Words often get in the way of meanings. As a moral theologian, I often use a particular definition, whereas the person with whom I’m speaking may have in mind a different definition. The result is a situation in which neither of us hears the other’s point. We’re using the same word but without a shared understanding of its meaning. To further complicate matters, in theology, the word sin is subdivided into material and formal, mortal and venial, personal and structural, individual and social, and so on. So when we talk about the application of sin to specific types of actions or choices, it’s essential that we have a shared understanding of at least the most basic definition of sin.
The biblical understanding should take precedence. Sin, as most commonly referenced in the Scriptures, means, “to miss the target.” I prefer to substitute “point” for “target.” When we sin, we miss the point of life. We’re created to give glory to God and to authenticate God’s image in this world. Any action or choice that doesn’t give glory to God, authentically reflect God’s goodness, or conform to God’s will is one that reveals we have missed the point. In this sense, sin is less about what we have or haven’t done. It refers to orienting our lives away from God and goodness.
Given this basic understanding, let’s subdivide sin into material and formal sin. Material sin is any action—considered apart from subjective considerations of intention, motivation, knowledge, or freedom in the person who performs these acts—that is objectively evil. This includes acts of theft, adultery, lies, and so forth. The concept of material sin preserves the idea that some actions are wrong by their very nature. Material sins can be more or less grave, depending on the specific good lost or harm inflicted.
Formal sin adds in the subjective considerations. Formal sin is the free, knowing, and deliberate choice to engage in material sin—to do what we know to be evil. When we say “stealing,” we’re talking about material sin. This is different from saying that I committed the formal sin of stealing. Here, we mean that I deliberately and freely chose to take what rightfully belongs to another, knowing it was wrong to do so. Material sin is in the act chosen; formal sin is in the will of the one who chooses. It’s possible to perform one without the other.
All formal sin, and only formal sin, affects our relationship with God. The more severe the material gravity of the sin, and the freer and more knowing the choice to commit the material sin, the further away from the point or target our life flies. A mortal sin is one that, in its material aspect, is so grave that it reverses the orientation of our life away from God and toward evil. Serious and venial sins weaken our minds and wills. Unchallenged, these make it more likely to fall into mortal sin, but they don’t completely destroy our relationship of love with God.
The most important point to remember is that Jesus came into the world so that sin can be forgiven. This is the good news we proclaim, which is the source of humanity’s hope. That we sometimes sin is less important than the reality that Christ died to set us free from the power of sin and death over our lives. Where sin abounds, grace abounds even more.
Fr. Stephen Rehrauer, CSSR