A Brief Reflection on Mortal Sin

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches,

[M]ortal 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. In mortal sin the will sets itself upon something that is of its nature incompatible with the charity that orients man toward his ultimate end. As such, the sin is mortal by its very object whether it contradicts the love of God, such as blasphemy or perjury, or the love of neighbor, such as homicide or adultery (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1855-1856).

Many people today scoff at the idea that mortal sin is a turning away from God. They doubt that people directly intend to turn away from God, as if the fornicator or the murder or the thief would say, “I hate God and so I am going to turn away from Him by sinning.”

That is not what catechism says, however. Rather, it says that our preference for an inferior good to God by a grave violation of His law is what turns us away from Him.

It says that in mortal sin we set our will upon something we know to be incompatible with our ultimate end. Although our first thought may not be that we are rejecting God, we set our will on something incompatible with God. In so doing, we are preferring something or someone to God.

This poisons our heart if we do not repent because we feed a desire in our heart for what is not God and we starve our heart from Him and what He offers. Soon enough we prefer the darkness to the light. We prefer the trinkets of this world to God and come to regard Him as a thief who comes to take what we want and keeps us from doing what we want to do. God becomes our enemy.

If we die in this state, the warmth of God and Heaven seem overwhelming, wrathful, and like a consuming fire. We cannot endure and so we turn away finally and permanently to a place that we strangely prefer, but which is hellacious because it is not that for which we were made. It lacks the one thing necessary: God.

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the Light and does not come into the Light (John 3:19-20).

In mortal sin it is not that we directly turn from God — at least not at first — but that we turn to the lesser things of the darkness and come to hate Him who is the Light.

24 Replies to “A Brief Reflection on Mortal Sin”

  1. The whole concept of hell and heaven makes only sense when you place it in our lives. Both can exist while we live. As I was working on the economics homework help assignment on families and their economic status I learnt some children are born in hellish places and die there before they even have a chance of understanding concepts of faith. Heaven is only where we make it while we live. After our death we are just gone, maybe remembered, bad gone. Bad people know that already, good people better show a lot of that goodness while they live, so that they can make some kind of heaven on earth. We get no second chance, no heaven, no hell, no afterlife.

    1. You don’t know what you claim to know. There are places in this world to which you have never been, but you accept as true the testimony you hear about them. Why not do some investigation into the claims about places outside of this world? There is more credibility to them than you may realize. For example, in every generation that the Catholic Church has existed there have been people who were willing to die rather than deny the truth claims of the Church. In a scam, the scammers aren’t willing to suffer cruel and tortuous death rather than tell the truth. So clearly, despite the many sins of her members, the Catholic Church isn’t a scam. So what is the Catholic Church? Why not do some research?

  2. Alexandra, your premise is completely wrong and it is really a testament to living in the darkness. Suffering and death will come to all, here on this earth and it is here that each make their choice to either live in God, to love God and to serve God or to deny Him. Each choice will determine eternity. I pray that you find the light before it is too late.

  3. The concept of mortal sin, as taught by the Catholic Church today is excessively legalistic.

    I can be a great hero who saves, say, one hundred lives, at great risk to myself. Maybe I win the Medal of Honor by being more heroic than the main character in the Mel Gibson movie (Hacksaw Ridge). However, if I later decide to miss Sunday Mass to watch a football game (and do so deliberately and having learned the catechism) I am now in mortal sin and headed down the road to Hell??

    What sort of a monster is God to do that? It is out of all proportion.

    1. Nathan, it sounds as if you have indeed been presented with a legalistic or impoverished account of human action and sin. Don’t forget about virtue and vice. In a nutshell, repeated good actions develop virtue and repeated bad actions develop vice. Virtue is a “habit” by which good action becomes, in a sense, natural and instinctive. Something similar could be said for vice and bad action. Morality is not simply about ensuring each of our actions is not sinful. It is more about developing virtue by repeated good action. As we grow in virtue we will naturally and almost instinctively do the right thing. So, in your example of the virtuous hero who bravely and habitually puts his life in danger out of true charity, how likely do you think it is that someone of such virtue would prefer to watch a football game rather than worship God? It is absurd that someone accustomed to true self sacrifice would for the sake of something as trivial as a football game put his own entertainment ahead of worshiping God. Does that help shed some light on this?

      1. Thank you for responding to me John.

        I know of lots of people who were heroes like this and yet did things like cheating on their wives afterwards, like for example Oskar Schindler and MLK Jr. (And to reiterate, I think both of these men should not be in hell and it would be so wrong for God to put them or anyone like them in hell.) Now I know the Church has not pronounced anybody in hell, but the Church’s teachings on mortal sin seem so legalistic.

        The only thing I can think of is maybe a hundred years from now the Church clarifies or reinterprets the doctrine of mortal sin just as it has done so with the dogma of no salvation outside the Church (now the Church says Protestants and other non-Catholics may go to Heaven if they lead a virtuous life).

        Otherwise, there is something seriously wrong here.

        1. there is something seriously wrong here

          When something seems to be seriously wrong or does not make sense or seems to be really evil and monstrous and yet good people seem to follow it, often it is a good idea to ask ourselves if maybe, rather than the situation, it is our understanding that is seriously wrong.

          The conclusions you have expressed here are fairly valid. But the problem is that your premises are all wrong. You are wrestling with a bunch of strawmen.

          As I noted before, yours are common thoughts, so don’t take this as personal criticism. But thankfully for us all, those thoughts are also erroneous with respect to God and what the Church teaches.

        2. Nathan, let’s back up a bit and go over some important points that I find helpful to contemplate.

          (1) God is pure Goodness and all that He does is good and just (this can be proven philosophically). I believe you agree with this since this seems to be the reason you are objecting to what is seemingly an evil or unjust doctrine on mortal sin. So that’s good. You realize that the goodness or badness of something isn’t arbitrarily decided by God. Rather, the goodness or badness of something is based on the nature of things, and the nature of things is a reflection of the Divine Nature: God Himself, who cannot change…and thus the goodness or badness of a thing is unchangeable insofar as it is ultimately grounded in the unchangeableness of God.

          (2) God did not have to give human beings a supernatural vocation to the Beatific Vision in Heaven. There would have been nothing unjust if God didn’t offer this gift to anyone. Now in fact He does offer it but this is something gratuitous (hence the name “grace”).

          …to be continued…

          1. …trying to post again…

            (3) Essentially, ‘Heaven’ equals ‘Beatific Vision forever’ and ‘Hell’ equals ‘Absence of Beatific Vision forever’. From this definition you can see that Hell does not necessarily entail for each individual endless and unimaginable torture. Just as there are different levels of happiness in Heaven, so too are there different levels in Hell. In fact, according to St. Thomas (and I believe it makes sense), babies who die unbaptized are indeed excluded from the beatific vision (and thus are technically by definition in ‘Hell’ or the ‘limbo of Hell’. ‘Limbo’ means ‘edge’.) but they are actually in a state of natural happiness! It is also reasonable that different mortal sins are punished differently in Hell. More malice equals more punishment. Less malice equals less punishment. God is Infinitely Just, after all. Whatever punishment is received will not be more severe than what is deserved. So let’s not imagine that someone who devotes their life to evil (think serial killer) and someone who devotes their life to good but who in the end commits one mortal sin through weakness and then dies are both going to be treated the same for eternity.

            (4) If someone dies with sanctifying grace, they experience Heaven. If someone dies without sanctifying grace, they experience Hell. (Keep in mind definition of Hell above in #3.) Sanctifying grace is received in Baptism and is lost through mortal sin. It can be recovered through Confession. But remember from #2 above that God doesn’t owe us sanctifying grace. We tend to think along the lines of ‘You’ll go to Heaven unless you do something really bad and die in that state.’ But it’s more correct to realize that the ‘default’ state for mankind is not the beatific vision. Rather, by ‘default’ NO ONE gets to experience the beatific vision for eternity regardless of how hard one tries to be good / heroic. It is only by the gift of God’s grace in Baptism that we are able to aim at more than natural happiness (‘natural happiness’ being, basically, what results from a life of natural virtue, as distinct from ‘supernatural happiness’ which comes from the Beatific Vision).

            (5) That someone who dies with sanctifying grace goes to Heaven is not legalism. Nor is it legalism that someone who dies without sanctifying grace goes to Hell. For it to be legalistic there would need to be a merely arbitrary connection between sanctifying grace and Heaven and an arbitrary connection between lack of sanctifying grace and Hell. But nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, sanctifying grace is the ‘seed’ which upon death naturally ‘flowers’ into the Beatific Vision. God hasn’t set up an arbitrary law that says ‘If you come here without sanctifying grace you go to Hell’. Rather, sanctifying grace is the seed. And if there’s no seed, there’s no flower. ‘No flower’ in this context is simply what ‘Hell’ means. Nothing legalistic or arbitrary about that.

            (6) Let’s also not forget God’s providence. God gratuitously offers us sanctifying grace but He doesn’t simply leave us on our own to develop and guard the gift. He wants us to grow in grace and helps us to do so. And if we force grace out of our lives through mortal sin, He wants to give it back to us. He inspires us to have true contrition for our sins so that our souls can once again receive His gift in Confession. If someone lives a heroic life of grace, and then through one mortal sin forces grace away, do you think God–who wants the man to be saved more then he himself ever did–will simply strike him dead immediately and say, ‘Ha! Caught you in an act of mortal sin!’?? Someone who is accustomed to a life of grace will be all the more likely to repent when God offers the gift again, and He is always offering it, and moving us to freely accept it.

          2. Okay, it finally went through. For what it’s worth, I finally figured out the problem was that I was using the equals sign. When I replaced it with the word “equals” it let me post it. (Apparently security didn’t like the equals sign…it thought I was trying to send malicious code to the server or something.)

          3. Thank you once again for the time it took you to write to me John. I think I will stop writing comments on this post today because I don’t want to spam Msgr. Pope’s website and if you want to get in touch with me, you can contact me on Reddit, username abusedcatholic. If you don’t have Reddit or don’t have time to talk more, that is perfectly fine. You don’t owe me anything.

            I am undecided on whether God exists, I have looked over proofs of this and find them inconclusive. Thomas Aquinas’ five proofs are indeed valid arguments which prove the conclusion if the premises are true, but like with most proofs, the premises are much harder to accept.

            I also don’t agree that God is all good. I am not saying that I believe God is evil either. If He does exist, I am undecided on whether God is good or evil, or maybe He is in between.

            I mentioned the Good Samaritan on another post earlier today. I know the Good Samaritan parable is really short, and it does not go into the backstory of the Samaritan’s life nor does it touch his eventual death. But let me extend the story to explain my point. If the Good Samaritan really helps his neighbors as a regular habit in his whole life but yet has full knowledge that the Samaritan religion was wrong and deliberately consents to this, and does not ever repent until his death, is the Good Samaritan in Hell?

            I ask this with total sincerity. This is not a trolling question, but something I have struggled with immensely.

            A follow up question can be asked: if the Good Samaritan is in Hell, is God evil?

            I can change the story slightly to make it a good Cafeteria Catholic living in the present day. In this example, because the person was baptized, limbo is not available. Hell must include physical punishments.

            Now you can say that we must accept God and who am I to question God on hard teachings but who are you to reject Allah in the Koran? Who are you to reject the Greek gods when they rape and murder? We can reject all of these gods because they do bad things. Yes, there are good things they do too and they have some truth too, and that is good but ultimately you are not a Muslim or Greek pagan because you see the lack of goodness in their gods.

            I am this way with Christianity right now. People tell me that God is good and that I must accept His teachings yet many of teachings don’t agree with reason at all.

            I said elsewhere perhaps doctrine will be clarified later and God will be explained to be more merciful to people like the good Cafeteria Catholic, just as the interpretation of “no salvation outside the Church” does not mean Protestants cannot go to Heaven now. In fact, you had to use Aquinas and not Augustine in your example of unbaptized dead infants not suffering because Augustine believed that unbaptized dead infants would suffer in Hell! That would be monstrous and Augustine was horribly wrong in making God to be a monster. Yet go back further and others were even harsher than Augustine because Augustine said they would only suffer mildly (although still infinitely and eternally).

            I don’t want to spend too long responding to the rest of your argument because I have gone on for far too long already, but I think that sanctifying grace should be in the good Samaritan or the person who saves a thousand people and then commits a mortal sin if that is the golden ticket to not suffer forever in eternity. You mention arbitrariness. It seems the height of arbitrariness for a good person to suffer forever in eternity. This is Divine Command Theory in action. God can do whatever arbitrary thing He pleases and He is still good because He says so. Plato demolishes Divine Command Theory in the Euthyphro.

            Sorry my argument is ranting and unorganized. Essentially I think that a God who lets a good person suffer eternally is unjust and for anyone to use Divine Command Theory (catechism, Church teachings, Bible) to say God is good because He says so should be politely rejected. God very well may be good and just but He is not good and just because He says so. In the same way, the Mormon missionary at our front door who says God wants us to do x because the Book of Mormon says so should be rejected with the same politeness.

    2. The 10 Commandments come to us directly from God. It is God who equates offenses against Him with offenses against our brothers such as murder, theft, adultery and dishonoring our parents. You seem to be saying we should keep the seven commandments about how we treat others but it is okay to ignore one or more of the three that pertain to how we treat God, who is the very reason for our being. And yet this all-loving God says if we do not keep one of His commandments – even if it is deliberate – if we are sorry and go to Confession He will forgive us. That does not sound monstrous at all.

      1. Gus, thank you for responding to me.

        God seems to be a narcissist who demands praise–or else! If we love our neighbor in a heroic way, as I explained in my initial comment, but make a far smaller slip and miss Sunday Mass, we could be doomed to hell for all eternity because of this?

        This seems monstrous! Why would I even want to praise a God who seems to be a monster?

        1. Nathan,
          There are three things wrong with your argument. 1) God does not our demand praise. His Commandment to keep the Lord’s Day holy, as Jesus tells us in Mark 2:27, is for our benefit, not His. The Lord’s Day is a necessary break from worldly concerns. It is a day God has set aside for us to contemplate our mortality, our spiritual needs, and our relationship with Him. 2) Church teaching on mortal sin says that if we die in a state of unrepentant mortal sin we are destined to hell. God is just but He is also merciful. The Sacrament of Confession is a perfect example of His justice and mercy. If we are sorry for having sinned and ask for forgiveness it is given. But if a person is truly sorry for having a committed a mortal sin and dies before he or she has a chance to go to Confession, we can pretty much assume God’s Mercy kicks in. So, no, God is not a monstrous God. 3) Your statement that missing Mass is a much smaller slip than not loving your neighbor presumes that you are just as smart as God in knowing the “why” of everything in regard to His teaching on how we are to live our lives. But at Mass, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior is physically present there with us in the form of the Eucharist, and if we are in a state of grace we are able to receive Him into our very being. He joins with us and become one with us. This is not a small thing.

          1. Gus,

            Thank you again for your kind reply.

            You are giving me a form of Divine Command Theory. How can you or myself say that we know more than what Mohammad revealed about Allah in the Koran? How can you judge Allah to be wrong and thus not follow his teachings as taught in the Koran?

            I must go to Mass because God says so. I will suffer in Hell forever if I die with just one mortal sin like perhaps not going to Mass because God says so.

    3. First, it is important to know that God is not that petty and cuts people slack all the time.

      It is also important to not fall into the error that too many people do with respect to God, sin, heaven and hell. Namely, that God is punitive and will “punish” you if you do not do this or fail to do that, and that even one small slip will get you tossed into eternal damnation.

      That’s not how it works and that’s not what the Church teaches. What the Church does teach is very simple. “Sin” by its very definition is a strain or even severing of one’s relationship with God. And since God is Love, and God is Truth, to turn away from love or truth is to turn away from God. And all the good in the world that one might do will not erase that strain or separation. It is not a case of putting the good and the evil in the scales.

      One can run a thousand miles on his legs, but if the leg breaks, its broken — all those miles won’t matter. Same with our relationship with God. Except that God can heal the break.

      You can be a great hero who saves, say, one hundred lives, at great risk to yourself. Maybe you win the Medal of Honor by being more heroic than the main character in the Mel Gibson movie (Hacksaw Ridge). However, if you later decide to kill your wife — well, then you have broken off your relationship her. And, yes, you have put yourself on the road to hell. All that good can be lost in an instant. Ask people in prison about that. Except that God can forgive and free us even then.

      A person can live a perfect and outstanding life, and yet show in some way that he does not want to have a relationship with God. That might be expressed every day or in a single action.

      And why does that necessarily lead to hell? Well, it’s not because God is petulant and retaliates against you. It is because God is Life itself. And when you turn away from Life, what do you get?? The concept of “mortal” sin is not about this action or that being really, really bad — much less a violation of some arbitrary rule. A sin is “mortal” because the word “mortal” means “death.” A mortal sin is any sin that results in ultimate death — any sin that involves setting yourself against Life Himself, i.e. God.

      Meanwhile, what is God doing? Is He raging at you? No, He is imploring you — “Choose life. Turn to Truth. Turn to Love. And live!” It is not God who separates us from Him. He is not the one who broke it off. Instead, He is the one who wants to get back together.

      God is not the monster. We are.

      1. Bender,

        Thank you kindly for replying. Regarding your analogy of the hero who later killed his wife-If you are familiar with the firebombing of Dresden, you know what a terrible thing it was. Many people like myself believe that it was a war crime ordered by Winston Churchill. So then could Churchill could be on the road to Hell? At his judgment, does God almost completely forget about all the good he did and focus on this one thing? He had to make life and death decisions like this a thousand times per week.

        By the way, Churchill was not put into prison for this. He was not charged at Nuremberg or anywhere else. Do you think he should have been? Or should he have been given a break for all the good things he had done? So I think justice should be put on the scales.

        As far as Hell being eternal punishment for us not having a relationship with God, well God to me seems to be a narcissist who says, “You’re nothing without me” and, “If I can’t have you, nobody can” and then tries to make the other person suffer as much as possible.

        I don’t see how ultimate Goodness would be so vengeful.

  4. It only seems out of proportion. God is the origin of all that is good so that His graces and gifts are what enabled the heroism in the first place. To reject God through disobediance by not going to mass is ingratitude. Further God in His mercy would gladly forgive this sin if confessed, so in order to go to Hell the hero in your example must persist in his inpenitence. By ignoring God your hero is acting on pride.

  5. David,

    Fine, so he is acting out of pride, I’ll grant that for argument’s sake. But an infinite punishment seems rather excessive.

    If a good friend of mine who has been very nice to me for years makes an appointment for lunch and then misses the lunch, and I waste an hour of my time at the restaurant, this is not good. Yet I will forgive and forget it, probably even if he does not apologize to me. I will do this because it is small in the grand scheme of things of a long term friendship. And I am very imperfect. Why can’t God be so nice?

  6. I have read all the comments above and may i say i understand your point of view. I cannot lie to you but must say that i find myself asking the same questions as you do. It occurs to me that perhaps the answer lies in our intent of our hearts. For example, missing Mass is a mortal sin. If we die in a state of mortal sin then we go to hell (according to our Catholic teaching.) This seems harsh to me and it occurs to me that many Catholics i know are cafeteria Catholics. We cannot pick and choose but if we are honest with ourselves we do just that. That being said i am forced to look at myself and say that God will be the judge. I think if we have a genuine love for God and our neighbor we will find ourselves being more faithful to God’s commandments. I guess i look at the matter as doing the best i can and when i fall short and commit sins (mortal and venial) i am immediately convicted by the Spirit. I’ll bet you are, too. So i ask for forgiveness from God and make confession when i can. I don’t worry about so much about the legalistic rules as i do working on my relationship with God and having faith that He will judge me fairly and accept a heartfelt apology for genuinely falling short of his glory. Many may not agree with me but i have found it to be the only solution that leads to peace of mind.Thanks for your honesty on a difficult subject.

    1. Mark,

      Thank you for your thoughtful reply on this matter. One of the things that keeps me from being an outright atheist is Jesus is condemning legalism all the time in the Gospels, and the Pharisees who I cannot stand are constantly defending legalism. Jesus broke the law a number of times. He refuses to stone the adulterous woman to death. Then there is the time that Jesus broke the Sabbath rules.

      Now people can say that Jesus can change the law because He is God but perhaps also the law was just wrong and evil. I think that the Mosaic law of stoning adulterers to death was wrong. So perhaps today’s laws are often wrong too. Now the command to go to Mass every Sunday is not evil in the same way because we won’t be stoned to death. But the part about possibly going to Hell forever is wrong. And perhaps we will find this out later when the Church “reinterprets” it just like it reinterpreted “no salvation outside the Church” to mean Protestants and non-Catholics can still go to Heaven. That’s all I can find.

      1. Nathan,
        Apparently there is a limit on replies. I can’t reply to your response above, so I am doing so here. God does not say you must go to Mass. The Catholic Church says our obligation to keep the Lord’s Day Holy is fulfilled by going to Mass. And, once again, Catholic teaching on mortal sin says that if we die in a state of UNREPENTANT mortal sin we are destined to hell.
        If you are going to attempt to argue against Catholic Teaching you should at least know what that teaching says. The Catechism of the Catholic Church can be read online for free. As CCC 1861 says, “we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.”

  7. Good point Gus on the UNREPENTANT part of our mortal sin. That still leaves an interpretation open to debate. Unrepentant at the moment or to the point of blasphemy? Don’t know. But once again we are back to God’s judgment and mercy as to how He will deal with our mortal sin. I continue forward in my Catholic faith and very proud of it. I think it is only natural we question it from time to time and offer challenges. Thanks for your insight.

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