The Doctrine of Mortal and Venial Sin

The following is Essay 01 of a new essay series that I am working on titled “The Mortal Sin of Protestantism: How Eve Proves the Doctrine of Venial Sin”.

Although Protestant denominations—be they Evangelicals, Anglicans, Baptists, Pentecostals, or otherwise—differ amongst themselves in their theology as well as in what aspects of sacred scripture they emphasize, one area in which nearly all Protestant sects agree concerns the issue of mortal and venial sin. And they agree in this area in the sense that they all repudiate the claim that there is any such distinction between sins. Indeed, due to its alleged lack of biblical support, the Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sins is rejected by nearly all Protestant denominations (and note that we must say ‘nearly all’ Protestant denominations rather than simply ‘all’ of them, because one can never be sure what doctrines some small Protestant denomination or group might actually accept).

Now, given that this series of essays seeks to show that it is actually the Protestant denial of mortal and venial sin which is the unbiblical position, it behooves us to first be absolutely clear as to what the doctrine of mortal and venial sin means. And in order to achieve this definitional clarity, it is necessary to turn to the primary Catholic source that articulates this distinction between mortal and venial sins: namely, the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Mortal Sin

In essence, Catholic doctrine defines a mortal sin as a sin which, if freely committed with full knowledge of its sinful nature, and yet not repented of before death, leads a person to spiritual death and eternal damnation upon that person’s physical death. So, for example, pre-meditated murder is a clear example of a mortal sin, whereas accidentally hitting someone with your car, is not.

Now, more specifically, in a number of key paragraphs found in Part Three, Section One, Chapter One of the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Catholic doctrine of mortal sin is articulated in the following manner:

[Quote] 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. … Mortal sin…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. (Paragraphs 1855 & 1861)

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.” Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments…. Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. (Paragraphs 1857, 1858, 1859)

Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offence. … The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offence, as can external pressures and pathological disorders. (Paragraph 1860) [Unquote,  http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_P6C.HTM]

So, as stated earlier, a serious and fully informed sin, such as pre-meditated murder, or, say, a pre-planned theft of a senior-citizen’s life savings, are mortal sins. By contrast, a three-year-old child punching his sister in a fit of uncontrolled childish anger is not a mortal sin. So this is what mortal sin is.

Venial Sin

In contrast to a mortal sin, a venial sin, if committed and yet not repented of, does not lead a person to spiritual death and eternal damnation upon that person’s physical death. And again, in the aforementioned section of the Catechism, this doctrine of venial sin is specifically articulated as follows:

[Quote] Venial sin allows charity to subsist even though it offends and wounds us. … Venial sin weakens charity…it merits temporal punishment. However venial sin does not break the covenant with God. With God’s grace it is humanly reparable. ‘Venial sin does not deprive the sinner of sanctifying grace, friendship with God, charity, and consequently eternal happiness.’ (Paragraphs 1855 & 1863)

One commits venial sin when, in a less serious manner, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent. (Paragraph 1862) [Unquote, http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_P6C.HTM%5D

Now, in light of the above, consider that if a rich warlord were to freely and knowingly rob a convoy of food bound for starving and dying refugees, he would be committing a mortal sin, and yet a homeless boy who, in mindless desperation and hunger, steals a slice of bread for himself and his starving sister, is sinning in just a venial way. So this is the type of distinction that exists between mortal and venial sins (although it should be noted that un-repented venial sins, if accumulated, can essentially become mortal in nature, thereby leading a person to damnation, and so venial sins are neither benign nor safe).

And so, the distinction between mortal and venial sins arises from considerations about the gravity of the sin, a person’s knowledge concerning the sin itself, and the free consent of the person committing the sin. This is the Catholic doctrine of mortal and venial sins, and this is the doctrine that essentially all Protestant groups reject.

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