[Warning: This post contains explicit language regarding sexual sin. Also the BS word.]
The efforts of modernists I think have a good intent: To make life easier for people, to ease their guilt and relieve them of difficult moral dilemmas, and to have fewer grounds upon which people may judge and condemn others. This is done by making it less clear that things are wrong; we must consider the “reality” of people’s lives today and not be pharisaical in holding them to strict standards. In short, blur the distinction between right and wrong, so that more things are believed to fall on the “right” side of the divide than would otherwise be the case.
But making it harder to define things as wrong, also makes it harder to define them as right. By making it easier to do what before was considered sinful, you also make it harder to do what before was considered righteous. By eliminating mortal sin, you also eliminate moral heroism. You eliminate the need for Christians, in considering whether to take the more difficult moral path, to “die to self”, which Jesus says we must do if we are to be his disciples (Mt. 16:24).
I have no delusions that the more tradition-minded Church of the 1950s and earlier was morally pure. There has always been a spectrum of observance of the moral law, from the overly scrupulous to the outright evil, with varying degrees of obedience and laxity in between. But at least people could tell where they fell on the spectrum, if they ever wanted to know, by having moral boundaries clearly delineated.
This has partly to do with an experience of my own. In my 20s (and earlier), when I was a new “revert” (baptized as a baby but not raised in the faith), I was suffering from addiction to the “solitary sin” so common to young men (long before Internet porn!). Being a relatively new Christian and wanting desperately to please God, in gratitude for the gift of faith that he had given me, I strove against my sin as best I knew how, and went to confession often. The priests in the confessional were very patient and comforting towards me, assuring me that it was only human to struggle with this sin, and not to give up nor view myself as a failure as a Christian. At one point I asked a priest in confession whether I needed to abstain from Communion after having committed this sin, but before going to confession. His response was that “this kind of sin is 90% natural and only about 10% sinful, so no, I would not stay away from Communion.”
Again very comforting, but what was I to do? Was this an acceptable permanent state for a Catholic? Committing sexual sin on a regular basis, yet receiving absolution for free, upon request, with no demands or requirements to change my behavior, and with full access to the sacraments?
But one day I went to a different church for confession and got a different message: Masturbation is a mortal sin, and one must not receive Communion until it has been absolved. Receiving Communion in a state of mortal sin is a serious sacrilege, compounding the original sin. Continuing in this course of conduct will imperil your soul.
Tough words! They hit me like a ton of bricks. But guess what? After that day, I went six months without falling into my formerly habitual sin. And when I did fall, I immediately confessed it and abstained for another six months. Some might say I was enslaved by fear. But on the contrary, I felt liberated. And what was it that had set me free? One priest giving me the truth, straight up with no bullshit. If what he said was true, then this gave me something to put on the other side of the scale when weighing whether to give in to temptation: What’s more important to me? This momentary pleasure, or being able to receive Christ in the Eucharist on a regular basis, with a clear conscience?
Refusing to draw clear lines leaves people to wallow in their sins, when they themselves might be sick of wallowing and might well choose to stop wallowing, if only they could see their wallowing for what it is. I don’t judge those who know better and yet choose to wallow. It’s between them and God, and my nagging isn’t going to change their hearts. But I’m convinced that far more numerous souls fall into the pit and remain there, because its boundaries are no longer clearly marked. There might be more moral heroes out there, except that moral heroism, in the form of giving up the pleasures one loves and is naturally inclined to, is considered foolish and outdated, i.e. pharisaical; or at the very least is considered unnecessary since all sins can be excused on one ground or another and no one can really commit a mortal sin with full deliberation and consent of the will. After all, it’s the Year of Mercy.