Why Mortal and Venial?


On what basis does the Church classify sin to greater or lesser degrees?

The Catechism states that “sins are rightly evaluated according to their gravity,” (1854) citing the First Epistle of John as Scriptural evidence:

*If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one—to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal. * (1 John 5:16-17, NRSV)

But is this a correct rendering and interpretation of the Epistle? Even a note in the traditional Douay-Rheims states,

It is hard to determine what St. John here calls a sin which is not to death, and a sin which is unto death. The difference can not be the same as betwixt sins that are called venial and mortal: for he says, that if a man pray for his brother, who commits a sin that is not to death, life shall be given him: therefore such a one had before lost the life of grace, and been guilty of what is commonly called a mortal sin. And when he speaks of a sin that is unto death, and adds these words, for that I say not that any man ask, it cannot be supposed that St. John would say this of every mortal sin, but only of some heinous sins, which are very seldom remitted, because such sinners very seldom repent. By a sin therefore which is unto death, interpreters commonly understand a wilfull apostasy from the faith, and from the known truth, when a sinner, hardened by his own ingratitude, becomes deaf to all admonitions, will do nothing for himself, but runs on to a final impenitence.

It appears that this comment found in the Douay-Rheims (by Challoner himself?) is more in line with Pauline thinking than the actual Catechism. St. Paul does not divide the sins into mortal sins and venial sins. He simply says “sin” in general (“The wages of sin is death”). And the author of the Epistle of James, writing in the spirit of the true tradition of the Church, states,

But if you have respect to persons, you commit sin, being reproved by the law as transgressors. And whosoever shall keep the whole law, but offend in one point, is become guilty of all. (James 2:9, DRB)

Will not all sin eventually lead to spiritual death if not repented of? Why must there be a need for a distinction? The prophet Habukkuk even states plainly enough,

Your eyes are too pure to behold evil,
and you cannot look on wrongdoing
(Habakkuk 1:13, NRSV)


The passage from 1 John that you quote gives evidence for a distinction.

Much of it is common sense, too. We don’t need the Church to tell us that it is far more serious to murder someone in cold-blood than it is to cuss out the driver in front of you who just cut you off. Not all sin is equal.

Suggesting that the Catechism is not in line with Pauline thinking? Simply because St. Paul does not make the same distinction doesn’t mean he doesn’t agree with it or that it doesn’t exist. We look at Scripture as a whole.

I don’t think the scriptural footnote you provided is saying that there is no distinction. It is simply speculating that the distinction John mentions is a different distinction than that between mortal and venial sin. The way I’m reading it, the author of the footnote is speculating that John is distinguishing between two types of mortal sin (that which prayer will help and that which prayer will not help). It seems pretty obvious from 1 John that there certainly is a distinction of some kind. I’m not sure how you could read that passage any other way.

We distinguish because Scripture and Tradition both attest to a distinction.

Venial sin weakens our relationship with God, mortal sin breaks it. This is evident in our experience with human relationships. Sometimes, we have fights that wound our relationship with another, and sometimes that fight is so serious that it breaks the relationship.

If we thought all sin was mortal and broke our relationship with God, we would likely fall victim to an exorbitant scrupulosity and possibly despair of our salvation.

If we thought all sin was only venial and simply wounded our relationship with God, then we would likely fall prey to spiritual laxity as it would seem everyone is going to heaven anyway.

This seems to me a good reason to distinguish.


James 1:14-15 distinguishes between temptation,beginning sin, and deadly sins.


The basis for the Church’s distinction of sin to either venial or mortal is because that is what Jesus taught the Apostles. That is, it is part of the Gospel, the oral Word of God, as handed down by the Apostles and their successor bishops under the authority of the Pope. We know this today as the Pope and bishops in union with him have been handing this Tradition down for the past 2,000 years. A written summary of this oral Word of God can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC).

The basis for the distinction is NOT Scripture. Jesus taught orally and he commanded his Apostles to preach the Gospel, not write it. Later some of them wrote narrative of Jesus’ life in the four Gospels. They contain certain elements of the Gospel they were preaching (see CCC #75-83, 126). And Sts Paul, Peter, and others wrote letters to particular communities. But none of these claimed to be a summary of the Gospel that Jesus commanded the Apostles to preach in Mk 16:15-16.

Later, about 360 years or so, the Pope defined the canon of Scripture. So for 360 years the Catholic Church grew to millions of people without there being any consensus as to what the complete New Testament canon was. Possibly there was agreement on the OT as the Septuagint was used by Jesus & the Apostles.

So how did the Church grow? By people hearing the Word of God as preached by the Apostles and their successor bishops. They knew that sin is either venial or mortal because that is what Jesus taught the Apostles and then they passed it on in Tradition. When the bishops would be teaching this they would refer to Scripture to illumine and nourish this particular teaching.

They could have refered to Jesus saying that Herod (or Pilate) committed the “greater” sin. Or the punishments Moses commanded in Deuteronomy, some of which were death for certain serious violations of the Law. Not all violations resulted in death, only the serious ones. Or Gal 5:18, where St. Paul reminded the saved Galations that if they commit certain serious sins they would not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.

The written Word of God found is found in the Bible and is a narrative of salvation history. It is not a catechism or the source of the Church’s doctrine and practice, though it is extremely useful in illuminating the Gospel, the oral Word of God, as taught by the Apostles and their successor bishops down through the centuries.

closed #5

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