When all things bright and beautiful...

Over the past week we offered four sessions of our opening Faith Festival, beginning our faith formation program for the new academic year. At each of the Festivals, titled All Things Bright and Beautiful, the youngest to the oldest among us studied God's creation, our responsibility for it and God's call, in Deuteronomy, for us to choose life. At each of the Festivals I offered a 75 minute presentation on the elements of moral decision-making: the process by which we make decisions to choose life in the the smaller and larger moments of every day and the work of forming a conscience which we can trust to guide us in those decisions. Over the course of the week I spoke to a total of about 250 adults and confirmation students.

Part of my presentation addressed the need for us to accept the reality of sin in our lives, to acknowledge that we sometimes choose not what is good, true and loving but rather what is wrong, false and selfish. We looked together at how sin damages and can even rupture our relationship with God, with our neighbor and with the self.

In light of that, I thought this article by Richard Benson might be a good item for our consideration in this space. Below are some excerpts, while the link will bring you the whole piece as published in the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, The Tidings.

If anyone sees their sister or brother commit a sin that is not a deadly sin, they have only to pray, and God will give life to this sister or brother --- provided that it is not a deadly sin. There is sin that leads to death and I am not saying you must pray about that. Every kind of wickedness is sin, but not all sin leads to death.
-1 John 5: 16-17

This short text from the First Letter of John provides the traditional foundation for the doctrinal distinction between venial and mortal sin. And while the text itself stresses the real difference between two kinds of sin, concerns about understanding the pastoral implications of God's revelation in this passage still abound.

Today's clergy, lay pastoral ministers and dedicated catechists have a similar refrain when discussing the meaning and importance of sin in a Christian's life. They point to the fact that the contemporary understanding of the concept of "mortal sin" is all too ambiguous among the people of God.

An illustration:

Chaim is considering entering the Catholic Church and so is a very active participant in a local parish's RCIA process...

This past week she and her fellow catechumens were continuing their discussions on the moral life of Catholics and the Church's fundamental teachings about sin. She finds herself a bit conflicted and confused for the first time in the process...

"I do accept that mortal sin is real and that it does exist. My problem is recognizing it. Is it automatic when I break one of the Church's rules? Are all the rules equal? For example, I know I have to be willing to commit myself to attend Mass every Sunday to be a good Catholic and also I have to commit myself to fasting one hour before Communion. If someone goes to Communion when they know they haven't kept their fast, is that a mortal sin? Is missing Mass on Sunday just as big a sin as adultery or murder? Are some mortal sins 'bigger' than others?

"It doesn't seem fair that a person who breaks their Communion fast or misses their Easter duty commits the same kind of mortal sin as the one who tortures a prisoner of war or cheats on their spouse."

In today's society the appreciation of mortal sin ranges all the way from a shrug and dismissal of its reality --- and, thus, its importance in the life of Christian discipleship --- to an extreme of scrupulosity that in effect externalizes discipleship by defining it according to rubrics, and turns God into a severe and punishing judge, rather than a concerned and caring Father.

One major cause of the problems surrounding an authentic understanding of the concept of mortal sin is found in the fact that, too often, two legitimate questions about mortal sin are asked as if they were a single inquiry...

If we want to understand the concept and reality of mortal sin we can first ask: What IS mortal sin? This question seeks to comprehend the heart of the concept by seeking the essential nature of mortal sin. In other words, how can a disciple recognize the real potential for mortal sin when she or he is confronted with a significant temptation? Will we know when we have chosen to sin mortally? Are there visible criteria? The second question is important but entirely different: What are the effects of mortal sin? In other words, what happens to us, to our relationship with God, to our discipleship when we sin mortally?...

- Vincentian Father Richard Benson is academic dean and professor of moral theology at St. John's Seminary, Camarillo.


  1. ...and how would you answer those questions? If someone commits a mortal sin but does not go to confession doomed?

  2. Do you answer comments to older blogs?

  3. This blog is not, generally, a Q&A but I do, from time to time, try to respond to inquiries, depending on what the question is and whether or not it's one I can respond to in this forum and in this format.

    I don't know if the second anonymous commenter is the same person as the first anonymous commenter. If so and he/she is wondering about an answer to the first anonymous' question, it's not one I can easily respond to here but I can say this: The mercy of God is always greater than any of our sins and God's mercy does not depend on our celebration of the sacraments. The sacraments are the Spirit-guaranteed ways in which we can say with confidence that God has moved here. But of course, God can move anywhere, anytime in anyone.

    Is that helpful?


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