When did the Church teach the distinction between mortal sin and venial sin?


When did the Church start teaching there is a distinction between mortal sin and venial sin?

Did the early church believe that one could receive Holy Communion if he committed a venial sin, but not when he committed a mortal sin?


It started in the Bible, 1 John 5:16-17:

"16 If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this. 17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death. "

The passage clearly states that there are sins which lead to death (which the Church calls “mortal” or “grave”) and sins which do not lead to death (“venial”).


It really goes back to the OT. example of mortal sin, fall of adam and eve, they basically ended their relationship with God in the garden. An example of the other would be “unintentedial sin” or sins of ignorance.


Early, early on. Here’s something from Jerome:

“There are venial sins and there are mortal sins. It is one thing to owe ten thousand talents, another to owe but a farthing. We shall have to give an accounting for an idle word no less than for adultery. But to be made to blush and to be tortured are not the same thing; not the same thing to grow red in the face and to be in agony for a long time. . . . If we entreat for lesser sins we are granted pardon, but for greater sins, it is difficult to obtain our request. There is a great difference between one sin and another” (Against Jovinian 2:30 [A.D. 393]).

There’s stuff earlier than that.

Did the early church believe that one could receive Holy Communion if he committed a venial sin, but not when he committed a mortal sin?

Yes. I can’t get you any quotations, because I’ve never really sought to dig up resources on this question, but in the early Church people were most certainly kept from Communion for mortal sin, in such a way that it’s pretty common knowledge. Mortal sin resulted in penanaces of months or years, only after which time could a person receive Communion again.

Someone else will provide you with information. If nobody does, just post to keep the thread alive until someone does.


1st century: “There is sin which is mortal…but there is sin which is not mortal.” (1 John 5:16,17)

Did the early church believe that one could receive Holy Communion if he committed a venial sin, but not when he committed a mortal sin?


St. Paul, 1 Cor 11:27: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.”

Didache, 1st or 2nd cent.: “On the Lord’s Day of the Lord gather together, break bread and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure. Let no one…join you until he is reconciled, lest your sacrifice be defiled” (Didache, 14, 1)

St. Justin, the martyr (2nd cent.): “We call this food Eucharist; and no one else is permitted to partake of it, accept one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration, and is therby living as Christ as enjoined.” (1st Apology, 66).

Origen, 3rd cent.: “the Word Himself, who became flesh and true food, of which he that eats shall surely live forever, no wicked person being able to eat it.” (*Commentaries on Matthew, *11, 14].

St. Cyprian, 3rd cent. “The Apostle likewise bears witness and says. ‘you cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of devils. You cannot be a communicant of the table of the Lord and of the table of devils’ [1 Cor 10:21]… But they spurn and despise all these warnings; and before their sins are expiated, before they have made a confession of their crime, before their conscience has been purged in the ceremony and at the ahand o fthe priest, before the offense against an angry and threatening Lord has been appeased, they do violence to His Body and Blood; and with their hands and mouth they sin against the Lord more than when they denied Him.” (*The Lapsed, *15).

“…according to the rule of discipline, they may come to confession and, through the imposition of hands by the bishop and clergy, may receive the right of communication” (Letter of Cyprian to his clergy, AD 250).

**Venial sins can be remitted by charity, by prayer, and by good works:

St. Augustine**, 4th cent.: “for light sins…prayer was instituted…‘Forgive us our debts as we too forgive our debtors’” (Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed, AD 395, 7, 15)

“Daily prayer, which Jesus Himself taught and for which resaon it is called the Lord’s Prayer, certainly takes away daily sins” (City of God, 21, 27, 4)

“We who remain in the infirmity of this life do not cease to commit daily those sin which, for those who pray faithfully and who do works of mercy, are daily remitted” (Against the Pelagians, 1, 14, 28).

“For daily sins of the brief and trivial kind…the daily prayer of the faithful makes satisfaction…takes away completely our lesser and daily sins.” (Enchiridion of faith, hope, and love, 19, 71)


DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.