Arrows missing target

Morality Part 5: What Makes a Sin a Sin


It was a Theology Q&A session on a retreat – a safe environment.  Participants were encouraged to write down their questions on any faith-related topic and submit them anonymously.  The group was encouraged to raise hands and ask additional questions if needed.  This was their time.  There were over 30 retreatants, plus the team; women ranging from their early 20’s to their early 80’s.  When the topic of sin came up, you could feel the emotional intensity in the room.  As each question was answered, seven more hands shot up asking more questions.

When people ask,“Is it a mortal sin if…”more often than not, they are asking out of fear.  Somewhere along the line they learned that ___ was a mortal sin, and if you did [it], you were going to hell.  Some ask the question while thinking about their own behavior; others ask out of concern for a loved one.

Struggling with the concept of sin–and the fear of hell that accompanies it–can really damage a person’s faith, which is why this post is so important.

In Morality Part 1, I explained that When we say something is a “sin” it’s because it damages our relationship with God; not because it is “breaking the rules.”  It damages our relationship because it is either directly aimed at hurting God or at hurting those whom God loves.  And as Morality Part 4 explained, it’s only a sin if you know what you’re doing is wrong and you are doing it of your own free will.


Archery Target
In the Old Testament, sin is defined in two ways.  The first is in archery terms: “missing the mark.”  For instance, when our actions are guided by selfishness rather than agapic-love, they miss the mark.

The second way sin is described in Scripture is as a “hardness of heart.”   For example, when we are indifferent to the suffering of others… when we just don’t care enough to help someone in need, we are hard-hearted.

Catholic Tradition takes these concepts from Old Testament along with the words of Jesus in the Gospels and the writings of St. Paul to expand our understanding of sin.

In the Penitential Rite, we pray:

Penitential Rite
Notice how this prayer recognizes that sin is always committed with intent (through my fault…).   Additionally, the words of this prayer acknowledge both the sins of commission (doing something wrong) and the sins of omission (not doing something that we know we should’ve done) – and this happens in thoughts, words, and actions.  In all cases, we recognize that there are varying degrees of seriousness:

Sin - Venial and Mortal

Venial sins include the smaller, less serious acts of sinfulness that often result from the bad habits or laziness. (I know I should pray, but I don’t.  I know I shouldn’t swear, but I do.)  These are important to recognize because over time they weaken our relationship with God.

As the degree of seriousness increases, Catholic Tradition describes mortal sin.  Translated literally, this is a sin which brings a “deadly” or “mortal” blow to one’s relationship with God.  A mortal sin is a complete, deliberate rejection of God.  This is a big deal.  We’re not just talking about any sin, here.  We’re talking about a relationship-breaking sin.  For it to be considered a “mortal sin” it:

  1. Must involve “grave matter
  2. Must be done with full knowledge.
  3. Must be done deliberately, with full freedom.

It is difficult to broadly and definitively classify anything as a mortal sin because the only one who knows a person’s honest level of knowledge, freedom, and intent is God.  For instance, consider one of the most disturbing “jobs” during the Holocaust.  The Jewish Virtual Library explains that at Auschwitz and several other concentration camps,

“the Nazis established the Sonderkommando, groups of Jewish male prisoners picked for their youth and relative good health whose job was to dispose of corpses from the gas chambers or crematoria. Some did the work to delay their own deaths; some thought they could protect friends and family, and some acted out of mere greed for extra food and money these men sometimes received. The men were forced into this position, with the only alternative being death in the gas chambers or being shot on the spot by an SS guard.”
Here we are certainly dealing with a grave matter done with full knowledge, but the prisoners’ lack of freedom eliminates the culpability.

Culpability, the degree to which people are morally responsible, can diminish if a sin is committed under duress, whether that pressure comes from oneself or others.  Then there are psychological wounds, such as the PTSD of war veterans or mental illness, that likewise limit one’s freedom and diminish responsibility.

Is it possibly for a person to commit a mortal sin?  Absolutely.  That possibility is a reflection of the depth of our human freedom.  However, not every decision is made with full knowledge, full freedom, and deliberate intent.

Moreover, you know what the remedy is for mortal sin?  Reconciliation.  Mess up really bad?  Take responsibility, seek forgiveness, and make amends.  God just wants us to repent and return to him.

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”  (Luke 15:4-7)
When Jesus tells the parable of the Lost Sheep, it might be helpful to understand that most shepherds don’t leave the 99 to chase after the one.  But God does.  Because that’s just the kind of loving, merciful, life-giving God he is.

Mortal sin is not the end.  Rather, it points to a deep, serious need for reconciliation.

At this point in the Theology Q&A, someone inevitably asks:

If God is all-loving and forgiving, then how can there be anyone in hell?
For one thing, we are held morally accountable for our actions (and inactions).
  • For forming our conscience and increasing our desire for good.
  • For informing our conscience and developing our moral wisdom.
  • For following our conscience and avoiding sin.
For more on how judgment works with an all-loving, forgiving God, read this post on Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory.

As I wrap up the series of posts on Morality, think about your own attitudes towards sin:

  • When it comes to the topic of moral responsibility and sin, what do you struggle with?

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Julie Dienno-Demarest Visit Website
Spiritual Director, Author, Educator
Related Posts
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Morality Part 4: Form, Inform, and Follow
Morality Part 1: It’s About Relationship
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Morality Part 2: Mercy, Motivation, and Conscience

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