Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Mortal and Venial Sin: What's the Difference?

I was teaching my Year 11s today about the difference between Mortal Sin and Venial Sin and I thought it would be appropriate and fitting to highlight that enemies of the Catholic Church (e.g. some non-Catholic Christian groups; Fundamentalists) accuse the Catholic Church of "inventing" the meaning behind Mortal Sin and that pertaining to Venial Sin. If a Fundamentalist ever says this to you, point them to scripture, specifically:

"All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal." - 1 John 5:17 (RSV)

The "wrongdoing" spoken about here is a term used collectively to describe acts or behaviours that are contrary to God, others and ourselves. These wrongdoings are all sinful, that is, they damage the relationship between God, others and the harmony within ourselves. But how does the Church define "sin"?

"Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as 'an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.'" - Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), par. 1849

The second half of 1 John 5:17 indicates that there are two types of sin:

1.) Sins that are mortal; and
2.) Sins that are not mortal.

Obviously we refer to the type of sins that are "mortal" as "Mortal Sins" and the type of sins that are not mortal as "Venial Sins".

So what's a Mortal Sin?

Mortal Sin separates us from God; it destroys the relationship between man and our heavenly Father. Mortal Sin "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, par. 1855). If a Mortal Sin is committed, the sinner must repent and make reparation of this wrongdoing and restore their relationship with God by the Sacrament of Reconciliation (CCC, par. 1856).

And what about Venial Sin?

The word "venial" is another way of saying "excusable" or "minor"; they are sins that will not separate you from God or destroy the relationship, but may cause some harm to it. Venial Sin "allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it" (CCC, par. 1855).

"One commits venial sin when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent". - CCC, par. 1862

When is a sin a "mortal" sin?

In order for a sin to be mortal, it must meet three conditions:

1.) Mortal sin is a sin of grave matter
2.) Mortal sin is committed with full knowledge of the sinner
3.) Mortal sin is committed with deliberate consent of the sinner

This means that mortal sins cannot be done "accidentally". This means that mortal sins are "premeditated" by the sinner and thus are truly a rejection of God’s law and love.

What's "grave matter"?

The Church defines "grave matter" this way:

"Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: 'Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother.' The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger." - CCC, par. 1858

What about "full knowledge" and "deliberate consent"?

"Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It 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. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin." - CCC, par. 1859

"Full knowledge" can be summarised this way: You already know/you're already aware it's a [mortal] sin. "Deliberate consent" can be summarised this way: You choose to follow throw with the act fully aware of it's sinful nature/character and have the freedom (be it social, physical, intellectual, or psychological) to do so.

* * * * *

It all comes down to this: we need to be able to recognise sin (in all its forms) in order to avoid it. This is easier said than done. Fortunately, however, we've been given some pretty good advice as we find in scripture:

"Therefore gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy'". - 1 Peter 1:13-16

"If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin." - John 15:22

"He who says 'I know him [the Lord]' but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked." - 1 John 2:4-6

Growth in holiness is to stay close to the Sacraments and in doing so staying close to Christ. Arm yourself with a knowledge of the scriptures and the teachings of the Church. Pray constantly.

"Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects." - James 5:16

Do not despair if you do sin - all is not lost - but rather rejoice in the fact that the Lord Jesus has died for your sins and your heavenly Father desires all his children to be with him (1 Timothy 2:3-4). Repent for your sin and do not sin again (John 8:11).

Keep the faith and persevere until the end (Matthew 24:13).



  1. Great post Stephen.
    I'd just like to highlight that the idea of sin unto death is also highlighted through and throughout the works of St. Paul within the New Testament. Here's an example of it in his letter to the Romans in Chapter 6 after explaining what it is that baptism does (tie us to Christ and make us one with Him).

    Romans 6:16 Know you not that to whom you yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants you are whom you obey, whether it be of sin unto death or of obedience unto justice.

    Post-baptismally we can choose which master we want to follow, Jesus or Satan, that is we can be servants of obedience unto justice (sanctification and holiness) or we can sin unto death (follow Satan and commit mortal sins and other grave sins so as to fall from grace).

    The rest of Romans 6 is quite fascinating and rich in Catholic theology. Thanks for the post!

  2. Stephen----Would missing Mass on Sunday be a mortal sin??

  3. "The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin." - Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 2181

    In summary: missing Mass deliberately (i.e. not due to circumstances otherwise out of your own control) is a Mortal Sin as it constitutes breaking the third Commandment: Keep holy the Sabbath Day.

  4. Shared on Facebook and Titter. Keep up the good work.


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