For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.
~ Gaudium et Spes
Winter is setting in, so here’s a baseball story to conjure up a springlike vibe.
It’s about my dad, Phil, and a buddy of his – Morty was his name, I’m pretty sure. They’d grown up as neighborhood pals in East Orange, New Jersey, and one fine Friday morning they played hooky together and caught a Yankees game in New York. It was an excursion that affected my father deeply. I know this because I heard the story from him several times before he died.
The details are a bit fuzzy now, but here’s the gist.
Judging from my dad’s birth date, I’m guessing the escapade took place sometime in the late 1940s. Baseball was king back then, and the immortals were real people, not just faces on trading cards. For example, fans would’ve still been mourning the passing of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth at that time (Gehrig! and Ruth!), and Joe DiMaggio himself would still be playing for the Yanks several more years – probably Morty and dad even got to see him.
Anyway, baseball was not only great entertainment for my father’s circle, but also a great leveler, bridging multiple cultural and social divides – like religion for instance. My dad came from solid Calvinist stock and a long line of serious Masons. Morty, on the other hand, was Irish, and Catholic to the core. They were both too young at the time to have adopted wholesale religious prejudice, I suppose, but it didn’t matter in any case: They were both nuts for baseball, and that was way more important to them than trifling ecclesial matters.
I’ve no recollection if there was something special going on that occasioned their conspiracy – a doubleheader, perhaps? – or if it was simply the anticipation of a forbidden pleasure. In any case, Phil and Morty ostensibly left their homes for school that morning, but then detoured to the train depot to catch a commuter into Penn Station. Once there, they took the subway up to the Bronx, and beelined their way through the crowds to the “House that Ruth Built.” A couple of Jersey boys buying tickets to a school-day ball game probably raised a couple eyebrows, but apparently nobody seriously challenged them. They made their way up to the cheap seats, and settled in to enjoy the main event.
My father’s family was dirt poor – grandpa worked the night shift at a beer bottling plant – but somehow my dad had scrounged up enough money for some eats on top of his train fare and the game ticket. The way dad described it, he and Morty took full advantage of their furtive outing: The Yankees down below working their magic on the field, and up in the stadium, the two truants living large and hailing vendors for hotdogs and Cracker Jack.
This is where my father would get real serious as he painted the scene for me: He and Morty, basking in the sun in their baseball paradise, focusing on the game, mustard-laden frankfurters at the ready. Morty takes a bite of his, then stops, mid-chew.
“What’s wrong?” my dad asked.
“Oh, no,” came Morty’s reply, his mouth forming words around the hotdog chunk. “I forgot!”
Morty, pale and wide-eyed, could hardly reply. “It’s Lent; it’s Friday,” he managed to croak out. “I’m going to hell.”
So, that’s the story pretty much; dad never mentioned what happened next – you know, like did Morty spit out the hotdog? Did he and dad stay to the end of the game? And how did Morty navigate the moral minefields he must’ve faced at home and church back in East Orange?
Nope, none of that. Whenever dad told the story, it always ended abruptly with his friend’s somber self-assessment – and no hedging either. It was never Morty saying, “I think I’m going to hell,” but always the bare declaration stated absolutely deadpan: “I’m going to hell.” It’s as if my father wanted to avoid detracting from Morty’s very real spiritual crisis at that crucial moment – as if, for dad, Morty’s words stood apart somehow and required no additional comment.
Fair enough – I respect my dad’s reticence, whatever its origin. Nonetheless, there’s some good fodder there for insights and reflection. Here’s three observations that I can’t pass up, along with a word about scrupulosity.
1. Accidental transgressions are not really sins. Morty was off on that point, despite his evidently sound moral formation otherwise. If that bite of hotdog on a Lenten Friday really was accidental, then Morty wasn’t culpable in any way – it was an oversight, not an intentional flouting of the abstinence rule, and so hardly a sin. If anything, he was guilty of a wee bit of intemperance that day, and maybe some imprudence as well – probably it wasn’t a good idea to spend a Friday in Lent at the ballpark. And, of course, there’s the deception and lying that undoubtedly facilitated Morty and dad even being at Yankees stadium that school day. If there was any sin to speak of, it involved playing hooky in the first place rather than the snack.
2. Hell is a good motivator. As every second-grader preparing for confession can tell you, there’s imperfect contrition and perfect contrition. The imperfect kind is when we’re sorry for our sins because we don’t want to go to hell, whereas perfect contrition is sorrow for sin out of love for God alone. Obviously, perfect contrition is preferred, but imperfect contrition is good enough – God will take what he can get from us. And Morty? We know he wasn’t in danger of frying for biting down on the illicit ballpark frank, but he didn’t know that at the time. All he knew was that he violated a serious Lenten discipline, and he feared the consequences. Hell, in other words, was a reality to Morty, and he sure as hell didn’t want to go there.
3. Moral struggle can be an admirable badge of faith. The first time my father told me his hooky story he was still a Protestant, although he related it to me at least a couple times more after he became a Catholic. Morty had clearly made an impression on my dad that bygone spring day – his young chum who goofed and wrongfully feared for his soul. Yet, consider: No one was present to hold Morty accountable for his lapse – what did Morty care about what Phil the Protestant thought? Besides, they were already playing hookey together, and so dad wasn’t likely to snitch on his Catholic friend for the forbidden Lenten hotdog. No, Morty’s sincere moral anguish revealed his true character and the strength of his convictions that day. It was a demonstration of authentic faith. It was a moment of grace.
And, finally, scrupulosity, the “habit of imagining sin where none exists, or grave sin where the matter is venial,” according to Fr. Hardon. Sure, Morty required some correction with regards to his grasp of sin, conscience, and the role of the will, but let’s not be hasty. These days, when there’s so much moral confusion, not to mention widespread rationalization for all kinds of evil, it’s probably not a bad idea to err on the scrupulous side of things – a perspective that St. Augustine seems to endorse:
While he is in the flesh, man cannot help but have at least some light sins. But do not despise these sins which we call “light”: if you take them for light when you weigh them, tremble when you count them. A number of light objects makes a great mass; a number of drops fills a river; a number of grains makes a heap.
And hotdogs? They can also add up, although one was enough for Morty – and, vicariously, for my dad as well. Thanks for your witness, Morty, wherever you are, and I pray that your conscience was long ago assuaged.