ASK FATHER: “Did you desire to completely destroy your relationship with God?” A serious error some priests are into.

From a reader…

Quaeritur:

Recently went to confession at a parish near my new job.  I hadn’t been there ever before. I mentioned the phrase “mortal sin”. The priest said, “I don’t think there was any mortal sin. Mortal sin requires three things: serious matter, knowing that it’s serious matter and desire to completely destroy your relationship with God. [?!? – This sounds like a variation of the “fundamental option” error.] Did you desire to completely destroy your relationship with God when you [omitted]?”

Of course I answered honestly that I didn’t desire to completely destroy my relationship with God. I thought that arguing moral theology with the priest might raise questions about the sincerity of my repentance for my sins involving pride and anger, so I held my tongue. [In that moment, probably for the best.]

I would have expected any Catholic to have a better grasp on such a basic topic, let alone a priest who is a member of an order famous for its academic achievements. [I’ll get you a popsicle it was a Jesuit.] Makes me very glad that the efficacy of the sacrament is independent of the lunacy of the minister of the sacrament.  [Good call.]

I suspect that that priest is infected, willingly or not, with the deeply harmful errors of the likes of Richard McCormick SJ and Charles Curran.  Many priests of a certain age are.  Many of certain religious orders are.

First, let’s clarify what the Church teaches.

For a sin to be a mortal sin, it must meet three conditions.  It must be:

  • of grave matter
  • committed with full knowledge of the sinner
  • committed with deliberate consent of the sinner
Check out CCC 1857.

The third condition is NOT: “desire to completely destroy your relationship with God” – FAIL.  That could be a result, but the desire to do so is not a condition.

The third condition (deliberate consent) means that you must not only know that what you are going to do is a sin, you also will to do it.  If your will is not engaged, you are not guilty of a mortal sin.  If you are being forced, you are under duress, you are impaired in some way, etc., your will is not wholly involved.  Mortal sins are not accidents.  Mind you, objectively the act itself might be serious enough to be grave matter, but subjectively you are not guilty of a mortal sin if your will isn’t wholly involved.  Again, you have to know it is a mortal sin and then you commit that sin anyway, willingly. This means that mortal sins are intended by the sinner. They are a willing rejection of God’s law and love.  That does NOT mean that you want thereby “completely to destroy your relationship with God”.  Example: “I am going to do X.  I know X is wrong.  I am going to do it anyway.  I want to do X in order completely to destroy my relationship with God.”  NO.   That is not how 99.99999% of sinners wind up committing mortal sins.  As a matter of fact, that would be something so rare as to be unfathomable: that someone sets out to deliberately to do exactly that.  There is a difference between knowing that you are harming your relationship with God by sinning and “desiring to completely destroy your relationship with God”.

However, some moral theologians in decades past – thanks be to God this is fading as the Biological Solution takes them out – advanced erroneous ideas about mortal sin.  This bad theology infected myriad seminary and university professors, to the untold damage to countless people.  I tremble for their souls of those who spread it.

One of the bad ideas advanced by these aberrant moral theologians was that of the “fundamental option”.  See if this doesn’t sound a bit like what that confessor asked.

According to this false theory, a person makes a “fundamental” choice for or against God. If the acts you commit do not change your basic orientation for God, then you do not lose the state of grace. Only when your acts change your default position to be against God do you lose the state of grace.  Consequently, according to this false idea, you could commit particular sins (which otherwise fit the classic definition of mortal sins) without losing the state of grace.  Say you do X.  Say you choose to do X, knowing that it is a sin, and say X is grave matter, and you then do X anyway.  But … say that, well, you did X but you didn’t really shift your “fundamental option” in favor of God.  According to the “fundamental option” angle, yah, okay, you did something wrong, but… your sin wasn’t mortal after all.

See how dangerous this is?

Those who embrace this false understanding of mortal sin, claim that you could commit adultery, homosexual acts, masturbation, and all other manner of sins which the Church has always held are mortal, without changing your default position on God, your “fundamental option”.  (And it’s almost always about sex with these fundamental option types… it is the way they excuse all manner of behavior and then, once they are on the slippery slope and sliding, they rationalize all manner of moral turpitude and deviant acts.)

Moreover, these wrong-headed types say that no single sin can change your “fundamental option”.  Nice, huh?  Your default changes only you develop a lasting pattern of sinful behavior.   Do X once… pffft.   Do X twice… thrice… heck, a bunch of times, pffft. But, 365 times?  Maybe we will need to talk about that some day.

We got this rubbish in seminary back in the 80’s.  I got in serious trouble with our ultra-liberal overloads by asking how many times I could commit suicide in a calculated way before my “fundamental option” changed.

So, be wary of the sort of rubbish you heard from this priest confessor, may God have mercy on him.  John Paul II corrected the error of the “fundamental option” in his encyclical Veritatis splendor (cf. esp. 65-70).  He ought to know that.

In point of fact, man does not suffer perdition only by being unfaithful to that fundamental option whereby he has made “a free self-commitment to God”. With every freely committed mortal sin, he offends God as the giver of the law and as a result becomes guilty with regard to the entire law (cf. Jas 2:8-11); even if he perseveres in faith, he loses “sanctifying grace”, “charity” and “eternal happiness”. As the Council of Trent teaches, “the grace of justification once received is lost not only by apostasy, by which faith itself is lost, but also by any other mortal sin”.

[…]

The statement of the Council of Trent does not only consider the “grave matter” of mortal sin; it also recalls that its necessary condition is “full awareness and deliberate consent”. In any event, both in moral theology and in pastoral practice one is familiar with cases in which an act which is grave by reason of its matter does not constitute a mortal sin because of a lack of full awareness or deliberate consent on the part of the person performing it. Even so, “care will have to be taken not to reduce mortal sin to an act of ‘fundamental option’ — as is commonly said today — against God”, seen either as an explicit and formal rejection of God and neighbour or as an implicit and unconscious rejection of love. “For mortal sin exists also when a person knowingly and willingly, for whatever reason, chooses something gravely disordered. In fact, such a choice already includes contempt for the divine law, a rejection of God’s love for humanity and the whole of creation: the person turns away from God and loses charity. Consequently, the fundamental orientation can be radically changed by particular acts.Clearly, situations can occur which are very complex and obscure from a psychological viewpoint, and which influence the sinner’s subjective imputability. But from a consideration of the psychological sphere one cannot proceed to create a theological category, which is precisely what the ‘fundamental option’ is, understanding it in such a way that it objectively changes or casts doubt upon the traditional concept of mortal sin”.

Be clear and cut through the rubbish.  To coopt their terms: sins which do not change our true fundamental option are what we call venial sins, they do not kill the life of grace in the soul.  Sins which kill the life of grace in the soul are mortal sins. When we commit mortal sins, we lose the state of grace; we lose the friendship of God.  In that sense our fundamental option has indeed changed, for we have gone against what we know is God’s will and have deliberately set aside his love and gifts: we have lost the state of grace, which is pretty fundamental.  However, an individual mortal might not entirely change our “fundamental option” in the sense that we still hope for forgiveness and God’s love, we still have faith in God, even though we have lost supernatural charity.

Mortal sin is complicated because we are complicated.  But it isn’t as complicated as these dreamy egg-heads made it out to be.  Mind you, I suspect that most of the people who grasped onto this “fundamental option” thing thought they were doing the right thing, thought they were drilling down to the roots of sin, and forgiveness and God’s love, and reconciliation and conversion.  But … they got it wrong, and in spreading their error, have done serious damage to countless souls.

The fundamental option theory, erodes people’s awareness of what sin is.  It undermines the sense of danger sin creates for the soul.  And, apparently, it is still confusing some people in the confessional.

Bottom line:

GO TO CONFESSION!

Confess all your mortal sins in kind and in number, omitting nothing.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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28 Responses to ASK FATHER: “Did you desire to completely destroy your relationship with God?” A serious error some priests are into.

  1. Dundonianski says:

    I truly feel that this is superb guidance for those of us who struggle to find such intelligent yet simple direction when confessing, especially if we know (or should know) that mortal sin is involved. Fr Z’s references to CCC2857 and JPII’s. Veritatis Splendor should eliminate doubts which have all too easily crept into the confessionals around the world like a satanic tide . This guidance will confound and challenge many priests, bishops- and beyond, who rarely if ever preach to the faithful on the dangers of mortal sin. Yesterday I watched as perhaps three hundred or so thrust their hands out to receive the Blessed Sacrament, but Apparently less than five percent attend confession regularly. Souls are most certainly at risk of damnation-so take heed of Fr’s guidance here.

  2. iPadre says:

    I was once assisting at a Penance Service during a parish Lenten Mission. The priest conducting the mission, a fellow diocesan priest, told the congregation that no one could be in mortal sin, since they had the Holy Spirit. And they were to just confess one thing they wanted to be healed of.

    Complete lunacy. First he would have to read souls to know someone had the Holy Spirit. Secondly, as you frequently point out, kind and number.

    People should study the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Know when shepherds are leading you down the wrong road and go the other way.

  3. sprachmeister says:

    Cardinal Arinze complements what you say here, Father, in this video on mortal sin and the fundamental option:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uQ8CDmXYugw

    “That is not correct Catholic doctrine… It is NOT correct Catholic doctrine. It is simply the personal elucubration of some theologians – and they are not even good theologians.”

    SLAM!

  4. rtjl says:

    I try not to pay too much attention to all the non-sense out there concerning mortal sin. I apply a simple three fold check.
    1. Seriously wrong? Does the cahtechism or some other reliable moral guide say its wrong? Yes? – check
    2.Did I know it was wrong? I did? check
    3.Did I do it with free consent of the will? How can I know? How can I tell how “free” my will was when I chose to do what I did. I really can’t. I am too hopelessly mired in my own situation to measure my own blindnesses, psychological compulsions and moral weaknesses. To be safe, unless I can see really clear evidence of coercion or compulsion, I better consider that I was in fact sufficiently free and just go to confession. If fact, I should just go to confession period. Let Father decide on the degree of my freedom if he has to; but more importantly, let Father absolve me. There’s no need to second guess myself or to otherwise make it more complicated than that.

  5. Vecchio di Londra says:

    Well said Father – and it needs saying.

  6. Suburbanbanshee says:

    This is right up there in perniciousness with the sentimental belief that children (even though over the age of reason and capable of it) can’t possibly commit mortal sin, and therefore that First Confession should be held back, or that children shouldn’t go frequently.

    Nobody who remembers being a kid could possibly fall for this, but apparently a lot of people have turned their memories of childhood into cotton candy and Smurfiness. (Although the old Smurf show actually dealt with a fair amount of mortal sins and serious temptations among the little blue guys.)

  7. Mike says:

    I can’t say I’ve yet encountered this particular excrescence from the pulpit. However, unless one happens to be a regular reader of Monsignor Pope’s blog, a congregant in the Archdiocese of Washington need not fear being challenged often or deeply regarding sin or Hell.

    Might the fact that “the light is on for you” work to greater effect if it were underscored with some frequency and rigor by the reason why the light is there in the first place?

  8. jameeka says:

    This is very helpful, thank you very much.

  9. Supertradmum says:

    Excellent article, Father, and interesting synchronicity, as I just posted last night something on hell and mortal sin on the Guild blog.

    The problem is that of the universalist position that no one could possibly go to hell. Ergo, mortal sin must be so impossible to commit, that no one actually goes to hell. The denial of mortal sin seems to be connected to the fact that too many priests are not pursuing holiness in their own lives-God forgive me for saying this, but an excellent confessor is one who has and is dealing with sin in his own life and understands the evil of sin, even mortal sin.

    God forgive all those priests who have led others astray either by not judging their actions as serious enough, and, as I discovered in a parish in Ireland outside of Dublin years ago, priests who do not understand the serious of venial sins.

    Venial sins weaken the will and cloud the conscience. Would that more priests understood this as well instead of trying to talk one out of sin and turn the confessional into a counseling session on guilt.

  10. Jim R says:

    @rtjl – seems right on target.

    From time to time I find myself bothered that the Church often has seemed to equate “mortal sin” and “grave matter” in its routine teaching on sin and confession. Often folks seem to not understand that all true mortal sin is subjective. [and objective] Yet, each time after reflection, it seems to me to be a prudent way to deal with the very real human propensity to excuse ourselves, rationalize our actions, and grant ourselves any needed dispensations to play the “full awareness” and “deliberate consent” get of jail free card that makes every grave matter “merely” a venial sin. Christ certainly knows our human weakness – and so does His Church. Maybe we know if we had sufficiently full awareness and did the deed with sufficient deliberate consent. More likely we don’t know or won’t admit it. So the Church in her wisdom tells us to confess the “mortal sin” defined for that purpose as merely the grave matter. We certainly must confess all true mortal sins; if we confess all grave matters we avoid the self-delusion trap concerning our own awareness and deliberate consent. Confessing venial sins never hurt anyone. Be safe – go to Confession confessing all those pesky grave matters in number and kind and if they are truly mortal sins, Deo Gratia for His mercy.

  11. Scott Alt says:

    I try never to bother with myself about whether some sin I committed was mortal or venial. I would drive myself crazy that way. If it is a sin, and I know I did it, I confess it. No harm in confessing a venial sin; much harm in leaving a mortal sin unconfessed. [On the other hand, in an examination of conscience, this is something that you should probably sort through.]

  12. I thank God for the clarity afforded us by the Church. If I happen upon a priest in confession that says something that confuses me, I simply know that I went to confession and did my part. If the priest in any way didn’t do his part correctly, I still am okay.

    That is why I try to stick with a few trusted confessors.

  13. kevinm says:

    While on a Jesuit directed retreat the Reconciliation practice was to simply tell the priest which of the 7 deadly sins you struggled with and boooom….absolution…. The priest also said that for a sin to be mortal you had to give it the same level and depth of consideration as when you were purchasing a house or applying for a mortgage. [FAIL!] That was the last time I attended that retreat !!

    AMDG

    Kevin

  14. The Masked Chicken says:

    “personal elucubration”

    Ohh…I learned a new word :)

    Elucubrate:

    transitive verb
    : to work out or express by studious effort

    The Chicken

  15. Sonshine135 says:

    Always always always:
    -Grave Matter
    -Full knowledge
    -Full Consent of the Will

    Beware of those that say: ” I don’t think that X is a sin.” Where X = obvious sin. They go in the same group as “Vatican II did away with Y.” Where Y = Y the heck did you say Vatican II did away with that?

  16. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Only an academic would think that murder, theft, adultery, and the seven deadlies in general are prone to be deeply considered before being committed. I’m pretty sure that Eve and Adam didn’t go research the effects of disobedience to God, start a discussion group, and generally ponder before they committed the first sin.

    In fact, the usual way with mortal sin is that one is hurried and pushed into committing the first bit of one, either by others or oneself. Only when one is hardened to committing mortal sin does one usually consider these things in a leisurely way.

  17. Dimitri_Cavalli says:

    I’m confused.

    I thought the only people who go to hell are members of the National Rifle Association, politicians who want to cut the domestic budget, opponents of campaign finance reform, and people who abuse the U.S. Constitution by criticizing, opposing, and obstructing (by refusing to support or using the filibuster in the U.S. Senate) progressive policies.

  18. mike cliffson says:

    supermegaultralike:”We got this rubbish in seminary back in the 80?s. I got in serious trouble with our ultra-liberal overloads by asking how many times I could commit suicide in a calculated way before my “fundamental option” changed”
    BTW thanks for continuing to have posts on confession, were it but I alone who so be encouraged, which I doubt, lotser people just need this sacrament on their screen, as twere.

  19. crjs1 says:

    The most disturbing thing I heard from a priest (5 years ago – he was my university Catholic Chaplin ) regarding confession, was that all I had to say in confession was: ‘I have sinned in mind, body and action’ then boom absolution was given, or if I really wanted I could state which of the 10 commandments I had sinned against, again he actively discouraged naming and numbering individual sins… Very depressing!

  20. capchoirgirl says:

    Another thing to make sure my first-graders know….it makes me terribly sad to see this sort of thing from priests. :(
    I second the postings on confession! Since I’ve begun reading this blog, I’ve made a much more concerted effort to go on a monthly basis.

  21. NOLAChas says:

    Father Z…..I’ve been trying to make a template for examining my conscience, and you article is very appropriate…this is where my thinking / reading has taken me.
    Judging Right or Wrong of an Action/Inaction
    • If it is consistent one’s informed conscience, one can proceed with the Action/Inaction
    • Consistent with Divine Law
    • Consistent with the Magisterium’s infallible teachings
    • Consistent with man-made law unless it is an Unjust Law or a greater evil would result from not following an Unjust Law (as defined below)
    Unjust Law
    • One that requires you to violate the Devine Law (always immoral)
    • One beyond Authority of Law Giver (Natural Law)
    • One that is and seriously oppressive and/or unequal (Natural Law)
    Mortal Sin
    • It is immoral (mortal sin) if grave in nature, against one’s conscience, and is Formal Cooperation (intended help or is an integral part of Action/Inaction)
    • It is not immoral if Action/Inaction is Remote Material Cooperation (incidental to the immoral act) or greater evil would result

    [Complicated.]

  22. joan ellen says:

    Thanks for this Fr. Z. It is most helpful. When I am in doubt as to whether a sin is mortal or not, I get myself to confession. Often I deliberate quickly and consider that my deliberation was sufficient. Sometimes it is not, but to be safe I go to confession.
    On the other hand, a mortal sin is a mortal sin and easily gets me to confession. And the sooner the better. Even venial sins grieve me greatly since I have offended God Almighty. Mortal sins cause a pronounced dread in me. Of hell.
    The words of absolution give me a moment of perfect peace, of ‘blessed assurance’, about 1 second, before I return to my frail reality…that I am going to sin again.

  23. Iacobus M says:

    I’ve never encountered the “fundamental option” in confession, but I have been frustrated by priests trying to convince me that particular sins I confessed really weren’t that bad, even though there’s no doubt that they were objectively sinful. I’m not talking murder here, but I’m not talking squeezing the toothpaste tube in the middle, either. There’s something to be said for being taken seriously when you’re confessing your sins!
    -Iacobus M
    http://vitafamiliariscatholica.blogspot.com/

  24. Absit invidia says:

    Fr. Z I have to admit, your frequent reminders of going to confession got me thinking more and has got me going more. In fact, the only change I’ve made in my spiritual life is to frequent the Sacrament of Confession more regularly and I’ve seen a change . . . the change wasn’t overnight, however. Nevertheless, your frequent reminders are refreshing and encouraging. Where I’m from, we don’t hear that much so to visit this site and get these small doses of encouragement is a breath of fresh air. Thanks and God bless.

  25. Patrick L. says:

    I think there is a problem with the principle that a few have proposed here: i.e., if you aren’t sure about whether what you’ve done is a venial or mortal sin, then just assume the worst – that what you have done might very well be a mortal sin – and just go to confession. To illustrate the problem in part, consider that there does not seem to be a clear and universally accepted answer among Catholics to the question of when a thought constitutes a mortal sin. Namely, it is not always easy to identify when one has crossed the threshold of deliberately consenting to the thought – that is, fulfilled the third criterion for mortal sin.

    As has been proposed by others here, one could just assume the worst in every instance of sinful thought: perhaps it is a mortal sin, so the person should just play it safe and go to confession. But I imagine that it is not quite such an uncommon thing that people go through periods during which they are prone to have violent thoughts, or jealous thoughts, or impure thoughts, etc. I suspect that the priest might have the person banned from confession or committed if he showed up to the confessional every time such a thought crossed his mind. Perhaps there is a more expedient way of going about the situation than just assuming the worst about ourselves all the time.

  26. Midwest St. Michael says:

    For those who may still be perusing this thread I offer the following examination of conscience given by Rev. Donald F. Miller, C.Ss.R. (Imprimatur: Joseph E. Ritter St. Louis, April 7, 1959).

    [I pray this is okay, Fr. Z.]

    It is based upon twelve virtues and it is very thorough. http://www.catholicapologetics.info/thechurch/sacraments/adults.htm

    MSM

  27. avatquevale says:

    Midwest St. Michael,
    Thank you for this link. I have been searching for some sort of concrete guide:
    I vacillate constantly between scrupulosity and nonchalance. In my scrupulous mode, it seems to me everything is a sin. And then I launch into over-think: mortal or venial? I fear scrupulosity will turn me into a confession pest–using Confession as therapy.

    I appreciate your frequent reminders, Father Z. to just go. Confess. Often. (Makes me feel less pesty.)

    When in the nonchalant mode, nothing seems really sinful, because, well, logically, then I wouldn’t do it, would I? Then I neglect Confession for long stretches–out of reluctance to bore/pester the priest with maybe-not-really-a-sin trivia.

    The link you provided will be immensely helpful I think.

    Me, too, I’d like to know what Fr. Z. thinks.

  28. Ben Kenobi says:

    Thanks again Father Z. This is immensely helpful for me.