Monday, June 25, 2007

Aren't We always in a State of Mortal Sin?

During our debate in 1991, Mr. White asked me the following question:

Jesus told us that to gain eternal life we were to love God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. But isn't it true that no one ever does that? Don't we always fail to love God enough? Isn't any sin a failure to keep that first and most important commandment? Aren't we always therefore in a state of Mortal sin?

What Mr. White was trying to justify the Calvinoid heresy of Total Depravity. But he had asked this question in other debates with Catholics so I was prepared for it. I responded:

That is a very poetic statement. but judged by the standards of poets, all of us are clumsy, anemic, and colorless boors. That is the problem with your interpretation. If we follow your reasoning to its logical conclusion, then we must do nothing but love God every minute of every day. We would not go to work. We would not feed our
children. We would not sleep or eat. Even the act of breathing would detract from our obligation to love God with everything we have.

No, James, this portion of Scripture is not meant to be taken in a crassly literal fashion. It is hyperbolic and allegorical. When I tell my wife that her eyes are limpid pools, and that I couldn't live without her, she actually knows that they are muddy brown and that if she were gone, I would learn to struggle on somehow. We need to understand the words of Jesus as an ethical statement that must be understood
practically. All he was telling us is that our love of God must be the first and most important relationship in our lives before all others. That is what the Three Evangelical Counsels undertaken by vowed religious are supposed to signify. These are Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. The vow of Poverty means that you do not let any created thing come between you and God. The vow of Chastity does not merely deal with sex. In the religious life there is the discipline of "no particular
friendship" that also falls under this rubric so that you do not let any person come between you and God. Finally the vow of obedience is where we submit ourselves so totally that even your own self does not come between you and God.

God does not want to monopolize us. He just wants to be first in our affection. And He intends to reciprocate in kind. As St. Augustine taught, "God loves YOU as if you were the only creature that he had created."

If God gave us this commandment and told us that we needed to fulfill it but then set the standards so high that it was impossible, He would have been dishonest and cruel. Only a monster would place salvific obligations on mankind that were impossible to keep. But Jesus told us that his yoke was light and his burden was sweet. Therefore, he would not ask of us more than we could do and we need to interpret this commandment in a practical way, not an overly idealistic one.

Well, you can imagine Mr. White sputtering and his charges of how "unscholarly" and naive I was. He took umbrage because he thought that I was calling him a monster instead of warning him of what he was making God out to be.

But over the years I have realized that my answer was inadequate. There was more that needed to be said.

This is what Jesus actually taught in context:

Mat 22:35
And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him.
Mat 22:36
"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?"
Mat 22:37
And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
Mat 22:38
This is the greatest and first commandment.
Mat 22:39
And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Mat 22:40
On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets."

On rereading this I realized that verse 39 is extremely crucial. It really does not add a second commandment. It tells us that that this other commandment is just like the first! But this other commandment tels us not only to love our fellow men and women, but also to love to love ourselves. At first I was confused but then I remembered what had been said elsewhere in Scripture:

Mat 25:31
"When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.
Mat 25:32
Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,
Mat 25:33
and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.
Mat 25:34
Then the King will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
Mat 25:35
for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
Mat 25:36
I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'
Mat 25:37
Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?
Mat 25:38
And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee?
Mat 25:39
And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?'
Mat 25:40
And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.'

Gen 9:5
For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man's brother I will require the life of man.
Gen 9:6
Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed;
for God made man in his own image.

And it all became clear to me. God has already told us that an ordinate love of our neighbor --and an ordinate love for ourselves -- is in itself love for God. All human beings carry God's image and so when we see ourselves and our fellow humans we should be seeing the image of God within. Loving our neighbor, feeding our children, eating, living, and breathing are all acts that honor God and glorify Him. When we fail to acknowledge the image of God in our fellow humans and in ourselves we are not breaking merely the second commandment. We are breaking the first. This extends even more so to those like Mary and the saints who bear in their lives a greater likeness to God than the ordinary person. To fail to honor them in proportion to their bearing of God's image is to fail to honor God rightly. And THAT would be a mortal sin.


TheDen said...


I just recently stumbled on your blog and am very impressed with your posts.

Yes, I agree with you 100% on this one.

God wants us. He loves us and wants us to love Him back. Completely and utterly.

Whenever we do anything, it should be out of love for God. Breathing doesn't take us away from God but rather we breathe because it is in His blueprint for us to breathe. To go against His will would be to intentionally stop breathing.

As such, His plan for us is to love. Specifically, He created us to love Him and through Him love others.

In my opinion, from reading his posts, Mr. White doesn't grasp this central theme. This is the Gospel. This is what God wants from us. This is where man fails in Genesis 3 and this is what is restored in the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Where Mr. White fails in his logic is that we are not always in a state of mortal sin. Only when we intentionally do something of grave matter that goes against His design.

I pray for people like James White, and others (including people like you and me!!!) to get this. For when we don't treat people as if they are like Christ we are truly sinning and you and I as Catholics are not immune to this.

Thank you for your ministry. I find your writing and thought processes very similar to mine and you are shedding some insight into Scripture that I hadn't seen and still need to chew on...

rr1213 said...

Limpid pools? Whoa, I'm not sure if that's really good or really bad!

Seriously, you have a point Art. I'd just caution that love for ourselves should be the last of the mandates, following love for God and fellow man. (Not that we are always successful at that...which I suppose was James White's point). Also, we can't confuse self-absorption with love of self.

Arthur C. Sippo MD, MPH said...

Yeah, I know. I was laways a lousy poet.

But don't undermine love of self. Jesus used it as the standard by which we are to love other people. He did not tell us to love our neighbor either more or less than ourselves but the same. You see each of us is made in God's image and we have toreseopct that. In fact, following Jesus' own recommendation, if we do not love ourselves in an ordinate fashion, we will not know how to ordinately love others.

So as I see see it, a proper love of self is on par with love of neighbor and both are ways of loving God. But we do need to be careful about it.