Why I Don't Recommend Contemporary Catholic Apologists
I am not a fan of many Catholic apologists. I find their explanations for certain issues reflect exactly what I feel is the wrong interpretation of how to live the Catholic faith. One of their favorite subjects—mortal sin.
The red flag for me in Catholic writing, including from Catholic apologists, pops up after asking the question: “Can an atheist teach the same thing?” If the answer is yes, then it is not Catholic teaching.
For example, St. John, explains there is such a thing as a mortal sin (1John5). However, the apostle ends the chapter exhorting his readers to keep away from idolatry, the worst sin in the Bible. An atheist cannot warn people to avoid this sin but he can warn people to avoid others like murder and stealing.
Contemporary apologists building on traditionalism teach it is actually easy to commit a mortal sin. Many then do what Catholic apologists do best and cite documents and canon law. This may seem accurate at first but the true pastoral minister has to make the black and white teaching in documents and canon law understandable to the faithful.
To begin, we must define a mortal sin. Putting it simply, the root of mortal is mort which is death in Latin. A mortal sin is a deadly sin that kills the life of the soul by causing a separation from God. Committing the sin is an act where we prefer it to any relationship with God himself, which is a form of idolatry. It is so grave it leads us to block God’s outpouring of grace, He freely gives to us by knowingly doing something that God prohibits. The best example is the Ten Commandments—the only words God ever wrote in stone.
We cannot break any one of them without being in mortal sin. There are nuances. For example, in the pre-Vatican II days stealing was a mortal sin if the value of an item was more than five dollars. So it was a venial sin below that value. When I hear a confession and someone says I stole I always ask what they stole. I explain, I stole a piece of candy and I stole a car are both stealing but there is a big difference between the two. One sin is far more grave than another.
What actually is a mortal sin?
A mortal sin today is an action that one commits that is grave and done with full consent of his or her will. The sins themselves besides the commandments are ill-defined. In fact, the sixth commandment proscribes adultery. The Church correctly also considers fornication a mortal sin when all conditions are met but that is not the commandment. In some circles, it was at one time even a mortal sin not to send your children to a Catholic school.
A mortal sin must also adhere to the principle the punishment must fit the crime.
This brings us to the real issue. The true commandment is to love God and neighbor. We do this through a relationship with Christ personally and through his Church. This is not a protestant concept. In Jesus Christ, God calls us all to a deep prayerful relationship with the Trinity and with God’s people the Church. This is why I disagree with apologists who just focus on decrying mortal sin. They do not mention this element of our faith. In fact, they write about how we can commit a mortal sin almost accidentally, but say little about what is the most important point, how not to commit a mortal sin.
St. John Vianney says it well
St. John Vianney had some powerful words on this same issue. First, he had more hope for the most worldly of persons to achieve salvation than the lukewarm Catholic. How did he define this person? The one who measures his suitability for salvation by how good his or her behavior is. Such Catholics, according to Vianney, do not attend Mass because they do not have to, they are good enough as it is.
He called this a false sense of security. He believed the most worldly of people had a greater chance of salvation because they had a greater chance of coming to understand the path they took is wrong and then repent.
He also asked the person who fell into mortal sin if they had asked the assistance of the angels and all the saints to prevent this from happening. In other words, if the sinner is using all the options available to him or her to stay faithful to God on the physical and spiritual planes.
This is why I really hate this ersatz traditional morality. True Catholicism roots itself in prayer and seeks help from the Heavenly hosts to stay on track. So much “traditional” morality today roots itself in avoiding sin. “As long as I am not sinning, I will be saved.” That position is closer to St. John Vianney’s description of the lukewarm Catholic than the faithful saint.
Keep away from the black and white explanations
This is the basic problem—their apologetics roots themselves in Church documents and canon law. However, the faithful Catholic’s mission is to live our faith beyond the black and white world of the law. This is because the law is the minimum standard.
Let me give you an example: How many people say we must ex-communicate Catholic politicians if they support abortion because of Canon 915.
During the pandemic, because people were skittish about receiving the Eucharist for health reasons, I realized that this was the perfect time to address the rules on receiving.
I gave a catechesis at many of the masses about what the Eucharist means and what it means to receive. I pointed out that the Eucharist is God giving himself to us in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Since He is God, we receive Him on His terms not on ours that is why there is a call to be in the state of grace to receive Him. So the reason not to receive the Eucharist is not because of canon 915, the reason for canon 915 is to give us the minimum understanding of receiving so we receive on God’s terms not ours. I also explained that if someone feels that they cannot receive the Eucharist because of certain situations then not receiving honors God. They are explaining to God that they are not ready yet and I encouraged them to ask God to help them and speak to the priests about their issues.
I often also add to those laity who demand the bishops use canon 915 to excommunicate politicians, why aren’t they saying to politicians: “Why would we vote for a candidate who approaches God on their own terms and not humbly on His?”
However, too many Catholic apologists focus on the rules instead of the reality. This changes the beauty of the full teaching to a binary understanding of our Catholic tradition, it is like taking the paintings in the Sistine Chapel and making them all monotone, not even grayscale but just black on white.
Many believe when you focus on the spirit of the law as I do and not the letter of the law as many Catholic apologists do, then you have a lower standard, in fact the spirit of the law is a higher not lower standard.
If a politician is in prayer, asking God to give him/her the grace to do His will in the legislature, that man or woman regardless of how they appear in public, will be much closer to serving God than the politician who gives a casual glance at God or even the apologist who can quote canon law. The person who literally prays relying on God’s grace in all they do that is closer to Christ than anyone who has the catechism memorized.
One of the things I teach is that the true commandments are the two Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. You can try to live the ten and not live the two but you cannot live the two and not live the ten.
If you seek to draw closer to Christ you will, by default, avoid sin and grow stronger in holiness. However, you will also become more and more aware of other sins that the Lord is calling you to recognize and leave behind. If you instead seek just to avoid sin and not grow closer to God, you have a greater chance of being a lukewarm Catholic. You go to Church and show yourself as so good but you may not recognize Jesus if you get to the gates of Heaven.
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