Whatever Happened to Mortal Sin?

During the 1970s, psychologist Karl Menninger published Whatever Became of Sin?, a reflection on the largely unnoticed but quite definite slippage of attitudes towards morality in the mid-twentieth-century.  Tracing the disappearance of “sin,” he focused on one area that used to be of concern, but was gradually erased from consciousness, with extraordinarily wide ramifications: the “disorder” or “sin” of masturbation:

Masturbation, the solitary vice, the SIN of youth, suddenly seemed not to be so sinful, perhaps not sinful at all; not so dangerous – in fact, not dangerous at all; less a vice than a form of pleasurable experience, and a normal and healthy one! This sudden metamorphosis in an almost universal social attitude is more significant of the changed temper, philosophy, and morality of the twentieth century than any other phenomenon that comes to mind.  It is not difficult to see why ALL sin other than “crime” seemed to many to have disappeared along with this one. . . .Can all sin have been repudiated as such because one behavior once considered evil is no longer condemned? It is easier to suppose this in regard to sexual “sin” (other than masturbation) than in regard to such “sins,” for example, as stealing and lying, although there is a psychological connection between all of these, which has long been recognized.

Menninger, of course, is not speaking here as a moralist, but as a scientific observer retracing a significant alteration in the then-contemporary mores – the correlation of changes in attitude towards masturbation with other changes in moral valuations. The rest of his book is concerned with bringing attention to types of theft, envy, cruelty, lying, etc., which are now tolerated, explained away, even condoned, but should be emphatically reinstated as “sins.”

            Karl Menninger

But with regard to mortal sin, the leading spokesperson during the 1970s, and indeed a moralist, was Elizabeth Anscombe, the Cambridge philosopher, who astonished her colleagues by publishing Contraception and Chastity, a defense of the Catholic Church’s position regarding contraception. As a member of the “analytic” school of philosophy, she draws out the logical/ethical conclusions that inevitably follow from an acceptance of contraception:

If contraceptive intercourse is permissible, then what objection could there be after all to mutual masturbation, or copulation in vase indebito, sodomy, buggery, when normal copulation is impossible or inadvisable (or in any case, according to taste)?. . . . But if such things are all right, it becomes perfectly impossible to see anything wrong with homosexual intercourse, for example.  I am not saying: if you think contraception all right you will do these other things; not at all.  The habit of respectability persists and old prejudices die hard.  But I am saying: you will have no solid reasonagainst these things.  You will have no answer to someone who proclaims as many do that they are good too.  You cannot point to the known fact that Christianity drew people out of the pagan world, always saying no to these things.  Because, if you are defending contraception, you will have rejected Christian tradition. . . .For in contraceptive intercourse you intend to perform a sexual act which, if it has a chance of being fertile, you render infertile.  Qua your intentional action, then, what you do is something intrinsically unapt for generation.

In other words, once the principle of the rightness of intentionally non-procreative sex is accepted, a slew of non-procreative sexual activities follows in acceptability.  And as Pope John Paul II observed in Evangelium vitae, this “right” of being non-procreative leads to the acceptance of abortion, in cases where contraception fails.  Other side effects will include, and have included, the well-meaning efforts of governments to facilitate or mandate contraception, and even abortion, to keep populations to a manageable size.

           Elizabeth Anscombe

The pollsters tell us that the majority of Catholics have ignored the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that contraception is “intrinsically evil” and regularly use the Pill or other means of contraception.  It is possible that, in view of the relatively short lines for confession in most parishes, as well as the almost 100 percent reception on Communion at Sunday Mass, that many Catholics do not perceive contraception as a mortal sin – and possibly the other sexual activities that Anscombe mentions as mortal sins. This change in mentality may also be responsible for the fact that many priests and bishops seem to be waiting patiently for the “spirit of Vatican II” to “kick in” under a new pope, and never bring up contraception in homilies and other public forums.

It must be admitted, however, that the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not actually use the expression “mortal sin” with regard to contraception.  It refers to specific sins of envy, lying, and anger as “mortal sins.” But this terminology is not used with regard to sins against chastity. In #2396, it states, “among the sins gravely contrary to chastity are masturbation, fornication, pornography, and homosexual practices.” And then, in #2399, with regard to contraception, it uses the terminology, “morally unacceptable,” rather than “gravely contrary”: “The regulation of births represents one of the aspects of responsible fatherhood and motherhood. Legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means (for example, direct sterilization or contraception).” Could something “morally unacceptable” be a mere venial sin?

The Baltimore Catechism refers to missing Mass on Holy Days of Obligation as a “mortal sin.” But the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not use this terminology, although in one place it refers to this omission as a “grave sin.” I doubt that this apparent multiplication of synonyms is responsible for the fact that, as I mentioned in a previous column, the vast majority of Catholics in my area apparently do not observe Holy Days, such as the feast of All Saints. But  “a rose is a rose is a rose.” A “grave sin” is a “mortal sin” is “intrinsically evil.”

Will anyone teach Catholics that again?


Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Traditionally, moral theologians have spoken of “grave matter” or “grave obligation” (tenetur sub grave) to describe the objective character of an act. The reason is that the subjective requirements of mortal sin, namely, full knowledge and full consent may not always be present.

    I do agree that consistency of terminology would be helpful, but the CCC appears to be the work of numerous authors, imperfectly collated – Something familiar to anyone used to analysing legislative texts.

  • Frank

    My mother, may she rest in piece thought “Mad” magazine was a subversive on her son (me). Smuggling copies of the magazine into the house was easy, once I started reading with my bedroom door shut and busted out laughing, I was immediately busted. So what’s the point in all of this? Years ago, Dr. Vernard Eller of Laverne College published a book “The Mad Morality” or “The Ten Commandments Revisited.” Using many of the Mad comics and satires, Eller explains each of the commandments as a positive set of limit line fences human beings do not want to cross lest they ensnare themselves. As a rebellious pre-teen turned completely off by the incessant rants of “thou shalt not, lest you die” of my Sunday School teachers and the Pastor, Eller’s book came at a right time in my life and I maintain a copy of that book to this day. Where Christianity as a whole miserably fails is in the inability to communicate the positive virtues and effects of why we want to avoid crossing over those ten lines into a moral mine field laden with misery. We won’t win all the arguments but we’ll be above .500 if we appeal to the better angels of our warped nature.

  • Manfred

    Thank you, Howard, for an excellent and timely piece which, in effect, makes the point I have been attemting to make for years, to whit, PRE-Vat.II Catholicism was a different religion than POST Vat. II “Catholicsm”. In my experience, there were two massive influences on the Church hierarchy and laity in the 20th century: The apparitions at Fatima, and Vatican II. Each represented different religious beliefs which could not be accommodated. The Virgin showed three children (the oldest was 9) a vision of Hell and foretold a Third Secret which had to be revealed to the world no later than 1960. This Secret was not released and Vat. II was called instead. Hell, and what we do that would cause us to go there, has disappeared. As a result, the Church has had nothing but gibberish to say for fifty years.
    I have written on this site that I and my family realized years ago that we could not place our salvations in the hands of any Pope or bishop who did not speak the same reality of the pre-Vat.II Catholicism in which my wife and I were trained. In my opinion, Vat. II “Catholicism” is nothing more than a Satanic snare.

  • Manfred

    Lest anyone think I am intemperate in my comments, I would ask that they read the recent editorial on Abp. Myers and Fr. Fugee, a priest in Myers A’diocese, who admitted to police after being arrested on groping a 14 year old boy that he is a “compulsive masturbator”.

  • Ernest Miller


    Hardly intemperate, your comments are a much needed admonishment to clergy and lay alike. Please keep posting.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Manfred: “the Church has had nothing but gibberish to say for fifty years”? You sound like a sedevacantist. A bit extreme. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  • Manfred

    Negative, Howard. I am indifferent as to whether the “sede” e occupado or vacante. The American bishops signed the Dallas Agreement in July, 2002, after the Boston Globe exposed the horrific sexual predations of Fathers Shanley and Geogan and the cover-up by Cdl. Law, all in the A’diocese of Boston. TODAY, another priest and bishop are being called out by the N.J. Star-Ledger and the Bergen County (N.J.) Prosecutors office for the same reason: not removing a CONVICTED priest from the presence of children in direct violation of a court order! It appears that same-sex “marriage” will become a fait accompli throughout this Country in the next few years. NOT ONE CATHOLIC SUPPORTER OF THIS ABOMINATION HAS BEEN EXCOMMUNICATED. Does it really matter whether or not there is anyone in the Chair, Howard, or do we understand that we have been dealing with the Wizard of Oz for the last fifty years? At least Benedict had the decency to resign.

  • william manley

    Manfred is absolutely right. The church I grew up in (pre-Vatican II) bears no resemblance to the church of today. The secular culture I grew up in (pre-Vietnam War) bears no resemblance to the secular culture of today. These are truly dark days. These are the pre-apocalyptic days. Question of the day: is there a cause and effect? Did the church change to keep up with culture change? Or did the moral decay of our culture come about because of the liberal changes in the church?

  • ron a.

    re: fornication. I direct your attention to Catechism #1852. Sounds pretty “mortal” to me.

  • Achilles

    Wow! Why all the self congratulatory talk about what the Body of Christ is now or was then?…… You mistake fashion for omniscience. It is what it has always been, the Body of Christ, with Jesus as the head.
    Manfred, really? Indifferent as to whether or not we have a Pope?
    “Impartiality is a pompous name for indifference, which is an elegant name for ignorance” G.K. Chesterton

  • Howard Kainz

    @William Manley and Manfred: I hope you’re not missing the point. Anscombe and Paul VI both predicted the avalanche of moral decay as a result of the the spread of contraception. There is an absolutely logical connection. If the great majority of people are contracepting, these things will inevitably follow. The flood has already taken place, but there are a lot of good priests and bishops who are not afraid to preach about other things than inclusiveness and toleration and caring for the environment. Give them credit.

  • ron a.

    Manfred—I’ll start by saying I agree with most of what you say in your posts. You appear to me an articulate man of the Faith. However (and there’s always a “however”), I somewhat disagree with you in terms of your “two influences”. I don’t see Vatican 2, per se,as the Culpable. It’s the HIJACKING thereof that has proven so destructive (and it may get much worse). I believe that not only are John Paul 2 and Benedict 16 orthodox, but so too Vatican 2. What happened is the “smoke of Satan” that Paul 6 pointed out prevailed and poisoned the Church. Luke 17:2 has probably never been more relevant than in these last 40-50 years—consistent I might add with the vision of Fatima, with souls falling into hell…. Unfortunately, when Western Civilization needed the Church the most (a tacit admission of the Council), it flinched!

    (As an aside, I would speculate that the reason John 23 called for Vatican 2 was Fatima. The timing and the convergence of forces seem, to me, compelling.)

    To me, what transpired (reaction-failure) is not so much a matter of REASON/ FAITH as of WILL/ COURAGE. Perhaps against the backdrop of two World Wars, the scourge of Communism and the horror of the Holocaust, the courage of resistance to this “smoke of Satan” (embrace of secularism) was just too tepid. And, schism was certainly a fear.

    Concluding: after all, even popes are human, sometimes all too human. But they, to my mind, are not the villains. Actually, I believe they are both great men, placed up against a Force the Voice of Fatima may have not yet fully divulged.

  • Spade

    “Will anyone teach Catholics that again?”

    The USCCB is too concerned with immigration and gun control legislation to bother actually instructing their flock.

  • Charles Cosimano

    It is important to remember that Menninger was dealing with a change in his own profession in that period. In 1963 it was possible for a psychologist to write in a book preface that the purpose of sexual intercourse was the production of children. By 1970 that man would have been laughed at and of course now would be run out of the profession with tar and feathers.

    The Anscombe quote is interesting because it brings back the memory of my own philosophy professor at the time reading it and laughing in the Student Union. I went over and asked him what was funny and he showed me that particular section with the comment that the woman had clearly lost her mind, charitably assuming that she had at one time a mind to lose. He told that her logic was impeccable but her premise that any of the things that she mentioned could be “wrong” was nonsense. Now I hasten to add that he was a professor at a very liberal Protestant college so his views were clearly in the mainstream of that environment even then, but it is clear now which view has carried the day.

  • Jack Shifflett

    Ah, how I miss my 8th-grade days at St. Michael School where Sister Mary Josephine and Father McConnell struggled to teach us the difference between “venial sin” and “mortal sin,” and where every boy in the class was utterly fixated by the sight of the black straps of Barbara Q’s bra through her white blouse. Onanism was indeed the gateway sin for us all; better we had plucked out our eyes and cut off our (whichever) hand. By the way, I have no idea what “copulation in vase indebito” is, but shame on Ms. Anscombe for having mentioned it; people have enough perverted notions without going ahead and giving them more, and in Latin to boot.

  • James

    There is no parity of matter in regard to the sixth commandment.

  • St Donatus

    We can discuss back and forth Vatican II, but what has really hurt the Church is the silence of Bishops and Priests to instruct Catholics about sin. I go to both the Extraordinary Form (Latin) mass and the Novus Ordo mass (English). In the EF mass there is much instruction on how to work toward a truly Christian lifestyle, both in good works and avoiding bad works. In the NO mass I go to, I hear a lot of mush. When it is over, I really don’t know what the point was. At best, a rehash of what was just read in the Gospel but with all the important points removed.

    Because of the sermons in the EF mass, I have no doubt I am becoming a better person, not good enough but ever closer to where God wants us. I have given up bad habits that I have had basically my whole life. As they dig deeper into my soul, I find more things I can work on. But the blessing of the Confession booth, helps me move on from the guilt of sin, to the grace of God.

    I pray that our priests and bishops would grow a backbone and tell the parishioners the way it is. Sadly, they appear to be concerned about the checks that pay the lights that might leave if they were called out, then the souls of the faithful that will remain.

  • MIKE P.

    CCC: ” 1472 To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the “eternal punishment” of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.”
    CCC: ” 1855 Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.
    Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.”
    There are 21 paragraphs in the CCC using the words “grave sin”; and 23 paragraphs in the CCC using the words “mortal sin”. By definition they are the same thing.
    Unfortunately in the USA many Diocese Bishops do not encourage all literate Catholics within their own Diocese to read the “Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition.
    For more info including quotes from our Popes regarding the CCC on the internet go to: “What Catholics REALLY Believe SOURCE”.

  • Tony Esolen

    I’ve been asked to write an article on the reasonableness of Hell. I think that what I’m going to say applies to this discussion. St. Thomas has an absolutely chilling comment on the justification for eternal punishment — to wit, that the sinner would wish to live forever only that he might sin his sin forever, the sin to which he has given his heart. Think of how many people “define” themselves by their sins; think of how many people do not intend even to try to amend their ways, but rather to force God’s hand, to say, “You must save me AS I AM,” as if one could enter heaven with the continuing intention to abuse oneself in the bathroom … It is utterly illogical, and a direct affront to God.