Mortal Sin, Venial Sin, Confession, and Communion

Confessions Plaza Sign at Papal Mass in DC

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Priests who stress the importance of Confession have often noted that almost everyone receives Communion at Mass on Sunday, but very few people go to Confession the day before. That could mean that those priests have remarkably holy congregations, but it's more likely that many (perhaps even most) Catholics today think of the Sacrament of Confession as either optional or even unnecessary.

The Importance of Confession

Nothing could be further from the truth. Confession not only restores us to grace when we have sinned but helps to keep us from falling into sin in the first place. We shouldn't go to Confession only when we are conscious of mortal sin, but also when we are trying to uproot venial sins from our lives. Collectively, the two types of sin are known as "actual sin," to distinguish them from original sin, that sin which we inherited from Adam and Eve.

But now we're getting ahead of ourselves. What are actual sin, venial sin, and mortal sin?

Actual Sin

Actual sin, as the venerable Baltimore Catechism defines it, "is any wilful thought, word, deed, or omission contrary to the law of God." That covers an awful lot, from impure thoughts to "little white lies," and from murder to staying silent when a friend of ours spreads gossip about someone else.

Obviously, all of these sins aren't of the same magnitude. We might tell our children a little white lie with the intention of protecting them, while cold-blooded murder can never be committed with the thought of protecting the person killed.

Venial Sin

Thus the distinction between the two types of actual sin, venial and mortal. Venial sins are either small sins (say, those little white lies) or sins that normally would be much bigger, but are (as the Baltimore Catechism says) "committed without sufficient reflection or full consent of the will."

Venial sins add up over time—not in the sense that, say, ten venial sins equals a mortal sin, but because any sin makes it easier for us to commit further sins (including mortal sins) in the future. Sin is habit-forming. Lying to our spouse about a small matter may not seem like a big deal, but a series of such lies left unconfessed might be the first step toward a greater sin such as adultery (which, in its essence, is just a much more serious lie).

Mortal Sin

Mortal sins are distinguished from venial sins by three things. First, the thought, word, deed, or omission must concern something serious. Second, we must have thought about what we are doing when we commit the sin. Third, we must consent completely to it.

We might think about this like the difference between manslaughter and murder. If we're driving down the road and someone runs out in front of our car, we obviously have not intended his death nor given our consent to it if we can't stop in time to avoid hitting and killing him. If, however, we are angry at our boss, have fantasies about running him over, and then, given the opportunity to do so, put such a plan into action, that would be murder.

What Makes a Sin Mortal?

So are mortal sins always big and obvious? Not necessarily. Take pornography, for instance. If we're surfing the web and inadvertently run across a pornographic image, we might pause for a second to look at it. If we then come to our senses, realize we shouldn't be looking at such material, and close the web browser (or better yet, leave the computer), our brief dalliance with pornography may be a venial sin. We hadn't intended to view such an image, and we didn't give the full consent of our will to the act.

If, however, we keep thinking about such images and decide to return to the computer and search for them, we're headed into the domain of mortal sin. And the effect of mortal sin is to remove sanctifying grace—the life of God within us—from our soul. Without sanctifying grace, we cannot enter Heaven, which is why this sin is called mortal.

Can You Receive Communion Without Going to Confession?

So, what does this all mean in practice? If you want to receive Communion, do you always have to go to Confession first? The short answer is no—so long as you're only conscious of having committed venial sins.

Early in every Mass, the priest and the congregation perform the Penitential Rite, in which we normally recite a prayer known in Latin as the Confiteor ("I confess to Almighty God..."). There are variations on the Penitential Rite that don't use the Confiteor, but in each, at the end of the rite, the priest offers a general absolution, saying, "May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life."

When Must You Go to Confession Before Receiving Communion?

This absolution frees us from the guilt of venial sin; it cannot, however, free us from the guilt of mortal sin. If we are conscious of mortal sin, then we must receive the Sacrament of Confession. Until we have done so, we must refrain from receiving Communion.

Indeed, to receive Communion while conscious of having committed a mortal sin is to receive Communion unworthily—which is another mortal sin. As Saint Paul (1 Corinthians 11:27) tells us, "Therefore whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord."

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
ThoughtCo. "Mortal Sin, Venial Sin, Confession, and Communion." Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2020, ThoughtCo. (2020, August 25). Mortal Sin, Venial Sin, Confession, and Communion. Retrieved from ThoughtCo. "Mortal Sin, Venial Sin, Confession, and Communion." Learn Religions. (accessed April 1, 2023).

Watch Now: How to Go to Confession