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Chapter 32: Penance, Anointing, and the Life of Self-denial

Question E: How does avoiding the occasions of sin contribute to the penitential ordering of Christian life?

1. One who repents mortal sins must avoid their occasions, because contrition requires a purpose of amendment, and a real purpose of amendment includes the will to avoid occasions of sin. But all who wish to live a Christian life must try to avoid occasions of sin. As the preceding question made clear, one must strive to avoid venial sin, and any failure to avoid an occasion of mortal sin will be at least a venial sin.

2. An occasion of sin is usually defined as any person, place, or thing likely to lead one into sin. This is not mistaken, but it is less helpful than it might be. In the first place, occasions of sin generally are considered only when grave matter is in question and the problem is how to avoid mortal sin. (Only this kind of case will be considered here, but what is said can be adapted to avoiding temptations to commit venial sins, such as habitual wasting of time, spontaneous cursing, angry shouting at the children, and so forth.) Furthermore, it is not so much persons, places, and things which are occasions of sins as one’s relationship to them and what one does in respect to them.

3. Thus, an occasion of sin might better be defined as follows: It is a situation or action which in any way conduces to sin and which one can avoid or modify so that one will be less likely to be tempted to commit mortal sin or able more easily to overcome the temptation if it arises.

4. Some occasions of sin are situations. Living in a neighborhood where there are many homosexuals is an occasion of sin for someone with a homosexual disposition. Belonging to a club whose members for the most part reject Christian standards is an occasion of sin. Owning the means to commit sin is often an occasion of sin. Great wealth provides many opportunities for sins which poor people and those of moderate means do not have; wealthy people thus live in an occasion of sin by the very fact of their wealth.

5. Other occasions of sin are actions. Working as a large-claims insurance adjustor is an occasion of sin, for parties to such business often exert pressure or offer bribes to obtain gravely unjust settlements. Hearing confessions is an occasion of sin for a priest, since, for example, he may be tempted by sympathy to compromise Christ’s teaching. Glancing at the “entertainment” section of a newspaper can be an occasion of sin for someone addicted to pornography. Talking one’s feelings over with someone to whom one is inappropriately attracted is often an occasion of sin, since it is likely to lead to a deepening of the relationship.

6. Some occasions of sin can be avoided entirely. A person whose job provides many opportunities to steal and who is tempted to do so may be able to find another job. A person can refrain from talking about his or her feelings toward other people when such talk may create the need to choose whether to sin or not. A person with a contraceptive device can dispose of it. Rich people can sell their possessions and give the money to the poor.

7. Other occasions of sin cannot be avoided entirely, but they can be modified. This can be done in two different ways: modification in the situation or action as it objectively exists or is done, and modification of the context or meaning of the situation, largely through taking a different stance toward it and/or thinking differently about it.

Suppose, for example, that an alcoholic finds it an occasion of sin to go to a party where drinks are served but cannot avoid being there. (“Cannot” here might be taken in the weak sense; avoiding company where drinks are served often is not possible in the sense that it is incompatible with some other responsibility.) Still, the alcoholic can modify this situation objectively, by ordering a nonalcoholic beverage which looks like a drink. He or she can also provide a modified context for the situation—for instance, by discussing it beforehand with a member of his or her Alcoholics Anonymous chapter.

8. Carried out conscientiously, the avoidance of occasions of sin will organize the whole of each Christian’s life. Major commitments will be made with the need always in view to avoid or modify occasions of sin. Moreover, since no one can conform to the accepted practices of a post-Christian culture without being constantly subject to occasions of sin, all who wish to follow Jesus must refuse to conform to these practices in many obvious ways.

9. In sum, the avoidance of occasions of sin should shape the whole of each Christian’s life, and this necessary task pertains to the sacrament of penance. Hence, constant effort to avoid sin’s occasions can contribute to the ordering of Christian life by this sacrament.

Work on occasions of sin is a strict and grave moral obligation. This work cannot be precisely defined and limited; one must begin where one can and constantly expand the field of battle. Creative ingenuity is required for this process, and confessors must try to acquire this virtue.

In quasi-compulsive sins of weakness, the problem is to discover and avoid situations and actions which are avoidable and are associated with the beginning of temptation, and to modify various unavoidable situations and actions. Those told simply to avoid occasions of sin are likely to notice many unavoidable actions which are somehow conditions conducive to sin, but to overlook certain avoidable actions which regularly precede and initiate temptation.

This “overlooking” probably has a subconscious cause: If the sinner attended to these actions and avoided them as occasions of sin, then temptation would not occur and the satisfaction of the sinful behavior could not be obtained. Subconsciously, this satisfaction is desired even by a person whose conscious purpose of amendment is authentic and firm. Consequently, the sinner has a presentiment of rising emotion and could still resist by evasion, but does not. Instead, the action which is the immediate occasion of the temptation is done instead of avoided, emotion mounts, and the sin of weakness is committed again.