“Ever since the days of Adam, man has been hiding from God and saying God is hard to find.”
–Archbishop Fulton Sheen
“We do what the heart tells us, and then we go to confession.”
–Cara, Brideshead Revisited (2008)
The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable, who can know it?
God is all-merciful and has both the power and the will to forgive the most heinous sins, provided that we truly repent. God’s mercy reorientates us to the rule of Divine Love, restoring our friendship with God and others.
However, there are six sins against the Holy Spirit, which are known as the eternal or unforgivable sins constituting blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:29). These are Final Impenitence, Presumption, Despair, Resisting the Known Truth, Envy of Another’s Spiritual Good, and Obstinacy in Sin.1
How do we reconcile these two doctrinal teachings?
The sins against the Holy Spirit are unforgivable in that they prevent God’s grace from reaching us. They are hardened attitudes which render us unable to receive the forgiveness He is continually offering us. “The unforgivable sin is not a single isolated act. It is an ongoing deliberate and habitual rejection of grace.”2 In accordance with Aquinas, Pope St John Paul II wrote that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit “consists… in the refusal to accept the salvation which God offers to man through the Holy Spirit, working through the power of the Cross.” (Dominum et Vivificantem, #46).3
Just as it is necessary for someone to admit that he is physically sick before he allows a doctor to treat him, it is necessary for us to admit that we are spiritually sick before we allow the Divine Physician to heal us. Also, it is necessary for us to trust the doctor!
In the cases of Obstinacy in Sin, Resisting the Known Truth, Final Impenitence, and Despair, the sick soul refuses to recognise his ailment, to seek treatment, or to believe that he can even receive treatment and healing. A classic case of despair is Judas. Both Peter and Judas betrayed Christ, but Peter was reconciled to the Risen Christ, while Judas scuppered any chance of that by committing suicide. Archbishop Fulton Sheen wrote:
“Our Lord warned both of them that they would fall; He even told them that each would be a devil. Both did deny the Master and both repented or were sorry. But the Greek word used in the Scripture is not the same in both instances. Judas repented unto himself—he had self-pity. Peter repented unto the Lord—he had penitence, sorrow and a desire for amendment. Peter cleaned the weeds out of the garden, but Judas killed the nocturnal brood of remorseful serpents in his breast by hanging himself.”4
In Presumption, the sick soul thinks that just because God wants to forgive all sins, he can keep wallowing in sin. It’s like someone who has just survived lung cancer returning to smoking because he thinks he’ll be sure to beat it again. Without true repentance, there cannot be true reconciliation.
With the Envy of Another’s Spiritual Good, one becomes like Cain, harbouring murderous resentment in his heart against his own brother. One becomes unable to enjoy one’s own gifts from God, being discontented and questioning God’s goodness and wisdom in giving someone else different gifts. Like an obstreperous patient demanding different treatment to what the doctor has prescribed, this ailing soul is unable to accept God’s grace for himself, believing he deserves the grace given to someone else.
“It was through Satan’s envy that death entered the world (cf. Catechism, no. 2538; Wis. 2:24). When one is envious of the spiritual good of another, he places himself on the level of Satan who wanted God’s glory for Himself rather than humbly accepting the gifts God had given him (Ezek. 28:11-19).”5
Invincible ignorance works in a similar fashion, just in the opposite direction. “Inculpable ignorance is not a means of salvation. But if by no fault of the individual ignorance cannot be overcome (if, that is, it is inculpable and invincible), it does not prevent the grace that comes from Christ, a grace that has a relationship with the Church, saving that person.”6
“…the fact that someone is invincibly ignorant of the true faith is not a ticket to heaven. A person who is not culpable for sins against faith may still be culpable for other mortal sins — the same ones people of faith can commit — and may be damned on that account.”7
“…those who are truly unaware of what God requires of them are not held responsible; rather they are judged by what they did with the truth they had.”8
Unforgivable sins are an impermeable membrane preventing the flow of the Holy Spirit into our hearts; invincible ignorance is a semipermeable membrane allowing God to enter the hearts of the uncatechised, preparing them for union with Him. For “God has bound salvation to His sacraments, but He Himself is not bound by His sacraments.”9 “Those who are innocently outside the Church but are also seeking to follow the will of God are thus the proper object of the Church’s missionary activity.”10
Let us maintain a pliable, permeable membrane over our hearts, that the Holy Spirit may move in and out freely, bringing divine grace and new life to us so that we may give it to others.
Harden not your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did at Massah in the desert.
3 Fr. William Saunders, “Why is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit an unforgivable sin? Are not all sins forgivable?”, Catholic Straight Answers.
5 “What Is the Unforgivable Sin against the Holy Spirit?”, Catholic Exchange.
6 Rev. Michael Müller C.SS.R., “Invincible or Inculpable Ignorance Neither Saves nor Damns a Person”, The Catholic Dogma.
8 Sebastian R. Fama, “Salvation Outside the Church?”, in And You Will Know the Truth: How to Explain and Defend the Catholic Faith.