Swimming the Tiber 10: Judging Your Sins

Happy new year! I’m not going to talk about New Year’s resolutions, I promise. (Well, at least not outside that sentence.)

Last week, I talked about virtue and vice from the perspective of Catholic philosophy; the week before, I talked about how we are justified and, more crucially related to this topic, how sin and salvation interact. Please keep both topics in mind going forward.

When I was younger, I had a particularly egalitarian view of sin. Basically, I told myself that all sins are committed equal. Whether you murdered someone, robbed them, flipped them the bird on the freeway, or gave them an uncharitable thought, you had sinned, and that was all it took to condemn you (lacking God’s grace, of course). Nazis were on an even playing field with schoolyard bullies.

A simple logical appraisal tells us that this is ridiculous, but it cemented itself in my mind for a reason: it was a reaction against moral relativism. In a sense, moral relativism tells us not only that we can define “good” for ourselves, but more importantly, that there is such a thing as “good enough.” Secular philosophy says that if we’re mostly good, then that’s fine, and we can do a few bad things here or there (errare humanum est, am I right, Seneca?) without endangering our souls (or being “Bad People,” depending on the particular flavor of secular philosophy we’re talking about).

Even as I child, I knew that was hogwash; we can’t be good enough (that would make us practically Pelagian!), because that would invalidate the sacrifice of Christ, and that would make God not just extraordinarily cruel, but unjust. (After all, if we can achieve perfection and salvation without divine intervention, then Christ’s death was unnecessary, and in such a case, the execution of Christ as propitiation for sin is excessive rather than normative. In short, if we can choose not to sin, or if we can be saved in spite of our sin without repentance, then Jesus died for no reason.) So I said that all sins were equal, basically so that I could refute anyone who said that little white lies wouldn’t send them to hell.

But I didn’t make that conclusion from logic, I made it from convenience. Saying the first part made saying the second part easier, it didn’t make it truer. The former doesn’t prove the latter, and the latter doesn’t necessitate the former. Here’s what I mean: I can say that all sin is sin, and that any sin (whether the taint of original sin or the commission of any sin small or large) is enough to separate us from the presence of God, without once suggesting that genocide and mild deception are on the same level. And so I should.

Because obviously not all sins are equal.

But all sins are sins.

Which brings us to the main point of this week’s post: the Catholic concept of “mortal” and “venial” sins. Recall that two weeks ago I talked about the idea of losing our salvation through sin, that by sinning, we separate ourselves from communion with God. In the Catholic Church, sins are put into two classes: mortal sins and venial sins. Mortal sins are the big ones–the ones that cause that fall from the state of grace. Venial sins are the small ones–the ones that are bad, the ones that helped to condemn our souls in the first place, the ones from which we need to be purified, but that do not reflect an evil or unrepentant heart (just a frail human one). This is even Scriptural:

If someone sees his brother committing an errorlit. erring an error not toward death, let [the one seeing it] prayhere and throughout, lit. ask, and he will give to him [the one sinning] life, for the [ones] erring not toward death. There is error toward death; not about that do [I] say that [he] should pray.a purpose clause as a kind of indirect speech; literally, this sentence is something like “not about that do [I] speak in order that [he] may pray [about that]” Every injustice is an error, and there is error not toward death.

– 1 John 5:16-17 (my translation)

Let me be clear: classifying sins is not about judging people, just about judging sins. It’s okay to call yourself the foremost of sinners, but you shouldn’t go around saying it about other people. If a Christian is sinning openly, respond as exhorted by Scripture and the Church (Matthew 18:15-35; Galatians 6:1-10; cf. 1 Corinthians 5), but whether in the Church or out, final judgment is reserved to the Lord. (Again, as I’ve written before, the Church does not keep a list of “anti-saints” who are in hell, but does keep a list of saints who are surely in the presence of God even now.) Judging your sins is about examining your own conscience, so that you know what to confess and where to improve.

In fact, proper judgment of sins is crucial to a good confession. I will talk in more detail about the Sacrament of Confession/Penance/Reconciliation in a few weeks, but here’s the short version: since Christ gave the Church the authority to bind and loose sins (see Matthew 18 again), the Church engages that authority through private confession to a priest. In general terms, in such a confession, you should identify your mortal sins by kind and number, and your venial sins more generally (though as accurately as you can). This isn’t about doing “spiritual accounting” or keeping a detailed log, but it’s about identifying all the areas in your life where you are still broken and to what degree you are broken.

(By the way, I should note that these two classifications, “mortal” and “venial” are not the entire spectrum of sin severities; there are some mortal sins which are so heinous that a regular priest does not have authority to loose them, and even a few–five, last I checked, and most of those can only be committed by priests–where only the Pope has that authority.)

So how do you judge your sins? Well, the Church identifies sins as mortal if they meet the following criteria:

  1. The sin must be a grave (serious) matter.
  2. The sin must be committed with full knowledge.
  3. The sin must be committed with deliberate consent.

Grave matter is defined as the Ten Commandments, in short. Stealing, killing, committing adultery, etc. Grave matter has been more fully defined, especially in light of “modern” sins that may or may not have been spelled out in Scripture; there are a wide range of books that are useful for the examination of one’s conscience (i.e., the judgment of one’s sins). (I find this one very helpful, but there are even apps for that.) Full knowledge means knowing that something is a sin and doing it anyway (pretending not to know makes it worse). Deliberate consent means that it is a personal choice (claiming hardness of heart is not an exemption, but compulsion may be, in the determination of the Church). If any of these criteria are not met, then the sin is venial, not mortal.

For some more detail on these subjects, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1854-1864.

Next week, I’m going to drop all the sin talk and focus on one of the virtues–not one enumerated, nor one universal, but a virtue nevertheless: virginity.

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