A day or two ago I found myself in discussion with a Catholic friend. Like me, he is elderly; unlike me he is a lifelong bachelor. Where my Catholic work is mainly through writing, his is through Catholic associations and his own busy parish.
We were talking about Catholic moral teaching in our youth. Its structure was simple. Sinful acts were clearly identified and related, if sometimes rather remotely, to the Ten Commandments. And a careful distinction was made between mortal sin and venial sin: the former were ‘serious matter’ and required full knowledge and full consent. The punishment was hell for all eternity. It was later that we learnt about ‘structural sin’: for example that homosexual acts were intrinsically wrong because they flouted the sexual structures which God had created. In fact it was emphasised that any sexual sin, including ‘impure thoughts’ was matter for mortal sin.
I am writing about many years ago. But the basic pattern still exists. There is a greater degree of understanding of course. A good example of this in the Catechism’s treatment of self-abuse – where it is recognised that in many cases it may be at least partially excused. But its evil nature remains.
Looking at this orthodox pattern of Catholic morality, which on the whole I carry now only in the back of my mind, I was struck by its grotesqueness. If we imagine being in front of a magistrate for many equivalent faults we would expect a fine in most cases, possibly a short stay in prison or something of that order. But God apparently would send us to the pains of Hell for all eternity. And eternity is not just the billions of years since the universe was created, it goes on forever. Think of all the really evil people in history, ancient or modern, and consider how many people would really deserve that. Wouldn’t a billion years be enough even for Hitler? Why would I prefer the justice of the magistrate to the justice of God?
I assume that the culture of the times when this Catholic system of morality was built, led to the authorities believing that only the most extreme threats of punishment would keep people in order. But I believe that it leads only to extremists in one direction, and to abandoning the Church’s moral system altogether in the other. Yet I still believe in our ability to relate to God through love (including those people who love but have no knowledge of God) and I believe in the eternal happiness of Heaven. The fate of those who do not love I know nothing about, except that they have failed in the purpose of their lives.
Towards the end of our discussion my friend and I looked for a better approach. St Paul helped us here. He speaks of God as the father after whom all fatherhood is named. As a father, I was by no means perfect but I did learn that it was not about blame and punishment. Yes, there were necessary rules, but very little was spoken about faults. The emphasis was on what the children could do if they tried, not on what they shouldn’t do. Despite the Church’s questionable traditional approach, I refuse to accept that God’s mercy is inferior to mine.