Thinking about Mortal and Venial Sin: Missing Mass

Thinking about Mortal and Venial Sin: Missing Mass August 29, 2011

For many non-Catholic Christians interested in Catholicism, the Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sin can be a stumbling block.  To many such people a sin is a sin is a sin.  Fretting over the relative gravity of different sins seems counterproductive.  What is necessary is an outright condemnation of sin, not a careful categorization of it.

"Surely eating fruit isn't that big a deal."

Furthermore, many people, including many sincere Catholics, struggle with the idea that missing Mass is a mortal sin.  If you are going to categorize sins, how is it possible that missing Mass falls into the same category as rape and murder and not the same category as petty theft or thoughtless insults?  It is difficult to see how missing Mass could be so damaging to oneself and others as to warrant such a categorization.

It seems to me that much of the confusion here lies in the fact that when we speak about sin in the abstract we almost always consider it objectively, but when we speak about it in the concrete we must always consider the acting person’s subjectivity first and foremost.

Well-catechized Catholics know that there are three requirements for a sin to be mortal.  First, there must be grave matter involved; second, there must be full knowledge that the matter is, in fact, grave; and third, there must be full consent of the will.  The first requirement is objective, the next two, subjective.

When we say, as is common, that missing Mass is a mortal sin, we are only saying that it meets the first criteria.  It would be more accurate (and cumbersome) to say that, due to its gravity, missing Mass has the potential to be a mortal sin.  Very few people, even among the most self-consciously orthodox, actually believe that the vast majority of Catholics who missed Mass last Sunday are in a state of mortal sin by that very fact.

Indeed, it is even possible that people who miss Mass do not sin even venially should they have absolutely no knowledge or absolutely no freedom.  We find here a strange inversion of our normal way of talking:  what is “objectively” sin may not be real sin at all, but only what is “subjectively” sin is, in reality, sin.  Real sin, like real love, requires knowledge and freedom.  It requires subjectivity.

If we reverse the order of our requirements, putting gravity in the last place, we can catch a glimpse of the real difference between mortal and venial sin.  A venial sin is something that, even done with full knowledge and full consent, cannot be used to completely reject God.  Someone looking to break their relationship with God would have to be considered half-hearted in their attempt if they tried to do it by stealing a gumball or muttering some small calumny under their breath.  In fact, the person would know that they weren’t really trying because they would know that the matter was not grave.

A mortal sin is any act which, when done with full knowledge and consent, can be used to break off one’s relationship with God.  Under such a rubric it is much easier to see how missing Mass could be a mortal sin.  Because Mass is where we renew our communion with God, someone could use such an omission precisely to break that communion.  It is not a matter of missing Mass always being as harmful to oneself and others as murder or rape.  It is a matter of the potential way in which missing Mass could be used to say something definitive about one’s relationship with God.

The category of mortal sin does not exist to indicate some tipping point between less and more serious sins, as would be the case if only its first requirement was relevant.  Rather, it exists as an affirmation that our actions have the ability to manifest our relationship with God, something upon which the New Testament is insistent.  It says that there are things we can do to deliberately break communion.  And the category of venial sin indicates that such things take some effort.


Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.


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  • Brett,

    You make it sound like someone committing a mortal sin must not only fully intend to commit the act that constitutes the sin (missing mass, raping someone, killing someone), but must also intend for the act to be a mortal sin—to actually be an intentional break with God. I rather like the idea, but I am doubtful that this is what you actually mean. Also, it seems to me that if someone actively wills a break with God, he or she doesn’t need to commit any particular act to accomplish it. A man who wants a divorce from his wife need not have an affair with another woman to end the relationship. He can just say, “I don’t love you any more. I want a divorce.” So it seems to me any “sin” against God, no matter how trivial, just like any transgression in a marriage, if deliberately intended to cause an end to the relationship, can in fact end the relationship.

    It is difficult to see how, for a very serious act, like cold-blooded murder, an intention not to break with God could keep the act from being a mortal sin, just as a husband who still loves his wife and does not want to end the marriage may commit an offense (like, in my opinion, Arnold Schwarzenegger) that is such a serious offense against the relationship that it is over whether he intends for it to be or not.

    But of course, continuing with the analogy of God and the spouse, whether or not some transgression constitutes complete break or a lesser offense would seem to depend on the reaction of the person offended. Some wives, it would seem, put up with philandering husbands while other wives consider one act of infidelity to end the marriage. Not to rely to heavily on bad novels or B movies, but I think some wives know that they have a connection with their husbands that is not broken by certain kinds of infidelities. They know that their husbands will not leave, or even if they leave, they will come back.

    • brettsalkeld

      David,
      You are right that I don’t mean to say that one must intend to commit mortal sin in order to commit it, though I certainly think that is one possibility. Upon rereading my post, I can see how you got that impression. I was not clear enough about the complexity of human freedom. One could use a particular act, like missing Mass, to intentionally tell God where to go, but one could also commit an act that said, in effect, “You may not like this God, and I don’t give a (literal) damn.” The act then wouldn’t be used to break communion with God as its primary motive. The primary motive could be any number of other things: hurting another person, seeking inordinate gain, demonstrating one’s power over another etc. But it would be committed with full knowledge that it would break communion with God. Such a break would be foreseen, if not directly intended. If such a break was not foreseen, you have someone acting without full knowledge, and therefore you don’t have a mortal sin.

      Lastly, I think the decision to abandon relationship with God is, in itself, an act. Traditionally it has been called apostasy.

  • Melody

    I think your point is well taken that, “A mortal sin is any act which, when done with full knowledge and consent, can be used to break off one’s relationship with God.” A relationship can also wither away through neglect, which could be the case with habitual Mass-missing.
    I wish people would consider the opportunities for grace and union with Christ that they miss when they don’t go to Mass, without needing the negative incentive of avoiding mortal sin . It should be enough that He asked us on the night before He died to “Do this in memory of me.” God is there for us 24-7, it seems a little thing to give Him and hour a week as a minimum. It’s easy to split hairs over whether one is obliged to go to Mass while traveling, etc. But I have never been sorry to have made time for that; the blessings received far outweigh any inconvenience.

    • brettsalkeld

      Melody,
      One thing I considered including in my piece, but which I chose not to in order to keep it rather tight, was the relationship between many little venial sins and mortal sin. It is certainly the case that we damage our relationship with God by habitual venial sin. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a mortal sin that is not preceded by countless venial ones. Who, in a state of perfect friendship with God, just turns and walks away? What seems more likely is that a person starts to question God’s goodness because of the desire to justify one’s little foibles. Unchecked, this can grow to the point of de facto rejection of God. This de facto rejection usually takes place, I would suppose, in actions that one knows to be wrong (“I don’t give a damn!”), but it can also take place very consciously and methodically as David points out above (apostasy).

      By the way, have you ever read Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter? It is a harrowing depiction of exactly this process. A much richer examination of human freedom and God’s grace than I could possibly hope to produce in a blog post.

      • Melody

        I haven’t read it yet; I’ll have to see if our library has it; I have liked other Graham Greene books.

  • Dear Brett,

    Thanks for your very helpful posts. I wonder how you might respond to the following objections, which might come from a likely “non-Catholic Christian interested in Catholicism” (but also from a Roman Catholic):

    1. You assume that there are sins which “even done with full knowledge and full consent, cannot be used to completely reject God,” because the sinner must commit them knowing that the matter was not sufficiently “grave.” But doesn’t even a minor sin, as Barth would say, “involve our mortal sickness”? Thus, even the theft of a gumball might proceed from the very same enslavement to the fear of death as physical or sexual assault, and the larceny calls for the full depth of the free grace of God.

    2. You consider that the thief of gumballs and the mutterer are merely “half-hearted” in their sin. But might it be quite likely that someone who very consciously limits herself to small sins, avoiding anything labelled as “mortal” sin, is carefully living an “adequately good” life so that the absolute forgiveness of God is seemingly unnecessary?

    3. You state that a “mortal” sin must involve “full knowledge and full consent.” A venial sin, on the other hand, is marked by a lack of full freedom. But isn’t all sin both voluntary and involuntary insofar as it is marked by conflict? Barth: “Which supposedly little sin, even the smallest, is not committed in an inner conflict of man and the will of man, so that it is not at one and the same time voluntary sin and involuntary?”

    4. You state that one can commit a “mortal” sin in refusing to attend Mass because that is where “we renew our communion with God.” But, while we can trust that God is substantially present in the Eucharist, can we really exclude certain places and times from being the sites of renewal of communion with God? If we let ourselves be distracted by gumballs and muttering, we might miss our own Fourth and Walnut epiphanies.

    Thanks.

    Neil

    • brettsalkeld

      Neil,
      Thank you for your kind words and for your always careful and constructive challenges.
      Your points elicit much sympathy from me. Before taking them in turn, I think it is worth pointing out that the Catholic discussion of this (presumed in my post) assumes that the person is already in relationship with God. I don’t, off the top of my head, know how the tradition deals with venial sins by those who are not in relationship with God. (What does it mean to say a sin doesn’t cause a complete break in a relationship that doesn’t exist? Beats me.) It seems to me that much Protestant discussion starts with the sinner separated from God while much Catholic discussion starts with the baptized and forgiven sinner striving to grow in holiness. I think this accounts for much of the difference in angle between my post and your questions. Does that sound right to you?
      Now, to your points:

      1. Yes, I think even small sins manifests our depravity and calls forth the “full depth of the free grace of God.” They are a constant reminder of our fallen-ness and should elicit our humility. The Catholic only affirms that someone already living in that grace does not completely reject it by small sin.

      2. It would seem to me that a way of living that calculates what, exactly, one can get away with is touched by something more serious than any little sin, of itself, might manifest. (See Melody’s point above about missing Mass!) There is here a lack of trust in God and a lack of understanding of one’s own perilous situation that might amount to something mortal. It seems more likely, to me at least, that such things happen to most of us some of the time in a less than full-blown way and will be one of the first things to go in purgatory (in our face-to-face meeting with the Just Judge) if we are not graced to see the full reality of our situation in this life.

      3. What Barth says here certainly resonates with human experience. Paul talks much the same way. It seems to me that this is one reason that we must never judge whether or not someone has, in fact, committed a mortal sin. On the other hand, as I’ve written elsewhere (Why I Believe in Hell (and Purgatory too)), it is one thing not to presume about others, it is another thing to ignore the possibility of the rejection of God in oneself. I suspect this is the dynamic at play when the saints talk about being the greatest of sinners. This one cuts both ways.

      4. Yes! The Mass should prepare us for 4th and Walnut, not take away from its possibility. The very name “Mass” indicates that the function of the liturgy is to prepare us for the transformation of the world. “You are sent!” It seems to me far more likely that a person who habitually misses Mass will reject God on the street corner than that they will use missing Mass, in itself, to make that rejection, though I won’t deny the latter possibility.

  • Thales

    Brett,

    I really liked your post. It’s a way of thinking about mortal/venial sin that I hadn’t thought of before. I think that this way of thinking has answers to all of David’s and Neil’s questions.

    Something that came to my mind when reading David’s and Neil’s comments: Brett’s way of thinking focuses on a person’s relationship with God. What if a person commits no act, but one day, a person just decides to end one’s relationship with God? In other words, this person simply says “God, I no longer believe in you, I no longer trust in you, I want no relationship with you.” Every aspect of this person’s life remains the same (he’s still nice to his neighbor, he still obeys all moral codes, he is still a “good” person). I’m pretty sure that this person has still committed a mortal sin, even though there was no outward act: namely, the mortal sin of intentionally and purposefully rejecting God. And this sin is distinct from the act of stealing a gumball, or some other minor sin. So if one steals a gumball while having the intention of purposefully rejecting God, though the gumball theft might be a venial sin, I think that the mortal sin of intentionally and purposefully rejecting God is being committed contemporaneously.

    Going to the analogy of marriage. A husband says in the heat of the moment: “I don’t love you any more. I want a divorce.” But though he might mean it at the moment, he actually doesn’t have a purposeful resolution to the end the marriage, and so never actually gets a divorce and continues living with his wife. This seems to me analogous to a venial sin — he continues in the relationship, even though it’s been damaged in some way, but the damage is the not the type which completely ends the relationship. But suppose a second scenario: the husband says “I don’t love you any more. I want a divorce”, and purposefully ends the marriage and gets the divorce. This seems analogous to the purposefully rejecting God scenario I mention in the previous paragraph. There, the relationship with God has been intentionally and purposefully broken, and I think a mortal sin has been committed. A third scenario is the adultery — the husband commits adultery, but suppose he did so not necessarily with a purposeful intention to break his marriage with his wife, but because he’s developed bad habits of flirting with the secretary and it just culminated in full adultery. The husband might even want to remain with his wife; the husband might not want to have a break in the relationship with his wife. But adultery is something that is of such grave matter because it is the ultimate violation of the marriage vow, that the marriage relationship with the wife is completely broken and can’t continue. That seems analogous to a mortal sin.

    Fortunately, God is infinitely more loving and merciful and forgiving than any wife who has been cheated on. With a good confession, a relationship with God that had been previously broken by “adultery” or by another sin or by a purposeful rejection of God, can be immediately reestablished.

  • Dan

    Mortal sin and venial sin are helpful constructs, but care should be taken not to downplay the damage that can be done by any sin involving grave matter. A series of venial sins, in aggregate, have the same damaging effect as a mortal sin when grave matter is present.

    Let’s say a person misses mass because their children are sick. This would of course be considered neither a venial or mortal sin because it is for good reason. However, the next weekend, their elderly parents are sick, so they miss mass again. Then the following week, they get called in to an emergency at work. Then the following week they get sick, and so on and so forth, until which point they begin to forget about attending mass entirely. At no point do they ever commit a mortal sin, but they begin to suffer the same effects on the soul that would occur had they willfully chosen to cease attending mass.

    The argument could be that they failed to compensate by making the effort to attend mass during the week, etc.. While that’s true, it hardly constitutes a mortal sin, as full knowledge and consent of the will were not present. Nevertheless, this individual has unwittingly cut themselves off from the spiritual life as if they had actually committed a mortal sin.

    True mortal sin, by the textbook definition, involves malice. But very few people truly are malicious. In practice, the devil is often far more subtle, and will use whatever way he can to effect the destruction of our souls.

  • Anne

    All these considerations are very enlightening, but I’m wondering what, objectively speaking, constitutes the sin in missing Mass? Is it potentially a sin because the Church has commanded our attendance? The caption about eating the apple seems apropos…but is that the way things actually work? Can the Church, in God’s place, make an act sinful, and seriously at that, by simply declaring it so? Or is missing Mass by its very nature *potentially* (according to Brett’s scenario) mortally sinful?

    I ask it this way because I’m old enough to remember when we were told it was a mortal sin to eat meat on Fridays, an ecclesiastical abstinenance rule mandated for some parts of the world, but not all. When the rule was relaxed back in the 60s, moralists began questioning the whole idea of imposing ecclesiastical burdens that, in effect, add new ways for people to damn themselves to Hell. In the East (even in the churches in union with Rome), such rules are taken much more “lightly” in the sense that both attendance at the sacred liturgies and fasting guidelines are considered ideals a person on the way to holiness strives to live up to, not rules that, if broken, may damn you to Hell. I think it was in light of what happened with the Friday abstinence rule that many Western Catholic moralists began believing the Church not only should not, but could not, make an act that isn’t sinful by its own nature a mortal sin simply by delcaring it so. What’s more, objectively speaking, one has to wonder how an act can be sinful (even mortally so) in one part of the Church (the West) and not in another (the East).