The Question of Sin

Fr. Peter Dugandzic
Lent 2012, revised and updated Spring 2012
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In an age in which personal autonomy has become the standard for ethical decision-making by many Americans, the correct understanding of Sin in the objective order has all but disappeared in discussions of morality. Secular humanists balk at the concept of Sin and dismiss it as an attempt by the Church over the centuries to mire people in guilt and keep them suppressed. In this now widely accepted approach to life, any talk of absolutes or universal codes of moral conduct are quickly dismissed. The result has been a multiplication of personally developed “codes by which to live.” The value most often applaud today is that someone has developed a personal code and consistently lives by it. Such is the basis for many of the “teaching narratives” told in television shows, movies, and popular books. By combining a variety of “ethical” sources, every individual is able to develop a personal code and standard by which to live and apply it when making decisions. They are considered exemplary individuals who have a code and remain faithful to it in all things. Such codes are often “rules” taken from mentors and/or derived from life experiences while showing no partiality to any one set of traditional rules. In a world that values relativism, having the conviction to establish one’s own set of rules is laudable. This approach to life is upheld in the name of freedom and self-determination. Standardized rules and civil or religious codes have a place but the important factor is that the rules are “owned” by the individual and thus internalized by the person.

This is not to say that secularists do not believe there are some standards and laws that apply to everyone. Even ardent relativists know that anarchy would ensue if every individual did not live within certain social parameters. In this regard, a relativist has no problem with prohibitions against depriving another human being of his or her life. Thus, murder should be forbidden and there must be laws to enforce it. But what if someone is suffering and wants to die? What if someone is in a coma with no hope of recovery? What if the life in question was conceived through rape or incest? What if a person is a menace to others and terrorizes a community? Could depriving another of his or her life be justified in some cases? What if someone has a code that says it is necessary to kill another if there is a higher good that can come from it? Mired in such casuistry, the relativist is forced to conclude that there cannot be an absolute prohibition against killing another human being and each case will have to be evaluated through the lens of all the subjective factors involved.

Living in the relativist milieu has impacted the thought process of everyone exposed to it, whether an individual is aware of it or not. Today, unlike any other period in history, the relativist worldview is ubiquitous. Coming out of what was once a mostly covert push to cultivate the relativist approach to ethical decision-making, secularists are now claiming success in eliminating Christian thought or Catholic teaching with regard to morality. Because they live within this milieu, many Catholics today have completely lost the sense of Sin to the point where they become puzzled when it is suggested to them that they repent and live a life of holiness. To even suggest to someone that he or she should go to the Sacrament of Penance usually results in his or her eyes rolling back and an outright rejection of doing something so primitive. The most common expression many offer in response is that they are basically a “good” person and try to do “right” by everyone (i.e., treat everyone according to a personal code). It is these same people who will also respond by saying, “it’s not like I have killed anyone,” as if murder were the only sin one could commit. For the most part, the average person today tends to accept the maxim that any action can be justified so long as it does not harm someone else.

Even Catholics who go to the Sacrament of Penance regularly struggle in correctly identifying their sins and usually confess them shrouded in circumstantial terminology. While he or she may know that getting angry is a sin, the penitent usually wants to justify a particular instance of it by relating what the other person did that deserved an angry response. Without thinking about it, the person has followed a relativist approach in confessing his or her sin. The logic is, “I was angry because of what he did to me. He deserved it. Anyone would get angry in that circumstance. Therefore, what I did was not really wrong but I will confess it anyway.” In many ways, most Catholics today have been formed to think in consequential, circumstantial, and subjectivist terms. Any semblance of an objective order that informs and guides human action has been lost in the world today.

Because such has become the case, it is imperative for Catholics to rediscover what Sin is in the objective order and how it manifests itself in our lives. No one can be content with thinking that sins are not committed. Where the problem lies is that most no longer probe the depths of human existence, which requires a discussion of the objective order established by God. Many today are content with a form of minimalism in his or her approach to all things, especially with those that deal with an objective approach to moral living. Rather than ask the hard questions and work toward understanding and living out the equally difficult response, many prefer simple answers that present little or no restriction to his or her personal autonomy. This essay will present an overview of the Church’s Teaching on the correct understanding of Sin and its kinds, the committing of which is a real possibility within human freedom. To be truly free, one must accept that there is an objective order established by God and only those who embrace and fully incorporate that order into his or her life will be able to realize the fullness of human autonomy.



Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. As we do each year, we begin the season with a reminder of our mortality, that is, a reminder of our inevitable death, and, in light of the unavoidable day when that mortality is realized, our need for true and lasting repentance. While we should be should be spiritually prepared for the moment of our death at all times, the Church in Her wisdom gives us the Season of Lent each year as a stark reminder and communal opportunity to acknowledge our sins and do something about them. As Blessed Ashes are imposed on a person’s forehead, one of two formulae will be invoked in order to remind the penitent what the Ashes symbolize and, quite frankly, the whole reason for the action of Christ on the Cross and existence of the Church. While it would be ideal to hear both when we receive the Ashes, since they imply one another, only one is invoked.

The first formula is, “Remember, O Man, you are dust and to dust you shall return!” These words are important and are meant to invoke introspection and prayer on the part of the recipient. For sure, no one likes to dwell upon his or her own mortality or the fact that he or she will “return to dust” one day. In fact, to the modern ear this formula can be construed as being somewhat morbid and should be avoided because dwelling on death inhibits one from living this life to the fullest. In an age where the preservation and longevity of earthly life has improved tremendously, all of us are given the impression we can avoid physical death, which is a false promise given by modern science. The reality is that physical death is in everyone’s future. While the body can be “repaired” and “sustained” for a period of time, even the best medicine cannot prevent the inevitable. Despite its inevitability, Catholics have always been a people of hope. For those who believe and follow the ways of Christ, physical death is not an end but a new beginning. Thus, what we work toward in this life is avoiding a spiritual death, which can render us incapable of attaining eternal life with God. Thus, explicit in this formula is the reason why we must repent and reform our lives – some day we are going to “return to dust” and be Judged. Our hope, and every moment of our earthly life, is that we be found worthy when that moment comes. The hard part is that no one knows when that day will be and therefore the ongoing proclamation of the Church has always included an encouragement to be prepared for death at all times.

The second formula is, “Repent and be faithful to the Gospel!” These words parallel the first words of St. Peter on the Day of Pentecost when, after the great manifestation of the Spirit and when he was asked by his Jewish listeners what they should do. He replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins.” Thus, in this second formula, what was implicit in the first is made explicit, while what was explicit in the first is now implicit. The whole of our time in this life should be about turning from Sin, that is, repenting and preparing our souls for Judgment. In being called to live faithfully the Good News of Salvation, we are reminded that what it takes to be found worthy of eternal life with God at the Judgment is not under our dominion and therefore requires an ascent of faith on our part. Jesus Christ, the fullness of revelation and the archetype of human perfection, is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. In Christ, God has revealed what is required for Man to be found worthy and has given Him all the tools necessary to achieve eternal life.

In this regard, what makes one unworthy of God and liable to condemnation is Sin. From the time of Adam and Eve until now, Man has been prone to and tainted by Sin. While the culpability for Original Sin is removed in Baptism, every individual that comes into existence remains prone to commit actual sins during his or her lifetime. Even though it is possible to resist the inclination to sin and the various temptations that come along in life, many often fall prey to this inclination and find they are no longer in a State of Grace. The first step to repentance is to admit this fact, especially admitting the actual sins committed and working to turn from them. An important part of the process is to know which freely willed human acts are sinful and then working to cultivate powers, known as the virtues, to assist in avoiding them. Essential to this “turning” and “cultivating” process is the Sanctifying Grace received in the Sacrament of Penance, which is the only way a sinner, after Baptism, can return to a State of Grace. Unfortunately today, many Catholics do not believe they commit actual sins or are under the false impression that no one will be condemned to hell at the Final Judgment. This error has left many vulnerable to judgment as more and more lose the sense of personal Sin and its effects. This loss is real and will be briefly discussed in the next section.

The Lost Sense of Sin

The Lost Sense of Sin

Anyone alive today should consider himself or herself as tremendously blessed and fortunate because we live in an era so thoroughly permeated by virtue and holiness. This must be the case because, at least perceptually, Sin has been eradicated and the need for the Sacrament of Penance practically eliminated. Proof of this trend can be supported by a 2008 survey that found only 25% of American Catholics go to Confession at least once each year, which is the bare minimum to fulfill the second precept of the Church. Even more astonishing is that over 75% of all Catholics admitted they never go to Confession or have not gone in years. However, the figure drops for those who attend Holy Mass weekly. In this category, as many as 40% admitted they have not received the Sacrament for many years. In this latter category of so-called “practicing” Catholics, more than half believe that one can still be a “good” Catholic without going to Confession at least once a year, which contradicts Church Teaching.

In asking a Catholic who has not been to the Sacrament of Penance for a long time why he or she does not go, the response is usually something to the effect, “I am basically a good person and do not commit any sins.” Thus, we must exclaim with joy, “how blessed we are to be alive during this era of sanctity and holiness!” In this regard, previous generations of Catholics must have sinned more because almost everyone went to Confession weekly and even the greatest saints of our Tradition admitted they went to Confession at least several times each month. In fact, in previous generations, if someone had not been to the Sacrament of Penance for even a few weeks, he or she would refrain from receiving Holy Communion until the situation could be remedied. Therefore, on the basis of these statistics we must conclude that something has changed because a majority of Catholics do not receive the Sacrament of Penance regularly yet almost everyone receives Holy Communion every time they attend Mass. In light of this trend, the question we must ask is, “what has changed?”

In reflecting on this growing trend, it is good to turn to the Sacred Scriptures for insight. In the First Letter of St. John (1 John 1:8-9) we read:

If we say, “We are without sin,” we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.

Indeed, we know well of God’s Divine Mercy and that His mercy is offered for our sake. Yet, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “To receive His mercy, we must admit our faults.” In this we find the first step on the way to Reconciliation with God – we must acknowledge we are sinners and confess the sins we have committed. Yes, Jesus died for our sins, once for all. His Blood poured out is the font of Sanctifying Grace our souls need to be cleansed of Sin. But His Sacrifice on the Cross does not mean that we are relieved from our responsibility to continually examine our consciences, repent of the sins we have committed, and reform our lives according to the Gospel. After acknowledging our sinful nature and the actual sins we have committed, the next step is to be absolved from the culpability for them in the Sacrament of Penance, which is still necessary despite the fact that many Catholics do not believe they need it.

As already noted, the real question at hand is, “what has changed in recent years?” What is so different today that could lead one to claim he or she does not sin? What has lead so many to lose the true sense of sin in such a short time? This trend is the result of what has been identified as an era of catechetical failure (or as Cardinal Dolan called it, a time of catechetical illiteracy) in the Catholic Church. This failure began more than 50 years ago and represents a period in which Catholics have not been taught the Splendor of Truth about the Catholic Faith and this has been particularly so regarding morality. Couple this failure with the growing imposition of the secularist worldview and we find the reason there are so many poorly formed consciences. Flowing from this, however, many Catholics are now vulnerable to the wiles of the devil who, as St. Peter tells us, “is like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”

Thus, it is not that Catholics are sinning less but no longer have the proper understanding of what sin is. For too long there has been a misunderstanding with regard to Sin within Catholic circles, a misunderstanding that spreads exponentially with each generation. This misunderstanding has been worsened by the modern dependence on relativism as the approach to ethical reasoning. Although this approach has been condemned by the Magisterium, there are Catholic theologians who have adapted and incorporated it into their own approach. Without a correct understanding of what Sin is, which requires a movement from the subjective to the objective approach to reality, a person is left incapable of making a proper examination of conscience. In the next section, more will be said about the correct understanding of Sin in the objective order as established by God.

Sin and the Objective Order

Sin and the Objective Order

Among the more serious errors that has lessened the sense of sin during the era of catechetical failure has been the correct understanding of the “sources” that determine the morality of human acts. Especially during the latter half of the twentieth century, there were Catholic Moral Theologians espousing approaches to morality that opened the way to “subjectively” justifying immoral acts. These errors gave rise to moral theories known as proportionalism and consequentialism, theories that resemble those found in secular approaches. These errant theories were fueled by the “dictatorship of relativism” in that they gave more weight to subjective factors rather than objective criteria in moral deliberation. Despite the fact that these theories seriously departed from the Tradition, throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s these theories were being taught in some seminaries and prestigious Catholic universities in lieu of authentic Catholic Teaching on morality. Thus, generations of priests and Catholics accepted and were formed in these mistaken approaches to moral living. The result has been an overemphasis on a person’s intention or circumstances as opposed to what an act is in itself.

In 1993, Pope John Paul II condemned these errors in the encyclical
Veritatis Splendor. In so doing, the pontiff reminded Catholics of the Truth that every individual is the “father of his acts” and is morally responsible for acts freely chosen and willed. To assist the Faithful in living virtuously, he reminded the followers of Christ that the proper moral evaluation of human acts depends on, “the object chosen; the end in view or the intention; the circumstances of the action.” The evaluation at this point in the discussion is not regarding sin or the culpability thereof. Rather, in this part of the evaluation a determination must be made with regard to human acts in the objective order, that is, an evaluation of its morality.

The modern error propagated in recent decades gave priority to the latter two aspects over the first, effectively eradicating the ontic structure of the moral act. Such emphasis drew upon modern schools of relativism in which individual subjectivity has been put forth as the sole arbiter of reality. Yet the “object chosen” is at the core of a proper moral evaluation of an act in that the object specifies what an act is in itself before any relative interpretation of it. As the
Catechism notes (1751), the object “is the matter of a human act. The object chosen morally specifies the act of the will, insofar as reason recognizes and judges it to be in conformity with the true good. Objective norms of morality express the rational order of good and evil, attested to by conscience.” Before one has an intention or enters into a circumstance in which he or she will act, the object of the act already is what it is in itself (e.g., fornication, blasphemy, murder, adultery, etc.). The role of a well-formed conscience is to guide the will to act “with the knowledge” of the reality of the act itself and the role of freedom is to will only that which is known to be Good. The object chosen and willed must be understood and ordered toward its proper end, as specified in natural law, so as to fulfill its nature and thus be Good.

When a particular object is rationally chosen and willed, the evaluative process can also take into account the other factors. Although the evaluation is taken in parts for the sake of discussion, in reality all three must be understood in relation to each other. In some cases, however, an object is known to be intrinsically disordered and is thus always an evil. In cases in which one is dealing with an intrinsic evil, no circumstance or intention can mitigate the object. It is always wrong to freely choose an intrinsically evil object. For instance, intentionally killing an innocent human being is always an evil in the objective order. It does not mean that a sin has been committed, which will be discussed further in the next section, but that in the moral evaluation of the act, it is always an evil. In the evaluative process, knowledge is gained regarding the nature of the act and that knowledge must be part of the formation of conscience. Only in light of a proper moral evaluation can one begin a discussion of sin.

In this regard, the
Catechism (1849) defines Sin as, “an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is a failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as ‘an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.’” In the science of morality one must keep in mind that knowledge must also include Divine Revelation of the eternal law, which is a key determinant for what constitutes grave matter, so that Man can morally evaluate an act before it is committed. From this, an individual is responsible to act in accordance with this knowledge. Thus, “there are some concrete acts… that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil” (CCC 1755). One must always keep in mind the “matter” of a human act, that is, its object, because the matter is important for a correct understanding of the morality of an act and is a factor in determining if a particular act is a sin.

Sin and Gravity of Matter

Sin and Gravity of Matter

As was noted in the previous section, the proper evaluation of the morality of human acts depends on three sources; the object, the end or intention, and the circumstances. Of these, the correct understanding of the object has all but been lost due to influences from mistaken philosophies and theologies that gave more weight to intention and circumstances in evaluating human acts. In opposition to the relativistic worldview that predominates today, it must be made clear that the moral evaluation of the object of an act does not require the act to be committed, which means that there is no intention or circumstances, for the determination as to whether or not it is good or evil in the objective order. The moral quality is inherent and known to us through revelation and the natural law. Only with this in mind can one properly understand what Sin is.

On Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent, we repeatedly hear the word “repent,” that is, to turn away from Sin. In order to accomplish this, we must know from what we are turning. It is in this regard that the lost sense of Sin has had its greatest impact and is where the recovery of this loss must begin – with a keen understanding of what Sin is, especially in regard to its connection to an object that is known to be evil. In order to correctly understand what is meant by the term Sin, we must realize that the object is what ultimately constitutes the “matter” of an act and any matter that violates the Divine Law is an evil. Following from this we can move to the discussion of the “gravity” of matter in human acts through a proper discernment of the object chosen.

The first thing to note is that not all sins have the same gravity, which is why the
Catechism (1853) states, “Sins can be distinguished according to their objects, as can every human act; or according to the virtues they oppose, by excess of defect; or according to the commandments they violate.” In this regard, anything done in which the “matter” offends, wounds, or attacks “the vital principle within us, that is, charity,” can be a sin, albeit the kind of sin being determined by the gravity of matter. In this regard, the Church has always taught that there is a distinction between mortal and venial sin, between acts of grave matter versus lesser matter. While both constitute a violation of the Divine Law and are to be avoided, it is mortal sin that “destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to Him.” Venial sin, on the other hand, weakens charity in the heart of man and should be kept under control because “deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin.” In either case, the gravity of matter can be known through a proper moral evaluation of the sources of morality.

As has already been stated, in recent years there has been a serious misunderstanding on the part of many with regard to Sin, which has led many to believe that no one could possibly commit a mortal sin. This mistaken contention has been supported by an errant belief that God would never send anyone to hell, which in some ways is true in that any soul in hell is there by his or her own choice. For this reason, the
Catechism teaches (1861):

Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.

For a sin to be mortal, three criteria must be met. In his 1984 Apostolic Exhortation entitled Reconciliation and Penance, Pope John Paul II identified these traditional criteria as an act in which the “object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.” The next section will examine these conditions more closely.

Conditions for Mortal Sin

Conditions for Mortal Sin

Throughout the modern era there has been a philosophical turn to the subject and an overemphasis on subjective “experience” as the arbiter of all reality. From this, many now attempt to evaluate the morality of human acts solely on the basis of the intentions or circumstance in which an act is committed. Recall from the earlier discussion regarding the sources or constitutive elements required for the moral evaluation of human acts that there are three “sources” to be considered in the evaluation process, one of which is the object of the act. Thus, when discussing the morality of human acts, the overall moral evaluation can show a particular act to be good, indifferent, or evil. From this reasonable process, the Magisterium has been able to determine whether a particular act is moral or immoral, good or evil. However, the knowledge ascertained through this process is not about culpability for sin per se. Rather, this initial process is aimed at gaining knowledge with regard to the morality of human acts and the gravity of matter for a particular act. In the evaluative process, there is a difference between an object that is determined to be intrinsically evil, that is, always evil despite the circumstances and intention (e.g., killing an innocent human being), and one that is evil but may be mitigated by a particular circumstance or intention (e.g. a hungry person who steals food as opposed to someone who steals money from a bank).

It must be kept in mind at this point in the discussion that what is required for the culpability or imputability in respect to committing sins is different. As was noted in the previous section, mortal sin is a radical possibility through the gift of human freedom. However, for a particular act to be deemed a mortal sin, three traditional conditions must be met. These conditions are an act that is constituted by grave matter (i.e., deemed immoral through the above evaluative process), and is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent. It is important to note that, when discussing the committing of sin, the contemporary attempt at including the circumstances and intention are really not part of the consideration at this point, as such was completed in the evaluation based on the fonts of morality.

In all cases, anything understood to be grave matter, which is specified by the Ten Commandments and developed through Church Teaching, remains grave regardless of the status of the other conditions for mortal sin. However, just because an act involves grave matter does not automatically mean that the acting person is culpable of committing mortal sin. Knowledge of the moral order by the acting person is also a key factor, which is why the Church has always stressed the importance of a proper formation of conscience. It is in this light that the Teachings of the Church can be most helpful. In the ongoing effort to avoid sinning mortally, every Catholic is obliged to continually form his or her conscience with the knowledge of God’s will, the determination of which has been entrusted to the hierarchy of the Church. In this regard, the guardian and promulgator of the correct understanding of Revelation and Tradition, especially with regard to the moral order, is the Magisterium of the Church, that is, the authentic Mother and Teacher of the faithful.

Thus, the second condition that must be met for an act to be considered a mortal sin, according to the
Catechism of the Catholic Church (1859), is sufficient knowledge. In fact, mortal sin “presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law.” Within the discussion of knowledge and its relation to the imputability of a grave offense, there is the possibility of unintentional ignorance, although “no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man.” Despite this, “it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed” (CCC 1790). In cases of invincible ignorance, the culpability of a given evil act could be diminished. Even so, the person is responsible to continue to work at correcting the errors that have brought about such ignorance. Furthermore, it should also be noted, “feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin” (CCC 1859). It is the voluntary character of a sin that forms the third condition, that of a full consent of the will, although a correct understanding of this condition has been tainted by modern psychological approaches to human “behavior.”

Every human being is responsible to form his or her conscience, and subsequently his or her actions, with knowledge of the moral order. In the traditional theological sense, every person is responsible for cultivating virtuous habits, which dispose one to doing the good at all times. In this context, a more traditional sense of the word “habit” is intended. Unfortunately today many use the word in the psychological sense of unconscious tendencies that develop without much attention. For this discussion, habit is more like the athlete who repeatedly performs a specific action so as to be able to perform at the highest level without having to think about his or her actions in competition. Similarly, with an ongoing growth in the knowledge of good and evil, every person is responsible for cultivating virtue so as to be capable of performing good and moral acts, that is, to develop a habit of doing good and avoiding evil.

In order to remain in a state of grace, the conscience should be well formed and care should be taken to avoid surrendering the will to external forces or pathological disorders. In this regard, the Church teaches that every human being is responsible to grow in virtue and holiness. Every person must strive to cultivate true human virtues, which are “acquired by education, by deliberate acts and by a perseverance ever-renewed in repeated efforts… With God’s help, they forge character and give facility in the practice of the good” (CCC 1810). In much the same way, every person must avoid cultivating a habit of vice and propensity to sin. As the Catechism (1865) notes, “Sin creates a proclivity to sin; it engenders vice by repetition of the same acts. This results in perverse inclination which cloud conscience and corrupt concrete judgment of good and evil.”

With this in mind we can better understand the third condition for committing mortal sin, that is, the consent of the will in human acts. Unfortunately, many today have implicitly bought into the behavioral psychological model of human acting and freedom and thus misinterpret this particular condition. In this condition, we are not talking about an “awareness” or “consciousness” of the moral quality of a specific act as it is being committed nor about external forces that may provoke specific responses. While there may be feelings and passions within a person that can diminish the voluntary and free character of a particular act, it is the responsibility of the person to freely will actions ordered to the good. Every person is responsible for cultivating habits of virtue and breaking habits of vice. As the conscience is formed, the will should be habituated to do the good and avoid evil. The discernment of what is truly good and the habituation of the will in conformity to it
must be done constantly throughout life. This habituation does fulfill the voluntary character required for proper moral acting.

Since, as noted previously, every human being is the “father of his or her acts,” what comes forth from a person is his or her responsibility. Most often when one finds himself or herself in a particular situation, the habituated or cultivated act is most likely what will come forth. In most cases, the person is said to be freely willing an act even though the discernment of the act was not made in that instant. Through the ongoing deliberation of the moral life and the cultivation of moral action, a person freely disposes himself or herself to performing acts of virtue or vice. For example, one who cultivates a habit of veracity tends to tell the truth when asked questions while one who cultivates a habit of mendacity tends to lie. This is considered a freely willed act even though a person is not “conscious” or “aware” of doing so at the moment of acting. The key here is the active cultivation of a particular habit.

Of course, for some sins or vices, a force of habit or other psychological impediment could mitigate one’s culpability from mortal sin in a particular act. In cases in which grave matter is committed but the voluntary nature is diminished for some reason, or voluntarily committing an act of lesser matter, the person is said to have committed a venial sin, which weakens charity and impedes moral progress but does not separate one from God. Even though an act may be imputed as a venial sin does not mean that a person should relax his or her stance toward the sin because, “repeated venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin” (CCC 1863). With regard to all sin, venial or mortal, a person must be constantly discerning and seeking God’s remedy given to Man through the Cross of Christ. The next section will discuss the remedy for sin and the restoration of the soul to a state of grace through the Sacrament of Penance.

The Remedy for Sin and the State of Grace

The Remedy for Sin and The State of Grace

From the time Man first sinned and was deprived of God’s direct presence, the propensity to Sin has repeatedly damaged the relationship between God and His People. With regard to Sin, it is always Man Who turns from God yet God has never given up on restoring the relationship through His initiative of Love. Ultimately, the remedy for Sin, that is, our justification before God, is “merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the Cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men” (CCC 1992). His Blood was shed on our behalf so that God’s Grace can be communicated to all generations. It is His Blood poured out that washes away our sins. It is through this Divine Act of Mercy on behalf of Man that we are justified and given the capacity to approach God. As the Catechism (CCC 1994) notes, “Justification is the most excellent work of God’s love made manifest in Christ Jesus and granted by the Holy Spirit.”

As we know, all seven Sacraments are gifts from God that communicate Grace to the soul. While there are many ways to understand Grace, we are particularly concerned with the role of sanctifying grace, which “is first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us” (
CCC 2003). Sanctity and holiness are prerequisites for our souls to be in communion with God and the Church. Faced with the reality that mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, those who sin lose their justification, sanctity, and holiness due to an act that wounds and may even rupture communion with God and the Church. In such a state, one must refrain from receiving Holy Communion until the soul is washed clean once again in the Sacrament of Penance. It is through this sacrament that every repentant sinner is given hope through the gift of sanctifying grace that restores the soul to a state of grace and Communion with God and the Church. As we read in the Catechism (CCC 1446):

Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification.

As was noted previously, so many today have lost the sense of sin and, as a result, stay away from the sacrament of Penance for an indefinite period of time. Despite the subjective error that so many embrace today, the reality is that an object of an act that violates a Commandment of God or a precept of the Church, and is thus grave matter in the objective order, and if the other conditions are fulfilled, the committing of such an act renders one culpable for having committed mortal sin. Fortunately, God has not abandoned sinners and has empowered Catholic priests, who act in the person of Christ, to forgive sins. For those who have sinned after Baptism, the sacrament of Penance is the way for restoring the soul to a state of Grace.



There is no doubt that many today struggle with Sin, both in its objective reality and its subjective torment. We must recall that evil does not exist in itself but is the absence of a good that should be. An act that falls short of its proper end is an act in which the good it should have been was absent. The effect is an evil that should not have been and, in the case of sin understood as a radical possibility of human freedom, an evil that was ultimately avoidable. When we grapple with the problem of Sin, it is not just an academic question or discussion but one that touches the lives of so many. Sin has its impact on the lives of the sinner and the one sinned against. Sin destroys Grace and opposes virtue. Everyone needs to perpetually take stock in himself and work toward understanding this tremendously destructive reality. No human being is exempt from the taint of Original Sin and thus every human being is in need of the Grace communicated in the Sacrifice of Christ. No sinner is ever without hope in this life as restoration of the soul is available to those who accept it and pursue Grace.

Due to the rhetoric of the modern world, it seems that those steeped in sin believe they are doomed to stay that way. Many so-called experts today leave no room for conversion, for an embracing of the Gospel message. This is a real tragedy. While many people have been formed by statements like, “a leopard cannot change his spots.” Such statements make it seem as if conversion cannot happen and Grace cannot be effective. If we spend enough time contemplating the situation, we will easily see that for just as many sinners who failed to overcome their sin, there are stories of those who did. Free will must couple itself with self-possession and self-discipline in order to continue along the path of conversion. Many in the world today would prefer to study the human failures rather than the successes. Much of the data we collect today are on the failures rather than the successes and the detached nature of scientific data has cultivated consciences that are detached from the reality of the Sin committed. This psychological detachment gives a false sense of personal justification, which leaves one obstinately mired in his or her sin. It is under this yoke that we find the source for the lost sense of sin. Fortunately, there have been more cases of leopards who changed their spots than of those who did not. The difference is openness to Grace and desire for holiness, for all things are possible with God.

So often when there is a presentation on the last things, Heaven, Hell, and, Purgatory, the majority of questions focus on Hell and who is there. The purpose of this series is not to emphasize Hell or that anyone is there by name. The Church has always affirmed the reality of Hell and admitted the possibility that some souls may end up in it, but the focus of Church teaching and preaching has always been on conversion and the following the path to Heaven. The self-possessed person whose main focus is to be holy as our Heavenly Father is holy knows well of Heaven and lives his or her life dreading the loss of It. It is Sin that deprives a person of the possibility of Heaven and it is the Grace communicated through the Sacraments, especially the Sacrament of Penance, that keeps Heaven as a real possibility for the person who desires It with his or whole heart, mind, and soul.

In the end, any reflection on Sin and repentance is offered as an encouragement to ongoing conversion and the restoration of the soul to the state of Grace. Any talk by the Church on the realities of Hell is offered as an encouragement to pursue a life of sanctity ordered to the attainment of Heaven when “we return to dust.” Anyone who recognizes that he or she has sinned is not lost as he or she has an Advocate Who pleads his or her cause before God. As Christ did, so does the Church – Christ came to seek the lost and bring them back to God. The Church instituted by Christ has always sought to bring the lost back to God. As the Good Shepherd carries the lost sheep on His shoulders, so too will He carry those who were lost and have been found into the Heavenly Kingdom. And to ensure the Heavenly Kingdom remains a possibility for every person, Christ established the Church and the Sacraments so that the Grace necessary to lift the lost sheep will remain until the end of time!


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Sin All