“Ask a Priest: How to Distinguish Between Mortal and Venial Sin?”

Q: After being a Catholic for around a month, I still do not clearly understand what sins are. Sometimes, I still do not know whether what I did, what I read, or what I speak are mortal sins, venial sins, or not a sin at all. I learned that there are three conditions for mortal sin. It must be grave matter, committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent. However, it is still hard to know whether what I have done is which kind of sin or not a sin at all. My problem is that I cannot categorize some of my actions. For example, as a Facebook user, sometimes there are posts or pictures that might offend God, which appear in my news feed. I know that if I don’t mean to look at them, it is not a sin. But sometimes I do not know that they are inappropriate texts until I finish reading them. Are they venial sins, or not a sin at all? Sometimes I also cannot judge if what I have done is a grave matter or a serious action. I sometimes think that what my parents say is a little annoying. I respond to them in a little bad mood but without using bad words. I sometimes look at women who dress not so properly. I cannot say that I look unintentionally, but I try not to think inappropriately. I have heard that we also must confess venial sins, to confess properly. I would like to be able to judge what is mortal sin or venial sin or not a sin at all. Thank you. — Pete

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Your question is encouraging. As a new Catholic, you are showing that you take seriously your commitment to follow Christ and to grow to spiritual maturity (holiness). This is a clear sign of God’s loving action in your life.

The faith, like a lot of things, is something that we learn more deeply over time.

We learn about the faith through means natural and supernatural.

On the natural side we need to try to study our faith on an ongoing basis. This could include reading good books (including the Bible, of course) and the Catholic press. The Catechism can help, too.

On the supernatural side we rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That is why we need to have a solid prayer life. This keeps us in tune with the Spirit’s movement in our lives.

Now, as for the difference between venial and mortal sin, you already know the three criteria for the latter. When you run across unexpectedly on Facebook, or where things pop into your head, the best is to ignore them and move on.

If you deliberately pause over them, that could be at least a venial sin. If you dwell on them, that could slip into mortal sin (in the case of photos, for instance) because you are using more of your will power.

The line between venial and mortal sin can be hard to draw at times. Where is doubt about whether the three criteria of mortal sin were met, you could assume perhaps that the offense is venial. Prayer and study will help you form your conscience in this area.

When in doubt about the gravity of a sin, it is good to mention it in confession.

Strictly speaking, we only need to mention mortal sins in confession. However, the Catechism in No. 1458 says: “Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit.”

One more idea is worth considering.

Ask yourself whether you are willing to do something if it is “only” a venial sin. If you say yes, then there is a serious problem. When someone deliberately chooses to do commit something that is “only” a venial sin, he is closer to falling into mortal sin that he realizes.

Put another way, we aren’t called to just avoid mortal sin. We are called to be saints.

This entails our constantly looking for ways to go deeper in our relationship with God.

In practice this means that we should re-evaluate what we are doing day by day.

If Facebook is a source of temptation, then maybe it’s time to rethink whether you should be using it at all. If watching a certain TV channel is a source of temptation, maybe it’s time to skip it altogether.

The danger is that we can fall into serious sin by putting ourselves in the near occasion of venial sin. And if life without Facebook seems extreme, just think of what is at stake.

To help you go deeper in the spiritual life, consider some of the RC Spirituality resources, such as the Retreat Guides and the RC Daily Meditations. Other helpful resources could include “The Better Part” and “A Guide to Christian Meditation.”

Stay close to the sacraments yourself. And cultivate a devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, too. She is a great intercessor and will help you on your journey as you learn more about your Catholic faith.

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