Father Dietzen: What is a venial sin? - Catholic Courier

Father Dietzen: What is a venial sin?

Q. A few weeks ago, you answered a question about degrees of sinfulness and mentioned venial sin. I think I understand mortal sin, but what is venial sin exactly? Could you give a list of them? (Florida)

 

A. A bit of history about the church’s attitude toward sin should help you understand the answer to your question.

In the beginning of Christianity, apart from those based mainly on the natural law (the Ten Commandments, for example), one sin was particularly identified as the big one: abandoning one’s faith in Christ because of fear or pain or death.

That was the option often faced by Christians during the Roman persecutions of those days: Either be faithful to Christ and die, or deny Christ and live.

Those who chose to live but who later wished to return to the Christian faith faced lengthy public penances conducted by the bishop. When these were completed, sinners could be reconciled with the church once, but only once.

As time went on, other moral offenses (murder, bestiality, adultery and abortion of unborn children among them) also required extended public penance. Dying without ritual forgiveness of these sins resulted in, so it was believed, loss of eternal life. Not much formal attention was given to lesser sins, which could be forgiven by acts of charity, prayer, celebration of the Eucharist and other spiritual works.

Hundreds of years later, in the sixth century and after, Irish monks began to introduce into the rest of Europe the kind of confession with which we are most familiar, individual private confession and absolution one on one with a priest. Originally viewed suspiciously by church authorities, this form of penance was at first discouraged and forbidden, but later became the required way of sacramental forgiveness in the Roman Catholic Church.

To achieve some degree of consistency and clarity, monks prepared lists of sins and penances, called "penitentials," for confessors to use.

By around the 13th century, the terms "mortal" and "venial" came to distinguish between more and less serious offenses. Mortal sins were fatal to one’s relationship with God and neighbor. Venial sins, coming from the Latin word venia (pardon or forgiveness), were more easily forgiven.

Though varieties of expressions were used to describe them, three elements had to come together for a sin to be grave: The matter itself must be serious, not trivial or inconsequential. One must be aware of the consequences at the time the sin is committed. And there must be full, conscious desire to commit the sinful action.

Doubt about or lessening of any of these conditions renders the offense less than grave, making the action or omission a venial sin or no sin at all.

This may sound complicated, but generally the church relies on people to use good sense, enlightened by the teachings of Christ, to determine what is serious and what is not.

It’s clear that the conceivable ways one might offend against love of God and neighbor — by racism, greed and other social evils — are numerous and complex.

Fortunately, a more comprehensive and detailed list of sins has never been attempted. It’s not healthy for us to try to do this either, except to attend to the leanings in our lives that could become more sinful, and seek ways to improve that part of our life, which is what a great part of the graces of sacramental penance are for.

Ultimately, we can still only do what our Catholic ancestors did: Put all our faults and sins trustingly into God’s hands for forgiveness and healing.


A longtime columnist with Catholic News Service, Father Dietzen died March 27, 2011.

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