Elements of Mortal Sin

Cardinal Manning, commenting on St. John’s statement that “all iniquity is sin” (1 Jn 5:17), explains that “iniquity means all departure from the rectitude of God and of the law of God. Iniquity is inequality, or crookedness. Everything that is not conformed to the rectitude of God, to His perfections, to His law, and to His will, is sin.”

Then, following upon St. John’s distinction between “a sin unto death” and “a sin which is not unto death” (1 Jn 5:16), Cardinal Manning defines the elements that constitute mortal sin, thereby distinguishing it from venial sin. He explains: “To constitute a mortal sin it is necessary that the man who commits it should know what he does—there must be a knowledge of the intellect; if not, the sin is only, as I then said, a material sin, and not a formal sin, unless his ignorance be a culpable and guilty ignorance. Next, he must not only know that he is doing wrong, but his will must consent to the wrong-doing. Thirdly, he must know and consent deliberately, with such an advertence or attention to what he is about as to make him conscious of his action.”

He observes: “A man who should transgress the law of God in the least possible way would fulfil these three conditions. It would be a transgression of the law of God if I should take an apple off the tree of my neighbour without his leave. It was his: I had not a right to take it, and I thereby broke the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not steal’; but that certainly would not be a sin unto death. It became a sin unto death when a divine prohibition was laid upon such an act under pain of death, and that the pain of eternal death; but where there is no such command laid under pain of death, it is quite clear that the taking of an apple would not constitute a sin unto death. Therefore it is necessary that there should be a gravity in the matter of the sin.”

Quotations from Henry Edward Manning, Sin and Its Consequences, 2d ed. (London: Burns and Oates, 1874).

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Mortal Sin

Cardinal Manning gives examples of mortal sin: “The sin of Judas was a sin unto death. With his eyes open, with a knowledge of his Master,—though perhaps he did not know of the mystery of the Incarnation as we know it now; nevertheless he knew enough,—he sold his Master, and yet perhaps not knowing that he sold Him to be crucified. This, then, was a sin unto death. The sin of Simon Magus was a blasphemy and a sin unto death. The sin of those that blaspheme the Holy Ghost, which shall never be forgiven, is a sin unto death.”

As for “the sin of apostates from the faith, who, having known the truth, and having had the full light and illumination to know God, afterwards fall from Him, . . . ‘It is impossible for those who have been once enlightened, and have tasted of the Heavenly Gift, and of the good Word of God, and of the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to be renewed again unto repentance’ (Heb 6:4-6). In one word, all who are impenitent sin unto death. . . . Saint John says, ‘They went out from us because they were not of us; for if they had been of us, without doubt they would have continued with us’ (1 Jn 2:19)—all these who so sin, sin unto death, and are left to the judgment of God.”

St. John distinguishes mortal sin (a sin unto death) from venial sin (a sin not unto death) when he writes: “If any man shall see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and life shall be given unto him that sinneth not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say for that any man shall ask.” (1 Jn 5:16) Cardinal Manning comments: “Saint John in these words does not forbid us to pray [for the forgiveness of another person’s mortal sin]; he says, ‘I do not say’—that is, ‘I do not enjoin it.’ He leaves it to the conscience of every man. He says of those who sin not unto death, that ‘we have all confidence we may obtain pardon and grace for them;’ but for those who do sin unto death as I have described, ‘we have no such confidence, and therefore, though I do not enjoin it, I do not forbid it.'”

Quotations from Henry Edward Manning, Sin and Its Consequences, 2d ed. (London: Burns and Oates, 1874).

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How To Distinguish Mortal Sin From Venial Sin

Cardinal Manning elaborates on the distinction between mortal and venial sin. He states: “From the written Word of God it is clear, beyond controversy, that some sins are unto death, and some sins are not unto death. That is to say, that some sins are mortal, and some sins are not mortal.”

He explains that “God made man for Himself; that He made him to His own likeness; that He made him capable of knowing, loving, and serving Him, and of being like to God; and that in the knowledge, the love, and the service, and the likeness of God, is the bliss of man. Therefore conformity to God is our perfection, and union with God is eternal life; but deformity, or departure from the likeness of God, is sin, and separation from God is eternal death.”

“The nature of sin is, as we have defined it, the transgression of the law of God; or, in other words, any thought, word, or deed deliberately committed with the knowledge of the intellect, and the consent of the will, contrary to the will of God. . . . The essential malice of sin, then, consists in the variance of the will, the hostility of the will of the creature against the will of his Maker.”

St. John writes: “If any man shall see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and life shall be given unto him that sinneth not unto death” (1 Jn 5:16). Cardinal Manning gives examples of sins that are not unto death: “Sins of infirmity; sins of impetuosity; sins of strong temptation; sins which by the subtlety of Satan lead men astray; sins of passion, in which human nature, being weak and tempestuous and liable to disorder, is drawn aside: if in all these there be no malice, either against God, or against our neighbour.”

He adds: “These are sins not unto death, as we may trust, because if there be no malice against God or our neighbour, then the essential sinfulness of sin is wanting; and in that case, Saint John says, ‘Let him pray for him, and God will give life unto those that sin not unto death’; that is to say, He will give grace, sorrow, pardon, help, protection, and perseverance. He will watch over those souls if in humility and in sorrow they persevere; and the prayer of those who are faithful and steadfast will obtain grace for those that sin not unto death.”

Quotations from Henry Edward Manning, Sin and Its Consequences, 2d ed. (London: Burns and Oates, 1874).

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Cultivating Meekness

St. Francis de Sales counseled his spiritual children to cultivate in themselves the virtue of meekness. This is in line with what Jesus Christ said: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Mt 11:29). Here are some words of advice on the subject from St. Francis:

“The meek Saviour would have us meek, so that, though surrounded by the world and the flesh, we may live by the Spirit; that, amidst the vanities of earth, we may live in heaven; that, living among men, we may praise Him with the angels.”

“God, who calls us to Him, sees how we are approaching, and will never permit anything to happen but what is for our greater good.”

“God knows what we are, and will hold out his paternal hand to us in a difficult step, in order that nothing may arrest us.”

“If, then, it ever happen that some grief come upon you, assure your soul that if she love God all things will turn to her good. And though you may not see the means by which this good shall be effected, be all the more convinced of it.”

“Since the Heart of our Lord has no more loving law than meekness, humility, and charity we must firmly maintain these dear virtues in us.”

“Cultivate not only a solid love, but a tender, gentle, meek love for those about you; I have learned from experience that infirmities destroy, not our charity, but our meekness towards our neighbour, if we are not strongly on our guard.”

He explains why meekness is better than severity: “Away from me those who love severity, for I will have none of it! It is better to be obliged to account to God for too much gentleness than too much severity. Is not God all love? God the Father is the father of the wretched; God the Son is called a lamb; God the Holy Ghost manifests Himself under the form of a dove. If there were anything better than benignity Jesus Christ would have told us, and yet He gives us but two lessons to learn of Him—meekness and humility.”

Quotations from Maxims and Counsels of St. Francis de Sales, translated by Ella McMahon (Dublin: M. H. Gill & Son, 1884).

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St. Francis de Sales On Joy

St. Francis de Sales was Bishop of Geneva from 1602 till his death in 1622. The Catholic spirituality he taught was one full of joy springing from love. Here are excerpts from his writings:

“You wish absolutely to form Jesus Christ in you, in your heart, in your works, by a sincere love of his doctrine and a perfect imitation of his life; rest assured it will cost you many pangs; but they will pass away, and the presence of Jesus, who shall live in you, will fill your soul with an ineffable joy which can never be taken from you.”

“Fear not; you are walking upon the sea, amid the winds and the waves, but it is with Jesus. If fear seizes you, cry loudly, ‘Lord, save me!’ He will stretch forth his hand to you; clasp it firmly and go joyfully on.”

“Live joyfully; our Lord looks down upon you, and looks upon you with love, and with a tenderness proportioned to your foolishness.”

“Would to God that we paid little attention to the condition of the road which alarms us, but kept our eyes steadily fixed upon Him who guides us, and the happy end to which He leads us.”

“You will be very happy if you receive with a filial and loving heart what our Lord sends you from a heart so paternal in its care of your perfection.”

“What a happiness it is to be with God, no one knowing what passes between God and the heart but God Himself and the adoring heart.”

“He who lives but for God seeks only God, and since God is with him in adversity as well as in prosperity, he dwells in peace in the midst of tribulation.”

“Make your little efforts sweetly, peacefully, and amiably to please this Sovereign Goodness, and do not be astonished at difficulties.”

“Live wholly according to the Spirit, live quietly in peace, have perfect confidence that God will help you.”

Quotations from Maxims and Counsels of St. Francis de Sales, translated by Ella McMahon (Dublin: M. H. Gill & Son, 1884).

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A Threefold Malice

Cardinal Manning explains that there is a threefold malice in every actual sin committed:

“First, there is a malice against God the Father, who made man to His image and likeness, that He might be the object of his love; that he might love Him, know Him, serve Him, worship Him, be conformed to Him, and dwell with Him in eternity. The Christian who sins against God sins against his Creator, and worships the creature more than the Creator; that is to say, worships the world, his pleasures, himself. Self-worship he puts in the place of the worship of God, and in that he does an infinite offence—infinite, though he be finite—because the Person against whom that offence is committed is an infinite God.”

“Secondly, there is a malice against our Lord Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of’ the world. The Apostle says every sinner is ‘an enemy of the Cross of Christ.’ . . . And why? Because Jesus Christ suffered on the Cross for those very sins which such men commit. The sinner nails Him on the Cross once more. The nails and the hammer were but the material instruments of crucifixion; the moral cause of the crucifixion of the Son of God was the sin which you and I have committed; and if we commit such sins again, we deliberately renew the causes which nailed Him on the Cross.”

“Thirdly, there is a malice against the Holy Ghost. Every sin that is committed is committed against the light and grace of the Holy Spirit in the conscience.”

Christ said: “Every sin and every blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men, except the blasphemy of the Holy Ghost” (Mt 12:31). Cardinal Manning explains: “A man may speak against Jesus Christ, ay, blaspheme his Lord, and the Holy Spirit, convincing him of sin, may bring him to repentance, may convert him to God, and his soul may be saved; but any man who blasphemes the Holy Ghost—Who is the Spirit of Penance, the Spirit of Absolution, the Absolver of the penitent—rejects the whole dispensation of grace; and therefore the sin that shall never be forgiven is the sin of impenitence. Every sin that men repent of shall be forgiven; but the sin that is not repented of shall never be forgiven, neither in this world, nor in the world to come.”

Quotations from Henry Edward Manning, Sin and Its Consequences, 2d ed. (London: Burns and Oates, 1874).

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Actual Sin

Cardinal Manning distinguishes original sin from actual sin. Original sin refers to Adam’s transgression of God’s law. Actual sin is “the conscious variance of a creature to the known will of its Creator; and that conscious variance includes the light of the intellect, and the consent of the will, and the knowledge and intention of what we are doing. The essential malice of sin is in the will.”

“No men know the light of God’s presence so little as those who are covered with sin; and the more sin they have upon them the less they can see it. Though all the perfections of God, like the rays of the sun which encircle the head of the blind man, are round about them all the day long, they are unconscious of His presence. . . . because they do not see the light of God, therefore they do not see His perfections, and therefore they do not see themselves; for the light of the knowledge of self comes from the light of the knowledge of God. How shall a man know what unholiness is, if he does not know what holiness is? How shall he know what falsehood is, if he does not know what truth is: or impurity, if he does not know purity: or impiety, if he does not know the duty we owe to God, and the majesty of God, to whom worship is due?”

“In the proportion in which the light of the perfections of God is clouded, we lose the light of the knowledge of ourselves; and the end of it is that when men hear such words as I am speaking now, they say, ‘That is just the character of my neighbour—that is the very picture of my brother’: they do not see themselves in the glass. You may describe their character, and they will not recognise it; you may tell them, ‘This is yourself,’ and they will not believe it. There is something within them which darkens the conscience; and why is it? Because sin stupefies the intellect and the heart: it draws a veil and a mist over the brightness of the intelligence, and it darkens the light of the conscience.”

Quotations from Henry Edward Manning, Sin and Its Consequences, 2d ed. (London: Burns and Oates, 1874).

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