Crime and punishment – no not Dostoevsky, just Quentin – who wants to know the answer. And I am asking about God’s decisions.
Straightforward Catholic teaching tells us that if we commit a mortal sin, and die before we have repented, we go straight to Hell. And there we stay forever. It will not be a pleasant stay: as Scripture describes it, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Over the years, the Catholic Church has identified several different types of mortal sin. The range is wide: murder, stealing (above a certain level), missing Mass on a Sunday without good reason, and so on. Sexual sin has its own little section: even to enjoy mental pleasure at the thought of forbidden sexuality is included. It may be that no one (other than me) who reads this blog has ever committed mortal sin, according to the Church’s judgment. But if anyone has, he or she might have been run over by a bus on their way to the confessional.
It is not surprising that committing a sin has a particular importance. For example, stealing may well be damaging to a friend but, bad enough as it may be, that is nothing compared to offending almighty God. Thus, when Cardinal Newman discusses even venial sin he says: ”The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.”
Here, of course, the measure of a sin is described not in terms of the act but in the fact that it is committed towards God. I hesitate to argue against Newman. But certain questions enter my mind. If we look at our civil law we know that certain activities are forbidden. And rightly we are called to justice. If we are found to be guilty, we are punished. The range of punishment is broad – going perhaps from a fine to life imprisonment – although even the latter is rarely, in practice, for life.
However, mortal sinfulness is, we are told again and again, involves punishment for ever. Were we, for example, in the agony Hell for millions of years we would still have not even started: billions of years of further punishment await. And it has all been brought about, perhaps, because we failed to attend Mass on a Sunday.
You see, I am looking at justice. Should our punishment be based on our intention or should it be based on the greatness of God? As far as my judgment goes, I have to say that I prefer human justice rather than what we are told about divine justice.
Or not – as you may tell me