Sunday, September 30, 2007

An Answer for Turretinfan

By this post I hope to fulfill my promise to Turretinfan to answer his question. The question-before-the-question was:
are you saying that some people who enter heaven will have unforgiven sins?
Now this is a straightforward question. Unfortunately in a discussion between a Catholic and Protestant it becomes slightly more complicated by a distinction that we Catholics make; even more unfortunately, things became more complicated (at least in my tomfool head, if not for poor Turretinfan) by my weakness of comprehension in this particular area. I don't have any particular defense to offer for myself beyond these: first, that I am a relatively recent convert to the Catholic Church, and second, that it takes time to shed the intellectual "baggage" one accumulates after many years in a different theological tradition.

But I digress.

The first part of my reply to Turretin's question was straightforward:
Mortal sins must be forgiven or one cannot enter heaven.
The second part is where - due to the baggage and incomplete catechesis mentioned above - I made things difficult for myself:
It would appear, based upon what I have cited from Trent and St. Thomas, that venial sins also must be forgiven, and apart from this one cannot enter heaven (links inserted here from a previous comment).
Now strictly speaking that answer is correct but imprecise, inasmuch as it obscures the distinction between venial and mortal sins. By mortal sin, we mean those grave sins which men commit by which they sever themselves from God and make themselves liable to eternal punishment in hell and to temporal punishment here in this life. By venial sin, we mean those less serious sins that men commit which do not sever us from God, do not make us liable to hellfire, but which do merit temporal punishment. Venial sins must either be forgiven, or expiated in some other fashion, or the temporal punishment due to them will be measured out in Purgatory. This is necessary because we must be actually holy in order to see the face of God.
Who can ascend the mountain of the Lord? or who may stand in his holy place? He whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean, who desires not what is vain, nor swears deceitfully to his neighbor (Ps. 24:3-4).
Hence in Purgatory such guilt is purged if it has not already been dealt with. Now Turretinfan has said that he's familiar with the distinction we make between mortal and venial sins, so I'm not going to belabor this section with documentation. I wanted to go into a bit more detail here, though, in order to clarify what I said before.

Turretinfan's followup to my answer above was this:
The follow-on question is: why?

If a sin does not render the sinner guilty, why would the sinner be forgiven - indeed - what sense does forgiveness have apart from guilt?
I think, if I have understood the question correctly, and done my homework sufficiently, the correct answer is: venial sin does render one guilty - but not guilty of an offense meriting eternal punishment.
All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven (CCC 1030).

The punishment of purgatory is not intended chiefly to torment but to cleanse (Summa Theologica, Supp. Q97 A1 ad 2).

From the conclusions we have drawn above (III, 86, 4-5; Supplement, 12, 1) it is sufficiently clear that there is a Purgatory after this life. For if the debt of punishment is not paid in full after the stain of sin has been washed away by contrition, nor again are venial sins always removed when mortal sins are remitted, and if justice demands that sin be set in order by due punishment, it follows that one who after contrition for his fault and after being absolved, dies before making due satisfaction, is punished after this life. Wherefore those who deny Purgatory speak against the justice of God: for which reason such a statement is erroneous and contrary to faith. Hence Gregory of Nyssa, after the words quoted above, adds: "This we preach, holding to the teaching of truth, and this is our belief; this the universal Church holds, by praying for the dead that they may be loosed from sins." This cannot be understood except as referring to Purgatory (ST, Supp. App. II A1).

So: those venial sins of Christians on their way to heaven that have not been forgiven in this life will be cleansed in Purgatory. The man in this condition does not enter heaven with unforgiven sin; but if his sins are merely light or venial then they only delay his entry into glory. Mortal sins however are not of this sort; the man who dies in mortal sin goes to hell.

Now of course I know that Turretinfan rejects this formulation, but I hope that it helps both to clear up any confusion generated by my prior imprecision and to answer his question (and if I have still missed it, well...then I'll just have try again!)

I think it may be that some additional confusion might have been injected by the context in which our conversation began: over the question of whether people are actually guilty when in genuine and unintentional ignorance they commit acts that would otherwise (i.e., if they had known what they were doing) be mortally sinful. But acts committed in unintentional ignorance, or left undone because of the same (as in his hypothetical case), are not by Catholic lights sinful acts (cf. CCC 1860). So they would not ordinarily even enter into a discussion of mortal and venial sins - at least, not as far as the Catholic is concerned.

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