Father Jeffrey Kirby is the pastor of Our Lady of Grace parish in Indian Land, South Carolina, and the host of the daily devotional podcast Morning Offering With Father Kirby.
COMMENTARY: The lines between a sinful act and a state of sin have been blurred. It’s time to clarify them
The Church is commissioned by Christ to give the faithful — especially those in states of sin — the gifts of doctrinal integrity, candid teaching, and time. (Photo: Igreca2n / Shutterstock)
Father Jeffrey Kirby CommentariesJanuary 18, 2024
In recent moral teaching, it has become clear that the gravity of a person living in sin — of being in a state of sin — has been eclipsed by poor theology, wishful thinking, and naïve pastoral practice. Whether we’re discussing Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried, or the blessing of same-sex couples, or the tacit approval of cohabitating couples, we need to retrieve and emphasize the terminal nature of states of sin.
As a Church, we need to expose the spiritual severity of states of sin and assist in leading those within them to repentance in Jesus Christ.
The reality of states of sin is far more egregious than the hygienic term “irregular unions.” In the case of a state of sin, the canonical term “irregular union” doesn’t fully summarize the peril of the souls involved, and so we must defer to the moral tradition of the Church and use the term “state of sin.” We must emphasize where a person is in his or her relationship with Jesus Christ and how he or she can reconcile with him.
A state of sin is different from a sinful act, even a mortal sin. It is sometimes asked why the Church will forgive and welcome to Holy Communion someone who has had an abortion but will not forgive someone who is divorced and remarried. The question reflects the current lack of awareness about states of sin. It shows a blurring of important moral distinctions. Ultimately, the question begs for a clarification between a sinful act and a state of sin.
The difference between someone who has had an abortion (or been an accomplice to it) and a person who is divorced and remarried is found in the person’s willingness to sacramentally confess his sins and make a firm resolution of amendment. It is the resolution of the amendment, which is essential to the sacrament of confession, that leads a person to further conversion and reconciliation with the Lord Jesus.
For the person who has had an abortion, there was a severely sinful act committed in the past. It’s not a progressive action, meaning it’s not ongoing. It was a singular action and not an enduring way of life. Someone could repent of such a sinful action because it’s over.
By contrast, someone who is divorced and remarried is living in a sinful state of life.
According to the teachings of the Lord Jesus, the presumed marriage of a person who is divorced and remarried is an ongoing state of adultery:
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32; also found in Luke 16:18).
The irregular marriage cannot be repented of while the person is still in the midst of the sinful way of life. Unless a person is ready to change his state of life, such as separating from his supposed spouse (or living as “brother and sister” for the sake of any children), the person is living in sin and cannot receive the mercy offered by God since reconciliation is not possible.
Such a condition is also true for those living in a same-sex relationship and those who are cohabitating.
A state of sin contradicts the Gospel. In no way could it be argued that a state of sin is somehow within moral truth and the teachings of Jesus Christ. In a state of sin, such as the presumed marriage of divorced-and-remarried people, or the attempted marriage of same-sex people, or the very act of cohabitating by a couple, the sin is the state of affairs and the relationship itself. The sin is not merely an act, but the person’s way of life.
In the classic British novel Brideshead Revisited, author Evelyn Waugh presents us with the harrowing dilemma of Lady Julia Flyte. The young woman was prepared to marry Rex, a materialistic man who agreed to convert to Catholicism to marry her. However, It was discovered that Rex was a divorced man who could not marry another woman.
In opposition to the tenets of the Catholic faith, which she learned as a child, Julia decides to marry Rex anyway. Julia further enters into an affair with Charles, the protagonist whose journey of faith is at the center of the novel.
While speaking to Charles at night by the fountain of her family’s estate, a mood filled with water and an absence of light, Julia undergoes a dark night of her soul. The woman knows of the iniquity of living in sin. She tells her illicit lover:
“All in one word, too, one little, flat, deadly word that covers a lifetime. ‘Living in sin’; not just doing wrong, as I did when I went to America; doing wrong, knowing it is wrong, stopping doing it, forgetting. That’s not what they mean…
“Living in sin, with sin, by sin, for sin, every hour, every day, year in, year out. Waking up with sin in the morning, seeing the curtains drawn on sin, bathing it, dressing it, clipping diamonds to it, feeding it, showing it round, giving it a good time, putting it to sleep at night with a tablet of Dial if it’s fretful.
“Always the same. … ‘Poor Julia,’ they say, ‘she can’t go out. She’s got to take care of her little sin.’”
The fictional Lady Julia gets it. There’s no equivocation, no rationalization, no justification. She knows the state of her soul. Her sin is tormenting her soul since it will never go away unless she remedies her state of life according to the Gospel.
Julia knows she has not just committed a sinful act but has entered into a state of sin. Her life is marred by sin since the defining relationship of her life — that of being a supposed wife — is outside moral truth. She is in rebellion against God and his goodness. There will be no peace or reconciliation until there has been conversion and a change to her state in life.
The magisterium of the Church recognizes such states of sin and grieves for those within them. In his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, Pope St. John Paul II addresses the situation of those who are divorced and remarried:
“However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist” (84).
In the 2021 response of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the dubium relating to the blessing of same-sex couples, the Vatican’s office taught:
“For this reason, it is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage (i.e., outside the indissoluble union of a man and a woman open in itself to the transmission of life), as is the case of the unions between persons of the same sex. The presence in such relationships of positive elements, which are in themselves to be valued and appreciated, cannot justify these relationships and render them legitimate objects of an ecclesial blessing, since the positive elements exist within the context of a union not ordered to the Creator’s plan.”
In each context, the seriousness of states of sin are emphasized and the consequences of such ways of life are spelled out. Such clear teachings need to resonate throughout current magisterial teachings, theological interpretations, and pastoral practice.
In Brideshead Revisited, it was not compromise or misplaced pastoral accommodation that brought Julia back to the faith. It was the Providential movement of time, which included the demise of her marriage to Rex, a cohabitation with Charles, the heroic and convicting witness of her sister Cordelia, and her fallen-away father’s shocking and unexpected deathbed conversion to the faith.
The Catholic Church, reflected by various priests in the novel, holds the line and continually calls for repentance and conversion. In the course of time, Julia allows the graces given to her in the waters of baptism to draw her out of darkness and bring her back into the wondrous light of the living God.
The Church is commissioned by Christ to give the faithful — especially those in states of sin — the gifts of doctrinal integrity, candid teaching, and time. By means of these precious gifts, the shepherds of the Church can rely on the work of the Holy Spirit, speak the truth in love, and offer intercession and accompaniment to those in need of repentance and conversion so they can be reconciled with God and faithfully follow the way of the Lord Jesus.