Mortal and Venial Sin
In the homily this weekend, Fr. Willig and I are discussing the times when we shouldn’t receive Holy Communion. It is good for us to receive Holy Communion, however, when we have committed mortal sin, we need to go to confession before receiving Holy Communion. When we have knowingly committed mortal sin, we should go to confession as soon as possible.
We must distinguish between mortal and venial sin. The distinction in sin comes from the First Letter of St. John, “If anyone sees his brother committing what is not a deadly (mortal) sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. 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 mortal” (1 John 5:16-17).
There are three conditions that must be present for a sin to be mortal. First, the action must be “grave matter” or serious. The basic understanding of a serious sin comes from the Ten Commandments. Jesus reiterates these in his instructions 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” (Mark 10:19). Grave matter is anything that directly violates the Ten Commandments.
This involves not keeping Holy the Sabbath; skipping Mass on Sunday is grave matter. Of course, those who are sick, caring for the sick, or nursing infants aren’t required to attend Mass. If you are traveling and legitimately unable to attend Mass, you can receive a dispensation from the Sunday obligation from me, your pastor. Grave matter also relates to sins against chastity, taking the Lord’s name, stealing, bearing false witness, or theft.
The second condition for a sin to be mortal is that the individual must have knowledge that it is grave matter; he or she must know that it is serious. The third condition for mortal sin is that there must be full consent of the will. There must be a deliberate personal choice of the individual.
The Catechism describes the seriousness of mortal sin stating, “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” (paragraph 1861). Mortal sin is a possibility because God has given us free will. We have the power to make eternal choices. Choices that take us to life or choices that take us to death.
Based on the teaching of St. Paul, the Church instructs us not to receive Holy Communion when we are in a state of mortal sin. St. Paul says, “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. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. This is why many of you are weak and ill” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).
A venial sin is a less serious matter, “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.” Although less serious, venial sins take us away from our Creator and Lord.
God constantly offers us His salvation. He never turns His back on the sinner who returns to Him. Like the Father in the story of the prodigal son, He is ready to run out and meet the sinner who comes back. The mercy of the Lord is constantly waiting to bring us back to friendship with Christ. There is no unforgivable sin, except those that we don’t confess.
Finally, the Catechism reminds us not to judge each other. Although we can judge acts, whether good or evil, we can never judge a soul. Only God can judge souls.
These can be hard teachings to receive. They can challenge our confidence. Hard teachings are always part of God’s mercy. He offers us the truth to draw us closer to Himself. Just like a parent who warns their children about dangers, the Church warns us about the most serious dangers in our lives.
Sincerely in Christ,
Fr. Sean Wilson
The image used is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer. From Wikimedia Commons.