Lent is a penitential time, which means we face up to our sinfulness and repent of them, so as to live more righteously in our relationships with God and others. My friend, not a Catholic, had some questions about the Catholic understanding of sin. In attempting to explain, I realized it was a good opportunity to clarify my own understanding. When we teach others, we learn our own faith and its teachings better.
What is Sin?
It’s best, I think, to begin with sin itself. What is it? Here is a good introduction from Joe Paprocki’s, A Well-built Faith: A Catholic’s Guide to Knowing and Sharing What We Believe. I have highlighted key points.
In case you haven’t noticed, talking about sin has gone out of style. Although we don’t want to wallow in our sinfulness, without some understanding of sin, we have no need to be saved! What we need is a healthy understanding of sin, a healthy dose of fear, a healthy dose of guilt, and above all, a healthy understanding of grace and mercy, which trump all of the above.
So let’s begin our understanding of sin by talking about grace. Grace is not something quantifiable. It is not something that we store up. Grace is a relationship—our relationship with God. When we are in the state of grace, we are in a healthy relationship with God, filled with God’s life.
Grace is not something that we earn. It is a gift from God. God graces us with his presence. We can either accept that relationship or we can ignore it; or worse yet, we can reject it. In Baptism, we have been gifted with God’s grace. We have been welcomed into an intimate relationship with the Divine. Any discussion of sin must begin with an understanding of grace.
Now, with grace as our backdrop, let’s talk about sin. Sin is the ignoring, injuring, or rejecting of our relationship with God. Since God has indicated clearly that loving him is inseparable from love of neighbor, we know that sin is also the ignoring, injuring, or rejecting of our relationship with others.
Kinds of Sin
According to the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, there is a variety of sins. Paragraph 393 states:
There are a great many kinds of sins. They can be distinguished accordng to their object or according to the virtues or commandments which they violate. They can directly concern God, neighbor, our ourselves. They can also be divided into sins of thought, of word, of deed, or of omission.
Another paragraph, 394, discusses the distinction between mortal and venial sins, which is a distinction based on gravity; that is, the seriousness of the sin. Joe Paprocki also talks about this when he writes:
When we ignore or injure our relationship with God or others, we call these sins venial, which means that they are less serious, but still harmful. When we reject our relationship with God and others, we call this mortal sin, because it “kills” the life of grace within us. For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must apply.
- It must be a very serious offense (serious matter)
- The person must know how serious the sin is (full knowledge)
- The person must freely choose to do it anyway (full consent)
What the Bible says about degrees or levels of sin.
My friend wants some Biblical evidence that there are distinctions concerning sin. The Bible certainly supports the notion that there are varieties of sin. A Catholic friend of mine maintains a website where he posted the following information that addresses this very idea. In the following lengthy quote I have highlighted some important points.
In an effort to avoid being judgmental, some Christians insist that all sins are alike in God’s eyes–that no particular sin is worse than another. But the Bible clearly teaches otherwise.
Many of God’s laws for the ancient Israelites, along with the punishments prescribed for breaking those laws, are found in Leviticus. The sanctions God commanded ranged in severity, reflecting the range of gravity in the various sins they punished. For example, if someone tried to defraud another person, the punishment was restitution of what had been stolen or unjustly held, plus a portion of the object’s value (see 5:20-24). But is someone committed a grave sin such as incest, adultery, or idolatry, the death penalty was prescribed (see chapters 18-20).No doubt Christians are not subject to all of the Old Testament laws. Nevertheless, these and other biblical passages demonstrate that the degree of guilt incurred through sin can vary–that some sins are indeed more serious than others. Of course, our modern legal system and even common sense assume the same reality: The legal consequences of a petty theft are not nearly as severe as those of a murder.
In the New Testament as well, Scripture offers numerous examples of differential reward and merit, which implies varying degrees of sin (see Mt 16:27; Rom 2:5-13; 1 Cor 3:8-9; 1 Pt 1:17; Rv 22:12). Jesus, for example, distinguishes between those who “shall be beaten severely” from those who “shall be beaten only lightly” (Lk 12:47-48).
No sin is ever a good thing, of course, yet not all sins are equally evil in God’s eyes. Otherwise, we would face an absurd scenario: A momentary pang of lust or jealousy would be the moral equivalent, before God, or rape or murder.
More specifically, Scripture teaches that not all sins lead to spiritual death–that is, damnation …. This is the basic distinction between mortal (spiritually deadly) sins and venial (lesser) sins: “There is such a thing as deadly sin… All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly” (1 Jn 5:16-17). The Church’s teaching that certain conditions may lessen guilt of even a serious sin (such as ignorance of fault) is rooted in Scripture as well (see Lv 4:27; Lk 12:47-48).
Joe Paprocki discusses the role of mercy in living a moral life, which, by the way, is an act of worship. Here is what Joe says about mercy in relation to grace and sin.
Our discussion of sin does not end here. The first word of our discussion about sin was grace and the last word of this discussion is mercy. We begin and end with God. Sin is what gets in between grace and mercy. Unfortunately, when we think of the word mercy, we often think of someone groveling before an evil villain, crying out for his or her life to be spared. God’s mercy does not have to be begged for. It is offered to us as a gift. Mercy is another word for compassion or kindness that is directed toward the offender. Mercy is what God always offers to us, despite our offenses. Sin is not the end of the story. Mercy is what awaits us. God’s merciful love calls us out of sin and redeems us—saves us, delivers us—from every evil and restores us to grace. When we respond to God’s mercy with repentance and contrition, we are restored to grace; our relationship with God is deepened. When we pray for God’s mercy, we are praying for the grace we need to accept that which God is always offering.