About 30 years ago, I was involved in an RCIA class being taught by a Dominican sister. The general topic was sin and its consequences, and the discussion had turned to the distinction between mortal and venial sins.
The pastor was sitting in during the class, and a question came from one candidate: How common is mortal sin?
The sister offered the opinion that for those who practice their faith regularly (e.g., go to Mass every Sunday, pray the rosary, practice regular confession) it is pretty rare.
The Dominican pastor seemed perturbed by this, and gave her the following example: “Let’s say a married man is attracted to a co-worker and decides to sleep with her. On the way to the motel, they are run over by a street car [why is it always a street car with these things??]. Did they die in mortal sin?”
Sister answered something like “Not necessarily,” and there followed a…frank exchange of views, let’s say.
I think they were talking past each other.
Let’s flesh out (no pun intended) the scenario a bit more.
Let’s say John and Mary have been married for 12 years. John is heading into middle age, and is having the “do I still have it?” self-doubts that go with that phase of life. Let’s further say that Mary has been withholding sex from John, without explanation. Let’s say the reason is that Mary has recently remembered being molested by her father repeatedly when she was 13 years old, before he left his family entirely. She hasn’t really put it together in her mind, but lately when John shows interest in her in a sexual way, she is reminded of her father’s crimes, but in a way she isn’t fully conscious of.
John has an attractive co-worker named Susan (who has a painful history of her own), with whom he works closely, and on a business trip, he stops by her room to go over a presentation they will be giving to an important client the next day. At some point, there is a sudden moment of attraction, etc…and then a street car somehow comes careening through their 17th floor hotel room and kills them both.
On the level of abstractions, the formula is simple: Man knows act is wrong, man does it anyway, along comes a street car, and H-E-Double-Toothpicks.
In the real, empirical world, however, is it ever really that simple? “Me and Madge have a great marriage and wonderful kids, everything is hunky-dory…but you know, I think I’ll do evil and cheat on Madge…”
On the other hand, looking at that same, empirical world, one beset by broken families, war, abortion, racism, poverty and much, much else, it is hard to argue that serious sin is anything but pervasive, even prevalent.
I remember the tail end of the pre-Vatican II culture in the American church, and it was a culture that badly needed to change. Scrupulosity was much more common:
“Father, I swallowed some toothpaste before Mass – may I still worthily receive communion?”
“Yes, child, but you should be careful of that.”
What sort of image of our relationship to God is being communicated in that little vignette? (Conversations of that sort were pretty common. Ask anyone over the age of about 55 if you doubt this.)
My observation is that we Catholics need a greater appreciation for sin and its consequences, but one rooted in humility and true contrition. We need to look at the world with clear eyes – the world of “broken families, war, abortion, racism, poverty and much, much else” I mentioned previously – and see it as the consequences of our own selfishness. There is no “them” messing up the world; there is only you and me.