Friday, April 23, 2010

The Ultimate Sin

A friend and I were talking, and for some reason he brought up an old Ozzy Osbourne song, The Ultimate Sin. The song never mentions what this "ultimate" sin is. So of course, the conversation turned speculative. What is the ultimate sin?

The first thing that comes to mind is Judas' betrayal of Jesus. It would be hard to imagine anything that could be a greater sin. Jesus Himself says "...woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had never been born.” That's a pretty damning statement (literally).

But we are not Judas, nor is Ozzy, so what would be the ultimate sin one could commit today? Of course there are the infamous "Seven Deadly Sins", but they are not sins per se, but vices which lead one to commit sin, so we're going to skip right on by them. So what exactly is a sin? The classic definition is that a sin is breaking one of God's commandments, so as an introduction to sin let's briefly review the Ten Commandments:
  1. I am the LORD your God: you shall not have strange Gods before me.
  2. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.
  3. Remember to keep holy the LORD'S Day.
  4. Honor your father and your mother.
  5. You shall not kill.
  6. You shall not commit adultery.
  7. You shall not steal.
  8. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  9. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife. 
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor's goods.
The problem with this list is that the commandments are not "weighted" (e.g. this one is twice as bad as that one). Which is worse? Matthew 22:34-40 gives more useful advice:
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:
"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
So we can say that a sin against God is be worse than a sin against your neighbor. But what does that mean? Is missing mas on Sunday worse than murdering your father? Missing mass is a sin against God, which is worse by the criteria Jesus gives in Matthew's Gospel. However murdering your father breaks two commandments simultaneously (#4 and #5). Is the combination of the two latter sins equal to the first? Perhaps the Catechism can help. The Catechism defines sin as follows:
1849 Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as "an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law."
1853 Sins can be distinguished according to their objects, as can every human act; or according to the virtues they oppose, by excess or defect; or according to the commandments they violate. They can also be classed according to whether they concern God, neighbor, or oneself; they can be divided into spiritual and carnal sins, or again as sins in thought, word, deed, or omission. The root of sin is in the heart of man, in his free will, according to the teaching of the Lord: "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man." But in the heart also resides charity, the source of the good and pure works, which sin wounds.
and furthermore divides sin into two categories of seriousness, mortal and venial:

1854 Sins are rightly evaluated according to their gravity. The distinction between mortal and venial sin, already evident in Scripture, became part of the tradition of the Church. It is corroborated by human experience.
1855 Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.
Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.
Now, we're getting somewhere. So the "ultimate" sin must involve mortal sin. But what makes a mortal sin?
1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent."
1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: "Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother." The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.
1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God's law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.
But we still have issues of deciding when a sin is venial and when it is mortal. How about a lie? We might consider that a venial (minor) sin, but what if the intent and effect of that lie is to cause someone to commit murder? You are then complicit in a mortal sin of another. Is being complicit in a sin as bad as committing it yourself? The Catechism says:
1868 Sin is a personal act. Moreover, we have a responsibility for the sins committed by others when we cooperate in them:
- by participating directly and voluntarily in them;
- by ordering, advising, praising, or approving them;
- by not disclosing or not hindering them when we have an obligation to do so;
- by protecting evil-doers. 
Hmmm... nothing about how bad it is, but it is bad. Let's assume cooperating in a sin is not quite as bad as committing the sin itself, but still counts as sin.

After considering all these things, my friend and I eventually came up with a list of four criteria for the "ultimate" sin:
  1. Must be mortal sin (that is it must meet the 3 criteria of grave matter, full knowledge and complete consent).
  2. Must break as many commandments as possible (e.g. murdering a parent worse than murdering a stranger)
  3. Must include multiple occurrences (e.g. genocide worse than a single murder)
  4. Must cooperate in as many sins (preferably mortal) of as many others as possible.
We know what a mortal sin is, but what sin breaks as many commandments as possible? Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life in hos blog claims that abortion breaks all 10 commandments. In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series of articles Fr. Pavone explains how abortion is against the first six commandments. He has not (to my knowledge) published part 3, but if I may extrapolate:

The seventh commandment: "You shall not steal". Apart from stealing life (which is already covered in commandment #5), abortion steals away a woman's innocence, and the chance she might have had to love and be loved by her child. Consider the case of Mary Henning, who recently passed away. What a tragedy had she been denied the gift of her daughter. There is also physical stealing going on, when money is taken from people without their consent and against their conscience, to support abortion as a "public health service".

The eight commandment: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor". The previous item leads right into this. Abortion necessarily involves a lie, because there would be very few people who would have one or allow it to be done if it were advertised truthfully that the fetus is a unique living individual human being who is being burned, poisoned, starved to death or dismembered. Instead women are told that their baby is not alive, that it is not human, that it is "just a clump of cells", that it is part of their body and may other lies in order to convince them to pay money to have their baby killed.

The ninth commandment: "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife". Oftentimes the father of the child is the strongest proponent of abortion. He believes that he should not be burdened by having a child; that it is all the mother's "problem". This is a lack of commitment not only to his child but to his wife or partner. Without the child to encumber him, the (ex) father is free to decide to pursue other women. Even if this is not his intention, abortion is a psychological assault on the mother and therefore on the family. The trauma of women who have had abortions should not be underestimated.

The tenth commandment: "You shall not covet your neighbor's goods". According to the Guttmacher Institute, the two most popular reason women give for having an abortion is that a child would interfere with their career or that they feel they can't afford a baby right now. As a society we place an unreasonably high value on maintaining a standard of living. We even have a phrase "keeping up with the Joneses". It is a sin to value a TV set or car above the life of your own child.

Thus we have demonstrated that abortion breaks all 10 commandments. So is having an abortion the ultimate sin? I would argue no. A woman who has an abortion is only cooperating with the abortionist, who actually commits the abortion, so the person who performs the abortion, who also has full medical knowledge of what abortion is, is committing a graver sin. Furthermore the abortionist is performing abortions repeatedly, sometimes killing tens of thousands of children over the course of a career.

But perhaps there is something even worse. The politician who uses his or her position and authority to promote abortion and other injustices is complicit in every one of those sins. Let's consider Hitler (you knew he'd show up somewhere in this post). Certainly in his time in office he caused all 10 commandments to be broken in large numbers (in addition to genocide, torture and eugenics he was a huge promoter of abortion). How many sins? Well, according to different sources you get different numbers, but most of them seem implicate him in something between 11,000,000 and 20,000,000 deaths.

Are there any other candidates? I would say yes, sadly. Consider American politicians who, with full knowledge (perhaps being personally informed by a bishop on the gravity of the situation) and complete consent (perhaps being offered alternatives and deliberately rejecting them in order to pursue the course of action) aggressively promote abortion. Such politicians would be complicit, over the course of their careers, in the abortion of 32,000,000 to 50,000,000 children, depending on whether they took office in 1986 or 1973.

I can't think of a more heinous sin, other than perhaps if these politicians were "Catholic", and compounded their sin by profaning the Body and Blood of Christ, as explained in 1 Cor. 11:27-28:

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.
This, in my opinion, is the ultimate sin.


as usual, well considered, thoughtful, and right on. Thank you!

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