The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 43, No 3, May-June 1990

Theology for the Laity


By Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.

A considerable portion of these reflections is more or less a digest of one section of Pope John Paulís Apostolic Exhortation "Reconcilliation and Penance."

In a sense the above question was answered in part in our last issue when we spoke of the "crisis of faith" in the Church. For with the loss of, or the weakening of, the gift of faith there is a gradual loss of the sense of God, and an increasing attempt to lead oneís life and attain oneís goals without God. And with the loss of this sense of God, there is a corresponding loss of the sense of sin which is an offense against God.

"But," it might be asked, "doesnít oneís conscience point out what is right and what is wrong?" Our conscience is precisely one of the casualties of the loss of faith, for when we are no longer guided by the light of faith -- which is the wisdom of God, we gradually come to accept the wisdom of the world. As Pope John Paul 11 pointed out in his Apostolic Exhortation RECONCILIATION AND PENANCE, "When conscience is weakened, the sense of God is also obscured, and as a result, with the loss of this decisive point of reference, the sense of sin is lost."

With our already weakened will, obscured judgment and inclination to evil due to original sin, and these guiding powers further obscured and weakened by personal sin, it is not difficult to see how the Evil One -- who is far more intelligent and clever than we -- can gradually bring us more and more under his influence.

Objectively, the law of God seems to be disregarded on a universal scale as never before in human history. And yet the "sense of sin" seems to be noticably absent in so many of those who disregard Godís laws. And even of those who have the gift of faith, a considerable percentage seem to have little consciousness of sin, if we are to judge from the neglect of the sacrament of penance or reconciliation.

In line with this, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote recently:


When we consider the worldly atmosphere in which we live, we can understand the uphill struggle it is to maintain (with the help of Godís grace) a sense of God, a true conscience, and an awareness of sin. Referring to the present-day loss of the sense of sin, our Holy Father lists the following causes:

  1. The secularism of our culture: Secularism is a system of ideas and behavior which advocates a way of life totally without God. The secular humanism which permeates much of the culture of our times has no place for God, for the supernatural, for an after-life, and is caught up with the quest for worldly gain, power and pleasure. What is recognized as sin is reduced mainly to what offends man.

    In addition to those who do not believe in the existence of God, there are many who do not deny His existence, but in practice eliminate Him from their daily lives as if He did not exist. With the disappearance of an awareness of the fatherhood of God, there is lost an awareness of the brotherhood of man, with the consequent lack of awareness and concern about injustices against oneís neighbor. "It is vain," said the Holy Father, "to hope that there will take root a sense of sin against men and human values, if there is not a sense of sin against God -- namely the true sense of sin.

  2. Errors in human sciences: Another reason for the lessening of the sense of sin in todayís society, the Holy Father points out, are "errors made in evaluating certain findings in the human sciences." On the basis of certain affirmations of psychology, he said "concern to avoid creating feelings of guilt or placing limits on freedom leads to a refusal ever to admit of any shortcoming."

    Again, through an undue extension of the criteria of sociology . . . all failings are blamed upon society and social structure, and the individual is declared innocent of them.

    Too, the Holy Father pointed out, a "certain cultural anthropology so emphasizes the undeniable environmental and historical conditioning and influences which act on man, that it reduces his responsibility to the point of not acknowledging his ability to perform truly human acts, and therefore his ability to sin."

  3. Moral Relativism: As should be clear from our consideration of "situation ethics" in our last issue, the sense of sin will decline in any system of ethics which makes moral norms depend on personal judgment of the situation at hand, and not on unchanging external norms. This moral relativism, said the Holy Father, "may take the form an ethical system which which the moral norm, denying its absolute and unconditional value, and as a consequence denying that there can be intrinsically illicit acts, independent of the circumstances in which they are performed by the subject. Herein lies a real overthrowing and downfall of moral values."

    An effect of this relativism, the Holy Father pointed out, is "such a diminution of the notion of sin as almost to reach the point of saying that sin does exist, but no one knows who commits it."


In the strict sense, sin is a personal act, a free and deliberate act on the part of an individual, and not of a group or community. The individual may be influenced by various external factors that might lessen to some extent his freedom and therefore his responsibility; but the Holy Father points out:

Yet, at the same time, we can speak of "social sin" in the sense that practically every sin has social consequences, not only in relation to human society in which we live, but also and especially in relation to the supernatural society of which we are members - the Mystical Body of Christ. Every act of virtue helps to build up the Body of Christ, and every sin is in some way detrimental to it. Speaking of this, the Holy Father said:

Yet, the Holy Father points out that while all should be conscious of the social consequences of their acts, the concept of "social sin" is sometimes applied today in a way that distorts the truth and leads to a watering down of personal sin, with the recognition only of social guilt and responsibility:

When the Church condemns "social sins," she is condemning the personal sins of those who cause or support the evil situation or exploit it.


The Pastoral Research Committee of the National Catholic Council of Bishops recently made a study of why the use of the sacrament of penance has so declined. The results of their study indicated that the most important factors for the disuse of the sacrament are: 1) a less dominant sense of sin; 2) a lack of clarity about the true nature of sin; 3) confusion about what is morally right or wrong; 4) disagreement with the Churchís moral teaching. We will dwell a bit on the second above-mentioned factor.


We are all familiar with the traditional definition of sin that goes back to St. Augustine - as any thought or desire, word, deed or omission contrary to the law of God. We are familiar, too, with the distinction between mortal (grave) and venial sin; yet as the Bishopsí report indicates, there is often confusion as to what they are in practice. We can define or describe sin in various ways, but it will still remain for us a mystery until we can know without obscurity the God Whom we offend. No matter how we define it, our definition or description will convey little to us as to its horrible reality. We will look first at mortal sin, especially as seen in its consequences:

  1. Mortal Sin: Pope John Paul, speaking of grave sin, describes it in these words: "We call mortal sin the act by which man freely and consciously rejects God, His law, the covenant of love that God offers, preferring to turn in on himself or some created and finite reality, something contrary to the divine will . . . This can occur . . . in every disobedience to Godís commandments in grave matter." (emphasis ours)

    We can see in the Popeís description the three conditions traditionally listed for mortal sin: 1) it is a rejection of Godís will, Godís law - in some grave matter; 2) it must be known to be grave; 3) there must be full consent of the will to this known grave evil. While the exercise of the virtue of charity unites us with God by conforming our will with His, grave sin separates us from God by opposing His will. For this reason grave sin is the greatest evil that can befall man here and now. It is called mortal because by it man incurs spiritual death. One thereby voluntarily separates himself from God, losing the divine life of grace and the store of merit that he had acquired up to that moment. He is rendered incapable of gaining merit for any good work until he returns to God through true repentance. As the branch cannot live if separated from the vine, so the soul is spiritually dead as long as it is separated from God. (Jn. 15:5)

    A little reflection by way of contrast, will give some idea of how great is the misfortune of mortal sin. One who is in the state of grace is a child of God, a sharer in His divine nature, a temple of the Holy Spirit, an heir of heaven, a living member of the Mystical Body of Christ - sharing in the redeeming merits of Christ the Head, and capable of further growth. Yet, one in the state of mortal sin, by deliberately turning away from God, has forfeited all the above blessings, seeking some passing satisfaction forbidden by God, some "forbidden fruit." God is thereby rejected and the Evil One is enthroned in His place until the sinner repents and turns back to God. "He who is not with Me is against Me." (Mt. 12:30) As some of the saints have testified, if one could see the hideous state of a soul turned from God in mortal sin, it would horrify him beyond what words can express.

    Our Blessed Lord made it clear that we cannot serve two masters; yet in mortal sin man tries to do just that. St. John in his first epistle lists our main stumbling blocks in this regard under three general categories: the "lust the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life." (2:16) As to the first of these, the carnal man turns from God to the satisfactions of the body. As to the second, the avaricious man turns from God to material gain. As to the third, the proud man, turning from God, turns in on himself seeking unduly his own exaltation, refusing to subject himself to God. The first two of these are in pursuit of a false happiness, seeking to serve two masters. The third, seeking his own excellence apart from God, and seeing Godís word as a limitation of his freedom and self- exaltation, can even end up making no pretense of serving two masters, but saying in effect with the Evil One "I will not serve."

    Mortal sin, then, is the preference of some passing forbidden satisfaction (e.g. bodily pleasure, worldly wealth, glory, power, etc.) to the Infinite Good Who is God. It is the gravest injustice, because God the Creator has the strictest right to the obedience of His creatures. It is especially an offense against Godís love, a deliberate refusal to return the love of One Who loved us first with an infinite love. It is an abuse of our God-given freedom, given so that we might merit an eternal reward by freely submitting to Godís commandments.

  2. Venial Sin: Listed above were the three conditions needed to make a sin mortal. If any one is lacking, the sin is venial. It can be seen, then, that there is an extremely wide latitude as to the gravity of venial sin. Yet, unlike mortal sin, venial sin does not cause the loss of the divine life of grace, nor does it lessen the degree of charity in the soul. It does, however, lessen the fervor of charity, which makes the will less inclined to the exercise of that virtue. If such failings are frequent and fully deliberate, they give rise to habits and undue attachments to worldly satisfactions that make the exercise of virtue more difficult. While both mortal and venial sin share the common name of sin, there is an infinite distance between them, for the first involves a certain infinite evil - being a deliberate grave offense against a Person of infinite majesty and glory and power and love. For this reason, venial sins, no matter how numerous can never equal a mortal sin. Yet, repeated deliberate venial sins can and do dispose to mortal sin. When one frequently yields to selfish impulses, they can, in time of stronger temptation draw one into grave sin.

    It is customary to speak of venial sin as a light sin as opposed to grave. It would be a grave error, however, to understand this in the sense that it is something of little importance, something that one need not be disturbed about. Venial sins - such as most of us commit daily (little failures of impatience, subtle forms of selfishness, of pride, of uncharity) are failures to accept the will of One who loves us with an infinite love. One who deeply loves another strives to avoid even the little things that offend or displease that person. How much more should that be our attitude towards our Divine Savior. As St. Teresa of Avila asks: "Can anything be small if it offends God?"

    Theologians describe as "lukewarm" one who strives to avoid grave sins, but is little concerned about the little failures of each day. Spiritual writers compare such a one to a man who retains his strength but is partially bound, or to a lamp that cannot give full light because the lampshade is covered with carbon and dust.

    It is important to distinguish between: a) venial sins of human frailty, failures we ask Godís pardon for and are trying to overcome, but which, because of human weaknesses, seem to continue with a certain regularity; and b) venial sins that are fully deliberate, i.e. about which we are doing little or nothing to overcome. The former can be found in a soul making progress, for God can bring good out of them - if they occasion true contrition and a renewed effort to overcome them. The laker, on the other hand, indicate the "lukewarm", and gradually lessens the sense of God and the sense of sin of which we have been speaking.


Sanctifying grace and charity in the soul establish a friendship between the indwelling Divine Persons and the individual soul. As grace grows that friendship deepens, with a growing willingness to sacrifice (on the part of man) that Godís will be done. This growth is accompanied by a growing desire to avoid even the little things that displease Him.

Sin should be seen in the light of that friendship. Fully deliberate venial sins stifles its growth; mortal sin destroys it completely. One will never arrive at a deep sense of sin if there is not a growing awareness of Godís immense love for us - who is so offended by sin - and a concern to return His love by doing His will. "You are my friends if you do the things I command you." (Jn. 15:14)

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