As an earnest young Catholic boy thinking seriously about the priesthood, I was surprised to find myself wishing I were Protestant. I told no one of my secret dallying with apostasy, which, I feared, might have been a mortal sin. My adolescent Catholic world of the 1950s was simple: avoid committing a mortal sin at all costs. And my world was loaded with land mines that my high-school religion teachers assured me were mortal sins. Step on one and be instantly separated from the state of grace and plunged into the horror of being separated from God. And worse, should I die without confessing a mortal sin to a priest, I would be condemned to hell for eternity.
While I was seriously thinking about the priesthood, I was at the same time seriously thinking about girls. But just thinking about girls could be trouble. For that could lead to impure thoughts. And these desires, if for an instant deliberate and with full consent of my will, would make me guilty of mortal sin. To my consternation, I learned that everything sexual outside of marriage—not only actions, but even thoughts and desires—was mortally sinful. Moreover, even “going steady,” that is, exclusive dating, was itself mortally sinful because it was a near occasion of mortal sin. Talk about adolescent angst!
Steal a candy bar from the neighborhood drugstore and you commit a venial sin. Steal a person’s life savings and you commit a mortal sin. I got that. It made sense. In most areas of the moral code, offenses were judged by the church as venial or mortal depending on whether they constituted “grave matter.” In criminal terms, when it came to sex, there were no misdemeanors, only felonies.
That approach to sexual morality made me look with envy on what I imagined to be a more benign Protestant approach. To this day, official Catholic teaching holds there is no “parvity of matter” when it comes to deliberate sexual behavior undertaken with full consent of the will. When it comes to sex outside of marriage—and often within marriage—we’re talking mortal sin.
My memories of moral adolescent turmoil were awakened reading Peter Steinfels’s important Commonweal essay, “Contraception & Honesty: A Proposal for the Next Synod.” From an existential perspective, the artificial birth-control controversy following Pope Paul’s Humanae vitae can be linked directly to the church’s teaching that the issue is a grave matter—practicing artificial birth control is a mortal sin. As a young priest in the late 1960s and early ’70s, I saw firsthand the moral anguish of married couples wrestling with this teaching. I believe their acute pain was intimately tied to their fear of committing mortal sin. We might have had a very different moral discussion following the birth-control encyclical if the church had not insisted that all forms of artificial birth control were intrinsically evil and therefore mortal sins. Labeling human moral acts and omissions that miss the mark as mortal sin always ups the ante—and threatens the credibility of the church’s teaching authority itself.
The church’s readiness to call certain behaviors or admissions mortal sins grew out of a pastoral concern to motivate the faithful to do what was thought essential or at least important for the salvation of their souls. I’m old enough to remember when it was a mortal sin to eat meat on Fridays. Fasting and abstinence had long been held to be important aids to maintaining the discipline required for living in what was called a state of grace. So, the faithful were instructed, under pain of mortal sin, to abstain from meat on Friday, the day of Our Lord’s passion and death. Shortly after the Second Vatican Council, eating meat on Fridays was no longer considered a mortal sin, although fasting and abstinence remained honored practices.
Older priests like myself remember when our obligation to pray the Divine Office, the breviary, was an obligation carried out “under pain of mortal sin.” So came the familiar anecdotes of priests praying their breviary by the light of their car’s headlights as midnight approached. Priests do indeed have an obligation to be men of prayer, and the psalms and prayers of the breviary can hold us secure in the grace that comes over believers who live in the presence of God. The “under pain of mortal sin” motivator no longer works for most priests, and it clearly doesn’t work for most Catholics.
AT THE HEART of Catholic faith, of course, is the Eucharist. Celebrating Mass regularly remains the primary measure of whether or not one is a practicing Catholic. Vatican II made it clear, however, that Mass attendance is much more than a measure of one’s Catholicity. Eucharist is at the very center of our personal and communal lives as God’s holy people. This theological truth, known long before the council, led to the teaching that celebrating Mass on Sunday was so essential to life in Christ that to miss Mass deliberately was to commit a mortal sin. It did not matter whether a Catholic attended Mass on most Sundays; missing Mass on even one Sunday was a mortal sin.
I understand the church’s teaching that Catholics have a moral obligation to celebrate Mass regularly, even weekly. But I don’t understand why the obligation to attend Mass on any given Sunday is burdened with the penalty of mortal sin. A friend of mine rises early every morning for Mass at a Carmelite monastery. He’s at Mass every day of the week—except Sunday. Why my friend doesn’t celebrate Mass on Sunday isn’t clear to me, but I don’t believe for a minute that he commits a mortal sin by missing Mass on the Lord’s Day. But the law remains the law. The 1983 Code of Canon Law upholds the faithful’s obligation to celebrate Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation but doesn’t apply the “under pain of mortal sin” tag. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, however, declares that “those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin” (2181). It’s time to review the practice of attaching grave sin to missing Mass.
Many Catholics, perhaps most, simply do not take seriously the church’s teaching that some of its rules and obligations are binding under pain of mortal sin. Researchers report that in Europe and North America, weekly Mass attendance is well under 30 percent. Survey after survey indicates that the vast majority of Catholic married couples aren’t following the church’s prohibition against artificial birth control. Church authorities can no longer expect the penalty of mortal sin to compel the faithful to comply with official church teaching. Yet, for some bishops and Catholic leaders, mortal sin remains the trump card they’re ready to play when laying down the law of the church.
Catholic moral tradition, especially in the arena of sexuality, remains married to a calculus of sin. Confessors, at least from the time of the Council of Trent, were trained to distinguish between venial matter and grave matter in hearing confessions. That led in turn to an emphasis on the “act committed” rather than on the penitent’s encounter with the healing mercy of Jesus Christ and his or her overall moral orientation. Pope Francis, in harmony with the work of contemporary theologians like Bernard Häring, Charles Curran, Margaret Farley and others, is showing us how to move beyond the narrow legalisms of act-centered morality.
But it seems that many Catholics have already managed to climb out of the dark hole of an act-centered, sin-focused morality all by themselves. They have not lost a healthy sense of sin, but they don’t think a second glance at their neighbor’s spouse or missing Mass on Sunday separates them from God’s grace. Nor do they believe that doing what is necessary to determine the size of their family is always mortally sinful.
Almost a half-century ago, Andrew Greeley, the Chicago priest-sociologist and storyteller, tried to tell us that Humane vitae’s teaching against artificial birth control leveled a near fatal blow to the church’s credibility, especially when it comes to its teaching on human sexual behavior. He was right then, and Peter Steinfels is right now to remind us that, as the next Synod unfolds, the church’s “under pain of mortal sin” teaching on artificial contraception remains the “elephant in the room.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to "poverty of matter" instead of "parvity of matter." The editors regret the error.