The Catholic view of sin is examined along with Abortion, Contraception, Divorce and Homosexuality.
“The Word of God is a light for our path. We must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. This is how moral conscience is formed.”
Paragraph 1802, CCC.
The Catholic view of sin
Augustine of Hippo (354-430) regarded sin as “…a word, deed or desire contrary to the eternal law.” Catholic moral theology divides sin into two parts, primarily on the basis of degree and effect:
- Mortal (‘Deathly’) sin – This type of sin is the most serious as it involves loss of sanctifying grace. A person who dies with unremitted mortal sin would be in danger of eternal separation from God in Hell. Therefore, the church requests those who commit such sins to undertake the Sacrament of Reconciliation, in order to restore themselves to a ‘state of grace’.
“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.”
“Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honour your father and your mother. The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.”
Paragraphs 1857-8, CCC.
Examples of mortal sins include abortion, adultery and the use of contraceptives.
- Venial (‘Pardonable’) sin – Positively, this sin does not directly destroy the relationship with God. Rather, it weakens that relationship. Unremitted venial sins can affect the duration spent in Purgatory. Therefore the church encourages confession of these types of sins as well.
“Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church…”
Paragraph 1458, CCC.
“One commits venial sin when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent.”
“Venial sin weakens charity; it manifests a disordered affection for created goods; it impedes the soul’s progress in the exercise of the virtues and the practice of the moral good; it merits temporal punishment. Deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin. However venial sin does not break the covenant with God. With God’s grace it is humanly reparable. Venial sin does not deprive the sinner of sanctifying grace, friendship with God, charity, and consequently eternal happiness.”
Paragraphs 1862-3, CCC.
Examples of venial sins include selfishness, anger and jealousy.
The distinction between mortal and venial sin is usually strict in so much as accumulated venial sins do not constitute a mortal sin. The usual way mortal and venial sins are forgiven is through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. However, forgiveness of sins may also be obtained through the Eucharist:
“As bodily nourishment restores lost strength, so the Eucharist strengthens our charity, which tends to be weakened in daily life; and this living charity wipes away venial sins…”
Paragraph 1394, CCC.
Certain sins are considered serious enough to merit automatic excommunication from the church. These include for example, illegal ordinations and the holding of doctrines considered heretical e.g. denial of the Trinity.
Catholic theology divides the punishment for sin into two parts: eternal and temporal (‘temporal’ in this context means lasting only for a limited period of time). Normally, the eternal punishment for sin can be remitted through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as we saw above. However, the church maintains that there is still a temporal punishment to be borne, as all sin is an affront to God. This then leads to the idea of Purgatory as a place where unremitted sin can be removed in the afterlife.
Under certain defined circumstances, the temporal punishment can be reduced or even removed, both here on earth and also in Purgatory. To understand how, it is necessary to consider the concept of Merit.
When a person does more than is required of them by God, they earn merit. First and foremost there is the merit of Christ himself, which is sufficient to remove the temporal penalty for all sin. The merits of Christ and the saints form a ‘Treasury of Merits’. The Catholic church claims it has the authority to dispense Merit because of Christ’s promise to Peter in Matthew 16:19.
“And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.”
Matthew 16:18-19 (DRB)
An Indulgence is simply a way of using this extra merit to reduce or remove the temporal penalty of sin. Indulgences may only be given to those who have no unconfessed mortal sins. According to whether the temporal penalty of sin is partially or fully removed, the Indulgence is called ‘Partial’ or ‘Plenary’ respectively.
“Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.”
Paragraph 2271, CCC.
It is important to distinguish between direct and indirect abortion: indirect abortion occurs when treatment given to save the life of the Mother has the secondary effect of causing an abortion. In certain cases, this is considered permissible. The seriousness of the matter is highlighted by the fact that those who participate in or carry out direct abortions face the penalty of automatic excommunication from the church.
The Catholic church has strongly condemned all artificial methods of Contraception (a position also held by most Protestant churches up to 1930, when the Anglican church voted for change). This includes the contraceptive pill, condoms and also medical procedures such as Vasectomy and Sterilisation. Infact the church regards contraception as mortally sinful. The official position is stated in the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae , issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968.
“Therefore We base Our words on the first principles of a human and Christian doctrine of marriage when We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children. Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary. Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation – whether as an end or as a means.”
The act of Sexual intercourse is considered to have two functions:
- Unitive – the couple become one flesh.
- Procreative – the sexual act creates the possibility of conception.
In Catholic thinking, these two functions cannot be separated, and thus each act of sexual intercourse must be open to the possibility of new life. In effect, the avoidance of contraception is seen as an act allowing God to decide whether or not conception will take place.
Though the Catholic church rejects contraception, it does encourage a responsible attitude amongst couples in their spacing of births. It permits what is known as Natural family planning (NFP), which is a method whereby intercourse is avoided on those days when a woman is at the most fertile phase of her menstrual cycle. NFP can be taught by a specialist practitioner and success rates of well over 90% are claimed when the method is correctly followed.
“Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favour the education of an authentic freedom. In contrast, every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil.”
“Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality…”
Paragraph 2370, CCC.
Key verses in the Catholic argument against divorce are Jesus’ words in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels:
‘Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.’
Matthew 19:6 (DRB).
‘Every one that putteth away his wife and marrieth another committeth adultery: and he that marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.
Luke 16:18 (DRB).
A divorced Catholic who does not remarry is treated by the church in the same way as a single person and can participate in the sacramental life of the church. However remarriage after divorce without the approval of the church authorities via the process of annulment (q.v.) results in the church witholding the Eucharist from the divorcee.
Although the Catholic church does not allow Divorce per se, it does dissolve certain marriages by a process of annulment. This is not divorce by another name, but a statement that the original marriage was defective in some way due to an ‘canonical impediment’. Grounds for annulment include:
- Non-consummation of the marriage
- Refusal to have children
Application is made for a declaration of nullity and once granted, the party is free to marry again.
“The Lord Jesus insisted on the original intention of the Creator who willed that marriage be indissoluble. He abrogates the accommodations that had slipped into the old Law. Between the baptized, a ratified and consummated marriage cannot be dissolved by any human power or for any reason other than death. The separation of spouses while maintaining the marriage bond can be legitimate in certain cases provided for by canon law. If civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance, it can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offence.”
“Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery.”
Paragraphs 2382-4, CCC.
The Catholic view is that all Homosexual acts are morally and intrinsically wrong and thus the church requires people with Homosexual leanings to remain celibate. It also encourages proper respect as human beings for all Homosexual people, being opposed to any form of discrimination and persecution of Homosexuals.
“Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex… Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.”
“The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible… They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided…”
“Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.”
Paragraphs 2357-9, CCC.
The church distinguishes between Homosexual acts and Homosexual leanings – the latter may not be necessarily sinful. In 1986, the church issued its “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”, explaining this distinction:
“Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”
In 2005, the church issued its “Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders”. The policy states that those men with “deeply rooted homosexual tendencies” cannot be ordained under any circumstances.
Here is a selected series of links that will give more information: