One of G.K. Chesterton’s most beloved characters is Father Brown, the seemingly simple Catholic priest who swiftly solves crime due to his concrete knowledge of sin. In one story, the little priest explains to two friends the reason he understands both sin and crime so very well: “There are two ways of renouncing the devil,” he said; “and the difference is perhaps the deepest chasm in modern religion. One is to have a horror of him because he is so far off; and the other to have it because he is so near…. You may think a crime horrible because you could never commit it. I think it horrible because I could commit it.”
While Father Brown’s wisdom would be good to keep in mind at any time, that wisdom has much to offer all those considering Josh Duggar’s recent fall from grace, via the Ashley Madison scandal. All men are sinners, and thus called to salvation; but it is hardly a one-time event. Along the road to salvation, even those striving for holiness are capable of losing grace, and of gaining it again through repentance. Perhaps the one thing that could have prevented Josh’s disastrous situation is a recognition of this reality of mortal sin.
The Duggar family practices the Independent Baptist religion, which teaches that salvation is through faith alone. Man’s works cannot earn salvation, nor can sins undermine the souls “saved” status—unless the sins are really big ones, like adultery or hypocrisy, in which case those who espouse these beliefs may question whether you have truly accepted salvation.
Which is exactly what happened to Josh Duggar. According to his sister Jessa (Duggar) Seewald’s father-in-law, Michael Seewald, Josh may have looked like a Christian, but he never was. Seewald blogged: “[Josh] claimed to be a Christian, but by his deeds he has suggested otherwise.” Apparently, Mr. Seewald understands Christianity thus: works have nothing to do with earning salvation; however, if you are an habitual sinner, you cannot possibly be counted among those saved. The only solution to the quandary of grave sin among the “saved” is to assume that the individual merely feigned belief. Indeed, Mr. Seewald calls Joshua “a pretender,” adding, “True Christians fail often, but their lives are truly being conformed to the image of Christ.” Therefore, if sins are bad enough, it seems not only have you lost grace…you never had it in the first place.
In contrast to this notion of “once saved, always saved,” the Catholic Church has consistently taught that there are sins deadly enough to cast a soul outside of God’s grace, even after baptism. Through the writings of St. Paul, the Catholic understanding of mortal sin takes shape. St. Paul warns baptized Christians in Gal. 5:21, after listing a number of grave sins, “those who live in such a way will not inherit God’s kingdom.” There is no question whether these souls have accepted and received the saving grace of Christ. Yet, should they choose to sin grievously, in any of the forms described by St. Paul, they will not inherit salvation.
And lest we think that it’s only horrible, careless Christians who are in danger of losing salvation after having received it, St. Paul includes himself among those in danger. In 1 Cor. 9:27 Paul says, “But I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway.” If St. Paul was in danger, then no one is above falling into mortal sin, this side of the grave. And while confession is there for the rising up again, vigilance, prayer, and mortification are required for the avoidance of sin.
Guided in this way by St. Paul, members of the Catholic Church are taught to recognize and avoid both the little sins and the occasion of sin. Because of this, many accuse the Church of heavily dispensing “Catholic guilt.” On the contrary, it is a very great mercy to have at our fingertips such clear guidelines, and moral boundaries. For example, willfully viewing pornography falls surely within the definition of mortal sin. Yet perhaps Josh Duggar thought it was not so very bad, since he was not (yet) being unfaithful to his wife physically. And so an addiction began, which led him down the path toward actual infidelity. You see, it is merciful to be told: here is a line you must not cross. You may not see or understand the harm your action does, but trust in the loving authority which guides you, and do not cross this line. Should you choose to cross the line into mortal sin, there are immediate consequences, including loss of sanctifying grace, which brings with it the merit of hell, and such weighty warnings to avoid approaching Holy Communion as “he is eating and drinking damnation to himself if he eats and drinks unworthily (1 Cor. 11:29). ” Love inspires St. Paul to warn his flock to avoid sin for their own true good, which is to remain in Christ.
The Church recommends frequent confession as a means to holiness, and no wonder. How many marriages have been spared the tragedy of infidelity because spouses have confessed smaller impurities? By confessing smaller sins, the graces of the sacrament nip sin in the bud, before it takes deep roots, before more serious sins seem normal, or before deadly habits form. Moreover, through the sacrament, God provides the soul with graces specifically to combat the sins confessed.
Catholics get so comfortable with at least the notion of sin and confession that many fail to realize what a mercy it is to have the teachings on mortal sin. In the case of Josh Duggar, his sins certainly have been egregious, and the pain caused his wife and family tragic and inestimable. But rather than pretend that of all men he is the worst, we ought to recognize that there, but for the grace of God, go we all. If today you find that you are in the state of grace, rejoice for the joy of Redemption. If you find yourself devoid of grace, get to confession. And rejoice for the gift of Redemption. Because the Church is made for such as we are—sinners.