Although the stages of a sinful life do not follow one another with iron necessity, there is a typical progression to the process of moral degeneration.
The first stage, imperfection, is not itself sin. It is of two kinds: moral immaturity, which existed even in Jesus, and moral disintegrity, present in the predispositions of fallen humanity which block perfect integration in charity. Holiness is that state in which, formed by living faith, the self expresses and serves charity; imperfection, by contrast, marks actions good in themselves which are not integrated with living faith.
Because of imperfection, a person can be tempted to sin even without having committed prior personal sin. Some temptations come from within—from the spontaneous demands of emotions which cannot be satisfied by fully reasonable choices. Others come from other persons, as a result either of one’s sympathy with or opposition to them. But one who has committed prior personal sin is subject to further temptation as he or she tries to integrate the whole personality with the sinful self—an effort which naturally leads to rationalization and dishonesty. One who has committed prior sin is also tempted to distort his or her relationship with God—by pharisaism, zealotry, or, more radically, fleeing from divine truth.
Temptation leads to venial sins, and they in turn lead to mortal sins: by supplying new options for sinning mortally; by introducing one to experiences which make one aware of further sinful possibilities which might otherwise have remained unknown; by creating situations difficult to escape without mortal sin; and by generating objectives one is tempted to pursue by mortal sin.
The so-called capital sins have special significance because they lead to other sins; the list of capital sins is thus useful for spiritual self-analysis. Four compete with love of God and neighbor by providing apparent alternative modes of fulfillment—in status and the respect of others (pride), in sensory gratification (lust and gluttony), in possessions (avarice). The others are defenses, as it were, of one’s imperfection and sinfulness—against a more intense moral and spiritual life (sloth), against the goodness of others which makes demands on oneself (envy), against whatever stands in the way of getting what one wants (anger).
Through the sins against the Holy Spirit the sinner becomes increasingly unlikely to seek forgiveness. By initial impenitence one chooses to commit a mortal sin and to remain in it, and perhaps also in a situation or relationship conducive to further sins. By obduracy one resists the grace of repentance. By presumption one supposes that God will overlook one’s persistence in sin. By despair one abandons hope for salvation. By rejection of the known truth one abandons faith. By envy of the grace others enjoy one regards believers striving to live faithfully as enemies. By final impenitence one resists every grace and persists in sin until death.
Some theologians have argued that everyone has one last chance at the moment of death to dispose of himself or herself forever. This has the same fatal difficulty as other fundamental-option theories: It assumes that one can and must make a direct choice between God and creatures, and overlooks the importance for self-determination of one’s ordinary free choices. The theory has no support in experience, in reason, or in Scripture.
Scripture seems to say that impenitent sinners end in hell. Some theologians nevertheless argue that hell might turn out to be a possibility which is never realized. This cannot be reconciled with the Church’s teaching. Furthermore, the alternatives to a populated hell (everyone will repent before death, those who fail to repent before death will do so after death, those who do not repent will be included in heavenly communion, the unrepentant will be annihilated) are theologically unacceptable.
The central misery of hell is nothing else than the reality of mortal sin. For hell is separation from God, and this is the essence of mortal sin (a free choice which, like any choice, lasts). The Church also teaches that those in hell suffer some painful experience, “fire,” whose precise nature is, however, left open.
It cannot be said that God imposes hell as a punishment. God does impose other, medicinal punishments, intended to discourage people from self-injury by wrongdoing and encourage them to rectify their lives. God also punishes in the sense of bringing it about that, through suffering, persons participate in the work of redemption. But the case is different with hell. If a person freely constitutes a self radically closed against his or her own true good, that self is not open to heavenly communion; and God can do nothing about this without coercing the individual and so destroying freedom and the self it has created.