What is a Mortal Sin?
"Amen, amen, I say to you: If any man keep my word, he shall not
see death forever."
The Distinction between two types of sin
All sin is an offense against God and a rejection of his perfect
love and justice. Yet, Jesus makes a distinction between two types of sins. We call the
most serious and grave sins, mortal sins. Mortal sins destroy the grace of God in the
heart of the sinner. By their very grave nature, a mortal sin cuts our relationship off
from God and turns man away from his creator. St. Pauls letter to the Hebrews tell
us that "if we sin willfully after having the knowledge of the truth, there is now
left no sacrifice for sins" (Hebrews 10:26). The second type of sin, venial sin, that
of less grave matter, does not cut us off from Christ. However, venial sin does weaken
grace in the soul and damages our relationship with God. A person who frequently indulges
in venial sin is very likely to collapse into mortal sin if they persist in their evil
So what kind of Sins are Mortal?
In order for a sin to be mortal, it must meet three conditions:
- Mortal sin is a sin of grave matter
- Mortal sin is committed with full knowledge of the sinner
- Mortal sin is committed with deliberate consent of the sinner
This means that mortal sins cannot be done "accidentally."
A person who commits a mortal sin is one who knows that their sin is wrong, but still
deliberately commits the sin anyway. This means that mortal sins are
"premeditated" by the sinner and thus are truly a rejection of Gods law
The first condition, that a mortal sin is of grave matter, means
that certain premeditated offenses against God are more severe than others. We know that
some sins are graver than others (e.g. it is a graver sin to murder someone than to lie to
someone). St. John tells us, "If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not
deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin
is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you
should pray. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly." (1 John
5:16-17). Thus St. John distinguishes between mortal and venial sin. Jesus also warns us
that "Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither;
people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned" (John
What kinds of offenses against God constitute "grave matter"?
In the Bible, St. Paul gives us a list of grave sins. He
states that anyone who commits these sins shall not enter the kingdom of God. "Now
the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness,
lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife,
seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the
which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such
things shall not inherit the kingdom of God" (Galatians 5:19-20). Paul also tells the
Corinthians, "know you no that the unjust shall not possess the kingdom of God? Do
not err: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, Nor the effeminate, nor liers
with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards nor railers, nor extortioners shall
possess the kingdom of God" (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). These sins constitute grave
matter, and if they are committed willingly and with full consent, constitute mortal sin.
The Church also tells us that the sins of anger, blasphemy, envy,
hatred, malice, murder, neglect of Sunday obligation, sins against faith (incredulity
against God or heresy), sins against hope (obstinate despair in the hope for salvation
and/or presumption that oneself can live without God or be saved by ones own power)
and sins against love (indifference towards charity, ingratitude, and/or hatred of God)
also constitute grave matter. This list of grave sins, is based on Jesus Christs
interpretation of the gravity of the Ten Commandments. Grave sins can be classed as sins
against God, neighbor and self, and can further be divided into carnal and spiritual sins
Four other sins are considered grave also. These sins not only
offend God, but men as well. Thus these four sins are called "the sins that cry to
heaven for vengeance" and are likewise mortal sins. These grave sins are:
- The voluntary murder (Genesis 4:10)
- The sin of impurity against nature Sodomy and homosexual relations (Genesis 18:20)
- Taking advantage of the poor (Exodus 2:23)
- Defrauding the workingman of his wages (James 5:4)
Finally, the capital sins are also considered grave matter.
These sins are vices and are defined as contrary to the Christian virtues of holiness.
They are pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth (acedia).
Note from the author: For those of you who do not understand why these particular sins
are of grave matter, I would suggest that you refer to the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas
Aquinas. He does an excellent job of explaining why these sins are of grave matter, and
also explores the counter-arguments and objections that some people have regarding these
A thorough listing and description of grave sins:
The First Commandment, "You shall Worship the Lord Your God and him only Shall You
- IdolatryIdolatry is the worship, veneration or belief in false gods. Because
it is a direct rejection of God, it is a grave sin (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Idolatry
includes worship of images (This does not mean that we cannot venerate
religious images. Veneration of images such as a crucifix is veneration of the person
depicted, and not the actual image in and of itself.)
- Divination, magic and sorceryThis is a grave sin which includes attempting to
command the powers of the occult, control or speak to demons or spirits (especially
Satan), attempting to divine the future, and the use of magic charms (CCC 2116).
Deuteronomy 18:10-11 speaks against this grave sin.
- SacrilegeThe sin of sacrilege is a grave sin that consists of profaning
or treating unworthily the sacraments and liturgical actions of the Church as well as
things consecrated to God (CCC 2120).
- AtheismBecause atheistic humanism falsely seeks man and human glory and
rejects God, atheism is a grave sin (CCC 2125). It is a sin against the
virtue of religion. St. Paul tells us, "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven
against all unholiness and injustice of those men that detain the truth of God in
injustice" (Romans 1:18).
The Second Commandment, "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in
- BlasphemyThis grave sin is the uttering of hatred, reproach, defiance or
speaking ill of God. Blasphemy against the Church, the saints and sacred things is also a
grave sin (CCC 2148). It fails to give love and respect to our Creator. St. James speaks
against sinners who "blaspheme the good name that is invoked upon you" (James
- Perjury and False OathsThose who take an oath in the name of the Lord
and fail to keep it, or break the oath at a later date, show a grave lack of respect for
the Lord of all speech (CCC 2152). Pledging oneself to commit an evil deed is also sinful.
During his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks against sinners who give false oaths (Matthew
The Third Commandment, "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy"
Deliberate failure of the Sunday obligationThe Christian Sunday (the
Lords Day) celebrates the new life of the world born in Christs Resurrection.
All humans have a duty, to praise God and give him thanks. Thus all Christians are bound
to participate in the Mass, and must partake of the Eucharist at least on holy days of
obligation. Deliberate failure to do this constitutes a grave sin (CCC 2181).
The Fifth Commandment, "You shall not kill"
Murder (intentional homicide)Direct and intentional killing is gravely sinful
(CCC 2268). It is a sin that cries to heaven for vengeance, much like the murder of Abel
at the hands of Cain. Indirect homicide can also be of grave nature (such as refusing to
help a person in danger). However, the Church teaches that self-defense is permissible for
the preservation of a ones life. If the attacker is mortally wounded or killed, then
the death of the attacker is not a sin. Those who use unnecessary aggression
in self-defense can sin mortally, if the attacker is killed or gravely injured.
AbortionHuman life begins at conception in the mothers womb. For God
tells us, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew thee, and before you were born I
consecrated you" (Jeremiah 1:5). Abortion is therefore murder. The oldest Christian
book (besides parts of the Bible) is the Didache, a book composed by the twelve apostles
or their disciples. The Didache proclaims the ancient teaching of the Catholic Church,
"You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to
perish" (Didache 2,2). All Catholics who procure a completed abortion or participate
in execution of an abortion are automatically excommunicated from the Catholic Church (CCC
2272 and CIC Canon 1314).
EuthanasiaThe direct killing of the sick, handicapped, or dying, regardless of
motive, is a grave sin. The will and action taken to cause a persons death is an act
of murder (CCC 2277). Those who are suffering and are nearing death must be allowed to die
(or recover, which is sometimes a possibility) naturally. Administration of painkillers is
permissible, provided the drugs are not willed as an end or a means to precipitate death.
"Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or
disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of
overzealous treatment" (CCC 2278). In this case death is not willed, but is
merely accepted as inevitable and cannot be impeded.
SuicideSuicide is murder of the self. It is contrary to the love of God, self,
family, friends and neighbors (CCC 2281). It is of especially grave nature, if it is
intended to set an example for others to follow. Voluntary cooperation in a suicide is
also contrary to the moral law. However, the responsibility of and gravity of suicide can
be diminished in the cases of grave psychological disturbances, anguish, grave fear of
hardship, suffering, or torture. But this does not make it morally permissible, and it is
the judgement of God that will measure the gravity or responsibility of the sin.
ScandalScandal is an attitude or behavior that leads another to do evil. If
someone is deliberately lead into a grave offense, that persons tempter commits a
grave sin (CCC 2284 and 2285). Jesus said, "Whoever causes one of these little ones
who believes in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened
round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea" (Matthew 18:6).
Drug abuseDrug abuse does grave damage to health and life and is a grave
offense. Only legitimate therapeutic use is acceptable (CCC 2290).
GluttonyGluttony is an excessive love for food, and is a disordered passion
for wordly appetites. Because it is contrary to the virtue of temperance, it can
constitute a grave sin. Gluttony is also a capital sin (CCC 1866, 2290)
Alcohol AbuseAlcohol abuse can also be excessively dangerous and harmful to
the body, and sometimes to neighbors (CCC 2290).. Because it is also contrary to
temperance and is a disordered passion, it is a grave sin (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
TerrorismTerrorism that threatens, wounds and kills indiscriminately is of
grave matter (CCC 2297). Other forms of bodily violence (kidnapping, hostage taking,
non-medical amputations, mutilations and sterilization) are also contrary to the moral
Extreme Anger"Anger is a desire for revenge. If anger reaches the point
of a deliberate desire to kill or seriously wound a neighbor, it is gravely against
charity; it is a mortal sin (CCC 2302). Christ speaks against anger saying, "Everyone
who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement (Matthew 5:22)."
HatredHatred of a neighbor is to deliberately wish him evil, and is thus a
grave sin (CCC 2303 and Galatians 5:19-20).
ExtortionExtortion is to obtain something from another by coercion or
intimidation. It is an act of violence and theft, and is condemned by 1 Corinthians
The Sixth Commandment, "You shall not commit adultery"
TheftAll persons have a right to lawful private property obtained by
legitimate work, inheritance or gift. To violate a persons right to property by
theft is a grave sin, especially if the loss of the property will severely hurt the victim
(CCC 2408). The gravity of theft is determined by the harm it does to the victim. A poor
beggar who steals a loaf of bread commits a less grave sin than a rich man who steals the
savings of a destitute person. St. Paul tells us that thieves shall not inherit the
kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
Cheating A cheater defrauds his victim of their property. It is morally of
grave matter unless the damage to the victim is unusually light (CCC 2413).
Defrauding a worker of his wagesThis is one of the sins that cry to heaven for
vengeance. Defrauding a worker of his wages withholds and impedes his ability to sustain
basic needs for himself and his family. It is a sin that cries to heaven for vengeance
Unfair wagersUnfair wagers in games of chance are of grave matter if they
deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others (CCC
Taking advantage of the poorThe economic or social exploitation of the poor
for profit harms the dignity and natural rights of the victim. It is a sin that cries to
heaven for vengeance (CCC 1867).
- AdulteryAdultery is marital infidelity. A married person who has sexual
relations with anyone but their lawful spouse, even transient sexual relations, commits
adultery (CCC 2380).
- DivorceThe grave sin of divorce condemns those who divorce and remarry
(Matthew 5:32) and those who divorce in the civil sense (except by grave dispensation).
Hence divorce between two baptized Christians is a mortal sin (CCC 2384).
- FornicationFornication is carnal union between an unmarried man and an
unmarried woman and is a grave sin (CCC 2353). St. Paul condemns fornication in his
epistle 1 Corinthians 6:18. All aspects of intimate contact associated with the marriage
act also constitute fornication for Jesus said, "I say to you, everyone who looks at
a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew
9:28). If lustful looks are adulterous, how much worse is lustful physical contact?
- PornographyPornography is the display of intimate real or simulated sexual
acts to a third party. Because it removes the marriage act from within the sacramental
sanctity of marriage, and perverts sex, it is gravely contrary to charity (CCC 2354). The
display of pornography to children and other parties is especially gravely sinful because
it is gravely scandalous.
- ProstitutionProstitution reduces a person to an instrument of sexual pleasure
and lust. It is gravely contrary to charity and chastity and defiles the body, the temple
of the Holy Spirit. However, destitution, blackmail or social pressure can reduce the
gravity of the sin. Still, prostitution is always a sin (CCC 2355).
- RapeA person who commits rape violates the respect, freedom, physical and
moral integrity of the victim. It is a brutal crime of violence that can physically and
psychologically scar a person for life. It is thus a grave sin (CCC 2356).
- Homosexual actsAlthough it remains to be determined if homosexuality is a
genetic, social or personal stigma, homosexual acts are condemned by God and can NEVER be
approved by the Church (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Genesis 19:1-29, Romans 1:24-27 and CCC
2357). If homosexuals are born with the condition, then they are called to live a life of
Christian purity and chastity for the greater love of Christ. Such people can experience a
life of trial, which all others must treat with compassion and sensitivity.
- Incest"Incest is intimate relations between relatives or in-laws within a
degree that prohibits marriage between them" (CCC 2388). St. Paul condemns incest in
his letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 5:1,4-5).
- Masturbation"Masturbation is the deliberate stimulation of the sexual
organs in order to derive sexual pleasure" (CCC 2352). The Church teaches that sex
has two main purposes that must be sought in the marriage act: sex is for reproduction of
children within a valid marriage, and it is a loving, unifying act between husband and
wife. Masturbation violates both aspects of the natural law and is thus a grave sin.
- The Seventh Commandment"You shall not steal"
The Eighth Commandment"You shall not bear false witness against your
False witness and perjuryFalse witness is a public statement in court contrary
to the truth. Perjury is false witness under oath. Both acts are gravely sinful when they
condemn the innocent, exonerate the guilty or increase punishment of the accused. They are
of grave matter because they contradict justice (CCC 2476).
AdulationAdulation is verbal speech or an attitude that encourages or confirms
another in malicious acts and perverse conduct. It is a grave sin if it makes one an
accomplice in anothers vices or grave sins (CCC 2480).
LyingLying is the most direct offense against the truth. It is gravely sinful
when it significantly degrades the truth. The gravity of this sin is measured by the truth
it perverts, the circumstances, intentions of the liar and harm done to the victims (CCC
2484). Lying is a sin that originates from the devil, Satan, who is "the father of
all lies" (John 8:44).
The Ninth Commandment"You shall not covet
- LustLust is disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure.
It is disordered because sexual pleasure must not be isolated from its true, natural
place: within the Sacrament of Matrimony that is ordered to procreation of children and a
unifying love between husband and wife (CCC 2351). Lust, a sin and vice of the flesh, is
often a difficult vice to overcome. Human weakness of will and lack of conformity to God
is a result of the fall of mankind that causes a disorder between soul and body (called
concupiscence) which is often manifested in lust. Yet, lust is a sin that
can be overcome through prayer and grace through the Christian sacraments. Christ wills
that we overcome lust and replace it with Christian love and purity of heart (Matthew
9:28). "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8).
The Tenth Commandment"You shall not covet
anything that is your
- AvariceAvarice is greed and the desire to amass earthly goods without
limit. It is a passion for riches and luxury. Those who seek temporal happiness at the
expense of spiritual duties, risk the grave sin of avarice. Avarice is one of the deadly
vices (CCC 2536).
- EnvyEnvy, another capital sin, is sadness at the sight of anothers
goods and the immoderate desire to acquire them for oneself. Envy can lead to grave
consequences and can harm neighbors. If envy leads to grave harm to a neighbor, it is
surely a grave sin.
Offenses Against Faith
- Voluntary doubt of faithVoluntary doubt of faith is disregarding the
revealed truth of God and his Church (CCC 2088). Those who do this risk spiritual
blindness and loss of faith.
- Incredulity, heresy, apostasy, schismIncredulity is the neglect of
revealed truth or willful refusal to assent to it. Heresy is obstinate post-baptismal
denial of a truth that must be believed with divine and catholic faith. Apostasy is total
repudiation of the Christian faith. Schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman
Pontiff or communion with the members of the Church (CCC 2089). These sins strain or break
the bonds of unity with the offender and the Catholic Church.
Offenses Against Hope
- Despair in hopeThose who despair in hope, cease to hope in salvation from
God or help in attaining forgiveness of sin (CCC 2090). Christian hope sustains a
believers faith and dependence on God, and should not be neglected or rejected.
- PresumptionThe Church teaches of two types of sinful presumption: the
presumption that man can save himself without help from God and the presumption that
Gods power or his mercy will merit him forgiveness without repentance and conversion
Offenses Against Charity
- IndifferenceThis grave sin entails neglect or refusal on divine charity
(a.k.a. divine love). Those who sin in indifference fail to consider the goodness of
charity, and deny its power (CCC 2094).
- IngratitudeAn ungrateful sinner fails or refuses to acknowledge and return the
love and charity of God (CCC 2094).
- LukewarmnessLukewarmness is negligence in response to Gods charity. It
can also mean the refusal to give oneself to the prompting of charity (CCC 2094).
- Acedia (spiritual sloth)Spiritual sloth, a capital sin, is the refusal of joy
that comes from God. An sinner who indulges in acedia may even be repelled by divine
goodness (CCC 2094).
- Hatred of GodThis grave sin is born of pride and is contrary to the love of
God. A sinner who hates God willfully rejects him. Hatred of God refuses to acknowledge
and praise Gods goodness and obedience (CCC 2094).
Of course we must realize that this is certainly not a complete list
of sins. The sins that are listed above are those of grave matter that can become
mortal sins if they are done willfully and with full knowledge of their nature. Other sins
are of venial nature, and are less grave than the ones listed above.
What is venial sin?
As stated before, venial sin is a sin of lesser matter than grave sin. It can also be a
sin of grave matter in which the sinner did not fully consent to the sin or did
not have knowledge that his actions where sinful. Venial sins will not
destroy grace in the soul, and will not directly cause a person who dies in the state of
venial sin to lose the promise of heaven. Yet, venial sin weakens a persons will to
avoid evil and thus may indirectly lead to mortal sin. Regardless, all sin is an offense
against God and should be avoided.
All sins can be forgiven
A person who repents of their sin, intends to live a new life of grace, and receives
the Sacrament of Reconciliation will be forgiven of all their sins (mortal sins in
particular must be confessed in the Sacrament). Our sins can be forgiven, because Jesus
Christ paid for the price of human sin by dying on the cross for the redemption of
humanity. Jesus Christ, true man and true God, was the perfect sacrifice for human sin and
as a result saved those who are baptized, repent and believe in him.
Because a baptized Christian can still sin, Christ instituted the Sacrament of
Reconciliation for the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus gave the power to forgive sins in
his name to the Church. He told his apostles, "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins
you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained" (John
20:2223). This means that the apostles and their successors, the priests and bishops
of the Catholic Church, can forgive sins in Jesus name.
It is vitally important that Catholics confess sins on a regular basis, especially if
we are in the state of mortal sin. A person who dies in mortal sin cannot enter the
kingdom of heaven and is doomed to eternal suffering in hell. Even when we have not
committed mortal sin, we are still obliged to confess our sins at least once a year.
Christ, in perfect love, laid down his life so that we may be forgiven of our sins. The
sacrifice of the cross should not be neglected or taken for granted. Jesus died for the
life of the world and is thus the light of the world. "He that followeth me, walketh
not in darkness, but shall have the light of life" (John 8:12)
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