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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

  • The blog header depicts an important and yet mis-understood New Testament scene, Jesus flogging the money-changers out of the temple. I selected it because the faith that gives us consolation can also make us very uncomfortable. Both Divine Mercy and Divine Justice meet in Jesus. Priests are ministers of reconciliation, but never at the cost of truth. In or out of season, we must be courageous in preaching and living out the Gospel of Life. The title of my blog is a play on words, not Flogger Priest but Blogger Priest.

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Final Impenitence

While we can speak about the deadly effects of even one mortal sin, the Church has long recognized the danger even among venial sins as a spiritual cancer of the soul. I am reminded of the late moral theologian Bernhard Häring and his speculation about what he called “the fundamental option.” While I could appreciate such as one’s overall direction in terms of goodness and openness to salvation, I disagreed with its nod to process theology and disconnect from the categories of mortal and venial sin, as well as divine law. I would define it for myself as an honest appreciation of the human condition. We all begin as innocent babies, from the likes of Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.  What is it that happens that propels the trajectory of one to holiness and another to villainy?  Yes, we can damn ourselves with a single act and the vilest sinner can repent in the last moments of life and find divine mercy.  This is a real possibility but in all honesty it does not seem to regularly occur.  Like the old dog failing to learn new tricks, we are formed by a life of virtue or vice.  Some may dig such a deep hole with their sins that they find it difficult if not impossible to climb out.  We are impacted by the world with many factors beyond our control.  However, there is still freedom to either resist evil or to succumb to it.  Similarly, virtuous people are so driven by grace and the habit of goodness that while they can stumble, it goes against their practical nature.  When they do something wrong they almost immediately feel guilty. 

Those who turn toward the darkness often excuse their sins and become numb to their wrong-doing.  Note political leaders recently in the news laughing and celebrating the local legalization of abortion rights for the entire term of women’s pregnancies. Those with a contrasting spiritual orientation weep over children fully formed in the womb snuffed out just before they might see the light of day.  Sin brings blindness.  Grace brings the light.  The blindness of sin damages one’s conscience about right and wrong.  That is why even professed Christians and Catholics can wrongly promote a culture of death, ethnic and racial discrimination, the diminution of women’s rights and gifts, political unrest and violence, the dismissal of the needs of the poor and the oppressed, and the evil of reducing persons to commodities in sweat shops and in human trafficking.  While our leaders may publicly take sides about these problems of our day, a symptom of a sinful condition among the rank-and-file is realized by not caring about anyone else’s need, pain or cry for justice.                

As I said, I never fully subscribed to the fundamental option notion.  I would always acknowledge the place of a single act (mortal sin) to sabotage our movement to God.  The subject of final impenitence must take into consideration freedom, the objective reality of sin and human culpability. At the same time I would acknowledge that a person has a core where he finds his identity, values and motivations for what he does, bad and good.  I have often thought about this in terms of the “accompaniment” that Pope Francis wants clergy to undertake with those in irregular unions and others estranged from the Church.  My one objection has been about direction as we should all be on “the way” of Christ.  I would not want to follow another on the road to hell.  Should we not urge sinners to turn around?  It could also happen that those suffering invincible ignorance might still go to heaven but as a priest traveling with them (who knows better) I might be cast into hell for failing to preach the hard truth to them. 

While I do not believe any fundamental option trumps moral and spiritual culpability for sin, I definitely view a fundamental spiritual orientation in the many to whom I have ministered over the years. Selfishness is hard to hide as it is the kind of sin that cries out for attention.  Look at me!  An orientation of love to God and neighbor looks outward.

Good people sometimes do bad things and bad people sometimes to good things. Our free choices impact upon what kind of person we are but sometimes they go against the grain of our identity. Confessors understand this within the discussion of the “matter” of a sin and the “subjective culpability.”  Qualifying circumstances may not absolve one of all responsibility, but they can sometimes make a difference between being spiritually wounded (venial sin) and being spiritually dead (mortal sin).    

Pope John Paul II takes up the notion of a fundamental option or rather “choice” in Veritatis Splendor.  He writes that Scripture

“. . . sees the fundamental option as a genuine choice of freedom and links that choice profoundly to particular acts. By his fundamental choice, man is capable of giving his life direction and of progressing, with the help of grace, towards his end, following God’s call. But this capacity is actually exercised in the particular choices of specific actions, through which man deliberately conforms himself to God’s will, wisdom and law. It thus needs to be stated that the so-called fundamental option, to the extent that it is distinct from a generic intention and hence one not yet determined in such a way that freedom is obligated, is always brought into play through conscious and free decisions. Precisely for this reason, it is revoked when man engages his freedom in conscious decisions to the contrary, with regard to morally grave matter” (67).

Along these lines aforementioned by the Holy Father, we are obliged to obey the Lord when he tells us to follow him.  Final impenitence is the fundamental choice to turn away and to reject God and his sovereignty over us.  It is the misdirection of one’s entire life.  Such a person is obstinate in his sinful status and error.  I am reminded of Satan in Paradise Lost. When cast into darkness, he cries out, “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.” Once death overtakes us, like the angels, our orientation becomes permanent.  There can be no repentance.  We are what we have made ourselves.  If saints are made by obedient love and divine grace, then the damned are fashioned by persistent disobedience and the forfeiture of grace.  The reason this is counted as a sin against the Holy Spirit is because the gift of grace is rejected.  Friendship with God is broken. Instead of realizing our consecration as adopted sons and daughters of the heavenly Father, remade into the likeness of our elder brother Christ; the damned imitate and are brought back into the bondage of the devil. We speak about them being cast into hell, but in a sense they fashion and bring this hell with them into eternity.  Again I am reminded of John Milton’s epic poem.  Accepting his fate, Satan says, “Which way shall I fly infinite wrath and infinite despair? Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell . . . .”

We are called to be saints.  But God will not force his love upon us.  Some choose to be hell-spirits, instead. How many times have we heard clergy preach that “now” is the acceptable time— that our Lord comes as a thief in the night— we do not know the day or the hour?  A few might be given and will take a final opportunity to repent and be saved even as they breathe their last breath. But will we be given that opportunity? I remember being cursed and forced from a hospital room by a man for whom I came to give the last rites. He told me bluntly where I could take my prayers and sacraments. My very presence in the hall drove him to a mad tirade. I prayed for him all the same. What became of him? He died alone. I leave judgment to God. Many years later I must accept what happened. It would not be the last such encounter.  He has been followed by others who also formally rejected the Lord’s mercy. 

What does it mean when we cannot find the humility to come to our loving Father at the end of mortal life? What causes such people to turn away from the love of God? Were they betrayed?  Did someone hurt them? Had they always fought with God? Did they not even fear of the loss of heaven and the pains of hell?

There is a terrible lesson to learn with all of this. We should never allow the faults or sins of others to drive us to despair. We trust in God, not men.  We should seek strength from God in facing temptations and disappointments. No matter what, each of us should seek to remain a living temple of the Holy Spirit.  If such is the case then when we close our eyes for the last time in this world, we will open them to eternity in the next.      

One Response

  1. Thank You Fr. Joseph,
    a question with an answer that is very Sensible too me.
    From 1 John : 5
    About Deadly Sin.
    I Am a Newbe,Reborn Again,after 40 + years being absent from Gods Holy Church & Jesus in the Eucharist .So Many Changes Quickly,ask & You Shall Receive.
    Now,Obey,Perseverance,Trust & Do what i am told. The Holy Trinity is with me.
    Michael J L

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