Living Without Mortal Sin?

Do some persons live and die without ever committing any mortal sins? Recently Fr. John Zuhlsdorf ("Fr. Z") stated that "there is only one woman ever who" was "entirely free of mortal sin throughout their life”. Despite correction by several commentators, he continued to defend his claim, putting forth the arguments that (1) one cannot prove the absence of mortal sin (since God alone knows the heart), (2) "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us." (1 John 1:10), and (3) "by definition Original Sin is mortal sin and we all commit it. We all have the guilt of Original sin."

In the past I have also heard somewhat similar opinions from other sources. So, a few remarks on the matter:

(1) The burden is on the one who claims that a person who has done wrong to prove it. If someone claims that St. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, committed a mortal sin, it is up to the one who claims this to prove it. It will not do to say "prove that it's not so!" Granted one cannot directly prove that St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, St. Maria Goretti, St. Dominic Savio, Bl. Jacinta of Fatima, etc., never committed a mortal sin, it surely lies on the one who accuses them of having committed mortal sin to prove it. To claim as a fact that someone committed grave evil is objectively slanderous unless one has some way of being sure that they did so. Now Fr. Z seems to suggest having a solid basis for making this claim in the doctrine that grace is a gratuitous gift (we can't know with the certainty of faith if we are in the state of grace), and that we all sin (1 John 1:10). However, and here lies the problem, the saints and doctors of the Church do not agree with him in his interpretation of these doctrines and their implications.

(2) From the Fathers through the Council of Trent and beyond, the assumption is that some, but not all, fall into sin after baptism. It is clear that grace suffices to in fact persevere a substantial length, and indeed an entire life, without sin. It may be a minority, but it is supposed to be at least some.

I quote also St. Thomas Aquinas, responding to an objection that grace cannot be a habit in the soul, since a habit is something stable and permanent, whereas grace is easily lost, since it is lost through a single act of mortal sin: "Although grace is lost by one act of mortal sin, it is not easily lost, because it is not easy for someone who has grace to do such an act, on account of his inclination to the opposite action, as the Philosopher says in Ethics V, that it is difficult for a just man to do unjust deeds." (De veritate q. 27, a. 1, ad 9). If mortal sins are not frequent in all Christians, then you can be sure that some have died without committing any mortal sins (since some die a few years after reaching the age of reason, some a single year afterwards, some a few months afterwards, etc.), unless, far from positing the traditional providence of God that preserves some people from any mortal sin ("caught up lest evil change his understanding or guile deceive his soul." Wis 4:11), one posits a very special providence of God seeing to it that everyone other than Mary falls into mortal sin, a rather problematic hypothesis.

(3) Moreover, we have positive, and strong evidence that individual persons have lived without committing any mortal sin: certain persons, who have been canonized as saints by the Catholic Church, have testified that other persons (also later canonized as saints by the Catholic Church) lived and died without committing any mortal sin. For example, St. Robert Bellarmine testified it of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, and St. John Bosco testified it of St. Dominic Savio. This view of St. Aloysius life is moreover affirmed by the liturgy itself, in which we pray, "O God, giver of heavenly gifts, who in Saint Aloysius Gonzaga joined penitence to a wonderful innocence of life, grant, through his merits and intercession, that, though we have failed to follow him in innocence, we may imitate him in penitence." The implication of this prayer is that St. Aloysius preserved baptismal innocence, and that the vast majority of persons did not. (Updated correction: Or the prayer may mean by "innocence" that he committed not only no mortal sin, but also none or next to none fully deliberate venial sin; then the implication would be that the vast majority of persons have committed at least some fully deliberate venial sin.)

Leaving aside the theological and rational arguments (which are in favor of some living and dying without committing mortal sin), if one has to choose between St. Robert Bellarmine, St. John Bosco's, and the Roman liturgy's view, and the personal interpretation of another individual, one would be wise to side with the saints and with the liturgy of the Catholic Church.

(4) Regarding St. John's statement that "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar" (1 John 1:10), I simply recall his own statement in the same epistle, "All wrongdoing is sin, but there are some sins that are not mortal," as well as "No one born of God commits sin; for God's nature abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God." (1 John 3:9)". The sins we are commit, the "daily sins" (St. Augustine), are in most cases venial sins, and John is including these when talking about sin when he says "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar."

(5) Regarding original sin, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches explicitly that original sin does not have the character of personal guilt in us, nor is it "committed" by us: "[Original sin] is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called "sin" only in an analogical sense: it is a sin "contracted" and not "committed" – a state and not an act.
Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam's descendants (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 404-405)"

In any event, even if one could theoretically call original sin "mortal sin" by analogy, that is not the traditional Catholic usage of "mortal sin" (Otherwise it would be senseless to ask, for instance, whether someone could be in original sin and venial sin, without mortal sin, as St. Thomas Aquinas does), nor is it the usage of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

To sum up, the testimony of the saints and of the Church is that grace can and does indeed preserve some people (and not just the Blessed Virgin Mary) from all mortal sin, and also points out some concrete saints whom grace has so preserved from mortal sin throughout their lives.

It's All Adam's Fault!

In several recent posts, I argued that when a person is to some degree determined toward evil on account of an external cause, he is to that degree less free and responsible for doing the evil. In a similar vein someone might argue: it is practically speaking a foregone conclusions that we are going to commit many sins, because we are born sinners, and we are born sinners not because of anything we did (as in Origen's account), but because of Adam. It's his fault, not ours. He's really the one responsible for our sins!

There are a couple of complementary ways to approach this objection. First, we may insist, as the Early Church Fathers, as well as nearly all the Eastern Fathers tend to do, that we still retain the basic freedom to choose what is good; the divine spark and light of the Spirit in the soul has been dimmed, but not totally extinguished from the soul. This is the objective approach to answering the objection.

But how do we reconcile all these affirmations, that (1) to the degree that one person's bad action is predictable on account of the agency of another person, the former is less free and less responsible for that bad action, that (2) on account of Adam's sin, we are virtually certain to commit numerous sins, and that (3) we remain free and responsible for our sins?

The first way of doing so is to recognize that our present freedom, while real freedom, is merely a dim shadow of the freedom that is possible to the human spirit. The freedom of all of our free acts and choices, both good and evil, is a shadow of the freedom of a man whose spirit possesses true mastery of choice, for whom the "perishable body" does not weigh down the soul. If our sins are ten thousand times less voluntary than Adam's sin (which may or may not be true), this does not mean that our sins are involuntary, or that we are not free, but that Adam's freedom was a freedom greater than we can possibly imagine.

The other way to answer the objection is that whatever the cause of our sinfulness, that is, our separation from the holiness of God and our tendency to sin, the fact remains that it is we who are sinful, we who sin, we who so often act in disgraceful and shameful fashions. C.S. Lewis illustrates this well in the Problem of Pain:

Theoretically, I suppose, we might say ‘Yes: we behave like vermin, but then that is because we are vermin. And that, at any rate, is not our fault.’ But the fact that we are vermin, so far from being felt as an excuse, is a greater shame and grief to us than any of the particular acts which it leads us to commit. The situation is not nearly so hard to understand as some people make out. It arises among human beings whenever a very badly brought up boy is introduced into a decent family. They rightly remind themselves that it is ‘not his own fault’ that he is a bully, a coward, a tale-bearer and a liar. But none the less, however it came there, his present character is detestable. They not only hate it, but ought to hate it. They cannot love him for what he is, they can only try to turn him into what he is not. In the meantime, though the boy is most unfortunate in having been so brought up, you cannot quite call his character a ‘misfortune’ as if he were one thing and his character another. It is he—he himself—who bullies and sneaks and likes doing it. And if he begins to mend he will inevitably feel shame and guilt at what he is just beginning to cease to be.

Augustine emphasizes (in some respects excessively) this second approach to the state of sinfulness in which we are born. This approach, in contrast to the first, is principally subjective, focusing on our experience of a separation from God, our corresponding behavior, and consequent shame. Though this second approach would not suffice on its own to answer the objection that would deny our responsibility for sin, it is a valuable complement to the first approach.

Aquinas On The Evidence For Original Sin

In a previous post, I quoted Newman and Chesterton speaking of evil as evidence for either the non-existence of God or the existence of original sin. Aquinas touches briefly on this topic in the Summa Contra Gentiles III, ch. 52. He outlines the argument as follows: God in his providence rewards good deeds and punishes evil deeds. But the whole human race is subject to various bodily and spiritual punishments: death, hunger, thirst, ignorance, weakness, etc. Therefore there is some sin of the human race that is being punished by these pains. Aquinas then raises the objection that all of these pains need not be punishments, since they simply follow from man's nature; being made up of various elements, man must be capable of death and corruption; again, "the sensitive appetite must incline to things in which the senses delight, and which at times are contrary to reason, and the possible intellect is in potentiality to all things intelligible, and has none of them actually, but has by its very nature to acquire them through the senses, and therefore with difficulty acquires the knowledge of truth, and is easily led astray by the imagination."

In response, Aquinas says, "one can with sufficient probability think [one can reasonably think; satis probabiliter poterit aestimare] that, divine providence having fitted each perfection to that which is to be perfected, God united a higher to a lower nature in such a way that the former would dominate the latter, and, should any obstacle to this dominion arise through a defect of nature, God by a special and supernatural act of kindness would remove it." The empirical argument for original sin presupposes more than the kind of divine providence that can be philosophically proven; it presupposes something like a providence in which God's care for man knows no limits, in which, from the very beginning, he gives man as much as possible.

Now imagine several different suppositions: (1) the atheistic position that there is no God, (2) the position that there is a God who is the cause of the world, and who intervenes in the world, but has little special concern for man, (3) the position that there is a God who is the cause of the world, but whose special providence for man regards only the future destiny of man (or man's soul), (4) the Christian (and to some extent Jewish) faith in God.

The existence of evil constitutes significant evidence for original sin only on the fourth supposition or a similar one. And conversely, the doctrine of original sin makes the world in which we live more intelligible only in light of the fourth supposition (the Christian or similar view of divine providence).

Thus rather than taking the prevalence of evil as evidence that either there is no God or that there is Original Sin, it would be more accurate to say that the prevalence of evil constitutes evidence that either the Christian view of God and divine providence is wrong, or that the Christian doctrine of original sin is correct.

Newman and Chesterton on Original Sin

Newman, reflecting on the pervasive presence of evil in the world, "the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths… the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil… the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion…" (Apologia pro vita sua, 242) says that were he not certain of the existence of God, "I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or a polytheist when I looked into the world." (Apologia pro vita sua, 241). He intends this as a statement regarding his own person, and not as a critique of arguments for the existence of God. Nonetheless he seems to take the presence of evil as objective evidence in favor of either (1) the non-existence of God, or (2) the existence of original sin:

What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence…. I argue about the world; if there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically {243} called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God. (Ibid., 242-243)

Chesterton also appears to take the manifest fact of evil in the world as proof that either (1) God does not exist, or (2) if he does, then that there is an original sin which accounts for the this evil:

Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin — a fact as practical as potatoes.  Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt. Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.  … The strongest saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat. (Orthodoxy, "The Maniac")

Now, Chesterton's principal intention is to argue against the position of "certain religious leaders," naming R.J.Campbell, and thus he may not directly intend to affirm that original sin may be proven in every respect from the fact of evil. Nonetheless, the question remains, in reading both Newman and Chesterton: is the existence of God in fact compatible with evil only if one postulates original sin? Or are they making an implicit, unreasoned identification between the existence of "God" and the existence of the Christian God, with the kind of providence  that Christians believe God has for man?

James Chastek made a post a few weeks ago that touched upon the same question from another point of departure, which readers of this blog may also be interested in: Who believes in the God that the argument from evil would seek to refute?