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Chapter 18: The Way of Sin to Death

Question E: How does persistence in mortal sin lead to final impenitence?

1. The traditional list of sins against the Holy Spirit was drawn from various works of St. Augustine: impenitence, obduracy in sin, presumption, despair, rejection of the known truth, and envy of the grace others enjoy.8 There is in these a certain dynamism and progression, by which sinners become increasingly unlikely to seek forgiveness. In this sense sin can be said to become less and less forgivable, though absolutely speaking forgiveness remains a possibility until death. Here we shall follow but adapt the treatment given by St. Thomas Aquinas, with impenitence divided into initial and final impenitence.9

It is a matter of Catholic teaching that every sin can be forgiven during this life, using “can” in an absolute sense. The grace of God always is available and the power of the Church is not limited, so that one who is willing to accept forgiveness always can have it (see DS 349/167). Nevertheless, certain texts of Scripture indicate that some sins cannot be forgiven. Obviously, “cannot” must be used in a restricted sense in these texts (see S.t., 2–2, q. 14, a. 3).10

One passage is a saying attributed to Jesus which contrasts sins committed against himself with blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The latter sin is unforgivable (see Mt 12.31–32; Mk 3.28–29; Lk 12.10). A plausible interpretation of this saying is that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit attributes his work to some other power (such as the Devil). But the present work of God can be recognized only by the work of the Spirit. Therefore, if one insists on refusing to recognize the Spirit at work, God cannot communicate; one has effectively sealed oneself off. Obviously, if one gives up one’s defense—as God’s grace prompts one to do—the sin becomes forgivable.

In a similar way, one can understand the sin which is called deadly in the First Epistle of John (5.16). It can be taken to be a willful refusal to believe (see Jn 3.18, 36; 8.24; 1 Jn 5.10). Since forgiveness of sins comes through faith, one who refuses to believe cannot be forgiven; whereas those who believe are forgiven their sins and made children of God (see Jn 1.12–13). Apostasy also can be regarded as a sin which cannot be forgiven (see Heb 6.4–6; 10.26–31). Since the Church has the power to forgive sins, one who rejects the Church likewise rejects the source of forgiveness.

In all of these cases, what is in question is a sin which is more radical than most mortal sins, for it blocks the means of forgiveness.

2. By initial impenitence one chooses to commit a mortal sin and remain in it indefinitely. Going beyond sexual sins of weakness, for instance, people sometimes enter into sinful relationships which they mean to continue indefinitely (see S.t., 1–2, q. 78, a. 2; 2–2, q. 14, a. 1). Again, a person in business may commit a sin of fraud with no expectation of repenting and making restitution.

3. By obduracy one resists the grace of repentance, very much as if it were a temptation. “Obduracy” is the hardening of heart often mentioned in Scripture and sometimes attributed to God inasmuch as it is a reaction to his continuing efforts to win back the sinner (see Jn 12.31–50). In no way, however, does God cause the sin of refusing to repent. Obduracy arises when, for example, a sinner hears a sermon, notices someone giving a good example, is moved by an image of our crucified Lord, or in some other way is led to think about his or her condition, but, rather than turning from guilt, instead turns his or her attention to something else.

If there is a family member, a friend, a coworker, a teacher, or someone else who reminds the sinner of his or her state, the reminder is resented, and the sinner looks for a reason to find fault with and condemn this person. This reaction is the beginning of the sin of envy of the grace which others enjoy. Moreover, the sinner looks to a new morality, to proportionalism, to the claim that the sin really is necessary rather than free, or to some other rationalization in an effort to deny its sinful character without repenting. Perhaps he or she goes from one confessor or counselor to another, seeking one who will approve the sin. This self-blinding by rationalization is the beginning of the sin of rejection of the known truth.

4. By presumption the sinner, aware of persisting in grave sin, takes the position that God will overlook the sin despite this persistence (see S.t., 2–2, q. 21). “I can always count on God’s grace, and I will repent in my own good time.” Sometimes sinners turn legalistic and attempt to live a spotless life—except of course for the grave sin in which they persist—or do works of charity and become active in regard to social issues, or take enthusiastic part in the liturgy, as if to provide spurious evidence that their generally good life outweighs the small area in which they are sinners. At this stage mistaken theories of fundamental option tend to be appealing.

5. By despair the sinner abandons hope for salvation. Often despair accompanies loss of faith; the sinner gives up both belief and hope regarding heavenly fulfillment. Despair can occur, though, without loss of faith (see S.t., 2–2, q. 20). The presumptuous sinner who has counted on eventual repentance may experiment with “repentance” by seeking an experience of forgiveness without having a genuine purpose of amendment. Since the attempt is insincere, it fails; but, rather than blaming his or her own insincerity, the sinner blames God for withholding grace, and reasons: If grace is unavailable, then the situation is hopeless. So presumption gives way to despair. Again, a sinner who has relied on false theology and pseudospirituality may come to realize their speciousness, lose the support they provided, and thus find his or her presumption changed to despair.

6. By rejection of the known truth the sinner who has been evading truth comes to evasion’s final stage: The darkness of sin is preferred to the light of faith (see Jn 3.19–21). This step could be taken at any time, even with the first choice to commit mortal sin. If one despairs without simultaneously abandoning faith, one is in a terrible state, believing in heaven and expecting hell. Reluctant to remain in this state but unwilling to repent, which indeed seems hardly possible by now, the sinner at this point abandons faith. Typically, this step is rationalized by an argument drawn from evil: The evil in the world shows that God is not good and loving, and faith is therefore false and must be abandoned.

Mortal sin does not at once destroy faith, unless it is a sin against faith. But every unrepented mortal sin sets up a crisis of faith. One in mortal sin who still believes is existentially torn between the lie of sin and the truth of God which condemns this lie. Christians who admit their sin can receive God’s merciful forgiveness, but only if they will accept it and renew their commitment of living faith. For a Catholic, this means the confession of the sin or the desire to confess it when possible (see DS 1542–1543/807). To pretend one is not in sin when one is, is to make oneself a liar, to practice self-deception, to resist God’s mercy, and ultimately to make shipwreck of one’s faith (see S.t., 2–2, q. 10, aa. 1, 3; q. 15, a. 1).

7. By envy of the grace others enjoy, the sinner regards those who believe and hope in God and strive to live faithfully as dangerous enemies (see S.t., 2–2, q. 36, a. 4, ad 2). Possessing a residue of faith and Christian life even after rejecting faith, people in this state are like runaway children who not only suffer from amnesia but do not wish to remember their identity. Perhaps they try to lead others into sin or become militantly antireligious, attacking faith as superstition, doing volunteer abortion counseling, or seeking to discourage young people who think they have vocations to the priesthood or religious life.

8. By final impenitence, the sinner resists every grace and persists in sin until death. “Desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death” (Jas 1.15).

Those in despair or tempted to it must be reassured that forgiveness is possible whenever one is wholeheartedly ready to accept God’s mercy. Those who think they know by experience that repentance is impossible for them can be helped to see the source of this mistake. False conceptions about divine causality and grace need to be cleared up; these remain remarkably prevalent even though they have been submerged by widespread silence about predestination.11 A pastor whose hope is genuine and wholly free of anxiety can greatly help people with intact faith who are tempted to despair.

The obduracy which is basic to the sins against hope and faith is not easy to challenge directly. Yet the hardened heart and darkened mind are not totally insensitive and blind. Especially at moments of crisis—such as a serious illness, a death in a family, a major failure in one’s projects—obdurate persons are shaken and can be reached. Those who are obdurate and know it must be encouraged to continue to participate in the life of the Church in other respects, yet discouraged from receiving the sacraments, since they are unwilling to receive them with good dispositions.

If obdurate persons are encouraged to receive the sacraments without repentance, they are being scandalized—that is, led into the worse state of the sin of presumption. For this reason, priests should be very careful in dealing with difficult marriage cases and should not give sacramental absolution without individual confession except in the extraordinary circumstances for which this practice is authorized.12

8. For bibliography: Antony Koch, A Handbook of Moral Theology, vol. 2, Sin and the Means of Grace, ed. Arthur Preuss (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1919), 92–95; Emmanuel Doronzo, O.M.I., De Poenitentia, tom. 4, De Causis Extrinsecis (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1953), 41–72.

9. St. Thomas, De malo, q. 3, a. 14; Summa theologiae, 2–2, q. 14, aa. 1–2. This list became standardized through Peter Lombard; see St. Thomas, 2 Sent., d. 43, q. 1, a. 2.

10. See C. Bernas, “Sin against the Holy Spirit (in the Bible),” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 13:247–48.

11. There is a Catholic doctrine of predestination, witnessed in Scripture (see Rom 8.30), taught by the Church (see DS 621/316, 1567/827), and explained by St. Thomas (S.t., 1, q. 23). This doctrine neither excludes free choice (see DS 622/317) nor admits that anyone is predestined to hell, but it insists on the absolutely essential point that no one is saved except by God’s grace, which always antecedes any human contribution (see DS 1525–26/797–98).

12. See John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 74 AAS (1982) 184–86; Eng. ed. (Vatican City: Vatican Polyglot Press, 1981), 158–61 (sec. 84). Unfortunately, some theologians have encouraged the faithful to settle their freedom to marry by a private judgment of their own, using such weak criteria with respect to their first marriage as “tolerance or intolerance of common life.” See John R. Connery, S.J., et al., “Appendix B: The Problem of Second Marriages: An Interim Pastoral Statement by the Study Committee Commissioned by the Board of Directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America: Report of August 1972,” Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America, 27 (1972), 233–40 (criteria, 236–37). Several plausible criteria also are suggested—for instance, fidelity or its absence from the beginning, which might be a basis for a legitimate case for nullity in a tribunal. But tolerance of common life clearly could not; its acceptance would mean that every couple who are divorced and wish to remarry were never married, since they obviously have not tolerated common life.