Mortal & Venial Sin

What is Mortal and Venial Sin?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides:

[1855] Mortal Sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God… by preferring an inferior good to him. Venial sin allows charity to subsist, though it offends and wounds it.
[1861] Mortal sin… results in… 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…
[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 complete consent.
[1863] Venial sin weakens charity… and… 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.”

For mortal sin to exist, the CCC teaches that 3 things must be present:

1. grave matter.

Our Lord himself provides us with several of them in Matthew 15:18-20, Revelation 21:8 and 22:15.

St. Paul gives us the rest in Ephesians 5:3-7, Colossians 3:5-6, Galatians 5:19-21, and I Corinthians 6:9-11.

2. full knowledge.

“Though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief.” (1 Timothy 1:13). = did not have full knowledge = not mortal sin

3. full consent.

For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.” (Hebrews 10:26:). = full consent = mortal sin

 

What Does the Bible Have to Say?

Matt. 5:19

Whoever then relaxes (breaks) one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

So, our Lord teaches that there are “least commandments” than can be broken and even taught to others, yet still go to heaven (ie. venial sin, see CCC 1863).

Matt. 12:32:

And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

Now, our Lord states that there are some sins that will not be forgiven either in this age or in the age to come (hints of purgatory as well).

I John 5:16-18:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin that 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 one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not deadly. We know that anyone born of God does not sin, but He who is born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.

St. John here outlines the effects of mortal and venial sin. When the members of the Body of Christ commit venial sin, our prayers can provide healing. But, St. John tells us not to pray for people who commit certain deadly (mortal) sins. Yet, Scripture says in 1 Timothy 2:1-2 that we should pray for all men. So, what’s up with that?

In this context, St. John indicates that praying to God to give someone life (Greek “zo-ay” = divine life of God) who is in deadly sin will not work. For mortal sin, one can only pray that God would grant the grace of repentance to the sinner so that they may be restored to communion with the Body of Christ through the sacrament of confession.

To understand this better, consider the analogy St. Paul uses for the people of God in I Corinthians 12:12-27—the analogy of the physical body of a human being. St. Paul tells us we are all members of “the Body of Christ.” A wounded finger that is still attached to its host body can be healed organically by the rest of the body. That kind of wound is analogous to the effect of venial sin. A severed finger, however, cannot be healed by the rest of the body because it is no longer attached to the body. That kind of wound is analogous to the effect of mortal sin. So it is in the Body of Christ.

Just after distinguishing between mortal (deadly) and venial (non-deadly) sins, St. John says “anyone born of God does not sin.” We know St. John could not be referring to all sin here because he already told us in I John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Christians sin. It is clear from the context that St. John is referring to mortal sin here. If we sin mortally, we are cut off from the Body of Christ and are no longer in union with God. In that sense, the one who is in union with God cannot sin mortally. This is yet another clear distinction between mortal and venial sins in this text.
Early Church Fathers on mortal sin:

“[E]ternal fire was prepared for him who voluntarily departed from God and for all who, without repentance, persevere in apostasy” (fragment in Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5:26 [A.D. 156]). – Justin Martyr

[T]he ungodly and unrighteous and wicked and profane among men [shall go] into everlasting fire; but [he] may, in the exercise of his grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept his commandments, and have persevered in his love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their penance, and may surround them with everlasting glory” (Against Heresies 1:10:1 [A.D. 189]).  – Iraeneus
“Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner and in sorrow, making an open declaration of conscience. . . . I beseech you, brethren, let everyone who has sinned confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession is still admissible, while the satisfaction and remission made through the priests are still pleasing before the Lord” (The Lapsed 28 [A.D. 251]). – Cyprian of Carthage

“There are venial sins and there are mortal sins. It is one thing to owe ten thousand talents, another to owe but a farthing. We shall have to give an accounting for an idle word no less than for adultery. But to be made to blush and to be tortured are not the same thing; not the same thing to grow red in the face and to be in agony for a long time. . . . If we entreat for lesser sins we are granted pardon, but for greater sins, it is difficult to obtain our request. There is a great difference between one sin and another” (Against Jovinian 2:30 [A.D. 393]). – St Jerome

 

Questions answered:

Where do we go if we commit mortal sin and die unrepented?

The Bible refers to mortal sins which – if not repented of – will exclude one from heaven (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 1:8; Eph. 5:5; Heb. 12:16; Rev. 22:15).

More to come…

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