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The subject is treated under these heads:

I. Nature of sin
II. Division
III. Mortal Sin
IV. Venial Sin
V. Permission and Remedies
VI. The Sense of Sin


Since sin is a moral evil, it is necessary in the first place to determine what is meant by evil, and in particular by moral evil. Evil is defined by St. Thomas (De malo, 2:2) as a privation of form or order or due measure. In the physical order a thing is good in proportion as it possesses being. God alone is essentially being, and He alone is essentially and perfectly good. Everything else possesses but a limited being, and, in so far as it possesses being, it is good. When it has its due proportion of form and order and measure it is, in its own order and degree, good. (See GOOD.) Evil implies a deficiency in perfection, hence it cannot exist in God who is essentially and by nature good; it is found only in finite beings which, because of their origin from nothing, are subject to the privation of form or order or measure due them, and, through the opposition they encounter, are liable to an increase or decrease of the perfection they have: "for evil, in a large sense, may be described as the sum of opposition, which experience shows to exist in the universe, to the desires and needs of individuals ; whence arises, among human beings at least, the suffering in which life abounds" (see EVIL).

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According to the nature of the perfection which it limits, evil is metaphysical, physical, or moral. Metaphysical evil is not evil properly so called; it is but the negation of a greater good, or the limitation of finite beings by other finite beings. Physical evil deprives the subject affected by it of some natural good, and is adverse to the well-being of the subject, as pain and suffering. Moral evil is found only in intelligent beings; it deprives them of some moral good. Here we have to deal with moral evil only. This may be defined as a privation of conformity to right reason and to the law of God. Since the morality of a human act consists in its agreement or non-agreement with right reason and the eternal law, an act is good or evil in the moral order according as it involves this agreement or non-agreement. When the intelligent creature, knowing God and His law, deliberately refuses to obey, moral evil results.

Sin is nothing else than a morally bad act (St. Thomas, "De malo", 7:3), an act not in accord with reason informed by the Divine law. God has endowed us with reason and free-will, and a sense of responsibility; He has made us subject to His law, which is known to us by the dictates of conscience, and our acts must conform with these dictates, otherwise we sin ( Romans 14:23 ). In every sinful act two things must be considered, the substance of the act and the want of rectitude or conformity (St. Thomas, I-II:72:1). The act is something positive. The sinner intends here and now to act in some determined matter, inordinately electing that particular good in defiance of God's law and the dictates of right reason. The deformity is not directly intended, nor is it involved in the act so far as this is physical, but in the act as coming from the will which has power over its acts and is capable of choosing this or that particular good contained within the scope of its adequate object, i.e. universal good (St. Thomas, "De malo", Q. 3, a. 2, ad 2um). God, the first cause of all reality, is the cause of the physical act as such, the free-will of the deformity (St. Thomas I-II:89:2; "De malo", 3:2). The evil act adequately considered has for its cause the free-will defectively electing some mutable good in place of the eternal good, God, and thus deviating from its true last end.

In every sin a privation of due order or conformity to the moral law is found, but sin is not a pure, or entire privation of all moral good (St. Thomas, "De malo", 2:9; I-II:73:2). There is a twofold privation; one entire which leaves nothing of its opposite, as for instance, darkness which leaves no light; another, not entire, which leaves something of the good to which it is opposed, as for instance, disease which does not entirely destroy the even balance of the bodily functions necessary for health. A pure or entire privation of good could occur in a moral act only on the supposition that the will could incline to evil as such for an object. This is impossible because evil as such is not contained within the scope of the adequate object of the will, which is good. The sinner's intention terminates at some object in which there is a participation of God's goodness, and this object is directly intended by him. The privation of due order, or the deformity, is not directly intended, but is accepted in as much as the sinner's desire tends to an object in which this want of conformity is involved, so that sin is not a pure privation, but a human act deprived of its due rectitude. From the defect arises the evil of the act, from the fact that it is voluntary, its imputability.


As regards the principle from which it proceeds sin is original or actual. The will of Adam acting as head of the human race for the conservation or loss of original justice is the cause and source of original sin. Actual sin is committed by a free personal act of the individual will. It is divided into sins of commission and omission. A sin of commission is a positive act contrary to some prohibitory precept; a sin of omission is a failure to do what is commanded. A sin of omission, however, requires a positive act whereby one wills to omit the fulfilling of a precept, or at least wills something incompatible with its fulfillment (I-II:72:5). As regards their malice, sins are distinguished into sins of ignorance, passion or infirmity, and malice; as regards the activities involved, into sins of thought, word, or deed ( cordis, oris, operis ); as regards their gravity, into mortal and venial. This last named division is indeed the most important of all and it calls for special treatment. But before taking up the details, it will be useful to indicate some further distinctions which occur in theology or in general usage.

Material and Formal Sin

This distinction is based upon the difference between the objective elements (object itself, circumstances) and the subjective (advertence to the sinfulness of the act). An action which, as a matter of fact, is contrary to the Divine law but is not known to be such by the agent constitutes a material sin; whereas formal sin is committed when the agent freely transgresses the law as shown him by his conscience, whether such law really exists or is only thought to exist by him who acts. Thus, a person who takes the property of another while believing it to be his own commits a material sin; but the sin would be formal if he took the property in the belief that it belonged to another, whether his belief were correct or not.

Internal Sins

That sin may be committed not only by outward deeds but also by the inner activity of the mind apart from any external manifestation, is plain from the precept of the Decalogue : "Thou shalt not covet ", and from Christ's rebuke of the scribes and pharisees whom he likens to "whited sepulchres... full of all filthiness" ( Matthew 23:27 ). Hence the Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, c. v), in declaring that all mortal sins must be confessed, makes special mention of those that are most secret and that violate only the last two precepts of the Decalogue, adding that they "sometimes more grievously wound the soul and are more dangerous than sins which are openly committed". Three kinds of internal sin are usually distinguished:

  • delectatio morosa , i.e. the pleasure taken in a sinful thought or imagination even without desiring it;
  • gaudium , i.e. dwelling with complacency on sins already committed; and
  • desiderium , i.e. the desire for what is sinful.
An efficacious desire, i.e. one that includes the deliberate intention to realize or gratify the desire, has the same malice, mortal or venial, as the action which it has in view. An inefficacious desire is one that carries a condition, in such a way that the will is prepared to perform the action in case the condition were verified. When the condition is such as to eliminate all sinfulness from the action, the desire involves no sin: e.g. I would gladly eat meat on Friday, if I had a dispensation ; and in general this is the case whenever the action is forbidden by positive law only. When the action is contrary to natural law and yet is permissible in given circumstances or in a particular state of life, the desire, if it include those circumstances or that state as conditions, is not in itself sinful: e.g. I would kill so-and-so if I had to do it in self-defence. Usually, however, such desires are dangerous and therefore to be repressed. If, on the other hand, the condition does not remove the sinfulness of the action, the desire is also sinful. This is clearly the case where the action is intrinsically and absolutely evil, e.g. blasphemy : one cannot without committing sin, have the desire -- I would blaspheme God if it were not wrong; the condition is an impossible one and therefore does not affect the desire itself. The pleasure taken in a sinful thought ( delectatio, gaudium ) is, generally speaking, a sin of the same kind and gravity as the action which is thought of. Much, however, depends on the motive for which one thinks of sinful actions. The pleasure, e.g. which one may experience in studying the nature of murder or any other crime, in getting clear ideas on the subject, tracing its causes, determining the guilt etc., is not a sin; on the contrary, it is often both necessary and useful. The case is different of course where the pleasure means gratification in the sinful object or action itself. And it is evidently a sin when one boasts of his evil deeds, the more so because of the scandal that is given. The Capital Sins or Vices

According to St. Thomas (II-II:153:4) "a capital vice is that which has an exceedingly desirable end so that in his desire for it a man goes on to the commission of many sins all of which are said to originate in that vice as their chief source". It is not then the gravity of the vice in itself that makes it capital but rather the fact that it gives rise to many other sins. These are enumerated by St. Thomas (I-II:84:4) as vainglory (pride), avarice, gluttony, lust, sloth, envy, anger. St. Bonaventure (Brevil., III, ix) gives the same enumeration. Earlier writers had distinguished eight capital sins: so St. Cyprian (De mort., iv); Cassian (De instit. cænob., v, coll. 5, de octo principalibus vitiis); Columbanus ("Instr. de octo vitiis princip." in "Bibl. max. vet. patr.", XII, 23); Alcuin (De virtut. et vitiis, xxvii sqq.). The number seven, however, had been given by St. Gregory the Great (Lib. mor. in Job. XXXI, xvii), and it was retained by the foremost theologians of the Middle Ages.

It is to be noted that "sin" is not predicated univocally of all kinds of sin. "The division of sin into venial and mortal is not a division of genus into species which participate equally the nature of the genus, but the division of an analogue into things of which it is predicated primarily and secondarily" (St. Thomas, I-II:88:1, ad 1um). "Sin is not predicated univocally of all kinds of sin, but primarily of actual mortal sin ... and therefore it is not necessary that the definition of sin in general should be verified except in that sin in which the nature of the genus is found perfectly. The definition of sin may be verified in other sins in a certain sense" (St. Thomas, II, d. 33, Q. i, a. 2, ad 2um). Actual sin primarily consists in a voluntary act repugnant to the order of right reason. The act passes, but the soul of the sinner remains stained, deprived of grace, in a state of sin, until the disturbance of order has been restored by penance. This state is called habitual sin, macula peccati. reatus culpæ (I-II:87:6).

The division of sin into original and actual, mortal and venial, is not a division of genus into species because sin has not the same signification when applied to original and personal sin, mortal and venial. Mortal sin cuts us off entirely from our true last end; venial sin only impedes us in its attainment. Actual personal sin is voluntary by a proper act of the will. Original sin is voluntary not by a personal voluntary act of ours, but by an act of the will of Adam. Original and actual sin are distinguished by the manner in which they are voluntary ( ex parte actus ); mortal and venial sin by the way in which they affect our relation to God ( ex parte deordinationis ). Since a voluntary act and its disorder are of the essence of sin, it is impossible that sin should be a generic term in respect to original and actual, mortal and venial sin. The true nature of sin is found perfectly only in a personal mortal sin, in other sins imperfectly, so that sin is predicated primarily of actual sin, only secondarily of the others. Therefore we shall consider: first, personal mortal sin; second, venial sin.


Mortal sin is defined by St. Augustine (Contra Faustum, XXII, xxvii) as "Dictum vel factum vel concupitum contra legem æternam", i.e. something said, done or desired contrary to the eternal law, or a thought, word, or deed contrary to the eternal law. This is a definition of sin as it is a voluntary act. As it is a defect or privation it may be defined as an aversion from God, our true last end, by reason of the preference given to some mutable good. The definition of St. Augustine is accepted generally by theologians and is primarily a definition of actual mortal sin. It explains well the material and formal elements of sin. The words "dictum vel factum vel concupitum" denote the material element of sin, a human act : "contra legem æternam", the formal element. The act is bad because it transgresses the Divine law. St. Ambrose (De paradiso, viii) defines sin as a "prevarication of the Divine law ". The definition of St. Augustine strictly considered, i.e. as sin averts us from our true ultimate end, does not comprehend venial sin, but in as much as venial sin is in a manner contrary to the Divine law, although not averting us from our last end, it may be said to be included in the definition as it stands. While primarily a definition of sins of commission, sins of omission may be included in the definition because they presuppose some positive act (St. Thomas, I-II:71:5) and negation and affirmation are reduced to the same genus. Sins that violate the human or the natural law are also included, for what is contrary to the human or natural law is also contrary to the Divine law , in as much as every just human law is derived from the Divine law, and is not just unless it is in conformity with the Divine law.

Biblical Description of Sin

In the Old Testament sin is set forth as an act of disobedience ( Genesis 2:16-17 ; 3:11 ; Isaiah 1:2-4 ; Jeremiah 2:32 ); as an insult to God ( Numbers 27:14 ); as something detested and punished by God ( Genesis 3:14-19 ; Genesis 4:9-16 ); as injurious to the sinner (Tob., xii, 10); to be expiated by penance (Ps. 1, 19). In the New Testament it is clearly taught in St. Paul that sin is a transgression of the law ( Romans 2:23 ; 5:12-20 ); a servitude from which we are liberated by grace ( Romans 6:16-18 ); a disobedience ( Hebrews 2:2 ) punished by God ( Hebrews 10:26-31 ). St. John describes sin as an offence to God, a disorder of the will ( John 12:43 ), an iniquity ( 1 John 3:4-10 ). Christ in many of His utterances teaches the nature and extent of sin. He came to promulgate a new law more perfect than the old, which would extend to the ordering not only of external but also of internal acts to a degree unknown before, and, in His Sermon on the Mount, he condemns as sinful many acts which were judged honest and righteous by the doctors and teachers of the Old Law. He denounces in a special manner hypocrisy and scandal, infidelity and the sin against the Holy Ghost. In particular He teaches that sins come from the heart ( Matthew 15:19-20 ).

Systems Which Deny Sin or Distort its True Notion

All systems, religious and ethical, which either deny, on the one hand, the existence of a personal creator and lawgiver distinct from and superior to his creation, or, on the other, the existence of free will and responsibility in man, distort or destroy the true biblico-theological notion of sin. In the beginning of the Christian era the Gnostics, although their doctrines varied in details, denied the existence of a personal creator. The idea of sin in the Catholic sense is not contained in their system. There is no sin for them, unless it be the sin of ignorance, no necessity for an atonement ; Jesus is not God (see GNOSTICISM ). Manichaeism with its two eternal principles, good and evil, at perpetual war with each other, is also destructive of the true notion of sin. All evil, and consequently sin, is from the principle of evil. The Christian concept of God as a lawgiver is destroyed. Sin is not a conscious voluntary act of disobedience to the Divine will. Pantheistic systems which deny the distinction between God and His creation make sin impossible. If man and God are one, man is not responsible to anyone for his acts, morality is destroyed. If he is his own rule of action, he cannot deviate from right as St. Thomas teaches (I:63:1). The identification of God and the world by Pantheism leaves no place for sin.

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There must be some law to which man is subject, superior to and distinct from him, which can be obeyed and transgressed, before sin can enter into his acts. This law must be the mandate of a superior, because the notions of superiority and subjection are correlative. This superior can be only God, who alone is the author and lord of man. Materialism, denying as it does the spirituality and the immortality of the soul, the existence of any spirit whatsoever, and consequently of God, does not admit sin. There is no free will, everything is determined by the inflexible laws of motion. "Virtue" and "vice" are meaningless qualifications of action. Positivism places man's last end in some sensible good. His supreme law of action is to seek the maximum of pleasure. Egotism or altruism is the supreme norm and criterion of the Positivistic systems, not the eternal law of God as revealed by Him, and dictated by conscience. For the materialistic evolutionists man is but a highly-developed animal, conscience a product of evolution. Evolution has revolutionized morality, sin is no more.

Kant in his "Critique of Pure Reason" having rejected all the essential notions of true morality, namely, liberty, the soul, God and a future life, attempted in his "Critique of the Practical Reason " to restore them in the measure in which they are necessary for morality. The practical reason, he tells us, imposes on us the idea of law and duty. The fundamental principle of the morality of Kant is " duty for duty's sake", not God and His law. Duty cannot be conceived of alone as an independent thing. It carries with it certain postulates, the first of which is liberty. "I ought, therefore I can", is his doctrine. Man by virtue of his practical reason has a consciousness of moral obligation ( categorical imperative ). This consciousness supposes three things: free will, the immortality of the soul, the existence of God, otherwise man would not be capable of fulfilling his obligations, there would be no sufficient sanction for the Divine law, no reward or punishment in a future life. Kant's moral system labours in obscurities and contradictions and is destructive of much that pertains to the teaching of Christ. Personal dignity is the supreme rule of man's actions. The notion of sin as opposed to God is suppressed. According to the teaching of materialistic Monism, now so widespread, there is, and can be, no free will. According to this doctrine but one thing exists and this one being produces all phenomena, thought included; we are but puppets in its hands, carried hither an thither as it wills, and finally are cast back into nothingness. There is no place for good and evil, a free observance or a wilful transgression of law, in such a system. Sin in the true sense is impossible. Without law and liberty and a personal God there is no sin.

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That God exists and can be known from His visible creation, that He has revealed the decrees of His eternal will to man, and is distinct from His creatures ( Denzinger -Bannwart, "Enchiridion", nn. 1782, 1785, 1701), are matters of Catholic faith and teaching. Man is a created being endowed with free will (ibid., 793), which fact can be proved from Scripture and reason (ibid., 1041-1650). The Council of Trent declares in Sess. VI, c. i (ibid., 793) that man by reason of the prevarication of Adam has lost his primeval innocence, and that while free will remains, its powers are lessened (see ORIGINAL SIN ).

Protestant Errors

Luther and Calvin taught as their fundamental error that no free will properly so called remained in man after the fall of our first parents ; that the fulfillment of God's precepts is impossible even with the assistance of grace, and that man in all his actions sins. Grace is not an interior gift, but something external. To some sin is not imputed, because they are covered as with a cloak by the merits of Christ. Faith alone saves, there is no necessity for good works. Sin in Luther's doctrine cannot be a deliberate transgression of the Divine law. Jansenius, in his "Augustinus", taught that according to the present powers of man some of God's precepts are impossible of fulfilment, even to the just who strive to fulfil them, and he further taught that grace by means of which the fulfilment becomes possible is wanting even to the just. His fundamental error consists in teaching that the will is not free but is necessarily drawn either by concupiscence or grace. Internal liberty is not required for merit or demerit. Liberty from coercion suffices. Christ did not die for all men. Baius taught a semi-Lutheran doctrine. Liberty is not entirely destroyed, but is so weakened that without grace it can do nothing but sin. True liberty is not required for sin. A bad act committed involuntarily renders man responsible (propositions 50-51 in Denzinger -Bannwart, "Enchiridion", nn. 1050-1). All acts done without charity are mortal sins and merit damnation because they proceed from concupiscence. This doctrine denies that sin is a voluntary transgression of Divine law. If man is not free, a precept is meaningless as far as he is concerned.

Philosophical Sin

Those who would construct a moral system independent of God and His law distinguish between theological and philosophical sin. Philosophical sin is a morally bad act which violates the natural order of reason, not the Divine law. Theological sin is a transgression of the eternal law. Those who are of atheistic tendencies and contend for this distinction, either deny the existence of God or maintain that He exercises no providence in regard to human acts. This position is destructive of sin in the theological sense, as God and His law, reward and punishment, are done away with. Those who admit the existence of God , His law, human liberty and responsibility, and still contend for a distinction between philosophical and theological sin, maintain that in the present order of God's providence there are morally bad acts, which, while violating the order of reason, are not offensive to God, and they base their contention on this that the sinner can be ignorant of the existence of God, or not actually think of Him and His law when he acts. Without the knowledge of God and consideration of Him, it is impossible to offend Him. This doctrine was censured as scandalous, temerarious, and erroneous by Alexander VIII (24 Aug., 1690) in his condemnation of the following proposition: "Philosophical or moral sin is a human act not in agreement with rational nature and right reason, theological and mortal sin is a free transgession of the Divine law. However grievous it may be, philosophical sin in one who is either ignorant of God or does not actually think of God, is indeed a grievous sin, but not an offense to God, nor a mortal sin dissolving friendship with God, nor worthy of eternal punishment" ( Denzinger -Bannwart, 1290).

This proposition is condemned because it does not distinguish between vincible and invincible ignorance, and further supposes invincible ignorance of God to be sufficiently common, instead of only metaphysically possible, and because in the present dispensation of God's providence we are clearly taught in Scripture that God will punish all evil coming from the free will of man ( Romans 2:5-11 ). There is no morally bad act that does not include a transgression of Divine law. From the fact that an action is conceived of as morally evil it is conceived of as prohibited. A prohibition is unintelligible without the notion of some one prohibiting. The one prohibiting in this case and binding the conscience of man can be only God, Who alone has power over man's free will and actions, so that from the fact that any act is perceived to be morally bad and prohibited by conscience, God and His law are perceived at least confusedly, and a wilful transgression of the dictate of conscience is necessarily also a transgression of God's law. Cardinal de Lugo (De incarnat., disp. 5, lect. 3) admits the possibility of philosophical sin in those who are inculpably ignorant of God, but he holds that it does not actually occur, because in the present order of God's providence there cannot be invincible ignorance of God and His law. This teaching does not necessarily fall under the condemnation of Alexander VIII, but it is commonly rejected by theologians for the reason that a dictate of conscience necessarily involves a knowledge of the Divine law as a principle of morality.

Conditions of Mortal Sin: Knowledge, Free Will, Grave Matter

Contrary to the teaching of Baius (prop. 46, Denzinger -Bannwart, 1046) and the Reformers, a sin must be a voluntary act. Those actions alone are properly called human or moral actions which proceed from the human will deliberately acting with knowledge of the end for which it acts. Man differs from all irrational creatures in this precisely that he is master of his actions by virtue of his reason and free will(I-II:1:1). Since sin is a human act wanting in due rectitude, it must have, in so far as it is a human act, the essential constituents of a human act. The intellect must perceive and judge of the morality of the act, and the will must freely elect. For a deliberate mortal sin there must be full advertence on the part of the intellect and full consent on the part of the will in a grave matter. An involuntary transgression of the law even in a grave matter is not a formal but a material sin. The gravity of the matter is judged from the teaching of Scripture, the definitions of councils and popes, and also from reason. Those sins are judged to be mortal which contain in themselves some grave disorder in regard to God, our neighbour, ourselves, or society. Some sins admit of no lightness of matter, as for example, blasphemy, hatred of God ; they are always mortal ( ex toto genere suo ), unless rendered venial by want of full advertence on the part of the intellect or full consent on the part of the will. Other sins admit lightness of matter: they are grave sins ( ex genere suo ) in as much as their matter in itself is sufficient to constitute a grave sin without the addition of any other matter, but is of such a nature that in a given case, owing to its smallness, the sin may be venial, e.g. theft.


That the act of the sinner may be imputed to him it is not necessary that the object which terminates and specifies his act should be directly willed as an ends or means. It suffices that it be willed indirectly or in its cause, i.e. if the sinner foresees, at least confusedly, that it will follow from the act which he freely performs or from his omission of an act. When the cause produces a twofold effect, one of which is directly willed, the other indirectly, the effect which follows indirectly is morally imputable to the sinner when these three conditions are verified:

  • first, the sinner must foresee at least confusedly the evil effects which follow on the cause he places;
  • second, he must be able to refrain from placing the cause;
  • third, he must be under the obligation of preventing the evil effect.
Error and ignorance in regard to the object or circumstances of the act to be placed, affect the judgment of the intellect and consequently the morality and imputability of the act. Invincible ignorance excuses entirely from sin. Vincible ignorance does not, although it renders the act less free (see IGNORANCE). The passions, while they disturb the judgment of the intellect, more directly affect the will. Antecedent passion increases the intensity of the act, the object is more intensely desired, although less freely, and the distrubance caused by the passions may be so great as to render a free judgment impossible, the agent being for the moment beside himself (I-II:6:7, ad 3um) . Consequent passion, which arises from a command of the will, does not lessen liberty, but is rather a sign of an intense act of volition. Fear, violence, heredity, temperament and pathological states, in so far as they affect free volition, affect the malice and imputability of sin. From the condemnation of the errors of Baius and Jansenius (Denz.-Bann., 1046, 1066, 1094, 1291-2) it is clear that for an actual personal sin a knowledge of the law and a personal voluntary act, free from coercion and necessity, are required. No mortal sin is committed in a state of invincible ignorance or in a half-conscious state. Actual advertence to the sinfulness of the act is not required, virtual advertence suffices. It is not necessary that the explicit intention to offend God and break His law be present, the full and free consent of the will to an evil act suffices. Malice

The true malice of mortal sin consists in a conscious and voluntary transgression of the eternal law, and implies a contempt of the Divine will, a complete turning away from God, our true last end, and a preferring of some created thing to which we subject ourselves. It is an offence offered to God, and an injury done Him; not that it effects any change in God, who is immutable by nature, but that the sinner by his act deprives God of the reverence and honor due Him: it is not any lack of malice on the sinner's part, but God's immutability that prevents Him from suffering. As an offence offered to God mortal sin is in a way infinite in its malice, since it is directed against an infinite being, and the gravity of the offence is measured by the dignity of the one offended (St. Thomas, III:1:2, ad 2um). As an act sin is finite, the will of man not being capable of infinite malice. Sin is an offence against Christ Who has redeemed man (Phil., iii, 18); against the Holy Ghost Who sanctifies us ( Hebrews 10:29 ), an injury to man himself, causing the spiritual death of the soul, and making man the servant of the devil. The first and primary malice of sin is derived from the object to which the will inordinately tends, and from the object considered morally, not physically. The end for which the sinner acts and the circumstances which surround the act are also determining factors of its morality. An act which, objectively considered, is morally indifferent, may be rendered good or evil by circumstances, or by the intention of the sinner. An act that is good objectively may be rendered bad, or a new species of good or evil may be added, or a new degree. Circumstances can change the character of a sin to such a degree that it becomes specifically different from what it is objectively considered; or they may merely aggravate the sin while not changing its specific character ; or they may lessen its gravity. That they may exercise this determining influence two things are necessary : they must contain in themselves some good or evil, and must be apprehended, at least confusedly, in their moral aspect. The external act, in so far as it is a mere execution of a voluntary efficacious internal act, does not, according to the common Thomistic opinion, add any essential goodness or malice to the internal sin.


While every mortal sin averts us from our true last end, all mortal sins are not equally grave, as is clear from Scripture ( John 19:11 ; Matthew 11:22 ; Luke 6 ), and also from reason. Sins are specifically distinguished by their objects, which do not all equally avert man from his last end. Then again, since sin is not a pure privation, but a mixed one, all sins do not equally destroy the order of reason. Spiritual sins, other things being equal, are graver than carnal sins. (St. Thomas, "De malo", Q. ii, a. 9; I-II, Q. lxxiii, a. 5).

Specific and numeric distinction of Sin

Sins are distinguished specifically by their formally diverse objects; or from their opposition to different virtues, or to morally different precepts of the same virtue. Sins that are specifically distinct are also numerically distinct. Sins within the same species are distinguished numerically according to the number of complete acts of the will in regard to total objects. A total object is one which, either in itself or by the intention of the sinner, forms a complete whole and is not referred to another action as a part of the whole. When the completed acts of the will relate to the same object there are as many sins as there are morally interrupted acts.

Subject causes of Sin

Since sin is a voluntary act lacking in due rectitude, sin is found, as in a subject, principally in the will. But, since not only acts elicited by the will are voluntary, but also those that are elicited by other faculties at the command of the will, sin may be found in these faculties in so far as they are subject in their actions to the command of the will, and are instruments of the will, and move under its guidance (I-II:74).

The external members of the body cannot be effective principles of sin (I-II:74:2, ad 3um). They are mere organs which are set in activity by the soul ; they do not initiate action. The appetitive powers on the contrary can be effective principles of sin, for they possess, through their immediate conjunction with the will and their subordination to it, a certain though imperfect liberty (I-II:56:4, ad 3um). The sensual appetites have their own proper sensible objects to which they naturally incline, and since original sin has broken the bond which held them in complete subjection to the will, they may antecede the will in their actions and tend to their own proper objects inordinately. Hence they may be proximate principles of sin when they move inordinately contrary to the dictates of right reason.

It is the right of reason to rule the lower faculties, and when the disturbance arises in the sensual part the reason may do one of two things: it may either consent to the sensible delectation or it may repress and reject it. If it consents, the sin is no longer one of the sensual part of man, but of the intellect and will, and consequently, if the matter is grave, mortal. If rejected, no sin can be imputed. There can be no sin in the sensual part of man independently of the will. The inordinate motions of the sensual appetite which precede the advertence of reason, or which are suffered unwillingly, are not even venial sins. The temptations of the flesh not consented to are not sins. Concupiscence, which remains after the guilt of original sin is remitted in baptism, is not sinful so long as consent is not given to it (Counc. of Trent, sess. V, can. v). The sensual appetite of itself cannot be the subject of mortal sin, for the reason that it can neither grasp the notion of God as an ultimate end, nor avert us from Him, without which aversion there cannot be mortal sin. The superior reason, whose office it is to occupy itself with Divine things, may be the proximate principle of sin both in regard to its own proper act, to know truth, and as it is directive of the inferior faculties: in regard to its own proper act, in so far as it voluntarily neglects to know what it can and ought to know ; in regard to the act by which it directs the inferior faculties, to the extent that it commands inordinate acts or fails to repress them (I-II:74:7, ad 2um).

The will never consents to a sin that is not at the same time a sin of the superior reason as directing badly, by either actually deliberating and commanding the consent, or by failing to deliberate and impede the consent of the will when it could and should do so. The superior reason is the ultimate judge of human acts and has an obligation of deliberating and deciding whether the act to be performed is according to the law of God. Venial sin may also be found in the superior reason when it deliberately consents to sins that are venial in their nature, or when there is not a full consent in the case of a sin that is mortal considered objectively.

Causes of Sin

Under this head, it is needful to distinguish between the efficient cause, i.e. the agent performing the sinful action, and those other agencies, influences or circumstances, which incite to sin and consequently involve a danger, more or less grave, for one who is exposed to them. These inciting causes are explained in special articles on OCCASIONS OF SIN and TEMPTATION. Here we have to consider only the efficient cause or causes of sin. These are interior and exterior. The complete and sufficient cause of sin is the will, which is regulated in its actions by the reason, and acted upon by the sensitive appetites. The principal interior causes of sin are ignorance, infirmity or passion, and malice. Ignorance on the part of the reason, infirmity and passion on the part of the sensitive appetite, and malice on the part of the will. A sin is from certain malice when the will sins of its own accord and not under the influence of ignorance or passion.

The exterior causes of sin are the devil and man, who move to

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