Sin: Venial and Mortal

By James M. Rochford

For more resources on this subject, see our earlier article “Catholicism.”

Catholics believe in two separate types of sins: venial and mortal.

1. Venial sins

The term “venial” comes from the Latin root venia, which means “pardon.” According to Roman Catholics, venial sins impede our sanctification. The Catholic Catechism states,

One commits venial sin when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent.[1]

Venial sin weakens charity; it manifests a disordered affection for created goods; it impedes the soul’s progress in the exercise of the virtues and the practice of the moral good; it merits temporal punishment. Deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin. However venial sin does not break the covenant with God. With God’s grace it is humanly reparable. Venial sin does not deprive the sinner of sanctifying grace, friendship with God, charity, and consequently eternal happiness.[2]

Venial sin constitutes a moral disorder that is reparable by charity, which it allows to subsist in us. The repetition of sins—even venial ones—engenders vices, among which are the capital sins.[3]

Communion with the Body and Blood of Christ increases the communicant’s union with the Lord, forgives his venial sins, and preserves him from grave sins. Since receiving this sacrament strengthens the bonds of charity between the communicant and Christ, it also reinforces the unity of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ.[4]

2. Mortal sins

These sins are called “mortal” from the Latin word for death, because they can result in losing our spiritual life. The Catholic Catechism (1994) states,

Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.[5]

Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.[6]

To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”[7]

To choose deliberately—that is, both knowing it and willing it—something gravely contrary to the divine law and to the ultimate end of man is to commit a mortal sin. This destroys in us the charity without which eternal beatitude is impossible. Unrepented, it brings eternal death.[8]

For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.’[9]

The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation. “Sacramental grace” is the grace of the Holy Spirit, given by Christ and proper to each sacrament. The Spirit heals and transforms those who receive him by conforming them to the Son of God. The fruit of the sacramental life is that the Spirit of adoption makes the faithful partakers in the divine nature by uniting them in a living union with the only Son, the Savior.[10]

Catholic theologians see the biblical evidence for “mortal” sins in passages such as 1 John 5:16. The Council of Trent states:

Canon 24: “If anyone says that the justice received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works, but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of its increase, let him be anathema.”[11]

Canon 30: “If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out to every repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be discharged either in this world or in purgatory before the gates of heaven can be opened, let him be anathema.”[12]

Canon 32: “If anyone says that the good works of the one justified are in such manner the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of him justified; or that the one justified by the good works that he performs by the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life, and in case he dies in grace, the attainment of eternal life itself and also an increase of glory, let him be anathema.”[13]

Chapter 8: But when the Apostle says that man is justified by faith and freely, these words are to be understood in that sense in which the uninterrupted unanimity of the Catholic Church has held and expressed them, namely, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation and root of all justification, without which it is impossible to please God and to come to the fellowship of His sons; and we are therefore said to be justified gratuitously, because none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification.

Catholic scholar Ludwig Ott writes, “By his good works the justified man really acquires a claim to supernatural reward from God.”[14] Roman Catholicism denies that their understanding of salvation is by works. Instead, the Catholic Catechism states,

Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. Even temporal goods like health and friendship can be merited in accordance with God’s wisdom. These graces and goods are the object of Christian prayer. Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions.[15]

Catholics acknowledge the work of Christ and the importance of faith. However, they believe in conditional justification. It can be “undone” by a mortal sin.

A Biblical Response

We see no distinction between venial and mortal sins in Scripture. According to Scripture, all sins are mortal sins. For instance, James writes, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (Jas. 2:10). Paul writes, “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them’” (Gal. 3:10). Jesus said, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:20). Of course, the scribes and the Pharisees were the most moral people in Jesus’ day, and he says that even they were not good enough for God. He also said, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). Imagine that. We cannot just be “good enough” for God. Instead, he demands that we are perfect.

One sin pollutes our entire body. In the same way, when someone defecates in a public pool, the entire pool becomes contaminated. No one says, “Hey, come down to the deep end… nobody pooped down here…” Instead, everybody has to get out! Likewise, when a patient develops cancer in his lungs, this affects his entire body—not just his breathing. Or imagine putting one drop of poison in a glass of water. While the water is mostly pure, it is still completely poisonous water. In the same way, when we sin at all, we become sinful before God.

Thus, the Bible teaches that all have sinned against God. Paul argues that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Solomon states, “There is no man who does not sin” (1 Kin. 8:46) and “there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins” (Eccl. 7:20). The psalmist writes, “If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3) and “For in Your sight no man living is righteous” (Ps. 143:2) and “There is no one who does good” (Ps. 14:1). The Proverbs ask, “Who can say, ‘I have cleansed my heart, I am pure from my sin’?” (Prov. 20:9)

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1862.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1863.

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1875-76.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1416.

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1861.

[6] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1855.

[7] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1033.

[8] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1874.

[9] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1857.

[10] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1129.

[11] Session VI—Celebrated on the thirteenth day of January, 1547 under Pope Paul III.

[12] Session VI—Celebrated on the thirteenth day of January, 1547 under Pope Paul III.

[13] Session VI—Celebrated on the thirteenth day of January, 1547 under Pope Paul III.

[14] Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, Ill.: TAN Books and Publishers, 1974), 264. Cited by Geisler, Norman L., and Ralph E. MacKenzie. Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995. 227.

[15] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 2010.