The Fatima Center received the following question from Sandra S., a supporter in Texas. We thought this reply might help others with similar questions.
Question: “Wondering… If mortal sin takes full knowledge, then is one no longer culpable who is mis-instructed by priests, bishops or the Holy Father? Such as, a divorced and remarried person without an annulment who receives Holy Communion.
The same may apply if I tell someone (non-Catholic) that God wants you to follow His commandments. Was he not culpable before I informed him/her, since he didn’t have full knowledge? If he wasn’t, and now he is, it makes one hesitate to spread the Gospel.”
Pax Christi Sandra,
Thank you for your email. The questions you present are at one level simple and at another level a bit more complex. I will provide a basic outline, but it really is more involved. Why? Because you are asking questions about mortal sin and the state of someone’s soul. In the ultimate analysis, these things are left to the judgment of God and His priests in the confessional. God judges each of us perfectly, knowing what graces He offered us and how we used / rejected those graces.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN OBJECTIVE AND SUBJECTIVE
The second thing that makes your question ‘complex’ is that one has to understand the difference between objective and subjective, here with regard to evil or sin. Anything against God’s laws is objectively evil and causes great destruction in the world and harms the entire order of things – even if we don’t intend to do it. This is why we must let people know what God’s laws are and encourage them not to commit objective evil.
An example: There is certainly a difference between a child touching a hot stove and burning himself and another person willfully pushing him onto the stove to burn him. The latter is a grave sin as there was knowledge and intent. But in both cases the child still has a burnt hand which will be very painful. That is the objective evil which has to be suffered, with or without intent and culpability.
As violations of God’s laws multiply, the world becomes worse and worse and it is far harder for people to avoid sin and to do good. In the example, this would be akin to us having to stumble about in darkness with many hot stoves all around us. Even though we may not intend to get burned, it will be nigh impossible not to suffer many painful burns. We would want to do our best to bring light into the room and remove the unnecessary hot stoves, or at the very least forewarn others about this situation. Failure to do these things, if we ought, would surely be a lack of charity.
Sin is subjective, meaning it resides in the subject – specifically in the person’s will. One is culpable for his sin, but it is hard for any person to know when and how culpable another person is. This is one of the many reasons why the Sacrament of Confession is so important, why one must have a good confessor, and why one must be transparent and honest in the confessional.
SANCTIFYING GRACE IS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY
A third preliminary issue: You present two different scenarios (of a Catholic and of a non-Catholic). Different things apply in each case. Why? Because no one can enter Heaven without sanctifying grace. The Catholic, by definition, has received sanctifying grace. For the non-Catholic we have no way of knowing, but it is doubtful that he has. (Remember, it is absolutely impossible for man on his own to reach Heaven.)
The only way we know of that we receive sanctifying grace is through the Sacraments, and we first receive it at Baptism. This is why Baptism is necessary for salvation and the Church has always infallibly taught that “outside the Church there is no salvation.” By mortal sin, one willfully loses sanctifying grace. The only way we know of that a baptized person can then recover sanctifying grace is through Sacramental Confession.
In my answer, I emphasize “that we know of” because God can grant His grace to whom He pleases and how He pleases. It is, after all, His free gift. We do have examples of when God has worked outside His regular means of the Sacraments to give sanctifying grace. However, we can never have any moral certitude about this or even know if it happens or not. Thus, we cannot “count on it” nor should we ever even attempt to “rely on it.”
In fact, in his landmark Syllabus of Errors (1864), Bl. Pope Pius IX wrote that the following is a condemned error which no Catholic may hold:
“17. Good hope at least is to be entertained of the eternal salvation of all those who are not at all in the true Church of Christ.”
Note, as faithful disciples of Christ we are forbidden to have “good hope at least” that those who are not in the Catholic Church will attain eternal salvation.
On the other hand, we have God’s infallible promise that He will give us His sanctifying grace through His Seven Sacraments (when they are performed as they ought to be). It is therefore very important that we focus our efforts and attention on this, because we do have certitude regarding the Sacraments. This is based on His infallible word.
OTHER PRELIMNARY CRUCIAL MATTERS
One final issue which makes your question difficult is perhaps the most trying. Many people do not want to hear the true answers, even though they are quite simple, straight-forward and divinely revealed. We are saturated in a culture that rejects God and favors modernism (exchanging God’s unalterable and perfect truth for errors, which are more pleasing to sinful ‘modern’ man). This makes it quite challenging for one to know when he should speak, what he should say, and how best to persuade.
I think these “preliminary points” are actually very important. In many ways, they are probably the more vital aspects of your questions, especially because they apply in many different cases and scenarios.
With these things in mind, it should be much simpler now to answer your questions.
For a sin to be mortal three conditions must all be met.
(1) The thought, desire, word, action, or omission must be a grave matter, or considered grave matter (something serious and important). For example, the sin you indicated – a divorced Catholic, who remarried without annulment (grievous offense) and is receiving Holy Communion (grievous offense each time he receives Holy Communion).
(2) The subject (person) must have full knowledge. This means he knows it is gravely sinful against God’s law. He has sufficient knowledge, reflection or attention.
– If there is not “full knowledge,” that would affect the culpability and punishment for the sin. But to what degree is a matter left to God (and His priest in the confessional).
– We also have a grave obligation to form our conscience well. A person who willfully remains ignorant so they don’t have full knowledge is very likely guilty of a grave sin (mortal) of omission. They fail in their duty of learning God’s law.
– In some cases one’s duty obligates one to form the conscience of another (such as parents for children, priests for parishioners). In other cases, it may be an act of charity to help form another’s conscience (such as friends). But we should never forget that the first two spiritual works of mercy are: (1) Instruct the ignorant, and (2) Admonish the sinner. We are not to avoid these Christian works of mercy.
(3) The subject (person) must have deliberate consent. That is, he commits the act of his own free will.
– Again, if the consent is somewhat partial or coerced, it will influence the gravity and culpability of the sin, but to what degree is a matter left to God (and His priest in the confessional).
What happens when someone is mis-instructed by a figure of authority: parent, priest, pope?
– Most likely this is gravely sinful on the part of the authority figure, especially because it IS his duty to instruct himself correctly so as to instruct others.
– Questions that must be addressed are: Is the person of good will? Are they making a sincere and concerted effort to know the Truth and follow God’s laws, for example, in many other areas of their life? Are they really misinformed in a way that is not their fault? Have they heard the truth somewhere else and just not wanted to heed it? Again, these are subjective questions which each person will face when appearing before God at his particular judgment. We must never forget that even if we are able to deceive our own selves, we can never deceive God.
– Even in those cases where a person is not culpable of such an error, the mis-instruction is still an objective evil and will cause great disorder in the world and harm many people (recall the simple stove example). Thus, we have to strive against, resist, and correct such errors as much as possible.
Other important points to keep in mind:
- If a Catholic is properly instructed in the Faith, then he must question when anyone – whether it be his best friend, parish priest or even the Pope – preaches something contrary to what he was taught, that is, something contrary to what the Church has always taught. No one has the authority to change the teaching of Jesus Christ, of His Apostles, of infallible dogmas, or of the perennial teaching of Holy Mother Church.
- Every Catholic has the duty to learn his faith and remain faithful to Christ. This obligation may vary depending on one’s age, one’s general level of knowledge, one’s state in life, and various other conditions, circumstances and responsibilities. Nevertheless, every Catholic has to know the basics, such as the Natural Law, the Ten Commandments, the Precepts of the Church, the Seven Sacraments, the Creed and basic prayers, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, devotion to Our Lady and the Saints, etc… In short, every Catholic of appropriate age ought to know the contents of a basic catechetical primer like the Baltimore Catechism. This duty is even more solemn once an individual is confirmed.
- A Catholic is responsible for adhering to the infallible teachings of the Church. So a Catholic who disregards what he was previously taught because he prefers the “new teaching” or “belief system” taught by the parish priest, or because it fits better with his lifestyle, is culpable for not at least investigating. The extent of his culpability depends on the extent of his understanding, and that is for a priest in the confessional to decide. For purposes of what constitutes a mortal sin, the answer is usually simple and direct.
If a Catholic fails in those points listed above, he is likely guilty of willful ignorance; and since this regards such grave matter, he might very well be in a state of mortal sin.
Becoming aware of one’s mortal sins and one’s terrible [infinite!] offense against God, as well as recognizing how much God loves him by becoming man and dying for him, makes one aware of his need for God and God’s grace. When one is not Catholic, God’s grace is aimed at bringing the person into the bosom of Holy Mother Church. God will use a person’s sin to lead him to contrition and repentance. Sadly, a person often has to fall into very terrible situations before he is willing to admit he needs God’s grace (think of the Parable of the Prodigal Son). However, God is always calling all souls to convert and join the Catholic Church, where His sanctifying grace that saves is administered by Christ (in the person of His ordained priests).
Again, we must spread the faith, be missionaries, and evangelize out of love for the soul of another. We want them to be united to Holy Mother Church because we know that outside of the Church there is no salvation. If we do not tell them anything for fear of offending them, we may then be liable for that omission ourselves.
Thus, it is a very important duty of every Catholic to do all he can (within reason, within the duty of his state in life, and always with charity), to help non-Catholics convert. That is why our prayers and sacrifices are so absolutely crucial. Even if we might not know what to say, when to say it, or how to say it, we can always do MORE on the spiritual level!
One of the requests of Our Lady of Fatima is to offer sacrifices for sinners – referring to Catholics who are not in the state of grace, and non-Catholics who will remain separated from God until they convert. Pope Pius XII said that the number of souls in the world that are saved is directly dependent on the prayers and sacrifices of Catholics who are in the state of grace.
I hope these explanations are helpful. May God bless you abundantly and Our Lady protect you.
Ad Iesum per Mariam,
 I would personally add that in today’s day and age, every Catholic is also obligated to know and be faithful to Our Lady’s Message of Fatima. In fact, this apostolate exists so as to further that goal.