From a reader…
Does violation of the First Commandment of the Decalogue (such as acts of literal idolatry and/or demon worship) entail a greater penalty / injury to the offending baptized Catholic than mortal sins against the other Commandments? Is it more serious because it is an explicit rejection of the True God, rather than a “mere” offense against God like violations of the other commandments? Should it incur automatic excommunication? Is violating this Commandment in a category of its own?
Mortal sin is mortal, deadly to the life of the soul. Mortal sin kills the life of grace in the soul.
Both human experience and divine revelation verify that some sins are worse than others.
Some sins, venial sins, while bad because they involve the choice of a good inferior to God, are not so bad that they destroy charity and turn a person from God. Other sins are more than just bad. When they involve grave matter and are done with full knowledge and deliberation and consent of will, they do destroy charity, constitute a rejection of God and grace. They need healing from God, especially through the ordinary means He Himself established, the Sacrament of Penance.
Just as mortal sins are worse than venial sins, so too some mortal sins are worse than other mortal sins.
Please stop and note this, however. If you are dead, you are dead. You can’t be deader than dead. But when it comes to the reckoning of your life before the Just Judge, the King of Fearful Majesty, and your final and eternal disposition… there are degrees. Depending on one’s sins and on one’s final state of life at the time of death, some people’s eternal destiny will be worse than others.
Mind you: there isn’t a good place to be in Hell. There are only hideous and more hideous degrees. Damned means damned… not sort of damned. (I leave aside here the issue of limbo, an concept that has not been formally defined by the Church )
We have an indication from the Lord Himself about the gradations of Hell when he said in Matthew 11:
20 Then he began to upbraid the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! woe to you, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”
I get a little shiver reading that and I consider how in these United States … well…. you know. Sometimes I think that if God doesn’t burn us down to the dirt, He’ll owe Sodom an apology. Who knows? Maybe bad government and a virus will wake at least some of us up to our collective wrongs. But I digress.
In addition to Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, in the parable of the faithful and unfaithful slave in Luke 12, one receives a lighter beating and the other a heavier beating. This is not just a moral story for our earthly rewards and punishments. It is about the return of the Master at the unexpected hour and the reckoning of our lives.
Also, if we are to “treasure up” treasure in Heaven by good deeds and so forth, so that we have greater reward in heaven, so to we can “hoard down” payment in Hell. Some will have more hoarded than others. All of it will be bad, no matter how long and intensely you are hoarding now.
You ask about idolatry and the 1st Commandment of the Decalogue.
It is the FIRST of the Decalogue for a reason. It is the most important. It is reasonable to say that violations of the FIRST Commandment, when deliberate, understood and willed, are worse than other sins, such as sins of the flesh.
Mind you: just because one sin is worse than another, that doesn’t mean that that lesser sins is not of consequence. As I said before, dead is dead. If you are dead from being shot through the heart, or if you are dead because you died of a disease, you are still dead, either way.
Commit idolatry or deliberately, repeatedly, publicly harm someone’s reputation and scandalously work to get others to do the same… you are dead in your soul and you are going to go to Hell if you don’t repent and make public reparation.
Should idolatry incur excommunication?
Idolatry is the giving of divine worship to anything other than God. It is, if deliberate and understood and willed, the worst of mortal sins.
Even unwilling acts of idolatry, such as when in time of persecution some Christians out of fear of death or torture offered incense to the “genius” of the Emperor, are grave, mortal sins.
Get this: worshipping God in the wrong way is a serious sin. Think about THAT and our scrambled sacred liturgical worship in some places in the Church today!
Of course, there are unquestionably those mitigating factors of ignorance and so forth involved in one’s subjective guilt for this sin: some people don’t know any better. Objectively, however, it is still wrong and displeasing to God. It is idolatry.
Non-Catholics will sometimes accuse Catholics of idolatry because they think, wrongly, that we worship Mary or the saints and their images. We do worship Blessed Sacrament, because the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ in our presence. We venerate Mary and the saints and honor them lovingly for the sake of our love of the of the Trinity. In their case, God is worshipped through the honor we give to them. They are not honored or worshipped in themselves only, apart from God.
And speaking of non-Catholics, it would be wrong, an act of idolatry, to participate fully, consciously, actively in false, non-Catholic worship. That does not mean that a Catholic cannot attend the, say, the Jewish funeral of a friend or the Lutheran wedding of cousin. We can do so out of friendship and respect, but we cannot actively and consciously participate in false worship as we would if we were attending Holy Mass. That sort of thing can indeed incur a censure in some instances, such as participating in the impossible attempt to ordain a women with the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Such an act of false worship is not just sacrilege, it is idolatry.
Hence, when it comes to excommunication for idolatry, there are already canons on the book that impose censures for certain sins. And since every grave sin that can incur a censure is, to one extent or another, a turning from God to a lesser good, then every sin has an implicit element of idolatry.
However, the question remains: should explicit acts of idolatry incur an excommunication, either automatic or declared after a process?
Yes, salvo meliore iudicio, they probably should. If we acknowledge that idolatry is the worst of sins and if lesser sins can bring censures, then it is reasonable that at least explicit, deliberate public acts of idolatry should incur a censure.
However, the Church gets to decide which sins incur which censures.
The Church has, in different times, had different censures, different disciplines, depending on the needs of the day. From time to time they change. In a similar but more positive way, the Church elevates certain saints to the honor of our altars because, in that time period, they were deemed to be examples for the faithful needed for that time. In other centuries, others were emphasized. This is a prudential judgement made by the Church for the sake of our living our vocations well. Similarly, the change of laws from time to time is for the good ordering of the Church. At least that is supposed to be the intention. The Church’s laws do not share the same level of authority that doctrinal definitions will have. The Church’s laws are positive laws of an institution which are crafted by little, well-intentioned (hopefully) human beings. They are not the same as God’s positive law, manifested in the Ten Commandments. The Church’s laws require our respect and obedience, but not our veneration.
And so we circle back to the Decalogue.
Is idolatry in a category of its own?
In a way, yes. There seems to be an element of idolatry in every sin, since every sins is, to one extent or another, a replacement of God with a created good. Perhaps it is for that reason that the Church seems to stick to applying censures to the lesser sins, which are still grave.
It was a good question. It could be that our canonists reading this will know more.
Meanwhile, GO TO CONFESSION!
I want to keep as many of you as possible out of Hell and safe on the road to heaven. I mean that for my manifest, public haters and enemies as well. Search your hearts well. Repent and make amends. If you don’t, you are in serious spiritual peril. I want only what is best for you, whatever that might be, because I want you to wind up in the bliss of heaven one day.
As long as I am digressing…
Just as there are two “levels” of sorrow for sin, less perfect attrition and more perfect contrition, I have two motives for desiring that even enemies make it to heaven. First, there is a good, but perhaps less perfect motive: I want the Devil to lose… big time, every time. Each time a soul goes before God and is damned to eternal separation from God, you can imagine the Enemy to shout in self-agonizing malice, “That’s one more that You won’t have!” The reason we are in existence at all is to bring greater glory to God. For this we exist as our over-arching vocations. So, I want the Enemy to lose big time. The conversion of sinners and the entrance of souls before the Beatific Vision brings immense joy to Heaven. And that’s the more perfect reason for wanting the conversion of enemies, that more souls will be happy before God and with as many others as possible, so that His praise and glory and charity be multiplied through the pleasing worship by His images.
GO TO CONFESSION!