Here is the recent exchange between myself and a friend who is an Anglican priest on the issue of mortal and venial sins.
My responses will be in bold.
Thanks for your email. I don't see a system of penance in Scripture. (Basically, we are to repent and not do it again, like jesus tells in the woman in jn 8: "Go and sin no more!'") I would argue that the system of penance that you refer to evolved over time and was a development of the church, rather than something Jesus specifically commanded. I'm not saying that a system of penance is WRONG, per se, just that it was a product of the church.
That being said, I'm still not really a fan regarding the idea of "grading" sins. I've met many "Christians" (including loads of Catholics, but not exclusively Catholics) who belive that they are going to heaven because they are "good people." In other words, they really haven't committed any of the "big sins" (whatever those are), so they reason that they must be acceptable to God, as they are. Do you see my point? I think grading the sins actually ends up eroding the Scripture's emphasis upon grace. Tallying up mortal or venial sins does not make much sense to me, because, in the end, all of us are sinners who either accept God's grace or reject it. So, I still don't see how the distinction between mortal and venial sins would help me be a minister of grace.
Just because the exact word "penance" isn't in the Bible doesn't mean that the idea isn't in the Bible. For example, the word "Trinity" isn't in the Bible, but we profess belief in the Trinity today. Many things in the Church weren't defined until later due to the persecution they faced and the fact that they were busy being the Church!
The concept of penance goes hand in hand with confession, which all ties in with mortal and venial sins. It's all in the Bible. The Church didn't just make stuff up. They clarified doctrines along the line to make the teaching more explicit in order to combat heresies that were occuring, but never did the Church simply invent something. The Church over time kept to the teaching's of Christ passed down to the Apostles and then through the Kerygma of the Apostles to the bishops succeeding them and so on. This is called tradition. It's also part of Anglicanism's three-legged stool, so I'm sure it's not new to you. So to suggest that the Church just made something up as it went along would also suggest that the tradition that the Anglicans stand on is also invalid.
Now, that being said we can clearly see that confession is found in the Bible. In the OT whenever someone made a confession, they also had to make an act of atonement (penance). The same applies to Christians. Having to do penance for a sin doesn't take away from the grace of Christ, it is merely a way in which that grace is enacted. So by hearing confessions and issuing penance, you are being a minister of grace. As a priest, you act in persona Christi. It is one of the virtues of your ordination. Through Christ, you are ministering His grace. That is one of the reasons why Christ established the priesthood, in order to have ministers of His grace here on earth! And once again, it doesn't take anything away from the grace of Christ, because it is through Christ that you are able to minister.
The Church requires that we confess mortal sins, but someone who wants to grow in holiness will also confess venial sins as well. Unfortunately, as you have seen, many people aren't to worried about growing in holiness. I agree that the attitude of the people you describe is not good, but that doesn't mean that the doctrine of mortal and venial sins is false. You can't through out the baby with the bathwater! Rather we should be encouraging those people to live holier lives and confess all of their sins. As you suggested, how do they know that one of their small sins isn't a big one? That's why you should confess all of them.
How can we be sure if we've committed a mortal sin as opposed to a venial sin? That's the tricky part, as St. Thomas Aquinas talked about. Therefore we must confess all of our sins (the consequences are too great to mess around with figuring out which is which-yet that doesn't mean that there isn't a distinction). The people you have talked to (especially the Catholics) have undergone a poor catechesis! Unfortunately that has been the reality of the Catholic Church since many liberals have come out with their misinterpretation of what Vatican Council II actually said. That is why I want to be a theologian, to be able to educate Catholics better in their faith, as well as non-Catholics about the Catholic faith. The tide is turning too. I have seen many young people fervent in their faith who also know their faith. The same situation has happened in the Anglican Communion and more specifically in the Episcopal Church. The bad catechesis has led to outright revision of the basic doctrines of Christianity.
I feel like you aren't hearing what I am trying to say. I didn't say the IDEA of penance is not found in the bible; I said a FORMALIZED SYSTEM of penance is NOT found in the bible, but was developed later by the church. Notice that I am NOT saying that "the church made stuff up." Church doctrines and practices evolve over time, as Christians attempt to unpack the teachings of Jesus and apply them their situation, which always requires interpretation. (Even the Jews went through this process in unpacking the OT law, which resulting in the mishnah, a rabbinical commentary on the scriptures to help people apply the law to their everyday lives. And eventually the mishnah took on an authority of its own that was practically equal to the actual Scriptures.) That being said, I think it is necessary to realize that evolution does occur so that needed corrections can be made occasionally to bring the church back into closer alliance with the Scriptures. (I would argue that the Reformation was one such necessary correction! And maybe for some Catholics, Vatican II was a type of clarifying and standardizing church practice in a similar way.)
I still don't see a really helpful pastoral application for the concept of mortal vs. venial sins. In your last email, you said that trying to differeniate between the sins was not helpful (forget how you put it... too risky to attempt to differentiate between them?) So, if we have to confess all of our sins and all sins break relationship between us and God, what's the difference?
That being said, it's a good thing people like you have the desire to try and make all of this stuff more understandable to the average layperson!
I understood what you were saying and that was my whole point about Tradition. Everything doesn't have to be explicitly stated in the Bible. Sola Scriptura does not work! Anglicans don't believe in Sola Scriptura. In the 39 Articles, #34 On the Traditions of the Church it reads:
"Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the Traditions and ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God [which a formalized system of penance or the differentiation between mortal and venial sins is not], and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, (that others may fear to do the like,) as he that offendeth against the common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren."
It is a fact that the Fathers of the Church had a formalized system of penance. This came from Tradition. The very Tradition passed on from Christ. Just because it is not explicitly stated doesn't mean it is false. Many things are not explicitly stated. St. John wrote at the end of his Gospel:
"But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written" (John 21:25).
As for the pastoral application for the concept of mortal vs. venial sins, I can't provide an answer for you because I am not a priest. I will have to ask other priests and see what they say and get back to you.
If anyone has any input that would help me explain it to the priest any better, it would be very much appreciated!