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Committing the Same Sin Repeatedly
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Q U I C K S C A N

Avoiding the Near Occasion of Sin
What Is the Connection Between Hope and an Anchor?
Now Can My Marriage Be Recognized by the Church?
Weddings on the Beach?
Does the Church Approve of Scattering a Person’s Ashes?


Q: What do you do if a sin keeps reoccurring? I know that you must have true sorrow for committing the sin and that you must make a firm purpose of amendment not to commit the sin again. Must a person change the situations or circumstances that in the past have preceded that sin? If one does not change the circumstances that are contributing to a sin, is the confession of it still a valid one?

Mike, my boyfriend, stops in after we have been on a date. I live with my parents, who are asleep by the time we come in. We haven’t had intercourse yet, but we have moved beyond kissing and are certainly headed in that direction. Mike says that he is not trying to sin with me.

Besides going to Confession, what am I obliged to do under these circumstances?

A: The short answer is that you are obliged to do what you know is right and to avoid situations and circumstances that will make it very difficult or nearly impossible for you to accomplish that.

Intercourse between husband and wife reflects their lifelong commitment to each other. Couples who are dating may or may not marry each other. Under those circumstances, they should not act as though their level of commitment to each other is greater than it truly is. You are rightly concerned that you are heading where you personally are not now ready to go.

Without using the word itself, your question involves the virtue of prudence. The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, describes prudence as the cardinal virtue “by which one knows the true good in every circumstance and chooses the right means to reach that end.”

In A Concise Dictionary of Theology (Paulist Press), Gerald O’Collins, S.J., and Edward G. Farrugia, S.J., write that prudence entails “the capacity to translate general norms and ideals into practice. Christian prudence is more than a mere shrewdness that foresees difficulties and avoids undesirable consequences.” It helps to make “a coherent whole of one’s moral life.”

When people act against what they know to be morally good, they self-destruct to some extent because they voluntarily dull their moral instincts. In doing so, they slightly redefine, always in their favor, what they consider “no big deal.”

Although this is clearly bothering you, it apparently does not bother Mike—at least not as much. If, however, you always accept his viewpoint about what conduct is proper, isn’t that a pretty shaky foundation on which to build a married relationship that could last half a century or more?

Can any good come to the two of you if it requires a lie to oneself from one of you? Bit by bit, wouldn’t that person be self-destructing, moving away from making “a coherent whole of your moral life”? People can express their love through not doing certain things, by saying no to themselves and yes to the person whom they love.

People sin—that’s a fact. Confession enables us to tell the truth to ourselves and to God—and then make the practical decisions that will help us live in a way that reflects our God-given dignity. The Confessions you describe are valid. God is merciful and honest: If we want different results, we must do our part.

I once taught a high school student who asked me at the end of class, “What do love and self-sacrifice have to do with one another?” Several things caused me to believe that his was a sincere request. Before the bell rang, I managed to reply that, if he looked very closely, wherever he observed genuine love he would always find self-sacrifice as part of it. In our August 2008 issue, Elizabeth Dreyer’s article, “The Holiness of Everyday Life,” addressed the connection between love and self-sacrifice.

May you and Mike “live the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Such honesty will build a strong foundation for your future relationship with Mike or with some other man who will recognize your strong conscience as the gift it is.

Q: Not long ago I received a charm (a cross, an anchor and a heart) signifying the virtues of faith, hope and charity. I know that the cross is a symbol of faith and the heart represents charity. Why is the anchor a symbol of hope?

A: Christian art has long used an anchor to symbolize hope because an anchor symbolizes that ultimately our trust is not in ourselves but in God, who alone is steadfast and reliable.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews says that, in making a promise to Abraham, God swore by himself. “So when God wanted to give the heirs of his promise an even clearer demonstration of the immutability of his purpose, he intervened with an oath, so that by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to hold fast to the hope that lies before us. This we have as an anchor of the soul, sure and firm...” (6:17-19).

Q: When I married a divorced man over 30 years ago, I knew that the Catholic Church of which I am a member would not recognize our marriage. My husband and I have attended Mass regularly but have not received Holy Communion. We raised our children as Catholics.

My daughter recently saw on the Internet that my husband’s ex-wife has passed away. I quietly said a prayer for her and told my husband about it the next day. He and I are wondering if now we can marry in the Catholic Church. Any light you can shed on this will be appreciated.

A: Yes, you should be able to have your marriage “convalidated” (regularizing a valid civil marriage as a sacrament in the Catholic Church) if there is no other obstacle. Arranged through your local parish, a convalidation will require obtaining an official copy of these civil records: your husband’s first marriage, the divorce decree, your present marriage and the death of his ex-wife.

At www.AmericanCatholic.org, you will find the online version of our February 2004 article about convalidation. Once you and your pastor have prepared for this, the actual celebration can be as public or as private as you and your husband wish.

Q: What can I say to my daughter who says that my granddaughter wants to be married on the beach rather than have a church wedding? There is a fee for the use of the church, but she can well afford it.

Weddings on beaches and in gardens are becoming more and more frequent in our area. When I mentioned to my daughter the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in a parish church, she responded that God is everywhere.

A: Yes, God is everywhere—even in churches! Although this issue arises in terms of where the ceremony will occur, I suspect there is a much deeper issue. What does this marriage represent? Is faith in Jesus important to the bride and groom? Is this marriage a statement of faith—as well as an expression of new obligations according to civil law?

Permission from the local bishop is needed for a Catholic to marry outside of a church. This “dispensation from form” is more readily given if one of the spouses is not baptized. Having a wedding in a church can imply something that is simply not true for this couple. For couples who are both Christian, a church building can remind all who witness the wedding that the faith community has a stake in the success of this marriage.

Beaches, gardens, parks, etc., can still make for wonderful wedding receptions.

Q: I know that cremation is becoming more common, but I am aghast when family members or friends say that they are going to have their ashes scattered in rivers, in forests or on hilltops. What does the Catholic Church teach about this issue?

A: Your question arises often these days. The Catholic Church teaches that a person’s ashes should be given the same respect that his or her body is given. Burial in the ground or walled in a columbarium niche shows that type of respect. Scattering to the wind or over water does not. If you search “cremation” on this site, you will find my earlier response to this question and recommended links for further references.

If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.


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