A mortal sin (Latin: peccatum mortale), in Catholic theology, is a gravely sinful act, which can lead to damnation if a person does not repent of the sin before death. A sin is considered to be “mortal” when its quality is such that it leads to a separation of that person from God’s saving grace. This type of sin should be distinguished from a venial sin that simply leads to a weakening of a person’s relationship with God. Despite its gravity, a person can repent of having committed a mortal sin. Such repentance is the primary requisite for forgiveness and absolution. Teaching on absolution from serious sins has varied somewhat throughout history. The current Catholic teaching was formalized at the 16th century Council of Trent.
According to Catholic teaching, perfect contrition, coupled with a firm resolution to sin no more, can restore a person’s relationship with God, as well as God’s saving grace. Under ordinary circumstances, this restoration takes place through absolution, which is received during the Sacrament of Penance. However, as God’s mercy and forgiveness is not bound by the Sacrament of Penance, under extraordinary circumstances a mortal sin can be remitted through perfect contrition, which is a human act that arises from a person’s love of God. When perfect contrition is the means by which one seeks to restore one’s relationship with God, there must also be a resolution to confess all mortal sins (that have not been confessed and absolved previously) in the Sacrament of Penance. A resolution to confess these sins should be made with an act of perfect contrition, regardless of whether or not a person believes that they will have access to the Sacrament of Penance.
The term “mortal sin” is thought to be derived from the New Testament of the Bible. Specifically, it has been suggested that the term comes from the 1 John 5:16–17. In this particular verse, the author of the Epistle writes “There is a sin that leads to death.”
- Its subject matter must be grave.
- It must be committed with full knowledge (and awareness) of the sinful action and the gravity of the offense.
- It must be committed with deliberate and complete consent.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines grave matter:
1858. Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother.” The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.
This would include worshiping other gods and blasphemy. Although the Church itself does not provide a precise list of mortal sins or divide actions into mortal and venial categories, Church documents do name certain “grave sins” as well as “offenses” and “actions” whose subject-matter is considered to be grave. For example, in the area of human sexuality, the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that the following actions can involve increased gravity: extramarital sex, divorce (but not legitimate separation), and masturbation.
With respect to a person’s full knowledge of a certain act being a mortal sin, the Catholic Church teaches that “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 (mental illness). Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.” Furthermore, Catholic teaching also holds that “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors.” In this regard, a sin committed while one is inebriated may lack the awareness and consent necessary for the sin to be mortal. But when one becomes aware of the danger of excessive drink, such drinking itself becomes a serious matter.
Mortal sins should not to be confused with the seven deadly sins. The latter are not necessarily mortal sins; they are sins that lead to other sins.
Mortal sins are sometimes called “grave”, “grievous”, or “serious” sins, but this term seems to deny the other two conditions necessary for mortal sin. Theological debate also exists as to whether the term introduces a third category of sins.
Mortal sins must be confessed by naming the specific offence along with how many times it was committed. It is not necessary to confess venial sins although they may be confessed, a practice that began with the Irish monks around the 12th century. Venial sins are all sins that are not mortal. The Church encourages frequent, intelligent use of the sacrament of confession even if a person has only venial sins, in view of the benefits that might be derived.
According to the Catholic Church, no person can receive or receive the Eucharist if it is in a state of mortal sin:
1457 Anyone who is aware of having committed a mortal sin must not receive Holy Communion, even if he experiences deep contrition, without having first received sacramental absolution, unless he has a grave reason for receiving Communion and there is no possibility of going to confession.
Some mortal sins cause automatic excommunication by the very deed itself, for example renunciation of faith and religion, known as apostasy, desecration of the Eucharistic species, and “a completed abortion”. Those mortal sins are so serious that the Church through law has made them crimes. The Church forbids the excommunicated from receiving any sacrament (not just the Eucharist) and also severely restricts the person’s participation in other Church liturgical acts and offices. A repentant excommunicated person may talk to a priest, usually in a confessional, about their excommunication to arrange for the remission. Remission cannot be denied to someone who has truly repented their actions and has also made suitable reparation for damages and scandal or at least has seriously promised to do so. However, even if excommunicated, a Catholic who has not been juridically absolved is still, due to the irrevocable nature of baptism, a member of the Catholic Church, albeit their communion with the Christ and the Church is gravely impaired. “Perpetual penalties cannot be imposed or declared by decree.” However, “the following are expiatory penalties which can affect an offender either perpetually….”
Since the mid-twentieth century, some theologians have taught that a person who lives by a constant attitude of charity is unlikely to fall in and out of God’s graces without being profoundly aware of the change. The term “fundamental option” arose and is used in a variety of senses. Pope John Paul II reaffirmed traditional teaching going back to the Council of Trent in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, as does the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states: “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire’.” The Catechism then adds: “The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.”However, the Catechism does not by name say a specific person is in Hell, but it does say that “…our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back.” Most significantly, the Catechism also proclaims that “There are no limits to the mercy of God…” and that “although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offence, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.” We cannot see into their mind to know if it was deliberate or committed in full knowledge. Also, like the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, God forgives those who repent sincerely. Vatican II, in its Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, reflects the traditional teaching of the Church.
Eastern Catholic churches
Eastern Catholic churches (autonomous, self-governing [in Latin, sui iuris] particular churches in full communion with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope), which derive their theology and spirituality from some of the same sources as the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox, use the Latin Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sin, though they are not named mortal and venial.
Actions constituting a “grave matter”
The following is a partial list of actions that are defined as constituting a grave matter by the Catechism of the Catholic Church or like sources (such as declarations by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Apostolic Letters, or other sources printed by Church authorities).
|Abortion||“Direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means,” is “gravely contrary to the moral law. The Church imposes the canonical penalty of excommunication for this crime against human life.”|
|Encouragement of another’s grave sins or vices||“Every word or attitude is forbidden which by flattery, adulation, or complaisance encourages and confirms another in malicious acts and perverse conduct. Adulation is a grave fault if it makes one an accomplice in another’s vices or grave sins. Neither the desire to be of service nor friendship justifies duplicitous speech. Adulation is a venial sin when it only seeks to be agreeable, to avoid evil, to meet a need, or to obtain legitimate advantages.”|
|Adultery||…refers to marital infidelity. When two partners, of whom at least one is married to another party, have sexual relations – even transient ones – they commit adultery. Christ condemns even adultery of mere desire. The sixth commandment and the New Testament forbid adultery absolutely. The prophets denounce the gravity of adultery; they see it as an image of the sin of idolatry.”|
|Apostasy||“the total repudiation of the Christian faith”|
|Blasphemy||… is contrary to the respect due God and his holy name. It is in itself a grave sin.”|
|Cheating and unfair wagers||“Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant.”|
|Contraception||“Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means.”
“On the other hand, the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from—provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.”
|Defrauding a worker of a just wage||“A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice. In determining fair pay both the needs and the contributions of each person must be taken into account. “Remuneration for work should guarantee man the opportunity to provide a dignified livelihood for himself and his family on the material, social, cultural and spiritual level, taking into account the role and the productivity of each, the state of the business, and the common good.” Agreement between the parties is not sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages.”|
|Divorce||If civil divorce, which cannot do anything to the spiritual marriage in the eyes of God, remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the protection of inheritance, or the care of the children it is not a sin. To attempt remarriage (outside the Church) without pursuing dissolution of the prior marriage would constitute adultery and so be a grave matter.|
|Endangerment of human life or safety||…endangering one’s own life or the safety of others (e.g., by drunkenness, a love of speed on the road, at sea, or in the air, or gross negligence).|
|Participation in Freemasonry||“The faithful who enroll in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion.”|
|Envy||…if to the level of wishing grave harm to another.|
|Euthanasia||…of human beings with souls. Euthanising non-human animals is not considered an offense.|
|Extreme anger||…at the level of truly and deliberately desiring to seriously hurt or kill someone|
|Fornication||…is carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman.”
“Among the sins gravely contrary to chastity are masturbation, fornication, pornography, and homosexual practices.”
|Hatred||…of a neighbor to the point of deliberately desiring him or her great harm|
|Heresy||“the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same”|
|Homosexual actions||“Among the sins gravely contrary to chastity are masturbation, fornication, pornography, and homosexual practices.”|
|Incest||…corrupts family relationships and marks a regression toward animality.”|
|Lying||Can be a mortal sin. The gravity is measured by “the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intentions of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims.” If not grave matter, lying is a venial sin.|
|Masturbation||The gravity is measured by, “the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.”
“Among the sins gravely contrary to chastity are masturbation, fornication, pornography, and homosexual practices.”
|Failing One’s Duty to Attend Mass||“[T]he faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.”
“Even if in the earliest times [Mass attendance] was not judged necessary to be prescriptive, the Church has not ceased to confirm this obligation of conscience, which rises from the inner need felt so strongly by the Christians of the first centuries. It was only later, faced with the half-heartedness or negligence of some, that the Church had to make explicit the duty to attend Sunday Mass: more often than not, this was done in the form of exhortation…The present Code reiterates…saying that ‘on Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to attend Mass’. This legislation has normally been understood as entailing a grave obligation.”
|Murder||…and co-operation in murder. Abortion and euthanasia as well as acceptance by human society of murderous famines without trying to fix them are included as murder. “Unintentional killing is not morally imputable. But one is not exonerated from grave offense if, without proportionate reasons, he has acted in a way that brings about someone’s death, even without the intention to do so.” Self-defense or defense of others when there is no other, way may involve homicide but does not constitute murder.|
|Perjury||“a perjury is committed when he makes a promise under oath with no intention of keeping it, or when after promising on oath he does not keep it.”|
|Polygamy||“… is contrary to the equal personal dignity of men and women who in matrimony give themselves with a love that is total and therefore unique and exclusive.” The Christian who has previously lived in polygamy has a grave duty in justice to honor the obligations contracted in regard to his former wives and his children.|
|Pornography||“… does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense.”|
|Practicing magic or sorcery||“All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others – even if this were for the sake of restoring their health – are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it. Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another’s credulity.”|
|Prostitution||“While it is always gravely sinful to engage in prostitution, the imputability of the offense can be attenuated by destitution, blackmail, or social pressure.”|
|Rape||…is the forcible violation of the sexual intimacy of another person. It does injury to justice and charity. Rape wounds the respect, freedom, and physical and moral integrity to which every person has a right. It causes grave damage that can mark the victim for life|
|Sacrilege||…consists in profaning or treating unworthily the sacraments and other liturgical actions, as well as persons, things, or places consecrated to God. Sacrilege is a grave sin especially when committed against the Eucharist (i.e., receiving Communion while in a state of mortal sin committed post-baptism).”|
|Scandal||Deliberately causing someone to sin gravely.|
|Schism||“the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”|
|Simony||Buying or selling spiritual things, such as sacraments.|
|Suicide||“Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.”
“We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”
|Terrorism||“Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately; it is gravely against justice and charity.”|
|Unjust prices||Refusing or withholding a just wage or taking advantage of the poor can be grave matter if serious enough.|
According to Fr. Allyne Smith, “While the Roman Catholic tradition has identified particular acts as ‘mortal’ sins, in the Orthodox tradition we see that only a sin for which we don’t repent is ‘mortal.'”
In the Orthodox Church there are no “categories” of sin as found in the Christian West. In the pre-Vatican II Catholic catechism, sins were categorized as “mortal” and “venial.” In this definition, a “mortal” sin was one which would prevent someone from entering heaven unless one confessed it before death… These categories do not exist in the Orthodox Church. Sin is sin. Concerning Confession, having a list of deadly sins could, in fact, become an obstacle to genuine repentance. For example, imagine that you commit a sin. You look on the list and do not find it listed. It would be very easy to take the attitude that, since it is not on a list of deadly sins, it is not too serious. Hence, you do not feel the need to seek God’s forgiveness right away. A week passes and you have completely forgotten about what you had done. You never sought God’s forgiveness; as a result, you did not receive it, either. We should go to Confession when we sin—at the very least, we should ask God to forgive us daily in our personal prayers. We should not see Confession as a time to confess only those sins which may be found on a list.
Though not part of the dogma of the Orthodox Church the mortal/venial distinction is assumed by some Orthodox authors and saints as a theologoumenon. For example, Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov (1807–1867), in his book A Word on Death, in a chapter entitled “Mortal sin”, says:
It has been said earlier that mortal sin of an Orthodox Christian, not being cured by repentance, submits him to eternal suffering; it has also been said that the unbelievers, Muslims, and other non-orthodox, even here are the possession of hell, and are deprived of any hope of salvation, being deprived of Christ, the only means of salvation. Mortal sins for Christians are the next: heresy, schism, blasphemy, apostasy, witchery, despair, suicide, fornication, adultery, unnatural carnal sins,* incest, drunkenness, sacrilege, murder, theft, robbery, and every cruel and brutal injury. Only one of these sins—suicide—cannot be healed by repentance, and every one of them slays the soul and makes the soul incapable of eternal bliss, until he/she cleans himself/herself with due repentance. If a man falls but once in any of these sins, he dies by soul: For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one, he is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law. (James 2:10,11)
* Under “unnatural carnal sins” the following are implied: sodomy, bestiality, masturbation, and any unnatural intercourse between married people (such as using contraceptives, consummated oral or consummated anal intercourse, etc.) as is explained in the book Ascetical Trials, also written by Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov (1807–1867).
Similarly, the Exomologetarion of Nicodemus the Hagiorite (1749–1809) distinguishes seven classes of sin:
- Near the pardonable
- Near the non-mortal
- Between the mortal and the non-mortal
- Near the mortal
Nicodemus gives the following example for the seven classes of sin. “The initial movement of anger is pardonable; near to the pardonable is for someone to say harsh words and get hot-tempered. A non-mortal sin is to swear; near the non-mortal is for someone to strike with the hand. Between the non-mortal and the mortal is to strike with a small stick; near the mortal is to strike with a large stick, or with a knife, but not in the area of the head. A mortal sin is to murder. A similar pattern applies to the other sins. Wherefore, those sins nearer to the pardonable end are penanced lighter, while those nearer to the mortal end are more severely penanced.”
He also stipulates seven conditions of sin:
- Who is the doer of the sin
- What sin was committed
- Why was it committed
- In what manner was it committed
- At what time/age was it committed
- Where was it committed
- How many times was it committed
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia