No change on teaching

Question: In a recent study group, some members held that the distinction between mortal and venial sin has been abolished and that the Church only speaks now of "serious sin." What is your opinion on this matter? I am writing on behalf of the group. Also, can one commit sin without knowing it?

- Name and address withheld

Answer: The distinction between mortal and venial sin has not been abolished, and it would make no sense for the Church to do so. The Church's moral theology, like all systems of thought, makes use of simple categories in order to clarify complex issues. If you want to look up this matter further, I recommend the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Nos. 1854-1864).

Mortal sin represents an action or a stance that radically disrupts one's relationship with God, self and others. It is a violation of one's own conscience and deeply wounds the soul, so that one is a lesser person as a result. Mortal sin fundamentally separates oneself from the love of God and from one's own fundamental character.

Venial sin involves a lesser matter. We find from day to day that we are drawn down by failures in virtue that often involve little thought and are more a matter of habit. Hopefully, days go by when we do not commit mortal sins. But hardly a day goes by when we are not guilty of venial or lesser sins. Gossip, laziness, rash judgment, little lies, masking faults and spiritual malaise - all these are examples of venial sin.

These lesser sins are not so serious that they radically wound the soul, betray one's conscience in a fundamental and break off one's relationship with God. While all sin is "serious," the lesser sin called "venial" beset most of us on a daily basis.

Can one commit sin without knowing it? Here one has to make a distinction between objective acts and personal conscience. If an individual has a poor moral education and does not grasp adequately why a certain act may be sinful, the serious character of a particular act is not lessened. However, the moral culpability of the action is reduced.

Traditional moral theology has always held (and still holds) that for a sin to be mortal three conditions must be met: There must be serious matter, full knowledge of the seriousness of the act and full consent on the part of the actor.

It is possible, then, for someone to commit a most seriously wrong act, but to do so in a certain degree of ignorance or to do so without full consent under duress of temptation. In this situation, one would not describe the sin as mortal.

Saving Satan

Question: Can Satan be saved if he would repent and return to God? Has anyone ever seen Satan?

- Name and address withheld

Answer: Human beings sin, repent and return to God, probably many times in their lives. Satan lives beyond time and history and does not suffer the limitation of human judgment and reasoning. The sin of Satan was that he rejected God in a complete and irrevocable way. He knew completely what he was doing. Therefore, it is beyond the capacity of Satan to return to God, as this would require new knowledge on Satan's part - and Satan is endowed with the fullness of knowledge that angels possess.

On the matter of seeing Satan, many people claim to have had encounters with him in their lives. Whether it is in the form of a vision or an encounter with radical evil, the possibility exists that Satan can be encountered by human beings. It is often said that Satan does not show himself directly and that anonymity is part of his evil genius.

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN46750or to Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.