Questions Answered – April 2023

Did Jesus Suffer for All Sins?

Question: There seems to be a way God suffers for souls in sin on earth (related to atonement), but it seems that it cannot be said that God suffers for souls in hell nor for fallen angels. Can you clarify the proper way we can speak of the suffering of God for sinful souls on earth and why this suffering does not persist after the soul’s damnation?

Answer: The suffering of God is all connected through the suffering of Christ. One will remember that Christ only suffers in his human nature. This suffering has effect not only for the sins committed while he is on earth, but it has the effect of atoning for all the sins of history, original and actual.

This is clear in the devotion to the Sacred Heart. On the Cross, Christ’s bloody sacrifice is applied once and for all in the New and Eternal Covenant. This is exemplified in the Agony in the Garden. Traditional Catholic doctrine attributes the Beatific Vision to Christ from the moment of his conception in the womb of Mary in his human nature. There are many reasons for this; chief among them is that Christ merited nothing for himself, let alone the Beatific Vision which he already possessed. Faith is never attributed to him as something he had to merit, because then he would be like Adam and Eve, who retained the possibility of sinning even in their perfect original state.

Because the Beatific Vision involves seeing time through the lens of eternity and is seeing God without medium, it is this aspect which Christ possessed even on the Cross. Yet Christ hid his divinity and did not allow by his own will the effects of this vision to arrive at his lower self. On one level of his human knowledge he is a “comprehensor” who saw God himself and at another lever a “pilgrim” on the way to his “hour.” This is precisely because the atonement in justice requires him to experience one of the punishments for the original sin in his perfect obedience. It would have been unfitting to assume and of the moral punishments for sin (ignorance, malice and concupiscence) as this would have compromised his perfect obedience. The only punishment he can assume would be those which did not compromise his obedience would be those which were non-moral, suffering and death. Theology maintains that all the punishments Christ assumed were done “economically” which is to say, to further his mission on earth.

Since his knowledge of the world has the aspect of time though eternity, Jesus can know the whole history of the world in one act of knowledge. Such a thing occurred in the Agony in the Garden. Christ personally offered his life in atonement for every human sin and so the implication is that he had personal knowledge in the Garden of every human sin, Original and Actual.

It is in this sense that Jesus is said to suffer in heaven. Obviously he cannot suffer in his risen body. However, through the aspect of time in which he offered his sufferings, they enter into the eternal “today” which is outside time and celebrated in the liturgy. Christ offered himself once and for all for all human sin. However, to receive the benefit of that offering as priest and victim, the recipient must be disposed to accept it. By free will, a possible recipient of the atonement can refuse to accept the grace offered. The recipient must heed to the voice of the redeemed and: “Repent and Believe for the kingdom of God is at hand!” Christ knows there are those who will accept and others who will not. As to the fallen angels, their destiny is fixed by themselves before the promise of the Redeemer. As for the damned, these die unrepentant and so, though God suffered to them as well, they refuse to accept it.

What Makes a Sin Mortal?

Question: What is a mortal sin? Is a sin done out of habit a mortal sin? I have had conflicting views from different priests.

Answer: The difference between physical and moral evil is that in physical evil, the natural disorder of a being causes a disorder in action. For example, a lame leg causes a lame walk. In moral evil, just the opposite is true. The lack of order in a voluntary action (it is contrary to reason) causes the lack of order in the soul. A mortal sin of fornication causes the loss of grace and the virtue of temperance and perhaps justice.

In the case of physical evil, nature will not be denied. If one abuses nature, for example, by drinking to excess, the body rebels against this unnatural condition and one becomes ill or even dies. In the moral universe, the origin of punishment is the reaction of reason to the condition of disorder. A person who dies unrepentant in mortal sin without grace cannot realize his final destiny. Freedom and nature forever disagree and this is hell. Someone murders an innocent person and the civil order reacts with imprisonment or the death penalty. Someone commits masturbation and not only do they lose grace but they experience a lack of freedom in virtuous formation in the sexual urge.

The voluntary nature of the sin is its essence. The punishment for the sin is very real and reasonable but outside the intention of the sinner. Therefore, the kind or species of sin is determined by what the sinner is drawn to, not the punishment. Theft, for example, is “usurping another’s property against the reasonable will of the owner.”1 The specific disorder in the character involves the will in justice and is about material goods, not about life, sexuality or the good name. The amount of the theft determines the punishment. To steal a little is a venial sin and outside virtue, not contrary to it. To steal a lot is a mortal sin and completely contrary to the virtue of justice and precludes the existence of grace and charity.

The Church still requires that, for the integrity of confession, all remembered mortal sins must be confessed in species and number. “All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession” (CCC, 1456). Regarding sin, the exterior action is the most important classification and determines the fault of the action. It is the matter of the sin. The order which is interrupted is the form and determines the punishment for the sin. Mortal sin entails three conditions all of which must be met: grave matter (the intellect); full knowledge (the passions); deliberate consent (the will).

The second important consequence is that a part of the punishment for sin is the reaction within the soul to perceived moral disorder. Sin is not like virtue. One must have all the virtues to have one, as virtue causes interior integration. This integration, when perceived, produces a peace of character. The opposite is true of sin and vice. It is impossible for a person to have all the sins and vices because sin causes a disorder.

Guilt then can be healthy. The difference between neurotic and healthy guilt is the difference between the mature and immature perception of a disordered act. Also, there is a distinction between the intellectual perception of the guilt and the emotional reaction to this disorder. “Both are normally present in the well-balanced person, but it is possible for an individual to have only the intellectual awareness of guilt without any sensory feeling, or to have a feeling of guilt which is not substantiated by any rational judgment.”2

Mature people feel guilt when they should. The abnormal experience of guilt involves either feeling guilty when one has not done anything wrong or, what is more pathological and more characteristic of contemporary Western life, not feeling guilty when one has done something wrong. The idea that all guilt is pathological is very mistaken and the result of a Freudian psychology which does not appreciate the place of the intellect in emotional formation.

The subjective order is also taken into consideration in determining the kind and gravity of the disorder caused by sin because of the powers of the soul which are principally involved. Catholic theology commonly distinguishes between sins of ignorance, weakness, and malice. This division has its source in the powers of the soul principally involved in the particular action of sin. Sins of ignorance are in the intellect; sins of weakness in the passions; and sins of malice are in the will as such.

It is true that the will in involved in some sense in all sins because it is the power of the soul by which a person places their acts in morals and determines responsibility. The division of ignorance, weakness, and malice express the various ways the powers of the soul relate to the will.

The first distinction important to evaluate the relation of these powers to human action is that between actions of the will which pass into exterior matter like cutting or burning. Other acts of the will remain in the agent performing them, like desiring, knowing, and loving. These are the acts which fall under morals and go to form virtues and vices. The will is the principle. However, because the will moves the other interior powers to acts, these powers can also be subjects of sin as they are subjects of virtues. The will moves the intellect to think and the passions to emote or not. The passions are important here because they form the climate for willing. Much of habitual sin is due to them and their lack of formation. These are sins of weakness if they cause us to sins. If the support good acts they can make virtue more loving and spontaneous.

The Catechism refers to sins from weakness in two ways. They can be either the result of the will entertaining and taking up the passion as in “hardness of heart”3 or of the will being stricken by passion like an “external pressure”4 which is like an alien force in the will. The difference regarding responsibility for both good and evil is whether the passion arises before the act of the will or results from the cooperation and approval of the will. Approved passions make an act more willing and so more voluntary.

One has only so much spiritual energy and if all the interior spiritual energy is engrossed in the passions, the influence of the intellect will be compromised. A person may be so engrossed in realizing his passions that he does not apply the universal judgment of his conscience to a particular action here and now. “Reason is fettered owing to the fact that the attention of the soul is vehemently applied to an act of the sensitive appetite, hence it is diverted from considering in particular what it knows universally and habitually.”5

In some cases reason can resist this fettering of the passions and in these cases, described as hardness of heart, the person is more responsible depending on the degree his reason approves such passions. In other cases, the passions completely bind him as in the case of psychopathic or neurotic personalities. This frees the subject of responsibility for these particular deeds unless he refuses to use all possible aids to deal with these passions. This is like the alcoholic. Since his reason is bound when drunk he would not normally be held responsible. However, since he either drank voluntarily or refused to seek a support group if he needs help, in some sense he is responsible for the resulting condition and what results from it.

 But the will has the power to apply or not to apply its attention to something; hence it is within the power of the will to exclude the fettering of reason. Therefore the act committed, which proceeds from this fettering, is voluntary, hence it is not excused from mortal fault. But if the fettering of reason by passion advanced to such a point that it would not be within the power of the will to exclude this fettering, for example, if from some passion of the soul someone were to become insane, whatever he committed would not be imputed to him [. . .] except perhaps so far as concerns the beginning of such a passion, that it was voluntary.6

Passion then affects the gravity of sin and the goodness of virtue. “The more intense the movement of the will to sin, the graver is the sin; but the more intense the passion impelling to sin, the less grave the sin becomes.”7 So antecedent passions and external pressures can reduce moral responsibility. “The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders.”8

A good example occurs regarding habitual sexual sin which the Catechism maintains is always gravely sinful in object. It then goes on: “To form an equitable judgment about the subject’s moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety, or other psychological or social factors that can lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.”9 This means that though masturbation is always a mortal sin in object, by antecedent passion the subject may only be guilty of a venial sin.

This increases the voluntary nature of the deed and so moral responsibility. “Hardness of heart [does] not diminish, but rather increase[s], the voluntary character of the sin.”10

So this answer to the question is complex. Not all habitual sins are mortal unless the habit is to mortal sins. Sins which are formed by weakness and become habitual may not individually be mortal because their origin is not the will but some external force to the will. Such an action is still evil, not good, so the perpetrator has a moral obligation to use spiritual remedies if they are formed by free choices of the will, or psychological remedies, insofar as he is able, if they result from neuroses. Of course, if the moral habit is approved by the passions, that makes them more integral, and therefore more loving.

  1. CCC, 2408.
  2. Anna Terruwe and Conrad Baars, Psychic Wholeness and Healing (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2016), note 26, 32.
  3. CCC, 1859.
  4. CCC, 1860.
  5. “Ratio ligatur ex hoc quod intentio animae applicatur vehementer ad actum appetitus sensitivi; unde avertitur a considerando in particulari id quod habitualiter in universali cognoscit.” Aquinas, De Malo, 3, 10, ad corp.
  6. “Applicare autem intentionem ad aliquid vel non applicare, in potestate voluntatis existit. Unde in potestate voluntatis est quod ligamen rationis excludat. Actus ergo commissus, qui ex tali ligamine procedit est voluntarius, unde non excusatur a culpa etiam mortali. Sed si ligatio rationis per passionem in tantum procederet, quod non esset in potestate voluntatis huiusmodi ligamen removere, puta si per aliquam animae passionem aliquis in insaniam verteretur, quidquid committeret, non imputaretur ei ad culpam, sicut nec alii insano. Nisi forte quantum ad principium talis passionis quod fuit voluntarium.” Aquinas, DM, 3, 10, ad corp.
  7. “Et ideo quanto motus voluntatis fuerit fortior ad peccandum, tanto peccatum est maius; sed quanto passio fuerit fortior impellens ad peccandum, tanto fit minus.” Aquinas, DM, 3, 11, ad 3.
  8. CCC, 1860.
  9. CCC, 2352.
  10. CCC, 1859.
Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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