Q. What is a mortal sin?

A. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines a mortal sin as follows:


"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." (C.C.C. # 1855)


"Mortal sin, by attacking the vital principle within us - that is, charity - necessitates a new initiative of God's mercy and a conversion of heart which is normally accomplished within the setting of the Sacrament of Confession." (C.C.C. # 1856)


"Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself.  It results in the loss of charity and the private of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance of God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion 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." (C.C.C. # 1861)


"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.  Un-repented, it brings eternal death." (C.C.C. # 1874)


      What makes a sin mortal sin?



        For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must exist at the same time.


1. It must be of a grave matter;
2. It must be committed with full knowledge that it is a mortal sin;
3. It must be committed with full consent. [Full consent means to do it "voluntarily."] (C.C.C. # 1857)


Grave matter
Full knowledge
Deliberate consent



What injury does mortal sin do the soul?


 (1) Deprives your soul of grace and of the friendship of God;

 (2) You lose site of Heaven;

(3) It deprives you the merits already acquired, and renders you incapable of acquiring new merits;

(4) It makes you a slave of the devil;


Besides grave matter, what is required to constitute a mortal sin?


Full consciousness of the gravity of the matter, and the deliberate will to commit the sin.

"How important is this?"


Mortal sin makes it almost impossible to follow Christ.  The very first step in the life of a faithful is to hear God's call and answer with the response of faith.

Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God.

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. (Catechism, 1855 & 1861)
He who does not love abides in death.

(1 John 3:14)

That's why it's called mortal sin mortal means "death."

The topic of mortal sin helps us understand something that isn't widely believed these days: the connection between our faith and our acts

Understanding mortal sin can make the difference between life and death.


Grave matter

The term grave matter means a serious act contrary to the moral law.

The Ten Commandments are the standard reference point for defining grave matter.


  • Remember that each commandment is really a category, though.  Don't think you're off the hook because technically you didn't "worship a false idol", for example!


  • A good Catholic Examination of Conscience will help you sort out the kinds of things considered to be grave matter.


I should clarify two important things here.


First, a serious act is required.  Telling your mother you forgot to put your shoes away (when you didn't), is not the same as perjury or tax fraud.  Minor violations are usually seen as venial sins unless serious harm results, or they are committed with real malice. (See Catechism, 2484)


Second, don't look at that point about serious acts and try to use it as a loophole!  The term "act" also includes deliberate thoughts.  As Christ himself said, "I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matt 5:28) We take that seriously.

Full knowledge

Deliberate consent of the will

For an act to be a mortal sin, we have to have full knowledge of its sinfulness. We have to know:


  • That it is wrong; and


  • That we are committing the act.


Much of the time, we know what acts are gravely wrong.  Because of something called the "natural law", we have a natural understanding of the universal norms of morality.


We don't always recognize the natural law clearly because sin clouds our vision of it. So...


We also have the obligation to form our conscience, so that it can judge accurately and bear witness to the objective moral truth.


We can't get off the hook here by just pretending ignorance, or by willfully remaining ignorant to justify some behaviour. This actually increases our culpability! It's also no excuse if we fail to make the effort to form our conscience based on divine law as revealed in Scripture and Church teaching. (See Catechism, 1859-60, and also 1783-5, 1792, 2039)


But there are situations where someone honestly does not know that an action is wrong. They're ignorant of the law, and they couldn't reasonably have learned the truth. In such cases the person is not guilty of mortal sin.


Likewise, it's not a mortal sin if you don't know you're committing the act. For example, if you pick up a bag of money that you believe to be your own, it's not theft if it turns out to be someone else's.

Mortal sin also requires deliberate consent. This means that you make a free choice to commit the act.

The state of freedom is something that defines us as human beings. Freedom is the ability to choose to act or not to act. With freedom comes the responsibility for our choices. (See Catechism, 1731)


Sometimes, there is some factor that seriously interferes with our ability to make a free choice. These cases reduce our culpability for sin. Perhaps some factor slightly reduces the malice of our action. Other times, if we're seriously un free, it may reduce the gravity of our responsibility for the sin, making it a venial sin. (See Catechism, 1735, 1860, 1862)


Honestly, this is the hardest factor to determine accurately. At times we know clearly that our choices are indeed deliberate. In other cases, we're honestly not sure.


We know that God sees the truth completely and with great clarity. But here on earth, things can be a little cloudy.


Complicating factors can include:


  • Physical force or other strong coercion


  • Great fear or anxiety


  • Extreme fatigue


  • Hidden or deep-seated emotional wounds


  • Long-established habits


It's also the case the that sin tends to pull us into a downward spiral. What begins as a small matter becomes a habit. It dulls our perception of sin. We get used to sin; it doesn't seem so bad. Little by little, we "up the ante" and slide into mortal sin.


You should know two things here.


First, know that God is infinitely merciful. He knows & accounts for your specific weaknesses, emotional scars, and the full complexity of your particular situation. He loves you, and wants the best for you. After all, he died for you quite specifically, to set you free from the slavery of sin. Don't despair if you're honestly struggling with something.


Second, do honestly struggle!


It is specifically in this struggle that we grow in virtue. Even if you struggle and fall, the Lord will help you grow in grace because you struggled.


Seek direction

It's important to know that everyone has some dominant defect that they struggle with. And for many of us, it's more than just one thing!


You should actively seek two things to help you:


  • Healing


  • Guidance


The place for healing is in the Sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist.


Christ established them just for the purpose of healing us and helping us to grow! Nothing else even comes close to these sacraments in importance and effectiveness. (Of course, if you're in a state of mortal sin, you have to go to Confession before you can receive Communion.)


After that, seek guidance in spiritual direction. Many people use Confession as a chance to get informal direction from the priest. That's good, and most priests will be happy to help out.


Even better is to get formal spiritual direction. Ask a priest or trained layperson if you can meet with them periodically for direction. Just make sure you understand the importance of orthodox Catholic opinion when choosing someone. You're placing your life in their hands!

Faith by our acts

Seek holiness!

There's a idea floating around: that our faith is somehow separate from our actions.

Some people seem to think that they're good Christians even though they're deliberately committing acts that are seriously, objectively wrong.


This is not so!


Pope John Paul II wrote that :


"The Apostles decisively rejected any separation between the commitment of the heart and the actions which express or prove it...." (Veritatis Splendor, 26)


In fact, it is specifically by walking the path of a moral life that we accept the free gift of salvation and everlasting life. "Coming to see in the faith their new dignity, Christians are called to lead henceforth a life 'worthy of the gospel of Christ.'" (Catechism, 1692)


The Catholic Church has taught about "the two ways":


The way of Christ "leads to life"; a contrary way "leads to destruction." The Gospel parable of the two ways remains ever present in the catechesis of the Church; it shows the importance of moral decisions for our salvation: "There are two ways, the one of life, the other of death; but between the two, there is a great difference."

(Catechism, 1696)


This simply means that your actions matter!





Direction is certainly useful for helping to sort out the question of mortal sin in your own life. But more than that...


...it will help you focus your efforts and grow in the spiritual life!


After all, the real goal is achieving holiness! Becoming free of mortal sin is merely the first step in a life dedicated to Christ.


Daily Meditation by(c) 2013 Don Schwager
Bible Story illustrations by publishing.com 


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