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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 [1], 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, 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.