Should we be afraid?

Question: It appears to me that a definition of mortal sin is in order so as not to frighten people needlessly. For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: grave matter, full knowledge and deliberate consent (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1857). I know a good number of people who don’t attend Mass regularly or who look at pornography, but are not aware that they commit a sin. Actually, it might be pretty hard for the average person to commit grave sin, for who would purposely turn against God?

Bernard Thyssen, Beverly Hill, Fla. 

Answer: We have discussed the three conditions for mortal sin in previous columns. The nature of this column is to provide brief answers. It is not always possible to give a full theological treatise in approximately 300 words.

While rightly referencing the Catechism and providing a helpful reminder about what is necessary for one to be fully culpable of mortal sin, there are aspects of your comment that bespeak troubling trends in modern thinking.

First, there is your notion that people don’t seem to know any better. Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Catechism all speak of the conscience in every human person. The voice of God echoes in the depths of every human heart. While some suppress this voice, it is still there. It is my pastoral experience that people do know what they are doing. When I speak to people who are missing Mass, or perhaps are cohabiting and fornicating, etc., they admit they know that it’s wrong.

Secondly, your notion that mortal sin is rare also seems rooted in modern anthropology that minimizes human freedom and knowledge. While it is true that certain compulsions may marginalize or limit freedom, we are freer than most like to admit. In summoning us to a moral life, and warning us of sin, the Lord in Scripture is not simply setting up a straw man. He is speaking to us as moral agents, who generally act freely, making decisions for which we are responsible.

You may call all this “needless fear,” but if so, the Lord never got the memo. Jesus often used vivid imagery to stir fear within us of the consequences of sin. As with any pastoral appeal, fear must be balanced with other appeals as well. But the modern attempt to remove all fear from the preaching of the Church has had poor results.

Who can be a godparent?

Question: A friend wants a grandmother and aunt to be the godparents for her daughter. But the pastor says this is not possible, one must be male, the other female. Is this correct?

Sharon Malay, Fredericksburg, Va.

Answer: The Code of Canon Law says regarding sponsors for baptism, One sponsor, male or female, is sufficient; but there may be two, one of each sex (Canon 873).

Catechesis is necessary today regarding the role of sponsors. Too frequently, the role is seen as ceremonial and is often misconstrued as a way of bestowing honors on certain adults.

The role of a sponsor in infant baptism is to ensure the Catholic formation of the child, if the parents are unable to do so. In this regard, only one sponsor is needed. However, if two are chosen, they are usually called “godparents” and ought to be in the model of parents: male and female. 

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.