I mentioned last week that Father Bisbee and I are going to do a series during this Lent on the capital sins. Last weekend we spoke on anger. This weekend we want to talk about Confession in general, and answer a question regarding what is a mortal sin and a venial sin.
Let us start with the last part first. What is a mortal sin? It takes three things, according to church teaching, for something to be a mortal sin. First, it has to be serious matter. This is an objective judgment on human actions. An objective judgment is, to put it in another way, a look at an action that is easy to identify as morally wrong. It is an independent judgment, by the church, regarding a type of action that is always and everywhere sinful. There are lists of actions that are, by their nature, objectively sinful. Some of these come from the basic 10 Commandments that God gave to Moses and the Israelites.
It is not only against those basic 10 Commandments that we can find reason to name something as a mortal sin. But the first part required for something to rise to a level of mortal sin is that it has to be something seriously wrong with the moral choice.
Second, we have to know that it is a seriously wrong action or attitude. In other words, we have to have our consciences formed correctly by the teaching authority of the church, and by the 2000 years of history that we base our moral standards on.
This is part of a mistake that some people make in our church today. There is an assumption, on some people’s part, that if they are acting according to their conscience, they are safe. This is not what the church teaches. There is a requirement that our consciences be conformed to the teaching of the church, and the church is the one who, because of her 2000 years, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is able to clearly articulate how we are to make our consciences conform to the will of God. One of the most common ways that seems to happen in our society today is with Catholics who claim they can support abortion.
So it is possible for something to be serious matter, but because we do not know, at the time, it is serious matter, it may not be a mortal sin until such time as we learn the seriousness of the sin. It is possible for our consciences to be improperly formed, and conformed, to the will of God. Because of a mal-formed conscience, some people don’t know, or refuse to know, that something is sinful.
The third point is the most difficult because this is the part where our will to do or not to do something becomes the primary issue. The third point necessary for something to be a mortal sin is that we know it is something seriously wrong, we know we ought not to do it, BUT WE CHOOSE TO DO IT ANYWAY.
When all three of these: serious matter, knowledge that it is serious matter, and a decision to do it anyway are active in actions we take, we fall into mortal sin. Another word for mortal sin is deadly sin. It removes the sanctifying grace that God gives us through the Sacraments. We lose what God gave us that will enable us to enter heaven!
But there is also another category of sin. The church refers to that as venial sin. Another word for venial, if you look it up in a thesaurus, is forgivable. They are sins that are relatively minor, but do damage to our relationship with God. The best example I can give for that is what is often called a “white lie”, or a “little lie”. When we commit venial sins, we can turn to the Father in heaven and ask him to forgive us, each and every time. He does forgive us immediately, because venial sins do not break our relationship with God.
Mortal sins however, do break our relationship with God. They cause a loss of sanctifying grace, and it can only be regained by us going to Confession. I think I have said this before to all of you. When we are Baptized, we are washed in a spiritual bath that cleanses us and gives us sanctifying grace. When we go to Confession, and the priest raises his hand to give us absolution, it is like a showerhead of sanctifying grace, restoring us to our place in the family of God.
Now, one of the biggest problems is that it is hard for us to trust our own consciences as far as an understanding of what is a mortal or a venial sin. So we need to come to Confession, even with our venial sins, or things we think are venial sins, because we do not have a guarantee that our understanding is the same as God’s understanding. He even says so in one of the prophets: “my ways are not your ways”.
As I said earlier, there are certain things that are clearly, because of what they are, in the vein of mortal sin. There are objective evils that we need to stay away from at all times. There are other things that reside in an unknown category in our own minds and hearts that may be mortal sin or venial sin. And there are those things that are almost always venial sin.
Another example, given that we have already talked about anger last week: it is one thing to be angry at your neighbor, but it is a totally different thing to kill him. One is most likely a venial sin, the other is clearly a mortal sin.
Finally, one of the precepts of the Church is that you are supposed to go to Confession at least once a year before receiving the required Holy Communion during the Easter season. This is a precept of the Church, which means that everybody is supposed to be following it… everybody…
Now there are a lot of different opportunities in different places for people to go to Confession. You may be going elsewhere, but I do not see very many long lines in either parish. I have never spoken about this with this kind of urgency before. That has probably been a mistake on my part as your pastor.
Receiving Communion during Easter season is another precept, or rule, of the Church. Both of those are required. If you are capable of receiving those Sacraments, you are required to receive them once a year; and to receive the Eucharist always in a state of grace. If you have not been to Confession, how sure are you of the state of your soul?
Fr. Bisbee and I are available every Thursday during Lent from 6PM to 7:30. I am here and Fr. Bisbee is at St. Mary. Please make use of this Sacrament. PLEASE. For the sake of your soul, make use of Confession.