As a supplement to my formal education in the Anglican tradition, last fall I completed all of the education required to be confirmed into the Catholic Church.
One of the assigned texts was "We Believe…" - A Survey of the Catholic Faith by Oscar Lukefahr, C.M. I've transcribed his differentiation between venial and mortal sins below:
-When we choose evil, acting against our consciences, we commit what is called actual or personal sin. Sin begins in our own free will, as we choose to act in a way contrary to God's will. Sin may find expression in actions whether external, such as murder or theft, or internal, such as lustful thoughts, envy or hatred. Sin may find expression also in omissions when we fail to do what we ought, as when we neglect the poor or fail to worship God.
Sin can exist in different degrees. We may be trying to follow Christ and direct our lives in accord with God's commandments so that our fundamental direction is toward God. But we can so something wrong or fail to do what is right because we are weak or selfish. If our failing is of such a nature that it does not sever our bond of love with God, it is known as venial sin. Examples of such sins might be carelessness of prayer, unkind words, and bouts of temper. These sins may be venial, but we should try to overcome them, for just as minor failings can damage our relationship with others, so venial sins can weaken our friendship with God and lead to more serious failings.
Some sins are so serious that they reverse the course of our lives, turn us from God, and change our fundamental direction to sin and death. These are mortal sins, sins that are deadly because they cut us off from God's love. (Mortal sins are often referred to as grave or serious sins). Paul gives examples of such sins:
"Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God." (Galatians 5:19-21) […]
|My Copy of "We Believe" By Oscar Lukefahr|
Photo By Donna Welles (06/16/12)
It is not possible to establish precise guidelines that would determine in every case whether a sin is mortal or venial. Some sins are obviously mortal, such as murder and adultery, while others are obviously venial, such as little acts of disobedience by a small child. Others can leave doubt. It would be a venial sin for a child to steal a piece of candy from a store and (objectively, at least) and a mortal sin for a thief to steal a poor widow's life savings. But we cannot so easily determine degrees of guilt between these two extremes.
Theologians explain that three conditions must be present for a mortal sin. First, there must be a serious matter, something that causes serious harm to others or ourselves or is a serious affront to God. Second, there must be sufficient reflection: the sinner must be fully aware of the wickedness of the action. Most small children do not have the mental capacity to comprehend the evil of sin and so could not commit a mortal sin. Adults who are mentally deficient or have had no opportunity to learn about right and wrong might also be incapable of mortal sin. Third, there must be a full consent of the will: the sinner must freely chose to do what is evil. A man forced to steal money because his child is being held hostage would not have true freedom. Some people can be so damaged emotionally by background or illness that they do not have the freedom or moral maturity necessary to commit mortal sin. But when all three conditions- serious matter, sufficient reflection, and full consent of the will- are present, mortal sin exists.