2091 The first commandment is also concerned with sins against hope, namely, despair and presumption:
By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God's goodness, to his justice - for the Lord is faithful to his promises - and to his mercy.
2092 There are two kinds of presumption. Either man presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God's almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit).
Before I launch into sins against hope, I need to clarify that under the heading of the First Commandment, the Catechism includes sins against the “theological virtues,” that is, faith, hope, and charity. A “virtue” is a disposition or habit of thinking and acting; in our context here, “theological virtues” are dispositions toward God. Para. 2090 as a whole confuses as much as it clarifies; for catechetical purposes I would simply draw out the definition of hope as “the confident expectation of divine and the beatific vision of God.” Last week we addressed sins against the virtue of faith, the habit of believing that God is and God reveals in human space and time. Last week’s post also treated of the claim of the Roman Catholic Church to speak and act in the name of God and the kinds of responses expected of the believer.
Catechetics involving the virtue of hope are considerably more complicated. Sin against hope, essentially giving up on God, is often entwined with a mental health condition in which one gives up on everything in various degrees. Hope, in general language, is a measure of psychological health. The DSM-V, the official mental health diagnostic criteria in use today, lists nine symptoms of the absence of hope, a condition known by its official name, Depression. It may be wise to review these symptoms before we continue:
Specific symptoms, at least 5 of these 9, present nearly every day:
Depressed mood or irritable most of the day, nearly every day, as indicated by either subjective report (e.g., feels sad or empty) or observation made by others (e.g., appears tearful).
Decreased interest or pleasure in most activities, most of each day.
Significant [unintended] weight change [5%] or change in appetite.
Change in sleep: Insomnia or hypersomnia.
Change in activity: Psychomotor agitation or retardation.
Fatigue or loss of energy.
Guilt/worthlessness: Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt.
Concentration: diminished ability to think or concentrate, or more indecisiveness.
Suicidality: Thoughts of death or suicide or has suicide plan.
Para. 2091’s definition of despair as a sin is painfully unnuanced, without mention of the human conditions that might form a predilection toward despair and despondency. This is a consistent flaw throughout the Catechism, its inadequately developed anthropology and the absence of interdisciplinary discussion of human behavior. Despair has captured nearly all the arts and sciences as a subject of interest and concern: I have treated depression for many years in mental health practice and have attempted to make connections for my clients with many facets of life: from psychopharmacology to drama to poetry, in an effort to help them understand themselves. The Catechism, alas, does not give much to work with.
Despair and depression create difficulties for Catholic moral discussion because (1) very few Catholic moralists—and hardly any catechists—bring neuroscience into their discussions of moral acts, and (2) depressed individuals are prone to engage at times in dangerous or self-defeating acts, from sexual promiscuity to suicide, to ease their pain or break out of the prison of anhedonia (the absence of the ability to feel pleasure or enthusiasm over anything.) Such behaviors are, objectively speaking, sinful by the book and pastoral tendency runs toward the sin rather than the cause or the symptom rather than the condition.
We do not understand the precise causes of depression. For a long time, the psychiatric community did not (and would not) recognize grief as a form of depression; the DSM-V has corrected this and prescribes the same treatment modalities for depressive grief and clinical depression. For much of my adult life the prevailing theories on the causes of depression have centered on deficiencies and poor interactions of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine, though better brain photography may offer new leads. The best research seems to favor a combination of medication and psychotherapy for the best treatment outcomes, a recognition of the physical and relational (even spiritual) roots of the disorder, though a medical intervention is probably a prerequisite in time sequence to successful depression counseling; interpersonal engagement in therapy is handicapped until the most intrusive symptoms are eased up somewhat.
Even with organic causes, depression does not rob the intellect or free will, nor do any of the conditions we call mood disorders, such as anxiety, panic, or bipolarity. [Personality Disorders are diseases of thought, a different species altogether.] Counseling mood disordered individuals is possible precisely because logical and emotional engagement are not blocked. The impairment of hope is a matter that can be explored and acted upon as well as medicated where necessary, although with the important proviso that some depressed individuals will logically conclude that suicide is the valid option for them. I will address suicide in future posts but be aware in pastoral work of potential indicators; I would hope that the subject is a standard element of pastoral training.
This brings us to the overlap of mood and virtue. It is hard to read para. 2091 without sensing more than a simple declaration that God can do nothing for me. There is greater sensitivity to the reality that hopelessness is different from malingering. At last check, about 90% of Americans report a belief in God, presumably with the idea that God can do some good for them down the road. Para. 2092 seems closer to reality and personal observation; we presume that in our relationship with God we can “tank” as they say in the NBA, that little or no effort is required for the goodies of afterlife. In my own teaching experience, I find even among veteran church ministers a reluctance to acknowledge that life can have bad outcomes—i.e., that God would send someone to hell, as opposed to current popular thinking that afterlife determinations are mainly a question of how good your suite will be on the eternal ocean cruise of heaven.
Five centuries ago Catholics worried a great deal about afterlife, alternating between hopelessness and frantic activities to ward off damnation. Kevin Madigan concludes his medieval masterpiece with the observation that “when one Christian, emerging from the confessional, could feel serene relief and another near immediate doubt, the Christian Middle Ages can be said to have come to an end. In that era despair of salvation held place; in today’s post confession age, presumption holds sway.
Note: in today's research I came across an excellent blogsite on moral theology with a bibliography of useful readings from the University of Dayton, which you might want to bookmark.