Dangerous Habits – Serious or Mortal Sin?
Dear Father John, What if someone has a habit which is a grave sin (say, porn, masturbation, gambling, alcohol, fornication, etc.) so there is probably not full consent. Can they receive communion, or do they have to go to confession before communion in each instance? Or is that something the priest should address on an individual basis in Confession?
Your instinct here seems to be on target.
Factors that Reduce Moral Culpability
Mortal sin involves three elements:
- grave matter,
- full knowledge of the evil of the action,
- and full consent to the action.
When we have developed habits of sin – whether or not we may be fully responsible for the development of that habit – we sometimes get to a point where we commit sinful actions under the influence of compulsions. At times, this compulsive behavior pattern impedes the full exercise of our freedom, which can diminish our moral responsibility for the particular action (even when we have been fully responsible for having formed the habit in the first place). In that case, “full consent” may be lacking, and even though grave matter and full knowledge is involved, the sin may be venial instead of mortal. Here is how the Catechism puts it in #2352:
To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.
Traveling the Path of Spiritual Growth
Having said that, it is important to remember that sinful actions are sinful because they go against what is truly good for us. So someone who is stuck in habitual sin of the kinds you mention should embark on a journey of conversion and ongoing spiritual growth in order to allow God’s grace room to bring back moral integrity and spiritual freedom. Regular confession should be part of that journey, along with a vigorous life of personal prayer (vocal and mental), an avid Eucharistic life (frequent communion, adoration), meaningful relationships in the Lord (fellowship), some kind of spiritual direction or mentorship which includes accountability, and a generous engagement in works of mercy and apostolate. Only when all of these dimensions of our lives are healthy can we make steady progress in our pursuit of spiritual maturity and holiness.
Getting Personalized Advice
If someone takes up that journey with sincerity and perseveres in it even through falls and moments of backsliding, most confessors would advise that person to bring their falls to confession each week, but not necessarily oblige them to go to confession after each individual fall before receiving Holy Communion. The compulsive element in the behavior, combined with the clear commitment to the path of conversion would, in most cases like this, indicate the person’s moral culpability as regards those individual falls is diminished, such that each fall doesn’t constitute a mortal sin.
Nevertheless, it is important for someone in a situation like this to reach out to a priest confessor to speak about their particular situation. Other elements may be at work, and, as the old saying goes, “no one is a good judge in his own case,” so we need the support and the objective point of view that comes from a trustworthy priest or qualified spiritual guide in order to advance humbly, peacefully, and truthfully under these conditions.
I hope this helps.
Yours in Christ, Fr. John Bartunek, LC
Art for this post on Dangerous Habits: Falschspieler (The Card Sharps or The Card Sharks), Gerard van Honthorst (1590-1656), undated, PD- US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.
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