Sunday, January 29, 2023



For something to be an actual sin within the category of a “mortal sin”, three things are necessary as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

1. Serious Matter

2. You have to know that it is a serious sin (knowledge)

3. You commit the act with full consent of the will and usually with forethought and planning 

If any of those are missing, even one, the serious act is not a mortal sin but rather a venial sin. It remains a sin, though not mortal. I think this is what many don’t understand or neglect to say. 

I think part of the problem with mortal sin as it was taught in the Baltimore Catechism and elsewhere in pre-Vatican II times is that its presentation often trivialized God’s love, mercy and God’s perfect common sense. It also helped to erode belief in the damage that actual mortal sins do to other people, the one sinning and the damage to salvation which opens the immortal soul to the eternal fires of hell.

For example, if a sinner on Good Friday deliberately eats a Hot Dog knowing that Church Law forbids it on Good Friday, but otherwise, this person loves God, lives an exemplary life, goes to Confession regularly, many of us pre-Vatican II children were taught that if we choked to death while eating that Hot Dog, we would go to hell because we committed a mortal sin and did not have a chance to repent because we died during the act of committing the mortal sin. 

I would say that the “mortal sin” was the blatant disobedience of a Church law, not the eating of the Hot Dog, but does that deserve the fires of hell if all else in that person’s life is virtuous? 


To say so would be the mortal sin of making God into something He isn’t, an ogre, small minded, unloving and vengeful even for minor infractions. It makes God a micro manager and a kind of Gestapo. I’d say doing that, making God something He isn’t is a mortal sin!

I have always presented the possibility of damnation as a lifestyle away from God, completely disconnected from Him and His Church. In addition to that, we love our sinful lifestyle more than we love God and His virtues as revealed in natural law which leads us to explicit moral teachings in Scripture and Tradition, the Deposit of Faith. 

If God damns a sinner to hell, or at least allows them to damn themselves, hell is a place where these sinners will be happy because they love their sin and hate God and hell is the perfect place for that. They are sent to the most pleasurable place possible for them who love the devil. 

Thus, if Church leaders fail to teach the fullness of Catholic moral teachings, which is out in the open in the CCC,  out of fear of offending sinners, we enable at least venial sin, which unrepentant can harm our eternal salvation especially if it entails serious matter but the lack of knowledge that it is a mortal sin is absent. 

What the homosexual lobby of the Church is doing (and I say this as in a political party’s lobby) is compromising the integrity and truth of what the Church teaches to enable people to live a lifestyle of sin while telling them that for them it isn’t a sin. 

That’s damnable!

(After I wrote this post, I went over to The Catholic Thing and read the post that I link below. It says in a better way what I just wrote, but shows, nonetheless, that great minds think alike, no?)

Press the title for the link:

Accompanying Those Innocently in Error


Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

"2. You have to know that it is a serious sin (knowledge)"

AKA: Sufficient reflection.

I think it goes beyond simply "knowing" that an act is considered mortally sinful. Sufficient reflection seems to include an awareness that an act will result in eternal separation from God and all that is good, that it can result in a person spending eternity in hell.

At another level, a four year old may KNOW that taking his little brother's pacifier is wrong, he's been told that dozens of times by his mother. But, at that age, he is incapable of reflecting sufficiently to understand that grabbing the "binky" will result in punishment.

Mark said...

Father Kavanaugh and Father McDonald,

Thank you, Father McDonald, for this important post clarifying this vital point of Catholic doctrine.

I have a question. Does “knowledge” require even more than “knowing” cognitively and reflecting on it? Does it require something like “knowledge with one’s whole being.” What I am trying to get at is the natural law idea that some people/peoples did/do not know that something was/is “wrong” because of bad or corrupting habits (I believe the classic example was the allegation regarding Germanic tribes and stealing/robbery). Presumably, just being told that something is wrong and even reflecting on what is said about eternal separation from God might not be convincing to them due to the habitual attitude and conduct. (Similarly, when Socrates says, “To know the good is to do the good,” is Aristotle’s critique that such knowing discounts akrasia, or weakness of will (resonant perhaps with the third element needed for mortal sin), incomplete and not do justice to how Socrates is using the word “know” in that expression?)

I would welcome your thoughts about this.

Mark said...

Perhaps another way of expressing the same point is to ask whether there are different levels of knowledge and whether, therefore, there is a distinction between simple cognitive knowledge and knowledge that has been fully internalized so as to become an integral part of oneself.

ByzRus said...

I suppose I know this, however, I would be curious to hear, in simple terms, how one avoids falling victim to scrupulosity as it pertains to sin. What constitutes a healthy/mature outlook in concert Church precepts/statues?

I see, on the more traditional blogs, debate regarding sin, at a level that at times, makes my head spin. The sin itself, the nature of the sin, what preceding or actions that followed might compound the sin, those involved even if peripherally sinned by their actions, or lack thereof. Are they even aware of this?

More than once, I have seen people implode almost into quivering shells of themselves so convinced were they that by simply coming to Church to fulfill their obligation, they fell victim to sin along the way.

There's sin that we all know is sin...the "thou shalt nots". Then there's sin that we either acknowledge, or, our mortal minds gloss over because we're helpless in our humanity. I wonder if it's possible to get through Liturgy without one's mind wandering to think of the person who cut you off on your way there, the person who picked a fight with you at the grocery store, among other perhaps more significant and serious sins. Then, there's the bombardment that is everyday modern life. Advertisements, what were celebrating this month, the secular criticism of not supporting "x" enough, social media etc. Other than the most spiritual among us, is it actually possible to pass from this life without sinning in some way?

I should be watching football, but, this posting made my brain gears turn a bit. Compatibility with the modern world, and the framers of the synod are worried that the past can't take us forward. Mind blowing.

George said...

Circumstances, awareness, and knowledge of what constitutes a sin, mortal or venial, are different for someone raised a Catholic and taught what we believe, and on the other hand, a primitive tribesman somewhere in the wilds of Borneo. However, even in the latter case, as the Catechism says:"no one is deemed ignorant of the principles of moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man". It goes on to say though that "passions", "external pressures", or "psychological disorders", are those things which can "diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense". Yes, there are extenuating circumstances and that is true with man's law as well, but that does not do away with the law.There are Catholics who reject what they have been taught and exposed to. There are many reasons why that is so and some of it can be due to their being poorly formed in the Faith. Add this to the distressing and dreadful influence of some elements of our modern culture and you have a recipe for moral disaster.
This is why our Holy Catholic Church is indispensable in conveying the Truth of what offends God to her members and even those outside of her. And yes, even the Protestant denominations have their role and responsibility in doing this since transgressions of moral and natural law apply to all, and affect us all.

George said...

Pope Benedict XVI as quoted by Raymond Arroyo in a recent episode of his program on EWTN:

"The Church will continue to propose the great universal human values. Because, if law no longer has common moral foundations, it collapses insofar as it is law. From this point of view, the Church has a universal responsibility. As the Pope says, missionary responsibility."

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

Mark - Your question seeks to probe a highly subjective area, and that's a tough slog. This link takes you to "The Way of the Lord Jesus Christ," the moral theology text written by one of our seminary professors, Dr. Germaine Grisez. He based his entire work on the Beatitudes, which we worked into the Eight Modes of Responsibility. The text is not very long and may give some clarity.

Byz - Years ago I came across a quote about the Thomistic/Scholastic method being the worst thing that ever happened to Catholic theology. For the life of me, I have never been able to track it down. The attempt to make theological thinking fit into neat Arostotelian categories, while it seems to give easy and convincing answers to questions, leads to all sorts of unnecessary difficulties. In a similar vein, Petrus Van Mastrichts wrote: "It is asked, must theology be taught according to a certain method? As an example of excess, the Scholastics, according to their philosophical theology, loved the philosophical methods of Aristotle--whether it was his analytic or synthetic method--to the point of distraction."

A person struggling with an idea or a concept or a personal dilemma can get bogged down in the reasoning that underlies the Scholastic method and can become disheartened if his/her situation doesn't seem to fit neatly into the proposed categories or responses.

ByzRus said...

Fr. MJK,

This area is a bit out of my depth, however, what I'm taking from your response (coupled with a few highlight/right-click/searches) is that we can attempt to reconcile a variety of disciplines and actions against, among other things, theology, the outcome being an assessment of the rightness/wrongness of one's actions. While I'm sure some feel they can do this successfully (Scholastics, it would seem), your average and untrained pew sitter will likely be less successful, could become disheartened if not physically and mentally overcome as well.

So, as flawed mortals who sin ("as there is no one that lives and does not sin"), where does that leave us vis-a-vis a good confession, a merciful and all-knowing God and being genuinely contrite though we are likely to trip and fall again during our lives' journey? Though the judgement seat is "fearsome", I would like to think that God isn't vindictive, vengeful, he acknowledges our human frailties and well-intentioned attempts to remain in his friendship. The sites that I mentioned where sin in all its forms is ruminated over (perhaps to a necessary extreme, or perhaps to an extreme), come across as more "gotcha" focused (scholasticism??) even if that's not their intention. I'm not trying to make excuses, rather, I'm trying to better be able to see the forest through the trees as I'm sure most endeavor to do.

Thank you!

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

"...we can attempt to reconcile a variety of disciplines and actions against, among other things, theology, the outcome being an assessment of the rightness/wrongness of one's actions...

I'm not sure what you mean here...?

A good confession is one made with no intention of being incomplete or of concealing a sin. It's perfectly acceptable if a penitent forgets a sin and seeks absolution for it later. That doesn't make it a "bad" confession."

ByzRus said...

Fr. MJK,

Let's put aside my weak explanation as yours is clear. Thank you.

George said...

The Spaniards that entered Mexico in the 16th century ,along with the missionaries the accompanied them, knew that the infant sacrifice
practiced by the Aztecs did not please God. I don't imagine much thought was given on their part about whether the native inhabitants were guilty of sin. What they knew in their hearts informed by their Faith is that there were acts that were utterly and inexorably wrong no matter who committed them. They Indian peoples of Central Mexico, no matter their intention to please their "gods",were in involved in an evil practice which could never be met with any accommodation or dialogue.
Of acts which offend God an contravene his Holy Law, it can be said there exists two principal aspects. One is in the subjective nature, in which is manifested to a lesser or greater degree the personal culpability of the sinner. The other is in the objective nature which is manifested in the act itself and its effect, whether interior to the sinner,or outwardly to others. In the one, the sinner does harm to his spiritual condition by offending God; in the other, the act in and of itself goes against what God desires and requires of us, and so is an offense against His Divine Holiness and Goodness. Though the first aspect of sin may be diminished or even absent, the other is always present.
Many things are done which offend God, even if those who do these things are not aware of this.
Actions have consequences. A person may dispose of toxic substances onto the ground and not think this is wrong. Even if no intention exists to pollute the environment, by their action they have done so anyway. Even if It was not their subjective intention to do so, objectively they have done so. Damage has been done. With sin God, is offended, but beyond that consequences can result whereby others are harmed.
God did not set up His Holy laws just a as a way for us to demonstrate our allegiance to Him,though our obedience to Him gives evidence of that. Rather,it is that these laws flow from His very Holy and Divine nature which we, with the help of His grace, will recognize and so be moved in our soul to give Him honor and not offense.