While the difference between mortal and venial sin seems obvious, don’t be fooled. There is more to this than meets the eye. What is really bad and what isn’t? And who decides?
Here is a routine situation that every Catholic of my generation had to deal with: You are at a baseball game at Yankee Stadium on a Friday night in June 1950. Catholics are forbidden to eat meat under penalty of mortal sin. But you want a hot dog. Now, just considering eating meat on Friday is a venial sin; wanting to is another. You have not moved in your seat and you have already sinned twice. What if you actually ate one? Aside from the risk of choking on forbidden food and getting punished right on the spot, have you committed a mortal sin or a venial sin? Well, if you think it’s mortal, it may be mortal; and if you think it’s venial, it still may be mortal. After much thought, you decide it’s venial. You call the hot dog vendor, you take the money out of your pocket, and you buy a hot dog. This is clearly an act of free will. You figure you can go confess your sin to the priest on Saturday night. But wait! Does a venial sin become mortal when you commit it deliberately? That’s a chance you take. What if you’ve forgotten it’s Friday? In that case, eating the hot dog may not be a sin, but forgetting it’s Friday is. What if you remember it’s Friday halfway through the hot dog? Is it a venial sin to finish it? If you throw it away, is wasting food a sin? Within five minutes you have committed enough sins to land you in purgatory for a million years. The safest thing to do is not to take any chances–stay away from Yankee Stadium on Fridays.
The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning
It might be funny if it didn’t sound so familiar.
I’ve taken my own sort of vow of poverty. I’ve participated in endless cumin-dividing discussions about the fine arts (as if “fine” had more to do with its size than character). I’ve “done devotions” with every sort of program, cutesy name, and innovative strategy since early elementary school. I’ve been lured to strive for that “higher life” monastic upper-class known in my world as “full-time Christian service.” I’ve endured endless preaching where justification by faith is just a brusque bro-hug that gets you in the sanctification-by-works club. And we think we’re so different from the “Romish” church?
The crazy-making internal conversation cum tailspin that Manning describes is the life of a fundamentalist. That’s it.
What stuns me is how we do it together.
Just like the Shakers. Really. The Shakers’ individual (tail)spinning and twitching developed over time (due to outside criticism) into a full-fledged communal performance. I look at that picture and imagine how easy it is to get swooped away into the spin. The individual must persist with the dance because well . . . people are watching, and it’d be a bad testimony for . . . the group. You wouldn’t want to be “ungracious.”
I got shoved out of the spin. But I’m not sitting in the crowd watching on the left either. I don’t know yet where I am, but I’m kind of amazed at how many people keep calling me back to the dance. Or back to the prison, as Steve Brown would say.