Posts Tagged ‘morality’

Morality Part 5: What Makes a Sin a Sin

It was a Theology Q&A session on a retreat – a safe environment.  Participants were encouraged to write down their questions on any faith-related topic and submit them anonymously.  The group was encouraged to raise hands and ask additional questions if needed.  This was their time.  There were over 30 retreatants, plus the team; women ranging from their early 20’s to their early 80’s.  When the topic of sin came up, you could feel the emotional intensity in the room.  As each question was answered, seven more hands shot up asking more questions.

When people ask, “Is it a mortal sin if…” more often than not, they are asking out of fear.  Somewhere along the line they learned that ___ was a mortal sin, and if you did [it], you were going to hell.  Some ask the question while thinking about their own behavior; others ask out of concern for a loved one.

Struggling with the concept of sin–and the fear of hell that accompanies it–can really damage a person’s faith, which is why this post is so important.

In Morality Part 1, I explained that When we say something is a “sin” it’s because it damages our relationship with God; not because it is “breaking the rules.”  It damages our relationship because it is either directly aimed at hurting God or at hurting those whom God loves.  And as Morality Part 4 explained, it’s only a sin if you know what you’re doing is wrong and you are doing it of your own free will.



In the Old Testament, sin is defined in two ways.  The first is in archery terms: “missing the mark.”  For instance, when our actions are guided by selfishness rather than agapic-love, they miss the mark.

Archery Target


The second way sin is described in Scripture is as a “hardness of heart.”   For example, when we are indifferent to the suffering of others… when we just don’t care enough to help someone in need, we are hard-hearted.


Catholic Tradition takes these concepts from Old Testament along with the words of Jesus in the Gospels and the writings of St. Paul to expand our understanding of sin.

In the Penitential Rite, we pray:

Penitential RiteNotice how this prayer recognizes that sin is always committed with intent (through my fault…).   Additionally, the words of this prayer acknowledge both the sins of commission (doing something wrong) and the sins of omission (not doing something that we know we should’ve done) – and this happens in thoughts, words, and actions.  In all cases, we recognize that there are varying degrees of seriousness:

Sin - Venial and Mortal

Venial sins include the smaller, less serious acts of sinfulness that often result from the bad habits or laziness.  (I know I should pray, but I don’t.  I know I shouldn’t swear, but I do.)  These are important to recognize because over time they weaken our relationship with God.

As the degree of seriousness increases, Catholic Tradition describes mortal sin.  Translated literally, this is a sin which brings a “deadly” or “mortal” blow to one’s relationship with God.  A mortal sin is a complete, deliberate rejection of God.  This is a big deal.  We’re not just talking about any sin, here.  We’re talking about a relationship-breaking sin.  For it to be considered a “mortal sin” it:

  1. Must involve “grave matter
  2. Must be done with full knowledge.
  3. Must be done deliberately, with full freedom.

It is difficult to broadly and definitively classify anything as a mortal sin because the only one who knows a person’s honest level of knowledge, freedom, and intent is God.  For instance, consider one of the most disturbing “jobs” during the Holocaust.  The Jewish Virtual Library explains that at Auschwitz and several other concentration camps,

“the Nazis established the Sonderkommando, groups of Jewish male prisoners picked for their youth and relative good health whose job was to dispose of corpses from the gas chambers or crematoria. Some did the work to delay their own deaths; some thought they could protect friends and family, and some acted out of mere greed for extra food and money these men sometimes received. The men were forced into this position, with the only alternative being death in the gas chambers or being shot on the spot by an SS guard.”

Here we are certainly dealing with a grave matter done with full knowledge, but the prisoners’ lack of freedom eliminates the culpability.

Culpability, the degree to which people are morally responsible, can diminish if a sin is committed under duress, whether that pressure comes from oneself or others.  Then there are psychological wounds, such as the PTSD of war veterans or mental illness, that likewise limit one’s freedom and diminish responsibility.

Is it possibly for a person to commit a mortal sin?  Absolutely.  That possibility is a reflection of the depth of our human freedom.  However, not every decision is made with full knowledge, full freedom, and deliberate intent.

Moreover, you know what the remedy is for mortal sin?  Reconciliation.  Mess up really bad?  Take responsibility, seek forgiveness, and make amends.  God just wants us to repent and return to him.

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”  (Luke 15:4-7)

When Jesus tells the parable of the Lost Sheep, it might be helpful to understand that most shepherds don’t leave the 99 to chase after the one.  But God does.  Because that’s just the kind of loving, merciful, life-giving God he is.

Mortal sin is not the end.  Rather, it points to a deep, serious need for reconciliation.

At this point in the Theology Q&A, someone inevitably asks:

If God is all-loving and forgiving, then how can there be anyone in hell?

For one thing, we are held morally accountable for our actions (and inactions).

  • For forming our conscience and increasing our desire for good.
  • For informing our conscience and developing our moral wisdom.
  • For following our conscience and avoiding sin.

For more on how judgment works with an all-loving, forgiving God, read this post on Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory.

As I wrap up the series of posts on Morality, think about your own attitudes towards sin:

  • When it comes to the topic of moral responsibility and sin, what do you struggle with?  

Morality Part 2: Mercy, Motivation, and Conscience

In Morality Part 1, I explained how morality was about relationship, not rules.  Part 2 will begin to explore moral responsibility and the role of conscience.  But first, a word about mercy.

Yesterday, when I backed the car out of the driveway, I was too close to the neighbor’s fence and clipped, shattered, and broke off the side-view mirror.


Why?  There was no good reason.  I wasn’t distracted or stressed.  I have no one to blame but myself.  I literally hung my head in shame as I showed my husband what I had done.  Worse yet, I misread the text message that my friend sent.  She hadn’t asked me to pick her up; she had offered to pick me up.


I wasn’t even supposed to be backing out of the driveway.  The feeling of stupidity stung.

My husband was more merciful and compassionate to me that I was to myself.  “Try not to do that again,” he said as he hugged me.  He knew I was sorry.

As I tried to moved beyond self-condemnation to being present to the rest of my day (and of course figuring out the details of getting the car fixed) I thought a lot about my own practice of showing mercy, especially with my kids.

I find that my ability to show mercy is directly related to the person’s ability to take responsibility.  We all make mistakes; I sure as heck do.

I get really upset with my kids when they fail to acknowledge whatever wrong they have done – whether it’s due to ignorance, indifference, lying, or blaming.  But the times in which they come to me with honest remorse over something, I respond with mercy, compassion, and love – at least I try to.


When we talk about Moral Responsibility in the context of our relationship with God, it is important to remember God’s mercy endures forever (Psalm 136:25).  Every person in Scripture that approaches Jesus having taken responsibility for their sins is granted mercy and forgiveness.

  • Think about your own practice of mercy.  How well do you practice – or how much do you struggle with practicing – mercy?  Do you find it harder to be merciful with yourself or others?  

The “Why” Matters

Part 1 explained that morality is about relationships.

3 Dimensions of Morality

Yes, morality is about the interpersonal “how we treat others” (the Golden Rule–do unto others, for sure), but it’s so much more than just external behavior.  In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis explains that focusing exclusively on how we treat others leads us to thinking that so long as we do the right thing, it doesn’t matter much why we do it.  On the contrary, it’s that internal motivation–the personal dimension–that reflects the quality of our character.  And God is quite concerned with the quality of our character.

When the Catechism defines Morality in CCC, 1750, it speaks of three “Sources” to be examined and evaluated.  The morality of human acts depends on:

  1. Object – WHAT – the action itself
  2. Intention – WHY – the motivation or reason why the action was done
  3. Circumstances – WHO, WHEN, WHERE, HOW – the context, all the contributing factors, as well as the consequences or outcome of the act

All three–object, intent, and circumstances–are examined when we evaluate whether an act is good or bad, and all three must be aligned with what is good for the act to be evaluated as moral.  It comes as no surprise that there are some acts (like terrorists murdering innocent people) that are objectively evil. But things get more complicated when people do good things for the wrong reasons.  Or worse, do something wrong so as to achieve some “greater good.”

The circumstances surrounding an act can contribute to increasing or diminishing the goodness or evil the act (for example, how much is stolen in a theft; how much damage is done). Circumstances can also increase or diminish the person’s responsibility (such as acting out of fear or under stress). However, circumstances themselves cannot change the moral quality of an action; they simply can not make an evil act good. (See CCC, 1756)

The Catechism is abundantly clear on explaining that it is never morally permissible to do evil to achieve good.  “The ends does not justify the means” (CCC, 1759).

  • Can you think of an example from your own life when you…
    • …did the right thing for the wrong reason?
    • …did the wrong thing to achieve some greater good?


So we know morality is about relationships, not rules.  And we know we need to consider the object, intent, and circumstances of an act when we evaluate whether or not it is good.  But how we decide what to do is a matter of conscience.  In fact, in all we say and do, we are obligated to follow our conscience. (CCC, 1778).

Conscience: here’s another aspect of Catholic tradition that is deeply misunderstood.  We talk about conscience being the “voice within” (CCC, 1776) and people either think of miniature angels and devils sitting on our shoulders or “hearing voices” akin to Jiminy Cricket in Disney’s Pinocchio.

A more helpful explanation of conscience sees it as both:

  1. The inner desire for goodness
  2. Choosing to do the right action

Yes, we are obligated to follow our conscience, but conscience is not what modern psychology calls our “superego.”

Superego is the voice of some external authority that says “I should do this because I’m supposed to.”  Conscience is when we genuinely say, “I desire what is good, and I choose to do what is right.”  When you hear the voice of your mother in your head telling to send that thank-you-note or spend time visiting that obnoxious aunt, that is not your conscience; that is your superego.

As the mother of two boys who are 6 and 7 /2 years old, I must emphasize that superego has its place in helping us to form our conscience, but it cannot be mistaken for conscience.  There are a variety of reasons why people do what is right.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) was an American psychologist that developed the theory known as the Stages of Moral Development.  There are different, age appropriate reasons why people choose to do what is right.

Kohlberg 2


Kohlberg explained that there are six stages of moral reasoning, which describe the different motivations people have for doing what is right.  Those in the first stage, Obedience and Punishment, do what is right simply to avoid punishment.  In the second stage, Individualism and Exchange, the rationale is self-centered and reward seeking.  Those in the third stage, Good Boy/Girl, are motivated by making a positive impression on people who matter to them.  In the fourth stage, Law and Order, the motivation is centered on following the rules.  Kohlberg says that most adults make their moral decisions in stages three and four.  Few people attain the fifth stage, Social Contract, whereby people consider the common good when deciding.  Even fewer reach the sixth stage, Principled Conscience.  It is in this stage which people choose to do what is right simply because it is the right thing to do.

  • As you consider Kohlberg’s Stages for Moral Development, where would you place yourself?  Why do you find yourself doing what is right?  
  • What insight do you gain from thinking about Morality having Stages of Development?  Why is this significant to you?

Next up, in Part 3: How we Form and Inform our Conscience–and how does that impact our sense of Moral Responsibility.

Morality Part 1: It’s About Relationship

The other day at dinner, I tell my boys that I am looking forward to teaching a class that evening on Morality–a favorite topic, which I hadn’t taught in a while.  My 6 year old asks:

“Mommy what is mowality?”

I pause, since I usually begin by acknowledging that most of us presume morality is about following a set of rules, and it’s not… it’s about relationship. But in that moment I was challenged to accurately and succinctly describe it in a way that my 6 and 7 1/2 year old would understand.IMG_1199

“Morality is about what’s right and wrong, and why.”

Without missing a beat, he tells me:

“Oh, Mommy!  But you teach me and my brudder about that evewy day!”

I want my kids to be good people, so yes, every day I am concerned with the decisions they make and developing their character–whether they’re playing with friends, following through on responsibilities around the house, working at school, or paying attention to the needs of the world around them. Morality is concerned with what’s right and wrong, and why, but it’s not about rules; it’s about relationship.


The reason Why something is right or wrong has everything to do with relationship.

  • Think about three of your closest friends.  What are some of the “unspoken rules” that close friends follow to maintain a healthy relationship?  List these relationship-guiding rules out: trust, honesty, care and concern for one another’s well-being… what else would you add?

Who: From the perspective of Christian Morality, we are talking about living a good life in relationship with God.  What makes something moral or immoral is whether it strengthens or damages our relationship with God.  When we say something is a “sin” it’s because it damages our relationship with God; not because it is “breaking the rules.”

HowSo how do we strengthen our relationship with God?  By loving, honoring, and respecting God and all of God’s Creation.

The number one overarching principle that guides our approach to being in right relationship is a respect for the value, worth, and special dignity within each person as a child of God, created in the image and likeness of God.  Catholic Social Teaching refers to this as respect for human dignity, which finds its Scriptural roots in Genesis.

God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

I love how Richard Rohr explains the depth of what human dignity means:

“You are a son or daughter of the Good and Loving God. The Divine Image is planted inherently and intrinsically within you. You cannot create it, you cannot manufacture it, you cannot earn it, you cannot achieve it, you cannot attain it, you cannot cumulatively work up to it. Do you know why? Because you already have it! That is the core of the Gospel” (Adapted from Dying: We Need It for Life)

As Christians, we are called to respect human dignity with the care and concern of divine, agape love.

This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. (John 15:12)  

20090528_066 When we put together the Who and the How of morality, we can see that living a good life in relationship with God has three dimensions:

  1. Interpersonal– respecting the human dignity of others, which is demonstrated by how we treat one another.
  2. Personal – respecting one’s own human dignity, which is demonstrated by how we develop our internal quality of character
  3. Transcendent – respecting God, which is demonstrated by practicing the virtue of faith.

The Commandments, Beatitudes, and Virtues help flesh out the What of Catholic moral teaching with more specifics, but if we don’t begin with that understanding of being in right relationship with oneself, others, and the God who created us and loves us, then our approach to morality will be limited to simply “following the rules.”

In the next post, I’ll discuss the role of conscience and moral responsibility.  For now, consider how you think about morality:

  • What attitudes or assumptions do you bring to a discussion of morality?  Are they helpful or limiting?
  • Think about your relationship with yourself, with others, and with God.  In what ways do you see love and respect for human dignity guiding your behavior in those relationships?  Where do you succeed in practicing this “respect”?  Where do you struggle?  Is there one area that you feel called to work on improving?
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