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Mortal Sin in Context

Even casual Catholics likely know the two categories of sin: mortal and venial. They may not be able to define the categories accurately, but they surely know the former is more serious than the latter. They know that because the doctrine about sin is one of the first lessons Catholics learn.

What may surprise the readers of this newsletter is my assertion that scrupulous people generally have more in common with casual Catholics than people might believe. They may know more about sin than casual Catholics, but scrupulous people seem to see every sin as a mortal sin. This perception casts their religious faith in a negative light.

The tried-and-true Baltimore Catechism, the standard tool for Catholic formation many years ago, defines mortal sin in a common-sense way, attempting to remedy this unfortunate negative circumstance, making clear the difference between mortal and venial sins. 

The Baltimore Catechism states that three things are needed for a sin to be mortal. First, the thought, desire, word, action, or omission must be seriously wrong or considered seriously wrong; second, the person must be mindful of the serious wrong; third, the person must fully consent to it. Only when all three conditions are met can a sin be classified as mortal, according to the old catechism.

It then explains the consequences of committing a mortal sin: “Besides depriving the sinner of sanctifying grace, mortal sin makes the soul an enemy of God, takes away the merit of all its good actions, deprives it of the right to everlasting happiness in heaven, and makes it deserving of everlasting punishment in hell.”

The newer Catechism of the Catholic Church, simplifies the definition. “For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent” (CCC 1857). Unintentional ignorance, the promptings of feelings and passions, and external pressures or pathological disorders can diminish the seriousness of the sin (CCC 1860). These elaborations resulted from a greater understanding of psychology. And while hell can be an end result of unforgiven mortal sin, “we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God” (CCC 1861). 

In general, scrupulous people, through no fault of their own but perhaps because of a miscalculation, end their research about sin with these definitions. They then apply the principles, but they do so erroneously. Scrupulosity keeps the sufferer from excusing circumstances, ensuring that the catastrophic and most serious application of the definition of sin will be made because it will generate the anxiety that the scrupulosity needs in order to ravage the person’s peacefulness.

The consequences of mortal sin that the Baltimore Catechism outlines are frightening and serious. People with scrupulosity should ask, “How does my supposed responsibility and designation of sin deserve these consequences?” God is just, no doubt. God is merciful, no doubt. And God is not a bully who sets up traps of mortal sin to catch a person unaware and then condemn him or her to an eternity in hell.

So is it possible that an intrusive thought is a moral sin? Is it possible you could entertain an intrusive thought for a period of time and make it a mortal sin? How about thoughts about normal and God-created human functions, including sexuality. Are these thoughts mortal sins? Can we imagine God rubbing his hands in delight as souls are thrown into hell? That kind of God does not exist, except in the imaginings of the disordered scrupulous mind. That is not God. That is a disorder.

The Church believes and teaches that mortal sins exist, and I believe and teach what the Church believes and teaches. But the Church and I do not believe that mortal sin is casual, accidental, or a moral trap set by God to catch his people. This sin is uncommon and not rampant in the world or in people who suffer from scrupulosity. Scrupulous people who worry constantly about their relationship with God cannot freely consent to the conditions required for mortal sin. That is an absurd contradiction.

I hope that readers who convince themselves that they are guilty of mortal sins might reconsider after they understand the context I have presented. The terrible consequences of mortal sin are serious. Would it not be required for simple justice, let alone for applied mercy and forgiveness from God, that these consequences can only occur when the sin is actually serious and grave? The action must be proportional to the consequences. From start to finish.

—Thomas Santa, CSsR

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