November 6, 2018

Smoking and Catholicism---Can it go from being Socially Acceptable to becoming a Mortal Sin?

IT MAKES SENSE TO ME

By Larry Peterson


Magazine Smoking ad  circa late 1950s---en.wikipedia.org
The Baby Boomer generation (1946 thru 1964) will fully understand what follows. The Generation Z crowd (age 8 thru 23) will not. The generations in between, Gen X and Millenials, I leave for another time. This has to do with smoking.

I grew up way back in the 50s. It was an era when people not only ate and drank, they also smoked. In fact, close to 50% of Americans smoked cigarettes. Both of my parents smoked, and all five of us kids became smokers. It seemed as if everyone smoked and we never even thought about it. It was just the way it was. Doctors even did commercials promoting cigarettes.

Like many others have done, I stopped smoking a long time ago. I used to think about having a “smoke” quite often after quitting, but I have come to a point I no longer give it any thought…until the other day. That is when I heard that smoking was a mortal sin. That was, for me, a shocker.

I was at a weekday Mass in a neighboring parish, and the priest gave a short homily about addiction. He said as plain as can be that smoking cigarettes was a mortal sin because it was self-abuse and smokers were violating and harming the body that God had given them. Instantly my mind took me back in time back to a world where smoking was a “good thing.”  A time when even priests smoked---in public no less.

Baby Boomers will remember the times to which I now refer. A time when smoking was allowed virtually everywhere. People smoked in super-markets, in doctor’s offices, in hospitals, in movie theatres, and most everywhere. We never smoked in church and smoking was not allowed on the subway or buses although many people did “light up” on the bus.

When our first son was born—and so help me, this is true---my wife, Loretta, was lying in bed holding our new baby in the crook of her left arm. She was holding a lit cigarette in her other hand. She was smoking and so was the lady in the next bed who was also holding her baby. A few minutes later, Dr. Karpen, the Ob-Gyn, came in to see how Loretta was doing. He looks at me, shakes my hand, and say, “You have an extra smoke?”

I handed him a cigarette. and both of us lit up, me holding the lighter for him. That’s right; there were four adults smoking, around two newborns, as if it was the most normal thing to do. I imagine in today’s world they would slap handcuffs on us and take the babies away and turn them over to social services.

We had a pediatrician by the name of Jerry Ferber. Dr. Ferber was always quitting smoking. When you would take the little one for a visit he would more often than not say, “Listen, I have not had a cigarette all day. Give me one and there will be no charge for the visit.”

In 1964 the Surgeon General, Luther Terry, issued the first report on the dangers of smoking. It has taken decades to get to a point in time where most everywhere is “smoke-free.” They are even banning smoking in public housing. But to hear a priest say in his homily that smoking is a mortal sin just rattled my cage. 

I understand that to commit a mortal sin you must know it is a serious sin and you must willingly commit the act anyway. Millions of kind, decent people who have left this world for the next were smokers. I’m sure they were never judged on their smoking habits. There are people today who still smoke and I doubt they have never (if Catholic) imagined they were sinning when lighting a cigarette.

The bottom line is this; smoking is addictive. It is very hard to stop doing it. Some people try over and over and never succeed. Many do. But to classify smoking as a mortal sin seems kind of heavy handed. We pray for drug addicts and we have rehab centers for them and all sorts of government programs to help.  Not so much for smokers




            copyright©Larry Peterson 2018