In Part I of this article, I discussed temptation, sin in general, mortal sin, and venial sin by way of engaging in “less serious matter,” which was the first of three ways of committing venial sin. In this part of the article, I will discuss the second and third elements of venial sin: by way of disobeying the moral law in a grave matter but without full knowledge or without complete consent.
Second, a person could do something sinful without full knowledge that the evil committed is truly grave. For instance, contracepting, which is grave matter, has been common in our society for the last two to three generations.
So, if contracepting parents instruct their teenage daughter to contracept, the daughter, knowing her parents, grandparents, and friends all use contraceptives, will probably not question its morality. Accordingly, she would lack full knowledge about the immorality of this act and would incur little to no culpability.
In this case, the matter (contracepting) is grave, and the intent is present, but the knowledge is absent. However, once she becomes aware that contracepting is immoral and continues to contracept, she would become culpable for her continued action and enter the state of mortal sin.
Third, a person could do something grave without consenting to it (i.e., accidentally or impulsively). This is especially true with regard to accidental acts. Someone could kill another person in a car accident, for example, but depending on the level of negligence or complete lack thereof, the person would be guilty of only a venial sin or would not be guilty at all. (This is not the same as legal culpability, which could be severe, even if the act was not intended.)
But what about an impulsive movement of the will toward an evil action? This movement is a response to temptation but the impulse is not a mortal sin in itself because thoughtful consent of the will is not present.
Rather, the sudden movement of the will toward the sinful object (drunkenness for example) results from an individual failing to impose discipline on his sense appetite. Another way to put this is that unruly passions, or disordered desires, rather than the intellect, govern the will in this situation. The disordered passion results in a sudden movement (some action) toward grave matter. The person truly moves to attain the evil object but does so without thinking, in an almost instinctive manner.
That lack of thought or lack of impulse control is key for distinguishing between mortal and venial sin in relation to impulsive actions. In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas lays out some principles that will help guide our understanding of sudden movements of the will.
The Moderating Power of Reason
First, St. Thomas says that some actions are venial because they do not follow “the mode of reason which the law intends” (ST, I-II, q.88, a.1, ad 1). By “mode of reason,” St. Thomas explains that human actions must be governed by a properly formed intellect (ST, I-II, q.9, a.1, I-II, q.14, ad 1, and I-II, q.74, a.5, ad 2). A properly formed intellect results from educating oneself in the faith and in the moral law. “Mode of reason” simply means reason properly exercised; reason should inform the will rather than the will acting without reason.
Second, although some sinful deeds are intentional, others are impulsive (that is, they lack reason’s moderating influence). St. Thomas notes that reason should put the brakes on the rise of passion, and when that “check” is absent, “…the sudden rising of a movement of the sensuality in us is due to the sensuality not being perfectly subject to reason” (I-II, q.89, a. 3).
The good news is that if the power of reason eventually does intervene, it stops the sinful act and prevents it from becoming mortally sinful.
Returning to the alcohol example above, the recovering alcoholic is presented with an opportunity to get drunk (grave matter). Without thinking (sensuality not being perfectly subject to reason), he then grabs a glass and begins to pour the whiskey (sudden movement). At this moment, the fog of desire lifts and the man realizes he must not go further. He decides not to drink and throws the alcohol in the trash.
In this scenario, the man was tempted, responded to the temptation by grabbing a glass and filling it with whiskey, realizes he must not drink it, and stops his movement toward intoxication. The man committed venial sin because, by failing to check his sensuality with reason, he moved toward drunkenness, yet he did not complete the act and commit a mortal sin.
Conversely, if he had moved toward this grave matter (drunkenness) with full deliberation (i.e., deliberately, with full intent to get drunk) his movement would have been mortal because he intentionally fixed his will on obtaining the grave matter. This fixing of the will on grave matter would oppose his relationship with God. In essence, by fixing the will on drunkenness, the man is saying, I prefer to get drunk rather than continue in grace.
Third, some actions are disordered, but not contrary to the moral law, in their implementation even though the person is attempting to achieve a good end (I-II, 89, a. 3). For instance, while helping the poor (a good end), one gets easily irritated (see Philippians 2:14-15), or lacks joy (see 2 Corinthians 9:6-7), or procrastinates (see Galatians 6:9) but nevertheless perseveres in the task out of love for God and neighbor and ultimately achieves the good end. The irritation, lack of joy, or procrastination can be venially sinful even though the good end is secure.
For information about the elements of moral acts, read Catechism paragraphs 1750-1761.
Venial Sin Synopsis
Based on all of the above, we can say that venial sins are a form of moral disobedience related to grave matter but without full knowledge (ignorance) or without complete consent (accidents or sudden movements of the will lacking the proper mode of reason).
We can also identify venial sins as 1) less serious actions that do not violate the moral precepts but fall short of the holiness for which God makes us; 2) disordered tendencies while performing good acts; and 3) inordinate fondness for a temporal thing but with the moral precepts preserved.
Additionally, quantity does not define the nature of sin. Grave matter is grave regardless of the amount one pursues. A little lust pursued with full knowledge and intent is deadly. Similarly, a little pride (i.e., excessive love of one’s perceived excellence), vengeance, greed, gluttony, envy, and sloth pursued with full knowledge and consent are deadly.
Saint James writes concisely about mortal and venial sin, saying, “…each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived [that sudden movement mentioned above] gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown [done with full knowledge and intent] brings forth death” (James 1:14-15).
How to Use Knowledge of Sin to Root It Out
By understanding mortal and venial sin, we can more easily detect them in our own lives and remove them. If struggling with mortal sin, go to confession, seeing the same confessor, whenever you become guilty of it. Keep going to confession and follow the confessor’s guidance until the sin is gone or at least no longer a vice. Counseling may be necessary as well.
Regarding venial sin, turn to God with sincerity and ask for forgiveness and strength at the very moment you become aware of your venial actions. By doing this, you will begin to replace disordered acts with prayer and a desire to think, act, and speak justly.
Finally, do not look at venial sins as defeat. Rather, see them for what they are: signs that mortal sin is not far behind, occasions to turn to God in prayer before a mortal sin manifests itself, and opportunities to develop discipline through grace. God is always available to help us. We simply must turn to Him and take advantage of His desire to heal us.