4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 1 Corinthians 12:31 – 13:13
If I do not have love, I am nothing.
The thirteenth chapter of the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians contains the often praised “hymn to charity”, in which the Apostle sets forth the supremacy and necessity of theological love.
Charity, which comes to perfection only in heaven, is the greatest of the virtues. Without this theological virtue, a man has no other true virtue. Without love of God (and of neighbor), no man can be saved.
Without charity, man can do nothing good – at least, he can do nothing meritorious unto eternal life. But, we ask, is every act of a man in mortal sin (i.e. a man lacking charity) itself a sin? Without charity, does every act of man become sinful?
Is it a sin for a non-believer to pray? To fast? To make a vow of virginity? Further, is it a sin for a man in mortal sin to plant a vineyard?
In mortal sin, man can do nothing which merits eternal life
The Catholic Church teaches that none can attain to eternal life without the theological virtues which are infused into the soul by God. Mortal sin is that state in which a man has lost (through his own fault) the theological virtue of charity – a man who dies in this state will be condemned to hell.
“The theological virtues are the foundation of Christian moral activity … They are infused by God into the souls of the faithful to make them capable of acting as his children and of meriting eternal life.” (CCC 1813)
Without the theological virtue of charity, no action merits salvation. No matter how apparently good any act may be, without charity that act is wholly devoid of any merit and does not profit a man unto eternal life in any respect.
This is the teaching of St. Paul (1 Cor 13:1-3)
If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And if I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
If even faith and prophecy, as well as the gift of tongues, are of no profit to a man in mortal sin (i.e. lacking charity), how much less any other act!
In the state of mortal sin, every act is ultimately worthless – insofar as no act in mortal sin endures to life everlasting.
Why can’t a man do anything good when in sin?
St. Augustine, the Doctor of Grace, teaches that “without grace men do nothing good when they either think or wish or love or act.” (De Corrept. Et Gratia II)
Because man’s nature is corrupted (though not totally depraved) through original sin, nothing a man does in mortal sin can be order to God as his final end. Without grace and without charity, man cannot love God has his supernatural good or in a way which gains heaven.
Therefore, no particular act of a man in mortal sin can be properly ordered to God as his final end (neither naturally nor supernaturally). Thus, although a man in mortal sin may do some particular good work – St. Thomas specifies building homes, planting vineyards, and the like (cf. ST I-II, q.109, a.2 [here]) – these acts can in no way merit heaven as they are not ordered to God as our supreme Good.
Not every act done in mortal sin is itself a sin
Still, we must affirm that not every act done in mortal sin is itself a sin. While these acts cannot merit heaven, it is not necessarily true that each and every act is a sin worthy of hell.
In other words, the unbeliever or the soul in mortal sin does not necessarily sin in every act. While the person who dies in mortal sin will go to hell, he will not necessarily go to hell for shoveling the snow in his driveway (to take one act out of a million).
St. Paul teaches that All that is not of faith is sin (Romans 14:23). However, this does not mean that the entire life of unbelievers, or of those believers in the state of mortal sin, is purely sinful.
Commenting on this verse, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches rightly:
“In the unbeliever, along with his unbelief is the good of his nature. Therefore, when an unbeliever does something good from the dictate of reason and does not refer it to an evil end, he does not sin. However, his deed is not meritorious, because it was not enlivened by grace.”
Still, we must insist – together with the Common Doctor (the Angelic Thomas) and the Doctor of Grace (St. Augustine) – that every act which an unbeliever does as an unbeliever is sinful. Thus, the Angel of the Schools follows St. Augustine in teaching:
“The actions which an unbeliever performs as an unbeliever, are always sinful, even when he clothes the naked, or does any like thing, and directs it to his unbelief as an end.” (ST I-II, q.23, a.7, ad 1; cf. Augustine, Contra Julian. IV,3)
How the unbeliever sins when praying, fasting, or vowing virginity
Generally speaking, it is good to pray. However, if a man prays to a demon, this is sin. Likewise, it is good to fast, but if a man fasts for the sake of promoting murder of children, it is sin. Moreover, it is generally good to feed the poor, but if a man does this to honor a demon this act is sinful for him.
Thus, whenever an unbeliever does any act from his unbelief – i.e. when he does something either in opposition to the faith of Christ or specifically as an act of idolatry to a false God – this act is sinful.
Many acts of unbelievers are not performed qua unbeliever, but simply insofar as they are men or citizens, etc. Thus, when a man plants a vineyard to feed his family (even if he is an unbeliever or in mortal sin), he acts well – though this act is not meritorious unto heaven, neither is it a sin.
However, if a man plants a vineyard in order to raise crops to offer to a false god – he commits sin. Further, if he plants a vineyard in order to feed a wicked army specifically because he wants to support the soldiers in the slaughter of innocents, he sins.
This is what St. Paul means when he teaches:
All things are clean to the clean: but to them that are defiled, and to unbelievers, nothing is clean. (Titus 1:15)
That is, everything which an unbeliever or a man in mortal sin does qua unbeliever or qua sinner is most certainly sinful.
Let us take another example: If a priest preaches a very good homily on the truths of the faith, this act seems to be virtuous. However, if that priest is in mortal sin and if he gives this sermon in order to further his own cause and gain prestige in the Church, he commits sin.
Another example: If a man feeds the poor it would seem good. But, if he feeds the poor out of a desire to prove that society does not need religion to care for the poor and, further, that society is better without religion and that the Church should be suppressed – such a man commits sin by his very act of feeding the poor.
Why I hate Les Miserables
Now, I will simply make a slight comment regarding the popular book, Les Miserables. The author of this book, Victor Hugo, was an anti-Catholic bigot and an infidel. He wrote this book (as well as many of his other works) as a means of showing that the French ideal and secular humanism was all that was needed in the modern world – and that the Church should give in to the ideals of the French revolution.
In the book, Les Miserables, perhaps in all of literature, no character is more detestable, more worthy of scorn, than the bishop. Hugo’s anti-Catholic bigotry comes forth most clearly when he has the bishop bow down before a revolutionary (who is dying) and, rather than giving him sacramental absolution, begging for forgiveness on behalf of the Church. From a revolutionary! From one of the lot who slaughtered priests and raped nuns! And Hugo has the bishop ask HIM for pardon for the backward thinking of the Church!
But I will set the details of the deplorable book aside for now and pose a simple question: Does Les Miserables present apparently virtuous actions (such as feeding the poor or forgiving the criminal) as part of the greater picture of secular humanism? Is this book a means of promoting the atheistic (or, at best, deistic and certainly anti-Catholic) views of the Enlightenment? Does Hugo present a “love of neighbor” which ignores and even vitiates against the revealed Law of the Gospel and the positive law of the Church?
Les Miserables is a world which needs no Gospel and no Church. It is a world where the French ideal and the human mind reigns supreme. There is no true virtue here, but all is sin because all is done as a means of casting the Church and the Gospel out from the public square.
If a man feeds the poor as a way of promoting secular humanism, he sins. If Hugo’s bishop lives a simple and humble life of poverty and service of the poor, but does this without the theological virtue of charity (which is inspired by the love of Christ), his acts do not profit unto salvation. Further, if the bishop does all this as a means of subjecting the Church to the Enlightenment (as he does) then these actions are sins.
Precisely because Les Miserables is such a well written piece of literature, it is a most deadly weapon against the Church.