In my last article, Attaining Moral Perfection Even In This Life, I discussed our Lord’s command to be perfect, Scripture’s reiteration of this precept, and the Church’s constant teaching on perfection over the last 2000 years. I gave a general overview of mortal and venial sins and the need to eliminate them from our lives. In this article, I would like to give a more detailed analysis of sin, especially venial sin, to help us identify and remove it.
Before delving into venial sin, however, we should have a solid understanding of temptation, sin in general, and mortal sin. With proper conceptions of temptation and mortal sin, we can know what venial sin is not.
Temptation is not the same as venial sin and venial sin is not a temptation with a higher degree of intensity. Rather, temptation (literally, to test) is an internal or external incitement to sin. Provided one does not will a temptation, one does not sin. Let us take for example an alcoholic who has been sober for a couple of years.
On this gentleman’s birthday, a friend gives him a bottle of scotch not knowing he is a recovering alcoholic. The bottle of scotch tempts the man to drunkenness. If the man resists the temptation to touch the drink, successfully battling the it with grace, prayer, and trust in God, he does not sin at all. Instead, he remains in a state of grace.
Morality of Human Acts
Besides temptation, we should also know what sin is generally and how an act is determined to be sinful. “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods” (CCC 1849).
The Catholic Church teaches that the morality of human acts depends on the object chosen (act, word, thought, or omission), the end or purpose in view, and the circumstances surrounding the action. All three elements must be good for the action to be good.
For instance, helping an elderly woman cross a street (good object) that is busy (circumstance) to get her to the other side safely (purpose) is a good deed. However, helping her cross the street can become sinful if one does it after robbing a store (circumstance) to blend in with the crowd and evade police (purpose).
For additional information about the elements of moral acts, read Catechism paragraphs 1750-1761.
Mortal sin removes God’s life and charity (i.e., grace) from the soul through conduct that is contrary to grace. Three conditions must be present for a sin to be deadly:
- grave matter,
- sought with full knowledge that the act is evil, and
- deliberate consent of the will.
All three elements must be present for an action to be deadly. Additionally, pretended ignorance and ignorance that can be overcome are not an excuse and can even increase guilt (CCC 1859 and 1860).
Please note that grave matter is described as grave because it severs, even if for a short time, our filial relationship with God, Who should be the ultimate end of all our actions. Every good thing I do and every evil I reject should ultimately be for God and with God, continually building a loving relationship with Him. Examples of grave matter are contained in the prohibitions of the Ten Commandments, the seven deadly sins (i.e., pride, lust, envy, greed, sloth, wrath, and gluttony) and the five precepts of the Church.
A concrete example of mortal sin today is contracepting (an intentional action designed to remove conception and union from sexual intercourse). If someone contracepts (grave matter) with full knowledge that it is sinful and with complete consent of the will, that person sins mortally.
For a more detailed treatment on mortal sins, replete with Bible verses, read Catechism paragraphs 1852-1861.
Venial simply means “pardonable”. Venial sin is pardoned at the moment of contrition (sorrow out of love for God) because grace remains in the soul. Conversely, mortal sin, which causes grace to be withdrawn from the soul, requires contrition and confession to a priest (refer to my previous article for more on this).
A person commits a venial sin when:
- in a less serious matter, one does not observe the standard [of moral perfection] prescribed by the moral law, or
- disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or
- without complete consent of the will (CCC 1862).
Thus, we can become guilty of venial sin in a few ways:
First, a less serious matter is not a lesser quantity of some sinful act (more or less unjust anger for example) but a lesser quality (irritation vs. unjust anger) (II-II, q.35, a.3). Grave matter is complete in severity of quality because it fully opposes grace and the moral law. An act of lesser quality does not oppose grace but falls short of the standard of love and moral perfection for which God makes us.
These imperfections include, among others, excessive attachments to the following:
- material goods but without greed or envy,
- created beings (e.g., humans, animals) but without idolatry,
- food and drink but without gluttony,
- spiritual or physical lethargy or procrastination but without sloth,
- sex but without lust,
- self-love but without pride,
- unjust irritation but without wrath,
- foolish talk but without gossip or perversion, and
- cynicism but without despair.
One might experience an excessive attachment to some created good or action after turning away from habitual mortal sin. For instance, a person might have lived an anger-filled life before becoming a Christian but turned away from anger after starting his journey with Christ.
The remnants of habitual anger, such as being easily irritated, might continue to linger, but the tendency toward anger would not cause grace to be withdrawn if the person did not act on it or allow the irritation to become unjust anger. Yet, this irritation falls short of the standard of moral perfection and would therefore be venial.
Also, some deeds do not oppose God’s commandments but involve inordinate fondness for created goods. St. Thomas Aquinas writes,
…it is evident that in some sins there is disorder indeed, but such as not to [be contrary to] the last end … for instance, when a man is too fond of some temporal thing, yet would not offend God for its sake, by breaking one of His commandments. Consequently, such sins do not incur everlasting, but only temporal punishment (Summa Theologiae (ST) I-II, q.87, a.5).
For example, a man purchases a Corvette and spends an inordinate amount of time detailing it, driving it, and showing it off to his friends. The time spent with his car has replaced time he previously spent with God (e.g., in prayer and Scripture reading). However, the man does not eliminate his time with God, does not skip Mass, and continues to fulfill his familial and societal obligations.
The man knows in his heart that he is spending too much time with his car and should be spending more time with God and his family, but he is simply having too much fun. Consequently, the man’s inordinate fondness for his car would be a venial sin. The problem with his behavior, in addition to being a venial sin, is that it could lead to spiritual sloth, a mortal sin.
In this scenario, the man has preserved the end of his actions (remaining in right relationship with God) because he has not elevated the new Corvette above God’s precepts. However, he has an inordinate attachment to the car that needs to be tempered by returning to the virtuous behavior he exercised before purchasing the car.
[We will discuss elements two and three of venial sin in Part II of this article.]