Levels of sin?

Question: I think the Catholic notion of mortal and venial sin is flawed. All sin is serious, and since it offends God, it is an infinite offense. The Catholic distinction leads to ignoring many sins and only focusing on some. All sin is a grave offense against God.

John Malvine, Boulder, Colorado

Answer: It should first be noted that the distinction between mortal and venial sin is found in Scripture. The First Letter of John says, “There is such a thing as deadly sin. … All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly” (1 John 5:16-17). It also stands to reason that there are sins that are more serious than others. Premeditated murder is certainly more serious than an act of careless gossip.

As for every sin being an infinite offense because it offends God, this is a colorful way of speaking that contains a kernel of truth but leaves too many distinctions behind. That God is dishonored by our sin certainly does elevate the magnitude of what we do. However, not everyone committing a sin seeks to directly offend God. Sometimes sins are committed in weakness, sometimes through forgetfulness, etc. And these sorts of things are not a direct attempt to dishonor God.

God is just, so it does not follow that he would treat every offense as “an infinite offense.” Neither is God one who broods over personal injury. While sin does “harm” God’s external glory, it does not inflict an emotional toll or dishonor his internal glory, such that he would be robbed of beatitude. Further, God is able to look into the hearts of all to see their motivations, and judge what they could reasonably know. Surely then God awards and punishes in ways commensurate with what is done and does not consign all sin to the category of infinite offense.

As for your concern that distinguishing mortal and venial sins might lead us to make light of too many things, that is a danger. But the abuse of something does not take away its proper use. Certain things are more serious than others. But it does not follow that this means we ought to pay no attention to lesser things.

All are called to be saved

Question: We are taught that faith is a gift from God and that no one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws him (Jn 6:44). But this seems to imply that God decides who will be saved and that we are not really free.

Ben Johnson, New York

Answer: Not necessarily. If someone were to open their door and call to me to come into their home, I would be drawn by their voice. And the open door would be supplied by them for me to enter. However, none of that would compel me to enter, such that I lose my freedom. Further, the notion that God does not will to save some seems a view set aside in 1 Timothy 2:4, which says God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.” There is, to be sure, a mysterious interaction between God’s sovereignty and our free will, but we cannot resolve it by picking our freedom or God’s sovereignty. We must hold both revealed truths in balance.

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.