After being “offline” for about a year, I wanted to refocus on some questions that had come up during our tour of the sacraments and make this more about your questions than my own agenda. One question that came up was about sin and why Catholicism differentiates sins as either mortal or venial. As always, our friend the Catechism will help us.
There are many kinds of sin, and many lists are evident through the Bible. The Ten Commandments, Paul’s various lists in his letters, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and, for Catholics primarily, the seven deadly sins all give us an idea of the many faces sin presents itself. Catholicism categorizes sins into two categories: mortal and venial. A basis for this is found in 1 John 5:16-17, which reads, “If any one sees his brother committing what is not a deadly sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not deadly. There is sin which is deadly; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not deadly.” (CCC 1854)
Mortal sin is defined as that which “destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him,” (CCC 1855). For a sin to be considered mortal, there are three criteria that are looked upon: 1) it must be a grave matter, 2) it is committed with full knowledge and 3) is also done so with deliberate consent (CCC 1857).
A grave matter is given to us by the Ten Commandments, and also in Jesus’ response to the rich young man, which are the “do nots” of the commandments (murder, adultery, theft, false witness, defraud). The circumstances are also to be considered. For example, killing one’s parents is considered worse than killing a stranger (though both are quite grave!) (CCC 1858).
In the areas of full knowledge and consent, the catechism writes that this “presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice,” (CCC 1859). Essentially, the action is premeditated (consent) and the person is aware of the potential consequences caused by their actions. “Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest,” the catechism further states (CCC 1860).
The catechism and the Church do teach though, that “although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God,” (CCC 1861). We need to be mindful of Jesus’ words when he spoke “Judge not, that you be not judged,” (Matt. 7:1).
Venial sins are those that basically meet only one or two parts of the three criteria for mortal sins. What can also diminish the gravity of a sin are feelings and passions (potentially nullifying having full knowledge) along with external pressures or pathological disorders (CCC 1860, 1862).
While venial sins are seen as “lesser”, the great scholar and theologian Augustine warns us in writing:
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. What then is our hope? Above all, confession…” (quoted in CCC 1863)
Jesus also tells us that “every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven,” (Matt. 12:31, also Mark 3:28-29). What the catechism teaches is that while God’s mercy is limitless, those who refuse this mercy and reject His forgiveness “can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss,” (CCC 1864).
The Church’s view on sin seems to be similar to our justice system when people are charged with crimes. We have misdemeanors and felonies, and we also have categories for different charges, such as in/voluntary manslaughter and murder. This is an example of how the Church sees sin as either mortal or venial. However, as humans we can never have a purely objective viewpoint and thus can not know everything about a situation like God can. This perhaps shows the great wisdom of Jesus when he made the statements we find at the beginning of Matthew 7.
To show the difference of venial and mortal sin, let us look at the sin of apostasy, which is essentially leaving the Catholic Church and a mortal sin. There are many reasons people have done this (including some readers of this blog), and many of those are legitimate, such as those affected by the sex scandals. Such reasons in a sense lessen the gravity of the sin. An example of this as truly mortal would be Lucifer. Being a spiritual being, he would have the ability to have that full knowledge and consent in choosing to leave God’s side. This is why he, as Satan, will face final judgment which we read in Revelation.
While the Church teaches that there are mortal and venial sins, the ultimate point is that regularly confessing sins keeps us aware of our shortcomings and allows us to focus on improving our lifestyle so that we can better be Christ’s example to the world.