This is part five of an eight-part series on the Sacraments originally published by Franciscan Media.
Three things are required for a sin to be mortal: serious matter, full consent, and full knowledge (cf. CCC 1858-1859).
Serious matter means what has been done is just that—serious. It’s something with real consequences; it matters in my life with God and the Church. Our Church helps us by pointing out certain activities that are serious matters—usually significant violations of the 10 Commandments.
Full consent, the second requirement, means that we freely chose to do it. Doing anything with full freedom is rare because we are weak human beings who often think we are more free than we really are. Things like fear, peer pressure, laziness, addiction, ignorance, pride, and immaturity, often interfere with being truly free.
The same goes with full knowledge. Here we must ask: Did I truly understand and appreciate the ramifications and seriousness of what I did? Did I know it was wrong and fully grasp its sinfulness and its consequences for my life with God, self, and others?
Now here’s the most important thing to remember: To the degree that I was free or had knowledge of what I was doing, I am responsible for sinning. So I may have done something seriously wrong, but it may not be a serious or mortal sin. It is sinful and should be rooted out of our lives, but may not be mortally so.
Our loving God understands our human weakness. That is one reason he became human. He is calling us to full life with his Church and with himself.
Explain mortal sin and venial sin. What’s the difference?
A comment stating that “I’m terrified that I don’t know the difference between mortal and venial sins” came to me via our website. I’d like to address this issue, and hopefully put that person’s mind at ease, by looking at sin as a breach in relationships. This is consistent with what our Church teaches about the effects of Baptism, which states that, by Baptism, we are made children of God and brothers of Jesus in the Holy Spirit. Thus, our first sacramental encounter sets us firmly within a familial bond with God and the Church, who is called our mother.
Like all familial relationships, our life with God and the Church can be enhanced or weakened by our actions and attitudes; it can be built up or torn down. Loving, supportive activities strengthen the bond between us; hateful and unsupportive acts break it down. And that is what sin is—a breakdown in relationships which can be slight (venial) or very serious (mortal) depending on what is done and why it is done.
What determines the severity of a behaviour involves freedom and knowledge, for something very serious could be done without it being a mortal sin and vice versa. For example, someone could take another’s life. Was it an accident, and therefore incurs no guilt or sin? Or was it intentional? (Even our court systems distinguish among various degrees of guilt in the case of death.) What is done and why it is done are essential questions.
Therefore, it is impossible to give a list of mortal sins. One can give a list of serious behaviours that have the potential for being mortally sinful if performed with sufficient knowledge and freedom, but they are not automatically serious sins. The deeper questions are what effect did it have on our relationship with God, self, and others? And did we both know and appreciate those effects?
How do we know if what we did was venially or mortally sinful? Through prayerful reflection, we look at the seriousness of the behaviour, the degree of freedom we enjoyed at the time, and whether we truly appreciated the moral value of the behaviour remembering that we are often less free and appreciative than we sometimes think we are. It may not be as easy to commit a mortal sin as we think it is.
The good news is that God is an all-forgiving and all-loving God. As Jesus told us, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:16).
What should I confess?
A viewer writes concerning the Sacrament of Reconciliation: “I don’t know how much I should tell the priest. How detailed are we supposed to be?” At a retreat for priests from around the world given by Pope Francis in Rome—a retreat I was privileged to attend—the Holy Father told us that we are not to ask a lot of questions, lest people think we are being nosy. Good advice from a true pastor!
The requirement in canon law is to confess our grave sins by number and species (cf. CIC, can. 988). One commentator explains that this is intended to give a heads up to the priest as to the nature and frequency of a particular sin so that he can appreciate the situation and give appropriate counsel. It is not intended to be an exhaustive list of exact numbers and detailed description of the sinful act. Requiring that would fit into the Pope’s definition of being nosy.
As a confessor, I can say that having a general idea of penitents’ behaviour is helpful for assisting them in their spiritual growth. What is not helpful is when a penitent purposefully fudges on details so that the priest has no idea what he/she is talking about. We need to be honest and straightforward so that the confessor knows what we did and can help us grow beyond that particular form of sinful behaviour.
For example, it is not helpful to say that I stole money. What would be helpful, and consistent with the requirement of canon law, would be to say “I stole a thousand dollars once, because my family was starving” or “I stole a thousand dollars over a long period of time because that made it easier to not get caught.” Very different situations where number and species are very relevant for the priest to be pastorally helpful.
Finally, knowing what we do and how often we do it can by an eye-opening experience for us as we try to honestly turn to our God in true repentance. An examination of conscience can be a truly helpful practice.
How can one eliminate sins that are committed and confessed over and over? I believe that we have all faced this frustration at one time or another.
I will begin my answer with a reminder that no one overcomes sins by himself or herself. Whether we are victorious over a habit of sin has less to do with our willpower than with God’s grace. It is God who conquers sin, not us. Having said that, I will immediately add that we must cooperate with God’s grace in the process. God does not force anything on us. Rather, he invites us to accept his gifts—one of which is victory over sin.
Whether we suffer from a habit of sin or appear to conquer it has more to do with God than with us. Ours is to pray, avoid the occasions that could lead us into this sin, and trust in God’s loving mercy.
So why does God allow us to wallow in a sinful pattern? Not knowing the mind of God, I can only take stabs at an answer. But I am reminded of Saint Paul’s statement that, when asking to be freed from a “thorn in his side,” God responded that “my grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). In other words, in Saint Paul’s weakness and inability to overcome this evil, he was strong in God’s grace. He knew very well that it was not his own good intentions or willpower that was at work.
As a confessor, I have found that each of us has one area of weakness where we often fail even when we have the best of intentions. Maybe God allows us to recognise our weakness in this one area so that we don’t get cocky and pat ourselves on the back for good achievement. It keeps us humble and recognising that we need God’s mercy.
If we must confess the same sin year after year, remember that God is allowing this evil for his own purpose. We just need to keep doing our part to pray, avoid those occasions that can lead us into sin, and trust in God’s mercy. Remember that the command to be as perfect as our heavenly Father is a call to conform ourselves to Christ in his obedience to the Father’s will. Such conformity will allow the grace of God to conquer sin within us.
Why can’t I confess my sins directly to God? Why involve a priest?
The Book of Genesis relates that God shared authority with human beings by having them rule over the animals. The Book of Exodus tells of God working through the ministry of Moses to liberate the people. The prophets were men who mediated between God and human beings. Jesus sent his disciples out to share in his ministry of healing and preaching.
God could obviously have done a better job than Adam and Eve, Moses, the prophets, the disciples, or any one of us. But love allows God to share with humans—even knowing that we will mess up. God chose to make certain people mediators of his love and grace for the good of the entire community so that humans would have a share in his ministry.
In each of the sacraments, God’s grace—for it is really his grace that is at the heart of every sacrament—comes to us mediated through people and things. That’s just the way God set it up because of his love for us.
So, too, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. God forgives through the ministry of a priest. And this gives the sacrament a very warm and human aspect as we hear the words of absolution pronounced officially and authoritatively by a priest who not only represents Christ, but the whole Church. We are human beings with senses and emotions. The mediation of God’s graces speaks to our need to hear and sense his words of forgiveness.
How important is this sacrament in my daily faith journey?
Since we are required to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation only when we are conscious of having committed a mortal sin (cf. CCC, 1457), the sacrament could, theoretically, play a very minimal role in our spiritual life. But that would be very minimalistic to say the least.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church strongly encourages more frequent celebration of the sacrament, stating that even confession of our less serious sins leads to positive effects. It lists the following: confession helps us form our consciences, helps us resist temptation, allows us to experience the healing touch of Christ, and helps us progress in the life of the Spirit (cf. CCC, 1458).
Frequent use of the sacrament also helps us stay attuned to our spiritual lives. The more frequently we become aware of the condition of our life with God, self, and others, the better grip we have on both the progress and lack of progress in our spiritual life. It offers a good barometer of how we are doing.
Making the Sacrament of Reconciliation a vibrant part of one’s spiritual life—especially if it hasn’t been such in quite a while—basically just requires the decision to begin again. Most priests would be willing to help someone back into the swing of things, knowing that the first time back could be a bit awkward.
Part six: Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick will be published next week.
Fr. Don Miller OFM (d. 2017) was a Franciscan priest of St. John the Baptist Province. He earned a PhD in Moral Theology from the Catholic University of America.
Used with permission from Franciscan Media (www.FranciscanMedia.org).