Reflection: Mortal and Venial Sin

by Father Don Thomas

Please note: This paper is not an explanation of mortal and venial sin is just an explanation as to why we have both mortal and venial sin in our catholic theology many other churches simply claim that sin is sin and they do not talk about mortal or venial sin. The nature of mortal and venial sin is another matter all together.


The basis of this reflection are the words we find in Scripture — in 1Jn.5:16-17. "If anyone sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin, which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is a sin that is not mortal". A student of the Bible will clearly note that some sins are more serious than others (Jn 19:11).

Why the confusion or the misunderstanding about mortal and venial sin in our society today? Yes, even in our churches! What is the problem? The problem arises from the fact that many truly good people who believe in God fail to grasp the distinction between the quality of sin and the gravity of sin. Even in friendly discussions about sin, it is not uncommon for those who are not Catholic to say very sincerely that their church is different from the Catholic Church because in the Catholic Church they keep talking about mortal and venial sin, while "in our church, we do not have mortal and venial sin — sin is sin, murder is murder, lying is lying, stealing is stealing, adultery is adultery". There is the problem right there. They fail to see that mortal and venial sin have nothing to do with the "quality" of sin.

They are mixing apples with oranges. In other churches, if lying is lying and stealing is stealing, what do they think lying is in the Catholic Church. Also, stealing is stealing in the Catholic Church and adultery is adultery in the Catholic Church. They are pointing out different kinds of sins, but we have to be very clear that "mortal and venial" are words that are used after a sin is determined, and then it is judged to be a serious, a deadly or mortal sin, or it may be a venial or less serious sin. That is what mortal and venial are all about — the seriousness of the sin. Is lying a mortal or venial sin? Is stealing a mortal or venial sin? Is adultery a mortal or venial sin?

We find out from Christ Himself that some sins like murder, adultery, drunkenness, and other transgressions. Can keep one out of the Kingdom of Heaven. Then we also find out from the teaching authority of the Church that some sins are more serious than others. The Church gets the right and the power to determine such things from Christ Himself Who said that all power in heaven and on earth had been given to Him by His heavenly Father. Then he went on to say that as the Father had sent Him, He was now sending the first members of His Church to teach, to rule and to sanctify. He also said that those who would hear them would be hearing Him, and those who rejected them would be rejecting Him. In rejecting Him, we would be rejecting His Heavenly Father Who sent Him.

In continuing this reflection, let me stress the importance of Religious Education for children and for Adults. Both are available and very important to study and learn about such issues as this. This consideration has not been an attempt to explain the nature of mortal or venial sin, but rather an effort to show why the distinction exists. Otherwise, if we maintain that stealing is stealing, who's going to deny that? And if we believe that is true, and it is, what would be the attitude of two people who are caught stealing — one stealing two dollars, and the other stealing fifty thousand dollars? I think that when they appear in court and the Judge says to the one who stole fifty thousand dollars "o.k., twenty years in prison" and then he turns to the one who stole two dollars and says "twenty years for you also", I think the latter would be very quick to complain about that. "He stole fifty thousand and I stole only two dollars, Judge. It's not fair, because the punishment should be proportionate to the crime"

And so, all of a sudden "Stealing is stealing" doesn't seem to be satisfactory. No one is denying that both offenses are "stealing", but it becomes eminently clear that there is a big difference between stealing two dollars and fifty thousand. And there is a big difference between killing one person and forty-five people. Both crimes are murder, but one is more serious than the other, and that is what mortal and venial sin are all about — the gravity of the offense. Yes, some sins are more serious than others. It is wise to agree with God Who revealed this truth so clearly in the Bible when He said that "the one who has betrayed Me has committed the greater sin".


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