Why Do Catholics Distinguish Between Mortal and Venial Sins?


In an effort to avoid being judgmental, some Christians insist that all sins are alike in God's eyes--that no particular sin is worse than another. But the Bible clearly teaches otherwise.


Many of God's laws for the ancient Israelites, along with the punishments prescribed for breaking those laws, are found in Leviticus. The sanctions God commanded ranged in severity, reflecting the range of gravity in the various sins they punished. For example, if someone tried to defraud another person, the punishment was restitution of what had been stolen or unjustly held, plus a portion of the object's value (see 5:20-24). But is someone committed a grave sin such as incest, adultery, or idolatry, the death penalty was prescribed (see chapters 18-20).


No doubt Christians are not subject to all of the Old Testament laws. Nevertheless, these and other biblical passages demonstrate that the degree of guilt incurred through sin can vary--that some sins are indeed more serious than others. Of course, our modern legal system and even common sense assume the same reality: The legal consequences of a petty theft are not nearly as severe as those of a murder.


In the New Testament as well, Scripture offers numerous examples of differential reward and merit, which implies varying degrees of sin (see Mt 16:27; Rom 2:5-13; 1 Cor 3:8-9; 1 Pt 1:17; Rv 22:12). Jesus, for example, distinguishes between those who "shall be beaten severely" from those who "shall be beaten only lightly" (Lk 12:47-48).


No sin is ever a good thing, or course, Yet not all sins are equally evil in God's eyes. Otherwise, we would face an absurd scenario: A momentary pang of lust or jealousy would be the moral equivalent, before God, or rape or murder.


More specifically, Scripture teachers that not all sins lead to spiritual death--that is, damnation (see "Why do Catholics Believe that a Loving God Sends People to Hell?") This is the basic distinction between mortal (spiritually deadly) sins and venial (lesser) sins: "There is such a thing as deadly sin...All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly" (1 Jn 5:16-17). The Church's teaching that certain conditions may lessen guilt of even a serious sin (such as ignorance of fault) is rooted in Scripture as well (see Lv 4:27; Lk 12:47-48).


See also: Sin


Other related scriptures: Mt 5:22-26; 12:32; 1 Cor 3:11-15; 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21; Eph 5:5.


Catechism of the Catholic Church: 1472-1475; 1852-1867; 1873-1876.


*Quoted from The New Catholic Answer Bible. Wichita, Kansas, Fireside Catholic Publishing, 2005. www.firesidecatholic.com


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