Questions Answered – January 2024

Examination of Conscience: Permissiveness vs. Scrupulosity

Question: I was recently reading an examination of conscience for confession and it struck me that I must be guilty of every sin (at least as either mortal or venial). I asked the priest and he struggled for a response. The pamphlet seems to be more a hindrance than a help. Is there something I am missing?

Answer: Yes, some important distinctions, and this pamphlet allows you to see these distinctions. The basic problem concerns issues which surfaced after Vatican II. These had their origin in the theory of fundamental option which taught that no individual human choice could express the whole person existentially. Since this was the case, it was almost impossible to commit a mortal sin in a single deed. This was carried so far that so that the confessionals were all but empty at the typical parish on Saturday afternoon. This theory was the basis for many false distinctions. Indeed, this school of contemporary Catholic morals resulted in the general rejection of an objective idea of human nature which included an assessment of the various actions of the powers of man and how they relate to each other. This proclaimed existence over essence and led to a rejection of objective moral acts as sins which could be individually evaluated as leading to grace and heaven or a denial thereof.

The most popular presentation of this theory is found in the article “The Sins of the Little One” published by Ladislas Orsy in America.1 This article summarizes a shift in moral theology which was caused by a strange use of the classic definition of sin as aversio a Deo, conversio ad creaturam (the aversion from God and conversion to the creature). According to this theory, no one human choice can fully express the fundamental option of a man in relationship to God. Instead, this fundamental option has to be the result of a lifelong tendency or, if it is a grave sin, has to be the result of a conscious denial of God.

The source of this is an opinion of Karl Rahner who maintained that the only truly personal choice a man made was in the moment of death between clinical and metaphysical death. Ladislas Boros sums up this idea: “Death is man’s first completely personal act, and is, therefore, by reason of its very being, the centre above all others for the awakening of consciousness, for freedom, for the encounter with God, for the final decision about one’s eternal destiny.”2

The implications of this theory are that there is no single act of man which could be so against reason that as an act it would deny the possibility of union with God, except perhaps the final decision at the moment of death which is between clinical death and metaphysical death. Thus there would be no single act which is a mortal sin except perhaps apostasy because it entails the intention to deny God as such. Murder, adultery, and missing Mass would not be considered mortal sins as single acts and so need not be confessed in confession because they do not entail the aversion from God as such.

Ladislas Orsy gives a new threefold variation on the former distinction between mortal and venial sin which Msgr. William Smith maintains is also held by people like “J. Fuchs, J. Keenan, T. Kopfensteier, T. O’Connell, B. Häring, et al.”3 His new definitions are as follows: mortal sin  “is a free and permanent option by man to remain alone and to exclude God from his life”;4 serious sin — “many acts that betray evil trends in the heart but do not necessarily bring about a radical break with God”;5 venial sin “ is a refusal to grow [. . .] a kind of tardiness in our pilgrimage with God.”6

Msgr. Smith notes that the definition of mortal sin “is a fair description of ‘impenitence,’ which if it occurs at the end of life is called ‘final impenitence. What is newly called serious sin is an acceptable definition of venial sin — acts of trends that bring no radical break with God. Although vague and open-ended, the ‘venial’ sin description can stand, if it says anything at all.”7 The greatest difficulty with this redefinition is that the whole tradition that there are objective material deeds which in themselves involve a denial of a relationship with God is overturned and morals is again reduced to a vague subjective basis which in this case resides mostly in the human intention. This is contrary to the teaching of the Church represented in statements like that of John Paul II is Reconciliatio et Paenitentia:

With the whole tradition of the Church, we call mortal sin the act by which man freely and consciously rejects God, his law, the covenant of love God offers, preferring to turn in on himself or to some created and finite reality, something contrary to the divine will (conversio ad creaturam). This occurs in a direct and formal way, in the sins of idolatry, apostasy and atheism; or in an equivalent way, as in every act of disobedience to God’s commandments in grave matter.8

This difficulty also points to the need to base objective moral judgments of reason on human anthropology and metaphysics.

The other side of this was due to a lack of a realistic examination of conscience. This led to what you are experiencing in your rediscovery of objective sins. This is excessive scrupulosity. It is impossible to have all the sins as many of them are exclusive of the contrary sin. Cowardice is the opposite of foolish courage. One cannot commit both at the same time. Many, to offset relativity in morals, see sin everywhere, which is not only false but not really possible. One should therefore not find sin where there is none but use a common sense approach.

Theology of Religious Vows

Question: Is it allowed to combine first profession, final profession, and celebration of jubilees of vows in one ceremony? Must the superior publicly accept the vows after they are first made?

Answer: I have no idea what you mean in your question about accepting vows after they are first made because vows are made to God, not to man. The question therefore calls for a general theology of the vows which is too little discussed or understood today.

The central truth necessary to understand the vows is that the individual embraces them as an act of the virtue of religion. In St. Thomas this falls under the third commandment and is a part of the virtue of justice. Justice is the restitution of some good taken from another as a quid pro quo. It is satisfied when the proper relation with the other is satisfied. The problem is that there are some people we can never repay. One can never repay their parents for the gift of life, for example. In a similar way one can never repay God. Yet one can offer something to him as a attempt to repay him. This is a sacrifice.

In the case of the vows one offers the three goods which form the threefold lust which is a result of original sin: poverty for lust of the eyes, chastity for lust of the flesh, and obedience for the pride of life. The primary good is one’s freedom to do what one wants and the primary vow is obedience. In the vow of obedience, one sacrifices one’s will as an act of religion. If one commits a sin regarding some matter involving the vow, it is a sin against that particular virtue but also against the third commandment.

This is a rather detailed way of pointing out the answer to your question. Normally now the vows are placed within the Eucharist because it is most fitting that an act of moral sacrifice should be placed within the context of the sacrifice of Christ. This means that one can certainly profess both temporary and perpetual profession in the same Mass. However, as reception does not entail vows, it would seem you cannot do that. If I understand the last part of the questions, vows found a legal relationship between the subject and the community. Once made, this relationship cannot be violated without permission of the Pope who is the highest superior.

So vows are an act of the virtue of religion in which seek to repay God for all he has given us. As a result both perpetual and temporary vows fit into the sacrifice of the Mass which makes the perfect obedience of Christ present. Since a relationship of justice and rights is set up in this profession, it would be unfitting for the superior to refuse to accept it.

  1. Ladislas Orsy. “The Sins of the Little One,” America 129, December 8, 1973, 438–441.
  2. Ladislas Boros. The Mystery of Death (New York: Herder and Herder, 1965), 8.
  3. Msgr. William Smith, “Moral Magisterium of the Catholic Church,” International Catholic University, published notes, Lesson Twelve, 2. I am indebted to this article for a succinct description and critique of this school of thought.
  4. Orsy, “Sins,” 438.
  5. Orsy, “Sins,” 440.
  6. Orsy, “Sins,” 440.
  7. Smith, “Moral Magisterium,” Lesson Twelve, 2.
  8. John Paul II, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 17. Cf. VS, 70 and CCC 1857–59.
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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Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
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  1. Avatar Dcn. Andy Weiss says:

    Wow, Orsy & Rahner, et/ al. with this theoretical school was completely off-base. Perhaps this is part of the problem in Germany with the heteroprax Bishops and their desire to redefine the Catholic faith into nothingness. Thanks for this summary. I always wondered what was behind it.

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