When you look around society today, it doesn’t look good.
Even in the Church, people are committing abortion and contraception.
They are sleeping together outside of marriage, using porn, and doing a host of other things that can endanger their souls.
It can be tempting to conclude that most Catholics in America today are going to go to hell.
Is the situation that bleak?
A Question from a Reader
A reader writes:
I belong to a great parish, full of wonderful people who love God and neighbor.
However, I can't help but be aware that at least from an objective viewpoint, most of them seem to be in a state of mortal sin per the Church's teaching.
The most common one is the use of contraception, but there are plenty of others, including cohabitation prior to marriage, remarriage outside the Church, etc.
The Church views all these things as mortal sins, although it's clear these people don't view them that way.
Our society at this moment makes it really difficult for people, especially young people, to do what the Church expects.
I also know that most of these people genuinely and sincerely do not believe they are sinning. They continue to pray, to attend Mass, and have faith in Christ, which indicates to me that they don't desire to cut themselves off from God.
Is it truly likely that the vast majority of American Catholics will end up in hell?
What can we say here?
What Mortal Sin Is
Although Catholics sometimes say things like “contraception is a mortal sin” or “sleeping together outside of marriage is a mortal sin,” this is a form of shorthand.
For a person to truly commit a mortal sin, more than a mere act of contraception or a mere act of fornication is needed.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”
Let’s look at those three conditions
If a married couple contracepts or if an unmarried couple has sexual relations, this fulfills the first of the three conditions: They have committed a “sin whose object is grave matter.”
But the other two conditions must also be fulfilled for the sin to be a mortal one.
In our shorthand way of speaking, we’re warning people against doing these things, because if the additional two conditions are fulfilled, it will be a mortal sin, but if they are not fulfilled then it won’t be.
The second condition involves having “full knowledge,” and here is where the reader’s remarks about society come into play.
The reader acknowledges that society makes it difficult for people to do what the Church teaches.
One of the ways it does that is by feeding them a constant narrative—through the media, through social interactions—that contradicts the Church’s teaching.
Even within the Church, there have been many people (priests, nuns, catechists) who have undermined the Church’s teaching in recent years.
We’ve had really bad catechesis for the last 40 years, as well as an assault on Church teaching by society and the media in general.
The result, as the reader notes, is that many people committing acts that are objectively gravely sinful do not believe that this is what they are doing.
As a result, for many of these people, the second condition needed for mortal sin may simply be lacking. On this point, the Catechism notes:
1859 Mortal sin . . . presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God's law.
1860 Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense.
This is likely the case with a large number of people who have been the victims of bad catechesis and the constant subversion of the Church’s teaching by society and the media.
On the other hand, if someone has a kind of willful blindness, that won’t let them off the hook:
1859 Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.
How many people fall into this latter category? See below.
The third condition is that of deliberate consent. According to the Catechism:
1859 Mortal sin . . . implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice.
1860 The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.
This means that the brief thoughts that flit through your mind and that you try to get rid of swiftly are not mortally sinful. You are not deliberately consenting to them.
You’re only doing that if you purposefully dwell on and foster them.
In the same way, “the prompting of feelings and passions”—to which young people in particular are subject—“can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense.”
So can “external pressures” and “pathological disorders.”
So even when people have committed a sin with grave matter and done so with full knowledge of its sinfulness, there are a number of things that could keep the third condition from being fulfilled and thus keep it from being a mortal sin.
The State of American Catholics
Given the factors mentioned above, the situation for American Catholics does not look quite as bleak.
While it is true that many of them are committing sins that have grave matter, between poor catechesis in Church, society’s constant assault on Church teaching, and the various factors that diminish the voluntary and free character of a sin, quite a number of them likely do not have all three conditions fulfilled.
Also, even when all three conditions are fulfilled and a sin is mortal, that does not mean a person will be damned.
It means that they would be damned if they died right now without repenting, but God is patient and gives us time to repent, and many people do before they die.
Thus, for example, St. Paul tells Timothy:
So shun youthful passions and aim at righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call upon the Lord from a pure heart [2 Tim. 2:22].
And the Psalmist says:
Remember not the sins of my youth, or my transgressions [Ps. 25:7].
These passages acknowledge that young people in particular are subject to certain temptations and sins but, as they age, they tend to drop these and often repent, regretting what they did in their youth.
This is another sign of hope.
Now let’s look at the reader’s fundamental question . . .
How Many People Go To Hell?
We can’t really know this.
Different figures in Church history have had different viewpoints on the question, and the Church itself does not have a teaching on the matter.
Some passages of Scripture seem to have a pessimistic tone but others seem to have an optimistic tone.
We also should be careful in taking the pessimistic ones and applying them directly to our own age, because they were written in and about an age in which the world was swallowed in pagan darkness and the knowledge of the true God and his Son was severely limited compared to today.
For its part, the Church teaches the real possibility of dying in mortal sin and of eternal damnation, but it does not teach how many people experience this in practice.
It is worth looking, however, at a recent statement of former Pope Benedict’s . . .
Pope Benedict on Christian Hope
In his encyclical Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict noted:
45. With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms.
There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves.
This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history.
In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell.
On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are.
46. Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life.
For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God.
In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul.
Pope Benedict then goes on to discuss how these people, in the middle group, experience purgatory so that they can be purified and enter the full glory of heaven.
Pope Benedict thus seems to take a somewhat optimistic view of individual salvation. He suggests that, based on experience, “we may suppose” that “the great majority of people” do not fall into the category of those who have “totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love.”
They fall, instead, into the category of those who “in the depths of their being” have “an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God,” and who thus will be saved once they have been purified of the “filth” and “compromises with evil” that have covered over their openness to God “in the concrete choices of life.”
Pope Benedict does not impose this view as a matter of Church teaching. He says that it is something “we may suppose” regarding the majority of people, but when you have a pope saying this—particularly in an encyclical—it’s a position that we need to take seriously.
Doing so can be a component of finding peace amid the sins we see others around us committing.
Another part of finding peace is this: God loves them even more than we do and can work with them over time and in ways that are invisible to us.
What we are fundamentally responsible for is the salvation of our own souls. We need to make sure that we respond to God’s grace.
We want to do what we can for other people, but they are ultimately in God’s hands, not ours, and that is where we should leave them.
When we have the opportunity, we should invite them to grow closer to God and to abandon the sins that may be ensnaring them. We should pray for them, but we should not let their situation destroy our own peace.
Instead, we should entrust them to the loving and merciful God who gave his own Son to die on a Cross so that they might be saved.
That’s how much he loves them.
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