Swimming the Tiber 10: Judging Your Sins

Happy new year! I’m not going to talk about New Year’s resolutions, I promise. (Well, at least not outside that sentence.)

Last week, I talked about virtue and vice from the perspective of Catholic philosophy; the week before, I talked about how we are justified and, more crucially related to this topic, how sin and salvation interact. Please keep both topics in mind going forward.

When I was younger, I had a particularly egalitarian view of sin. Basically, I told myself that all sins are committed equal. Whether you murdered someone, robbed them, flipped them the bird on the freeway, or gave them an uncharitable thought, you had sinned, and that was all it took to condemn you (lacking God’s grace, of course). Nazis were on an even playing field with schoolyard bullies.

A simple logical appraisal tells us that this is ridiculous, but it cemented itself in my mind for a reason: it was a reaction against moral relativism. In a sense, moral relativism tells us not only that we can define “good” for ourselves, but more importantly, that there is such a thing as “good enough.” Secular philosophy says that if we’re mostly good, then that’s fine, and we can do a few bad things here or there (errare humanum est, am I right, Seneca?) without endangering our souls (or being “Bad People,” depending on the particular flavor of secular philosophy we’re talking about).

Even as I child, I knew that was hogwash; we can’t be good enough (that would make us practically Pelagian!), because that would invalidate the sacrifice of Christ, and that would make God not just extraordinarily cruel, but unjust. (After all, if we can achieve perfection and salvation without divine intervention, then Christ’s death was unnecessary, and in such a case, the execution of Christ as propitiation for sin is excessive rather than normative. In short, if we can choose not to sin, or if we can be saved in spite of our sin without repentance, then Jesus died for no reason.) So I said that all sins were equal, basically so that I could refute anyone who said that little white lies wouldn’t send them to hell.

But I didn’t make that conclusion from logic, I made it from convenience. Saying the first part made saying the second part easier, it didn’t make it truer. The former doesn’t prove the latter, and the latter doesn’t necessitate the former. Here’s what I mean: I can say that all sin is sin, and that any sin (whether the taint of original sin or the commission of any sin small or large) is enough to separate us from the presence of God, without once suggesting that genocide and mild deception are on the same level. And so I should.

Because obviously not all sins are equal.

But all sins are sins.

Which brings us to the main point of this week’s post: the Catholic concept of “mortal” and “venial” sins. Recall that two weeks ago I talked about the idea of losing our salvation through sin, that by sinning, we separate ourselves from communion with God. In the Catholic Church, sins are put into two classes: mortal sins and venial sins. Mortal sins are the big ones–the ones that cause that fall from the state of grace. Venial sins are the small ones–the ones that are bad, the ones that helped to condemn our souls in the first place, the ones from which we need to be purified, but that do not reflect an evil or unrepentant heart (just a frail human one). This is even Scriptural:

If someone sees his brother committing an errorlit. erring an error not toward death, let [the one seeing it] prayhere and throughout, lit. ask, and he will give to him [the one sinning] life, for the [ones] erring not toward death. There is error toward death; not about that do [I] say that [he] should pray.a purpose clause as a kind of indirect speech; literally, this sentence is something like “not about that do [I] speak in order that [he] may pray [about that]” Every injustice is an error, and there is error not toward death.

– 1 John 5:16-17 (my translation)

Let me be clear: classifying sins is not about judging people, just about judging sins. It’s okay to call yourself the foremost of sinners, but you shouldn’t go around saying it about other people. If a Christian is sinning openly, respond as exhorted by Scripture and the Church (Matthew 18:15-35; Galatians 6:1-10; cf. 1 Corinthians 5), but whether in the Church or out, final judgment is reserved to the Lord. (Again, as I’ve written before, the Church does not keep a list of “anti-saints” who are in hell, but does keep a list of saints who are surely in the presence of God even now.) Judging your sins is about examining your own conscience, so that you know what to confess and where to improve.

In fact, proper judgment of sins is crucial to a good confession. I will talk in more detail about the Sacrament of Confession/Penance/Reconciliation in a few weeks, but here’s the short version: since Christ gave the Church the authority to bind and loose sins (see Matthew 18 again), the Church engages that authority through private confession to a priest. In general terms, in such a confession, you should identify your mortal sins by kind and number, and your venial sins more generally (though as accurately as you can). This isn’t about doing “spiritual accounting” or keeping a detailed log, but it’s about identifying all the areas in your life where you are still broken and to what degree you are broken.

(By the way, I should note that these two classifications, “mortal” and “venial” are not the entire spectrum of sin severities; there are some mortal sins which are so heinous that a regular priest does not have authority to loose them, and even a few–five, last I checked, and most of those can only be committed by priests–where only the Pope has that authority.)

So how do you judge your sins? Well, the Church identifies sins as mortal if they meet the following criteria:

  1. The sin must be a grave (serious) matter.
  2. The sin must be committed with full knowledge.
  3. The sin must be committed with deliberate consent.

Grave matter is defined as the Ten Commandments, in short. Stealing, killing, committing adultery, etc. Grave matter has been more fully defined, especially in light of “modern” sins that may or may not have been spelled out in Scripture; there are a wide range of books that are useful for the examination of one’s conscience (i.e., the judgment of one’s sins). (I find this one very helpful, but there are even apps for that.) Full knowledge means knowing that something is a sin and doing it anyway (pretending not to know makes it worse). Deliberate consent means that it is a personal choice (claiming hardness of heart is not an exemption, but compulsion may be, in the determination of the Church). If any of these criteria are not met, then the sin is venial, not mortal.

For some more detail on these subjects, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1854-1864.

Next week, I’m going to drop all the sin talk and focus on one of the virtues–not one enumerated, nor one universal, but a virtue nevertheless: virginity.

Swimming the Tiber 9: Virtue and Vice in Catholic Philosophy

Merry Christmas! I hope this Christmas season is a joyous one. Now, on to your regularly scheduled program.

But now, if, in all this talk, we both inquired and were speaking beautifully, excellence would be neither by nature nor taught, but coming to [men] by divine lot, without sense [for those] to whom it comes.

– Socrates in Plato’s Meno (my translation)

And if [things are] thus, the human good comes about as an activity of a soul according to excellence–and if, rather, [there are] excellences, according to the best and most perfect [one]. And [thus] hereafter in a perfect life. For one swallow does not make spring, nor one day; and thus also neither [does] one fortunate day nor a short time [make] a [man] blessed.

– Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1.7 (my translation)

Therefore, the good [man], even if [he] serves, is free; the bad [man], however, even if [he] reigns, is a slave, and not of one man, but–what is more burdensome–[he is a slave] of as many lords as [he is] of vices. About which vices Scripture deals [thus]: “For by whatever(whomever) someone has been overcome, to this [thing]([man]) also [he] has been dedicated as a slave.”

– St. Augustine, City of God 4.3, quoting 2 Peter 2:19 (my translation)

Because perfect moral virtue does not totally remove the passions, but orders them; for [it] is of the temperate [man] to desire just as is proper, and [to desire] what is proper, as is said in Ethic III.

– St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Part 1, Question 95, Article 2, paraphrasing Artistotle’s Nicomachean Ethics 3.11 (my translation)

Catholic philosophy is nothing if not philosophy. But before I became Catholic, I was very fond of Tertullian (poor heretic though he died, may he rest in peace), and especially his famous (or infamous) demand, “What therefore [is] for Athens and for Jerusalem? What [is] for the academy and for the church? What [is] for heretics and for Christians? Our institution is from the porch of Solomon, who also himself had handed down that the Lord is to be sought in simplicity of heart” (De Praescriptione Haereticorum, chapter 7, my translation).

Tertullian was one of many Christian thinkers who eschewed philosophy and theological depth in favor of “simplicity of heart.” (This is also very popular in modernity; consider Rob Bell, as one among many.) At the time that I quoted him often, though, I think I was being purposefully impertinent–because I have always disagreed with this concept. Philosophy and theology and study provide a depth to faith that cannot be found in simplicity. And while I appreciate those who can have simple faith, I am not among them; if I tried to have simple faith, to adhere to God through immediate and unobjecting acquiescence, I would fall away faster than Scotch tape covered in cat hair. The only reason I have any faith at all is because I have objected and I have wrestled and I have come to a fuller understanding.

So while I seek always to have simplicity of heart and faith like a child, I also want to put away the things of childhood and become a man in the faith. And that involves complex theology. And in complex theology, much of the first principles are drawn from our culture’s rich history of philosophy.

Which is why Plato and Aristotle are quoted above, along with St. Augustine and St. Thomas. Plato and Aristotle were not perfect, nor were they Christian, but by God’s grace, they were granted an insight into the real nature of divinity. Unwilling to submit to complete paganism, both saw the unseen ideas of God from the creation of the world (Romans 1:20) and grasped the seed of the Word, as St. Justin Martyr called it in his Apologies. From this basis, though their understanding was incomplete and some of their failures must be rejected, they still laid the groundwork from which Catholic philosophy could spring up and blossom.

Virtue was one of many subjects for which Christian thinkers adopted Platonic and Aristotelian ideas. Now, in Protestant circles, I rarely dealt with “virtue”; maybe I thought it was too works-centric, or too pagan, but to be honest, I’m not sure I thought about it much at all. But as we discussed last time, good works spring naturally from genuine faith; a philosophical discussion of virtue clarifies the subject in the mind and helps us pave the way for those actions to overflow from the wellspring of our hearts (Proverbs 4:23; Matthew 12:34).

In short, being contemplative and philosophical enables us to have practical ideas to improve our behavior.

It would take years and more academic degrees than I have to provide a thorough understanding of Catholic virtue, but I do want to hit the highlights. First, let us consider the quotes above.

From Plato, we learn that virtue comes neither from education nor from nature, but from “divine lot”–that is, a blessing from God. “But wait!” you may say, “If virtue cannot be taught, then why are we having this conversation?” Well, perhaps Plato is not entirely correct, but his objection is a sound one. Here’s what I mean: if a devout and virtuous man has a son, and he teaches the son all of his skills (say, for example, how to do math or how to sprint or how to shoot a bow and arrow), it only makes sense that he would also teach him his abilities in virtue–but we know that, sometimes, such a son does not become virtuous. Plato took this to mean (at least in Meno) that virtue cannot be taught, but must be granted by the gods.

Perhaps it is clearest to say that God opens the door to virtue. He makes virtue possible. As we read in Scripture and throughout Christian tradition (including St. Augustine above), we are slaves to sin; Christ freed us from that slavery and made righteousness available to us. But that doesn’t make us instantaneously virtuous, even when we accept him; we must develop our virtue, and for that purpose, education can be (and is) very profitable. St. Thomas, in his enumeration of the virtues (which I will get to shortly), says that some can be practiced by all people (the cardinal virtues), but others are given by God (the theological virtues), but as we shall see, even the cardinal virtues are only made possible by God.

Aristotle gives us more insight into developing virtue. Becoming virtuous is not one-and-done. It does not happen on a particular occasion. “One fortunate day,” no matter how fortunate, does not make us blessed (or “happy”). It takes continued vigilance, every day, for the rest of our lives. (This is picked up by St. Thomas, too, when he identifies virtue as a habit. It is not merely one action, nor even repeated action, but the manner in which we behave, developed by continually choosing the good.)

St. Augustine reminds us of the truth of our freedom. When we cling to truth and strive for virtue, we can be enslaved to men, but truly free; when we cling to the old life, the life of sin and death, we can be kings of the world, but truly enslaved–and not just to men, he tells us, but to every sin which we allow into our lives. This is the glory of virtue–and the danger of vice. Once a habit is established, it is hard to break; shall we free ourselves with a habit of virtue or enslave ourselves to a habit of vice?

St. Thomas spends page after page after page dealing with questions of virtue, but I have excerpted this tiny passage from a nearly-unrelated question. Virtue-as-habit is well covered by Aristotle and St. Augustine, so I wanted to call out this other facet of Christian virtue, especially in Catholic philosophy. When I was a Protestant, I often thought of righteousness as this far-off mindset in which there is no passion, no emotional turmoil; if I became righteous, I thought, I would no longer get angry or covetous or ebullient, but would have this Stoic, pseudo-Buddhist serenity. But that is far from the truth; Christian virtue is not divesting oneself of emotion, but rather subjecting emotion to right reason. To be angry, to desire, to rejoice–these are human. Vice is to do too much or too little of these things; it is vicious to rage against others, and so also to ignore their injustices; it is vicious to lust, and so also want for nothing (not even relationship with God); it is vicious to celebrate in a time for mourning, and so also to mourn in a time for celebration.

Too often, as a Protestant, I thought of virtue as “Puritanical” (nevermind that the Puritans weren’t Puritanical). I thought for sure I would never be righteous, because to be righteous was to avoid all these things I could not. But I was wrong: to be righteous is to subordinate your emotional response to God’s will and God’s design. If I am angry at injustice, good; I should work to end that injustice. If I desire intimacy with God or with my wife, good; I should work to develop that intimacy. If I am gleeful, good; I should share that joy with those who need it, and share also its cause in God. Emotion is compelling and informative; it directs us and illuminates our lives. We are vicious only when we let it take control, one way or the other.

Catholic philosophy also enumerates virtues and vices. You have likely heard of these, no matter how far from Catholicism you have spent your life. There are four “cardinal virtues” and three “theological virtues,” and their converses are the “deadly sins.” Exact enumeration of these falls, as usual, to St. Thomas, but they have their roots in Scripture.

The four cardinal virtues are:

  1. Prudence: Right reason put into practice; that is, the wisdom to know what to do in a given situation and the will to follow through with it. (Prudence depends on both the wisdom and the will.) Cf. Psalm 119:98-104; Sirach 1:1-10; James 1:5.
  2. Justice: The determination to give everyone his due, regardless of any other factor; if a debt is owed, the debt is paid, even if you don’t like the person to whom you owe the debt. Cf. 1 Samuel 24; Matthew 5:6.
  3. Fortitude: The strength to accomplish good deeds in spite of fear, but tempered by reason. (This is to differentiate it from recklessness.) Cf. 2 Maccabees 6:27-28; 2 Timothy 1:6-7; Hebrews 13:6; 1 Peter 4:12-16.
  4. Temperance: Self-control and self-restraint, to keep our passions in check. Cf. 1 Kings 11:1-11; Proverbs 25:28; Matthew 13:7, 22; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

The first thing you may notice is that these virtues are intertwined (cf. 1 Peter 1:5-7). If you have prudence but not fortitude, then you don’t really have prudence (because you lack the will to accomplish what is right); if you have fortitude but not justice, you may end up in a “might makes right” mentality; if you ever lack temperance, then no other virtue will be profitable for you, because you will be enslaved to your passions instead. Enumerating the virtues helps us know where we are weak and where we are strong, but you can’t be a righteous man by saying, “I have tons of fortitude, so it’s okay that I’m intemperate.”

The three theological virtues are:

  1. Faith: This virtue is the means by which we comprehend the complexities of our religion. God opens our eyes to that which is beyond rational understanding (Isaiah 55:9; Ecclesiastes 8:16-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16); it is by faith that we deepen our knowledge of God and delve into theology. Cf. Hebrews 11.
  2. Hope: This is our confidence that God will save us in spite of the fact that we don’t deserve it. He has promised he will, provided we cooperate (as discussed last time), and we trust him to do as he says–not because salvation is easy, but because it is hard. (Hope is discussed probably the least, even in Catholic circles, and deserves more attention. So say I, anyway.) Cf. Matthew 24:13; Romans 5:1-5; 8:18-25; Titus 3:4-7; Hebrews 6:17-20; 10:19-25; 1 John 3:2-3; Revelation 21:6-7.
  3. Love: Also called “charity” (from Latin caritas), this is wanting the best for others. That does not mean wanting what they think is best, but rather what God wants for them–to become more virtuous and grow closer to him and, ultimately, to be saved. Like prudence, love also means acting on that desire. Cf. John 3:16; 15:13; 1 Corinthians 13; Ephesians 5:1-2; 1 John 3:17-18; 4:7-12; 5:3.

Like the cardinal virtues, these are intertwined–with each other and with all virtues. “But the greatest of these [is] love” (1 Corinthians 13:13, my translation).

In contrast are the “seven deadly sins,” which are less directly tied to Scripture, though all are included there (Proverbs 6:16-19; Galatians 5:19-21; Revelation 21:8). That there are seven of these does not make them exactly parallel to the cardinal and theological virtues, though there was later development of exact contrasts (in the “seven lively virtues”). They are as follows:

  1. Lust
  2. Gluttony
  3. Greed
  4. Sloth
  5. Wrath
  6. Envy
  7. Pride

Personally, I find this list less helpful. Lust, gluttony, greed, and envy are all basically the same thing (excess concupiscence, or desire for worldly things, which itself stems from wanting all things for oneself); sloth is a particular form of selfishness that does not attribute value to work, and so is a subset of pride; and wrath is usually the inappropriate extension of a prideful outlook (because we perceive an “injustice” against oh-so-awesome us, we lash out). Honestly, the whole list just reads like “pride” over and over again, at least to me. But perhaps that just reveals something particular about my own sins, and others get more out of a practical list like this.

At any rate, there’s your primer on virtue and vice in Catholic philosophy. Coming up next is a more in-depth look at sin in Catholic theology, especially as it relates to “ranking” sins as mortal and venial.