In our previous article, in which we explored what it actually means to follow one’s heart, we came to the conclusion that while our hearts and feelings may be erroneous, we can always be assured that the teaching and commandments handed down to us by Christ and his Church are objectively correct. Jesus extends his reign through the Church. To reject the Church’s teachings on any given matter is to reject Jesus. How does such a rejection manifest itself? One example can occur during the lenten season. A Catholic may feel that even though it’s Friday, he doesn’t have to abstain from meat, because God will understand. He’s basically a good person. Why would God get mad at him for eating a hot dog?
But this shows a gross misunderstanding of what abstinence actually is and how it affects us, and is in direct contradiction of what our Lord tells us: “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (John 14:21). If we do not keep his commandments, by sinning gravely, we show a rejection of that Divine Person. This is why it’s said that mortal sin literally kills the soul. Of course, culpability for mortal sin can be diminished if one doesn’t have full knowledge or complete consent. This is where venial sin can come into play.
So let’s say our lenten, hot dog-eating friend didn’t have full knowledge of what he was doing. He has still knowingly disobeyed something commanded by the Church during the lenten season. Venial sins don’t get us totally off the hook; there is a price to pay for all sins. We still aren’t showing our love perfectly for our Lord. The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us some great insight on this while explaining the doctrine on indulgences:“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. The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains.” (CCC 1472-1473)
Making expiation for our sins
So even though our friend may have only sinned venially, the temporal punishment of sin still affects him just as it would if he had sinned mortally, albeit not as severely. That means we must make satisfaction for these offenses against God’s commandments given to us through the Church, even if we don’t perceive our actions as a “big deal” at the time. On satisfaction, the CCC explains what that exactly entails:“Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must “make satisfaction for” or “expiate” his sins. This satisfaction is also called “penance.” (CCC 1459)
We must make amends for any wrong that we do to others and to God, whether the wrong be mortally or venially sinful. Unfortunately, some think that venial sin just isn’t something we really need to worry about. Our relationship isn’t totally broken with God, one could figure, and one could still receive the Eucharist in such a state.
Wise words from Blessed Miriam
If the words from the CCC weren’t enough on why that view is erroneous in light of the effects of temporal punishment on one’s soul, the words of Blessed Miriam Teresa Demjanovich might make things hit home a bit harder. Blessed Miriam was a young American from New Jersey who died in 1927 at the age of 26. She will be quoted at length here from a collection of her writings entitled Greater Perfection, as her words are clear and still ring true nearly a century later, bolding mine:“We all understand very well that the only sins one need confess and must confess are mortal sins: that mortal sin alone constitutes the necessary matter of confession. The Church has clearly defined, however, that it is a good and useful practice, especially for those who aim at conforming themselves more perfectly to the image of the Creator, to the life of Christ, to resort to this sacrament frequently, even though venial sin be the only subject of accusation … “Here, then, we have the case of a religious [or, person aspiring to be a saint] who has been going to confession week after week, for many years- five, ten, fifteen, twenty, and as many more as necessary. God has held out to him grace upon grace, and yet in His sight, and even in that of thoughtful men, there is no proportionate increase in virtue … What is the trouble? The sacrament is of Divine institution; it is God who forgives, who gives the increase of grace; therefore, the trouble must be, and certainly is, with the soul. It is just this: he presents himself week after week before Christ, his Judge, with improper dispositions, which, through force of habit, have virtually become no dispositions at all, and hence not only prevent that outpouring of grace with which Christ wills to flood his soul, but in some cases it may even happen that, as a result of continued deliberate indifference, he may be in a certain measure guilty of sacrilege. And the pity of the trouble is—‘It’s only a venial sin.’ Only a venial sin! Ah, if we looked at the matter from God’s point of view rather than from our own, we should be forced to say in all truth: “It’s all of a venial sin.” We have no idea of the malice of sin, and therefore we go on our way cheerfully piling up insult after insult to God, and heaping up for ourselves mountains of fuel to be consumed in the weary, slow-burning fire of purgatory. If only we had that clear knowledge of the evil of sin which the saints had …
The danger of venial sin“Why are we so indifferent to the great danger and real harm of venial sin? Why? Because as long as we keep out of hell we are satisfied; that is, as long as we know we will not suffer eternally. ‘It is only a venial sin.’ Yes, I am still a friend of God. But just what kind of friend am I? I wonder if it is one He is pleased to acknowledge? Remember his words: “I will not now call you servants… but I have called you friends” (John 15: 15). When I deliberately commit a venial sin with the idea, ‘It’s only a venial sin,’ which is the same as saying, ‘There is no eternal punishment attached,’ am I seeking God, or am I seeking myself? Not God, surely. If I were, I would take care not to do anything that would offend Him in the least. No, I am seeking myself. I am looking to see just how far I can allow myself forbidden liberties and pleasures, without straining my relations with God to the breaking point, and running the risk of being hurt in punishment for all eternity. I do not like pain. I am afraid of suffering. But just the same, I will indulge myself this once today. I will go just so far in gratifying my eyes, my ears, my tongue, my taste, my mind, my imagination, my temper, but I will go no farther. Just this once today. Tomorrow is the same story. And the day after. Only it is more than once, and the number of falls goes on increasing daily. Someday, one of these horses, through our gradually relaxing hold, will break the reins, and rush us madly, much farther than we ever expected or intended to go, down the length of the infernal precipice, to the foul abyss below. And all because ‘It’s only a venial sin.’ Nor is this another exaggeration. History affords us only too many instances. Luther did not become a heretic over night, nor Judas a deicide, neither was Peter’s denial the result of momentary weakness. No. All these betrayals had their origin in scarcely perceptible beginnings. And because the shadow of sin was not persistently dispelled, the storm of passion eventually broke in all its fury …
Coming to the Lord in Reconciliation“And this is why the soul that habitually says, ‘It’s only a venial sin,’ cannot have sincere contrition, because of its affection for the evil. If the will embraces the evil, and it certainly does, because it finds repeated delight in it, it cannot at the same time embrace the opposite good, namely, God. It may at the moment of confession try to do so in an irresolute, half-hearted manner. And since it is impossible for a soul, while continuing in this state, to elicit an act of perfect contrition, its contrition is thus necessarily imperfect. “…remember, it is impossible for a soul who makes a constant and proper use of the sacrament of Penance not to advance in perfection … again, the whole question of perfection may be resolved thus: To conform myself to the image of my Beloved, Christ Jesus, I need but to will so to do. That will, however, shall not and cannot rely on its own strength; it can effectively act only through the strengthening power of grace, poured in great abundance on those who seek it in this holy sacrament of penance.”
No one said the road to sanctification would be easy, but we can see from Blessed Miriam’s writings that it’s possible to advance in that perfection through frequent and proper use of the sacrament of reconciliation. Keep in mind though, Blessed Miriam talks of a person who goes to confession often, and of someone who recognizes what type of grave matter can lead to mortal sin. How many of us go to confession semi-frequently? How many of us realize that using artificial contraception or deliberately desiring grave harm of one’s neighbor is gravely sinful, and go about our daily lives as if these things were of no consequence? It’s probably fewer than we’d like to admit, and it should certainly be cause for alarm. Once we go down that path of “not having to follow the rules” because we’re tired of how many there are, we lose sight of what the consequences are for our actions. We become complacent by simply “following our hearts” and risk seriously damaging our relationship with God.
Finding comfort in the Word of God
That said, we as Catholics have the task of purifying our hearts, of bringing them closer to God and away from our own passions. As St. Mark the Ascetic said, “Until you have eradicated evil, do not obey your heart; for it will seek more of what it already contains within itself.” It’s something we must continuously work at and pray for. We should all truly hope and pray that the Holy Spirit opens our hearts every day. We can find comfort in the Scriptures though, which says, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances” (Ezekiel 36:26-27). We can look at the examples of the saints, see how they lived a holy life, and try to emulate what they achieved. They were just regular people like us, and we can do all this too! They never would’ve told us that it’s OK to break the rules if our hearts feel like that’s the proper course of action. St. Alphonsus of Liguori said “‘Thy will be done!’ This is what the saints had continually on their lips and in their hearts.” We should do our best to not just “follow the rules” but to have our hearts in union with the will of God, do the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and pray for our brothers and sisters.
Fr. Tom Loya said it best, showing us all that being Catholic doesn’t just entail following some rulebook:
“That’s why I love being Catholic. Catholic is not … a set of rules. It is about a way of seeing and living according to that vision.”
Image of The Confession by Fondazione Cariplo via Wikimedia Commons, reuse permitted by license.
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