Hell, Mortal Sin and the Loss of Freedom
My mind inhaled sharply and I immediately began to think of how I could do damage control with anyone who would listen. While God may be Just, I found it difficult to believe that He would end up vying for the scraps falling from the Devil’s table.
Certainly, one can do the moral math and probably come to the same conclusion:
1) Mortal sin causes “the eternal death of hell” assuming grave matter, full knowledge, and complete consent.
2) Among instances of grave matter are premarital sex (as well as a variety of other sexual sins), missing Sunday Mass, eating meat on Fridays during Lent, drunkenness (also drug use), etc…
3) A great number of individuals are involved in at least one of these sins.
When it comes to Church teaching, especially on moral topics, there is often an inverse relationship based on how specific a given situation is. Generally, a broad situational example can be given a narrow and specific answer: Q. What happens to a man who commits a mortal sin and then dies? A. He goes to hell. Conversely, the narrower the example, the broader the answer: Q. A homeless Catholic man is full but not sure of the next opportunity to eat a meal consumes a hamburger on a Friday during Lent – Is he in mortal sin? A. It depends… ultimately, only he knows.
In order to shed a bit more light on the situation of moral actions, it is helpful to address the fact that the severity of sins can be reduced based on the circumstances; usually having to do with a person’s understanding or freedom. Four things can reduce freedom or remove it entirely.
1) Coercion – Ranging from peer pressure to a gun to the head, coercion usually employs the fear of losing life, limb or reputation, which moves a person to do something that they would not have chosen on their own. A person coerced into an immoral act is not as morally responsible (if at all) for the act; likewise, a person coerced into a moral act receives little or no benefits for their seemingly virtuous actions.
2) Insufficient Knowledge – A lack of understanding of the morality of the situation can render an otherwise immoral act null. Teachings regarding the age of reason supposes that children under the age of 7 are not able to sufficiently understand the morality of acts that they chose. Similarly, an adult who drinks a beverage that has been secretly drugged is not responsible for the act of falling under the influence of drugs.
3) Overwhelming Passions – The passions are, simply put, our emotions and desires. When the passions overwhelm the ability to reason (perhaps by fear or anger), a certain freedom is no longer present in part or whole. A friend once waited behind a door in order to surprise me – when the moment came, the trap was sprung and, startled, I hit my friend in the face. There was absolutely no decision in my mind to lash out at the person, but only an instinct for… self preservation? Many criminal cases in which the defendant pleads “temporary insanity” tend to appeal to this concept of Overwhelming Passions. Similarly, emotional disorders such as mania or depression can lessen or remove moral freedom completely, depending on the severity. Suicide used to be seen as a mortal sin and, thus, anyone who committed suicide was assumed to have gone to hell; but, with the development of a psychological understanding of depression, it has become clear that one who commits suicide is, in most cases, not actually free to completely consent to the act itself. This is why the understanding of the moral consequences of suicide have shifted in the last few decades.
4) Other Influences (or in Louisiana, “Lagniappe“) – This covers a wide range of circumstances such as inebriation (due to drunkenness, drugs – medicinal or otherwise), sleepiness, addiction, and mental disorders (paranoid schizophrenia). All of these things contribute to the overall loss of freedom in a person that experiences them. As will all four points listed here, these influences reduce the morality of an act in proportion to their severity (e.g. both the insomniac and the sleep walker are at a loss for total freedom, but the insomniac retains some ability to make moral choices).
People often throw up a “don’t judge, lest ye be judged” defense when others question some seeming lack of faithful practice. It is possible to look to another person’s actions as being moral or immoral (or grave), but no one can judge another individual’s soul simply for the sheer complexity of the circumstances. Do people go to Hell? Most likely. Do as many go as we might think? Seeing as that one or more of the 4 points listed above are usually at work in nearly every action a person chooses, mortal sin might be a little more difficult to commit than many people realize.
For further viewing on this topic, below is Fr. Barron commending on whether Hell is crowded or empty.