1. All sins are not equally great
Our Lord compares some sins to camels, others to gnats (Matt. xxiii. 24); or again He compares scone to motes, others to beams (Matt. vii. 3); He contrasts the depth of ten thousand talents with that of a hundred pence (Matt. xviii. et seq.) He said to Pilate: “He that hath delivered Me to thee hath the greater sin” (John. xix. 11).
1. A sin is all the greater the more important is the object it injures, the clearer the knowledge of the sinfulness of the deed, and the greater the liberty of action enjoyed by the doer.
In the first place, much depends on the value and importance of the object against which the evil act is directed. If God is thereby offended, it is much more sinful than if the offense were against our fellow-men. Or if it be directed against a man’s life, it is worse than if his property alone was attacked. A great deal depends also on the knowledge possessed of the sinfulness of the action. Sin is much greater in a Christian than in a heathen. If a priest commits a sin, it is worse for him than for an ordinary man, little versed perhaps in religions matters, because the priest has a closer knowledge of the will of God. Our Lord says: “The servant who knew the will of his lord and did not according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes; but he that knew not, and did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes” (Luke xii. 47, 48). The greater your knowledge, the more rigorously will you be judged, if your life is not holy in proportion to your knowledge. The more abundant the graces bestowed on yon, the more heinous your transgression. Finally, much depends upon whether a man has or has not been a perfectly free agent. Any one who was intimidated, or who was exposed to fierce temptation, is far less culpable than one who was free to act as he pleased. St. Peter’s denial was consequently a lesser sin than Judas’ betrayal of Our Lord.
2. Circumstances of person, cause, time, place, means, object, or the evil consequences of sin may enhance its guilt.
For instance: it is worse for a monarch to sin openly than for one of his subjects; offenses committed in the presence of several persons are graver than if they were done in secret; to work hard all day long on Sunday is more sinful than to work for one hour only. Robbery with violence is a greater sin than surreptitious purloining; to take from a poor man is a greater sin than to steal from a rich man. It is far more wrong to steal in church than out of it.
2. Many sins are so great that they separate us entirely from God, and deprive us of His friendship; they are called mortal or deadly sins. Sins of lesser moment are called venial sins.
Some diseases only weaken the bodily strength, others destroy life. It is the same with sin; some sins only impede the soul in her efforts to attain her final end, others again extinguish within her sanctifying grace, the life of the soul. In our intercourse with our friends, it often happens that some difference arises; if the offense is but slight it does not seriously affect our friendship; if it is grave, it puts an end to the friendship. Holy Scripture speaks of some sins whereby the grace of God is completely lost (as David’s sin), and of others into which the just man may fall seven times, that is frequently (Prov. xxiv. 16), without ceasing to be a just man (Council of Trent, 6, 11). Again, it speaks of sins which exclude from heaven, by which eternal punishment is incurred, and of others which have not these fatal consequences. St. Paul reckons among mortal sins, idolatry, murder, covetousness, drunkenness, etc. (1 Cor. vi. 9; Gal. v. 19.) In the present day there is no sin so grievous but it finds some ready to palliate and excuse it. Beware lest you be led astray by the false maxims of the world; hold fast by the word of God, the teaching of the Church. God, not the world, will one day be your judge. Mortal sin is so called because it causes the death of the soul; the soul does not, it is true, cease to exist, but it loses the presence of the Holy Ghost. As the body dies when the soul departs from it, so the soul dies when God departs from it. Thus mortal sin may to a certain extent be said to be spiritual suicide. Venial sin is so called, because it is easily forgiven. Yet venial sin must not be underrated. It cannot withdraw us from the way which leads to God, but it can arrest our progress in that way. Venial sin is, moreover, an offence against the infinite majesty of God. St. Jerome says no offence against Our Lord God, however slight, is to be thought of little moment. The destruction of the heavens and the earth would be a lesser calamity than one venial sin. Many theologians assert that the blood of all the martyrs and all their merits would not suffice to make satisfaction to the divine majesty for one venial sin; only the precious blood of Christ can do this.
Mortal and venial sin differ essentially from each other.
Mortal sin is like a severe wound, from which a man rarely recovers, whereas venial sin is a slight wound, which at the most makes him ill. By mortal sin the axe is laid to the root of the tree; by venial sin a cut is made in the bark, which may perhaps prove prejudicial to its growth.
It is an exceedingly difficult and dangerous matter to decide whether a sin is mortal or venial. Only one thing is certain:
Mortal sin is not possible unless God is no longer the final end towards which our intention is directed.
It is difficult and dangerous to decide what is mortal and what is venial sin. It is often impossible to determine about any act whether is a mortal or a venial sin. “Let no one presume,” says St Alphonsus, “to assert any sin to be mortal, unless he is quite certain it; otherwise he may lead men to despair, and even cast them into hell; instead of raising them out of the mire of sin, he will plunge them the deeper into it.” “No man can be guilty of mortal sin, unless God has ceased to be the centre towards which all his affections converge. Mortal sin is a turning away of our whole being from God, and a turning to creatures as our ultimate end.
3. He commits a mortal sin who consciously and of his own free will does grievous dishonor to God or wrong to his neighbor in a weighty matter; who does injury to his own life, or to the life, the property, or the reputation of his neighbor.
Idolatry, heresy, blasphemy, perjury, serious desecration of Sun days and holy-days, come under the category of mortal sins, because they are a direct affront to the majesty of God. To injure one’s health slightly through thoughtlessness is a venial sin; suicide is a mortal sin. A man who beats his neighbor commits a venial sin, but if he injures his body to any great extent, it is a mortal sin. To steal a halfpenny is a venial sin, to defraud one’s neighbor of a large sum of money is a mortal sin. To disclose the faults of another without necessity is a venial sin, but to lodge a false accusation against him is a mortal sin, because in that case the wrong done him is in an important matter. We cannot commit a mortal sin, unless we are conscious of the sinfulness of the act. Thus children who have no conception of the abominable nature of some act which as a rule is a mortal sin, cannot be guilty of grievous sin. It is also requisite that a man should act of his own free will. One who perhaps does a very sinful deed under the mastery of intense fear, having been intimidated by threats, can scarcely be said to have committed mortal sin. A man may also be so distracted in consequence of illness that he scarcely knows what he does. Beware then how you pass judgment upon your neighbor’s misdeeds; you are not omniscient!
4. He commits a venial sin who only injures something of trifling consequence; or who, though he injures something of great importance, injures it very slightly, or does so almost unconsciously and to some extent unwittingly.
Yet that which is ordinarily only a venial sin, may become a mortal sin; if, that is to say, great scandal is given thereby, or great harm done, or if the venial sin is committed out of contempt for the law.
Attacks upon religion or upon a man’s good name in the public journals can scarcely be reckoned as venial sins, as they give rise to great scandal and occasion no small mischief. If a man were to do wrong and say boastingly, I do it precisely because it is forbidden, he is guilty of grievous sin.
Venial sins if repeated may become mortal, if they are the means of doing great harm.
He who steals a trifling sum time after time from the same person does very wrong, if the small sums mount up to a considerable figure. As water that gradually filters through a tiny leak in the vessel finally causes it to sink, so venial sins affect the destruction of the soul. Many fibres of hemp twisted together form a strong rope fit to hold back a mighty ship; so a number of venial sins form a cord that keeps the soul back from journeying towards heaven.
5. All mortal sins are not of equal magnitude, nor are all venial sins of the same importance. The most heinous sins are the sins against the Holy Ghost, and those that cry to heaven for vengeance.
6. He commits a sin against the Holy Ghost who persistently and willfully resists the action of the Holy Ghost.
It often occurs in the course of one’s life, that the Holy Spirit in cites us to prayer or other good works, and by reason of distractions or the cares of this world we do not obey His voice. This is not, however, the sin against the Holy Ghost. That sin is only committed when a man persistently and willfully withstands the inspirations of the Holy Ghost and dies in an attitude of resistance to Him. The Pharisees and Scribes were perfectly aware that Christ was the Messias; they were convinced of it by the miracles He worked, by the excellence of His doctrine, by the sanctity of His life, by the fulfilment of the prophecies, by His own utterances, but their arrogant pride did not allow them to recognize Him, for then they would have been obliged to alter their lives. Although they knew better, they declared Him to be possessed of the devil (John viii. 48), His works to be the work of the devil (Matt. xii. 24), and persecuted Him as much as was within their power. Thus they resisted the known truth. King Pharao knew the exit of the Israelites from Egypt to be the will of the true God, from the intrepid conduct of Moses and the wonders he wrought; yet in spite of Moses admonitions he adhered to his own will. He hardened his heart against salutary exhortations. Freemasons will not allow a priest to approach them when they are on their death-bed. “They stop their ears, not to heat, and make their heart as the adamant stone” (Zach. vii. 11). They persist of set purpose in impenitence. The Holy Ghost acts like a man who finds his enemy asleep in the snow, and wakes him, lest he should die of cold. But the sleeper, far from being grateful for this act of kindness, thrusts away his benefactor, and settles himself again to sleep. Thus he who sins against the Holy Ghost, refuses to be aroused from his spiritual torpor by the influence of grace. He may also be likened to a sick man, who not only will not have his wounds healed, but accelerates his own death.
The sin against the Holy Ghost is for the most part the result of a wicked course of life.
It belongs essentially to mortal sin to darken the understanding, and alienate the will from God. The more sins a man commits, the more his understanding is darkened, and the more his will, already estranged from God, is hardened, until at length he finds himself in a deplorable state of blindness and impenitence. The soul is like a room of which the shutters are closed; sin prevents the light of the Holy Spirit from penetrating into it. Holy Scripture says of Pharao that God hardened his heart (Exod. ix. 12). That is, He allowed his heart to become obdurate, as the penalty of his sins. Like ill weeds, which not merely continue what they are in spite of fair Weather and fertilizing rains, but grow all the more rank on account of these favorable conditions, the wicked only become worse under the gracious influences of the Holy Spirit. A pillar that is straight stands all the firmer if a weight be placed upon it, but if once it leaves the perpendicular, pressure upon it will cause it to fall. So if the heart is upright, the teaching of wisdom confirms it in integrity, but the depraved heart only sinks lower in vice. A neglected education, bad books, or pride, are often the cause of the heart being closed against the action of the Holy Spirit. The heathen persecute missionaries and put them to death, because they are so blinded by idolatry that they will not renounce their foolish ideas. Anti-Christian periodicals are the means of prejudicing many of their readers against the doctrine and practice of holy Church. Pride caused the so-called Old Catholics to refuse to accept the dogma of Papal Infallibility when it was defined by the Vatican Council in 1870.
Whosoever has committed the sin against the Holy Ghost cannot obtain forgiveness of sin from God, and for this reason: Because he thrusts from him the grace of conversion.
Our Lord says: “The blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven, neither in this world or in the world to come” (Matt. xii. 32). The sick man cannot be cured of his malady if he refuses to take the remedy which is known to be unfailing; nor can the soul recover from its sickness if it reject grace, the infallible means of cure. Final impenitence is the only offense which God will not par don; it is a greater insult to Him than sin itself.
Those who sin against the Holy Ghost often come to a miserable end here, and are consigned to eternal damnation hereafter.
The sin against the Holy Ghost is not a sin of frailty, it is a sin of diabolical malice, and therefore it is deserving of more severe punishment. King Pharao, with all his army, was drowned in the Red Sea (Exod. xiv.); the Jews, who rejected and even killed the prophets (Matt. xxiii. 37), had to expiate their impenitence bitterly in the year 70, on the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, when there came upon them the tribulation Our Lord predicted, “such as had not been from the beginning of the world, neither shall be” (Matt. xxiv. 21). A clever physician continues to prescribe for his patient although his medicines produce no immediate improvement, trying to save him by every expedient his skill can devise; but if the patient cannot be induced to swallow the drugs, and even goes so far as to throw them out of the window, the physician discontinues his visits. God acts in a similar manner towards the sinner who resists actual grace; He forsakes him entirely. To him may be applied the words the prophet Samuel addressed to King Saul: “Because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, the Lord hath rejected thee” (1 Kings xv. 26). He who has committed the sin against the Holy Ghost cannot be saved, because at the hour of death he is without the in dwelling of the Holy Spirit and sanctifying grace. His spiritual condition is that of the reprobate.
7. Sins that cry to heaven for vengeance are sins of great malice. They are: willful murder, oppression of the poor, defrauding laborers of their wages, and the sin of Sodom.
These sins are of so abominable a nature, that every man’s feelings must revolt against them. When Cain killed his brother Abel, God said to him: “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth to Me from the earth” (Gen. iv. 10). Every nation on the face of the earth punishes murder with exceptional severity, generally by the execution of the criminal. The oppression of the helpless Israelites in Egypt was a sin that cried to heaven (Exod. iii. 7). The Pharisees were guilty of this sin; they oppressed the poor and prayed long prayers (Matt. xxiii. 14). God expressly forbade the Jews to injure the widow and orphan (Exod. xxii. 22; Ecclus. xxxiv. 26). To keep back the wages of the needy (Deut. xxiv. 14), is a sin that cries to heaven, also on some pretext or other to defraud them of the whole amount (Jas. v. 4). In the Middle Ages an action brought by a working man took precedence of all others in the law courts, and judgment was given within three days. The sin of Sodom takes its name from the inhabitants of Sodom, who were guilty of unnatural sins, by reason of which they were destroyed by God, Who rained down upon them brimstone and fire (Gen. xix. 24). The Dead Sea is still a mournful memorial of their sin; one so shameful that it must not be named among us.
In the present day sins that cry to heaven are sometimes committed by employers, in their conduct towards their defenseless workpeople.
Many employers make their people work in unhealthy and over crowded rooms, unheated in winter time; they do not allow them a proper interval for rest and for their meals; they do not pay them enough to enable them to live decently; they require of them more work than they can do, and of a kind which they have no right to demand of them. The exploitation and oppression of the laborer has in our day given rise to the abuses of social democracy.
8. A distinction must be made between venial sins and imperfections. Imperfections are faults which are due not to a bad will, but to human frailty.
Uncivil manners, lies told in joke, involuntary distractions in prayer, etc., are imperfections. “Venial sins,” says St. Francis of Sales, “arise from a bad will, imperfections do not.” But, although imperfections are not actually sins, yet they are wrong and ought to be avoided.
This article, THE COMPARATIVE MAGNITUDE OF SIN is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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