“Forgiveness is what matters most of all; to be forgiven, to be contrite for mortal sin is the most tremendous thing that could happen to you in your life—so of course it is very easy”

I think we are all accustomed to the teaching that the Catholic Church is not meant to be a community of great saints—a collection of the righteous and holy as distinct from the sinners. We all know it is also meant for sinners, for people who haven’t yet made it to great sanctity and maybe don’t show much sign of doing so. Now I would like to put in a word for the doctrine that the Church is also not meant to be a community just of great sinners either; it is for mediocre sinners as well. I think we should realise that mediocre sinners have a definite intelligible place in the Church and if we don’t grasp this we shall never really take seriously the penitential season of Lent that we are just starting.

The trouble as I see it is that we tend to use such inflated language about sin that we simply can’t take it seriously, it becomes unreal; it doesn’t say anything clear and concrete to the mediocre sinner. Let us be clear, of course, that the people who are really welcome to the Catholic Church are the murderers, rapists, torturers, sadistic child-molesters and those who evict old people from their homes—it is for loving, welcoming and forgiving such members that the Church exists. But I would guess that many of you, perhaps even a majority, do not come into any of these categories. A lot of you are mediocre sinners, and the season and liturgy of Lent, the season of penance ought to say something directly to you … The fact is that there is mediocre sin and it has its own rightful place and is to be treated for what it is and not as though it were a total abandonment of God and his love (but in a mild way).

Like all wise men, Cardinal Newman said a number of foolish things in his time and I think the most foolish of them was his remark that it would be better to see the whole universe consumed in flames than to commit one venial sin. We all know that can’t be true; we can’t say it seriously and the result is that we can’t take venial sin seriously at all. Now I think we should see it for what it is in its own right, not just as a poor relation of mortal sin.

When I was a child we used to play cards for peculiar little white curly things called cowrie shells the way grown-ups played poker for money. I have never seen cowrie shells in any other context or used for any other purpose, but for us they had the same sort of purpose as grown-up money. Not to call venial sins ‘sins’ is a little like calling these cowrie shells money. I mean they are not very small units of money, like farthings, they are not money at all; but they have just the same function as money in their own context. Venial sin, mediocre sin, is related to real sin, mortal sin, rape and murder and torture, in much the way that cowrie shells are related to money. Venial sins are not very small mortal sins, they are not sins at all in that sense; but they are structurally similar. As we say in the schools: the word ‘sin’ is used ‘analogically’ of them.

At one time when I was living in the United States some friends of mine belonged to a clandestine organisation which helped young men who didn’t want to be conscripted into what they rightly saw as an unjust war in Vietnam to escape to Canada and Sweden and such places of refuge. In this organisation some people worked very hard and others were less energetic or frankly careless and lazy and unreliable and a bit of a nuisance, but they were all devoted to the cause. There was one especially charming and energetic young man who as it transpired engaged in charmingly and energetically betraying the whole set-up to the police; with the result that it was broken up and several people went into prison.

Now there is all the difference in the world between being lazy or a nuisance to your comrades and betraying the whole project; that is the difference between venial and mortal sin. As St Thomas says: one is about how you do the job; the other is about not doing it at all, but something else. The job, of course, is loving God.

There is a lovely passage, one of my favourites, in which he says that your love for God can never gradually cool, or be chipped away or slowly diminished. It can only be totally lost by mortal sin; venial sin is not a matter of cooling and loving God less—well, what’s wrong with it then? It is a matter of loving the things of this world too much, perhaps dangerously too much, and failing to express and grow in your love of God.

Venial sins all carry an ecclesial health warning: sinning can seriously damage your health (your spiritual health).

Every sin, in any meaning of the word, has two sides to it. On the one hand it is some kind of neglect of God’s love—whether a total rejection (and option) for something else, as in mortal sin, or simply not expressing your gratitude enough in your daily life as in venial sin—on the other hand all sin involves an attachment to, even addiction to other lesser good things, the things of this world. Forgiveness of sins deals with the first part—whether it is the miraculous grace of conversion and contrition by which we are turned back to God from mortal sin, or the grace of increasing charity by which we pull ourselves together after venial sins.

Forgiveness is what matters most of all; to be forgiven, to be contrite for mortal sin is the most tremendous thing that could happen to you in your life—so of course it is very easy. You do not have to work at being forgiven; you only have to accept it, to believe in the forgiveness of God in Christ, in his eternal unconditional love for you.

But sin, any sin, even venial sin, has given you a kind of addiction to lesser things, the things of this world, so besides being forgiven we need to break out of this addiction. For the only way to God is in Christ; and Christ’s way to God was through crucifixion and death to the resurrection. There is no other way. The only way to God is through death. Christ did not die for us instead of us. He died to make it possible for us to die and rise again in him. And this is hard. We have to go through the crucifixion too. We can do it because God’s love for us makes it possible to die in Christ; but we have to do it. I have to go through the painful process of curing my addiction, kicking my habit, ‘drying out’ or ‘cold turkey’ or whatever.

Even the mediocre sinners need to begin to die, to practise the art of death, of denying themselves, of taking up the cross and following Christ.

And this is what Lent is for. It reminds us that we come through death to life, through denial of self to our true selves, and it helps us to start the process—so that we may be ready for the final Easter when we rise in glory and freedom to live for eternity in the love of God.

Herbert McCabe

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