QUAERITUR: The Sin of Presumption and You: How to go to Hell in an Uneasy Lesson.

From a reader:

I greatly appreciate your time and work you do with this blog, it has inspired me at various times to strive for fortitude and perseverance, especially in the sacrament of penance.

I have been studying the sins against the Holy Ghost in the various writings and St. Ambrose, St. Thomas, and St. Bonaventure. In reading their works, it seems that the sin of presumption, as being a sin against the Holy Ghost, is unforgivable. Is this true? Am I misinterpreting some aspect of these writings? This is particularly important because I have on many occasions committed this sin, which led to further mortal sins.

Yes, the sin of presumption is a mortal sin which separates you from God and usually leads to other serious sins. Presumption is a bad habit we call a vice.  Presumption is a serious, and I mean really serious sin that leads to the loss of heaven.

Let’s have some basic catechism which every Catholic needs to know.

All Christians, all of us poor sinners, live in hope. Hope, along with faith and charity, are gifts from God infused into us with baptism. They are called the theological virtues. Since they are virtues, they are habits. They are habits because, as the Latin word “habitus” (think of English “habitat”) suggests, they “dwell” in us in a stable way. Hope, along with faith and charity, are part of us unless we drive them out with acts and intentions against them.

Because all virtues are balance points between extremes, the virtue hope also has its extremes, which are vices, sins. The extremes most opposed to the virtue of hope are despair and presumption.

By hope we mean the theological or supernatural virtue which disposes us to aspire to God as our best end and, therefore, towards all the means we need to pursue to attain that end, because we know that we cannot do it or merit it on our own without God’s help. Hope is necessary for our salvation because it is, in itself, one of those necessary means for that salvation. God Himself is the object of our hope. Rejection of object of hope results in the rejection of heaven.

By despair we do not live in hope, we reject hope. Despair, the vice, is a willful rejection of hope because we think the things we need to do to obtain eternal life are impossible. It is a venial sin when it comes from melancholy or from timidity or fear of one’s own weakness. It is a mortal sin when it involves distrust or disbelief in God’s goodness or His revealed promises. As a result we stop praying to God for mercy and graces, and we do not ask for forgiveness for our sins. The result is the loss of the virtue of charity and the state of grace and, as a consequence God’s friendship and a share in the kingdom of heaven.

By presumption we do not live in hope, we live in a sense of false certitude. Presumption is the vice whereby we expect to gain eternal life by our own merits or that pardon is given without your repentance. It is a mortal sin in most every circumstance. As a result we stop praying to God for mercy and graces, and we do not ask for forgiveness for our sins. The result is the loss of the virtue of charity and the state of grace and, as a consequence God’s friendship and a share in the kingdom of heaven.

Presumption and despair each have as a consequence a turning away from God such that we do not ask for graces and forgiveness, which means that we will not be forgiven. This is why presumption and its flip-side despair, the enemies of hope, are called the unpardonable or unforgivable sins: they are so because we don’t ask. They are sins against the Holy Spirit and because they do not result in asking forgiveness, they are unpardonable.

There is nothing that we little finite mortals can do that is so bad that God will not forgive, provided we ask for forgiveness. It is there for the asking, always, until the time we die and can therefore ask no more.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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16 Responses to QUAERITUR: The Sin of Presumption and You: How to go to Hell in an Uneasy Lesson.

  1. sojourner says:

    Thank you for explaining this. It is the first explanation I’ve come across of the “unpardonable sin” that makes sense to me in light of God’s infinite mercy.

  2. Supertradmum says:

    Thank you for this excellent entry. One of the results of despair is frequently apostasy. Those of us who walked away from the Church as college students, for example, sometimes fell into either presumption or despair. If young people were taught more thoroughly about the ramifications of their bad decisions regarding the Faith, more would not leave the Church. Canon 1364 §1: “an apostate from the faith, a heretic, or a schismatic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.” Again, how many people know this? Apostates are sometimes those who fall into the category you have outlined of sinning against faith, hope and charity. If today’s young people fall into presumption, sometimes this is caused by confusion regarding sin, or a rebellion against the Church. Despair, as you rightly point out, Father, is the flip side, like waking up out of presumption into the clear light of seeing one’s great sin and not asking for mercy, but giving up on God. If the Sacrament of Penance was promoted more energetically, these sins would be more rare than these seem to be. One of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit is the antidote to both presumption and despair; that is, Fear of the Lord. If we fear to not reverence God, if we are in awe of God’s Goodness and Love, does this not help us avoid those terrible sins? Wisdom, which the Scriptures tell us comes from Fear of the Lord, helps us to discern both when we are becoming presumptuous and when we are falling into despair. If only we keep our eyes on the Love of God in light of our failings, and His Mercy and His Merits, not our own, we can walk that middle pathway between the Scylla and Charybdis of great sins. How weak we all are and how much we need God’s Grace through His Holy Church. Thank God for the sacraments. Thank God for giving us His Son to redeem us. For myself, meditating on The Passion, especially the Crucifixion, is the road to that middle ground.

  3. cothrige says:

    Thank you Father for such an informative lesson. And for me it really is a lesson. As a convert I am, I am afraid, quite ignorant of so much information like this. The relationship between hope, presumption and despair was unknown to me and so this is incredibly enlightening to read. And now, realizing how ignorant I really am regarding such fundamentals of the faith, I wonder if perhaps you might be able to recommend a good resource for study that might be able to correct such deficiencies?

  4. Lurker 59 says:

    @Cothrige

    Check out Josef Pieper’s work HOPE, which can be located in the book FAITH HOPE LOVE. It is quite useful and mirrors what Fr. Z has said.

  5. Cardsfan05 says:

    @cothrige
    There is also a book called the Catechism of the Catholic Faith or something to that effect an goes over virtually the entire religion.

  6. capebretoner says:

    One of your best posts ever Father. Thank you Thank you Thank you! And many thanks also to the reader who asked the question.

  7. Dr. Eric says:

    Is presumption the same as “Oh, I’ve got time to get to confession” syndrome? Or “God, won’t let me be killed before I go to confession.” Like if a person is in mortal sin?

  8. AnAmericanMother says:

    Thank you Father Z for this excellent discourse — very clear and very clarifying. The idea of avoiding the two mirror-image extremes (and the repetition of the consequences of either) is very thought-provoking.

  9. With all respect to Fr. Z, and thanks to him for a fine post, more attention needs to be given to the other forms of the Sin against the Holy Spirit, which St. Thomas places *before* presumption. Here is the pertinent passage from ST II-II, Q. 14, a.1, where he explains why the sin must include a certain malice, because that is implied in the Biblical texts referring to it:

    “Now this [sin against the Holy Spirit] may happen in two ways. First by reason of the very inclination of a vicious habit which we call malice, and, in this way, to sin through malice is not the same as to sin against the Holy Ghost. On another way it happens that by reason of contempt, that which might have prevented the choosing of evil, is rejected or removed; thus hope is removed by despair, and fear by presumption, and so on, as we shall explain further on. Now all these things which prevent the choosing of sin are effects of the Holy Spirit in us; so that, in this sense, to sin through malice is to sin against the Holy Spirit.”

    So the first element of the matter of the sin is “contempt” of the authority that might have provided instruction to avoid evil; second, “despair” of forgiveness, and then third “presumption” by lack of fear of God.

    Obviously, any of these three attitudes would preclude repentence, which is necessary for the forgiveness of sin. For a practicing Catholic, however, contempt of authority should not be a problem. Nor should presumption that God will “save me no matter what.” Rather the most likely form of this sin is despair: my sins are so bad or so repetitive, or so unavoidable, that God will reject me, even if I (for the 10,000th time repent). I suspect that despair is the most likely form of the sin against the Holy Spirit, at least among practicing Catholics.

    And despair means to refuse to superabundant forgiveness that is given to all sinners, no matter how horrible and shameful the sin. And there is can be no forgiveness to those who refuse it.

  10. And to make this even clearer, since my earlier post concerned only the dispositions that might create the possibility of the Sin Against the Holy Spirit, here is final explanation by Thomas of what kind of sin cannot be forgiven. There is, he says, only one sin which is absolutely unforgivable, final unrepentance:

    “According to the various interpretations of the sin against the Holy Spirit, there are various ways in which it may be said that it cannot be forgiven [none of which are absolute]. If by the sin against the Holy Spirit we understand final impenitence, it is said to be unpardonable, since in no way is it pardoned: because the mortal sin wherein a man perseveres until death will not be forgiven in the life to come, since it was not remitted by repentance in this life.

    God spare us all from that kind of end.

  11. David2 says:

    Fr Chad Ripperger FSSP’s site, http://www.sensustraditionis.org has a lot of good audio material on spiritual theology, virtues, vices, sin, reparation and the like. There are recordings of a lot of sermons and conferences explaining the fundamentals of the faith from a Thomistic perspective.

  12. Supertradmum says:

    David2 is correct. Father Chad Ripperger’s talks are fantastic. I cannot recommend them enough. Also, above, was recommended Josef Pieper, whose book on The Four Cardinal Virtues, I used for a class years ago. He was a great Thomist and needs to be read more.

  13. Philangelus says:

    I’d been taught that the sin of presumption was a co-sin that hitched a ride along on another sin. It would go like this: “I don’t feel like going to Mass today, but that’s fine — I’ll just go confess it next Saturday and God will have to forgive me.”

    In other words, the assumption in advance that you’d be going ahead and asking pardon for the thing you knew you shouldn’t be doing would in some way invalidate any future requests for pardon for that sin. Because you’d never really know you were actually sorry. Or worse, maybe you did go ahead and confess it without actually being sorry, which is a mockery of the sacrament of Confession.

    Your explanation, Father Z, is a bit broader than that. Thank you.

    God, save us from the snares of the devil…

  14. albizzi says:

    Canon 1364 §1: “An apostate from the faith, a heretic, or a schismatic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.”
    “Since VaticanII the Church no longer excommunicates anybody (except the Lefebvrites)”: How many times did I hear that even in the mouth of priests?
    How many homilies adressing the issues of the sin, of the confession, of Hell, of abortion, of same-sex did you listen to during the last 30 years?
    Here lies the problem:
    Like the bishop of Bathurst said recently about one of his priest (Fr Gionet) who dared to address these issues:
    “He made his parishioners feeling uncomfortable”. That is the reason why he suspended him.

    Certainly they will feel much more “uncomfortable” the day they will fall into Hell.

  15. G-Veg says:

    How does one characterize this situation: I repent of habitual sins and honestly intend to do better. Everything goes well for a while but I let little steps towards sinfulness creep into my life until, like water over a dam, the habitual sins cascade over me. Then I wallow.

    I know that He wants to forgive me and that all I need do is ask but I sit, steeped in sin and sinning because I am ashamed to ask God for forgiveness through Reconciliation. Then, one day, like the lifting of the fog, I realize how stupid and ridiculous I am being and immediately go to Reconciliation.

    I know God will forgive me and I desperately want to be good. I know the periods that I am out of God’s grace due to my shame and stupidity are very serious. What do I call that period of wallowing? Is there a more succinct way to state the sin during the sacrament?

  16. Cathy says:

    I had the strange opportunity to have the Westboro Baptists protesting in my county with a counter protest by the Rainbow Coalition. Generally, a protest has a side that one tends to sympathize with. It occurred to me, however, that both sides sided against the Holy Spirit, one saying God hates you, and the other, gay is okay. In a weird way, all I could think of the protest was that both sides sided with Satan.