Roger Marolt: Ignorance of the Higher Law actually is a solid defense
Discovering the technicalities of sin was great entertainment as kids. Growing up, we spent the first part of our summer break from school in another school, of sorts. Oh, the clash of emotions. On one hand, the drudgery of another year sentenced to the Yellow Brick Elementary School gave way to three glorious months of play-release. On the other hand, we had three weeks of Sister School to endure before fully focusing on things like baseball and lying around on the trampoline concocting all kinds of delicious mischief. Our parents worried we were bored, but man that time flew.
Sister School wasn’t as bad as we let on. We only went until lunchtime, so optimistically it was a string of half-days. And, there was no principal to constantly be on the lookout for, either. Yes, we got into trouble, but discipline was handled by the church janitor, Joe Bowlen, who was a master of under-the-breath colored language and he poorly hid his disdain for the authority Sister Silvia tried to maintain over him. Joe’s best punishment for us was “testing the bells.” He’d pull the heavy rope down with us hanging on and then let it go, allowing the heavy bell to yank us up and down as it loudly swung back and forth in the steeple. That it fully disrupted the nuns’ classrooms was something everybody just had to endure for this important routine maintenance check.
Sister School was for teaching the Catechism of the Catholic Church. One of the most intriguing topics was the intricacies of sin. There are two kinds, you know: venial and mortal.
The venial weren’t much to worry about, apparently. You just had to make sure you didn’t commit so many that you wound up getting used to being bad and possibly slip into committing a mortal sin. My idea of a venial sin was something like hiding Brussels sprouts under the table lip, as long as you didn’t lie about it, if caught.
A mortal sin, on the other hand, is a fearsome thing. It could land you in hell. Killing someone was the popular example. Mortal sins are related to breaking the Ten Commandments, but we didn’t talk about not honoring our parents, because that was a little fuzzy in our young minds and lacked the evocative punch of first-degree murder. There were no detective shows on TV about tracking down criminal masterminds who made smart comments about their moms behind their backs.
We learned that three things must happen for a mortal sin to occur: First, what you did had to be really bad. Second, you had to know it was really bad. Third, you went ahead with it anyway.
The second element here was like a mental brush loaded with gray paint. It was the condition that provided us with endless speculations about who might be committing the worst sins and why maybe some “bad” kids might be all right to hang out with, after all. I admit, there were plenty of enemies we enjoyed pegging as mortal sinners. We’d hoped they didn’t even realize it and then would be in for a nasty surprise on Judgment Day. But, we also recognized the conundrum: If they didn’t know they were committing mortal sins, then it wasn’t a mortal sin and they wouldn’t go to hell no matter how hard we prayed for it.
Lazing around the neighborhood one afternoon, we recognized that a portable outhouse on a construction site looked the perfect size to fit tightly into the front door alcove in a house across the street. We discussed whether or not it would be a mortal sin to move the portable toilet into that slot with the door open so that anyone coming out of that house the next morning would find themselves inside the outhouse. We conclude it would be so funny that it couldn’t possibly be a mortal sin. Had we hoped the neighborhood bully who lived there tripped and fell headfirst into the hole and broke his neck, that would have meant hellfire, but none of us hoped that. At least no one admitted it.
I understand now that the guidelines for figuring out what a sin is are not only to guide personal morality. By examining the standards taught in Catechism class, it is clear that nobody can ever judge if someone else has sinned for certain, no matter how it looks. I can hear Joe Bowlen mumbling now: “It’s about high time we stopped trying to.”
Roger Marolt wishes he had plenary indulgence for every time Jesus warned in the Gospels not to judge others. Email at email@example.com.