We all know “mortal” means something very serious: mortal danger, mortal combat, mortal wound.
“Mortal” is so serious that if we see a video game or movie with “mortal” in the title, we look at the rating because we suspect it’s going to be bloody, if not full of death, violence and mayhem.
So when we speak of mortal sin, we get the idea that this is serious stuff.
But who ever heard of anything called “venial combat” or “venial danger?”
Yet the two words — “mortal” and “venial” — are related, at least when it comes to sin.
As Dominican Fr. Jorge Presmanes, a professor of theology at Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla., explains, “In the Catholic tradition, we categorize sin as being either venial (minor) or mortal (death-dealing). A mortal sin is a grave failure of love that is committed freely and deliberately. A venial sin is one that is less serious in nature, or a morally bad act that is grave in matter but committed without full knowledge or consent.”
So while there are a lot of sins — too many to count — they all fall into one of these two categories.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) explains the two this way: “Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of people by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns people away from God, who is their ultimate end and beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him. Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it” (n. 1855).
Mortal sin is deadly — it cuts us off from the life-giving grace of God. In order to restore that grace, we need to be reconciled with God through the sacrament of confession. Venial sin, while serious, does not cut us off from grace. However, it weakens us because we fail in our mission as children of God, and that mission is to love God and others. In some cases, it might even leave us hanging by a thread.
The catechism explains sin as: “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 humans and injures human solidarity” (n. 1849).
Deadly and not deadly are ways to remember mortal and venial sin. St. John explained that “all wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly” (1 Jn 5:17).
When is it mortal?
Mortal sin involves actions we would call “serious” and even “horrendous.” The Baltimore Catechism, which many of our parents and grandparents remember learning, said mortal sin involved “grievous matter.” This meant “that the thought, word or deed by which mortal sin is committed must be either very bad in itself or severely prohibited, and therefore sufficient to make a mortal sin if we deliberately yield to it” (n. 286). The Ten Commandments offer a good guide into figuring out what would constitute “grievous matter.”
However, for a sin to be mortal, there are three general requirements:
- grievous matter,
- sufficient knowledge and
- forethought, along with full consent and deliberate action.
Fr. Joseph Krupp, a priest of the Diocese of Lansing, Mich., who writes for Faith Magazine, offers an easy way to remember these three elements that define mortal sin: C.I.A.
- C for circumstance: “We have to be completely free to choose to sin or not,” Fr. Krupp wrote.
- I for intent: “We have to know that it is a sin, be free to do it and do it anyway.”
- A for action: “The sin needs to be of a serious matter.”
Because a mortal sin is so serious and endangers our souls, we must go to confession and receive absolution as soon as possible. Grace connects us to God and, if we have cut ourselves off from God’s grace, we put ourselves in grave danger. Literally “grave” as in “near death.” This is because our eternal souls stand in mortal danger.
The catechism says if a mortal sin “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” (n. 1861).
That sounds very serious, but we must remember the reassurance that the catechism immediately adds: “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” (n. 1861).
The church also says that, before making a confession and receiving absolution, one who is aware of committing mortal sin should not receive the Eucharist, except under extraordinary circumstances (n. 1457).
While going to confession because of a venial sin is not required for receiving Communion, it is still recommended. After all, as noted above, all sin is a failure of love on our part. Also, venial sin weakens us and makes it easier for us to commit more serious sins. It’s like eating a candy bar: one candy bar isn’t bad; eating several candy bars a day for years is going to weaken your body and leave it open to serious, even deadly, disease. Our souls can be weakened in the same way by doing what is not healthy for us or our relationships. So we need some healthy, and regular, reconciliation with God and others we may have hurt.
As Fr. Presmanes explained, “The goal of confessing any sin, venial or mortal, is to shed light on that which impedes our faithful discipleship of Christ, to accept responsibility for such action, to be reconciled with God and each other, and to receive the grace to be able to continue to grow in the process of conversion.”
Everything needs to grow in health and grace from God who keeps us out of danger, mortal or otherwise.
Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; the Baltimore Catechism; U.S. Catholic Bishops at usccb.org; faithmagazine.com; aleteia.org; and zenit.org