Mortal sin

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This article is about the theological concept. For other uses, see Mortal Sin (disambiguation).
Medieval illustration of Hell in the Hortus deliciarum manuscript of Herrad of Landsberg (about 1180)

Mortal sins ((Latin) peccata mortalia) are in the theology of some, but not all, Christian denominations, wrongful acts marked by a serious violation of God's law. These sins are called "mortal" because they sever a person's link to God's life-giving grace. Mortal sins are commonly contrasted to venial sins, which only weaken a person's relationship with God. All mortal sins can be forgiven through the sacrament of penance or perfect contrition. In Roman Catholicism, absolution, which is given during the sacrament of penance, is the ordinary way in which mortal and venial sins are pardoned, and requires, at least, imperfect contrition. Perfect contrition, on the other hand, is an extraordinary way in which a person can also regain access to God's life-giving grace, outside of the sacrament of penance, in certain cases.[1]

The distinction between mortal and venial sin comes from the New Testament and the First John 5:16-17:[2]

If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one - to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal. (NRSV)

Mortal sins should not to be confused with the seven deadly sins. The latter are not necessarily mortal sins and can be venial sins.

Roman Catholicism[edit]

In Roman Catholic moral theology, a sin considered to be "mortal," if it meets all of the following conditions:

  1. Its subject must be a grave (or serious) matter.
  2. It must be committed with full knowledge, both of the sin and of the gravity of the offense; "Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders [mental illness]. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest."[3] Also, "Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors."[4]
  3. It must be committed with deliberate and complete consent, enough for it to have been a personal decision to commit the sin. "Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God's law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin."[5]

If any of the above-mentioned conditions are not met, it should be noted that a sin is no longer considered to be mortal, but rather only venial.

Grave Matter[edit]

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines grave matter as being:

Specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: "Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother." The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.[6]

The Catechism also lists multiple areas in which the gravity of certain acts, which are associated with them, raises special cause for spiritual vigilance. Among these are: abortion, adultery, blasphemy, contraception, theft, fraud, divination, euthanasia, extortion, illegal/illicit drug use, hatred, idolatry, murder, sacrilege, scandal, simony, terrorism, etc.[7]

The Dynamics of Catholic Moral Theology[edit]

In considering various aspects of human life, as well as the morality of human actions, it should be remembered that the Roman Catholic Church does not have an exhaustive list of specific actions, which are to be considered as mortal sins. Rather, the Church has traditionally derived moral pronouncements from Sacred Scriptures and Sacred Tradition. This is not, however, to say that efforts to catalog and categorize sins have not been made in previous centuries. It should also be remembered that even though an action may be listed as constituting "grave matter," this does not necessarily mean that when a given person engages in such an action, then a mortal sin is automatically committed. For example, lying can be considered to be serious/grave matter. At the same time, however, lying may not be mortally sinful, if a person did not know that it was a grave transgression, felt compelled to lie (e.g., due to fear or to protect a human life), or lied about a small matter that did not cause any significant injury to Truth.[8]

Contemporary Views[edit]

In response to questions about mortal sin in the modern world, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed this teaching in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor. It is also maintained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.[9] However, the Catechism does not, by name, say that any specific person is in Hell, but it does say that "...our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back."[10] Most significantly, the Catechism also proclaims that "There are no limits to the mercy of God...."[11] and that "...although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offence, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God."[10] We cannot see into their mind to know if a sinful act was deliberate, or that it was committed with full knowledge.

Eastern Catholic Churches[edit]

Eastern Catholic churches (autonomous, self-governing (in Latin, sui iuris) particular churches in full communion with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope), which derive their theology and spirituality from some of the same sources as the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox, use the Latin Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sin, though they are not named mortal and venial. Similarly to the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, the Eastern Catholic churches do not make a distinction between sins that are serious enough to bar one from receiving communion (and must be confessed before receiving once again) and those not sufficiently serious to do so.

Eastern Orthodoxy[edit]

According to Fr. Allyne Smith, "While the Roman Catholic tradition has identified particular acts as 'mortal' sins, in the Orthodox tradition we see that only a sin for which we don't repent is 'mortal.'"[12]

In the Orthodox Church there are no "categories" of sin as found in the Christian West. In the pre-Vatican II Catholic catechism, sins were categorized as "mortal" and "venial." In this definition, a "mortal" sin was one which would prevent someone from entering heaven unless one confessed it before death... These categories do not exist in the Orthodox Church. Sin is sin. Concerning Confession, having a list of deadly sins could, in fact, become an obstacle to genuine repentance. For example, imagine that you commit a sin. You look on the list and do not find it listed. It would be very easy to take the attitude that, since it is not on a list of deadly sins, it is not too serious. Hence, you do not feel the need to seek God's forgiveness right away. A week passes and you have completely forgotten about what you had done. You never sought God's forgiveness; as a result, you did not receive it, either. We should go to Confession when we sin—at the very least, we should ask God to forgive us daily in our personal prayers. We should not see Confession as a time to confess only those sins which may be found on a list.[13]

Though not part of the dogma of the Orthodox Church the mortal/venial distinction is assumed by some Orthodox authors and saints as a theologoumenon. For example Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov (1807–1867), in his book A Word on Death, in a chapter entitled "Mortal sin", says:

It has been said earlier that mortal sin of an Orthodox Christian, not being cured by repentance, submits him to eternal suffering; it has also been said that the unbelievers, Muslims, and other non-orthodox, even here are the possession of hell, and are deprived of any hope of salvation, being deprived of Christ, the only means of salvation. Mortal sins for Christians are the next: heresy, schism, blasphemy, apostasy, witchery, despair, suicide, fornication, adultery, unnatural carnal sins,* incest, drunkenness, sacrilege, murder, theft, robbery, and every cruel and brutal injury. Only one of this sins—suicide—cannot be healed by repentance, and every one of them slays the soul and makes the soul incapable of eternal bliss, until he/she cleans himself/herself with due repentance. If a man falls but once in any of these sins, he dies by soul: For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one, he is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law. (James 2:10,11)

* Under "unnatural carnal sins" the next is implied: sodomy, bestiality, masturbation, and any unnatural intercourse between married people (such as using contraceptives, consummated oral or consummated anal intercourse, etc.) as is explained in the book Ascetical Trials, also written by Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov (1807–1867).

Similarly, the Exomologetarion of Nicodemus the Hagiorite[14] (1749–1809) distinguishes seven classes of sin:[15]

  1. Pardonable
  2. Near the pardonable
  3. Non-mortal
  4. Near the non-mortal
  5. Between the mortal and the non-mortal
  6. Near the mortal
  7. Mortal

Nicodemus gives the following example for the seven classes of sin. "The initial movement of anger is pardonable; near to the pardonable is for someone to say harsh words and get hot-tempered. A non-mortal sin is to swear; near the non-mortal is for someone to strike with the hand. Between the non-mortal and the mortal is to strike with a small stick; near the mortal is to strike with a large stick, or with a knife, but not in the area of the head. A mortal sin is to murder. A similar pattern applies to the other sins. Wherefore, those sins nearer to the pardonable end are penanced lighter, while those nearer to the mortal end are more severely penanced."

He also stipulates seven conditions of sin:[16]

  1. Who is the doer of the sin
  2. What sin was committed
  3. Why was it committed
  4. In what manner was it committed
  5. At what time/age was it committed
  6. Where was it committed
  7. How many times was it committed

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Code of Canon Law (1984 ed.). Canon 916. 
  2. ^ 1 John 5:16-17
  3. ^ Article 1860 of The Catechism Of The Catholic Church
  4. ^ Article 1735 of The Catechism Of The Catholic Church
  5. ^ Article 1859 of The Catechism Of The Catholic Church
  6. ^ "Catechism of the Catholic Church - IntraText". Retrieved 2012-03-13. 
  7. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church. Paragraphs: 2272, 2480, 2380, 2148, 2434, 2181, 2117, 2384-2386, 2290 & 2291, 2539, 2277, 2302, 2152 & 2476, 2353, 2303, 2357, 2388, 2482, 2352, 2268, 2163, 2354, 2355, 2356, 2439, 2120, 2284, 2281, 2297, 2413, 2434, 2268, 2400, & 2434. 
  8. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church. Paragraphs:1735; 1857-1860. 
  9. ^ "Catechism paragraph 1035". Retrieved 2012-03-13. 
  10. ^ a b "Catechism paragraph 1861". Retrieved 2012-03-13. 
  11. ^ "Catechism paragraph 1864". Retrieved 2012-03-13. 
  12. ^ (Fr. Allyne Smith, in G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, trs., Phylokalia: The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts (Skylight Press, 2000), p. 2).
  13. ^ "Sin," Orthodox Church in America website:
  14. ^ "Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain". OrthodoxWiki. 2011-08-25. Retrieved 2012-03-13. 
  15. ^ Dokos, G., Exomologetarion - A Manual of Confessions by our Righteous God-bearing Father Nikodemos the Hagiorite, 2006, Thessalonica, Uncut Mountain Press, p. 83
  16. ^ Dokos, G., Exomologetarion, p. 100

External links[edit]