How Many Cigarettes Make a Mortal Sin?

By McBrien, Richard P. | National Catholic Reporter, August 1, 1997 | Go to article overview

How Many Cigarettes Make a Mortal Sin?


McBrien, Richard P., National Catholic Reporter


Back in the seemingly blissful 1950s when most Catholics uncritically accepted just about everything they were told by their bishops, there was a tiny body of specialists to whom even the hierarchy listened. They were the moralists who, even in those pre-Vatican II days, enjoyed the freedom to speculate on thorny ethical problems and then to determine the relative gravity of offenses against the laws of God.

One of the most prominent members of that group was Redemptorist Fr. Francis Connell.

Connell was a conservative theologian, even by pre-conciliar standards, but he was widely admired and respected because of his kindly demeanor and his careful and precise manner of expressing his views.

In spite of his generally rigid views on moral matters, Connell was well ahead of his time on one issue that continues to vex us today, namely, the morality of smoking, of tobacco advertising and of corporate greed and the dishonesty that attempts to cloak it.

Some of us young upstarts (even those of us who never smoked) thought Connell a bit out of touch to be raising moral questions like, "How many cigarettes does one have to smoke on a particular day before it becomes a venial sin? How many would it take to become a mortal sin?"

The fact that Connell thought smoking a moral issue at all was a source of amusement, but that he should also have tried to draw a clear line between venial and mortal sin on the basis of the number of cigarettes one smoked in a given day was more than amusing. It seemed nonsensical.

Nor was it regarded as a point in Connell's favor that the reigning pope, Pius XII, had, at about the same time, urged the Jesuits not to smoke.

The pope's injunction was seen as a European clerical thing. When American seminarians in the Roman universities chided their European counterparts for cheating on exams, for example, the Europeans would retort, "But you Americans smoke!"

How our consciousness has changed on the use of tobacco since the 1950s! Not even Connell could have imagined -- based on the information available to him at that time -- how close to the mark he actually was when he fingered tobacco use as a potentially serious moral problem.

I did a column on this subject several years ago. The column attracted more than the usual interest from the secular press.

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