Terms like sin and the soul are both old and familiar to most people of faith. How often, however, do we stop and think about the meaning and significance of these terms? In this paper, I would like to examine the relationship between the soul and sin. Specifically, the affect that sin has upon the soul.
For the most part, Catholic theology draws its understanding of the soul from the work of Thomas Aquinas. In turn, Aquinas’ view was influenced by Averroes and Aristotle.
In following Aquinas, Catholicism adheres to a dualistic anthropology. That is to say that human beings are composed of a spiritual soul and a material (physical) body. The soul is the essence or whatness of a living thing. I have argued elsewhere that this dualistic understanding of humans can and should be extended to other living things. (See “On The Souls Of Animals, part one” and “On The Souls Of Animals, part two.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides the most precise definition of the human soul. “The spiritual principle of human beings. The soul is the subject of human consciousness and freedom; soul and body together form one unique human nature. Each human soul is individual and immortal, immediately created by God. The soul does not die with the body, from which it is separated by death, and with which it will be reunited in the final resurrection.” (Catechism of The Catholic Church, Paragraphs 363-366).
As Catholics, we are, for the most part, very aware of the concept of sin. In particular, we are aware of sin within the context of the sacrament of reconciliation (confession).
Because each individual soul is unique with regard to its state or condition vis-a-vis God, and because that state or condition of a soul is likely to change several times throughout a person’s earthly life, the question of the relationship between sin and soul is both subjective and fluid. Despite this, it is possible to speak in a general way of the affects of sin on the soul.
The quintessential definition of sin is “A word, deed or desire in opposition to the eternal law.” (Saint Augustine). The eternal law is essentially synonymous with the mind of God. In turn, the mind of God can, to varying degrees, be ascertained by natural law as the intellect and conscience understand it.
Catholicism makes two categorical distinctions concerning sin. The first distinction is between original sin and personal sin. Original sin refers to the act of disobedience committed by Adam and Eve.
The principle and immediate consequence of original sin is the removal of sanctifying Grace. Sanctifying Grace is the supernatural principle by which a soul is made holy. In a sense, sanctifying Grace is what makes a soul capable of obtaining Heaven. The removal of sanctifying Grace damages human nature by altering its ability to complete its purpose, to wit, communion with God. And since all human beings share the same nature, all human beings are affected by original sin.
The damage done to human nature also means that we are “Subject to ignorance, suffering and the domination of death, and inclined to sin.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 418). I indicated above that, ultimately, the will of God can be understood by the intellect and the conscience. However, in light of the damage done by original sin, the human conscience is often not properly formed, making our ability to understand the will of God difficult and, thus, clouding our moral judgments.
Additionally, original sin predisposes human nature to sin, what Catholicism calls concupiscence. It is concupiscence that leads to the second categorical distinction of sin, that of personal sin.
Here too, Catholicism creates a definite distinction between venial sins and mortal sins.
One way to distinguish between venial and mortal sins is to return to the concept of sanctifying Grace. As said above, sanctifying Grace is that Divine guidance whereby a soul is made worthy of Heaven. This Grace was lost due to original sin, and it is this Grace which, Catholicism asserts, is restored by baptism.
Therefore, a venial sin can be defined as an offense against God that does not rise to the level of seriousness sufficient to deprive the soul of sanctifying Grace. In a sense, venial sins are illnesses of the soul rather than their supernatural death. When people commit a venial sin, they do not decisively set themselves on turning away from God, but their attachment to created goods does damage to their relationship with God. Moreover, deliberate and habitual venial sins harm one’s spiritual life and weaken one’s resistance to other forms of evil, leading one to commit mortal sins.
Where venial sins strain the bond between God and humans, mortal sin breaks that bond. The result of which is that the soul is deprived of the sanctifying Grace necessary for eternal life. It is for this reason that this type of sin is considered mortal, for it results in the soul being eternally separated from God. The Book of Revelation refers to this as the “second death.” (See Revelation 21:8). Here, too, however, God’s mercy is not lost. By providing the sacraments – in particular, confession (and the attending penance) – God has made reconciliation possible even for those who have committed mortal sins.
Regardless of the nature of the sin involved, its effect is to separate. Sin introduced death into the human condition (see Romans 5:12), and death is the separation of the soul from the body. Even more insidious, mortal sin that has not been repented destroys our relationship with God, which, in turn, leads to the eternal separation of the soul from God. For this reason, Jesus counsels us to “Not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both.” (Matthew 10:28).