by Fr. Charles Davis
TRE effect of a Catholic education on many people is to pervert their sense of sin. An odd statement to make, it might seem. Catholics are very preoccupied with sin, and Catholic children learn to classify sins with an accuracy that would have done credit to a moral theologian of a past age.
But there precisely is the root of the trouble. The ability to analyse sin objectively is not transferable to the personal order of guilt except insofar as it is reflected in a genuinely personal judgment of conscience. Catholic educators do not take enough account of this.
Conscience is simply man's own intellect brought to bear on moral matters which affect him personally and call for a personal decision. This function of the mind, like the others, develops slowly and needs training. Particularly important is the ability to distinguish one's own personal thought from ideas received into the mind but never appropriated by personal assent, even when they can be recited accurately on request.
A personal decision requires a personal judgment, and without a personal decision there is no guilt. Such a demand for a personal judgment does not exclude the acceptance, from authority, that an action is right or wrong.
But the authoritative guidance must be personally appropriated if it is to count for a truly personal decision. It is not enough to know of the teaching; it must be made one's own intellectually, even if disobeyed.
CATHOLIC education often prevents personal
conscience from emerging. Before conscience has grown to maturity, the detailed classification of objective sin is drummed into the child. This smothers the working of the child's own mind.
He is Incapable yet of making his own of what is taught, but, bludgeoned by authority, he loses sight of the difference between his own thought and what he has heard or read. He becomes a person who confesses according to the hook, without any sense that a personal judgment of conscience must intervene.
Hence the sad cases of people who confess to missing Mass when they have been ill in bed, or who become frightened when any matter is
left to their personal conscience because it cannot be adequately judged by general standards. Many Catholics are maimed mentally in moral matters, because their Catholic education has destroyed their power to think personally.
Great harm is done by the practice of announcing that such and such a violation of Church law is a modal sin. As the word "mortal" and the familiar conditions for mortal sin indicate, the phrase "mortal sin" refers properly to sin where there is personal guilt.
Only God and the individual conscience can discern such sin. Priests and teachers should not usurp the prerogative of God over their charges. All that they can say—and all that the official text of the Church's law says—is that such and such is a serious matter, binding accordingly. How sinful a violation will be depends on whether the individual is able to appreciate the binding force of the law. To announce mortal sins is to commit a crude inaccuracy, and this is the result of disregarding the essential role of personal conscience.
THIS criticism is particularly relevant when
Church laws are in question. Various reasons may excuse from such laws, and an adult should learn to assess these for himself, provided he takes care to inform his conscience correctly. He should not be fold flatly that any violation is a mortal sin.
But further, it requires a more developed conscience to evaluate personally the gravity of a
positive law than to see something as evil in itself.
Children—and people of unformed consciences —are told, for example, that it is a mortal sin to miss Mass: but they are incapable of grasping this statement in such a way as to make it govern a truly personal decision. The result is that they lose any sense of what a mortal sin means in the realm of personal conscience.
It becomes something external which happens to them, which traps them, rather than a personal decision of the most fundamental kind.
FOR a man in grace, mortal sin is a change in
the fundamental choice that governs his life. Underlying a man's day-to-day decisions is an enduring choice that determines the main direction of his will and expresses his personal moral stance.
sataChneer.istian in grace it will be a choice explicitly for God. He will not always act consistently with it; hence venial sins. But it remains until he changes it by mortal sin, and, according to the degree of his moral awareness, it exercises a directive influence on his other choices.
Mortal sin reverses that fundamental decision, and adopts a new ht.bitual stance in the personal moral realm. It is experienced from within, not announced from without.
"Moral automata" is a contradiction in terms. An objective morality that tries to make people such is a perversion.