Ever since he was a child, Oscar had a temper problem and got into many fights. He was punished by parents and teachers alike. As an adult, his altercations became less frequent. But they did not disappear. In his 20s he got into serious trouble with the law for violent assaults on two occasions. In both instances he severely maimed his victims. He was not thrown into prison due to the generosity of his victims who responded favorably to the pleas of his wife and mother for leniency and forgiveness.
Friends and psychologists then attempted to convince Oscar, a husky and athletic man, to get psychiatric counseling to correct his problem before he severely injured others or even killed them. He agreed to do so but always found an excuse for not beginning therapy. As he grew older, his temper problem never got resolved. As a result he was a walking time bomb, placing people who crossed his path constantly at risk. It was just a matter of time before a lethal explosion occurred. Psychological tests supported this view.
Enduring Attitude of Evil
Oscar’s failure to take the necessary means to resolve his critical problem constitutes an enduring attitude of evil. It is sin. At the very least it is material mortal sin. Personal mortal sin in the last analysis is subjective and requires the fulfillment of certain basic conditions among which are knowledge of the gravity of the evil and the living out of it in true freedom. There could be in Oscar’s case a missing condition for subjective mortal sin. But it is clear that to live continuously as a walking time bomb is a gravely evil disposition.
Sin, in the sense of mortal sin, is a saying no to God in the depths of one’s being. It is a directing of one’s fundamental orientation away from Him. It involves a foundational choice of self over God. It is basic, profound and deliberate. It does not happen “by accident” or “out of the blue.”
Usually this occurs through the completion of a gravely evil action that can be pinpointed as occurring at a specific moment — abortion, blasphemy, slander, adultery, sacrilege, murder, idolatry, fornication, euthanasia, theft, perjury, envy. But some grave sins cannot be pinpointed as occurring at a particular time, although they do require a moment of deliberate consent. These are enduring attitudes and dispositions of evil.
In the Bible sin is often viewed more as a basic attitude of rejection of God, a state of selfishness, than as an isolated action. Some theologians see mortal sin as often involving a process — a series or pattern of acts — in which there is no need for a single action that could be labeled “mortal sin.” Since the process extends over time, so does the mortal sin.
The Deterioration of a Relationship of Love
It begins with the deterioration of a relationship of love and friendship with God through indifference, selfishness and infidelity. Eventually a decisive, fundamental rejection of God occurs. But it may not always be easy to determine the exact moment of that occurrence. Of course there has to be a moment of enlightenment and free choice.
The man who positively chooses to exist as a living time bomb is unconcerned about the well-being of his neighbor and indifferent to the love of God. His situation is only one example of numerous situations in which people sin by living out an enduring attitude or disposition of evil.
George is a middle-aged married man who quite normally appreciates young, attractive women. He has neither a special appeal to women nor a habit of energetically pursuing them. He would never consider visiting a brothel because of the risk of contracting AIDS or another lesser venereal disease. Nevertheless, he lives in a constant state of openness to adultery. He is ready, willing, and eager to have illicit sexual activity with any woman who would be willing to engage in it and whom he would find sexually appealing.
Through his low-key flirting, he gently lets women know his availability for sexual activity. The marital commitment he has to his wife does not bother him in the least. He has no intention of resisting the availability — much less the advances — of a desirable woman. His enduring attitude and disposition constitute material mortal sin.
Harry is a local district attorney who won election to his post by convincing a jury of the guilt of a young man in a high-profile murder trial. This case established his reputation as a highly qualified jurist and prosecutor. During the trial, he had never been more certain of the guilt of any person he had prosecuted as an assistant district attorney. But five years after the man’s incarceration, it was becoming clearer and clearer that the man was innocent.
Finally, it became overwhelmingly clear that the man in prison could not have committed the crime of which he had been convicted and which landed him in the state penitentiary with a sentence of life and a day. The district attorney was in a position to set in motion the procedure that would liberate the innocent man, who had already spent six years of his life falsely imprisoned. But the district attorney found himself in a dilemma.
Liberating the man would offer the world evidence of his innocence. It would declare that the guilty party was still at large. It would undermine the very foundation on which he won his cherished position as district attorney. So what does Harry do? He ignores the evidence and allows an innocent man to languish in prison. He does not “do” anything wrong. He just fails to live up to his professional and social justice obligations. Harry’s inactivity constitutes unambiguously an enduring attitude and disposition of evil. His inactivity is mortal sin.
Mary was born into a Catholic family, raised Catholic and attended Catholic elementary school. But during her years at a state-run university, she slowly drifted away from the practice of her faith. Eventually she was influenced by friends to join the Iglesia ni Cristo cult. She tried gently to convince her Catholic boyfriend to join the cult, but he was not interested. Mary was not a fanatic, so her new cult did not hamper her romantic relationship. She got engaged and even consented to marry in a Catholic ceremony. She did not object to having their children baptized in a Catholic church. She attended her church, and her husband attended his.
Things seemed to be working out fairly well. The children usually attended a Catholic Mass on the weekend. But 10 years and three children into the marriage, the leader of the Iglesia ni Cristo church that Mary belonged to started to apply heavy pressure on her to convert her entire family to the cult. She in turn applied ever-increasing pressure on her husband. Eventually she established a hostile situation between herself and her spouse that never let up. Relentless pressure was applied that culminated in threats of leaving him and taking the children with her. The uninterrupted pressure included the silent treatment, failure to prepare meals and the denial of marital relations.
Abandoning her faith to adopt a cult was already gravely evil activity on the part of Mary. But the application of severe pressure on her husband to make him do something against his will and in violation of his conscience constitutes an unambiguously clear evil disposition. The extent and gravity of the evil establish this ongoing evil behavior as mortal sin. The only thing lacking for this behavior to be personal, subjective, mortal sin is the recognition of the gravity of the evil and the free consent to it on the part of Mary.
Some years ago newspapers carried the story of a man who died in an unusual way from poisoning. When taken to the hospital by ambulance he was still alive, although close to death. Toxicology screenings done on him indicated that the cause of his illness was poison. The police were informed. But foul play was not suspected because the kind of poison found in his blood was one discovered in the materials used in the man’s work. After spending several days in the hospital the poison victim showed a remarkable improvement. It looked as though he would soon be well enough to be released.
Suddenly, however, he took a turn for the worse and died. Tests were done on his blood. It was discovered that the toxicity level of his blood had suddenly, significantly increased. The poison that had initially made the man sick but which was being removed from his system had mysteriously, dramatically increased. The toxins used at his work could not be blamed because he had not returned to work since his hospitalization.
The police were brought in. Through an in depth investigation, they discovered that the dead man had been poisoned by his wife. The process of poisoning had begun months earlier. The wife chose a poison that would not appear suspicious. Little by little, ever so slowly, she poisoned her husband.
A day’s worth of poison did not bother him very much. He was a strong, big man. His system was able to handle that much poison easily. But the poison accumulated in his system, eventually reaching a lethal level. That is when he was taken by ambulance to the hospital. The man’s recovery was not within his wife’s plans, however. So she finished him off within the hospital, thereby arousing suspicions. The police discovered that she had killed an earlier husband in a similar way.
The gravity of the woman’s sin is obvious. But it is not dependent upon the administration of small, daily doses of poison. The gravity is tied to the master vision and clear intent of murdering her husband on the installment plan. Even if she had changed her mind halfway through the process, she would still have committed grave evil in the decision to eliminate her spouse.
The administration of all the individual doses were subsumed under and united by that decision. Assuming the wife recognized the gravity of her decision and chose freely to proceed with it anyway, she committed a mortal sin.
Joan bore an autistic child to her husband Fred. She was attached to the little boy despite his handicap. But Fred found his son John to be an embarrassment and despised him. He practically denied John’s existence and prevented visitors from seeing him. He often kept him locked up in a closet. He would never attempt to communicate with his son. He forbade his wife to take the boy to the doctor’s when he was sick. When John grew up, Fred denied him the therapy he needed and which might have improved his condition.
Fred’s ongoing evil attitude and behavior toward his son guaranteed that his condition became a permanent, debilitating handicap. Fred’s disposition and behavior constituted grave evil. Not only did he forfeit his paternal obligations, but he positively injured someone whom his state in life and vocation demanded that he protect against injury. Psychological factors could have interfered to a degree with Fred’s proper attitude toward his son. Yet if he was aware of the grave harm he was doing to his son and freely consented to it, he committed mortal sin.
Arthur is an industrialist whose factory emits poisonous gases into the environment. He knows how to prevent the emissions and does so when inspectors come around. But preventing the emissions on a regular basis would be very expensive, so he does not choose to follow that route. He knows that an hour’s or even a day’s worth of emissions are not very significant. The winds and the atmosphere handle them. But he also knows that spewing poison into the environment 10 hours a day, six days a week, seriously damages the atmosphere and endangers the well-being of those who inhale the air.
On inversion days, people with asthma and other breathing problems cannot venture outside for fear of causing themselves serious harm. But the almighty dollar is more important to Arthur than the health of his fellow human beings. So he continues to poison the environment. His ongoing behavior is gravely evil, material mortal sin.
Some years ago two Caucasian men at a bar beat an Asian man to a pulp. He died of his injuries. The police investigated the case and determined that the death was the unfortunate result of a brawl among inebriated men. The killers were given a slap on the wrist and let go. Some time later, however, they were charged with the crime of racial killing — a newly recognized crime. They were tried and found guilty.
What had seemed to be a case of spontaneous violence unfortunately ending in death was recognized to be the result of ongoing hatred of the two Caucasian men for Asians. Ongoing, racial hatred, freely consented to and involving the positive desire to see serious harm come to members of the despised race, and not just cultural bias inherited from one’s family or environment, is a gravely evil ongoing disposition. It qualifies as material mortal sin even if it never erupts into actual violence as it did in this case.
Joseph had been a very responsible policeman patrolling his beat in a high-crime area of New York City. When his youngest daughter became ill, however, and needed specialized medical attention, he began to feel the pinch financially. When approached by drug lords to turn the other way in the face of drug deals in exchange for substantial ongoing remuneration, Joseph decided, after a period of careful reflection, to accept the offer.
From that moment onward he became blind to all drug transactions. He reported or made arrests regarding other crimes, but not those connected to the buying or selling of illegal narcotic drugs. He was fully aware of the harm that could result from his inactivity, including deaths through overdosing. He knew his professional obligations as a policeman. But the ongoing stream of money coming his way kept him silent and inactive. His silence and non-action constituted a gravely evil attitude and disposition. By doing nothing he committed grave evil.
These examples, I think, illustrate quite well that mortal sin does not always involve an action that can easily be pinpointed as having occurred at a particular time and place. Often, however, ongoing evil behavior and/or evil attitudes and dispositions go hand in hand with a one-time evil action.
Thus adultery could be the culmination of an increasing indifference toward one’s spouse and regular flirtatious behavior with another person. A racial killing, such as a lynching, could represent the culmination of an ongoing lived-out prejudice against people of a certain race. The burning down of a Catholic church could indicate that ongoing hatred against Catholicism had grown to a truly vicious intensity.
But evil attitudes and dispositions do not need to culminate into easily definable and describable sins for them to be gravely evil. An ongoing welcoming attitude toward adultery is already gravely evil. So is racial hatred. Of course, for an individual to commit mortal sin, three conditions have to be met simultaneously. A mortal sin is one “whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1857). “Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense” (No. 1860). In addition “external pressures or pathological disorders” can reduce the voluntary and free nature of the offense (No. 1860).
Who can say? Possibly Oscar or George did not commit mortal sins. Only God knows for sure.
DR. DECELLES is Professor Emeritus at Marywood University, Dumore, Pa., where he taught theology and religion for 43 years, He retired in June 2013.