Five Biblical Lists of Mortal Sins

The first reading for Wednesday of the 27th Week of the Year, from Galatians, spoke to sins that exclude one from the Kingdom of Heaven. If one dies unrepentant from committing any of these sins, one cannot go to Heaven but rather must be excluded in Hell. It is an important reminder to pay heed to the toll that sin takes on our heart, our character, and ultimately our destiny.

One of the great deceptions of our time is that serious sin is only a remote possibility for most people and that such sins are only committed by truly wicked people. Too many people assess their moral standing with unhelpful platitudes such as these: “I’m basically a good person,” or “Well, I haven’t murdered anybody.”

We must be more serious and mature in our discernment. Of course, God does not leave us in such a fog of uncertainty. His Word is quite clear in specifying some of the more serious sins so that we can humbly recognize our tendency to do these very things. Note that stating that a particular sin excludes one from the Kingdom of Heaven is the biblical way of saying that it is a mortal sin.

Simply listing mortal sins is not sufficient because there are important factors affecting culpability. For example, some of the sins listed below (e.g., lying) can admit of lighter matter (one might tell a lie to avoid hurting someone’s feeling). Lies can also be devastating, robbing people of their good name or depriving people of necessary information. Some of the sins listed can result from a compulsions or addictions that erode the freedom necessary to be guilty of mortal sin. Hence, a sin that is of itself serious in nature might be venial if the person were acting under some compulsion. This does not mean that it is not a sin at all, just that it may not be fully mortal in its effects.

Nevertheless, the Lord, in love, wants to warn us urgently of the sins that exclude us from Heaven. In reading from the lists that follow, avoid adopting a legalistic mentality. Take them to heart and allow them to become part of your daily moral reflection. The Lord warns us in love that sin is a serious matter. Even smaller sins, unattended to, begin to grow like a cancer and can ultimately kill us spiritually.

Rather than continue with a lot of commentary, I’d like to post five biblical lists of the more serious sins that exclude one from the Kingdom of God.

Be serious about them. Do not buy into the deception that sin is a trivial matter. God loves us, and because He loves us He warns us that unrepentant sin is serious and can rob our hearts of the desire for Him, for Heaven, and for the good things awaiting us there.

Here, then, are five lists. They are not exhaustive and there are other passages in the Bible that include sins not mentioned below (e.g., refusal to forgive, cf Matt 6:15).

  • Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were (1 Cor 6:9-10).
  • The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5:19-21).
  • But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No sexually immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore, do not be partners with them (Eph 5:3-6).
  • “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star” (Rev. 22:12-16).
  • Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Matt 25:41-46).

Finally, here is a general warning from the Lord:

Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned. By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me (John 5:28-29).

Here is a performance of Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere Mei” (Psalm 51). “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great kindness.”

Mortal or Not, Sin Always Causes Harm

For several generations, the Church has used a kind of shorthand in referring to mortal sin, for example, “X is a mortal sin.” The problem is that this general statement is an oversimplification. In order for the individual committing a particular act to be guilty of a mortal sin, three conditions are necessary: grave matter (the act must be intrinsically evil), full knowledge, and deliberate consent (CCC 1857).

It is important to emphasize that even if a particular sinful act does not rise to the level of mortal sin, it is still a sin. No sinful action, even if committed “innocently” will bring a blessing or become good in itself. To sin is always to veer off course and it causes some sort of wound. This is true even if the person is not guilty of committing a mortal sin.

Let’s consider a couple of specific cases of potentially mortal sin and look at the three conditions required to determine that it represents a mortal sin in a particular situation.

Case 1: Skipping Mass on Sunday

Grave Matter

Missing Mass on Sunday is a grave matter because we fail to render fitting thanks and praise to God for His goodness. We sin against justice and charity by failing to gather with God’s people at Mass to do so. In addition, at Mass we are instructed by God and fed with the Body and Blood of the Lord. Jesus says, Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his Blood you do not have life within you (Jn 6:53). Therefore, Mass is necessary for us. Skipping Mass is also a direct violation of the Third Commandment and does harm to the First Commandment. Thus, it is grave matter.

Full Knowledge

Many Catholics today have been poorly instructed and have very few cultural moorings that dispose them to be at Mass each Sunday. Many do not even know that missing Mass is a grave matter. Even if they know that going to Mass is a good thing—surely better than just sleeping in or going shopping—they may not appreciate the seriousness of missing Mass nor understand that the Eucharist is our necessary food. Depending on how responsible they are for this ignorance, their culpability may be reduced, rendering the sin less than mortal.

Deliberate Consent

It is important to consider how thoughtfully a person decides to do something. In some situations, a person may make an impulsive decision, giving little to no thought to the matter. At others, there may be more extensive deliberation. Blameworthiness will center on questions such as these:

  • How long could the person reasonably have deliberated and formed an intention based on the circumstances? Did he take advantage of the available time to deliberate and do so by applying good moral standards?
  • Could the situation have been anticipated or did it arise so suddenly that there was little change to form a careful intention?

So, a person who chooses to miss mass due to a last-minute occurrence (e.g., an old friend calls and is in town only for the day) may be less blameworthy than a person who had time to make other arrangements but chose to miss Mass after careful deliberation of the options.

We live in a culture that makes more peripheral demands on people than was the case forty or more years ago. As more and more businesses are open seven days a week, more people are required to work on Sundays. Other activities such as youth sports leagues put pressure on families on the weekend and make scheduling chaotic. Many people travel on weekends, sometimes for pleasure but also for business. These sorts of things make it difficult to keep a regular, consistent schedule. “Juggling” the schedules of various family members is quite common today.

Unusual circumstances can impede the ability to attend Mass, such as one’s own serious illness or the need to care for someone who is seriously ill. Dangerous weather conditions can prevent attendance or make it ill advised. Emergencies, last-minute transportation problems, and the like can all limit the freedom or ability to get to Mass. If one’s freedom is eroded, culpability may be reduced, rendering the sin of missing Mass less than mortal on a particular occasion. It is always deleterious to miss Mass because one misses Holy Communion, fellowship, and instruction, but to the degree that freedom is eroded, one’s blameworthiness may be reduced, even to a minimum.

Hence, to say, “Skipping Mass on Sunday is a mortal sin,” only refers to the fact that it is a grave matter. It is not possible to speak to every possible circumstance that may legitimately excuse a person from Mass. Neither can it speak to how well formed a person’s conscience is, the quality of his deliberation, or the degree of freedom with which he acts.

There are other sins, grave in nature, where the question of freedom is more subtle. This is a common issue with the sin of drunkenness. It is a grave sin to drink to the point that we are impaired, but there are often compulsions and addictions related to alcohol that may limit the full consent of the will.

Case 2: Masturbation

Grave Matter

The Catechism sets forth why masturbation is grave matter:

Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action. The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose. For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved (CCC 2352).

Because human sexuality is a great good and is ordered by the Sixth Commandment, the violation of it is grave matter. It amounts to a turning inward, to misusing that very thing which is meant to relate us intimately to another in marriage and for procreation.

Full Knowledge

Society used to take a rather dim view of masturbation. Today it is widely accepted and even promoted to children. The Catholic Church’s position has not wavered, yet it’s unclear how many Catholics today understand the seriousness of the sin.

Deliberate Consent

The Catechism goes on to say:

To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability (Ibid).

Hence, what is a grave matter may not always rise to the level of a mortal sin if the required freedom is lacking to some degree. The affective maturity and other psychological and social factors must be assessed by a confessor working realistically and honestly with the penitent. The confessor should neither disregard a person’s freedom and the possibility for growth, nor should he presume that acts of masturbation always proceed from malice or an utterly selfish desire to turn away from the marital and procreative purposes of sexual intimacy.

However, even if a particular penitent may not be guilty of mortal sin, masturbation is sinful. Engaging in it misconstrues the purpose of sex, indulges in fantasy, and feeds distorted notions of sexuality. It also becomes a growing habit and impedes the self-mastery needed for the gift of oneself to one’s spouse. It is a poor way to prepare for marriage and often hinders the maturity needed for marriage, in which one’s spouse is not always what the perfect fantasy describes. It feeds disappointment in one spouse and feelings of inadequacy in the other.

Thus, masturbation is a sin, even if not always a mortal one. No lack of freedom or extenuating circumstances can make a bad thing good. Masturbation should still be confessed, and one should not determine alone whether it rises to the level of mortal sin. A confessor can and should be consulted and a regular schedule of confession should be determined by the confessor based on the penitent’s struggle. The goal is to become ever freer by growing in self-mastery.

Excursus

The topic of divorce and remarriage requires more attention than I can give here but suffice it to say that whatever personal culpability may or may not accrue in a given situation, divorce and remarriage represents an ongoing situation that cannot admit to a firm purpose of amendment or improvement. The couple may not reasonably be able to make the commitment to live chastely. In addition, the fact that they are in a second “marriage” is typically clear if not to the general public, at least to family and friends. Hence, the common good most often demands that public acts be treated by public remedies. As a result, the Church has long held that couples in this situation cannot receive Holy Communion. (In contrast, a person who misses Mass or struggles with masturbation can make some purpose of amendment; furthermore, his sin is not usually public knowledge.)

Some today would like to hold that individual priests are free to offer Communion to such couples in particular situations. Some even go so far as to say that all couples in second (or third, or fourth, …) marriages can partake of Holy Communion. Even Jesus’ plain words to the contrary fail to convince them.

I understand that there are pastorally complex situations, but Jesus understood this as well and yet did not offer concessions or alternative policies. I would simply say to any priest who permits the reception of Holy Communion in these cases that he will answer to God for it and will have to explain to Jesus why His words did not apply. I will not be the judge. I only ask that he alone bear the burden of his advice and not ask the wider Church to prop him up or change her doctrine to suit his pastoral decisions. Let him carry his own practices to the judgment seat and not ask me or others to be complicit in his views or decisions. Indeed, it ill-behooves the Church to make general policies, norms, or laws out of complex and unique situations; no changes to Canon Law ought to be made.

Conclusion:

The statement “X is a mortal sin” is a simplification. It is only stating that a certain act is grave, intrinsically evil. The warning that some sins are grave ex genere suo (by their nature), ought not be dismissed. However, there are other factors to be considered when determining whether mortal culpability accrues to a certain individual in a certain set or circumstances.

Even if the determination in a particular situation is that all of the ingredients that render an act a mortal sin were not present, this should not be taken to mean that no sin was committed. An act that is objectively sinful cannot become good simply because one commits it in ignorance or out of diminished freedom.

Even if a person means well or acts in ignorance, a sin can never bring a blessing. It brings only harm and wounds. Even if I unknowingly ingest rat poison or if am forced by an enemy to do it, I will not get any benefit from rat poison. It is poison of its nature and it will still cause terrible things. I may not be condemned for ingesting rat poison ignorantly or by force, but I will surely suffer.

Rat poison is bad and causes harm. Sin is bad and causes harm. Don’t seek refuge in ignorance or insufficient freedom; just avoid it altogether!

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.