My brother, a lasped Catholic, tells me one of his biggest problems with Catholicism is that he was told that he could live an exemplary life, willingly miss Mass one Sunday – a mortal sin – then get killed the next day in a car wreck, and he would be condemned to hell. I have a hard time answering this charge. Can anyone help me?
Deliberately missing Mass without just cause – an important condition – is certainly grave matter, but full knowledge and full and free consent must also be present for the commission of a mortal sin. Even if a mortal sin were committed by missing Mass, if one sincerely repents of the sin he is forgiven the instant he repents. Catholics know that a condition of forgiveness is that they will go to confession as soon as possible because sacramental confession for mortal sins is normatively necessary for reconciliation with God. However, if one repents of his mortal sins but is prevented through no fault of his own from going to sacramental confession, God will not send him to hell if he dies without confession. A person only goes to hell for unrepented mortal sins.
In the hypothesis your brother offers, if the person has committed a mortal sin by deliberately missing Mass without just cause, then he is forgiven the instant he sincerely repents. As a Catholic he knows he must go to confession as soon as is reasonably possible. If he is killed before he is able to do so, he has died repentant of his sins and will not be sent to hell for something outside his control.
That answers your brother’s surface question, but let’s dig a bit deeper. What does your brother mean by living “an exemplary life”? Does he mean someone who is striving toward holiness and eventual union with God; or does he mean someone who provides for his family, pays his taxes, regularly donates to the local humane society, and is generally considered by those who know him to be an all-around stand-up guy?
While the latter individual can be striving for holiness and union with God through meeting his obligations and caring for his neighbors, those actions are means to an end and not the end itself; the end in sight is holiness, not niceness. If someone is striving for holiness, niceness may follow but it is not a replacement for holiness. If someone is striving for union with God and has spent a lifetime doing so, such a person is unlikely to treat the Mass – the sacramental re-presentation of Christ’s eternal sacrifice in time and space – in a trivial manner that could lead to deliberately choosing without just cause not to attend on a day of obligation.