Whenever I talk about mortal sin, it feels ridiculous.
I feel like a punchline is coming soon.
Probably because when I hear the words, “mortal sin”, they tend echo with a dark, gothic resonance. I think of goblins and dragons and menacing ruler-wielding nuns. (Thanks for that, pop culture.) Except it’s menacing in an almost camp way. Like the devil with a spangly pitchfork and a high-pitched laugh who is the opposite of scary.
Even the word itself sounds excessively gothic. Morrrrtal sin, like Gandalf stumbled into the Middles Ages and started warning the confused monks about Morgul-blades and Moooorrrrdooorrrr.
It seems almost ridiculous because we’ve made it that way. We’ve taken the very reasonable concept of mortal sin, and we’ve made it ridiculous. Why? Because otherwise it scares the hell out of us.
Mortal sin is nothing more the acknowledgement that Love is the centre and whole point of the universe.
But let me unpack that a little.
All sin is a failure of love. Christ says that the whole law can be summed up in two great commandments: love God and love your neighbour. But sin, as the Catechism says, “is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity.” (CCC, 1855)
Sin turns man against God and brother against brother. It is by its very nature destructive. It tears relationships apart as it kills and maims and isolates.
Mortal sin is sin that is a full, serious, and deliberate rejection of love and, crucially, of God.
For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.” (CCC, 1857)
That’s why it’s mortal sin, because it “destroys charity in the heart of man” – it kills supernatural love. That love, or charity, is what makes us Christians. In baptism and through faith, we are united to Christ and to the Blessed Trinity. We become children of God and temples of the Holy Spirit, and “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Rom 5:5)
God and love are inseparable. “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” (1 Jn 4:16) Where there is love, there is God and where there is God, there is love. That’s why St Paul can say that “if I have… not love, I am nothing” (1 Co 13:2) and St John that “He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.” (1 Jn 4:8)
But mortal in is the rejection of that love and so it is a rejection of God. When we commit a mortal sin – when we freely choose to sin greviously knowing full well what we are doing – we are rejecting God. And if we reject God, we reject life and goodness and everything worth having because He is the only source of all that. Sin can only destroy and pervert.
When we sin mortally, we’re saying with our actions, if not with our words, that we don’t believe God is good and we don’t believe love is worth it. We are choosing death.
That is why it a mortal sin: a sin that leads unto death. “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal.” (1 Jn 5:17)
We know this. Heck, we feel this. That’s why we have to make jokes about it all the time because it’s freaking terrifying.
But humour isn’t our only option.
We can also try repentance. As St John wrote earlier in his letter,
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn 1:8-9)
The Church has the wonderful Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.
There, by the mercy of God and through the ministry of the priest, we confess our sins and we are, wonder of wonders, forgiven. We are reconciled to God, restored to grace, and reunited in the most intimate friendship with The Most High.
Indeed the sacrament of Reconciliation with God brings about a true “spiritual resurrection,” restoration of the dignity and blessings of the life of the children of God, of which the most precious is friendship with God. (CCC, 1468)
That’s how mortal sin is really all about love. It’s shadow side to be sure, but no less real for that.
It’s certainly a whole heck more real than a red devil with a pitchfork.