The scandal of the idea of venial sin

This will be more a collection of questions than an exposition of my settled thoughts (which I don’t have).

Clearly, natural reason, especially of the “natural law” type, can tell us that something is a sin (because it contradicts our natural end, trades real goods for subjective pleasures, treats others as mere means, erodes the social order, and so forth), but not whether the sin is mortal or venial.  Natural law can’t say if a sin is sufficient to destroy sanctifying grace, because grace is not one of its categories.

Therefore, we are in one of four situations

  1. We do not know which sins are sufficiently grave to be mortal.
  2. We do know, but only by direct revelation on this point, i.e. by finding lists of infractions in the Bible (“Those who X shall not inherit the Kingdom of God.”) or in papal encyclicals with the appropriate formulae (“We declare X to be gravely offensive to God.”)  This list must be taken on “blind faith”.  That is, we can’t know why God finds certain acts to be so much more serious than others.
  3. We do know, because God has given us some information about the nature of being in a state of grace, and we can reason from that that certain sins are lethal to this state, while others aren’t.
  4. We do know, because “grave matter” is actually a natural category, and revelation’s only role is to identify this category to the supernatural category of grace-killing mortal sin.

So which is it?  I’m really asking.  I don’t know.

#3 or 4 feel the most satisfactory, but I’ve never seen arguments of this sort.  I see lots of arguments for why X is sinful, but not why X is gravely sinful as opposed to Y, which is sinful but not gravely so.  Why is skipping Mass on Sunday a mortal sin?  It sounds crazy to me–send a fellow to hell for all eternity just for that?  But “sounds crazy to me” doesn’t carry much weight when I lack a rational way to gauge gravity.  I’ve just got my intuition like everybody else.  Skip Church?  Tsk, tsk, try to do better next time.  Kill children?  Whoa, that’s really bad!  Intuition isn’t nothing, but of course it’s clouded by corrupt customs, habitual sin, etc.

I sense that churchmen are also bothered by what the faith teaches are mortal sins, and have been for some time.  One might say that Amoris laetitia represents the onanization of adultery.  Just look at the catechism on masturbation to see where this line of reasoning started.  There are all the same moves.  The authors relate that the solitary vice is grave enough to be a mortal sin, but this just didn’t feel right.  God’s going to send nearly all men and lots of women to hell for that?  Isn’t this what purgatory is for?  Whoever wrote this bit of the catechism felt stuck keeping the matter grave, but immediately went off thinking up reasons why people aren’t really culpable.  Habit.  Psychological state.  Immaturity.  (My observation, by the way, is that inclination to this vice neither increases nor decreases with age.  There was even a notorious episode of Seinfeld about it being rather strong even for adults.  What adulthood hopefully brings is marriage and with it another outlet.)

So, let’s take your favorite sin that you’ve been told is mortal but that doesn’t sound that bad to you.  Could be skipping Church.  Could be masturbation.  Could be remarriage.  Could be–get ready to be scandalized–social injustice.  Call it X.  What’s wrong with just saying that X is a venial sin?


  1. The authority of the Church is on the line.  The magisterium has clearly declared adultery, onanism, and so forth mortal sins.  If we now say that actually they’re venial, the whole edifice of Catholic doctrine collapses.
  2. Possibility 3 or 4 above is true and you’ve got a knock-down argument that X is grave.
  3. Saying something is a venial sin means that it’s not important, that the Church doesn’t really care about it and neither should you.  Nobody will bother avoiding a behavior that’s merely venial.  Take masturbation.  Nobody’s going to give up effort-free, consequence-free orgasms if hellfire isn’t on the line.  Nobody would do it just as a favor to God or just to be closer to Him.

Possibility 3 is sad but realistic.  It’s also not a valid argument for declaring X to be mortal.  That learning X is not mortal would sap my motivation to avoid X doesn’t prove that X is indeed mortal.  One can be motivated to a good end by a false belief.  I’m guessing most people would say that X being a venial sin is off the table because of #1.

But I’m not sure.

The fact is that I’ve never liked the legalistic side of Catholicism.  I like reasoning from general principles rather than combing through documents, weighing levels of authority, identifying loopholes.  It could be, though, that these mortal/venial distinctions are one area where consulting documents is all one can do.

30 Responses

  1. […] The scandal of the idea of venial sin […]

  2. Heathens are capable of committing mortal sin, so it is therefore part of the natural order, per 4.

    I’d argue that even the existence of a state of rewards and punishments is of natural reason, since it is a fairly universal concept.

    (though the existence of Heaven as a place of union with God is of course revealed truth)

  3. “God’s going to send nearly all men and lots of women to hell for that?”

    There are good reasons to suspect that the prevalence of masturbation in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is historically aberrant. The Puritans in the New Haven Colony, for example, made it a capital offense, punishable by hanging. Granted, New England was a society of self-selected religious fanatics, and certainly it would be hard to actually catch someone (I don’t recall if the penalty was ever enforced- I doubt it very much), but they hardly could have been so severe even in theory if >90% of the male population was addicted to the vice.

    Bear in mind that for most of history, the printing press, photography, motion pictures, telephones, credit cards, and the internet did not exist. Moreover, lower-class folk tended to live with much less privacy than we’re used to today- growing up as a peasant farmer in Europe, my grandmother lived in a small cabin with 11 other people; they divided the boys’ and girls’ sleeping areas with a large curtain, but otherwise had no real privacy. Back then, having one’s own bedroom was virtually unheard of for any children but the very wealthiest. Over the past few centuries, and especially over the last 70 years, technology has rapidly made pornography far cheaper, more realistic, easier to access anonymously, and more tailored to individual tastes; this, in conjunction with the privacy that comes from smaller families, is probably the main reason has masturbation become so ubiquitous among men.

  4. Bonald.

    Act, intention, circumstances.

    Furthermore, there is culpability and deserts.

    Adultery is always and everywhere a mortal sin, it’s just that circumstances mitigate the punishment due to it. Loneliness is a heavy burden and furthermore people have sexual appetites.

    You’ll probably call me a liberal here, but I have never understood why hunger is regarded as a mitigating factor by the Church when analysing the crime of stealing whilst other factors like loneliness and sexual hunger are not when it comes to the sexual passions. This, of course, does not make adultery right but it makes it understandable.

    Unlike Benedict, who was a “theological” pope, Francis is a “pastoral” one, and I think he is far more aware of the circumstances of the flock. I don’t think he wants to “venialise” adultery rather he wants a recognition of the difficulties in living up to the ideal, especially by people who haven’t been “given much” by God. It’s a different case for you and me who have been given more.

    I’ve also found the opposition to him, on this matter, strange. As Christ himself explained God’s position on the subject. (Matthew 19:8) My reading of that passage is not that God approves of divorce, rather, he doesn’t punish those who are deserving of punishment because of their “hard hearts”, i.e personality factors and stupidity.

    I think there is a certain amount of theological Aspergers out there, that concentrates only on the sin and not on the circumstances and deserts. Hence any understanding or factoring in of the human condition is automatically interpreted as a permissivism or dilution of the commandments.

  5. “I have never understood why hunger is regarded as a mitigating factor by the Church when analysing the crime of stealing whilst other factors like loneliness and sexual hunger are not when it comes to the sexual passions”

    I suppose you wouldn’t.

  6. Anchises,

    You’re probably right about what has made masturbation the sexual vice of our times.

    Looking back, there has always been some vice whereby a man could get sex without seducing or marrying a woman that was so prevalent the authorities despaired of stamping it out. A while back, there was a book pointing out that sex with slave girls was ubiquitous in Roman society, and it was in disallowing this practice that Christianity was most radical. For most of history, prostitution was a big thing. Whatever happened to prostitutes? Harlotry is all over the bible, and it was St. Augustine’s go-to example of something authorities just have to put up with.

    Nowadays we have fewer women held in slavery and fewer women facing the choice between selling their bodies and starvation. These are both good things. Prostitution still exists, but it’s a marginal thing, and we have no trouble outlawing it and suppressing it with reasonable success. Having porn and masturbation as the new default sexual sins is, I’d say, preferable.

  7. “Having porn and masturbation as the new default sexual sins is, I’d say, preferable.”

    It’s not as if people could run across these things and get addicted during puberty, like they could with prostitution and rape.

    I think the state should try to suppress as much vice as possible (insofar as we’re talking about things that involve multiple people, I don’t think masturbation could really be made illegal, though pornography certainly could), rather than make consequentialist judgments about which ones to tolerate, but saying that we’re better off now seems pretty problematic.

  8. Plus, I’d imagine that there are fewer men who used prostutues way back when, then there are prob addicts now.

  9. Ah, Bonald, you are slamming into some of the not-very-nice implications of the idea of a ‘natural law’ supposedly available to autonomous Reason. For within traditional Catholic moral theology, the idea of such a ‘natural law’ is venerable merely. Put differently, traditional Catholic moral theology has no – zero, zip, nada – answer to your questions.

    Because it accepts what cannot be so (Reason supposedly detached from utter dependence on the sacraments), traditional Catholic moral theology has only a collection of hand-waves to offer you in the matter.

    You say it yourself: “Natural law can’t say if a sin is sufficient to destroy sanctifying grace, because grace is not one of its categories.”

    But grace is THE category. A ‘nature’ apart from grace has no existence, no meaning, no truth.

    Notice that I wrote of Reason’s ‘utter dependence on the sacraments’ — not ‘on Principles’, or Essences, or Postulates, or Perfections.

    I see that in several posts you seem very close to apprehending the sheer this-ness, or more technically, the substantiality, of the sacraments, particularly matrimony. Traditional Catholic moral theology is not built on the foundation of the this-ness of the sacraments. It is built on the false foundation of Principles, or Essences, or Postulates, or Perfections. Therefore, it must re-found itself.

    The contradictions inherent in a ‘natura pura’ not utterly dependent on the work of Christ in time generates paradoxes and scandals, such as what you have identified, including the pre-eminent scandal: ‘natural law’ as conceived in traditional Catholic moral theology has precisely nothing to do with grace.

    That we all, and the entire universe, which yet ‘groans’, are created and enfolded within the love and the Sacrifice of Him ‘through Whom all things were made’ is patent. That this holy Reality is equivalent to the ‘natural law’ supposedly available to a Reason blithely apart from Him, should not any longer remain ‘obvious’.

    I am saying: the wound is deep; you should not expect a satisfactory answer to your ‘scandal’ from Catholic moral theology or from within its working assumptions and predilections, such as its ill-conceived idea of ‘natural law’, which, at least as a practical matter (and way too often even in principle), exists serenely apart from Him. The real natural law is creation and redemption in Christ, through his bridal Church.

    That this unexceptionable doctrine is NOT currently regarded as the ‘natural law’, but some other thing is substituted for its reality, the doctrine being regarded as something ‘romantic’ or not sufficiently ‘solid’, is the root scandal you are dealing with here.

    Nor, probably, should you expect a satisfactory answer in your lifetime, if Catholic moral theology really does require a thorough re-founding. What could it mean to take seriously that the real natural law is creation and redemption in Christ, in and through his bridal Church? How should I know? The question is not even being asked.

    The question of how existence in Christ can be both responsible and free cannot have answer within the Catholic moral theology that we have. As you sense, at the moment, given the tools in our possession, it seems that we must choose one or the other: ‘blind faith’ apart from Reason, or Reason that knows nothing formally of grace.

    How indeed can we found our responsibility in — within — His responsibility? Our freedom, within His freedom? Is He Truth Himself, speaking truly; is He, His breaths, words, actions, responsible — or is the Lord Himself not the Lord, but rather is Himself subject to the lordship of time-less Principles, of which He is merely the very finest Example?

    My prediction: you are not going to resolve your question, using the intellectual, philosophical, and theological tools invented so far. An entire world of better tools will be required. And such treasures do not customarily arrive at will, or at need. So — we are much worse off than you may imagine. Tough luck on us all.

  10. It was a common teaching of moral theologians that, whilst a particular sin might be, in its nature, venial, an inordinate attachment to it could be mortal.

    The theologians of the French School in particular accordingly tended to limit venial sin to sins of “ignorance and surprise.” They also stressed the gravity of the obligation to strive for perfection (Matt 5:48).

    By and large, the Carmelites of the Reform and the Capuchins took the more rigourous line and the Jesuits the laxer. As an aside, Père Joseph de Tremblay O.F.M.Cap., Richelieu’s « Eminence grise » was of the stricter school; the Cardinal’s confessions must have been intriguing.

  11. I’ve met many people whose entire moral schema is based on what does/doesn’t “seem crazy to them,” and who see nothing at all wrong with such a foundation.

  12. I’ve been Catholic since ’98. I can literally count the number of times I’ve heard priests use the word “sin.” Where is all the theological Apergers that concentrates on sin, exactly?

  13. “I’ve met many people whose entire moral schema is based on what does/doesn’t “seem crazy to them,” and who see nothing at all wrong with such a foundation.”

    Aristotle would have agreed with them. He speaks of “practical reason,” (for my reason is myself and expresses itself in action). Moreover, it is axiomatic that acts of the understanding are specified by their object, so good and bad choices are no more equivalent than apprehension and misapprehension, truth and error are equivalent species of an identical genus; rather, bad choices are paralogisms (παραλογισμός = Unreasonable or fallacious).

    The good choice, “This – being such – is to be done,” is intelligible, because intelligent; the act of the bad will is a surd, ultimately unintelligible. True enough, we can often trace its causes to instinctive or dispositional factors, but it remains logically incoherent.

  14. One must start with one’s given moral intuitions. You can clarify and systematize from there, but at the end of the day, whatever general principles you end up with still rest on your basic moral sense for plausibility.

  15. At least the Pope was clear about what constitutes a sin recently. We know that those who refuse to accept progress in the church are idolizing tradition and committing sin.

    Sorry for being sarcastic, but I think I should just ignore everything this Pope does. It makes me depressed. I think the worse was the crucifix cross though. I don’t think the Pope should wear blasphemous objects.

  16. Eating of a forbidden fruit by a single couple led to death of the entire human race for thousands of years.
    It sounds crazy. for sure.

  17. One must start with one’s given moral intuitions. You can clarify and systematize from there, but at the end of the day, whatever general principles you end up with still rest on your basic moral sense for plausibility.

    It’s hard to see how this can be right. Relying ultimately on things like disgust or plausibility for judging moral rules seems implicitly to assume that those internal mental states are magically connected to moral truths somehow. Sort of like a “me, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit” theory of interpretation. Unless truth changes from time to time and from person to person, this can’t be right.

    Mostly, humans have thought “exposing infants is wrong” or “killing outgroup members is wrong” implausible. Opinions are sharply divided as to whether eating bugs is disgusting. Etc. It’s easy to change people’s opinions about what’s implausible or disgusting. Repeated exposure does it reliably. “Is changing a baby’s diaper disgusting” is awfully close to being the same question as “How many diapers have you changed?”

    Judgments of plausibility and disgust provide excellent insights into the status quo for the judge. This accidentally gives correct conclusions if the status quo for the judge is, say a Medieval Christian society. It certainly does not if the status quo of the judge is modernity or Phoenician society.

    These methods of moral reasoning are good for consolidating or defending a moral/philosophical order. So, they are in the interest of whomever happens to benefit by whatever order is extant.

    They are also self-defeating for the moral philosopher. If intuition is so dandy, why should I accept the natterings of some humanist egghead over my own immediate visceral reactions?

  18. Dr Bill

    Pascal is rather good on this: “We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart, and it is in this last way that we know first principles; and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to impugn them… For the knowledge of first principles, as space, time, motion, number, is as sure as any of those which we get from reasoning. And reason must trust this knowledge of the heart and of instinct, and must base every argument on them. The heart senses [Le cœur sent] that there are three dimensions in space and that the numbers are infinite, and reason then shows that there are no two square numbers one of which is double of the other. Principles are intuited, propositions are inferred [Les principes se sentent, les propositions se concluent], all with certainty, though in different ways.”

    Obviously, this applies to all reasoning whatsoever, not just moral reasoning.

  19. For the knowledge of first principles, as space, time, motion, number, is as sure as any of those which we get from reasoning.

    That seems to reduce the point to an irrelevancy. The dropping of context is radical.

    If you want to sell that “morality exists” comes from some kind of pre-experiential intuition which we have reasonably direct access to and reason to trust, then maybe I’m buying. If you want to sell that “fag-bashing is wrong” comes from that place, then I’m not.

    The heart senses [Le cœur sent] that there are three dimensions in space and that the numbers are infinite

    That seems obtuse. “Numbers are infinite” isn’t something you just know. Even “numbers exist” isn’t something you just know.

    There are a number of languages which lack words for (and the concept of) numbers. There are languages which go none, one, two, three, lots. Children have to be laboriously taught numbers. This process doesn’t seem very similar to teaching children the word “dog.” In that case, they already have a mental representation of dogs which you are just telling them the sound representation to hook up to. Six is a new concept, and you are teaching them both the concept and the sound representation.

  20. Dr Bill

    I agree one cannot teach “six” by pointing to it, any more than you can teach “yellow” by pointing; the question would be what is one pointing at.

    We should explain “yellow” by sorting yellow and non-yellow objects and number can be conveyed in the same way. (The same is true of “dog,” actually, a pretty high abstraction)

    In reality, we do not teach children to speak by a process of explanation; we train them to speak by talking to them and encouraging them when they respond. For the most part, we learn the meaning of words by the unity of indirect reference: children learn what a dog is, not by explanation but by learning what “Mr Brown’s dog,” “the dog over there,” “I heard a dog barking” and similar expressions mean. We do not need a definition that would satisfy a taxonomist (and how many adults could produce one); we know by experience ie socially, what is and what is not a dog. So with shapes and numbers &c

  21. […] Bonald wonders Can a movement survive the embarrassment of its leaders? The case-in-point is the Prolife “Movement”. Which has grown increasingly embarassing. But begging for political scraps from your cultural masters’ table is pretty bad to begin with. Next he relates The scandal of the idea of venial sin. […]

  22. An admittedly half-baked thought, but it has occurred to me that there are only two possible choices when it comes to sexual morality: Limit it to procreative sex (by which I mean sex which is procreative by nature, even if not in fact in every instance), or don’t limit it at all. If you’re going to limit it at all, then you have to draw a line somewhere. The only place it makes sense to draw the line at is procreative / nonprocreative. Any place else you try to draw the line, you’re being arbitrary.

    And if the line is drawn at procreative / nonprocreative, then either all nonprocreative sex is mortal, or it’s all venial. Again, making some nonprocreative sex mortal and some venial would be arbitrary.

    Another place the line is drawn is at married / unmarried. But this too is based on procreative / nonprocreative, since marriage is for the purpose of procreation. You’re not supposed to perform the procreative act with someone you’re not married to. If the line is not drawn at procreative / nonprocreative, then there’s no reason to draw it at married / unmarried either. If nonprocreative sex were OK, then sex outside marriage would be OK too. By the same token if nonprocreative were only venially sinful, then the same would apply to sex outside marriage.

    So, if you make nonprocreative sex a venial sin, then adultery has to be a venial sin too. But if you make adultery a mortal sin, then nonprocreative sex must also be mortal. Any other way and the whole thing becomes ad hoc and arbitrary.

  23. I think you’re right that all the sexual condemnations stand or fall together to some extent. One can’t decide fornication or coitus interruptus isn’t sinful without the rest of the system becoming arbitrary and collapsing. I’m not sure the same line of reasoning works for the division between mortal and venial sin. A mortal sin may offend against the same moral principle in the same way as a venial sin but just more gravely.

    For instance, my intuition is that entertaining sexual fantasies about a woman other than my wife is not as bad as actually sleeping with her, even though both are (as Jesus taught and reason corroborates) adultery, offenses against marital fidelity. I could probably devise a not-completely-arbitrary criterion that separates the two things into “bad” and “really bad”. (Actually, from what I’ve read on the internet, my ogling or fantasizing about women actually is mortally sinful, which is the sort of knowledge that tempts me to despair.)

  24. But mortal and venial sin is not simply “bad versus really bad.” What essentially makes a mortal sin is grave matter (apart from doing it on purpose and doing it in your right mind). The Church decided at the very beginning (if not sooner) that sex was grave matter. It can’t now decide that some sex is grave matter and some isn’t.

    Admittedly, Jesus said that lusting is as bad as doing. But he also said that hating is as bad as killing. Yet hating is not a mortal sin under the Church’s moral theology, so long as you don’t act on your hate. In other words, the Church has interpreted Jesus’ words as being less than literal in this instance.

  25. Hating others is a mortal sin. I’m not sure where you got the contrary idea from.

  26. Still, hatred belongs to the category of violence as much as lust belongs to the category of sex. Surely the Church hasn’t decided that sex is categorically grave while violence categorically isn’t. In the latter case we must certainly introduce the idea of severity if killing someone is a mortal sin while shoving someone isn’t.

  27. Arkansas:

    You’re right, hatred can be a mortal sin. I stand corrected. However according to the Catechism: ‘2303 Deliberate hatred is contrary to charity. Hatred of the neighbor is a sin **when one deliberately wishes him evil**. Hatred of the neighbor is a grave sin **when one deliberately desires him grave harm**.’

    Thus, hatred is not a grave sin across the board.

  28. I think degree enters into sexual sins when we’re dealing with sexual activities short of climax. Obviously a lot of activities can have a sexual element without being sinful. And some can be venially but not mortally sinful. But once you stimulate yourself to the point of climax, I think it’s clear that a bright line has been crossed and there can no longer be any doubt that you have committed a mortal sin.

    By way of illustration, hugging another man’s wife can be perfectly innocent, or it can be venially sinful, or even mortally sinful, depending on degree. But if you deliberately achieve climax with her, in whatever way, it’s no longer a question of degree: You have had sex with her, period, regardless of the specific way in which you did it.

    Once you’ve cross that line, I don’t think there is any bright line that you can draw between masturbation, oral or anal sex, fornication or adultery. What difference does it make? The point is that it’s nonprocreative sex, or procreative sex outside its only permitted context.

    In this respect it seems that sexual sin is different from sins of violence, in that a line can be crossed which makes it no longer a question of degree. Or if there is such a line with regard to violence, I suppose it would be the point where you deliberately cause someone’s death. At that point it doesn’t matter whether you shot him or beat him with a club.

    As I said, I realize these arguments are half-baked. I’m just figuring as I go along.

  29. Hatred of the neighbor is a sin **when one deliberately wishes him evil**. Hatred of the neighbor is a grave sin **when one deliberately desires him grave harm**

    Isn’t deliberately wishing someone evil the definition of the word “hatred,” at least as a word in Catholic moral theology?

    I think the Catechism here is simply guarding against our tendency to fall into defining hatred in its colloquial sense as “really, really, really disliking a whole lot.”

  30. DrB: That crossed my mind as well. If “love” is defined as “wishing someone well”, then “hatred” would be wishing them ill. But maybe they were distinguishing between the emotional feeling of hatred, versus the deliberate desire that someone be harmed; just as you can distinguish between feelings of love and affection, versus actually wishing someone well.

    Some may think that they love someone yet their feelings don’t actually extend to wanting what is best for the beloved, as opposed to what would gratify themselves. And the same might happen with hatred: I can say in a sense that I hate Obama, but I don’t actually wish him harm.

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