Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

From the April AD 1997
Our Lady of the Rosary
Parish Bulletin

    Question: How does one distinguish between mortal and venial sin? (P.L. Chicago)

    Answer: The standard definition is given in the Baltimore Catechism:

To make a sin mortal three things are necessary:

1. The thought, desire, word, action, or omission must be seriously wrong or considered seriously wrong.

2. The sinner must be mindful of the serious wrong.

3. The sinner must fully consent to it.

A sin can be venial in two ways:

1. When the evil done is not seriously wrong.

2. When the evil done is seriously wrong, but the sinner believes that it is only slightly wrong, or does not give full consent to it.1

    A person acting out of grave fear or physical necessity, impaired by mental or physical illness, in the heat of anger, or before reaching the use of reason may not fully consent to his sin. Drunkenness or drug use might similarly excuse, unless the sinner became intoxicated with the intent of avoiding responsibility for the sin.

    One must be aware that a particular behavior is sinful for it to be so. In theory we can know the moral law through natural reason, but in practice not everyone makes the effort, and some are influenced to accept evil behavior as a part of their culture. For this reason God has revealed the moral law to us through the teaching of Moses in the Old Testament and Jesus Christ in the New. While there is still the possibility of ignorance of the law, people have a positive obligation to try to form their consciences in accordance with God's revelation. To remain purposefully ignorant does not excuse from sin and is sinful in itself. While not of divine institution, Catholics are also bound to obey the precepts established by the Church (laws concerning fast and abstinence, the regulation of marriage, annual Confession and Communion, etc.)

    Perhaps a little more complicated is the matter of determining what is seriously wrong:

    Those sins are gravest of all, which attack God's Divine Nature and His attributes; they are followed next in point of gravity, by sins which are directly contrary to the sanctity of Christ's Sacred Humanity and the Sacraments, the divine order of the Church, the good of the race and of society, the spiritual essential goods of oneself and neighbor, and then the temporal goods.

    Therefore in respect to God, the following are serious sins: Hatred of God, of His Attributes, unbelief, apostasy, heresy, despair, blasphemy, idolatry, superstition, perjury, sins against our Lord in His Humanity, sins against the Blessed Sacrament, simony, sacrilege, violation of vows and oaths.

    In respect of man's person, those sins are more grievous which are against oneself, then the same sins against parents, relatives, superiors, and others.

    In respect of spiritual and temporal goods, those sins are most grievous which do serious harm to life of soul or body, then those which seriously violate conjugal rights, good name, external goods.

    In the case of sins that effect the person more immediately, the serious sins are suicide, parricide, murder, impurity, and in this last category, sins against nature are worse than other sins.2

    Some sins that would otherwise be serious can be diminished by "parvity (insignificance) of matter." The obvious example is the theft of someone's external goods, a serious sin, but one that becomes less significant if the value of what is taken is very small and the loss causes no hardship to the owner. On the other hand, by nature some sins are always significant: one cannot commit just a little bit of murder or adultery.

    Sometimes it is not exactly clear if a particular sin was mortal or venial. Such sins should be confessed, together with all mortal sins committed since the last Confession. The confessor is usually in a better position to judge objectively than the penitent, and the grace of the Sacrament works against all habits of sin, serious or not. We should not want to offend God in any way, big or little.

    Finally, one should avoid the occasions of sin. Often, we find that certain persons, places or things make us more likely to sin. To the degree that it is possible, we are obligated to stay away from them. Extreme hardship might excuse us from such avoidance; loss of employment, or being married to a person who is an occasion of sin, for example. But even in extreme cases we should be working to alter the situation; finding another job, or getting the spouse to stop the sinful behavior, in the examples given above.

    All sin should be avoided. The best way to do so is to live a live close to our Lord in prayer, good works, and frequent reception of the Sacraments.


1. Bennet Kelley, C.P., Ed., The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism No. 2 (NY: Catholic Book, 1962) Nos. 69, 71.

2. Henry Davis, S.J., Moral and Pastoral Theology (London: Sheed and Ward, 1935), vol. I, p. 214.


Dei via est íntegra
Our Lady of the Rosary, 144 North Federal Highway (US#1), Deerfield Beach, Florida 33441  954+428-2428
Authentic  Catholic Mass, Doctrine, and Moral Teaching -- Don't do without them -- 
Don't accept one without the others!