Common Sense, Wisdom and Hope:
Why Catholics Distinguish Between Mortal and Venial Sin

By Mark Shea

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."

Perhaps a useful analogy would be to say rather "Injury is injury, but there's injury and there's injury." Sin is fundamentally injurious. But it is tricky because it fools us into imagining some of the injuries we inflict on ourselves and others are "fun" (like lust) and some are "bad" (like murder). We console ourselves that as long as we don't commit the "bad" sin, it's okay to dabble with the "fun" ones. Indeed, we can even imagine that the lightweights and lowlifes who do cave in to "bad" sins just don't have the moxie we do "where it counts." "I thank God I am not like other people," we mutter contentedly, "Okay, so I shoplift now and then. Those stores are rich. But I'm never cruel to dumb animals. People who do that should go to jail!"

In contrast to this bogus self-righteousness St. James strips away this illusion of "okay" injuries and says bluntly "all sin is an injury to God, neighbor and self." Absurdly indulging our "minor" sins since they are not as serious as Joe Blow's "bad" ones is like indulging ourselves in a few cracked ribs or black eyes on the excuse that "it's not as if I was taking cyanide." Sane people avoid all injuries if they can, not just the "bad" ones. But sane people also know the cyanide poisoning is going to be harder (perhaps impossible) to cure.

And we all know this. That is why (whatever our proclaimed theologies) our working awareness of mortal and venial sin (by whatever name we call it) keeps us from classing the innocent with the guilty and prevents the vast majority of healthy adults from treating a cereal-spilling two year old like a serial-killing 22 year old. But in addition to this, the recognition of mortal and venial sin is crucial in avoiding classing the guilty with the innocent, something our culture is not quite as good at.

This came home to me recently in a bull session I had with a friend. Chatting about the possibility of moral progress my friend, speaking as an average "sin is sin" Christian said, "One society is no worse than any other just as no person is any worse than another." In other words, there is no difference at all between the nations because there is no difference at all between the people who comprise them.

Now with my newly won grasp of mortal and venial sin I was suddenly emboldened to observe that the "plain fact" upon which his whole argument rested was, in truth, sheer moonshine. For even though all have sinned (as Catholic teaching vigorously asserts), the real plain fact is, Mother Teresa, Francis of Assisi and Billy Graham are--obviously, overwhelmingly--far better people than Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson or Lot's friendly neighbors. Why? Because the former have opened themselves to grace and the latter, so far as we can tell, have not.

This points us to a paradox. Namely, that the notion of mortal and venial sin is rooted in the recognition that real moral growth and differentiation is possible. In short, the overarching truth of human history is the variety of God's gift of Redemption, not the monotonous sameness of the Fall.

Lest I be taken for a mooshy-squooshy universalist, allow me to explain. In our fallen state apart from grace, it is quite true that "sin is sin" and everything ultimately gets sucked down the same sewer pipe. Without God, it doesn't much matter whether you go to the devil by murdering someone or by "harmlessly" rotting away in front of ten thousand hours of "Gilligan's Island" reruns. Both fates ought to send us flying to our prayers. But as real and as uniformly disastrous as the Fall is in all its chaotic manifestations, we must also acknowledge that the full truth is, since Christ died and rose again, we are not apart from grace. "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men." (Titus 2:11).

This is why it is cheap and silly to say of human beings and their works "They're all the same since they're all fallen." For since the greater fact of Redemption has entered the world, many have responded to the New Life and are no longer the same. And while it is true that even in redemption we must remember that those who have responded are no less fallen than those who have not, it does not follow that we are forbidden to recognize the real effects of real grace in the world. Thus, it is not arrogant to say that Billy Graham or Charles Wesley or St. Clare (or even good non-Christians like Gandhi or Socrates) are better human beings than Himmler or Stalin or Lucretia Borgia. It's just sober common sense.

And this is the root of hope. For if we throw up our hands and say there's no such thing as growth or improvement (which is the necessary corollary of the belief that "no person is any worse than another") then we doom ourselves to a sort of fatalism. For calling all people the same in that sense is identical with saying nothing has ever happened, since Francis is the same as Hitler is the same as King David is the same as Shirley MacLaine. In contrast, the Catholic vision says that the Redemption does make human beings, both individually and corporately, better human beings if they receive it. Not "better" in the sense of "superciliously superior" but better in the sense of "healed and whole." We are not to be snow-covered dunghills (as Luther imagined), we are not to be mere monsters with a heavenly Lawyer pleading for us, but glorious new creatures all the way down to our bones. That is why the Church takes history seriously. She believes God has been continually at work both in the world and in our lives as kind of storyteller and that it will one day reach a conclusion like a story does. Something wonderful is to be made of us. In short, she really does believe in Creation and holds that Creation is still going on--a Creation that involves our choices, even our evil ones, and God's choice to redeem us if we will but let him.

I do believe in the reality of sin then. Therefore, I do not believe that "every day in every way, we're getting better and better" and that Heaven is a sure thing for everyone (though I pray all will be saved.) The hubris of automatic progress is a dangerous lie since it disastrously overlooks the very real possibility of damnation for any of us (especially me). But, following St. Paul, I do not infer from the fact of the Fall that it is best therefore to have a meaningless opinion of everyone as "equally bad and equally good." Nor do I infer that since the Fall is a fact, it is therefore the Foundation. Rather, according to Romans 12:3, we are to have, not a meaningless nor a gloomy opinion, but a sober or accurate one, illumined by the truly foundational fact of the totally unearned and undeserved grace of Redemption won by Christ. Such a sober opinion (particularly of ourselves) springs neither from self-denigration nor from arrogance, but from love. And love (contrary to the proverb) sees. It sees as the eye of man sees and it has the power to distinguish, not only shades of gray, but all the range of color, shape and subtle nuance which the mind and choices of God and man can present to it. It is this power of sight (what St. Thomas calls "the authority of the senses") which endows Catholic theology with the wisdom to which I was too long blind: the commonsense, practical, and hopeful wisdom which distinguishes between mortal and venial sin.

Copyright 2001 - Mark P. Shea

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