Question: With all the mortal sins possible to us, why is there not a greater listing of these by priests so that we can avoid them?
— Name withheld, Washington, D.C.
Answer: A simple list of mortal sins might be possible. It would be rooted in sins enumerated in the Ten Commandments and those listed in the Pauline epistles as excluding us from the kingdom of God, if we die unrepentant. But a mere list isn’t as helpful in moral reflection as might be thought. More than a list is needed.
The main difficulty centers on the distinction in considering an act in general, and considering a specific occurrence of that act. The full moral assessment of a specific act requires us to look at three things: the act itself, the circumstances and the intent of the one doing the act (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1750-1754).
Regarding the act itself, this is the most objective of the three factors. But circumstances and intention are as varied as human beings and situations allow.
Further, while circumstances and intention cannot make an evil action good, they do speak to the culpability (or blameworthiness) of the one doing the act.
Let’s take missing Mass on Sunday as an example. The Church teaches that missing Mass on Sunday is a mortal sin. However, such a declaration can look only to the act itself (missing Mass). But it cannot speak to every possible combination of circumstances and intention (or reason) a person might encounter in deciding not to go to Mass.
Regarding circumstances, there could be 3 feet of snow that prevents one from reasonably attending Mass. There could also be illness, or the care of others who are ill that prevents attendance. There could also be inadvertence, such as oversleeping or being mistaken about the correct time, etc.
Regarding intention, perhaps a person is poorly instructed on their obligation to attend Mass. Or perhaps they know that we should go to Mass but are poor at weighing that obligation with, for example, going to a family gathering or completing an important project at work.
Thus, while missing Mass on Sunday remains a mortal sin, this presumes that the circumstances were such that a person could reasonably attend Mass and that the person understands the seriousness of the matter. This is not always the case.
So, as you emphasize, the Church must continually hold before us the moral vision of Christ, giving emphasis to sins that are intrinsically more serious, because God’s word says so. Sins against God such as blasphemy, idolatry, irreverence, ingratitude and refusing to worship and honor him are serious sins. Sins against the human person, especially against human life (and the origins of human life in our sexuality) are serious matters. Sins against the truth (lying), as well as sins against family, the honor due to elders and obedience to superiors, coveting (greed) and so forth may admit of lighter matters but are of their nature serious, because they are mentioned in the Ten Commandments.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org.