Essay XXV





by Rev. E. J. Mahoney, D.D.



1.   The purpose of human existence

It is characteristic of our modern civilization and a result of the ceaseless activity and speed of our lives that men think very little, if at all, about the purpose of their existence.  They expect everything else to justify its existence, for the elementary notion of good and bad expresses the attainment or non-attainment of a due measure of perfection; they call a horse good if it is sound in wind and limb, or the roof of a house bad if the rain enters in.  But to the end or purpose of man himself many do not give a passing thought.  He is in the universe, not knowing why nor whence, and out of it again “as wind along the waste.”

Those who do not base their lives on a principle of religion attempt, perhaps, in a more reflective mood to erect a standard of conduct based on the attainment of some purpose in life: wealth, domestic happiness, scientific discovery, social service, philanthropy, or any other worthy object.  It is not the immediate object of this essay to show the essential inadequacy of these things, nor to establish the supreme truth that in the possession of God alone is human happiness and perfection to be found.  But it is worth while insisting at the outset that a false idea of the purpose of human existence, by which we understand that which constitutes the final perfection and happiness of man, must inevitably lead to a false idea of the meaning of human evil or sin.  It will be conceived by the humanitarian as an offence against humanity, by the materialist as a kind of disease, by the cynic as a breach of established conventions.  The very worst thing one might say about it would be that it is inconsistent with the dignity of a rational being.  But once granted that God is the end or purpose of human life, the true idea of sin becomes apparent.  It is an offense against God.

The Catholic doctrine on sin and repentance has, for this reason, a more immediate and personal application to the individual than any other doctrine.  For the sinner does not hurt the immutable God; he hurts only himself by turning away from his Creator to things created.  He introduces into his own being disorder and discord, and, unless he repents, he will remain for ever separated from God.  Having failed to attain the only purpose of his existence, he is like a barren tree that is fit for nothing but to be burnt. 

Cardinal Newman tells us, in one place, how the doctrine of final perseverance brought home to his mind the existence of two luminously self-evident beings: himself and the Creator.  It is uniquely from the point of view of the relation between God and the individual soul that we are going to think about sin, not regarding it as something which brings poverty and misery into the world in general, but as a supreme evil which impoverishes a human soul by averting it from God.

There is a further reason why it is impossible to understand sin except in terms of the destiny of the individual soul.  We have been created by God for himself, and in nothing short of the possession of God will the desires of our immortal souls find their ultimate satisfaction.  What exactly this union between our souls and God would have been, had we not been raised to the supernatural state, is a matter of pure conjecture.  A state of natural beatitude would doubtless have implied some intimate knowledge of God’s perfections, mirrored in his creatures, and some corresponding degree of natural felicity, but the unaided powers of our human nature could never possibly see God as he sees himself, face to face.  Such knowledge of God is altogether above the capabilities of any created nature, even the nature of the highest angel, for it is the life of God himself.  Yet it is to this sublime and supernatural vision of God, not “through a glass in a dark manner, but face to face” (1 Cor. xiii 12), that God has destined us.  He has adopted us into his family, given us a share in his own life, made us partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter I 4).


2.   The supernatural state

God, being omnipotent, could have effected this plan of his divine goodness in many conceivable ways, but he has revealed to us the way he chose to work this mystery which has been hidden in God from all eternity.  The real Son of God by nature became man in order that men might become sons of God by adoption; he deigned to become a sharer in our humanity in order that we might become sharers in his divinity.  In the supernatural order Christ our Lord is the link between God and man, the only mediator, the firstborn among many brethren (Rom. viii 29).  Through our union with him, branches of one vine, members of one body, our souls are supernaturalized by sanctifying grace, a beginning of the final consummation in the vision of God: “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and unspotted in his sight in charity.  Who hath predestined us unto the adoption of children through Jesus Christ” (Eph. i 4). 

In the supernatural order in which we are placed sin has this effect: it deprives the soul of sanctifying grace and charity, banishes God who dwells there as in a temple (1 Cor. iii 16), and leaves the soul empty and desolate, deprived of its supernatural character as an adopted son of God.  “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock” (Apoc. iii 20).  If, in God’s infinite mercy, this ruined habitation is once again rebuilt and becomes once more the dwelling-place of God, it will be due to the divine initiative freely holding out the grace of repentance and converting the rebellious sinner again to himself.


3.   The redemption of Christ

To complete as initial understanding of sin and repentance, one more reflection is necessary.  We shall attain our last end and happiness as sons of God in being made conformable to the image of his Son (Rom. viii 29), Jesus Christ our Lord, in whose hands the Father has given all things (John iii 35).  Whether the Son of God would have become incarnate if sin had not entered the world by the fall of our first parents, is a matter of theological speculation.  But the fact of sin is certain, and it is equally certain that no created being could atone for the insult thus offered to the infinite majesty of God.  If divine justice required a satisfaction equal to the offence, it was necessary for it to be offered by a divine person.  From the first moment of Adam’s sin a Redeemer was promised, whose office and dignity became more and more clear throughout the ages waiting his coming.  When, in the fullness of time, God appeared in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. v 19), the prophet and priest, the model and king of all men, he had one supreme work to perform which so predominated in his sacred life on earth that his name was taken from it: “Thou shalt call his name JESUS, for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt. i 21).  We should not even think of sin and its disastrous effects on our own souls without thinking at the same time of Christ, bearing our infirmities, stricken like a leper and afflicted, wounded for our iniquities, bruised for our sins (Isa. liii 4), offering to his Father the fullest possible satisfaction for the sins of the world by dying on the Cross.

And if we should not think of sin apart from Christ’s satisfaction, still less can we even conceive the grace of repentance, converting the soul again to God, apart from the merits of Christ, “for there is no other name under heaven given to men whereby we must be saved” (Acts iv 12).  When a sinner is turned again to God, every step leading up to the infusion of grace is due to the merits of Christ, “in whom we have redemption, through his blood, the remission of sins” (Col. i 14).

These essential notions concerning the purpose of life, the supernatural state to which we have been raised by grace, and above all the redeeming office of Christ, are, as it were, the background or setting upon which a more detailed description of sin and repentance can be placed.


4.   The eternal law of God

On these vital premises we can now proceed a step further.  The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas treats in the first part of God, in the second part of the movement of the rational creature towards God, and in the third part of Christ who is the way by which the rational creature reaches God.  Man’s movement towards God, his last end and beatitude, is progressive, stretching over the whole journey of his earthly life, and on this journey he is assisted and directed in two ways by his Creator.  He is moved internally by divine grace, for, as we have already recalled, his last end being a supernatural one, he is unable to attain to it by his own natural power.  He is also directed externally by divine laws which are like signposts on the way.  We must examine more closely this notion of law, because sin is intimately connected with it.  No human being, not even the greatest sinner, directly and explicitly turns away from God his last end and highest good.  He turns form his last end by turning towards something forbidden by the law of God.  It is a point which is vital to the proper understanding of mortal sin, and we shall return to it in the next section.

Law is an ordinance of reason made for the common good and promulgated by the person who has care of a community.  Whatever category of law we may consider, it is always a reasonable scheme or plan devising means to an end, but the will of the legislator must “ordain” and impose it on his subjects before the plan can be called law: the Budget is merely a scheme before it is passed by Parliament.  Law is a plan designed for the good of the whole community, not merely for the benefit of an individual; in fact, laws frequently require the individual interest to be sacrificed to the common good.  Moreover, since law gives rise to the obligation of observing it, it must be promulgated by being brought to the notice of the subject, and cannot bind unless it is known.

Now, it will be seen at once that this concept of law refers primarily to God who has care of the whole universe, and the authority of other legislators, no matter what the scope of their “community” may be, is derived ultimately from God.  The plan of divine wisdom directing all actions and movements in the whole universe, including physical laws and animal instincts, is called the eternal law, and it is the fount and origin of the order in the universe. 


5.   The natural law

We are concerned now only with the laws of God governing and directing human beings.  How are they promulgated and brought to our notice?  We think at once of the Mosaic law, of the law of the Gospel instituted and promulgated by Christ “Rex et Legifer Noster,” of the laws of the Church made by Councils and Popes under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, of the just laws of States, of the regulations of religious Orders and other smaller communities.

But, as a matter of fact, there is a law of God governing human beings, which is antecedent to any of those we have mentioned and of far greater obligation, which was binding on the Gentiles, who had never heard of the law of Moses (Rom. ii 14), and to which all men are subject even though they recognize neither the law of the Gospel, nor the authority of the Church, nor the ruling of the State.  It is called the natural law, the participation and reflection in a rational creature of the eternal law of God, and therefore an expression in man of the very essence of God.  God was free not to create human nature at all, but having created it he could not but assign to it the moral or natural law.  Every created thing has certain well-defined tendencies proper to its nature, and man is no exception to this rule.  Unlike the instincts and tendencies of irrational things, the law which governs human nature is law in the strict sense of the word, for the individual is able to obey or disobey, and is not driven along by blind inherent force.  The endowment of free will, necessarily accompanying a rational nature, is man’s peril as well as his chief glory, for in freely disregarding the laws of his own nature he is responsible for the resulting ruin and disorder.

This law of his being is called the natural law because it can be perceived by the light of reason alone, and because its precepts can be deduced by reason from the data of human nature.  To analyze and explain the natural moral law is the purpose of the science of ethics, and we cannot do more than indicate the broad lines of the process.  We fine from the experience of our own nature that a human being is a complicated organism having many faculties and tendencies and needs.  In the interplay of these various parts a certain subordination of the lower to the higher, of the parts to the whole, and of the whole to God, is clearly observed.  Let us take a few examples.  It is morally wrong to satisfy the desire for food and drink in a way which causes grave harm to the whole body or which obscures the use of reason.  Certain faculties, as the power of procreation, having a natural purpose  and natural organs for that purpose, it is morally wrong to pervert this purpose by sexual vice.  Human nature is social and needs the society of other human beings; all those things are therefore morally wrong which would make the maintenance of human society impossible; for example, anarchy or theft.  Lastly, human reason can establish the existence of God the Creator and ruler of the universe, a good and beneficent and sapient Being: that blasphemy and hatred of God are morally wrong is a necessary consequence. 

In a word, the substance of the Decalogue, with the exception of the third commandment, is nothing more than a written expression of the natural law.  If I tell a man to live according to his nature, to develop his faculties harmoniously in accordance with their natural objects, and to live in a manner befitting the dignity of a human being, I am merely telling him to obey the natural law which is a reflection in his nature of the eternal law of God.  In telling a man to do good and avoid evil, I am telling him not to break the commandments of God.  The two sets of ideas are mutually inclusive.

All this is the natural law.  But man is raised to a supernatural state, and in everything which concerns the attainment of his supernatural end, human reason alone is powerless to discover the laws which God has devised for his guidance.  He needs to be taught by God.  Christ our Lord, who taught the way of God in truth (Matt. xxii 16), has brought to our knowledge the necessity of Baptism and of faith and all the other precepts of the Gospel, and the Church continues to teach in his name.

But there is this further important observation to make: even with regard to the natural obligations of the moral law it is necessary for the majority of men to be taught by God; for human reason left to itself will discover the truth, at least in the less obvious precepts of he natural law, only with such labor and difficulty that very few men would come to the knowledge of it.  Therefore, the Catholic is taught by the Church his natural duties, and in matters of great moment and difficulty the teaching authority of the Church defines the moral obligations of the faithful; for example, in the use of marriage.  That teaching imposed on the whole Church is infallibly true, for it bears the stamp of divine authority.


6.   Definition of sin

Sufficient has been said to show the meaning of divine law, the breach of which is sin.  Inasmuch as every species of just law is reduced to the eternal law of God as its fount and origin, the aptness of the classical Augustinian definition of sin is apparent: “Sin is any thought, word, or deed against the eternal law, which is the divine ordinance of reason commanding order to be observed and forbidding its disturbance” (Migne, P.L.xlii 48).  It is against this majestic ordinance of God that man dares to act in setting aside the natural law, or the law of the Church, or any other just law.  But he cannot evade altogether the eternal law of God “commanding order to be observed,” and it is of Catholic faith that the order of divine justice may require the eternal punishment of the sinner.

We may now make a closer examination of mortal sin.  In order to avoid confusion and misunderstanding, we must remember that the word “sin” may be employed in various senses; we speak of “original” sin, of “mortal” sin, and of “venial” sin.  Confusion will arise if we allow ourselves to think of these three terms as if they denoted three kinds or species of one genus, in rather the same way as we speak of any three sacraments sharing in the generic notion of eternal signs causing grace.  The full nature of sin, in the sense employed throughout this essay, with the exception of the last section, is found only in personal mortal sin; original sin and venial sin share in that nature only incompletely and analogously.  The complete malice and disastrous effects of sin are proper to personal mortal sin and to nothing else.  It is the action by which a man knowingly and freely turns from God by fixing his will on creature.  How it is that an offense against the law of God necessarily entails the rejection of God will be explained more fully in the following section.




1.   The end of the law


The eternal law directs rational creatures towards their last end and perfection in God.  It is a union which will reach its final consummation in the vision of God face to face, and in this life consists in the mutual love between God and the soul, charity, the bond of perfection (Col. iii 14).  The end of the law, therefore, is God, to be loved by the rational creature as his sovereign good, to whom every created good must be subordinated.  Hence follows this important consequence: willfully to disobey that law is to prefer some created finite satisfaction to the infinite uncreated good which is God.  To disobey God’s law is to show by one’s actions that God’s will and good pleasure are not the predominant motive of one’s life.  He who sins grievously implicitly declares: “I know that by this action I am forfeiting God’s friendship; nevertheless I do it.”  What else is this than to prefer the creature to the Creator, one’s own gratification to the express will of God, self-love to the love of God”  “The end of the commandment is charity” (1 Tim. I 5).


2.   Sin the rejection of God


This might appear, at first sight, an exaggeration.  It might be objected that the sinner does not weigh up the relative merits of the Creator and the creature, and decide in favor of the creature.  He desires, indeed, to do something which he knows to be forbidden, but he does not regard it as his sovereign good and the sole end of his existence.  No sinner directly intends to turn away from God.  Such an act would be, in fact, impossible, for the human will necessarily turns towards its highest good and happiness: even a sin like the hatred of God is an aversion not from man’s last end, but from God considered under some such aspect as the avenger of evil, and therefore conceived as harmful.


The answer to this objection is that the twofold element in every mortal sin, namely, the rejection of God and adherence to creatures, inevitably coincides in one act of the human will.  Self-love and self-gratification in the forbidden enjoyment of creatures is the direct and immediate object of the will.  The rejection of God is willed indirectly as involved in the choice of a sinful object.  Theoretically the sinner may admit that the self-indulgence which he contemplates is shameful, that it is unworthy of a rational creature’s desire, and that God’s friendship is the only good infinitely desirable.  Yet, in practice, he acts as though he regarded that self-indulgence as more desirable than God’s friendship, since, in order to enjoy the creature, he is willing to forfeit the love of the Creator.  By directly choosing the enjoyment of some created good known to be mortally sinful, the sinner elects to disturb the moral order of God to the extent of losing the divine friendship.  He does not want to turn from God, you will say.  He does so in turning to a creature, and he does so as deliberately and as inevitably as he who desiring to turn his face to the east therefore turns his back to the west.  “They said, reasoning with themselves: The time of our life is short and tedious . . . and no man hath been known to return from hell. . . .  Come therefore, and let us enjoy the good things that are present . . . let us fill ourselves with costly wine . . . let us oppress the poor just man, and not spare the widow . . . let our strength be the law of justice. . . .  These things they thought, and were deceived: for their own malice blinded them, and they knew not the secrets of God” (Wisd. ii). 


It is because of this double aspect in every mortal sin that its nature can be described in a twofold way.  The essential element which makes sin the greatest possible evil in the world is the rejection of God, the love of self carried to the extent of treating God with contempt, the averting of the will from God by a voluntary recourse to creatures.  In this respect all mortal sins are alike.  But if we desire to discuss the relative gravity of different mortal sins, or to discover some process by which sins may be grouped into different categories or species, we must turn our attention to the positive aspect of sin, and consider the various finite objects for the sake of which God may have been rejected.


3.   Distinction of sins


It is in this sense that the familiar Augustinian definition, given in the previous section, is to be understood.  The difference between one mortal sin and another can only turn on the degree and nature of the subversion of the moral order, on the variety of thought, word, or deed against the eternal law of God.  In each case the sinful act carries with it the forfeiture of God’s friendship, loss of grace, spiritual death.  A man is dead whether he has been dead a day, a week, or a year, whether he died by violence or disease, in youth or in old age; but in each case the cause of death may be differently reckoned and determined.  So it is possible for a human being willfully to forsake God in various ways, according to the manner in which he departs from his law.  Theft is an injury done to my neighbor, suicide is an injury done to myself, but each is an offence against God, because each is forbidden, though for different reasons, by the divine law.


We shall see in a later section that the act of repentance reflects this double aspect of sin.  Just as sin is the averting of the will from God by a voluntary recourse to creatures, so repentance implies conversion to God accompanied by an act of the will detesting the sin committed.  It is because this detestation of sin is an absolutely necessary condition for reconciliation to God’s friendship that the Church requires us to confess, in number and species, every mortal sin of which we are conscious.


But are we to suppose that every breach of God’s law is so serious as to deprive us of God’s friendship?  Not so.  We have already insisted that the full nature of sin is verified in mortal sin alone.  There is a type of sin which is called “venial,” and in a later section a fuller analysis of its nature will be given.  For the present we are speaking only of mortal sin, an act so grievously subversive of the moral order as to destroy the friendship existing between the soul and God, and to frustrate the end of the moral law, which is the due subordination of all created good to God, the infinite and sovereign good.


4.   Grave matter


Before we can say with any degree of certainty that mortal sin has been committed, the action must objectively constitute a serious breach of the law of God.  Is there any method whereby this may be determined?  A Catholic, of course, accepts the authority of the Church in defining the moral law, and the Church, in fact, has frequently settled disputes among the faithful by an authoritative decision: for example, Innocent XI declared that the voluntary omission of Mass on days of obligation was a grave sin.  There is also the very clear teaching contained in certain texts of Holy Scripture to the effect that certain evil actions exclude the doer from the kingdom of God (1 Cor. vi 10), or are worthy of eternal punishment (Matt. xxv 41), or cry to heaven for vengeance (Deut. xxiv 15).

Human reason alone, grated the nature of mortal sin as destructive of the moral order and disruptive of the love of God, can establish that certain disordered actions are of this nature.  Charity is the friendship existing between God and man.  Even in human intercourse there are actions which merely ruffle the surface of friendship, and there are others which are calculated to destroy it altogether.  So also on the plane of divine charity, it is clear that a man cannot remain the friend of God while blaspheming him, or refusing to believe his revelation, or declining to trust in his promises.  And because the order of divine charity requires us to love others for God’s sake as we love ourselves, it is equally clear that this order of fraternal charity cannot exist among men in the face of certain grave injuries committed by one man against another.  On this double precept of charity the whole moral law depends (Matt. xxii 40).

Mortal sins will also differ in gravity as compared with one another.  Inasmuch as our whole lives are directed by the eternal law in order to bring us to the possession of God, a sin such as blasphemy must be extremely grave, because it is a much greater disturbance of the established order to insult the Creator than to offend his creatures.  Similarly, if we consider the moral order imposed on man as a social being, the more precious my neighbor’s rights are, the more grievous is their violation; taking an innocent life is a graver injury than stealing property.

It is on this basis of reason applied to the data of revelation that the exponents of moral theology argue that certain actions are to be considered as grave sin, and when there is substantial agreement between them on points which may be a little difficult to determine, the faithful can accept their teaching as certain.  For the common theological teaching, owing to its practical influence on the use of the sacrament of Penance, is, in effect, the common teaching of the Church.  But even the most careful enquiry often fails to secure certainty, owing to the complexity of the matter and the divergent views tolerated by the Church.


5.   Advertence and consent

So far we have examined the subject, so to speak, objectively.  But before any action can be considered as gravely sinful, not merely considered abstractly, but subjectively on the part of any particular individual, it is necessary for the individual conscience to appreciate that the action is morally wrong. 

Conscience is a judgment of the mind, based on habitual knowledge, that an action is in conformity with the law of God or not.  We cannot, in this place, discuss the many important questions concerning judgments of conscience which may be based on erroneous premises, or be the result of invincible ignorance or scrupulosity.  It would take us too far afield, and is not really necessary for a proper understanding of the act of sin.  We will assume that the mind has formed a judgment that a proposed action is gravely sinful, in the sense that a serious obligation is involved, and that this decision is not warped by inculpable ignorance or by an abnormal mental condition.

Now, in order that a person may commit a grave sin, that is, an act for which the individual sinner must be held responsible, it is clearly requisite that the will should give consent to the evil, for without free consent there can be no responsibility.  It is precisely on this point that doubts and difficulties often arise, especially in sins of thought.  The matter is essentially one for the individual to settle for himself, though a prudent confessor can be of great assistance in removing erroneous notions and irrelevant issues, and in helping a person to resolve the doubts which may have arisen on the score of consent, by steering a safe path between scrupulosity and laxity.  We can at least see this: the consent of the will is necessarily bound up with, and measured by, the degree of mental awareness or advertence existing at the moment.  In a practical issue of such vital importance as mortal sin, the consent must be reckoned insufficient unless it is accompanied by that degree of advertence which is required for any other serious matter in human life.  No one could be held bound, at least in conscience, to the terms of a contract which he had signed when half asleep, or when his mind was wandering, or when his judgment was unbalanced by the stress of a strong emotion which he had neither desired nor caused.  Similarly no one can commit a mortal sin in these circumstances.


6.   Temptation

We will suppose, then, that the requisite knowledge and advertence are present; in other words, that a person knows a proposed action to be gravely forbidden by the law of God, even though the reasons for the prohibitions are only vaguely perceived; and, secondly, that he adverts to this knowledge, even though the consequent effects of mortal sin are not fully appreciated at the moment.  The human will is now, as we say, being “temped” to commit sin, and the temptation may arise either from the attractions of the world, or from the desires of our own bodies—the law in our members always fighting against the law of God (Rom. vii 23)—or from the instigation of the enemy of mankind.

Faced with the temptation to commit sin, the will may take one of two courses.  The evil suggestion may be rejected and repudiated.  It may return again and again, even daily, throughout the course of our earthly life, and be rejected again and again.  In this there is no sin, but heroic virtue.  God allows it, “that it may appear whether you love him with all your heart and all your soul” (Deut. xiii 3).  These temptations are the blows of the hammer and chisel forming in our souls the image of Christ, the measure of our ultimate enjoyment of the vision of God: “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for, when he hath been proved, he shall receive the crown of life which God hath promised to them that love him” (Jas. i 12).  

Or, on the other hand, with the mind fully adverting to the evil of the suggestion, the will may elect to adopt it.  At that moment mortal sin is committed.  The cause of this disaster is not God (Ps. v 5; Jas I 13), nor the devil, whom we are able to resist “strong in faith” (1 Peter v 9), but the human will, which has freely chosen to transgress the divine law, and by that action has turned away from God its last end and happiness.

The sinful action has been committed and, perhaps, completely forgotten by the sinner.  But, until he co-operates with the grace of repentance, the effects of that mortal sin remain in his soul, disfiguring its supernatural beauty and perfection, and making it worthy of eternal punishment.  “How is the gold become dim, the finest color changed, . . . the noble sons of Sion esteemed as earthen vessel” (Lam. iv 1).  We have now to examine the state of the soul which has so lamentably fallen. 




In the present section we shall examine a little more closely the effects caused in the soul by mortal sin, for we can obtain a fuller idea of the nature of any cause by considering its effects.  Mortal sin is a free act of the will by which we discard the love of God and cease to be united to him as our sovereign good.  Within this idea of freely rejecting the friendship of God is contained everything we can say about the subsequent state of sin.  These consequences are, doubtless, not always fully realized by the person who sins, but a little reflection on the data of revelation will bring them more clearly before the mind: “Know thou and see that it is an evil and a bitter thing for thee to have left the Lord thy God” (Jer. Ii 19).


1.   Guilt and stain

The rejection of God, which is sin, is an act performed by a free and responsible agent.  The act once committed, the sinner remains in a permanent or habitual state of guilt or responsibility for the evil he has done in offending God, and, inasmuch as sin is a breach of the divine law, he incurs also the liability of being punished in order to repair the moral order violated by sin.

Passing over, for the moment, the question of punishment, we must explain in more detail all that is implied in the state of a soul guilty of mortal sin.  For, in the language of Holy Scripture, the word “sinner” is applied to men not only at the moment in which the offence was committed, but afterwards, as a description of their condition of soul, a state which remains until the offence has been forgiven.  It is a consequence of sin which is perfectly intelligible , and is evident even in the offences committed by one man against another.  The offence and the insult offered to God remain as something imputed to the sinner until reparation has been made.  Mortal sin is the turning away from God, and this state must remain until the sinner turns once more to him.

Now, to appreciate what this condition of imputability or guilt entails, we must bear in mind that God has raised us to a supernatural state, endowing our souls with sanctifying grace, making us adopted sons of God, temples of the Holy Spirit, and sharers of the divine nature.  Accompanying this free gift of God are the infused virtues and, above, all the virtue of charity, through which we are united to God by supernatural love.  Had man not been raised to this supernatural state, grievous sin would not have caused in his soul any kind of privation.  But in the present supernatural order the soul is not united to God unless it is in a state of grace and friendship with him, and, therefore, the state of enmity with God means the loss of sanctifying grace and charity.

It is a deprivation often referred to in Holy Scripture as a stain on the soul (Jos. xxii 17), filthiness (Isa. iv 4), uncleanness (Zach. iii 3), from which we must be washed by God in clean water (Ezech. xxxvi 25) and in the blood of Christ (Apoc. i 5).  The phrases are used metaphorically, but they convey an accurate idea of the state of a soul in mortal sin.  “Corruptio optimi pessima”: the better a thing is, the worse is its state of corruption.  A corrupted animal is worse than a corrupted plant; a dead human body is more unpleasant to look upon than the body of an animal; a corrupted human soul must be the most ghastly thing in creation except a fallen angel.  Uncleanness is a term which applies strictly only to material things, and it is caused by a pure and clean object coming into contact with something that defiles it.  The beauty of a human soul consists in the natural light of reason, and, still more, in the supernatural light of divine grace.  By mortal sin it is brought into contact with created things forbidden by the law of God, and by this contact becomes stained and defiled.  It is a state of soul which can be considered as the darkness or shadow caused by an object, personal guilt, which is obscuring the light; the light of grace is restored to the soul by God’s forgiveness of the personal offence which has caused the loss of his friendship.  Hence, owing to the intimate connection between the loss of grace and the habitual guilt consequent on personal mortal sin, it is absolutely impossible for one mortal sin to be forgiven unless the guilt of every mortal sin which a sinner may have committed is also removed.


2.   Debt of eternal punishment

Closely allied to the permanent state of guilt consequent on mortal sin is the debt of undergoing punishment for the sin committed.  It is a debt, indeed, which the sinner may not be called upon actually to pay, since both sin and punishment may be remitted in this life through the mercy and goodness of God; but every sin infallibly carries with it the liability of paying a penalty proportionate to the offence.

Every law must have a sanction attached to its non-observance, and it is in the nature of things that anyone who acts against an established order is repressed by the principle of the order against which he acts.  An offence against the military law is punished by military authority; non-observance of the law of the State is punished by the civil power; a sin against the moral order of God must necessarily be punished by God (The loss of grace being the immediate effect of mortal sin necessarily involves eternal separation from God, should the sinner die unrepentant.  In this sense mortal sin is its own punishment.  But it is essential to keep well in the foreground the idea of punishment as a penalty exacted and inflicted by God in vindication of the moral order which has been violated.  Grace is a free gift of God, and, if a soul is deprived of it, the consequence of that deprival is a punishment inflicted by the author of grace).  The punishment of mortal sin is twofold, thus corresponding to the two elements involved in mortal sin.  To the rejection of God corresponds the pain of loss, and to the inordinate recourse to creatures corresponds the pain of sense.  “Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire” (Matt. xxv 41).  The eternity of hell, so clearly taught in Holy Scripture, arises from the fact that the loss of grace is irreparable, as far as the sinner is concerned, and also from the doctrine that there can be no repentance after death (Cf. Essay xxxiii, Eternal Punishment).  The debt of punishment, therefore, remains as long as the will is turned away from God.  The sinner has indulged his own will in seeking a created good, and justice demands that the violated order should be satisfied by his suffering something against his will in punishment.  In breaking the eternal law of God he does not, and cannot, escape from it. 


3.   Temporal punishment

The liability to eternal punishment is an inevitable accompaniment of the act of sin, and the knowledge of it helps the mind to understand, not only the malice of sin, but the mercy of God, who shows his omnipotence in sparing us.  Let us for a moment anticipate the doctrine to be explained in the next section, and assume that by repentance the sinner is again converted to God’s friendship.  The guilt is forgiven and the stain of sin removed from his soul by the infusion of sanctifying grace.  As a consequence the liability to eternal punishment, contracted by the guilt of sin, is completely removed, but it does not follow that the repentant sinner is freed from the debt of some temporal punishment.  By mortal sin both justice and friendship have been violated.  With the infusion of divine grace and charity the soul is restored to God’s love and friendship, but the debt of punishment due to the divine justice remains to be paid, not in eternity—for eternal separation from God is inconsistent with being in a state of friendship with him—but in time.  The same is true of human friendship which has been broken off by some act of injustice on the part of one man against another.  The offence may be forgiven by the injured person and friendship restored, but there remains the obligation of making adequate reparation for the injustice, by restoring, for example, stolen property.

The sinner may escape the actual infliction of temporal punishment, but the debt is infallibly contracted by the sinner, and it is for this reason that an undertaking to make satisfaction to God is an integral part of the act of repentance.  It is important to remember that when we speak of temporal punishment as an obligation infallibly and, as it were, automatically incurred, the statement is strictly true only with reference to punishment, at least, in a future state.  The word “temporal” is not to be understood necessarily of this life, for it is a fact of experience that the wicked in this world often live in great happiness: “their houses are secure and peaceable, their children dance and play, they spend their days in wealth” (Job xxi 9-13); so much so that the rest of us who, rightly or wrongly, conceive ourselves as just, may be disturbed at the prosperity of sinners (Ps. lxxii 3).

The inevitable nature of the penalty exacted for sin arises from a consideration of the divine justice.  In his mercy God may accept the vicarious satisfaction of others, and has given to the Church power to remit temporal punishment by applying to individuals the merits of Christ and the saints as satisfaction for their sins (Cf. Essay xxvii, The Sacrament of Penance).  We can be absolutely certain that the obligation of undergoing eternal punishment is entirely remitted when grace is infused into the soul of a repentant sinner, but to what extent our debt of temporal punishment is also remitted we do not, and cannot, know with certainty.  As for the sufferings of this life, a Christian tries to bear them patiently as making him more conformable to the image of Christ (Rom. viii 29), and he asks God to accept them as part of the satisfaction due to his sins.

These two things, the state of guilt and the liability to punishment, are the chief effects of sin in the sinner.  The state of soul we have described would follow upon one mortal sin, and it is called by theologians habitual sin in order to distinguish it, as something lasting and permanent, from “actual sin” which is the sinful act.  We have not used the term because it is liable to be confused with the “habit of sinning,” or the inclination to fall into repeated sins from the force of habit.


4.   Human nature wounded

But we cannot examine the effects of sin without including amongst them the “wounds” suffered by our human nature, primarily as a result of original sin, but also, with due proportion, in consequence of every actual sin committed (Rom. viii 29).  The essential principles of our human nature remain intact, but our natural inclination to virtue becomes weakened by sin.  That inclination itself will never be entirely uprooted, but we are so constituted that repeated acts of vice form in us an increasing facility or habit in respect of those acts.  This is, indeed, an evident and a most lamentable effect of sin upon the sinner, and man knows from experience that after repeated sins the understanding becomes blind to its evil, the will is hardened in malice, resistance is weakened, and passion becomes more unruly.  But no matter to what extent the sinner may be “wounded” in this way, whether by his own sins, or by hereditary tendencies due to the sins of his fathers, the essential principles of his nature are not corrupted, and he is able, with God’s grace, to surmount these obstacles and lead a life of heroic sanctity.


5.   Other consequences

Such are the effects of sin on the sinner.  But in our journey towards God we are not walking alone, we are members of one body of which Christ is the head.  We must remember the effect of sin on the passion and death of Christ our Lord, a reflection which can easily lead to perfect contrition.  The sins of the world, including our own sins, were the cause of all the sufferings of Christ.  One act of God made man would have been sufficient to satisfy the justice of God, but Christ was not content with anything short of a perfect expression of love for men, and there is no more complete sign of love for others than laying down one’s life for them.  So St. Paul speaks of the sin of apostasy as “crucifying again the son of God, making him a mockery” (Heb. vi 6).

Closely connected with this aspect of sin, on which every Christian loves to dwell, is the affront which sin offers to the mystical body of Christ, the organic union of all the faithful united to Christ their head by sanctifying grace.  For, sin being the deprivation of grace, the sinner is a dead and useless member of this body, a withered branch of this vine.  It is for this reason, perhaps, that in the Confiteor we acknowledge our guilt not only to God, but to our Lady, the Apostles, and all the saints.  For the sinner has disfigured the body of Christ, the Church, which God desires to be pure and glorious, “not having in it spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Eph. v 27).

Enough has been said about the state of sin and its effects to enable the mind to understand that it is the greatest of all evils in a human being.  Just as honor is measured by the dignity of the person who gives honor, so is an insult measured by the dignity of the person insulted.  In this sense sin is an infinite offence against the majesty of God.

If the knowledge we possess, from reason and from revelation, concerning the evil of sin, is to be a living force in regulating our own lives, we must, by continual meditation and reflection, bring it home to our minds.  It is one thing to understand the meaning of sin, and view it with abhorrence in general, and say with David, “As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing is a child of death” (2 Kings xii 5-7).  It is another thing to hear the accusing voice of the prophet saying to us individually, “though art the man,” and to see our own sins passing before our eyes, each an object of our own creation and belonging to us more intimately than any other of our possessions.  The personal realization of sin is the first preliminary to repentance.  Before the prodigal son in a far country was inspired to rise again and return to his father, he had first to realize his want and hunger, and to discover that his sins had degraded him to the level of swine (Luke xv 11).



The vital element in every movement of man towards God is its supernatural character.  Our final perfection and happiness in the vision of God is beyond the capabilities of any created nature, unless raised and assisted by divine grace.  A sinful action which averts our souls from God entails the loss of sanctifying grace, and the return to God’s friendship implies a reinstatement, a reinfusion of that same grace which makes us sons of God and joint heirs with Christ.


1.   Initial divine movement

It is not our purpose, in this place, to study the Catholic doctrine on grace (Cf. Essays xvi and xvii), but, in order to understand the meaning of repentance, we must at least realize that although the human will is the cause of the loss of grace by mortal sin, yet the human will cannot, of its own power, repair the disaster and restore the intimate friendship with God which sin has forfeited.  Such would be contrary to the whole concept of “grace” as something freely bestowed upon us by God.

The first movement of repentance comes not from the sinner, but from God: “If anyone says that without the previous inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and without his help, man . . . can repent him, let him be anathema” (Council of Trent, sess. vi, can. 3).  The mercy of God anticipates our own human action in returning to him: “Convert us, O Lord, to thee, and we shall be converted” (Heb. xi 6).  Illuminated by this divine action, we make an act of faith in God (Lam v 21), even though it be merely an act of faith in the existence of hell.  Then, realizing that we are sinners and hoping to obtain the divine mercy, we begin to have some initial love of God as the fountain of all justice, and because our sins have offended God we hate and detest them (Cf. Catechism of the Council of Trent, Part II, chap. v, q. 8; Council of Trent, sess. vi, chap. 6). 

The hatred and detestation of sin, the meaning of which is to be explained in this present section, is a necessary disposition in the sinner before he can possibly obtain forgiveness of his sins and be restored to the grace and friendship of God.  For, although it is of Catholic faith that the first movement of repentance comes from God, it is equally of Catholic faith that the human will must freely co-operate with the divine action.  “If anyone saith that man’s free will, moved and excited by God, by assenting to the divine movement and inspiration does not co-operate towards disposing and preparing itself for the grace of justification . . . let him be anathema” (Council of Trent, sess. vi, can. 4).  The actual grace of God, given to us solely through the merits of Christ our Lord, is necessary for disposing the soul to be received again into the friendship of God as an adopted son; the free movement of the human will hating and detesting sin is also indispensable.


2.   Detestation of sin

In the present section we have to examine all that is involved in this act of detesting sin, which, from whatever motive it may arise, and whether made in sacramental confession or not, is called “repentance.”  It is an act which disposes the sinner to receive complete forgiveness, and it is simply as a predisposing condition to the infusion of grace that we now consider it.  In the next section we shall see how this act of repentance leads to complete forgiveness and the infusion of grace, either through sacramental absolution or as a result of what is known as an act of perfect contrition, carrying with it at least an implicit desire for the sacrament.

If repentance is to have any value as a salutary act, that is to say, as contributing to the restoration of grace in the soul, it must consist of sorrow and detestation for our past sins as offences against the law of God, accompanied by the resolution to amend our lives and make satisfaction.  Its chief characteristic, and one upon which all the others turn, is the voluntary detestation of , or aversion from, the sin committed.  The doctrine of the early Protestant reformer, which is doubtless held by many non-Catholics at the present day, placed the chief element of repentance, not in the act of the will deliberately detesting sin, but rather in the change of mind by which a sinner, from being in a state of terror and remorse, now believes or trusts that his sins have been remitted through the mediation of Christ (Cf. Council of Trent, sess. xiv, can. 4).  They regarded dwelling on the sins of the past, in order to detest them, and especially reflection on the state of sin with its liability to eternal punishment, as useless sorrow and hypocrisy (Ibid., can. 5).  Consequently the whole stress in the idea of repentance was placed on leading a new life, to the exclusion of making satisfaction, whether voluntarily undertaken or imposed by the Church, for the sins of the past (Cf. Council of Trent, sess. vi, can. 13). 

Quite apart from any consideration of the teaching of Holy Scripture, it will be seen that the Catholic doctrine is a logical and necessary deduction from the nature of sin, as we have already explained it, and it is evident also from an analogy with human friendship which has been broken off by a grave and deliberate offense.  The sinner, having rejected God to find satisfaction in created things, cannot hope for forgiveness unless he first detests that which has been the cause of his separation from God, or is at least prepared to detest it as soon as it is recalled to his memory.  If the evil of sin is understood, detestation of it is accompanied by sorrow when once we recognize either that the evil is actually present, or that it has been present at some time or other in our lives.  The resolution to change one’s life is excellent, and is necessarily involved in the act of repentance; but how is it possible to elect to change one’s life, in the sense of avoiding sin, without at the same time realizing that our former life was evil, and, if evil, a matter for detestation and sorrow?

So the great penitents in Holy Scripture are shown to us sorrowing and detesting their sins as a necessary prelude to the resolution of leading a new life and of making satisfaction.  “I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me . . . a contrite and humble heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 1 5, 19),  “The soul that is sorrowful for the greatness of the evil she hath done . . . giveth glory and justice to thee” (Baruch ii 18).  “I am confounded and ashamed because I have borne the reproach of my youth” (Jer. xxxi 19).  In the New Testament, the tears of Peter (Luke xxii 62) and Magdalen (Luke vii 44) and the grief of the prodigal son (Luke xv 21), are familiar examples of true repentance.   


3.   Purpose of amendment and satisfaction

Into this act of detestation and sorrow for sin there necessarily enters a resolution to amend one’s life in the future, and to make whatever satisfaction the justice of God may require.  We must not conceive the detestation of sin and the purpose of amendment and of making satisfaction as three entirely separate elements in repentance; they are so joined and connected that one is not present unless the others enter, at least implicitly, into the act; that is to say, if a person is truly sorry for his past sins, he necessarily undertakes to amend his life and make satisfaction, even though he does not at the moment directly advert to these obligations.  For it is impossible for the sinner really to detest sin unless at the same time he undertakes to avoid it in future.  Similarly detestation of sin implies a realization of responsibility in deliberately breaking the law of God.  In sinning against God we are sinning against the legislator who has attached a sanction to his laws, both as a deterrent from future sin, and as part of the order of his eternal justice.  In the previous section sufficient has been said about this liability to punishment incurred by the sinner, and there is no need to refer to the subject again.  But, concerning the true sorrow and the true purpose of amendment which are involved in repentance, there still remain some necessary observation to make.


4.   Qualities of true repentance and amendment

In the first place, the reason for which sin is detested must be in some way concerned with God against whom sin has been committed.  It would be therefore altogether inadequate for a person to detest sin because it results in such consequences as the loss of reputation, or bodily disease; but any salutary motive suffices.  Reflections on the disorder of the state of sin, the fear of God’s punishment, even on the temporal punishment of this world, provided they are conceived in the light of faith as being inflicted by God in vindication of his justice, are adequate motives.  Still more, such considerations as the effect of sin on the passion of Christ, the contempt and ingratitude and rebellion against God, and all the deformity involved in acting against his eternal law, are excellent motives for detesting sin.  The supreme motive is to base our repentance on the love of God for his own sake, the act known as perfect contrition, which is the subject of the next section.

It is necessary, in addition, that the sinner should detest sin “above all things,” as we say in the act of contrition.  This does not mean that we must have feelings of sorrow and repulsion regarding sin greater than our feelings with regard to any other evil; for repentance proceeds essentially from the intellect and will, although it generally happens that our emotions share in the sorrow elicited, and there is a prayer in the liturgy asking for the gift of tears to bewail our sins.  The phrase “above all things” means that in the judgment of the intellect we estimate sin to be greater than any other evil, and as a consequence of this intellectual judgment the will detests sin more than any other evil.  Such a judgment and consequent detestation must necessarily follow from all that has been said about sin and its effects.

It is not only unnecessary, but altogether imprudent and unwise, to attempt to test the sincerity of this judgment by making comparisons between the evil of sin and the evil of undergoing some terrible torture, and asking whether the torture would be chosen rather than the sin.  For an imminent sensible evil causes more vehement feelings of fear at the moment, and may interfere with the judgment of the mind.  It is sufficient to prefer any evil in general to the evil of sin, without descending to particular comparison.  “The contrite sinner,” says St. Thomas, “must in general be prepared to suffer any pain rather than commit sin, but he is not bound to make a particular comparison between this pain or that pain.  On the contrary, it is foolish to question oneself or other persons on the choice that would be made if confronted with any particular suffering” (Quodlibet., I, art. Ix; Parma, vol. ix, p. 465). 

The detestation of which we are speaking must extend to each and every mortal sin we have committed.  For each of them, taken singly, has grievously offended God; each one is sufficient of itself to cause the loss of grace and divine friendship.  We have already seen that it is impossible for one mortal sin to be forgiven without the others, since in the supernatural order the remission of sin is equivalent to the infusion of grace into the soul.  If the soul remains unrepentant of one mortal sin, it is not yet disposed for the infusion of grace.  One must be careful not to misunderstand the meaning of this doctrine.  God does not expect us to do what is morally impossible.  Our sorrow is held to extend to all the mortal sins we have committed, even if, after a reasonable examination of conscience, some sins may have escaped our memory.  Moreover, as will be explained in the next section, the act of perfect charity, by which the soul loves God above all things and for his own sake, so disposes the soul with regard to its last end, that it would at once detest any sin which is recalled to the memory, even though, when the act of perfect charity was made, the sinner did not explicitly think of any particular past sin.  Detestation of sin is implicitly contained in the act of perfect charity.

To turn now to the purpose of amendment, it will be perceived at once that, if sorrow for past sin really has all the fullness which we have attempted to analyze, it must necessarily follow that the will at the same time undertakes to avoid that sin in the future.  In very many cases of true repentance the mind does not advert explicitly to the purpose of amendment: it is contained implicitly within the act of sorrow and detestation, and it would be unnecessarily rigorous to require it to be made explicitly in each case.  Why, then, must we subject the matter to a still further examination?  Because the detestation of past sin and the purpose of amendment are so closely connected that, especially in cases of repeated sin, the purpose of amendment may be an indication of the sincerity of our sorrow.

For this reason it is advisable always to make it explicitly as we find it in the formula of the act of contrition.  Moreover, whenever a repentant sinner, looking into the future, foresees the possibility of repeating the offense, the omission of an explicit resolution to avoid it might argue an insufficient detestation of his sin. 

Let us try to see more exactly all that is implied in this resolution.  The will must firmly elect to suffer any evil in general rather than offend God again, either by the same offense or in any other way.  At the time of repentance it is possible by an act of the will to make this firm resolution, even though the intellect, from past experience, foresees the possibility of sinning again.  The knowledge that the same sin has been committed so often in the past need not exclude from the act of repentance a firm purpose for the future, especially when it is united to a strong trust in the mercy of God, who will not suffer us to be tempted more than we are able (1 Cor. x 13).  It must also be an efficacious resolution; that is to say, the will must elect to adopt the necessary means for avoiding future sin, especially by keeping away from the occasions which lead to it.

Hence the practical value of a most careful consideration of all that is meant by the purpose of amendment.  Repeated falls even into the same sin do not necessarily argue a defective purpose or a defective sorrow; it may have been a good act of repentance at the time, though subsequent temptation, human infirmity, and the force of habit have induced the will once more to consent to sin.  But, in a given instance, the lack of purpose in avoiding an unnecessary occasion of sin, which could easily be put aside, must sooner or later bring the repentant sinner to review his supposed sorrow, and to ask himself whether his alleged detestation of sin is an illusion.  It is a momentous question to answer, for repentance, as we have described it, is a condition which is absolutely necessary for salvation in an adult who has committed mortal sin.


5.   Necessity of repentance

Whether God, of his absolute power, could forgive sin and infuse grace into the soul of a person who has not repented, is extremely doubtful.  But the question is not what God could do, but what he actually does in the present order of his providence, as revealed to us in Holy Scripture and defined by the Church.  For while, on the one hand, it is certain that man could not, of his own power, attain to his supernatural end without the assistance of God’s grace, it is equally certain that an adult who has come to the use of reason must reach his last end in a manner which is in accordance with his nature, by freely co-operating with divine grace.  He must, that is to say, dispose himself for justification by doing what is possible for a human being to do.  For a person who is in a state of mortal sin, the only part of the process of justification that is possible is to detest the sin he has committed.  If he were relieved of the necessity of making at least this act of repentance, and so disposing his soul for the reception of grace, he would then perfect his being and realize the purpose of his existence without contributing anything whatever to the process.  This would probably be intrinsically impossible, for it would not be in keeping with the order of things, as we know them, in which everything attains the purpose for which it was created by acting in accordance with its nature.  The movement of God, in the order of supernatural grace, anticipates every human action: “No one can come to me except the Father, who hath sent me, draw him” (John vi 44); but it is a movement perfecting, not destroying, the free will of our nature, which must co-operate with divine grace.

The doctrine is evident in the pages of Holy Scripture, and from the lives of the great penitents.  “You have said: The way of the Lord is not right. . . .  Is it my way that is not right, and are not rather your ways perverse?  For when the just turneth himself away from his justice, and committeth iniquity, he shall die therein . . . and when the wicked turneth himself away from his wickedness . . . he shall save his soul alive” (Ezech. xviii 25-27).  Therefore Christ warned all sinners that unless they repent they will all perish (Luke xiii 3).  The necessity of repentance as a condition for the remission of sin is absolute: “Repentance was at all times necessary, in order to obtain grace and justification, for all men who have defiled themselves by mortal sin. . . . ” (Council of Trent, sess. xiv, chap. 4). 

But if actual grace is necessary for repentance, it is a grace which is never refused to one who asks.  “Converte nos, Deus,” is a prayer continually found throughout the Divine Office, and there is a very striking prayer in the Missal which asks God in his mercy to compel our stubborn wills to turn again to him (Secret, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost). 

Sin is disruptive of divine charity.  By repentance the sinner detests the cause of so great a disaster.  But of all the various motives which give rise to this detestation there is one which is the highest and noblest that the human mind can conceive.  It is the love of God for his own sake.



1.   Connection with the Sacrament of Penance

A person tied to a post cannot reach another position until he is freed from his bonds.  By mortal sin we are abound in a state of slavery until we break those bonds by repentance (Rom. vi), and are free to be united again in friendship with God.  There is no middle state in which we can rest, as it were, in a condition of neutrality, neither in a state of grace nor in a state of sin.  A sinner who has detested his sin and promised amendment and satisfaction has disposed his soul for justification, but he is not yet restored to a state of grace.  With the effects of sin still remaining in his soul he still awaits the divine forgiveness which will effect complete reconciliation by the infusion of sanctifying grace.  This grace is given solely through the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord, and the channel by which it reaches us is the sacrament of Penance instituted by Christ for the purpose.  In this sacrament a priest, authorized by the Church, and acting in the name and person of Christ absolves the sinner from his sins.

We need not be concerned with discussing all the possible ways in which God could forgive sin; we know from God’s revelation that the sins of the whole world, even before Christ’s coming, are forgiven through Christ, “in whom we have redemption through his blood, the remission of sins” (Col. i 14).  Nor need we try to imagine other ways in which the merits of Christ might have been applied to those who have committed mortal sin after Baptism; we know that Christ, “who did all things well” (Mark vii 37), has left with his Church the power of loosing from sin (Cf. Essay xxvii).  By mortal sin grace, which unites us all as one body in Christ, is lost, and the soul becomes a dead and useless member of that mystical body.  It was altogether fitting, if one may so speak of the actions of him “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. ii 3), that a sinner should be reunited to the body of Christ through the authority of that body on earth, exercised by men who, in spite of their own sins and unworthiness, are ambassadors of Christ (2 Cor. v 20) and dispensers of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. iv 1).  And if we reflect more deeply upon all that it means to be a member of the body of Christ, we shall begin to see why it is that our sins will not be forgiven unless we forgive others their trespasses against us.  Christ, therefore, has determined that the repentant sinner will find forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance, and unless sorrow for sin has some relation to the sacrament it will not issue in the infusion of sanctifying grace.  But what this connection and relation is will differ according to a person’s knowledge and opportunities.

Every Catholic is aware that perfect contrition remits sin even before the sin has been confessed.  But this emphatically does not mean that it is forgiven apart from all connection with the sacrament.  A Catholic, who knows of his obligation to submit all mortal sins to the power of the keys, does not make an act of perfect contrition unless he intends to confess his sins at a convenient opportunity.  For since the sacrament of Penance is the method instituted by Christ for the remission of sin, no sinner could be called contrite who declined to do what God has laid down as the way to forgiveness: such an attitude would at least argue a lack of the proper undertaking to make satisfaction, which is a necessary condition of repentance.  A non-Catholic, whom we will assume to be in good faith and inculpably ignorant of the obligation of confession, nevertheless establishes some implicit connection between his repentance and the sacrament of Penance.  For in repenting of his sins, on a motive of perfect contrition, he must necessarily undertake, as part of his satisfaction, to do whatever Christ has determined to be necessary for forgiveness.  Implied in this purpose, did he but know it, is the resolution to confess his sins as soon as his conscience appreciates the obligation.

It would be quite erroneous, therefore, to suppose that there are various ways open to sinners in obtaining forgiveness, of which the sacrament of Penance is one; for the Church teaches clearly and definitely that although perfect contrition reconciles man to God before the sacrament has been received, yet it does so only by virtue of the desire for the sacrament, which is included, at least implicitly, in the act of contrition itself (Council of Trent, sess. xiv, chap. 4).


2.   Perfect love of God

Contrition is called perfect when the motive which causes the will to detest sin is the love of God for his own sake: it is called imperfect, or “attrition,” when the motive is something quite distinct from this love of God; for example, the deformity of sin or the fear of hell.  Any attempt, therefore, to understand more closely what is meant by perfect contrition, is equivalent to enquiring what is meant by the love of God or charity.

Any love—for example, the love of a son for his parents—can be of a twofold character.  As a small child he loves them solely because they are good to him, a comfort in pain, a protection in the troubles of life, a never-failing source from which he draws everything necessary for his life and happiness.  But gradually and imperceptibly this selfish kind of love should yield to a love which is more generous and is concerned more with giving than receiving, more with doing them some good than in self-seeking.  The love existing between two persons who discover that they are mutually an advantage to each other is an excellent thing, but if the basis of mutual love turns on each person desiring and trying to do the highest amount of good to the other, generously, unselfishly, and constantly, there exists a perfect friendship, than which there is nothing more beautiful in human intercourse.  Such love existing between the soul and God is so priceless and dear that we give it the special name of “charity.”

Passing over, for the moment, any discussions that might arise, and confining ourselves to what is completely certain, we may say that contrition is perfect when its motive is a love of God, not of the mercenary kind, based on the consideration that he is good to us, but an unselfish love which we conceive for him because he is good and lovable for his own sake, a love whereby we rejoice in his infinite perfections, wishing him well, and desiring him to be known and loved by all men.  When we speak of perfect contrition we mean repentance and sorrow for sin based on this motive: the repentance, for example, of the woman to whom many sins were forgiven because she loved much (Luke vii 47).

In a less strict sense, although identical effects result in the soul, an act of perfect love of God in which there is no explicit reference to past sin may also be called an act of perfect contrition; for it is impossible for a sinner to elicit this perfect love for God without also repenting of his sins, did he but advert to them (It is doubtful, however, whether the sorrow for past sin implicitly contained in an act of perfect love of God suffices for the effect of the sacrament of Penance, since, as is explained in Essay xxvii, the sorrow of the penitent is part of the “matter” of this sacrament). 

In both cases, according to Catholic doctrine, the act of perfect contrition results in immediate justification of the sinner, it being presumed that all the requisite qualities of true repentance, as explained in the last section, are at least implicitly present.  By the infusion of grace and charity the soul becomes once more a friend of God, a member of Christ’s mystical body, and an heir with Christ to life eternal.

It must not be supposed that an act of perfect contrition is in itself the cause of effecting reconciliation with God, for this, since it entails the infusion of grace, is in God’s free disposition and beyond the capabilities of any creature.  But since God never refuses grace to any man who does all that he is able to do, it is altogether in accordance with his infinite mercy and goodness that grace should not be withheld from one who has made the highest possible endeavor to reach God that any creature can make.  Perfect contrition, therefore, though not the cause of justification, is nevertheless so perfect a disposition in the sinner as to call infallibly for the restoration of God’s friendship.  God’s love, it is true, has never faltered, for it is extended to all, even to sinner (Rom. v 8; 1 John iv 10); yet friendship does not exist until love is mutual, and charity is nothing else than friendship between God and man.  “If any man love me, my Father will love him: and e will come to him and make our abode with him” (John xiv 23). 

The Council of Trent, in expressing the constant teaching and tradition of the Church, takes it for granted that contrition, which is perfect through charity, reconciles man with God before the sacrament of Penance is actually is received (Sess. xiv, chap. iv).  The doctrine is certain if by charity is meant the love of God because he is good in himself, not merely because he is good to us.  It is only contrition elicited on this motive which is properly called “perfect,” and which, in the teaching of the Church, certainly leads to justification (Some writers, wishing to render  an act of perfect contrition as easy as possible, allow the possibility of perfect contrition in the love of God for selfish motives, i.e., because union with him constitutes eternal happiness for us, or because our souls are even now thirsting for the living God like the hart panting after the fountains of water (Ps. xli 1).  But this cannot be regarded with certainty as sufficient for an act of perfect contrition, and in a matter of such grave moment we cannot be satisfied with anything less than certainty.  Such lesser motives are excellent: they help the sinner to detest sin above all things, and they lead to perfect contrition.  But we cannot help seeing on reflection that there is very little difference between love of God, conceived for a selfish motive, and the fear of hell.  It is salutary sorrow for sin, but is imperfect, not perfect.)


3.   Imperfect love of God

For the word “perfect” implies that nothing is wanting in the action, and that its fullness is complete and entire.  But if the motive of contrition is anything short of God’s own self, it is evidently not as perfect as it might be (It is, of course, possible to elicit perfect contrition by a consideration of any one attribute of God—his benignity or his mercy, for example—provided it is considered as a divine perfection, and not merely as something very advantageous to ourselves.  The reason for this is that the attributes of God, which the human mind regards separately, are not really distinct in God.  Cf. Essay iii, The One God, p. 92).  Thus an imperfect motive of contrition might easily be the desire to render to God something due to him, on a title of justice, obedience, or gratitude.  It can be understood, from an analogy with purely human relations, that a man might be ready to make reparation to another because he is in his debt or subject to his authority, or because he has received favors from his hands.  Yet, while doing this, he might feel wholly unable to regret his offense out of regard for the persona qualities and excellence of the other person.

Still more easily can it be seen that to seek reconciliation with an injured friend, because the loss of his friendship is a grave inconvenience, is a motive which leaves an enormous amount to be desired.  Nevertheless, as will be shown more fully in the essay on The Sacrament of Penance, the fear of hell, or any other less noble motive leading us to detest sin, suffices, provided the sacrament is not merely desired but actually received.  The only point necessary to notice here is that the justification of the sinner, whether in the case of perfect contrition or in the reception of the sacrament of Penance, is brought about in both cases by the infusion of sanctifying grace.  But the means by which that grace is given is in one case the reception of a sacrament of the New Law, one of the seven signs instituted by Christ as channels of divine grace, external signs which by virtue of their own action as instruments in the hands of Christ convey grace from the head to the members of his body.  In the other case the grace of justification is given to a man who by his own activity, under the divine inspiration, has so disposed his soul by doing all that it is possible for him to do, that God immediately gives the grace of his friendship.

The more perfect our contrition is, in receiving the sacrament, the more pleasing it is to God and the more grace is received.  For a soul already justified by perfect contrition, in receiving the sacrament receives still more grace, and becomes more deeply rooted and grounded in charity.


4.   How to make an act of perfect contrition

It should therefore be our constant care to make more and more perfect the motive of our sorrow for sin.  It is difficult in the sense that perfect contrition requires complete detachment from our sins, and careful reflection on divine things, which in the modern rush of life is not always easy to secure; it is difficult, too, because it is not easy to break away from selfish and excessive preoccupation with our own advantage and happiness, even in matters religious.  But, granted a certain degree of generosity towards God, it should be comparatively easy gradually to purify our motives and arrive almost imperceptibly at perfect contrition.

In a matter that concerns so intimately the internal dispositions of each soul it is not possible to suggest any definite rule: each person must follow the line of thought which is most suitable in leading him to perfect contrition.  The fear of God is the beginning of all wisdom, and the thought of eternal separation from God would usually be the starting-point.  A further step would be to think of the pain of loss as being inflicted by one who loves us with infinite love.  Sin is an offense and an insult against God, for whom we should have nothing but gratitude in return for all his favors, both spiritual and temporal, and above all for his unspeakable gift of grace by which we are made his adopted sons in Christ (2 Cor. ix 15).  “How hath he not also with him given us all things?” (Rom. viii 32)  Have we made any return for these gifts, or are all our prayers invariably petitions for further favors?  God has been good to us, but why?  Not because there is anything beautiful or lovable about us apart from our union with Christ, for whose sake God loves us (John xvi 27).  No matter how we look at it, there is nothing in us that we have not received from God (1 Cor. iv 7), nothing intrinsic to our own deeds to cause God to treat us with such benignity.  Why, then, is God good to us?  For no other reason than because he is good in himself.

Nor is this divine goodness something abstract which we can get to know and understand only by a process of philosophic thought.  He was made flesh and dwelt amongst us, grew weary in seeking us, shed tears for us, suffered and died for us.  Yet this infinite goodness we have insulted and offended by mortal sin. . . .  By such gradual and easy steps as these it is possible to develop the motive of contrition from the notion of fear to that of love of God for his own sake.  It is only on elevated motives of this kind that we can gradually perfect our lives, not only by avoiding mortal sin, but by gradually eliminating all trace even of deliberate venial sin.  Most of all, it is on this motive alone that we shall begin to understand the infinite mercy of God in granting the gift of repentance, from its first stirring in our souls to its completion in the infusion of divine grace.  For it is chiefly by sparing and having mercy upon us that God manifests his almighty power (Collect, Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost).



1.   A sin consistent with grace and charity

We have already recalled the fact that the word “sin” is used only analogously of venial offenses.  That is to say, there is a certain resemblance between mortal sin and venial sin, inasmuch as each is an offense against the law of God.  There is, however, a vital difference between them, and that difference it is our object here to explain.

Christ our Lord in his parables often likened the life of our souls to the growth of plants or trees.  In the case of these it is often possible to detect some radical defect or disease which will prevent them from ever reaching maturity.  Sometimes, on the other hand, one may find minor blemishes—say in a rose-tree, which will not hinder its ultimate blossoming, but which make it less lovely and beautiful in the eyes of an expert.  It would be true to say that the law of the plant’s growth requires the absence not only of radical disease, but of minor defects also.  But it would be much more accurate to regard as, strictly speaking, against the law of its nature only those defects which prevents its growth to maturity.  No one could refuse to call it a rote-tree simply because the scent and color of its blossoms were not up to the desired standard.

It is rather similar with the individual soul.  It would be true to say that the slightest transgression is against the law of God, but it would be much more accurate to say that only those breaches of the law are to be regarded, in the strict sense of the word, as against the law of God which prevent a man from attaining his last end; that is to say, only those sins which are disruptive of divine charity, and which entail the loss of grace and liability to eternal separation from God.   

Like all examples taken to illustrate doctrines, the example of a plant’s growth is necessarily imperfect, but it serves to explain the difference between mortal and venial sin.  There are many minor offenses, forbidden indeed by the law of God, but which do not so radically upset the established moral order as to make the attainment of man’s last end impossible.  They offend God, but do not offend him to the extent of breaking off the union of charity existing between our souls and him; and since union with God is the end of our existence, they are not strictly against the law of God.

If it is asked why this is so, one can only answer by asking why it is that the germs of certain diseases will utterly prevent a plant from growing to maturity, while other noxious germs are not so destructive.  God has so fashioned human nature, and so raised it to a supernatural state, that certain culpable departures from the law which governs man’s being have the effect of preventing his end and purpose in life from being realized.  “Thy hands have made me and formed me: give me understanding, and I will learn thy commandments” (Ps. cxviii 73).

Man may willfully transgress the divine law in various ways, but, provided the principle of his supernatural life is not destroyed, he still remains properly disposed towards God, his last end and happiness, and the effects of such actions are not of their nature irreparable, precisely because the principle of divine grace and charity is not lost.  Thus a mathematician engaged in the solution of a difficult problem may make small errors, but, if the principles on which his calculations rest are sound, he can easily retrace his steps and correct the mistakes he has made.  Even the healthiest persons suffer some disease or illness at some time or other, but their own strength and vitality suffice to enable them to recover from the ill effects; if, however, the disease is one which has destroyed the life of some vital organ, then nothing short of a miracle will restore them to health.

Those sins, therefore, which do not involve the loss of grace, and whose effects can be repaired by the supernatural principle of grace and charity, which still remain in the soul, are called “venial.”  The word itself, which is derived from venia, “pardon,” could equally be used, and was so used by early writers, with reference to repented mortal sin, for there is no sin which God will not forgive.  But, inasmuch as the liability to eternal punishment, the necessary effect of mortal sin, is not incurred except by the loss of grace, any sin which does not merit eternal punishment is of its nature worthy of pardon, and the term “venial” is properly applied to it.  For no matter how long or how grievous the temporal punishment due to such sins may be, the soul must inevitably reach its last end, as long as it does not suffer the loss of sanctifying grace.  He who sins venially is retarded on his journey towards God, but, unlike a person in mortal sin who is averted from his last end, he remains on the way which leads to God and will eventually possess him.  “For although, during this mortal life, men, no matter how holy and just they may be, fall daily into small sins, which are called venial, they do not thereby, cease to be just” (Council of Trent, sess. vi, chap. 9).

If, therefore, we compare venial and mortal sin from the point of view of their effects on the soul, the complete difference between the two is apparent.  But when we examine venial sin from the angle of the person sinning, it appears, at first sight, that in electing to turn inordinately to creatures in a manner forbidden by the divine law, the sinner shows that, in putting his own will above the will of God, he is choosing some creature instead of God.

If this conclusion were true and necessary it would be difficult to see how venial sin differs from mortal sin.  The phrase “the will of God” means, however, in this connection, something which God has forbidden, and we cannot draw any conclusions at all until we have determined whether a thing is forbidden by God under the pain of forfeiting the divine friendship or not.  Acts forbidden as venial sins are of such character that they do not forfeit the divine friendship, and it is because the sinner is aware of this that it is possible for him to offend God and at the same time remain united to him.

The same is true of human friendships.  A person might easily displease his friend in many minor matters, but would never run the risk of destroying the friendship altogether by doing things which he foresaw would have this result.  So also in the case of a person committing venial sin.  He is so disposed towards God that if he thought that a breach of the divine law would result in the loss of divine grace and charity, he would not commit it for any reason whatever.

From such considerations as these it will be evident that an erroneous conscience has a most important influence in determining the existence of mortal sin.  If a person is an invincibly ignorant that he is in good faith in thinking that an action which is objectively grave is no more than venial sin, then venial sin is actually committed owing to the error.  Similarly the persuasion that an action is mortally sinful constitutes mortal sin in the person who commits it, even though his mind was in error in making the judgment. 

Also it is most important to recall the necessity of advertence and consent for mortal sin even when there is no sort of error concerning the objective malice of the offense.  It can be said with certainty that many offenses fall short of the complete malice of mortal sin owing to the consent being, on various counts, defective.  We talk of “falling into” mortal sin, but no one can fall into it in the sense of doing it accidentally and unawares.  It can be said with equal certainty that the real issue is known to God alone, the searcher of hearts.  Unless the venial or mortal nature of a sin is abundantly evident, it is a dangerous procedure for the human mind to attempt to diagnose the guilt, even in one’s own sins; and still more dangerous regarding the sins of other people.  There are numerous cases in which the border-line cannot be accurately determined; for example, in deciding on the consent given to evil thoughts, or in determining the gravity of theft.  The only safe rule is expressly to repent of any sin which might conceivably be grave, and to confess it as such.


2.   Effects

Let us now examine more closely the effects of venial sin upon the soul.  In the first place, sanctifying grace is not lost by any offense short of mortal sin, and, inasmuch as the “stain” of sin is nothing else than the privation of grace, it follows that venial sin does not, strictly speaking, cause a stain, which we have already seen to be the consequence of mortal sin.

Venial sin is opposed to the charity which should exist between the soul and God, not in the sense that it is inconsistent with the habitual state of grace by which we are united to God’s love through a vivifying union with Christ, but in the sense that the acts prompted by the virtue of charity are rendered by venial sin less fervent in their expression.

The distinction turns on the difference between habitual grace with the attendant virtue of charity, which every soul well ordered towards its last end possesses, and the fervor of the acts elicited by the soul in that state.  The effect of mortal sin is to destroy habitual grace and charity, a privation which is called in the Scriptures the stain of sin; the effect of venial sin is to impede the fervor of the acts of a person, who, while possessing the intrinsic state of friendship with God, nevertheless directs his actions to the attainment of his last end only remissly and tardily.

Just as the word “sin” applies strictly to mortal sin and only analogously to venial sin, so also, if we prefer to use the word “stain” in order to express the effect of venial sin on the soul, it can be used only analogously and imperfectly.  There is all the difference in the world between a child who cannot leap and jump owing to a crippled state of limb, and one who is merely suffering from languor and disinclination.  IN the one case it is due to a permanent and habitual disorder, in the other case the lassitude can be overcome with a little effort.  We must therefore remove altogether from our consideration of venial sin and its effects the notion of stain resulting from the privation of grace, and, as a consequence, the liability to eternal punishment incurred by a soul in that state.  We can see that from venial sin there results in the sinner the obligation of acknowledging his guilt and the debt of punishment.  There is guilt because venial sin is a breach of the divine law and displeases God, though not to the extent of destroying his friendship.  There is also the debt of punishment, for the divine order has been disturbed and the sinner must restore that order by undergoing a penalty proportionate to the offense, even though the punishment is of a temporal nature.

These two things, guilt and punishment, are the two immediate effects of venial sin.  But before we discuss repentance as applied to these offenses we must be aware of certain possibilities arising from deliberate venial sin.  It is very necessary to establish a clear and definite division between mortal and venial sin, but in doing so we must beware lest the mind imperceptibly and almost unconsciously should form a judgment that venial sin is a trifling matter of no consequence whatever.

The remarks we have to make apply only to deliberate offenses.  We have already seen that venial sin may arise from insufficient advertence and consent, fleeting thoughts, sudden access of passion, unthinking and indeliberate movements which are rejected almost as soon as they are experienced.  With regard to venial sins of this kind it is the accepted teaching of the Church that not even the holiest person can altogether avoid them.  But with deliberate venial sin—a small theft, for example—our judgment must be altogether different.

It follows from the nature of venial sin that no number of such offenses will ever be equivalent to one mortal sin.  But indirectly, and as a consequence, deliberate venial sin will lead to mortal sin.  Nemo fit repente pessimus—nobody becomes evil all at once.  It is a slow and gradual process which leads the will eventually to commit mortal sin.  Deliberate transgression of the law of God in small matters causes a habit of mind which grows accustomed to deflections from the moral order, and gradually disposes the sinner to depart from it in a serious matter.  Imperceptibly a state of mind is generated which is set on discovering to what extent the law of God can be broken without committing grave sin.  It is betrayed by a certain theological dexterity in trying to discover the least obligation consistent with remaining in a state of grace.  Is it necessary to point out that a person walking on the edge of a precipice is in danger of falling over?  “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in that which is greater: and he that is unjust in that which is little is unjust also in that which is greater” (Luke xvi 10).  It is because we are creatures of habit, and because each deliberate sin paves the way to one slightly graver, that spiritual writers often refer to venial sin in terms which to the unthinking appear exaggerated.  There is no need of warning from spiritual writers.  Everyone knows from his own experience, and from the experience of others, that the commission of mortal sin is the result of a series of deliberate transgressions in smaller matters.

The important thing is to purge the soul from what St. Francis de Sales calls the “affection” for venial sin, which he describes as the chief obstacle to that devotion which consists in a ready and willing service of God.  “They weaken the strength of the spirit, hinder the divine consolations, open the door to temptations, and, although they do not kill the soul, make it excessively ill” (Devout Life, Bk. I, chap. xxii).


3.   Remission

Perhaps there is nothing which so completely illustrates the essential difference between mortal and venial sin as an enquiry into the various ways by which venial sin can be remitted.  The Catholic doctrine regarding the remission of mortal sin turns, as we have seen, on the sacrament of Penance, which in the present order is the way determined by God for reconciliation with him.  If the sinner repents of mortal sin, in the sense explained above, even though it be only through fear of God’s punishment, he is in the salutary disposition for justification.  By the divine mercy the absolution of a priest authorized by the Church restores the repentant sinner to a state of grace and friendship with God, and if the motive of contrition is the love of God above all things, the soul is immediately justified, even before the sacrament is received, provided it is at least implicitly desired. 

In as much as the state of mortal sin is equivalent to the loss of sanctifying grace, and the infusion of grace is identical with the remission of mortal sin, the doctrine concerning the remission of mortal sin can be easily understood and clearly formulated.  But it is not possible to state with quite the same directness the method by which the guilt of venial sin is remitted, for venial sin is not accompanied by the loss or diminution of habitual grace and charity; it causes the acts elicited by a person in the state of grace to be lessened in fervor; it does not destroy charity, but merely impedes its exercise.  It is because the effects of venial sin are of this character that it is difficult to state the doctrine concerning their remission, for the effects must necessarily differ with the individual, and will depend very largely on the degree of virtue and sanctity which has been attained; whereas the effects of mortal sin, as far as the loss of grace is concerned, are identical in all sinners.  Nevertheless, on the data already examined, it is possible to outline the ordinary theological teaching.

It is needless to say that venial sin is adequate and sufficient matter for sacramental absolution.  This is the simplest and most obvious way of securing forgiveness from God, and is universally practiced by the faithful throughout the whole Church.  But, inasmuch as venial sins can be remitted in other ways, there exists no obligation to confess them in the tribunal of penance.  Furthermore, and as a consequence of this certain doctrine, an act of perfect contrition remits venial sin without any sort of clause or condition referring to the future reception of the sacrament penance.

We have seen that the sinner, in repenting of mortal sin, is about to use sufficient diligence to recall the mortal sins that he has committed, in order to repent of each one that he remembers.  But, since venial sins need not necessarily be confessed—there being various other ways in which they may be remitted—they need not each be recalled to mind.  This does not mean that repentance is unnecessary for venial sin.  It means only that the repentance need not be explicit in respect of each venial sin that we have committed.  Such explicit repentance is indeed desirable; but it is sufficient that we be prepared explicitly to repent should such venial sins be recalled to mind.  A further difference between repentance for mortal sin and repentance for venial sin should be noted: it is possible to repent of one venial sin without repenting of the others, whereas in the case of mortal sin this is not possible.  Apart from these differences, repentance for venial sin should include all the essentials of repentance already explained.

It follows, therefore, that various movements of the soul towards God, especially when they are accompanied by the reception of a sacrament or by some public rite of the Church, will have the effect of remitting venial sin, even though there is no formal and explicit repentance.  For since we have seen the effect of venial sin to consist in a diminution of the fervor of our actions, it follows that some act of devotion or piety deliberately performed will have the effect of restoring the balance, always provided that an explicit act of repentance would be made did we but advert to the sin.  This is especially the case when the act is not merely a private one, such as almsgiving or other works of charity, but is accompanied by some special intervention of the Church, as in the use of various sacramentals, blessings, or other sacred rites with which Catholics are familiar.

Most of all is the remission of venial sin obtained by the reception of the sacraments, especially of the Holy Eucharist.  It is not only the antidote which preserves us from mortal sin, as the Council of Trent teaches (Sess. xiii, chap. 2), but it frees us from daily faults.  “Just as by bodily food the daily waste and loss is repaired, so also the Holy Eucharist repairs what has been lost through our falls into lesser sins, by remitting them” (Catechism of the Council of Trent, Part II, chap. iv, q. 50). 

In all these ways of securing the remission of venial sin, it must be clearly understood that repentance is necessary, either actually and explicitly, as when venial sins are confessed, or at least implicitly to the extent that the recollection of such sins would be attended by repentance did we but advert to them or recall them to our minds.  In this sense all the qualities of true repentance must be present, and in particular the purpose of amendment, if we are to obtain remission of venial sin.

It will be perceived, therefore, that in some ways it is difficult to repent of lesser sins, for it requires very considerable reflection and determination in order to detest a venial sin above all evils.  Accordingly, since remission of punishment only follows remission of guilt, we cannot form an exact estimate concerning the extent of our debt of punishment.  That debt may be exacted to the last farthing.  We may gain plenary indulgences, but the penalty of unrepented venial sin is not included in the remission.  A proper appreciation of the nature of venial sin helps us not only to perceive how utterly different it is from mortal sin, but to understand more perfectly the necessity of a cleansing purgation after death, since nothing defiled can enter heaven (Apoc. xxi 27).  Above all, it brings home to our minds something of the meaning of holiness, without which no man can see God (Heb. xii 14). 



God incarnate suffered and died in order to repair the ruin caused by sin, by offering to his eternal Father adequate satisfaction for the affront to God’s majesty.  The Redeemer of mankind is spoken of in the Holy Scripture as “bearing our infirmities, bruised for our sins” (Isa. liii 4) “made sin for us” (2 Cor. v 21).  But, inasmuch as Christ himself was sinless, he could not make an act of repentance in the sense explained above; hence the Church has strictly forbidden such phrases as “Christ the Penitent” even in a devotional use.  He did not repent for the sinners of the world: he offered satisfaction for their sins.  The same is true, proportionately, of the many instances in the lives of the saints, in which we are told that they undertook penance for the sins of others.  Only the sinner can repent in the strict sense of the word; but that part of repentance which is concerned with offering satisfaction to God can be undertaken vicariously by others.

For it has pleased God to redeem all men, who fell corporately in Adam, by incorporating them in Christ the second Adam.  From the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ (Cf. Essay xix) many profound truths of deep significance are drawn.  In particular the familiar idea of Reparation, included in Catholic devotion towards the Sacred Heart of Jesus, has its doctrinal basis in the fact that all Christians are members of one body whose head is Christ.  On this solidarity of the whole human race in Christ rests, not only the justification but the necessity of the Christian practice of offering reparation to God, in various ways, for the sins of the world.  For the notion of reparation, while including our own personal offenses, is chiefly concerned with satisfaction for the sins of others.

In the plenitude of his desire to expiate for the sins of the world, Christ chose the way of suffering.  It is chiefly by suffering, therefore, that the members of his mystical body share in Christ’s expiatory sacrifice.  Not only do they share in it, but it is the will of Christ that their sufferings should be necessary for the completion of his own.  In “filling up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ” (Col. i 24), St. Paul rejoiced in his own sufferings and besought his brethren “to present their bodies a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing unto God” (Rom. xii 1). 

Deliberately to choose suffering requires an unusual degree of sanctity, as well as a finer appreciation of all that it means to be a follower of Christ.  The illustrious examples drawn from the lives of saints, whether in the ranks of the priesthood, or of religious Orders, or of the laity, are imitated in our own times also.  But every Christian is expected to suffer with Christ by patience and resignation in adversity, in the pains of illness, in poverty, in subjection to authority, and in performing the duties of his state of life.

The value of our reparation consists, of course, not in suffering as such, but in freely and deliberately offering it to God in union with the passion of Christ.  This may be done during times of prayer, but the moment above all others when such reparation should be offered to God is while assisting at the sacrifice of the Mass, which is one with that of Calvary.  The priest offers that sacrifice in the name of the whole Church and “of all here present, whose faith and devotion are known unto thee; for whom we offer, or who offer up to thee, this sacrifice . . . this oblation of our service as also of thy whole family” (Canon of the Mass).  “Even as I willingly offered myself to God for thy sins upon the Cross . . . even so must thou willingly offer thyself daily to me in the Mass” (Imitation, Bk. IV, chap. 8).  Per ipsum et cum ipso et in ipso.

Thus in commending to the faithful the necessity of making reparation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Pius XI speaks as follows in the Encyclical Miserentissimus Redemptor: “Although the plentiful redemption of Christ abundantly forgives all our offenses, yet by that wonderful disposition of the divine Wisdom whereby we have to fill up in our own flesh those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, for his body which is the Church (Col. i 24), we can, nay, we must, add our own praise and satisfaction to the praise and satisfaction which Christ gave to God in the name of sinners.  It should be remembered, however, that the expiatory value of our acts depends solely upon the bloody sacrifice of Christ, a sacrifice which is renewed unceasingly, in an unbloody manner, on our altars. . . .  For this reason, with the august sacrifice of the Eucharist must be united the immolation of the ministers and also of the rest of the faithful, so that they too may offer themselves ‘a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing unto God’ ((Rom. xii 1).  Christ, then, as he still suffers in his mystical body, rightly desires us to be united with him because, since we are ‘the body of Christ and members of member’ (1 Cor. xii 27), what the head suffers the members should suffer with it” (Ibid. 26.  Pius XI, Miserentissimus Redemptor, May 8, 1928, Eng. Trans., Burns Oates and Washbourne).


Essay XXV





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