This week we’re going to closely examine sin – its definition and the different types. Often times, those outside of the Catholic Church misunderstand the Catholic approach to sin. You’ve probably heard the phrase “Catholic guilt” as a pseudo-explanation for our emphasis on our sins as if to keep us down, wallowing in our own muck, and avoiding the fun in life. The truth is, the Catholic approach to sin provides an honest and vulnerable look at the reality of human nature, while providing hope in mercy and forgiveness and motivation to do better. If heaven is truly our goal, we cannot achieve it without a continual examination of our relationships with God and our neighbors.
Let’s begin with the Catechism’s fundamental definition of sin. “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is a 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 #1849). When we choose something above our love for God and/or neighbor, we sin and damage our relationship with God and with others. This can include material objects, but also non-tangible attachments such as sex, addictions, anger, or gossip, etc. Note also, that the above definition of sin states that it “injures human solidarity.” This is important because it emphasizes that there is no such thing as a victimless sin. You’ve heard it said, “Who cares? I’m not hurting anyone.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. If we are all members of the body of Christ, and we’re all interconnected, then what we choose to do effects all of the members of that body.
The Church differentiates between two types of sin – mortal and venial – and to know the difference is a matter of spiritual life and death. We’ll begin with the lesser of the two: venial sins. They can best be described as all of the little sins each of us commit throughout the day, such as little white lies, uncharitable thoughts or words, fixations on things not of God, and bits of gossip we indulge. Scripture tells us, “For the righteous falls seven times and rises again, but the wicked stumble in times of calamity” (Proverbs 24:16). This is almost a comforting verse, in that it reassures us that even the holiest among us are still weak and vulnerable to temptation, thus helping us to not despair on our own path to holiness. Venial sins are still very much actual sins and, while they damage our relationship with God, they do not break our Covenant with Him (CCC #1863). We may still receive sanctifying grace through the Sacraments and we may still enjoy friendship with God (CCC #1863). The primary problem with venial sin is not the damage that one single sin does, but rather it is the disposition of being in a state of sin that wears us down, causing us to behave less and less virtuously as time goes on. The more we entertain even the smallest of sins, the weaker and weaker we become as we have less self-mastery over our choices. To illustrate this, the Catechism quotes St. Augustine: “While he is in the flesh, man cannot help but have at least some light sins. But do not despise these sins which we call ‘light’: if you take them for light when you weigh them, tremble when you count them. A number of light objects makes a great mass; a number of drops fills a river; a number of grains makes a heap. What then is our hope? Above all, confession…” (CCC #1863). See here, that Augustine’s prescribed remedy for all of these venial sins is confession. You’ll find that many of our holiest saints (and maybe even some people you know today) sought out the Sacrament of Reconciliation as often as weekly, not because they were such horrendous sinners, but because they were on a mission to rid themselves of every propensity to sin rather than to allow themselves to slip into the indifference of sin, which only leads to greater sin.
The other type of sin defined by the Church is mortal sin. Unlike venial sin, mortal sin is very serious sin which completely severs our relationship with God, breaks the covenant, and interrupts our access to His sanctifying grace. “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 #1855). Additionally, if mortal sin is not dealt with by repentance and seeking out 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 forever, with no turning back” (CCC #1861). These words can be difficult to swallow because most of us do not wish to entertain the thought of the horrors of hell, but to ignore reality is to be directly in harm’s way.
In order for a sin to be mortal, three conditions must be met. The first condition is that the sin must be of grave matter. The Catechism states that “grave matter” refers to anything that goes directly against the Ten Commandments. That being said, even among the Ten Commandments, there exists a sliding scale of more or less gravity of an action. Depending on the individual, the circumstances, and other factors, a person can find oneself more or less culpable of very grave sin. This might be considered a little ambiguous and difficult to follow because the gravity of a particular sin depends on so many different factors, making it hard to define in a one-size-fits-all manner. The key is to examine your own actions in light of your own relationship with God and your own faith journey. Consider Jesus’ words to His disciples, “…Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48). While it may be easy, in an earthly sense, to justify or explain away sins of a grave matter, there is no hiding from God. If you have been given much, much will be required of you.
The second condition for a mortal sin to exist is full knowledge. In other words, you must know that the sin is in complete opposition to God’s law (CCC #1850). This again implies a sliding scale of specificity versus ambiguity, but each individual should have some understanding of what it might mean for one’s self. Let’s use the Eucharist as an example here. Say, you have a person who was raised with no understanding of the Catholic Church and her teachings. This person walks into a Mass, receives the Eucharist on his hand, drops it, and then picks it up and throws it away. Conversely, you have a person who was raised in the Catholic Church and has been taught the Church’s doctrine on the full presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. That person chooses to receive and desecrate the Eucharist in some way. Which person is committing an act against God with the full knowledge of doing so? Again, we can see that the standards apply to the individual and, as we become more fully formed in our faith, our culpability for our actions increases.
The final condition for mortal sin is complete consent. This is arguably the simplest criteria to understand. In order for a sin to be considered mortal, you must be making the choice on your own, free from coercion or force. For example, if you commit a serious sin because someone is obliging you to do so under the threat of violence or death, then you are not culpable of a mortal sin. We must be operating under our own free will to be fully accountable for any sin.
Finally, the Catechism finishes off this section with mention of the one unforgiveable sin. “‘Therefore, I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.’ There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss” (CCC #1864). Simply put, to reject God’s mercy, or to doubt it’s even possible to be forgiven, is the ultimate turning away from God. It is ultimately a self-fulfilling prophecy, since it is by your own choice to turn your back to Him that makes Him unable to forgive you, as God will never force Himself, or His mercy, on anyone who does not want it. Therefore, if you find yourself in a state of mortal sin, do not despair. Repent, go to confession, and take steps to amend your life accordingly. God not only can forgive you, He wants to forgive you. Any small step you take will be met with an outpouring of grace for your fortification. This week, take an honest inventory of your sins. Can you see where you have been caught up in a particular rut of venial sin that has worn your resolve down? Are you in danger of being in a state of mortal sin? Ask God to help you root out the sin in your life so that you may experience the fullness of a loving relationship with Him.
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