Defending the Faith of our Fathers!
Christ's Faithful People

Apologetics Page Library Page TOC Index Page Foot Notes Previous Next

Class 24

The Capital Sins

We don’t have much time for this. Capital sins are those which have a tendency to create other sins, like a general in the army. Saint Thomas begins with pride, the mother of all the vices. He then mentions the seven in this order, which might be of gravity or of opposition to grace: vainglory, envy (sadness caused by others’ success), acedia (sadness caused by things concerning God), anger (sin, not the emotion), avarice, gluttony, and lust. The order of the capital sins for men, according to Fr. Mullady and his mentor’s surveys, lust, gluttony, acedia, anger, vainglory, envy, and avarice. With women, the worst is vainglory, envy, avarice, anger, lust, gluttony, and acedia. For women, acedia is at the end. When the bell rings, they all come to choir.

Social and personal sin

In recent years, there was the tendency to stress social sin versus personal sin. In the English version of the Gloria, we say "you who take away the sin of the world," when the Latin says peccata. In Reconciliatio Paenitans 16, the Pope says that one meaning of social sin, though common, is in error, that which contrasts social sin to personal sin with the hope of abolishing the notion of personal sin. They say blame is to be placed not on the individual conscience, but on the system, structures, society and institutions. Sin cannot be uniquely blamed on institutions with the denial of individual liberty and individual moral responsibility. Sin is always an act of personal liberty. We may be in lousy social conditions, but in the last analysis sin is always personal. The pope says that by virtue of human solidarity, each individual sin in some way affects others. This is the other end of the social aspect of the communion of saints. There is a communion of sin, by which a soul that sins drags down the Church and the whole world, even though the sin may be most private and most individual. But some sins, by their very nature, constitute a direct attack on one’s neighbor and therefore to God. Social sins are against justice, by the individual against the community, or by the community against the individual. Social sins are those against the rights of the dignity of the person, and it can be applied to sins of omission or commission. The third acceptable meaning of the term social sin is the division of classes, nations, groups of nations against others. Can the sin become ascribed to one? Often it is difficult. The expression "social sin" when referring to Nazism is using sin by analogy. When the Church condemns a social sin or sinful institution of great evil, she knows that such sins are the accumulation of personal sins. The sins are of those who cause or exploit the situation, or of those who are in the position of eliminating or mitigating it but don’t, or those who are indifferent to it. At the heart of every situation of sin is the accumulation of many individual sins.

Traditional moral theology spoke of this distinction. We are responsible for some of others’ sins. Saint Thomas gives a Latin phrase summing it all up: usio (the order), consilium, consensus, palpo (praise), recursus (shelter), participans (direct), mutus (silence when one is obliged to react), non obstans (not preventing one that should have been prevented), non manifestans (refraining from the manifestation when it must be done).

Sins against the Holy Spirit

There are three important Biblical texts. St. Athanasius believed that the only sin was direct blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. St. Augustine, final impenitence. Peter Lombard listed six types, which Saint Thomas borrowed. The first is presumption, the audacious committing of a sin with the hope God will forgive it anyway. It is a mockery of divine mercy. Divine mercy is treated as something magical and deserve. Attempted penitence is insincere. This is different from the weak-willed person. The next is despair, when the sinner totally abandons hope in salvation. He doesn’t believe in the power of God’s grace. No one, he believes, can help him not even God. The next is the rejection of divine truth, that faith is to be abandoned because the world is evil. The fourth is envy of the grace that others enjoy. This is a complaint that others are in a better situation. Ultimately it is the claim that God is unfair. Sometimes those who believe in God become militantly anti-religious. The next is obstinacy in sin, the rejection of penitence, the hardening of heart flowing from the lack of faith in being led by God despite the trials of life. In this obduracy, the suggestion of a conversion is resented and rationalized against. The last is impenitence, the leaving of conversion and change until the moment of death. People sometimes engage in a definite sinful relationship, hoping for redemption in the last moment.

All these sins are ultimately the case of the rejection of the sanctifying mission of the Holy Spirit. The sinners close in on themselves, and these sins give a foretaste of Hell already on earth, in which there’s no trust in God. They prevent God from reaching the soul. God will still attempt to incite conversion. God sometimes leave people in their sinfulness until the last moment of life. These sins are not to be interpreted in the sense that one who has committed them has no chance of forgiveness. In the case of obdurate sinners living in an illicit marriage, they should still be encouraged to place their trust in God, going to Church, but should not receive, which would add presumption to obduracy.

Internal and external sins

The teaching of Jesus against the Pharisees is clear. Both external acts and interior dispositions needed to be purified. The external sins concern acts; the internal sins, the interior desires of the sins, which may or may not lead to external sins. Internal sins are often more dangerous than external sins, because they are often neglected in confession. Internal sins can easily be rationalized. We have to distinguish internal sins from temptations, which are not sins. We are at fault only if we consent to the temptation, even if we don’t have a chance to commit an act. Mental complacency is the first of three internal sins the Scholastics named. This is a delayed imagination about sin, without the will to bring it into existence. We are more virtuous in our acts than in our imagination, often. A judge, moral theologian, or an actor may reflect upon a sinful act without sin, without necessarily approving it. It is possible to find pleasure in the talented way a sin was committed, without enjoying the sin. If we approve of the vice, then the imagination will be sinful. Penitents should not be required to mention all the details of their thoughts. If the faults involve a particular type of malice changing the gravity of the sin, it should be mentioned — like impure thoughts about incest.

The next is sinful joy, in an accomplished deed, yours or anther’s, or a regret not to commit a sin when the opportunity was there. It involves an approval of the sin, although it is licit to feel joy from a bad deed, that you’ve inherited money from a murdered uncle. The third is the desire to commit a sinful action, which may or may not be efficacious. We may lack the courage to commit an offense against God, or to carry out the deed for other reasons. The desire may be efficacious if it contains a strong desire to commit the action, but prevented by unforeseen circumstances. This is as grave as the external act. It isn’t concupiscence, but the intention to sin which is sinful.

Sins against God, neighbors, and ourselves

This distinction is not precise, because all sins are against God, ourselves and others, and affect ourselves and our neighbors. Every sin involves offenses against God. A lapsed sinner can be helped in this way, who doesn’t know how to name his sins.

Sins that cry out for divine punishment

The basis for this terminology is from Genesis. It applied by sixteenth century scholastics to murder of the innocent, sodomy, injuring orphans or widows, or failure to pay proper wages to employees.

Sins of omission and commission

Sins of omission are those committed against positive precepts, and sins of commission generally against those of the negative precepts.

Distinction between mortal and venial sins

These are distinguished by different degrees of aversion to God. The term sin is analogous between them. The distinction is part of Church dogma, from the Council of Trent. The terminology mortal draws attention not to the essence of the sin but to the consequence, and venial, to forgiveness. A mortal sin can also be forgiven. The division is illogical, from mortal and pardonable. Mortal is a corporal, not a spiritual term. We could have the logical distinction grave versus light, which would suggest that venial sins aren’t important. There are also different degrees of gravity. Some people propose mortal and "the sin that wounds." This would be logical, permitting grades of venial sins, but doesn’t explain the difference in gravity among mortal sins. Mortal sins destroy spiritual life within, but there are different degrees of gravity. The term mortal stresses the punishment, whereas grave stresses the matter of the sin. John Paul II, in Reconciliatio et Paenitencia, says grave and mortal overlap. The consistent teaching of the Church is that we have two realities. The difficulties in terminology should not put in doubt the essential difference perceived by the Church from the earliest times about the different types of sin.

We have to know whether we’re in the state of mortal sins or not. We should have the mortal certitude we’re in the state of grace when we receive the sacraments of the living. Trent said that the species, number and circumstances of the sin should be mentioned. The priest is to help the penitent determine whether the sin is mortal or not. The Church says it is possible to know, though it is not always clear. During the last one-hundred years, there have been many who have suggested a change in the Church’s traditional teaching. There are differences in the positions, but they have in common a three-fold division in the naming of sins (lethal-mortal-venial, mortal-grave-venial, mortal-grave-daily). In these divisions, the worst sin would contain a direct and conscious rebellion against God. The worst sin is a negative fundamental option, a decision urging the person to take a fundamental stance against God. This option ultimately defines the moral disposition of the person, and hence would be an auto-predestination toward damnation. This is said to flow from the depths and not the periphery. Simple acts could not re-orient the fundamental option, but many. The other acts are either different grades of venial sins, or sins with grave matter, but not one which destroys supernatural life within us. It would involve transgression of a grave matter, but not because of hatred of God but because of weakness.

What is at stake here is the traditional teaching of mortal sin. Acts of apostasy or Satanism are rare. The negative fundamental option is not borne out in practice. A child cannot commit this type of sin, which has led to the delay in confessing children and their formation of conscience. Saint Thomas saw in every sin the aversion from God and the conversion to some finite good, even though he may not be thinking about it at all. This theory of the treble distinction says that we have the aversion only in the case of apostasy. The theory of the fundamental option is a resurrection of the condemnation of philosophical and theological sin of 1690 by the Holy Office.

Mortal sins

The treble distinction has met with a rejection of the magisterium, in Persona Humana, Reconciliatio Penitence 17, and Veritatis Splendor 65-70. There’s no middle between life and death. We shouldn’t reduce mortal sin to a fundamental option. Mortal sin exists when someone for whatever reason chooses something gravely disordered. The person turns away from God and loses charity. Thus, the fundamental orientation can be changed by single acts. One cannot construct a theological category from a philosophical understanding of sin, casting doubt on the teaching of mortal sin. The fundamental option says that one can commit grave sins without rejecting God. Psychologically people assess themselves this way. But objectively, the willing acceptance of sinful acts leads to rejecting God and an interior falsehood in the person. Moral good and evil cannot be limited to transcendental choices. They describe this-worldly sins merely as right and wrong. They push it so far that a concrete act is merely a physical process, leading to the conclusion that the moral assessment prescinds from concrete kinds of behavior.

The Pope maintains that we have to have a fundamental option toward God. Saint Thomas’s teaching that we must have charity generally, and have no pride generally. In every sin, the aversion is from pride, withdrawing something from God’s oversight. In every conversion toward a finite good, there is a general concupiscence. Charity functions as the general virtue and pride the general vice. They are within every act. It is not possible to equate the fundamental option with moral sin, prescinding from mortal sins in which the consciousness of the fundamental option is not engaged. The fundamental option is always brought into play in concrete human decisions. To separate the fundamental option from concrete behavior is to contradict the moral unity of the moral agent in his body and soul. Mortal sin is when man consciously rejects God, his love and his law, to turn to some finite good. This can occur formally in apostasy, or equivalently by every disobedience of God.

A mortal sin kills supernatural life in the soul, which is its consequence. It is a positive transgression of the eternal law of God, and this transgression entails the aversion from God though not consciously expressed. Jesus tells us there are some sins who will not obtain eternal life. There is a differentiation in the moral gravity of sins.[36] The Fathers distinguished sins requiring a public penance and those which were forgiven in general penitential practices. In the mortal sin, the essential thing is the aversion from God. A particular evil act is wanted and the sinner is drawn to it. The aversion from God is not the specifying element, because it may be outside the intention. So it’s not necessary to have a conscious aversion from God for the act to have a mortal sin. This would be tantamount to saying the atheist is in bliss, because he wouldn’t avert from God in his acts. The conversion toward some particular good may include a variety of grades. On the level of aversion, there is a threshold that is crossed, to something that is incompatible with the final end. The consequences are irreparable in themselves without divine intervention. After a mortal sin, it is not healing we need, but the resurrection. We cannot give it to ourselves. The aversion from the final end doesn’t accept degrees, though the conversion does.

For the sin to be mortal, there are three requirements: full consciousness, consent of the will, and grave matter. The sinner must know what he is doing and that the act is evil, though it doesn’t have to be actual in the process of the action. He must know it at least habitually. He doesn’t have to know that the action is classified as a mortal sin, as long as he realizes it’s against God. The antecedent passion to the act of the reason eliminates the possibility of mortal sin, for the reason couldn’t be fully involved. The consent of the will entails an action contrary to the judgment of conscience, in which the person casts aside the judgment of reason and accepts the action. Certain external circumstances may decrease the amount of consent, and may prevent an action from being a mortal sin. There may be situations reducing the moral responsibility. But we shouldn’t understand these external forces as decreasing human nature, for determining the quality of acts (with the exception of some mental disorders). The sinner willfully commits a sin. It is better to convince him of this than to reduce his dignity by being pushed around by determinations.

Which sins involve grave matter? We have to follow the teaching of the Church. Persona Humana says that any direct infringement of the moral order of sexuality, which is so important, must be grave. Some sins are intrinsically grave and mortal by reason of their matter. Some acts are always seriously wrong by reason of their objects, if they involve the will and sufficient knowledge. Grisez suggested in 1986 that the Church should declare infallibly a list of sins with grave matter. That we should have an infallible qualification. If the pope would give a list, then someone would invent a sin. It is better for the Church to leave this alone. Theologians have distinguished between sins which admit poverty of matter out of the small amount in the act. If someone steals a small amount, it is not grave matter, even though it may be conscious and will. Every act of murder or adultery is a mortal sin. In the assessment of the gravity of the matter, the contrary virtue should be perceived, as well as the dignity of the person who sinned and against whom the sin was committed in determining the gravity of the matter.

Venial Sins

A venial sin doesn’t divert completely from God as the ultimate end. We don’t lose God from sight, but we’re slow in the movement. They do not destroy the state of the organism. We remain in friendship with God, but our awareness of the proximity of God is lessened. They are forgiven by sacramentals. Venial sins don’t contradict directly the divine law. We only act besides the law, not against it. They may contradict a secondary precept, but doesn’t contradict charity. We can repair the diversion by an intense act of charity. The diversion of venial sin can be repaired by ourselves. He can cease to go forward, or go astray, without abandoning God. But it cannot be regarded as a sin of little importance. The difference is intrinsic, not extrinsic. It doesn’t involve a complete aversion from God.

There are venial sins which involve minor transgressions — superficial laughter, slight excess in eating — which can become mortal sins if the sinner makes it his ultimate end, or if it would lead to an intended mortal sin, like a smile toward a woman you want to commit adultery. There are sins venial because of the poverty of matter. The third group are those which are venial due to the imperfection of the act; due to the lack of sufficient involvement of the reason and the will. Venial sins dispose toward mortal sins. St. Augustine compared them to insect bites. In themselves they’re not dangerous, but we can be attacked by bees.

It is impossible to have only original and venial sins. The first sin of a child is always a mortal sin, which is St. Augustine’s and Saint Thomas’s teaching. There comes a moment when a child grasps something as pleasurable and the feeling that is above sensory gratification, that things are bad because they’re bad. Before this perception, there is no real moral responsibility in the decision. If the child makes a bad choice, Saint Thomas says it is a mortal sin. The child doesn’t have the full understanding of the distinction between venial and mortal, and may involve small matter. It may concern a superficial matter, but what is at stake is the relation to moral value. Will you do what is bad for the benefit of the pleasure? In a healthy child, this arrives around seven. If the unbaptized child would turn to what is truly good, Saint Thomas says that the child is pardoned of original sin without baptism. Such a child belongs to the Church even if it wouldn’t have the words to express the relationship.

Apologetics Page Library Page TOC Index Page Foot Notes Previous Next

Click here to goto CFP Home Page