Catholicism and levels of sin

Hello everyone,
Can someone briefly explain how Catholicism categorizes different types of sin? For example, I’ve heard the terms “mortal sin” and “venial sin” mentioned by posters on different forums from time to time. I assume mortal sin is more serious than venial sin by virtue of name alone. Are there other types of sin in addition to these and can you provide a few examples of each? That would be much appreciated as I try to grow in my understanding of Catholicism.

I come from a Protestant background in which I don’t remember sins being categorized like it seems they are in Catholicism and I want to gain a better understanding of the terms. Although different punishments exist in secular society for crimes such as murder and rape than for petty theft, and deservedly so, I’ve always believed that any sin separates us from God whether it be big or small. Thanks in advance for your help in better understanding the terminology.

Consider this line from the Sermon on the Mount.

But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, `You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:22)

There are levels of sin here which merit different liabilities. Judgment refers to the judges at the gate of the city who could pass sentence but could not sentence to death. The council refers to the Jewish Sanhedrin which had the ability to sentence one to death. The hell of fire explains itself. So Jesus himself teaches of different levels of sin.

We believe that there are sins of omission and mistakes (venial), and then there is deliberate disobedience (mortal). We all share in the common priesthood, lost at Mt. Sinai when Israel broke the newly ratified covenant and restored by Christ. As members of the common priesthood we can atone for our own venial sins - sins of omission and mistakes - through prayer, going to Mass, confessing directly to God, being sorry for our mistakes, etc.

We need sacramental confession to reconcile us with God however, when we commit deliberate sins - when we look God in the eye and say, “I know it is wrong but I’m doing it anyway.” These are mortal sins - sins that lead to death as in 1 John- because it drives God’s grace from our souls. To restore us to a state of grace we need sacramental confession through a ministerial priest.


Look at it this way, is it worse to steal 1 cent or $1million? It would be worse to steal $1million, even though both are stealing. Is it worse to tell a little white lie to your brother or to lie in court under oath? It would be worse to lie in court under oath. The gravity of the sin (along with willingness and full knowledge of the sin) are what determine a mortal sin.

There are a few sins where the lines between mortal and venial tend to be a bit thin. In cases where there is doubt, I would confess the sin as mortal, to be on the safe side. There are certain cases, just for example that telling a lie might be venial rather than mortal.

You hear the word “intent” a great deal in Catholicism. What was in your heart when you told the lie? Was it to make someone feel better in a hopeless situation where no good would be served by brutal honesty?

I think back to a family who finally decided it served no purpose to tell their father with Alzheimers that his wife had died six months ago, and simply said she was fine. Still a sin, but a venial sin in my opinion. Still I would confess it, just to be on the safe side, but you see my point.

Mortal sin is having full knowledge of the wrongdoing and consciecelly deciding to still do wrong. Venial sin is committing a wrongdoing without understanding it’s wrong. Example: a carpenter builds a house and makes shortcuts to meet costs and deadlines. These shortcuts resulted in the collapse of the house killing the family. This sin becomes mortal if the carpenter knew the shortcuts would result in the deaths and decided to make the short cuts anyway. It is a venial sin if the carpenter did not know the shortcuts would result in death. Both scenario’s the effects of sin effect God and all mankind; there will be weaping, crying, and requests for justice. However, with the mortal sin, the sinner has turned away from God, away from his trade, away from the community and purposefully created damage. Mortal sin often comes with a justification complex which makes it hard for the sinner to repent and make amends with God.

I was reading an article on the process that leads to death and thought I would share it here:

“Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death” (James 1:14-15). With great insight, these two verses describe the process that leads to the death of grace in the soul. Sin is not produced by itself nor does it appear suddenly before us in such a way that we are not at fault. Rather there is a process, as James describes:

  1. The passions tempt.

  2. Sin is conceived.

  3. Sin is born.

  4. Sin reaches its maturity.

  5. Sin gives birth to death.

Note the comparison of the growth of sin with that of a mother carrying a child in her womb. The apostle James uses the phrase “to give birth” because sin has a conception and gestation period. While a particular sin is committed at a specific moment, it is conceived beforehand in our passions. No immoral act appears without a process, a hidden process developing in the heart of the individual. This is why we need to cultivate a life of virtue to help us keep our sinful tendencies in check.

Just as the first sin one may commit is the result of a process, so too every sin that follows. This process leads to the death of the soul, which, if persisted in until bodily death, leads to eternal death in hell. Knowing this should lead us to value the supernatural action of the divine grace which vivifies the soul. If we commit ourselves to growing in the life of grace by loving God, obeying His commands, and striving to die to our self-will, we need not fear eternal death.

Here is an article that might help you

Yet another scriptural basis for the differentiation between sins is in 1 John.

1 John 5:16-17
Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition
He that knoweth his brother to sin a sin which is not to death, let him ask, and life shall be given to him, who sinneth not to death. There is a sin unto death: for that I say not that any man ask. All iniquity is sin. And there is a sin unto death.

Thanks to everyone for the explanations, biblical examples, and links to articles that go more in depth on the subject. It really helped. Most of all, I appreciate the patience and understanding that those on this forum have shown me since I embarked on my journey to learn more about the Catholic faith. :slight_smile: May the Lord be with you always.

You are welcome, Tommy…I would your posts and questions are refreshing to read…:):smiley:

Anyway, since you opened up the issue of venial and mortal sins, I am sure your next question would be the sacrament of confession.

So let me jump the gun a bit and recommend a book…Scott Hahn’s Lord Have Mercy…that discusses mortal and venial sins and the sacrament of confession.

Drawing on the history of ancient Israel, the Gospels, the writings of the early Church, and the lives of the saints, Hahn reveals the living, scriptural heart of the Church’s teachings on penance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It is a story that begins with the sin of Adam and Eve, continues in the biographies of Moses, King David, and the Apostle Peter, and reverberates in the lives of believers today. Hahn presents the Catholic and biblical perspective on sin and mercy, elucidating in clear, easily understood language the true import of Jesus’ simple, yet profound promise – “I am the door; if anyone enters by Me, he will be saved” (John 10:9).

There are actually 3 kinds of sin the Church recognizes. I’ll describe each of them below.

Original sin - this is NOT an actual sin. Rather, it is a state that a person is born into. It is the loss of sanctifying grace (God’s grace dwelling in us) that came from Adam and Eve. We are freed from original sin at Baptism, but the effects still remain in that we still sin. (I’d liken it to phantom pain after an amputation. The limb is gone, but the nerves are still there - so you can still get pain in the limb.)

Mortal sin - this is a serious sin. It’s characterized by grave matter (something that does significant harm to us or someone else, or is a serious offense against God), total knowledge of the evilness of the action, and complete consent of the will. Mortal sin destroys sanctifying grace. Someone who dies in a state of unrepentant mortal sin will go to hell. All mortal sins must be confessed, at least once a year, and a person cannot go to Holy Communion in a state of mortal sin. Confession restores sanctifying grace.

Venial sin - this is a less serious sin that involves less serious matter, incomplete knowledge, and/or incomplete consent. (Accidents, for the record, are not sins. So if someone accidentally smacked into someone walking down the street, that’s not a sin. A sin must be deliberate.) Venial sins do not destroy sanctifying grace, but they do weaken God’s grace. We’re not obliged to confess venial sins, but it is useful to do so. NO amount of venial sins can ever equal a mortal sin, but they can make us more likely to commit a mortal sin.

A few more notes about sin:
-Sins can only be committed by a person who has reached the age of reason. This is defined as age 7.
-Baptism, which can only be administered once, removes original sin and gives a person sanctifying grace. If the person has reached the age of reason, it also removes any personal sins.
-Venial sins can be forgiven during the penitential rite at Mass.
-Those who die with venial sins on their souls go to Purgatory after death. (This is referenced in one of the books of Maccabees.) In Purgatory, souls who are going to heaven are purged from any temporal punishment remaining. (Christ came to abolish eternal punishment, not temporal punishment.) These people are NOT waiting judgement; they have already been judged. They’re going to heaven, but it will take some time for them to get there, because nothing unclean can enter heaven (it says this in Scripture). We can pray for the souls in Purgatory, and it is an efficacious thing to do, especially to have Masses said for them and to pray the Way of the Cross for them. (This is a common source of confusion for Protestants, because many cite the “selling of indulgences”. Sadly, it is true that some priests engaged in this practice, which is the sin of simony - buying and selling spiritual things. Today, indulgences cannot be bought. It is customary, if one wishes to have a Mass said for a soul, to give a donation, and usually if one wishes to light a candle for a prayer intention one gives a donation to cover the cost of the candle. However, this is NOT “selling” indulgences.)

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