Why the Church Distinguishes Between Mortal and Venial Sin, Part I

Many supposed "theological differences" between Catholics and Evangelicals are, I think, founded in semantics rather than in substantial disagreement.

For example, when I was an Evangelical one of the periodic arguments I ran across against Catholic moral theology was that the concept of mortal and venial sin is unbiblical. Sin is sin, say Evangelicals, and there's no good in trying to make out some sins as "minor." To us Evangelicals such nice distinctions smelled a great deal like rationalization and looked like an escape clause from the commandment "Be holy, for I, the Lord, am Holy." After all, James wrote, "Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, 'Do not commit adultery,' also said, 'Do not murder.' If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker" (James 2:10-11). So the forthright and honest Evangelical attitude was "We'll take our forgiveness straight, thanks! Let's have no plea-bargaining at the foot of the Cross."

Such an attitude to purity before God is, I think, entirely commendable. And, truth to tell, it contrasts very favorably to the lax Catholic who really does say "It's just a teensy-weensy little sin" as an excuse for doing whatever they like. Such Catholics need to be reminded that "Whoever can be trusted with a teensy-weensy little thing can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with a teensy-weensy little thing will also be dishonest with much" (Luke 16:10).

But in so reminding them we are confronted with a question: namely, what does Jesus mean in making a distinction between "little" and "much?" Why did He say that the one who knows his Master's will and does not do it will be beaten with many blows but the one who does not know his Master's will and does not do it will be beaten with few blows (Luke 12:47-48)? If "sin is sin," why this distinction? Moreover, if all sin is really identical in God's eyes, what on earth is the Apostle John getting at when he writes: "If anyone sees his brother commit sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those who sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death"? (1 John 5:16-17)

To a "sin is sin" kinda Evangelical like me, all this was simply incomprehensible. It sounded so... Catholic! So I started to ask around since I knew these verses couldn't mean what the Catholic Church meant. It had to refer to something other than mortal sin, so what was it?

Most likely, said my evangelical teachers, it referred to the sin against the Holy Spirit which couldn't be forgiven in this age or in the age to come (Matthew 12:32). God, these good people taught, was always ready to forgive sin--even so-called "mortal" ones. As an Evangelical, one of the most treasured Bible verses I ever learned was 1 John 1:9: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." No sin is excluded from that beautiful offer--except one. For verse 10 goes on: "If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be liar and his word has no place in our lives." The sin leading to death is the sin we refuse to acknowledge. It is like a wound we keep wrapped in dirty, infected rags when the doctor wants to heal us. Such a sin, I was taught, is the sin of unrepentant disbelief. It is like a drowning man deliberately puncturing the life preserver thrown him. It is fundamentally suicidal, a rejection of grace by which we lock ourselves into damnation.

Now this explanation of John's words satisfied me then and still does. What did not satisfy me was the claim that this is somehow different from what Catholics mean by mortal vs. venial sin. For I realized that, whatever else John was saying, he was very clearly making a distinction between "sin that leads to death" (that is, mortal sin) and sin which "does not lead to death."

This got me thinking. And watching. "Are we Evangelicals really committed to the notion of 'sin is sin' when we're not arguing down Catholic theology?" I asked myself.

The question immediately answered itself with another question: Do Evangelicals--does anyone--really believe that a five year old who steals a cookie is the moral and spiritual equivalent of Jeffrey Dahmer? Of course, nobody (and especially the Evangelicals who were far wiser than their own "sin is sin" theology) believed anything of the sort in their workaday lives. Instead, they just continued believing in mortal and venial sin but renamed it "backsliding" and "stumbling." Thus, in Evangelical parlance, when Suzy or Billy swear in anger or goof off at work on a slow day and then ask forgiveness, this is called "stumbling." It is taken seriously and forgiven (as is venial sin in Catholic circles) but neither Catholic nor Protestant would make a federal case out of it. However, if Billy or Suzy go off to college, start sleeping together, abandon fellowship and establish a thriving narcotic business down at the local elementary schoolyard, the average evangelical would call this "very serious backsliding." Such sins (like the mortal sin to which it corresponds) are not unforgivable in an absolute sense, but any fool can see they're going to be much tougher cases. And if Billy and Suzy simply refuse ever again to acknowledge their wrongdoing and cover it up with a load of psychobabble about "self-empowered personal autonomy" and all, most Evangelicals would regard their state as perilous indeed.

In short then, all common sense, all actual Evangelical practice and even (gasp!) much biblical wisdom gave solid legitimacy to the Catholic concept of "degrees of sin." And this realization was only strengthened by watching the evening news and seeing, with alarming frequency, what happens when people really do act on a crippling "sin is sin" morality. Here is a child beaten to unconsciousness for failing to take out the garbage, there is a man driven to suicidal despair for his failure to lose 10 pounds. Here are support groups for the Stuart Smalleys of the world--those poor souls who murmur the mantra "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and by golly, people like me!" till they can overcome a childhood in which card-playing and Chubby Checker records were classed with adultery and murder by some anal-retentive harridan of a mother. For such as these, every flaw is a hanging offense, and the sentence is carried out mercilessly in the name of an angry God.

So there is, in fact, deep wisdom in our common sense distinction between someone who eats too many cookies and someone who eats human flesh. In short, there is, in fact, mortal and venial sin. But what of St. James' statement? It still looks like "sin is sin."

That, Gentle Reader, we will discuss next time...

Pope Francis participates in Mass on the solemnity of Pentecost, May 19, 2024

Pope Francis on Pentecost: The Holy Spirit’s Work in Us Is Powerful

In his homily, Pope Francis explained how the Holy Spirit helps us to overcome sinful passions and then gently plants the seeds of virtue and helps them to grow. The Pope also recommended that people spend time praying in silence in Eucharistic adoration to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit.