“Ask a Priest: What is Sin of Omission?”

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Q: I do not understand what a sin of omission is. There are many good things I can do every day. Am I sinning if I do not do them? For example, sometimes I can get frustrated because I see a good thing I can do, that might not be necessary, and I do not do it. -C.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: A sin of omission is committed when a person has a duty to do something but doesn’t do it. If a Catholic skips Sunday Mass out of laziness, that is a sin of omission (a serious one). If you saw a person drowning in a river and didn’t throw a rope to him, that too would be a serious sin of omission. Jesus was very clear about what awaits people who are guilty of serious omissions (see Matthew 25:41-46).

There are certain things we are morally required to do, either because of our state in life (we are baptized Catholics, for instance) or simply because we are human and we have an obligation to show basic charity and respect for the life and property of others.

Now, when you see something that is good but not obligatory, and you don’t follow through and do the good act, that is an imperfection. Jordan Aumann in his book Spiritual Theology defined imperfection as “the omission of a good act that is not of obligation or the remiss performance of an act, that is, with less perfection than that of which one is capable.”

Father Aumann goes on to note that “we should not demand perfection in each and every human action, but should take into account the weakness of our human condition. The most that can be demanded is that individuals do the best they can under the circumstances and then leave the rest to God.”

Two points are worth mentioning here. First, by all means, keep working to overcome imperfections in your life. “In the Church, everyone whether belonging to the hierarchy, or being cared for by it, is called to holiness” (Lumen Gentium, 39).

Second, don’t get discouraged if you continue to see imperfections in yourself. We are all human and therefore limited and imperfect. And being aware of our shortcomings can help motivate us to stay close to Our Lord in prayer, the sacraments and acts of charity. Count on my prayers for your growth in the spiritual life.

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