of Christ (Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit). She must return to the Church and humble herself before she is in a position to seek let alone receive absolution.

    Sue is also in mortal sin. But she, assuming her awareness of natural law and lack of proper formation of conscience (ie. feeling that abortion is wrong, but having no Catholic upbringing to provide the foundation for this feeling - also consider the circumstances), can be rehabilitated and brought to repentance. (This is how pagans can be saved.)

    By human standards, it can be argued that both will be condemned. Happily, we are not judged by human standards, but by the Lord's. "Where sin abounds, Grace abounds more."

    It is to God's Glory that either both will be saved, both will be condemned, or one will be saved and the other lost. The Lord is both Just and Merciful. Praised be the Lord!

    ask me one day about my experience with abortion, and pray that I can find the Lord's mercy.


  17. Beth, yes, guilty of mortal sin given the presence of gravity, and her knowledgability and deliberation. However - hypothetically - repentance, conversion or re-conversion, and forgiveness, will render her innocent.

    Side consideration on Beth: she may or may not have been raised Catholic; may have been of the Catholic Church only during her academic career. Perhaps she joined the Church as irresponsibly or thoughtlessly or heartlessly as she left it. Which makes conviction less crystal clear.

    Sue, not guilty of mortal sin, given absence of her full knowledgability and of accountable delibertion. While she has some innate or learned distaste for abortion, she is not accountable. She is subject to and a subject of her mother's sense of knowledgability and accountability.

    I find Ioannes' comment interesting and on the money.

    Bonus question: are all intrinsically morally evil acts sinful--mortal or not? Yes, all morally evil acts are manifestations, in any event, of sin inherited. All evil acts are borne of sin. This question doesn't address, nor do I, subsequent sin that is individually and personally committed or one's accountability for it.

  18. Question: In the category of "full knowledge", must one know that an act is mortally sinful to fulfill this requirement? Or does the knowledge of simply knowing that it is sinful, without knowing the degree to which it is sinful (ie, not knowing whether or not it is grave matter), enough to fulfill this requirement?

  19. p.s. still thinking...

    And those of us who know this to be true and who are not Beth or Sue, are commissioned to love them - love being acts of sacrifice and charity on their behalf - and to judge not.

  20. Since there have been atrocities committed towards women in history, Beth's leaving the Church could have been motivated by her sense of justice. That is a good thing, and we could even argue that in that action she is following her conscience, which would not be sinful at all.

    Here's the thing. The Catholic Church is the true Church. Jesus founded the Church; He asked the Father to send the Holy Spirit to be the soul of the Church; and He Himself promised to be with her all days, even unto the consummation of the world. For these reasons, she is incapable of erring in matters of faith and morals. For these same reasons, nobody can legitimately leave the Church for reasons of conscience. A person whose "conscience" dictates departure from the Catholic Church has a malformed conscience.

    If you don't believe the Church is infallible in matters of faith and morals, then you necessarily disbelieve that Jesus is God. If the Church can err or lose the Faith, then Jesus either failed to keep His promise to remain with the Church to the end of time, in which case He was a liar; or He remained, and His remaining was of no avail, in which case He is not God, as He claims to be -- which also makes Him a liar. If Jesus is not God, or is a liar, then there is no point in having a Church in the first place.

    But since Jesus is God, and the Church is the true Church, incapable of leading us astray in matters of faith and morals, then those in her have a duty to remain in her, and cannot be justified in leaving her for any reason. Anybody who finds fault with the teachings of the Church is himself at fault, and needs to come to grips with where he is wrong and repent.