Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mortal Sin and Venial Sin

All right fellow sinners, let's get right to it!

The Bible speaks of degrees of sin:
1 John 5:16-17: "If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal."
Some translations read "deadly" instead of "mortal," but since deadly and mortal are synonymous, we're good.

Did you know that was in the Bible?* Neither did I, until just a few years ago. Since it is explicit, I don't have an explanation for why most Protestants have a problem with the concept of mortal sin. At the very least, the concept of degrees of sin is there, right? Clearly, some sins are more serious than others.

And that leads us to the actual point of this post. 

The Catholic Church teaches that some sins are mortal (serious) and some are venial (less serious). 

Mortal sin is what the name implies: Mortal sin = spiritual death. A mortal sin severs our friendship with God and kills the sanctifiying grace in our souls. Without sanctifying grace in our souls, we are not fit for Heaven. 

Venial sin is less serious sin, which does not destroy our friendship with God. Venial sins do not kill the sanctifying grace in our souls, although they do weaken the will and darken the intellect. A million venial sins won't "add up" to a mortal sin, but a habit of venial sin does make it easier to begin to commit mortal sin.

There are three conditions that must be present before a mortal sin is committed:

1. The sin in question must be of a grave matter
2. The sin must be committed with full knowledge of its gravity
3. The sin must be committed with full consent of the will

Please note: If any of those three conditions do not apply, the person is guilty only of a venial sin. One cannot "accidentally" commit a mortal sin and fall into hell, as mortal sin requires a deliberate choice on the part of the sinner. And, if you suffer from scrupulosity, I beg you to read this post next.

The next logical question people ask is: "Where is the list of mortal sins?" The Church does not provide a definitive list, but there are helpful guidelines to aid in discernment. Some are obvious (i.e., murder; adultery) and some less so (i.e, taking advantage of the poor; extreme anger). If you suffer from scrupulosity, I would suggest you not agonize over the list of mortal sins. That's kind of like consulting Dr. Google instead of a doctor -- it's ill-advised for an anxious soul and might do more harm than good! 

In summary: Mortal sin kills the life of grace, venial sin wounds the life of grace.

Remember, I call these "Little Teachings From the Bubble"! That's all I've got for today! 

*We Catholics don't subscribe to the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura (i.e., the Bible is a Christian's only authority), so it wouldn't be a deal-breaker even if it were not explicit in the Bible. More on sola scriptura in a future post. 



  1. Great post! Do you ever tire of hearing that? :)
    The list you linked up is a good one! I am so thankful for confession!

  2. Leila, I love you. Mary

  3. Cool post. My brother and I were just talking about this question. Couold you also specify- it is my understanding that there is no requirement to confess venial sin, it's optional?

    Also, slightly off-topic, but speaking of Bibles... my bro tells me the KJV is not Catholic. What Bible translation is recommended?

  4. monica i have the st. ignatius study bible. its the new testament only but it is awesome!! i love it. it was only $15 at amazon. ;)

  5. Could you write an addendum (for the Catholics) about when, and with what type of sin, we are still allowed to receive holy communion? I'm going off what my mother taught me, and thank goodness she knows her stuff, but having never been taught this I'm sure others are confused. (My poor husband, for one!)

  6. Venial sin is forgive when we receive communion. Of course, it is good to confess venial sins even though not "required" since the grace received from Christ through the sacrament of confession helps to root out tendency to sin (even venial sin).
    Nice post.

  7. @ This_Cross_I-Embrace, the Catechism outlines the differences between mortal sin quite well:

    1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent."

    1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments...

    1859 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.

    1860 Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.

    1861 Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, 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.

    1862 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.

    1863 Venial sin weakens charity; it manifests a disordered affection for created goods; it impedes the soul's progress in the exercise of the virtues and the practice of the moral good; it merits temporal punishment. Deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin. However venial sin does not break the covenant with God. With God's grace it is humanly reparable. "Venial sin does not deprive the sinner of sanctifying grace, friendship with God, charity, and consequently eternal happiness."

  8. ThisCrossIEmbrace,


    "First, you must be in a state of grace. "Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup" (1 Cor. 11:27–28). This is an absolute requirement which can never be dispensed. To receive the Eucharist without sanctifying grace in your soul profanes the Eucharist in the most grievous manner."

    So if you're in a state of mortal sin, you should not be going to communion, rather get thee to confession!

    Read that entire article for the other guidelines- it's helpful!

    Thanks for this post Leila! People are always asking about this topic!

  9. Thanks, Leila - great explanation! I love how you can say it so clearly and briefly. I also REALLY appreciate the note on scruples. I think I mentioned it in another comment, but I feel like today scrupulosity gets overlooked. I was part of a team of CCD teachers and many of the teachers were so anxious to instill the teens with a sense of need for Confession and an understanding that sin does exist, that I feared we were fueling scrupulosity, especially among more sensitive teens. I even fear some think scrupulosity is a form of holiness! But as recently mentioned by a comment on my blog, Luther struggled with scrupulosity to the point that it sparked a very sad divide in the Church. Speaking as a scrupulous melancholic, :) thanks for not leaving that out!

  10. A book that helped me a lot is "Frequent Confession" by Benedict Baur. There are many practical points about the forgiveness of sin in the Church through the Sacraments- confession, Eucharist. I highly recommend it- it brings the Mass alive! And confession too! As I write I am just thinking I should give it another read- it has been way too long!

  11. I am absolutely thrilled when you guys flesh out my posts in the comments!! Excellent!

    Also, one other requirement for receiving Holy Communion worthily is to have fasted for at least one hour prior. This is one of those "disciplines" we talked about here:

    In the pre-Vatican II days, it was a requirement to fast from midnight the night before.

  12. Monica - The New American Bible in one Catholic translation.

    And you do not have to confess venial sins, but it is a good idea if they are plaguing you.

  13. When I have children, can you come help me raise them to be educated Catholics? You amaze me:) I can only imagine how wonderful your precious children are:)

  14. OK- love your post, as always. Here's my "beef" with the subject. Our lovely Catechesis has so focused on the 3 qualifications of mortal sin, that it seems NOTHING is a mortal sin, short of murder- and even that seems like it could be excused as venial. Then they tell us that you only NEED to go to Confession for mortal sin, and so people don't go to Confession! It has been quite the journey (and not close to completion) to flesh out what IS and what ISN'T mortal sin.

    Has anyone else noticed or struggled with this?

  15. Lauren, I agree! Here is something I almost put in: The sins of a "grave matter" are objectively mortal sins, but not always subjectively so. Does that make sense? That is how I think of it, so I still will tell people when discussing behaviors, "That is a mortal sin" without going into the full details of the three conditions, culpability, etc. It's important we know what the "mortal sins" are, objectively.

  16. Angela, thank you, very helpful to have that passage - I will read it to my hubby. (I am always fighting inwardly, trying not to "correct" him, but telling him that receiving communion when not in a state of grace is actually a graver sin against God than the sin that put him out of grace to begin with - that's how my mother taught me. Now I can read him this, because he thinks, rightfully so, that most of my beliefs are just what my mother taught me :) )
    And to be clear, DH isn't a huge mortal sinner :) But he has a bad habit of taking the Lord's name in vain... not always accidentally.

    And Leila, this is a really helpful post, thanks again. For YEARS my poor mother did not receive the Eucharist. My father had not yet converted, and he would not use any kind of NFP... so they contracepted. She sat in church week after week, watching her friends whom she knew were also contracepting go up to receive... but she knew in her heart that making a confession (which she did frequently) but NOT "intending to avoid whatever leads {her} to sin" in the future was not acceptable. Now that she is past her reproductive years, she has told me she feels a peace in her life that was missing for so long - and it's because Jesus was missing. It breaks my heart that she didn't know about Creighton years ago!!

    I'm sure both my hubby and my mother would love the fact that I just shared their past sins with the world. Good thing neither of them reads blogs :) And trust me, my sins are far worse, I'm definately no saint.

  17. That makes total sense, L! I wonder, though, if the sins are objectively moral, than why can't we have more of a "list"? Sure you're not necessarily committing a moral sin just by doing something on "the list", but that doesn't negate the fact that these sins are objectively grave?

  18. TCIE, I am so glad it was helpful! My grandfather had a similar situation. Married to a Protestant, faithfully went to mass, but he did not receive Communion for 20 years, because my grandma refused to be married in the Catholic Church (grandma was a wonderful woman, but she was a bit anti-Catholic). After childbearing years, she finally consented to be married in the Church, my grandpa started receiving the Eucharist again and died a few years later a very holy man.

    Lauren, great question, but some discretion is still needed which makes it hard to give a "list" of mortal sins.... For example, even objectively, stealing can be a mortal sin depending on the circumstances (whom did you steal from, and how much), same with lying, etc. It's sort of like discernment with using NFP.... when is a couple using it selfishly, what is a "serious reason" to avoid, etc. That is stuff the Church does not define.

    If a man steals a coat and a ten dollar bill from a homeless man, it would be a mortal sin, but if he stole the same thing from Bill Gates, not likely.

    Does that make sense?

  19. TCIE, that breaks my heart about your mother! What a strong witness of her faith.
    This brings up another post topic for you, Leila! As wives, what are we called to do in order to reconcile a difference with your spouse when the spouse has put up a wall against following the Church's teaching?

    Also, I understand your point about the subjectivity of mortal sin. Intent and circumstances all come into play. For example, missing Mass on purpose because I felt like it would be a mortal sin, right?
    However, if I had surgery and can't make it, then it is not a mortal sin. Right?

    I have a feeling that the majority of Catholics do not realize that missing Mass is a mortal sin, or they refuse to accept it. My mom actually missed Mass last Sunday because my parents were at a friends' lake house all weekend, and when they got back, my mom decided that she needed to go to her tennis class... so my dad went to Mass alone.

  20. I had NO clue that those "terms" of mortal sin were in the Bible. Note to self-get out my Bible....

    For some odd reason I have always been very AWARE of mortal/venial sins. I am a stickler and have the kind of guilty conscience that God loves and priests tire off:) I go to Confession for everything! You'd think with all that Confession, I'd sin less:)

  21. Megan, you are right that missing mass for illness is not a mortal sin, but since it's not a venial sin, either I wouldn't put that in the category of subjectivity I was talking about. Missing mass on purpose, for no legitimate reason, is a mortal sin (objectively for sure... and subjectively if the three points are fulfilled). BUT there is a distinction here: Mass attendance on Sunday is a discipline which can be dispensed for things like illness, travel in remote areas where there is no access to mass, major acts of charity, etc...

    However, when we are talking doctrine, not discipline, there is no dispensation for that....While you can be dispensed for missing mass for illness, you cannot be dispensed for committing adultery... EVER. So, adultery is always a mortal sin, but might in some circumstances be, subjectively, a venial sin. But it's always a sin. Whereas, missing mass for legitimate reasons is not a sin at all. Does that make sense? Maybe that confused you more, ha ha! It makes sense in my head, but maybe no on else's! :)

    That is sad about your mom. Sigh. And as far as wives... that's a good question. First thing is to PRAY and to offer your sufferings for a husband's conversion of heart. Next, live a life of holiness, mercy, love and forgiveness. Don't be bitter, and don't berate. Let the Holy Spirit work through you, and let your spouse see Christ in you. And pray some more. Everyone has free will, so there is nothing you can do to force anything. But be the best Christian you can be and that will speak volumes.

    Brenda, do you think you might suffer from scrupulosity? I need to work on that post! Seems a lot of good folks do....


    For those of you who might have missed the post on the difference between discipline and doctrine, here it is.

  23. Ironically, I just got this in an email not related to this blog... Note the part in bold. This is from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

    What is Sin?
    #CCC 1849 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."
    #CCC 1850 Sin is an offense against God: "Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight." Sin sets itself against God's love for us and turns our hearts away from it. Like the first sin, it is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become "like gods," knowing and determining good and evil. Sin is thus "love of oneself even to contempt of God."
    #CCC 1855 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. Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.
    #CCC 1860 Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest (emphasis mine).
    #CCC 1861 Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, 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.

  24. So let me get this right...

    Jean Valjean did not commit a mortal sin when he stole the loaf of bread.
    But what about when he stole the silver from the priest?


  25. Leila, that makes sense! :)
    I guess I just wonder about couples who have come to understand the Church's teaching on contraception, but one of them refuses to be open to life. How far do you go with taking a stand and forcing the teaching of the Church? Do they need to abstain, or is it a continued discernment process as one prays for the conversion of the other?
    Obviously this is not my situation, but I'm sure this happens quite a bit.

  26. Megan, great question! You cannot "force" someone to do the right thing. You do not have to cooperate, though. With contraception, it would be like this (this is a made-up couple, not you!):

    If your husband wanted you to be on the Pill, you would say no, that you couldn't do something immoral.

    If the husband wanted to get a vasectomy, you wouldn't consent to it (sign for it), but it's his choice to sin, obviously, so you can't "stop" him.

    If the husband insisted on using a condom, you would try to convince him that you are opposed to that, but as long as you are not the one using it or consenting to it, you are not culpable if he still goes ahead. The question then is: May you completely deny him conjugal relations if he insists on using a condom? No, you may not, because each of you has a duty to each other as far as conjugal relations (not forced, as in rape, of course, but we owe our spouses physical love).

    The overriding issues are: You do not directly participate in the use of the contraception, and you make sure that there is no ambiguity about your feelings. Make sure the husband is very much aware of your moral objections to these contraceptive decisions he makes.

    Beyond that, you simply pray and live as holy a life as possible, hoping for his conversion.

    You would not want to break up a family because of it. But it will be his sin, not yours, if he continues to use contraception.

    Hope that makes sense?

    1. you said, it's the husband's sin, if he wants to use a condom and you say no but he still does... thats on him not on the wife?

      if i follow that same reasoning, why not then if the wife was a drug addict, and she sits back while her husband shoots her up. would that be his sin or her sin?

    2. Hi May! Well, the difference is that no one has the moral right to shoot up with heroin or drugs, and no one has the right to shoot up someone else with drugs, either. That kind of illegal, illicit, dangerous drug use is immoral on its face.

      But, the husband and the wife do have a right to conjugal relations. Marital relations are a positive good, and not something illicit. It is only the contraceptive use that is illicit, and the wife (in this case) does not consent to it. But she can still legitimately consent to relations with her husband, and vice versa.

  27. as a faithful evangelical-free for many years, in the process of becoming catholic ... its verses like these where i wanna cry bc im overjoyed in the Lord's mystery.

    time and time again i come across verses like these, where i never remember reading them and in the light of the Catholic church there's an answer. it's the most beautiful thing.

  28. May, we welcome you with open arms into the Church! You will love being "home"!!! God bless you!

  29. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says in paragraph 1446 that, "Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as "the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.""

    According to Pope John Paul II the Catechism of the Catholic Church "is given as a sure and authentic reference text for teaching Catholic doctrine."

    By the way a confession bible verse John 20:23 if anyone wants biblical proof.


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