A Question I Was Asked:

'What Do Roman Catholics Mean by "Venial Sin"?'

The Actual Question

'What Do Roman Catholics Mean by "Venial Sin"? I have long been confused and perplexed by Catholics using this phrase.'

UK Apologetics Reply

In Roman Catholicism, a venial sin, simply put, is a less serious sin.
Such sin does not concern a "grave matter," it is not committed with full knowledge, or, it is not committed with both deliberate and complete consent. So venial sin is not as bad as mortal sin and one may not even be aware that one has sinned. One's judgment might be temporarily clouded for some reason and a degree of carelessness might be present.

Nevertheless, in this theological view, each venial sin that one commits adds to the penance that one must do. Penance left undone during life converts to punishment in purgatory. A venial sin can be left unconfessed, though it is always helpful to confess.

Venial sins are also usually viewed as remaining 'venial' no matter how many one commits, that is, they cannot be "added up" to ever constitute a mortal sin. However, there are cases where repeat offenses may become a grave matter. No one without a special grace (according to most R.C. theologians, this was only given to the Virgin Mary) can ever avoid venial sins entirely.

In contrast, Mortal sins must meet all of the following conditions:

a. its subject must be a grave (or serious) matter;
b. it must be committed with full knowledge, both of the sin and of the gravity of the offense (though nobody is deemed to be ignorant of the moral law, embedded into the conscience of every human being);
c. it must be committed with deliberate and complete consent, enough for it to have been a personal decision to commit the sin.

These sins must be specifically confessed and named, giving details about the context of each sin: what sin, why, against what or whom, the number and type of occurrences, and any other factors that may exacerbate or lessen one's responsibility and culpability that the confessing person might recall. Such sins will condemn to Hell without full confession and repentance.

Without any question, Roman Catholic theology is very complicated compared to Protestant theology and there is much more to the matter of venial, mortal and deadly sins than the above but this should suffice to answer the question.

I must say that the profound complications of the Catholic concept of sin makes me really grateful to be a Protestant! For Protestants all sin is simply sin; sure we recognise that a serial adulterer is in a more serious position than a person who - on very rare occasions - utters a 'white lie' when under pressure, but we still view all sin as something which separates us from God, and as something which we need to be driving out of our lives, yet we also keenly embrace the grace of God as something which firmly keeps us in the Faith.
Robin A. Brace. July 2nd, 2009.