Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Sometime back, the media got itself all in a tizzy about “the Vatican” supposedly issuing “seven new deadly sins”. As one particularly egregious headline put it “Recycle or go to hell, warns Vatican”.
Given this view of the Faith, discussions in the press then break down into inane prattle about mortal and venial sin. Here, for instance, is Slate explaining it all for you:
What kinds of sins aren't deadly?
The venial ones. The Catholic Church divides sinful behavior into two categories: mortal and venial. (The distinction wasn't widespread until the medieval period.) Mortal sins are those that the sinner knows are serious but nonetheless decides to perform. They include the seven deadly sins as well as countless others, like witchcraft or skipping out on Sunday Mass. Other indiscretions, including any that were carried out by an ignorant or unwilling sinner, fall into the venial category. So do lesser versions of the mortal sins; for example, mild overeating would be a venial sin whereas gluttony is deadly. With both types, you can wipe the slate clean with confession and repentance, but only unrepented mortal sins can condemn you to eternal hell.
What is absent from all this is any concept of life in Christ as relationship. All you get are rules, written on a card and magnetized to the refrigerator. Break rules on Card A and the Divine Administrator puts in the record that you are slated for Hell. Break rules on Card B and the Divine Administrator marks down the infraction and gives you a warning. Earn enough infractions and the Sin Monitor Task Force transfers your name to the “Go to Hell” file. However, if you do the theological equivalent of filling out a waiver by going to Confession, the Divine Administrator will, for inscrutable reasons, round file your sin folder and let you start over.
The goal of the Christian life, in this scenario, is to die with your sin folder empty. Then God has to let you into Heaven, which is this beautiful place that has nothing to do with Him really. It's just a pretty park where your favorite dead people have been standing around waiting for you to arrive. The notion of a life of virtue spent trying to cultivate a relationship with God never enters the picture. It's just a question of keeping and breaking rules. And nobody (in the media) really knows why one rule is more important than another. Indeed, some of the rules appear to have nothing whatever do with anything, if you judge by the portrayal of the media. A mortal sin to miss Mass? That one must have been stuck in by the Church to try to control people. Hey! Everybody lusts. Downgrade that one to venial. And if we are going to have rules to control people, why not put something in there about banning SUVs? Destroying the earth is more serious than missing Mass you know! Surely God is madder about that (of course, he’s mad about pretty much every infraction so it’s hard to tell.)
In the same way, Hell seems to have nothing to do with relationship in the modern mind. I constantly meet people who think of Hell as an absurdly sadistic overreaction by a touchy God who gets irrationally angry when people don't keep his arbitrary rules. Or else it’s something that falls on the heads of innocent people like a safe from a third floor window: “How can you believe in a God who would damn to Hell people who were doing their best, just because they never heard of Jesus?” Prescinding from the fact that the Church believes no such thing, what is striking is that again this notion of Hell has not one thing to do with relationship. There is not the slightest grasp that Hell is the "definitive self-exclusion" of a soul from the society of God. Hell is not some arbitrary punishment that God sticks on us like postage stamps because we got too many infractions in the file or forgot to get a waiver. It is Hitler (or maybe you or me) looking squarely at the offer of relationship with God and man, systematically destroying that relationship, and blaming everybody else for his choices. It is the human heart walling itself off finally and utterly from relationship with God and man in idiotic pride. It is any of us, making the final choice to be bricked round in the furnace of ourselves.
In short, people don't seem to grasp that Heaven is simply the fruit of a life that pursues relationship with God on His terms and Hell is simply the fruit of a life that pursues its own course on its own terms. Mortal and venial sins are useful distinctions, to be sure. But if you turn them into another way of trying to be saved by law, you are stone deaf to the most elementary teaching of the gospel: that only Christ, not law, can save us.