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“Ask a Priest: Is Running Over a Small Animal a Mortal Sin?”
Q: I read in the Catechism that serious cruelty to animals is a mortal sin, which on one level is understandable for me. However, I’m troubled by scrupulosity at times, and I’ve started becoming very concerned when I see small items in the road that appear as if they could be a small rodent, a turtle or a snake. Is running over these on the road a mortal sin? What about if a person sees it but doesn’t make an evasive turn? -J.K.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: The Catechism in No. 1857 says, “For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: ‘Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.’”
Whether deliberately running over a small animal constitutes grave matter is debatable.
It could be considered mortal if someone knowingly ran over a Seeing Eye dog whose owner depended on the animal for safety. It could be mortal if someone were to deliberately hit an animal that, in turn, caused a major traffic accident.
In general, serious cruelty to animals would imply a bit of premeditation. Running over an animal on the road is probably less premeditated (less time involved) and leads to a quick death (presumably) for most animals. So the level of cruelty, even if intended, is less.
As for mistaking debris for small animals on a road, I would say that it is usually better to stay the course and risk running over a small animal rather than swerving and chancing a major traffic accident.
But as you yourself suggest, the real issue behind all this might be scrupulosity. Here I would encourage you to see God as a loving Father. He isn’t a stern judge up there in heaven, waiting to pounce on us if we step out of line.
If scrupulosity is a problem, then it might be good to seek out a regular confessor who can help you on an ongoing basis. (For more reading, see my colleague Father John Bartunek’s articles here and here.)
A second step — and this might seem unrelated — is to get involved in some kind of volunteer work or Church-related project. Working in a group and helping others in needs are good ways to keep our own lives and problems in perspective. And that keeps us on the right road to eternity.