BITE-SIZE THEOLOGY (195): Is it okay to commit venial sin?

Rev José Mario O Mandía

When is a sin venial?

A sinful thought, word, deed or omission which lacks one of the three elements of a grave or mortal sin (grave matter, full knowledge, deliberate consent) is a venial sin (cf CCCC 396).

What are the consequences of committing a venial sin?

CCCC 396 teaches us: “Venial sin does not break the covenant with God” (unlike mortal sin) “but it (1) weakens charity, (2) manifests a disordered affection for created goods, (3) impedes the progress of a soul in the exercise of the virtues and in the practice of moral good,” and “merits temporal punishment which purifies.”

So it seems like venial sin is okay?

The CCC 1863 actually warns us against taking this kind of sin lightly: “Deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin.” The same point of the Catechism quotes Saint Augustine, who wrote: “While he is in the flesh, man cannot but have at least some light sins. But do not despise these sins which we call ‘light’: if you take them for light when you weigh them, tremble when you count them. A number of light objects makes a great mass; a number of drops fills a river; a number of grains makes a heap. What then is our hope? Above all, confession (In epist. Io. 1, 6).”

Since venial sin is a weakening of charity, it can be forgiven with acts of charity such as prayer, mortification and penance, service to others, and reception of the sacraments, especially of Holy Communion. Nonetheless, confession remains as a good way of obtaining forgiveness because it not only forgives, but also imparts the grace necessary for avoiding the venial sin for which one is sorry.

On 15 October 2005, Pope Benedict XVI had an audience with children who had just received their first communion. Instead of delivering a speech, he asked the organizers to let the children ask him questions. One of the children asked, “Do I have to go to confession every time I receive Communion, even when I have committed the same sins? Because I realize that they are always the same.”

Amused at the query, the Holy Father explained, “I will tell you two things. The first, of course, is that you do not always have to go to confession before you receive Communion unless you have committed such serious sins that they need to be confessed.… Only in that case, when you are in a state of ‘mortal’ sin, in other words, grave (sin), is it necessary to go to confession before Communion. This is my first point.

“My second point: even if, as I said, it is not necessary to go to confession before each Communion, it is very helpful to confess with a certain regularity. It is true: our sins are always the same, but we clean our homes, our rooms, at least once a week, even if the dirt is always the same, in order to live in cleanliness, in order to start again. Otherwise, the dirt might not be seen but it builds up. Something similar can be said about the soul, for me myself: if I never go to confession, my soul is neglected and in the end I am always pleased with myself and no longer understand that I must always work hard to improve, that I must make progress. And this cleansing of the soul which Jesus gives us in the Sacrament of Confession helps us to make our consciences more alert, more open, and hence, it also helps us to mature spiritually and as human persons.”

Venial sin makes our love grow cold – we become lukewarm. “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16). While we are not able to avoid non-deliberate venial sin (venial sin committed without awareness or out of weakness), we should try to avoid deliberate venial sin.

Saint Teresa of Avila, in The Way of Perfection (chapter 41) wrote: “From any sin, however small, committed with full knowledge, may God deliver us, especially since we are sinning against so great a Sovereign and realize that He is watching us. That seems to me to be a sin of pre-meditated malice; it is as though one were to say: ‘Lord, although this displeases You, I shall do it. I know that You see it and I know that You would not want me to do it; but although I understand this, I would rather follow my own whim and desire than Your will.’ If we commit a sin in this way, however slight, it seems to me that our offense is not small but very, very great.”