Saturday, February 2, 2013

Is every act in mortal sin another sin? Or, Why I hate Les Miserables

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.


ellen said...

Father, thank you for this explanation; it has helped me to understand this teaching properly. With regard to "Les Miz" - I have never read the book because it was on The Index (no longer in force but still salutary), but I notice many good Catholics speak highly of the film. Is the film less anti-Catholic than the book? I have neither the time nor inclination to see the film myself, but would appreciate your opinion.

Noah Moerbeek said...

I felt the film with Liam Neeson showed the Church in a very positive manner.

The scene where after the woman dies and the main character is asking if she repented of her sins is touching.

I am glad they did not follow the book closely.

David said...

Would prayer for a Catholic in mortal sin be sin itself? For instance, the prayer "If I am in a state of grace, please keep me in Thy grace, and if I am not, bring me to it." or mental prayer or the Rosary? I know that hypocrisy is of course a sin and consciously trying to persuade others that you are a devout and pious person even though you know that you are in mortal sin would be prideful and hypocritical.

I used to pray the above mentioned prayer a lot when I was struggling with scruples. And I still pray it whenever those anxious thoughts pop up.

In Christ,

Tom said...

I have 3 basic questions about your post. First, what value is a good work done in the state of mortal sin (I understand that it has no merit but I have heard it can still have natural value or something like that, could you explain?)
Second, If a heretic, infidel, etc. were to act out of what they thought was love (e.g. a non Catholic who contributes to his church financially or feeds the poor out of love to the god of their religion) would they necessarily commit sin? Would it be objectively grave matter but they might not be culpable? If they were in the state of grace (in virtue of baptism/perfect contrition) would these acts be meritorious?

Thirdly, on a practical level, what does it mean to say that one "lives a simple and humble life of poverty and service of the poor, but does this without the theological virtue of charity?" I understand that one could do these things with evil motives, but without those motives do these always come from charity or is there some other thing to consider?

Anonymous said...

Father, thank you for this post. I love your blog! I have never read the book, so I wouldn't know on that front.

However, in the musical, we only see the bishop when he forgives Jean Valjean and causes a conversion of heart in Valjean. Do you think that though the book is detrimental that the movie is also detrimental?


Anonymous said...

I don't remember the scene you described (the bishop begging forgiveness of the revolutionary) being in the movie. Maybe it was there and I just didn't notice.... But not having read the book, I thought the movie was very inspiring and portrayed the Catholic Church in a very positive light. The bishop in the movie seemed to me to "reflect the Light of Christ" and radiate love, forgiveness, & charity. And everything Jean Valjean did after coming into contact with the Bishop's holy example, seemed to be motivated by love. He sacrifices a lot in the movie to do the right thing, and it seems very clear that he is passing along the love he has undeservedly received. Hugo might have sinned gravely in his writing the book, but even so, God can use evil to attain good purposes, and I believe He has done so in this movie. Perhaps not the book -- as I said, I haven't read it. -- Amy S.

jerry said...

"Still, we must insist that EVERY act which an unbeliever does as an unbeliever is sinful."
May i ask what sinful means here.
I am open mouthed in astonishment having read this article.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I said "as an unbeliever" ... so, those things he does for his unbelief or in his unbelief are sinful.

Does he plant a vineyard to feed his family? It's not sinful.
Does he plant a vineyard in order to offer the grain to satan or to demons? It is sinful.

That should be clear enough...

jerry said...

Your example uses an extreme case: "offer ... to satan ".
Kindly address this example.
A person professes he does not believe in God. Out of pity (I use the word charity) he assists a neighbour in distress. Does this person sin.

Anonymous said...

Father, I have a question. "In mortal sin, man can do nothing which merits eternal life".

If a person, committed mortal sin, or in a state of mortal sin, yet he regretted. Then he tried to do good and penance out of love, before going for the sacrament of reconciliation. Then, does he merit salvation or to hell (during the time before sacrament of reconciliation)?

Anonymous said...

I would suggest, as the Church teaches, if one cannot get to confession and is in the state of mortal sin, then pray the best act of perfect contrition you can. Tell God you are sorry for sinning against his love...that is perfect contrition...not the fear of going to hell. Most newbies to the spiritual life choose the latter, but the spiritually mature person never sins against God because of his love for the whole world. Praying in perfect contrition and promising God to go to confession ASAP is not sinful if the person is in the state of mortal sin.

Robert said...

@Fr. Ryan,
I think the question that Jerry is asking is an ecumenical question. If my Lutheran friend decides to go on a mission trip sponsored by his faith and provides some needed medical services to the undeserved, this is seen as a good thing (at least in humanitarian eyes). But If his motive is to use the healthcare to promote the Lutheran faith, then he sins. I guess teachings like this would have a lot of impact in ecumenical discussions (for example could a Catholic go on a heath aid mission sponsored by a secular organization?). It is kind of hard to square teachings like this with the current ecumenical and interfaith outreach of the Vatican.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Wow. A Priest trashing Enlightenment Principles. Fantastic.

Dear Father. Thank you

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

If an unbeliever acts not out of his unbelief, but out of pity, there is no reason (prima fascia) that this would be a sin.
However, if he feed the poor in order to try to convince the poor man that there is no need for organized religion -- he sins.

Hope that makes sense ... that is why I said "as an unbeliever" ... it is a slightly complicated discussion, but the whole point of the article is to say "No, not every act is a sin"...

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I don't believe that Vatican II or any other official document has ever said that it is good for Catholics to try to convert people to the Lutheran heresy ... however, we can certainly do much work together in promoting basic Christian values!

Further, there may be something to gradualism ... i.e. better to be a Lutheran than a pagan idolater (I suppose). But Catholics have to have conversion to the true Church as the ultimate goal. +

Allen Choong said...

@Anonymous, thank you for the answer, which reminds me the CCC (1452-1453).

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Further, there may be something to gradualism ... i.e. better to be a Lutheran than a pagan idolater (I suppose).

Dear Father. That was a great comment. No doubt some ecumenist will be forwarding your remarks to the Bishop but I think that was one of the truest and most amusing observations I have read in a long time.


jerry said...

@Amy S.
I would heartily recommend reading the book ( it can be found on-line). If only for the beginning which features the bishop. Perhaps you will then be able to judge as false Fr Ryan's statement :
"In the book, Les Miserables, perhaps in all of literature, no character is more detestable, more worthy of scorn, than the bishop."

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Do you have a habit of making bold claims without offering any facts to back them up?

If you are such a scholar of all things Les Mis ... does or does not the bishop bow before the revolutionary?! Does or does not Hugo make the Church ask forgiveness of the people who slaughtered priests and raped nuns?!

Anonymous said...

Dear Father,

Thank you for your ministry on this blog. You wrote that "no particular act of a man in mortal sin can be properly ordered to God as his final end." Suppose a Catholic fallen into mortal sin would decide to confess and then follow through. This act must be properly ordered to God as the man's final end, yet (under ordinary circumstances) he is not delivered from mortal sin until he is actually absolved. Now certainly it must be said that a man in mortal sin is outside the state of grace. Yet is not the act of deciding to convert/confess (and then doing so) of utmost import for the man's eternal soul and also something most good? Or is the man not the actor in this case but only God?

- Vasily

Philip Mayer said...

Dear Father,
Thank you for your blog post. I love the depth that you are willing to go and the questions you often choose to write about.

I have not read the book, Les Misérables, but from your description it does indeed sound like a weapon against the Church. I did see the 2012 film and it, on the other hand exhibits the church as compassionate, mysterious, and beautiful. The forgiveness of the priest toward Jean Valjean, the nuns who care for the sick, the rich Gregorian chant that is used in some of the church scenes, and of course Jean Valjean dies in the end, in a Catholic Church. I walked out of the film thinking that whoever directed this film loved the Catholic Church.

The movie was very well done and was a rich experience.

Thank you again for your blog post Father.


Tim13 said...

I haven't read the book, Father. But if it is what you say it is, then that must mean that the 2012 film adaptation of its musical is practically an entirely different story altogether! The movie just shouts, no, screams "Catholic" in almost every scene. Never have I seen so many crucifixes in a non-horror and non-mafia-ish Hollywood film.

In other words, Father, if what you say is true, then the 2012 film is a grave variation of the novel by Hugo. And as far as the Faith is concerned, the "corruption" of the book's message is actually a very good thing, hehe.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Tim13 and others,
While I can understand that it seems very encouraging for a movie to have lots of catholic imagery in it (chant, crucifixes, et cetera) ... I am not sure that this makes it a truly catholic movie.

Now, I'm willing to be fairly positive about the movie -- because I doubt that the director really understands much of the evil brilliance of Hugo -- but I wonder whether the supernatural world-view of the Faith is presented .... or is it more "sentimentality" about forgiveness and charity?
That is, does the bishop forgive because he remembers that Jesus forgave, or is it more out of a general "humanitarianism"?

Veronica said...

"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."

No wonder why my sister loved it. Right up her alley.

God bless you, Father! You are in my daily prayers.


Anonymous said...

I've never read a book but I know that Hugo wasn't very pious, to put it mildly.
But last week I've seen the 2012 film and I can't remember recent Hollywood product with such a beautiful portrait of the Church.
Pls read:
Like T.Dalrymple, I cannot think of any work of fiction that conveys the contrast between Law and Grace as vividly and profoundly as Les Mis.

Btw. I remember an extraordinary "Of Gods and Men", but it is French film with very limited distribution.

wpr said...


Are Jews and Muslims considered "unbelievers?" If so, is it sinful for a Jew or Muslim to do anything based specifically upon their faith, even if it is not opposed to the Catholic/Christian faith (e.g., feed the hungry, care for the sick, pray for peace, etc)?


Mary Ann Parks said...

When the pagans come to judgment, Christ tells them that whatever they did to the least of his brothers, they did to him.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Mary Ann,
"Without faith it is IMPOSSIBLE to please God." (Hebrews 11:6)

The pagans must have at least an implicit faith in order to be saved, or for their actions to be of any value before God.

Anonymous said...

'I wonder whether the supernatural world-view of the Faith is presented .... or is it more "sentimentality" about forgiveness and charity?'

In my opinion, both elements are present to some degree in the movie. There is a tendency among many Catholics and Christians to eagerly embrace any product of popular culture which can arguably be said to favor Christian ideas or Christian morality, even though these things are to some extent mixed with ideas which are not so Christian. One may at least praise this impulse to the extent that it wants to view the glass of a particular offering of popular culture as 'half full.'

As to the book, which I have not read, it is my understanding that Hugo was criticized by some in his day because his portrayal of the Bishop was far too favorable and that his portrayal therefore increased respect for the Church.

Les Miserables may rightly be viewed as a far from perfect piece of art from the viewpoint of the Church but to make the Bishop out to be possibly the most despicable character in all literature seems to me to be something of an overstatement, given that Hugo's portrayal of the Bishop was considered by his friends to be unconscionably and almost mendaciously favorable.

As for the movie, which I have seen, my take was that the bishop was an inspiring figure that acted in the Name of, and for the purpose of furthering the kingdom of, Jesus Christ. Jean Valjean clearly felt this and subsequently had a conversion of heart. Now, it is true however, that the movie did not show Valjean taking any of the sacraments.


Unknown said...

I think you've missed the point of the scene with the bishop and the revolutionary. I don't think the revolutionary himself had "slaughtered priests and raped nuns." In fact, he openly acknowledged that a lot of evil had come out of the French Revolution. But he argued that it was ultimately still a good thing because it began a movement that led people out of oppression and desperate poverty. It's an important distinction to make: he defended the Revolution in spite of this evil, not because of it.

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