Q - My question is regarding the distinction between mortal and venial sins. I have read (many times over) the description in the Catechism, specifically sections 1854-1864. I am still unclear about the definition of grave matter. How does a decent person know how to distinguish when a sin has moved from venial to mortal? Section 1858 of the Catechism seems to imply that violation of the Ten Commandments is a mortal sin. But aren't venial sins also violations of the Ten Commandments? Are sins on a continuum where the same act could be defined as mortal or venial depending on how the sin occurs, to whom its directed, etc? Is there a sample list of mortal vs. venial sins that could help clarify this for people?
A - Thanks for the question. Some sins are easy to define and others are borderline, so I will do my best to answer your question, but there may be times when the distinction seems unclear.
You are on the right track - the Catechism does say that violation of the Ten Commandments constitutes grave matter:
1858 "Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: "Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother." The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger."Still, how do we know for sure what constitutes grave matter? In regards to the Ten Commandments and grave matter, I would make the following points:
- The 10 Commandments do not exhaust the list of mortal sins.
- Not every single subjective violation of each of the Commandments constitutes a mortal sin. For instance, a 10 year-old child stealing a nickel from a rich man might violate the commandment to "not steal", but it is not mortal, because it is not grave matter.
- While each of the 10 Commandments might be mortal, the principles they imply might be an even better guide. This is why Jesus breaks open the 10 Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.
The gravity of the matter in each sin is based upon the harm done. Thus, the best way to sort through it all is in the confessional with a holy and wise priest. The good thing is that the longer we live, if we continue to inform ourselves about God, then the easier it is to distinguish what is grave and what is not.
So, while it is almost impossible to come up with a definitive list of sins that are mortal, here are some that should be confessed (pardon the randomness, I did it off the top of my head and from a few other lists):
- Despair in God's mercy
- Occult activity
- Divination / Using Magic
- Illegal Drug Use
- Intentionally getting drunk
- Defiant disobedience of your parents, for non-adult children
- Wanton destruction on another's property
- Lustful thoughts that are dwelt upon
- Pornography / Masturbation
- Homosexual Acts
- Abuse of the Poor / not giving to the poor
- Defrauding others of what they are due
- Serious Lies / Lying under oath (perjury)
- Bad-mouthing others / gossip
- Missing Mass on Sunday or a Holy Day
- Presumption of God's forgiveness
- Anger that has no justification
- Hatred of others
- Grave scandal
- Apostasy / Schism
- Divorce and re-marriage
- Spiritual Sloth
Confession is a beautiful thing. Go often.
I hope this helps.