Fr. John H. Stapleton
Occasions of sin are persons, places or things that may easily lead us into sin: this definition of the little catechism is simple and clear and requires no comment. It is not necessary that said places or things, or even said persons, be evil in themselves; it is sufficient that contact with, or proximity to, them induce one to commit an evil. It may happen, and sometimes does, that a person without any evil design whatever become an occasion of sin for another. The blame, therefore, does not necessarily lie with objects, but rather with the subject.
Occasions are of two kinds: the remote or far and the proximate or near; they differ in the degree of facility with which they furnish temptation, and in the quality and nature of such temptation. In the former, the danger of falling is less, in the latter it is more, probable. In theory, it is impossible to draw the line and say just when an occasion ceases to be proximate and becomes remote; but in the concrete the thing is easy enough. If I have a well-grounded fear, a fear made prudent by experience, that in this or that conjuncture I shall sin, then it is a near occasion for me. If, however, I can feel with knowledge and conviction that I am strong enough to overcome the inevitable temptation arising from this other conjunction of circumstances, the occasion is only remote.
Thus, since danger in moral matters is nearly always relative, what is a remote occasion for one may be a proximate occasion for another. Proneness to evil is not the same in us all, for we have not all the same temperament and the same virtue. Two individuals may assist at a ball or a dance or a play, the one secure from sin, immune against temptation, the other a manifold victim of his or her folly. The dance or spectacle may not be bad in itself, it is not bad in fact for one, it is positively evil for the other and a near occasion of sin.
Remote occasions cannot always be avoided, they are so numerous and frequent. Besides, the evil they contain is a purely imaginative, and therefore negligible, quantity. There may be guilt however, in seeking such occasions and without reason exposing ourselves to their possible dangers; temerity is culpable; he that loves danger shall perish.
With the other kind, it is different. The simple fact of embracing a proximate occasion of sin is a grievous fault, even in the event of our accidentally not succumbing to the temptation to which we are exposed. There is an evil in such rashness independent of its consequences. He, therefore, who persists in visiting a place where there is every facility for sinning and where he has frequently sinned, does a deed of crime by going there; and whatever afterwards occurs, or does not occur, affects that crime not in the least. The same is true of reading certain books, novels and love-stories, for people of a certain spiritual complexion. The same is true of company-keeping, street-walking, familiarity and loose conversation. Nor can anything different be said of such liberties, consented to or merely tolerated, as embracing and kissing, amorous effusions and all perilous amusements of this nature. When experience shows these things to be fraught with danger, then they become sinful in themselves, and can be indulged in only in contempt of the law of God and to our own serious spiritual detriment.
But suppose I cannot avoid the occasion of sin, cannot remove it. What then?
If it is a clear case of proximate occasion of sin, and all means fail to change it, then the supposition of impossibility is a ridiculous one. It is paramount to asserting that sin and offense of God is sometimes necessary; and to talk thus is to talk nonsense. Sin is a deliberate act of a free will; mention necessity in the same breath, and you destroy the notion of sin. There can never be an impossibility of avoiding sin; consequently, there can never be an impossibility of avoiding a near occasion of sin.
It may be hard, very difficult; but that is another thing. Yet, as we have already said, the difficulty is rather within than without us; it arises from a lack of will power. But hard or easy, these occasions must nevertheless be removed. Let the suffering entailed be what it may, the eye must be plucked out, the arm must be lopped off, to use the Savior's figurative language, if in no other way the soul can be saved from sin. Better to leave your father's house, better to give up your very life, than to damn your soul for all eternity. But extremes are rarely called for; small sacrifices often cost more than great ones. A good dose of ordinary, everyday mortification and penance goes a long way toward producing the necessary effect. An ounce of self-denial will work miracles in a sluggard, cowardly soul.
It would be well on occasion to remember this, especially when one in such a state is thinking seriously of going to confession: if he is not prepared to make the required effort, then he had better stay away until such a time as he is willing. For if he states his case correctly, he will not receive absolution; if his avowal is not according to fact, his confession is void, perhaps sacrilegious. Have done with sin before you can expect to have your sins forgiven.