Q. What is the difference between mortal and venial sins, and what are the venial sins? (Illinois)
A. A bit of history will help you understand any attempt to answer your questions. In the very early Christian church, during the Roman persecutions of the first centuries, one sin particularly was recognized as the big one, abandoning one’s faith in Christ because of fear of pain or death. That’s the option the first Christians faced, either be faithful to Christ and die, or deny Christ and live.
For those who chose to live, and who later wished to return to the Christian faith, elaborate and lengthy public penances, conducted by the bishop, allowed these sinners to be reconciled with the church once, but only once.
As time went on, other moral offenses (murder, bestiality, adultery and abortion were among them) required extended public penance. Dying without forgiveness of these sins resulted, so it was believed, in loss of eternal life. Not much formal attention was given to lesser sins, which would be forgiven by prayer, acts of charity, celebration of the eucharistic liturgy and other spiritual works.
Hundreds of years later, Irish monks introduced into Europe the kind of confession we are most familiar with — individual private confession and absolution one-on-one with a priest. This form of penance was originally viewed suspiciously by church authorities; at first discouraged or forbidden, it later became the required way of sacramental forgiveness in the Catholic Church.
The monks drew up more formal lists of sins and penances, and by around the 13th century, 800 hundred years ago, the terms mortal (sins fatal to friendship with God) and venial (from the Latin "venia," pardon or forgiveness, in other words sins more easily forgiven) distinguished between more serious and less grave offenses.
Though a variety of terminologies were used to describe them, three elements had to come together for a grave or mortal sin. The matter itself must be serious, not trivial or inconsequential; there must be full deliberation on the consequences at the time the sin is committed; and there must be full, conscious consent of the will and desire to commit the sinful action.
Absence of any of these conditions renders the offense less than grave, and may therefore make the action or omission a venial sin or no sin at all. Other than that, it seems the church relies on people to use good sense, enlightened by the teachings of the Gospels, to determine what is a serious issue and what is not.
Perhaps it is fortunate that a more comprehensive and detailed description of venial sin has never been attempted. Because of the complex possible ways to disrespect God, society and our human nature, by offending against love of God and neighbor, or by racism, greed and other social evils, even great moral theologians have deemed it unnecessary, or impossible, to try to spell out the number or exact kinds of venial sins.
It’s not healthy for us to try either, except to examine the leanings in our lives that could become more sinful and seek for ways to make that part of our life better, which is a great part of what the sacramental graces of penance are for. Ultimately we still can do only what our Catholic ancestors did, put them and all sin trustingly into God’s hands for forgiveness, conversion and healing.
A longtime columnist with Catholic News Service, Father Dietzen died March 27, 2011.