Monday night during a Bible study that my wife and I participate in (we are the only Catholics, the rest being Anglican) there was a debate about whether or not there are distincitions between sins (i.e. venial and mortal). I made the assertion that there were venial and mortal sins, to which one of the girls in the group commented that the idea of venial and mortal sins is only a Catholic teaching. I replied that it was not just a Catholic teaching (or at least shouldn't be) since it is taught in the Bible.
I referred them to 1 Jn 5:16:
"If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal."
For some reason the plain words of the Bible didn't convince them.
So then I emailed them this post from EWTN.
St. Thomas Aquinas
First Part of the Second Part
Whether venial sin is fittingly condivided with mortal sin?
Objection 1: It would seem that venial sin is unfittingly condivided with mortal sin. For Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 27): "Sin is a word, deed or desire contrary to the eternal law." But the fact of being against the eternal law makes a sin to be mortal. Consequently every sin is mortal. Therefore venial sin is not condivided with mortal sin.
Objection 2: Further, the Apostle says (1 Cor. 10:31): "Whether you eat or drink, or whatever else you do; do all to the glory of God." Now whoever sins breaks this commandment, because sin is not done for God's glory. Consequently, since to break a commandment is to commit a mortal sin, it seems that whoever sins, sins mortally.
Objection 3: Further, whoever cleaves to a thing by love, cleaves either as enjoying it, or as using it, as Augustine states (De Doctr. Christ. i, 3,4). But no person, in sinning, cleaves to a mutable good as using it: because he does not refer it to that good which gives us happiness, which, properly speaking, is to use, according to Augustine (De Doctr. Christ. i, 3,4). Therefore whoever sins enjoys a mutable good. Now "to enjoy what we should use is human perverseness," as Augustine again says (Qq. lxxxiii, qu. 30). Therefore, since "perverseness" [*The Latin 'pervertere' means to overthrow, to destroy, hence 'perversion' of God's law is a mortal sin.] denotes a mortal sin, it seems that whoever sins, sins mortally.
Objection 4: Further, whoever approaches one term, from that very fact turns away from the opposite. Now whoever sins, approaches a mutable good, and, consequently turns away from the immutable good, so that he sins mortally. Therefore venial sin is unfittingly condivided with mortal sin.
On the contrary, Augustine says (Tract. xli in Joan.), that "a crime is one that merits damnation, and a venial sin, one that does not." But a crime denotes a mortal sin. Therefore venial sin is fittingly condivided with mortal sin.
I answer that, Certain terms do not appear to be mutually opposed, if taken in their proper sense, whereas they are opposed if taken metaphorically: thus "to smile" is not opposed to "being dry"; but if we speak of the smiling meadows when they are decked with flowers and fresh with green hues this is opposed to drought. In like manner if mortal be taken literally as referring to the death of the body, it does not imply opposition to venial, nor belong to the same genus. But if mortal be taken metaphorically, as applied to sin, it is opposed to that which is venial.
For sin, being a sickness of the soul, as stated above (Question , Article , ad 3; Question , Article ; Question , Article , ad 2), is said to be mortal by comparison with a disease, which is said to be mortal, through causing an irreparable defect consisting in the corruption of a principle, as stated above (Question , Article ). Now the principle of the spiritual life, which is a life in accord with virtue, is the order to the last end, as stated above (Question , Article ; Question , Article ): and if this order be corrupted, it cannot be repaired by any intrinsic principle, but by the power of God alone, as stated above (Question , Article ), because disorders in things referred to the end, are repaired through the end, even as an error about conclusions can be repaired through the truth of the principles. Hence the defect of order to the last end cannot be repaired through something else as a higher principle, asneither can an error about principles. Wherefore such sins are called mortal, as being irreparable. On the other hand, sins which imply a disorder in things referred to the end, the order to the end itself being preserved, are reparable. These sins are called venial: because a sin receives its acquittal [veniam] when the debt of punishment is taken away, and this ceases when the sin ceases, as explained above (Question , Article ).
Accordingly, mortal and venial are mutually opposed as reparable and irreparable: and I say this with reference to the intrinsic principle, but not to the Divine power, which can repair all diseases, whether of the body or of the soul. Therefore venial sin is fittingly condivided with mortal sin.
Reply to Objection 1: The division of sin into venial and mortal is not a division of a genus into its species which have an equal share of the generic nature: but it is the division of an analogous term into its parts, of which it is predicated, of the one first, and of the other afterwards. Consequently the perfect notion of sin, which Augustine gives, applies to mortal sin. On the other hand, venial sin is called a sin, in reference to an imperfect notion of sin, and in relation to mortal sin: even as an accident is called a being, in relation to substance, in reference to the imperfect notion of being. For it is not "against" the law, since he who sins venially neither does what the law forbids, nor omits what the law prescribes to be done; but he acts "beside" the law, through not observing the mode of reason, which the law intends.
Reply to Objection 2: This precept of the Apostle is affirmative, and so it does not bind for all times. Consequently everyone who does not actually refer all his actions to the glory of God, does not therefore act against this precept. In order, therefore, to avoid mortal sin each time that one fails actually to refer an action to God's glory, it is enough to refer oneself and all that one has to God habitually. Now venial sin excludes only actual reference of the human act to God's glory, and not habitual reference: because it does not exclude charity, which refers man to God habitually. Therefore it does not follow that he who sins venially, sins mortally.
Reply to Objection 3: He that sins venially, cleaves to temporal good, not as enjoying it, because he does not fix his end in it, but as using it, by referring it to God, not actually but habitually.
Reply to Objection 4: Mutable good is not considered to be a term in contraposition to the immutable good, unless one's end is fixed therein: because what is referred to the end has not the character of finality.
First Part of the Second Part
Whether mortal and venial sin differ generically?
Objection 1: It would seem that venial and mortal sin do not differ generically, so that some sins be generically mortal, and some generically venial. Because human acts are considered to be generically good or evil according to their matter or object, as stated above (Question , Article ). Now either mortal or venial sin may be committed in regard to any object or matter: since man can love any mutable good, either less than God, which may be a venial sin, or more than God, which is a mortal sin. Therefore venial and mortal sin do not differ generically.
Objection 2: Further, as stated above (Article ; Question , Article ; Question , Article ), a sin is called mortal when it is irreparable, venial when it can be repaired. Now irreparability belongs to sin committed out of malice, which, according to some, is irremissible: whereas reparability belongs to sins committed through weakness or ignorance, which are remissible. Therefore mortal and venial sin differ as sin committed through malice differs from sin committed through weakness or ignorance. But, in this respect, sins differ not in genus but in cause, as stated above (Question , Article , ad 1). Therefore venial and mortal sin do not differ generically.
Objection 3: Further, it was stated above (Question , Article , ad 3; Article ) that sudden movements both of the sensuality and of the reason are venial sins. But sudden movements occur in every kind of sin. Therefore no sins are generically venial.
On the contrary, Augustine, in a sermon on Purgatory (De Sanctis, serm. xli), enumerates certain generic venial sins, and certain generic mortal sins.
I answer that, Venial sin is so called from "venia" [pardon]. Consequently a sin may be called venial, first of all, because it has been pardoned: thus Ambrose says that "penance makes every sin venial": and this is called venial "from the result." Secondly, a sin is called venial because it does not contain anything either partially or totally, to prevent its being pardoned: partially, as when a sin contains something diminishing its guilt, e.g. a sin committed through weakness or ignorance: and this is called venial "from the cause": totally, through not destroying the order to the last end, wherefore it deserves temporal, but not everlasting punishment. It is of this venial sin that we wish to speak now.
For as regards the first two, it is evident that they have no determinate genus: whereas venial sin, taken in the third sense, can have a determinate genus, so that one sin may be venial generically, and another generically mortal, according as the genus or species of an act is determined by its object. For, when the will is directed to a thing that is in itself contrary to charity, whereby man is directed to his last end, the sin is mortal by reason of its object. Consequently it is a mortal sin generically, whether it be contrary to the love of God, e.g. blasphemy, perjury, and the like, or against the love of one's neighbor, e.g. murder, adultery, and such like: wherefore such sins are mortal by reason of their genus. Sometimes, however, the sinner's will is directed to a thing containing a certain inordinateness, but which is not contrary to the love of God and one's neighbor, e.g. an idle word, excessive laughter, and so forth: and such sins are venial by reason oftheir genus.
Nevertheless, since moral acts derive their character of goodness and malice, not only from their objects, but also from some disposition of the agent, as stated above (Question , Articles ,6), it happens sometimes that a sin which is venial generically by reason of its object, becomes mortal on the part of the agent, either because he fixes his last end therein, or because he directs it to something that is a mortal sin in its own genus; for example, if a man direct an idle word to the commission of adultery. In like manner it may happen, on the part of the agent, that a sin generically mortal because venial, by reason of the act being imperfect, i.e. not deliberated by reason, which is the proper principle of an evil act, as we have said above in reference to sudden movements of unbelief.
Reply to Objection 1: The very fact that anyone chooses something that is contrary to divine charity, proves that he prefers it to the love of God, and consequently, that he loves it more than he loves God. Hence it belongs to the genus of some sins, which are of themselves contrary to charity, that something is loved more than God; so that they are mortal by reason of their genus.
Reply to Objection 2: This argument considers those sins which are venial from their cause.
Reply to Objection 3: This argument considers those sins which are venial by reason of the imperfection of the act.
As Well as:
47: And that servant who knew his master's will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. 48: But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more. (Luke 12: 47-48).
The servant who did not know received a light beating (venial sin).
The one who did know received a severe beating (mortal sin).
This is what the Fathers of the Church have always believed and taught.
I found these as well from the Fathers of the Church:
"There are venial sins and there are mortal sins. It is one thing to owe ten thousand talents, another to owe but a farthing. We shall have to give an accounting for an idle word no less than for adultery. But to be made to blush and to be tortured are not the same thing; not the same thing to grow red in the face and to be in agony for a long time. . . . If we entreat for lesser sins we are granted pardon, but for greater sins, it is difficult to obtain our request. There is a great difference between one sin and another"
-Jerome (Against Jovinian 2:30 [A.D. 393]).
"Although the apostle [Paul] has mentioned many grievous sins, we, nevertheless, lest we seem to promote despair, will state briefly what they are. Sacrilege, murder, adultery, false witness, theft, robbery, pride, envy, avarice, and, if it is of long standing, anger, drunkenness, if it is persistent, and slander are reckoned in their number. Or if anyone knows that these sins dominate him, if he does not do penance worthily and for a long time, if such time is given him . . . he cannot be purged in that transitory fire of which the apostle spoke [1 Cor. 3:11–15], but the eternal flames will torture him without any remedy. But since the lesser sins are, of course, known to all, and it would take too long to mention them all, it will be necessary for us only to name some of them. . . . There is no doubt that these and similar deeds belong to the lesser sins which, as I said before, can scarcely be counted, and from which not only all Christian people, but even all the saints could not and cannot always be free. We do not, of course, believe that the soul is killed by these sins, but still they make it ugly by covering it as if with some kind of pustules and, as it were, with horrible scabs"
-Caesarius of Arles (Sermons 179:2 [A.D. 522]).
"For although in smaller sins sinners may do penance for a set time, and according to the rules of discipline come to public confession, and by imposition of the hand of the bishop and clergy receive the right of communion: now with their time still unfulfilled, while persecution is still raging, while the peace of the Church itself is not vet restored, they are admitted to communion, and their name is presented; and while the penitence is not yet performed, confession is not yet made, the hands Of the bishop and clergy are not yet laid upon them, the eucharist is given to them; although it is written, 'Whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.'"
-Cyprian, To the Clergy, 9 (16):2 (A.D. 250).
"All mortal sins are to be submitted to the keys of the Church and all can be forgiven; but recourse to these keys is the only, the necessary, and the certain way to forgiveness. Unless those who are guilty of grievous sin have recourse to the power of the keys, they cannot hope for eternal salvation. Open your lips, them, and confess your sins to the priest. Confession alone is the true gate to Heaven."
-Augustine, Christian Combat (A.D. 397).
If there are grievous sins, then there have to be others that are not as bad.
"While he is in the flesh, man cannot help but have at least some light sins. But do not despise these sins which we call 'light'; if you take them for light when you weigh them, tremble when you count them. A number of light objects makes a great mass; a number of drops fills a river; a number of grains makes a heap. What then is our hope? Above all, confession... "
-(St Augustine, In ep. Jo. 1,6: PL
Then I received this email:
The first thing I notice about the web-link you sent is that Mr. Donovan’s conclusion is not scripturally based:
“There are thus daily faults for which we must daily ask forgiveness (Mt. 6:12), for even the "just man falls seven times a day" (Prov. 24:16), and mortal faults that separate the sinner from God (1 Cor. 6:9-10) for all eternity.”
Note that whereas 1 Cor. 6:9-10 lists conditions which keep sinners from inheriting the kingdom of God, the very next verse says that these conditions can be changed and forgiven: “And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”
Donovan is just plain wrong when he says those mortal faults will separate the sinner from God for all eternity.
To which I replied:
I think what Mr. Donovan intended when he said that there are "mortal faults which separate the sinner from God for all eternity" was that if the mortal sins go unrepented the sinner is eternally separated.
The Corinthians repented of their sins and received baptism thus washing them clean and allowing them to be once again in the grace of Christ.
An unrepentent sinner who has committed a mortal sin goes to Hell (separated from God for all eternity).
However if a sinner dies that only has committed a venial sin, he can still go to Heaven.