and HOLY CONFESSION
The Antidote of Death
First, Mortal Sin ...
excuses are numberless. In fact, they are as
numberless as our sins, none of which are now
deemed by us (and, for sorrow, by many priests)
grievous enough to preclude our receiving the
Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion.
Most often they are reducible simply to this:
I have not committed any mortal sin.
For Catholics who have never been taught the
difference between Mortal and Venial sin which
is to say, the entire last generation of Catholics
we must be clear about the notion of sin,
especially the distinction between two kinds
of sin, before we can proceed to even understand
the necessity, as well as the inestimable value
of Holy Confession.
Only one analogy suffices to make this distinction
clear in a way that is particularly accessible
to Western society (I do not say
for that has ceased). Let us look at the matter
somatically, that is to say, through our bodies,
or more likely than not, the bodies of others
upon which we are, in one way or another, sexually
fixated. Perhaps this will provide a visual
cue, some imaginative element, to an otherwise
The distinction between a Mortal Sin and a Venial
Sin is akin to the difference between a minor
wound ... and death. Is that succinct enough?
Are you still unclear about the difference?
In other words, you may accumulate many minor
wounds and still live, although each is an impediment
to your health and, while small, if left unattended,
may yet contribute to something more serious,
something more debilitating. It is a small laceration
... awaiting infection.
Mortal wounds, on the other hand, may be many,
but any one of them
alone will bring you to death. It is not the
case that, inflicted with a mortal wound, you
may die the wound
mortal precisely because as a consequence
of it, you in fact will
die. In fact, we most often understand it in
a posthumous context, in the past tense. The
person is already dead, and that is why his
injury was called
It is of the nature of wounds that they are
either the one or the other, although the non-mortal
wound may be sufficiently grievous to cause
lasting deformity or mutilation even if it does
not culminate in death.
Physics, Bodies, and Bullets
we wish to avoid both, but failing this we immediately
tend the wound, see a physician, and apply the
recommended remedy. The medicine may be bitter,
or the therapy arduous, but we do not curse
the doctor for that, still less the laws of
physics brought to bear upon human anatomy,
in the way, say, of projectiles and the like.
Bullets do those things. We do not like it,
and we would that bullets behaved otherwise,
but the reality is that, however regrettable
the result, we cannot, for that reason, alter
the path of the bullet nor make it less fatal
to the body. The consequences of this concatenation
of events are not within our will to change.
I believe that we will all agree on this. We
may argue that the bullet ought not have been
shot, but having been shot we understand the
inevitability of the result given laws inherent
in physics, bodies and bullets.
That the trajectory of a projectile corresponds
to a given amount of energy expended over a
given distance and intersected by the human
tegument through which it subsequently passes
causing death, is a terrible occurrence to be
sure, but not one, in and of itself, that we
are likely to imprecate. We do not rage against
the laws of physics. Indeed, we would find such
indignation ... odd, to say nothing of futile.
The laws inherent in physics and the constitution
of the human body, are simply not amenable to
our will, and we recognize this. We do not despair
over it, but become terribly practical given
this recognition: we avoid bullets. However
great our outrage, we will not find a sane individual
standing long in disputation against it ...
The reality we wish to avoid the reality
avoided at all costs at the pulpit is that
Mortal Sin is deadly. You die
as a result of it. Oh, not to yourself, and
certainly not to the world. You will breathe
and move and the world will applaud your posthumous
existence. But you die to God your life in
God ceases. The fact as little pleases us as
it pleases our preachers sin has real, most
often empirical and always inevitable consequences.
The ability of sin to harm, and yes, even kill,
is as real and as indifferent to our wishes
as the laws of physics that impinge on our bodies.
In our post-enlightened, post-modern pretension
to sophistication, we frankly find such a notion
abhorrent to our effete sensitivities, social
sensitivities that we have so delicately honed
upon the touchstone of correctitude.
On the one hand, we concede the notion of crime
and punishment but somehow never quite attain
to any correspondence between sin and condemnation
on the other. We attenuate our clemency in the
courts of men, given the gravity of the crime,
but do not attain to that same rigor in the
tribunal of sin ... given the gravity of the
sin. There are, apparently, no capital offenses
in the city of God, even as they abound in the
City of Man. A mortal life is held to be forfeit
for a crime, but life immortal is not held forfeit
for a sin.
It is an odd state of affairs that few of us
believe that we can abolish crime, while most
of us appear to believe that we have virtually
Crime, of course can
in fact be abolished.
How?, you ask.
It is simplicity itself. Legitimize
what is criminal. Account nothing a crime and
you abolish the notion of crime itself even
as you leave the consequences intact.
But that is absurd!, you exclaim.
In very deed ...
A cursory review of civil legislation over the
past 30 years reveals that, not only is it not
absurd, but attains to policy:
Sexual Deviance (homosexuality,
Prostitution (England, Scotland,
Canada, Australia, New Zealand,
Thailand, Philippines, offhand)
Few of us, I assume, would seek recourse to
such a solution and for good reason. Legitimizing
crime does not indemnify us against it however
much we hold ourselves to have abolished it.
We can say as much of sin.
In fact, we have said as much. Unlike the immediate
consequences of crime, the consequences of sin
even temporally are often deferred, less
immediate ... and because we apprehend them
as remote, as distant, as impending only, we
dismiss them for we fail to immediately see
the terrible consequences they entail, consequences
so terrible, so far-reaching, so much beyond
our ken, that they have become effectively mythical,
brooding like demons on some distant bourne
that we obscurely perceive and never quite forget,
an escarpment lost in light and shade where
life quite suddenly drops off that abrupt precipice
to death. We know it ... because we know that
we dance on the dead.
am about to state something with which you are
likely to disagree, and for good reason:
my parish Church is the holiest in
all of Christendom; not just in the Archdiocese
of Boston, but in all Massachusetts; very likely
all New England perhaps even the entire world.
And now, Holy Confession ...
You will disagree.
In fact, you know your own Catholic
parish to be the holiest, perhaps the most sinless
parish in the world, and we will both appeal
to the same reasons for making this remarkable
statement: during Holy Communion the pews
are literally emptied.
There is not a sinner among us; at least no
sinner guilty of Mortal Sin which prevents
our going to Holy Communion, since
as all Catholics know we add the tremendous
sin of sacrilege to
whatever mortal sin we carry if we receive Holy
Communion while not in a state of grace which
is to say, free of mortal sin.
But as I ponder the empty pews, the stigma of
being the sole sinner in the parish heavily
upon me as many look askance at my kneeling
while all others scramble to make their way
to communion I at least wonder. Do Catholics,
do all Catholics, do most Catholics,
do at least some Catholics, even
know what a mortal sin is any more? Do they
know the difference between a mortal sin
that sunders the soul from God, and a venial
sin that merely impedes its union with God?
Since the entire congregation have had at least
8 years of Catechism, or Religious Education
8 to 10 years, mind you! surely
so simple, so basic, so fundamental a concept
as the difference between serious sin and sins
far less grievous in nature, is clearly apprehended.
A very ready analogy may be to the point: in
the civic world, all of us know (probably because
the penalty is clearly comprehended, immediate
and forthcoming) the difference between grievously
unlawful, or capital offenses such as
murder and grand larceny, and misdemeanors,
like receiving a speeding ticket or maliciously
destroying a neighbors property. It is a no-brainer.
We do not think twice, or rather, we
do think twice in a given
situation about the sanctions and penalties
involved. It is, we are told, the means by which
we maintain a
civil, a mutually responsible,
We acknowledge the concept of justice and understand
very clearly why it is maintained and what penalties
are incurred if it is violated. We have no problem
with that. After all, the law is not some gratuitous
abstraction, and you are a fool if you think
that you can trifle with it and walk away. If
the breach is serious enough you are clapped
in irons, removed from the community, and deprived
of your liberty until justice has exacted its
tribute, until you have
paid your debt to society.
By and large we are grateful for the severity
of the law, even as its rigors make us uneasy.
There, but for the grace of God, go I ...
We all recognize that our own behavior has not
always been unimpeachable ... if not clearly
actionable. We do not personally legislate
parallel laws that contravene the laws
of the state and hold, at any point of divergence,
the private interpretation of the
law to abrogate the public law. It
is the opposite which is true. We may find the
laws of the state repugnant to us, unamenable
to our own inclinations, even contrary to our
own convictions in which case we are confronted
with three clearly distinguishable alternatives:
we can absent ourselves from the polity and
choose to live elsewhere under a constitution
that more closely corresponds with our desiderations
and convictions, if such exists; we can continue
to enjoy the collateral benefits in the present
state that constrains us to abide by the laws
through which it is defined and by which it
is governed or, we can seek to amend the law
through the venues afforded us by the state.
What we cannot do is to enjoy the prerogatives
of the state while either acting in defiance
of it, or while subverting it. We understand
this, and in fact underwrite it through maintaining
our citizenship within it. We understand this
broadly as a
pledge of allegiance.
In any event, we cannot construct a private
and parallel universe of statutes and anticipate
that the public universe of affairs will recognize,
respect, and honor our privately legislated
laws. If we choose to abide only by those laws
of the state that we do not find disagreeable
to us we have not attained to personal freedom,
but to arbitrary license; not to civility, but
to anarchy. We become both legislator and law.
In such a solipsistic
and the corpus of law are as numerous as the
individuals legislating them.
Well and good.
But what of God's Law?
Why, we must ask ourselves, is God's
Law somehow less important, less pertinent
to our behavior? Why does it have less bearing
upon our responsibilities and our choices
and, most especially within Church? Is the
Divine Law, are the laws of the Church, no more
than pious and ultimately indolent sentiments
rather than clearly articulated precepts with
very real corresponding sanctions and responsibilities
in other words, coherent laws?
Do we give tribute to Caesar but withhold it
from God? Is the Fasces mightier than the Cross?
We are indeed a generation which had been nurtured
on defiance to authority only seeing now,
in our own children, the fruit of that unbridled
defiance which we nurtured in them even as we
deplore it. Our children were
... not defiant, and we were
proud until we began to detoxify them, to
rehabilitate their behavior, to trade notes
with our neighbors on
good analysts. And our
kids still get the keys to the car, no matter
how grievous their transgression ... their money
for the mall just as we still get Holy Communion,
no matter how grievous our offenses against
God. We are as blind to our sins as we have
made our children blind to their own. After
spares the rod
not descend to
punishing the child, no?. And if we are
parents how much
Surely, there is no sin, no offense so grievous,
or so trite, as to offend Him ... nothing
we can ever do or say such that we would ever
right, not to the keys of the
car but to the Kingdom of God, through the Bread
of Angels ... Holy Communion that you as arrogantly
insist is as much your right as the
keys to the car ...
Still pondering the empty pews, it would seem
so. Perhaps it is the case that
all the parishioners are in fact guiltless of
civil crime, however petty (for these, too,
are the stuff of Holy Confession) as well
The truly defining question appears to be this:
to whom, we must genuinely ask ourselves, do
we owe more to God or man? To the City of
God or to the city of man?
On your blithe way to Holy Communion, ponder
this especially given the ultimate
sanction placed before us by no
less an authority than Saint Paul:
Whosoever shall eat this bread
or drink the chalice of the Lord
unworthily, shall be
guilty of the Body and of the Blood
of the Lord.
... are you prepared to add sacrilege
to your your sins?
Or has the notion of sacrilege itself
gone the way of mortal sin ... also?
Go to Confession. You must go. It is
the only antidote of Mortal Sin, and thus the
antidote of death.
Geoffrey K. Mondello
for the Boston Catholic Journal