Sixth in a Series on Catholic Morals
Fr. John H. Stapleton
|The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things|
If the Almighty had never imposed upon His creatures a law, there would be no sin; we would be free to do as we please. But the presence of God's law restrains our liberty, and it is by using, or rather abusing, our freedom, that we come to violate the law. It is for this reason that law is said to be opposed to liberty. Liberty is a word of many meanings. Men swear by it and men juggle with it. It is the slogan in both camps of the world's warfare. It is in itself man's noblest inheritance, and yet there is no name under the sun in which more crimes are committed.
By liberty as opposed to God's law we do not understand the power to do evil as well as good. That liberty is the glory of man, but the exercise of it, in the alternative of evil, is damnable, and debases the creature in the same proportions as the free choice of good ennobles him. The law leaves that liberty untouched. We never lose it; or rather, we may lose it partially when under physical restraint, but totally, only when deprived of our senses. The law respects it. It respects it in the highest degree when in an individual it curtails or destroys it for the protection of society.
Liberty may also be the equal right to do good and evil. There are those who arrogate to themselves such liberty. No man ever possessed it; the law annihilated it forever. And although we have used the word in this sense, the fact is that no man has the right to do evil or ever will have, so long as God is God. These people talk much and loudly about freedom - the magic word! - they assert with much pomp and verbosity the rights of man, proclaim his independence, and are given to much inane vaunting and braggadocio.
We may be free in many things, but where God is concerned and He commands, we are free only to obey. His will is supreme, and when it is asserted, we purely and simply have no choice to do as we wish. This privilege is called license, not liberty. We have certain rights as men, but we have duties, too, as creatures, and it ill-becomes us to prate about our rights, or the duties of others towards us, while we ignore the obligations we are under towards others and our first duty which is to God. Our boasted independence consists precisely in this: that we owe to Him not only the origin of our nature, but even the very breath we draw, and which preserves our being, for "in Him we live, move and have our being."
The first prerogative of God towards us is authority or the right to command. Our first obligation as well as our highest honor as creatures is to obey. And until we understand this sort of liberty, we live in a world of enigmas and know not the first letter of the alphabet of creation. We are not free to sin.
Liberty rightly understood, true liberty of the children of God, is the right of choice within the law, the right to embrace what is good and to avoid what is evil. This policy no man can take from us; and far from infringing upon this right, the law aids it to a fuller development. A person reading by candlelight would not complain that his vision was obscured if an arc light were substituted for the candle. A traveler who takes notice of the signposts along his way telling the direction and distance, and pointing out pitfalls and dangers, would not consider his rights contested or his liberty restricted by these things. And the law, as it becomes more clearly known to us, defines exactly the sphere of our action and shows plainly where dangers lurk and evil is to be apprehended. And we gladly avail ourselves of this information that enables us to walk straight and secure. The law becomes a godsend to our liberty, and obedience to it, our salvation.
He who goes beyond the bounds of true moral liberty, breaks the law of God and sins. He thereby refuses to God the obedience which to Him is due. Disobedience involves contempt of authority and of him who commands. Sin is therefore an offense against God, and that offense is proportionate to the dignity of the person offended.
The sinner, by his act of disobedience, not only sets at naught the will of his Maker, but by the same act, in a greater or lesser degree, turns away from his appointed destiny; and in this he is imitated by nothing else in creation. Every other created thing obeys. The heavens follow their designated course. Beasts and birds and fish are intent upon one thing, and that is to work out the divine plan. Man alone sows disorder and confusion therein. He shows irreverence for God's presence and contempt for His friendship; ingratitude for His goodness and supreme indifference for the penalty that follows his sin as surely as the shadow follows its object. So that, taken all in all, such a creature might fitly be said to be one part criminal and two parts fool. Folly and sin are synonymous in Holy Writ. "The fool saith in his heart there is no God."
Sin is essentially an offense. But there is a difference of degree between a slight and an outrage. There are direct offenses against God, such as the refusal to believe in Him or unbelief; to hope in Him, or despair, etc. Indirect offenses attain Him through the neighbor or ourselves.
All duties to neighbor or self are not equally imperious and to fail in them all is not equally evil. Then again, not all sins are committed through pure malice, that is, with complete knowledge and full consent. Ignorance and weakness are factors to be considered in our guilt, and detract from the malice of our sins. Hence two kinds of sin: mortal and venial. These mark the extremes of offense. One severs all relation of friendship, the other chills the existing friendship. By one, we incur God's infinite hatred, by the other, His displeasure. The penalty for one is eternal; the other can be atoned for by suffering.
It is not possible in all cases to tell exactly what is mortal and what is venial in our offenses. There is a clean-cut distinction between the two, but the line of demarcation is not always discernible. There are, however, certain characteristics which enable us in the majority of cases to distinguish one from the other.
First, the matter must be grievous in fact or in intention; that is, there must be a serious breach of the law of God or the law of conscience. Then, we must know perfectly well what we are doing and give our full consent. It must therefore be a grave offense in all the plenitude of its malice. Of course, to act without sufficient reason, with a well-founded doubt as to the malice of the act, would be to violate the law of conscience and would constitute a mortal sin. There is no moral sin without the fulfillment of these conditions. All other offenses are venial.
We cannot, of course, read the soul of anybody. If, however, we suppose knowledge and consent, there are certain sins that are always mortal. Such are blasphemy, luxury, heresy, etc. When these sins are deliberate, they are always mortal offenses. Others are usually mortal, such as a sin against justice. To steal is a sin against justice. It is frequently a mortal sin, but it may happen that the amount taken be slight, in which case the offense ceases to be mortal.
Likewise, certain sins are usually venial, but in certain circumstances a venial sin may take on such malice as to be constituted mortal.
Our conscience, under God, is the best judge of our malevolence and consequently of our guilt.