Here is a question I get asked almost daily: “Is this a mortal sin?” Usually, the question is offered with great detail, and more often than not, the person asking it states: “I am just going to be safe and assume it is mortal unless you tell me something different.”
First, in partial response to this and other questions about morality, it is not helpful to seek repeated reassurance about your moral life. Seeking reassurance only fuels the suffering caused by obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and the scrupulous condition. While asking the question may relieve your anxiety briefly, in the long run it effectively prevents real spiritual growth. Seeking constant reassurance erodes your ability to discern what is important and necessary. Even serious sufferers of scrupulosity have a core moral system that directs their conscience. It is necessary to trust your inner wisdom in order to have hope of learning to manage your scrupulous condition. I know trust seems risky, and it produces anxiety, but it is necessary to take this step and wrestle with this challenge.
Second, seeking reassurance is not the way that people without scrupulosity live each day. This helpful observation can encourage healthy living. People who do not suffer with scrupulosity live lives with a certain confidence that they are doing well and responding to experiences appropriately. They do not slice and dice each decision and examine themselves repeatedly. They engage life believing that life has no secret road map, traps, or snares. Life is meant to be lived, not feared or questioned every single moment. To live this way is perfectly natural and pleases God. Confident living is not immoral, nor is it sinful.
With that somewhat extended preamble to our opening adequately considered, I can now answer the question, “Is this a mortal sin?”
The best pastoral advice and direction, the most honest answer to people who might ask a question about their moral life and responsibility is to refer them directly to a trusted confessor or spiritual director. No other response is acceptable, and no other response is honest and truly helpful.
The necessary dynamic in discerning culpability in matters that you are unsure of is to enter into a conversation with someone who can help you determine cause, effect, responsibility, full knowledge, and consent. Another person can also help you understand the nuances that are at work in decision-making. This is not to help you wiggle out of responsibility or to seek some sort of compromise of principle, but it is rather an honest discernment.
After all, mortal sin is deadly, not accidental. It destroys the relationship between the person and God and leads to eternal damnation if the sin is not confessed and forgiven. It deserves real discernment before it is identified and claimed definitively as mortal.
If you have the scrupulous condition, a confessor or spiritual director will help you discern the presence of mortal sin by first helping you determine if the action is strictly forbidden in sacred Scripture, canon law, or consistent Church teaching. For a sin to be mortal, it must be self-evident that it is indeed mortal, not what you might feel or think, but what is actually and truthfully mortal.
The confessor or director will also help you to determine if the action was willful, though it is difficult to determine what each individual might identify as “my will.” Points to consider might include: Were you fully awake or half-asleep? Would you have carried out the action, even if you thought about it in detail or is it really just a thought or a fantasy? Were you so disconnected from your true self through distraction, apprehension, or some other experience that you felt you did not know what you were doing?
In addition to these questions, the confessor will help you determine if you truly consented to what you may have done or if there was a degree of resistance in your consent. For example, even though you thought of something or imagined it, it could also be true that you knew there was no real chance that you would ever really do it. You feared doing it, or you feared the consequences of doing it and would therefore not do it. Another consideration would be to understand that your basic orientation toward life is to serve God faithfully. That is your dominant intention, and you would not expressly consent to mortal sin.
This list is obviously not exhaustive but hopefully, it at least illustrates effectively the serious considerations and deliberations that are necessary when you are trying to determine if an action is sinful or mortally sinful.
In conclusion, scrupulous people should consistently remind themselves that their feeling of fear and anxiety is real, but the feeling does NOT indicate any kind of sin. The feeling is NOT an indication of mortal sin. When such a feeling reveals itself to those of you with the scrupulous condition, I recommend you tell yourself this:
“I should in all confidence assume that I have NOT committed a mortal sin but accept that I am anxious and fearful. There is a difference.”