A reader writes to ponder mortal and venial sin

A reader writes to ponder mortal and venial sin August 14, 2019

She writes:

I know you are busy, and there is no need to reply to me on this, but I would like to share with you some thoughts – or questions – about venial sin.

Thinking back over some of the sometimes heated discussions about Amoris Laetitia, it seems to me that there was something missing from the discussion. Some, mostly conservative, people seemed to have difficulty understanding the distinction between actions that are grave matter in themselves, and the subjective culpability of people who don’t yet know enough or are free enough to avoid doing those actions. Some people claimed that once a person’s subjective culpability has been established, it meant that the person is then free to merrily go his own way and just continue doing what he was doing because it is no longer a sin. Others insisted that sin is sin and remains sin and expressed scandal over what they saw as a permission to continue sinning. But it was rarely, if ever, that such grave matter without sufficient knowledge or freedom, although it remains sin, it is then a “venial” sin.

Here, I know that a venial sin does not prevent a person from receiving the Eucharist, but not much else. Can there be some limit to accumulation of venial sins? We believe that God’s patience and mercy are without limits, but I suppose that venial sins will eventually damage our relationship with Him. Jesus said that “if we love Him we will follow his commandments”; I am sure He did not mean only the big issues. And He said somewhere else something about being faithful in small things…

Would such a habitual sinner be in danger of becoming “tepid”… and Revelation contains strong words about those who are “neither hot not cold”.

If I had a husband whom I claimed to love very much, but I did never try to avoid doing things that drive him crazy, even such things of little importance like my bad habit of always leaving cupboard doors open in the kitchen (something I actually do all the time), and more other such trivial things, our relationship will eventually suffer. He might start worrying that I don’t love him enough, even by trying to avoid small annoyances. Our relationship will eventually be destroyed.

In the same way, venial sins appear to be small offences. But do I really love the Lord “with all my heart” if I don’t make any effort to avoid displeasing Him, even in apparently small matters?

Now, what are we supposed to do about venial sins? Is the Penitential Rite at the beginning of every Mass we attend, and the “say only one word and our hearts will be healed” just before Communion sufficient to always obtain forgiveness of all these smaller sins that we regret?

On the other hand, if most people came to Confession with a complete list of all their venial sins, Confessions would indeed take a very long time…

Or, as some Protestant people who don’t understand the Sacrament of Reconciliation claim for every kind of sin, would it be sufficient to just ask forgiveness for our many venial sins in our private prayers?

I don’t know what to conclude about all this. What do you think?

I think you are definitely on to something when you talk about venial sins accumulating.  My main caution is to think of it relationally and psychologically rather than legally. God does not keep a checklist of our sins and wait hopefully for us to cross the line so he can damn us.  We are punished by, not for, our sins.  God is always working for our salvation and happiness. An image from medical science helps me here.  It’s like the accumulation of exposure to x-rays.  A little bit doesn’t hurt us too much and we should not freak out about it when we get our dental x-rays even though they do us a small amount of damage.  But if we build up an exposure over time it can still harm us a lot.  Obviously that analogy limps since there is never a time when even venial sin is a good thing (as an x ray can be).  Indeed, one of the ways venial sin takes over is by bringing us to believe the lie that a little venial sin is actually good for you. This is part of the reason legalist approaches to sin can be toxic since so many people quickly embrace the idea that it’s “just” a venial sin so it’s really okay to do it. It’s not and the embrace of that lie is itself a sin. It’s the mentality of the beginning alcoholic who tells himself it’s “just” one drink as the gateway to a life of slavery. Sin blinds and hardens the soul and makes it more and more difficult to repent or even admit the sin.  In the end, it can make us unable—yet in a profoundly culpable way—to even believe we sin at all.  It becomes everybody else’s fault and—eventually—God’s fault that we do evil that is obvious to everybody else, especially our victims.

That said, most sins are venial ones and the other end of the scale is that people guilty of mere trivialities can often suffer from scruples and agonize over nothing when they are actually living lives that are pleasing to God.  Very often, they are people who suffer profoundly at the hands of spiritual bullies who push them around with guilt and shame as a sick sort of power play at the hands of the weak.

You are absolutely not a bully of any kind and have always struck me as one of the sweetest, gentlest, and most thoughtful readers I have, so what I say next is not directed at you in the slightest.  It is, in a certain sense, directed at me and countless folk I have encountered on the web over the years and it comes down to this:

The whole issue of diagnosing mortal and venial sin is only useful when applied to ourselves.  We can talk about grave matter objectively, but we cannot talk about another person’s culpability at all since we know their knowledge of sin only imperfectly and their interior freedom not at all.  So my first gut response to this discussion is a sort of profound weariness of soul because, at the mention of Amoris Laetitia and Pope Francis, I find myself reliving the endless jihad of the Catholic Taliban against him for the crime of trying to make it possible for people in excruciating family circumstances to have access to the grace of the sacraments, only to be endlessly attacked by Pharisees convinced that they know and can sit in judgment of total strangers about whose culpability they know nothing.

I’m deathly sick of that.  I’m perfectly willing to say that “If you support [insert grave matter here] you are in danger of your immortal soul”.  I’ve made many arguments to that effect concerning things like torture, or cheerleading for cruelty at the border while hiding behind the unborn, or a host of other evils promoted by the Christianist Freak Show.  I’ve condemned ugly statements mocking the least of these or exploiting the unborn in order to defend cruelty to children at the border.  Jesus commands us to evaluate such bad fruits of the tongue and reject them as the work of false prophets.  How else can we navigate such moral questions in the public square?  But of course, I don’t know the culpability of total strangers and don’t try to claim that somebody is guilty of mortal sin—especially somebody I don’t know.  Indeed, one of the weirdest things, for me, is when a total stranger writes me to complain “I deeply resent your extremely accurate description of the shoe I freely choose to wear!”  My response is, “Dude, I don’t even know you.  Why do you choose to wear the shoe I’m describing and then blame me for condemning you?  I’m condemning the grave matter.  You are the one who chooses to support that grave matter and then feel guilty when I point out that it is grave matter.”

Anyway, I think you are basically on the right track that persistent venial sin can harden our hearts, not God’s.  He does not change, but we can, and not always for the better.

FWIW, here’s a piece I wrote long ago to explain mortal and venial sin to an Evangelical audience and the Catholics bearing witness to them.

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