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Venial Sin

by Archbishop, Cardinal Henry Edward Manning


This is the third sermon in a series of talks given over 100 years ago by Cardinal Manning. Compiled into a provocative and challenging book titled Sin and Its Consequences, these talks provide a probing examination of just what sin is and what are its effects on the soul of man. In this sermon, Cardinal Manning examines the subject of venial sin, those sins which may be found in souls that are united with God, and are in the grace of God, and in the love of God, and in a state of habitual obedience.

Larger Work

Sin and Its Consequences


47 - 69

Publisher & Date

Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., Rockford, IL, 1986

"For a just man shall fall seven times and shall rise again." — Proverbs 24:16

"For in many things we all offend. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man." — James 3:2

There is a distinction between sins which cause the immediate death of the soul, and sins which do not; or, in other words, sins that are mortal, and sins that are venial — a distinction not spun out by the subtleties of theologians, but written broadly in the Word of God. Last time I spoke of mortal sin; it remains for me now to speak of the sins that are not mortal. The sum of what I said last time is this: that mortal sins are deadly, for that they separate the soul from God. God is the life of the soul, and a soul separated from God is dead. A soul separated from God in this world, unless restored to union with God in this world, by the operation of His grace and of repentance, will after the death of the body be separated from God for all eternity. Such is the second death, or in other words, Hell.

I drew out the reasons to show the existence and the necessity of Hell — that Hell, or the loss of God forever, is in strict truth the perpetuity of the state of separation from God which the sinner has freely chosen for himself in this world, so that Hell is linked by an intrinsic necessity to mortal sin; that the separation of the soul from God through mortal sin results, by an intrinsic necessity, from the unchangeable perfections of God on the one hand, and the obstinate variance of the created will against God on the other; and that, therefore, every soul that dies eternally dies by self-murder. It is not more a just judgment pronounced at the bar of a future tribunal than an intrinsic necessity of that state to which the soul has freely reduced itself.

This is the sum of what I have already said; and I now go on to those sins which are not mortal, or which, in the common language of theology, are called "venial." The word "venial" is used here in the sense of "pardonable"; venial sins are those which may be pardoned. In a general sense, there is only one sin which cannot be pardoned — that is, the sin that is not repented of. Every mortal sin that man commits — if repented of — may be pardoned: "Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven, except only the blasphemy of the Holy Ghost1 . . . That shall never be forgiven, either in this world or in the world to come." (Matt. 12:31-32). And therefore in one sense, and that a general sense only, every mortal sin is in a sense "venial" if considered in this way: that it may be pardoned to the true penitent through the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ.

But the technical sense of the word "venial" is something precise and distinct. It means those sins which may be found in souls that are united with God, and are in the grace of God, and in the love of God, and in a state of habitual obedience. This needs to be more carefully explained; and I am conscious that in explaining it I ought to distinguish between venial sins and temptations, but time will not now suffice. I must hope hereafter to find an occasion on which I may speak of the subject of temptation as distinct from sin. Therefore, I intentionally set it aside at present.

The sins which may be found even in men in the state of grace are sins of lesser matter; or, they may be sins committed without full knowledge or consent. They are often sins of infirmity committed through weakness; or sins of surprise committed by sudden or strong temptation; or sins of impetuosity, where passion carries a man for a moment beyond self-control; or sins of indeliberation, that is, done in haste, before as yet conscience and the reason have had time to deliberate and weigh what they are about; or, lastly, they may be sins committed with some degree of deliberation.

Now, the seven capital sins, as they are called — anger, pride, gluttony, impurity (lust), ambition (avarice), jealousy (envy), and sloth — these seven are the capital sins, under which almost every kind of sin may ultimately be reduced; and of those, six at least may be venial. The seventh is one in which, if any man sin deliberately, with his eyes open, and with the consent of his will, he can hardly be free from mortal sin, because lightness of matter cannot be supposed in that instance to exist — I mean sins against the holy virtue of purity. But sins of anger, of pride, of gluttony, of ambition, of jealousy, of sloth, are susceptible of degrees and shades and distinctions with regard to gravity of matter; and they may be also committed, as I said before, through infirmity, through surprise, through impetuosity, and without deliberation, and even with some degree of deliberation, without being mortal. This will explain what we read in Holy Scripture: "The just man falleth seven times." "Who can understand sins? From my secret faults cleanse me, O Lord." (Prov. 24:16; Ps. 18:13).

It is clear that even the saints of God, through infirmity, and through temptation, have offended against God, and yet they have not broken their friendship, nor separated their souls from Him. For example, all those who preserve their baptismal innocence are in a state of union with God, and all such will be saved. They are united with God through the indwelling of the Holy Ghost; they are children of God, and if they die they will most assuredly inherit the kingdom of Heaven. Nevertheless, all those who preserve their baptismal innocence — and I trust that many who hear me have never lost it — are conscious while they hear me of the multitude of personal faults — ay, and it may be habitual faults of temper, of ambition, of jealousy — of which they are guilty. Is there anyone here who will venture to say he is not conscious of some besetting sin, of some — ay, perhaps of many, faults — and yet he may still be in the grace of his Baptism; and of this we may believe our Lord spoke when He said: "He that is washed hath no need save to wash his feet, but he is clean every whit." (John 13:10). That is to say, he has been cleansed in the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ in Holy Baptism, therefore those lesser or venial sins are washed away by sorrow, by contrition, by mortification, and by absolution. (Venial sins can be forgiven even outside the Sacrament of Penance.)

Once more. I will suppose that a man has fallen from his baptismal grace; and that through a true conversion and a real and solid repentance he has returned to God. Perhaps some who hear me are in this state. They are conscious that they would rather lay down their lives than offend God again, in the way in which they had offended Him before; nevertheless they are perfectly conscious of a multitude of faults against God and their neighbor; and yet those faults do not prevail to break their union with Him, nor to turn away the friendship of God from them, and they have not relapsed into their former state.

We are, in fact, like soldiers in warfare: wounded, and spotted and spattered by the blood of the conflict. We are laborers out in the field, and the soils and stains of our toil cleave to us. We are wayfarers in the road, and the dust settles upon us even when we do not know it. We cannot go out of the world and the world's evil. We are in contact with it, and it casts more than its shadow upon us. It casts its stain, and the stain abides.

The most perfect machine, constructed with the most faultless accuracy, if it be jarred by a shock, is at once thrown out of gear, it loses its perfect action, and its motions become eccentric. So it is with human nature. It was created perfect in the image of God, with the three perfections, natural, supernatural, and preternatural, of which I have spoken already; but by the shock of the Fall it was thrown out of gear. It became eccentric, it lost its rest upon God, its true center, and it began to turn faultily round itself. The three wounds of the soul — ignorance in the intellect, turbulence in the passions, weakness in the will — are the injury done to that perfect machine. Wherefore, continually our nature is acting abnormally, that is, in departure from the law of its Maker. This seems to be the Apostle's meaning when he says: "I know that in me — that is, in my flesh — dwelleth no good thing. For to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would, I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that which I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. Unhappy man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (Rom. 7:18-24). These were the words of the Holy Ghost by the Apostle, and this is precisely what I have been describing. The Apostle was a saint of God, in union with God, in friendship with God; but he was conscious that in himself there was a perpetual warfare, a turbulence in his nature, a weakness in his will; yet those sinful emotions, passions, and temptations were not sins: only an act of consent could make them sins in the sight of God.2

We are approaching, then, an understanding of venial sin. It is a transgression of the law of God; a thought, word, or deed, at variance with the will of God, in a matter that is not grave, or in a grave matter but without full knowledge or without full consent. This will suffice to distinguish the sin which is venial from that which I described last time, where with eyes open and willing consent, in a grave matter, a sinner breaks the law of God in the face of God. What I have now to point out are the consequences of venial sins.

It is quite true they do not break our friendship with God; but do not for one moment deceive yourselves by thinking that venial sins are what are called little sins. There is no such thing as a little sin. Before I have done, I hope to convince you that all sins are great, even those that do not destroy the supernatural life of the soul. The consequences, then, of venial sins are these:

1. First, venial sins diminish the grace of God in the soul. When theologians say that venial sins diminish grace, they always make this distinction — they do not mean to say that the quantity of the grace of God is made less, because the grace of God is like life, which cannot be diminished. We are either alive or dead; but the living powers may be diminished. Life remains, but the health and the vigor and the strength of the living man are lessened. Therefore, the diminution of grace means that it diminishes the fervor and the operation and energy and efficacy of grace.

St. Bernard says that fervor — that is to say, the life of fidelity and obedience — has many effects; and two of those effects are these: First, it renders whatever we have to do easy to us; and, secondly, whatever we do easily, we do with pleasure, and find a sweetness in it. They know this who have learned to speak a foreign language, or to use a musical instrument. Nothing is more tedious, repulsive, or trying, than the acquisition either of a foreign language or of the practice of music; but the moment we have attained a certain facility in either, there is a sweetness in exercising that acquired skill; so that we are ready at all hours to practice it, and at every moment we have a sensible enjoyment in making use of the acquired faculty.

Now, it is just so with obedience, with prayer, with mortification, which is the most repulsive of all things to our nature. They who use self-denial and mortification grow to love it, and find a sweetness in it; but the moment they begin to indulge venial sins of any sort or kind, they, begin to lose that sweetness. The moment they begin to commit venial sins of worldliness, of vanity, of self-indulgence, the palate becomes vitiated, the taste is spoiled. The pure spiritual taste, which makes self-denial and prayer sweet to them, loses its purity, and the world's excitement, pleasure, vanity, flattery, incense, and the like, become sweet; and as these things become sweet, the facility of prayer and self-denial is lost, and they become difficult. A repugnance to them grows up; they are done with effort; they are postponed; they are limited; they are restricted; they are reduced to a minimum; and, finally, the fervor of the soul is lost.

What, then, is fervor? It does not mean emotion. Fervor consists in the firm desire and effectual resolution to fulfill our duties to God with these three things: regularity, punctuality, and exactness — that is, doing our duty to God by rule; doing it punctually at the right time; and exactly, that is, as perfectly as we can. But if we have been indulging venial sins of any sort or kind, we begin to do our duty towards God in a slovenly way; we neglect the right time; we do it irregularly; we put God off with an imperfect service. Those venial sins are like the dust settling upon the perfect machine of which I spoke. As the dust accumulates upon the timepiece, the motion of the timepiece becomes slower; and as it becomes sluggish it loses its perfection. So again, as I said, mortal sin is the death of the soul — but venial sin is the disease of the soul. Those who willingly allow themselves to fall into such infirmities and imperfections, which are not yet mortal, are like men who are making bad blood — men in whom morbid humors are accumulating; a lingering malady is upon them, through ill-using the vigor of their life. This is the first effect.

2. We are always receiving sufficient grace from Almighty God, who, in His infinite mercy, "maketh his sun to rise upon the evil and the good, who sendeth his rain upon the just and the unjust." (Matt. 5:45). There is a perpetual flood and inundation of the grace of God, coming down upon the whole race of mankind; but most especially upon those who are in the light of His Faith, and in the unity of His Fold. Well, the effect of these venial sins, these personal faults — I will not again go into a detailed account, you must individually examine your hearts, and make application — the effect of these sins is to hinder the reception of grace, to shut grace out. The Apostle says, "We are not straitened in him, we are straitened in ourselves." (2 Cor. 6:12). If our hearts were as large as His hand, we should be filled with His grace; but our hearts are narrow. The hands of Almighty God, which are infinite, are perpetually pouring out grace upon us. It is like the rain that comes down upon the sand of the shore, or upon a hungry sea, or upon the stony mountains.

There are two ways that we are continually receiving grace: the one way is in the Sacraments; the other, out of the Sacraments. The grace we receive in the Sacraments is of two kinds. Every Sacrament gives sanctifying grace, and also a specific sacramental grace (which is actually a special aspect or function of sanctifying grace). In Baptism, the sacramental grace is spiritual rebirth, by which we are made children of God: "the grace of adoption whereby we can cry Abba, Father" (Rom. 8:15); moreover, it is the grace whereby we are enabled to fulfill all the duties that belong to the children or to the sons of God. This is the meaning of St. John when he says, "To as many as received him, to them gave he power to be made the sons of God." (John 1:12). That is, every baptized person has grace from the time of his Baptism to fulfill every duty of the love of God and of his neighbor, every duty of piety towards God, every duty of obedience; so that at no time in his life — childhood, boyhood, youth, or manhood — will he ever fail of doing his duty towards God from any lack or denial of grace on God's part. But those who, having received the grace of Baptism, as I have said, in this twofold sense, begin from early childhood with all manner of little faults, and grow up to boyhood and youth with faults growing stronger and stronger, and more and more in number, yet perhaps not arriving at mortal sin such men are continually choking, stifling, keeping down the working of grace within them.

So, again, in the Sacrament of Penance. Those who have come to the Sacrament of Penance in mortal sin, and therefore without the love of God, and unable to bring with them any sorrow except the sorrow of fear and hope, do receive in the Sacrament the grace of Charity; that is, the love of God is restored to them when they receive back sanctifying grace. Afterwards they are able to make the acts of contrition perfect in kind, though not perfect in degree, and fulfill all the duties of a penitent; but if they begin to return to their venial sins, to give way to their infirmities, impetuosities, and temptations in the manifold kinds I have described, the spirit of penance, contrition, and humility is hindered and lasts but a little time.

Once more. Perhaps one of the phenomena of the spiritual life most to be wondered at is this: that whereas one Communion worthily made, in which we receive the Precious Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, is enough to make us tabernacles of the Holy Ghost and saints, there are those who go to Holy Communion every week, and perhaps every day, and, to our shame, there are priests of God who every day offer the Holy Sacrifice, and receive the Precious Body and Blood of our Lord, and yet are not saints. It is a miracle of our insensibility and earthliness that we should be what we are, and yet be daily holding in our hands the Holy Sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Why is all this? The sacramental grace of the Holy Eucharist is the abundance of the outpouring of Our Lord's Holy Spirit, which accompanies the Holy Sacrament as the rays of the sun go with the sun. Where the sun is, the splendor of his presence is besides; and if our hearts were not narrow and cold, and choked by a multitude of faults and infirmities, we should be so filled by one Communion that we should be elevated from the low level on which we are to a life that is far above us.

Next, there are the graces outside of the Sacraments. There are lights by which God makes the soul to know His truth, and by which He draws the soul to His presence. We read in Holy Scripture: "When thou hast said, Seek ye my face; my heart said, Thy face, Lord, will I seek." (Ps. 26:8). Such is our answer; but it is a ray of light from Him. It is a ray of the light of Divine truth and of the Divine grace, which speaks to the intellect and the conscience. If we would open our intellect with sincerity to receive the light of truth, and our conscience to receive the attraction of Divine grace, it would fill and illuminate us; but by faults of self-indulgence, worldliness, fear of man, and human respect, we bring a film over our eyes, and the inward eye of the intellect and conscience at last loses its faculty of discernment. Its sight is confused, like men who have what is called color-blindness. They cannot distinguish colors, they put red for green, and green for red; and so some people "put light for darkness, and darkness for light, and sweet for bitter, and bitter for sweet," as the Prophet says; that is, confusing together the grace of God and the inspirations of nature.

We all are between two attractions; there is the attraction of God, and the attraction of the world; and without breaking with God, there are multitudes who are living under the play and influence of the world. They would not break with God for anything that could be offered, even for the world and all contained therein; nevertheless, they would not break with the world, and they try to do that impossible thing — that is, to "serve God and Mammon." Thus they are in the condition of which our Lord speaks, when He says: "Behold, thou art neither cold nor hot. I would thou wert cold or hot; but because thou art neither cold nor hot, but lukewarm, I will cast thee out of my mouth." (Apoc. 3:15-16).

3. Thirdly, another consequence of venial sins is that they dispose the soul for mortal sin. Just as ailments and slight sicknesses are the forerunners which pull down the strength and render men susceptible of greater diseases, so lesser sins prepare the way for greater. It is like, I may say, the heaping up of fuel.

Let me take as an example what we call a smoldering temper. People who are irascible and tempted to anger, though for a long time they fight against it, afterwards begin to indulge it, and to allow the smoldering temper to go on like a charred beam in a house, which may smolder for months before the fire breaks out. Some day there comes an occasion when a temptation meets that smoldering temper, like letting air in on the burning beam; and the whole soul is in a blaze, and malice, or hatred, or resentment, or revenge breaks out.

Again, there are such things as pattering lies, little insincerities, slight swervings from truth. The world is full and the atmosphere of the world is thick with those insincerities. They may not be mortal, they may be venial, they may be little lies of courtesy, little falsehoods of excuse; but the day comes when this perverse habit of not speaking the exact truth has so confirmed itself upon the tongue and upon the will, that upon an occasion in which a man would have cut off his right hand rather than have told a lie, he will tell a lie boldly, and will stand to it. He has been long laying up the fuel for this sin. Once more — but this is an example which I postpone, because I shall have to speak of the subject more fully — little negligences and omissions prepare the way at last for the mortal sin of sloth.

More than this, these venial sins have the effect of giving a perverse inclination to the will. If in wintertime the rain descends upon the unfinished wall of a house, soaking through to its very core, and if then there come a frost, the frost makes the wall swell, and it loses its perpendicular. The winter has been a still winter, and the snow has fallen and the wind has not risen. At last comes the wintry wind, and as the Prophet says: "The breach in the wall falleth suddenly when no man looketh for it." (Is. 30:13). The will, which was once united with God, and converted to God, has begun gradually to avert itself from God. There is no such thing as an equilibrium between God and sin; that cannot be; and when the will loses its union with God, it immediately inclines itself towards sin.

There is a thought which is indeed terrific, and ought to alarm every one of us who is conscious, as we are, of committing venial sins with such facility. St. Theresa said: "If I were to commit venial sin, I feel as if I should die; and that because every sin we commit, we commit in God." It is in God; for in Him we live, and move, and are; by Him we are sustained; our very being is supported by His being; the very power we abuse, when we transgress His law, is power He has lent to us, as the Prophet says, speaking for God: "You made Me to serve with your sins, and wearied Me with your iniquities." That is, God is physically united with us, even in the very actions we do against Him. We use the powers of nature against the will of God in His grace. Therefore it is that these venial sins, as they are called, are in themselves great, as you will see hereafter; and they dispose the soul towards greater sin for this reason, that they keep up the trade of sinning, they blunt the conscience, they bring on insensibility, they cloud the sense of the presence of God, they familiarize us with abusing the power which God has given us, against Himself.

4. Then, fourthly, such sins displease God; and can any sin be small which displeases God? When we walk about at noonday, we walk about in the full splendor of the noonday light we are bathed in it, encompassed by it we cannot escape from it, go where we may — if we go on the north side of a wall, the light is still there. So it is with the presence of God. All our deeds, words, and thoughts are in the presence of God: in the light of the rays of the Divine holiness, justice, truth, mercy, which inundate the soul as the light of the noonday inundates the world. Everything we do, we do before Him, of whom St. John says: "His eyes are like a flame of fire." (Apoc. 1:14). We displease God, then, as our Father and as our Maker. We knowingly displease Him by ungrateful and unfilial disobedience. It is as if the Prodigal, after his return home and after being reinvested with the "first robe, and the ring on his hand, shoes on his feet," and after receiving the "kiss of peace," had again begun — and with his eyes open — to murmur and complain at his father's will. We displease also our Divine Redeemer, who died for us, our Divine Friend, and we displease Him by mean, treacherous, tricky, and hateful violations of the duties of friendship. And, thirdly, we displease and grieve the Holy Ghost; ay, we grieve the Holy Ghost by things which we think splendid, noble, laudable, admirable. I will give you some examples.

In society, a man is thought dull and stupid who cannot talk about his neighbor and satirically describe and make others laugh at his humorous descriptions of the failings and faults, and sometimes of the sins, of those that are known to him. A man that is simple in his conversation and bridles his tongue is a dull companion. He chills society. They are the most popular in society who have no bridle in their mouth, who will say anything, criticize anybody, ridicule all things, dress up and satirize every person, every event, and every scandal of the day. These are the entertaining men in society; these are the men that make their way. I should like to know, when they go home at night, how many sins of the tongue — venial sins, or perhaps mortal sins — have been written down in the book of God's remembrance; and I should like to know how many sins of listening to that detraction, and encouraging it by curiosity and laughter, have been written down also in the page of remembrance for those who heard it.

Take another example — those who go into the world, dressed out in the vanity and folly and ostentation of what is called "fashion." I wonder by what name it will be known in the Last Judgment. "Fashion" is a word in the mouths of men and women — have the holy angels got any equivalent word, and will "fashion" be written down in the book of God's remembrance? What will it be called? Vanity, willful tempting of others, vainglory, luxury, self-exhibition; ay, and that often to the peril and danger of those who look on.3 You have seen what looks like bloom upon the fruit. It is not bloom, but blight. This blight upon the social characters of those who please the world is thought to be a perfection; but if you take a microscope, and if you look at that false bloom, you will see that it is alive. It is a vile blight, it is an animal disease, eating the fruit; and if the microscope is powerful enough, and the light is clear enough, you will see the miserable parasites moving in all their repulsive reality.

What, I ask, are these venial sins of vanity, of pride, of detraction, and others which I will not specify — what are they? I will call them by their true name — the vermin of the human soul. They are the worms of death; the worms that will feed on the body are but typical of the vermin on the human soul; and in the light of God's presence they are seen at this moment as the blight on the fruit through the lens, and so they will be seen by us in all their deformity in the light of the Day of Judgment.

5. Lastly, there is one other effect of venial sin, of which I will speak. Just as a small ailment may become a mortal sickness, so a venial sin may become a mortal sin, and that with great facility. Not that any number of venial sins, if they be heaped together, would make a mortal sin; but they may put off their character and stature of venial sins, and they may put on the character and rise to the stature of deadly, or mortal, sins. This they do in five ways.

First of all, a sin which is in itself venial may be committed with the intention of covering or accomplishing some mortal sin, and then it is mortal too. Or, secondly, it may be committed with a consciousness that it will certainly lead to a mortal sin, and yet, nevertheless, it is persevered in. Or, thirdly, it may be done with a knowledge of God's prohibition, an open-eyed consciousness, and out of contempt of just authority. Or, fourthly, it may be so publicly and notoriously done as to give scandal to others, and to encourage and invite them to commit grave sin. Or, lastly, it may be done in the proximate peril of falling into mortal sin, and that with our eyes open; and thus to expose ourselves to mortal sin is mortal in itself.

Now, to give an example of what I mean. Suppose a man to tell a lie in a very light matter — some little deceit. He is asked, "Is such a one in this place?" He answers, "No," because he intends thereby to cover and to commit a mortal sin. The two sins then become one. Or, if I take a book — some book of levity, which may not in itself be positively wrong — and begin to read it on a Sunday morning, and I am determined I will finish it; and I know that in half an hour it is my duty to go to Holy Mass. I am bound under the strictest obedience, under mortal sin, to obey the precept of the Church, and nevertheless I go on reading, indulging myself, disregarding my duty, until at last I turn my back on our Divine Lord. Or, let me suppose that I am reading a book, and as I read on, I become conscious that the matter of it is contrary to the revelation or the holiness of God. Now, the world is full of books that are written against Christianity. There are the criticisms of rationalists, and the scoffs of false science. Do not misunderstand me. All true science comes from God. We have no fear of science in all its perfection; but there is a science, falsely so called, which is a stupidity. A science which is contrary to the revelation of God is not a science.

Suppose, then, I have a book in my hand, with some unbelieving criticisms, or rationalistic interpretations, or arguments against revelation, or some misapplications of science with false data, to prove that the world was not created, or is eternal, and the like. I come gradually upon this matter; and if I act upon my faith and conscience, I should put that book down. I know that whatever is contrary to the revelation of God may destroy my faith; but if I go on curiously reading it, without call of duty, with the light of God and His revelation shining in judgment on the page of the book, I am tempting God. And I will further suppose that standing by me are some who look up to me as an example, as children look up to their fathers and mothers, or younger brothers and sisters to their elder. They see me poring over that book, and I go on doing so in their sight; will they not do the same when I have left the room, and have I not set them the example, for the consequences of which I shall have to answer at the Day of Judgment?

Or, lastly, suppose I know perfectly well the book I am reading will turn up in two or three pages some abomination, such as are profusely written — not, I thank God, so much in this country as in a country not far off, and yet profusely imported into this. I grieve to know that on the tables in families and homes where the Name of God is honored, there lie books which ought to be burned, ay, and burned with the marks of public infamy; not burned simply that they may disappear in smoke, but that they may be gibbeted and condemned by the detestation of all pure-minded men and women. If I have one of those in my hand, and know if I read on I shall meet these abominations face to face — and yet continue to read — I am exposing myself to a danger of mortal sin. My mind may be stained by the abomination of that book; and, as a man that touches a leper may be infected, and may never be healed, if I make my mind leprous, the scales of that leprosy may never be cleansed away.

That which begins as a venial sin may easily end in mortal. There are two examples I would fain give if time would permit me. The one is theaters. I do not deny that theaters may be innocent — that to go to a theater may be lawful. I have been often asked during the long years of my duty in directing souls whether it is lawful to go to a theater. My answer has been always: If the representation is not bad in itself, I cannot forbid you. If you ask me what I advise, I say, without hesitation: Do not go. I cannot lay it upon you as a prohibition.

This, I know, will sound rigorous; nevertheless, it is the better choice; it is the more excellent way. I do not say it is the way of obligation. The Apostle says, "All things to me are lawful, but all things are not expedient" (1 Cor. 6:12); therefore I distinguish and say: Those things which are lawful I cannot forbid; but those things, though not forbidden, I counsel you with all my heart to renounce.

As to theaters, there may be, indeed, innocent representations; but I ask your own consciences, look over the representations which in a country, as I say, not far off, during this last winter, have been described to us by eye-witnesses. No man who has a pure heart, no man whose face is susceptible of the noblest and manliest suffusion, of a blush, could, if he remember himself, set his foot in any theater where such a representation is to be seen — I will not say no woman; I leave that to yourselves. As to our own theaters, I thank God it is not often they are openly and publicly stained. Such things happen sometimes. Such scandals are imported among us: it is not only English dramas that are presented to us. I leave the whole of this to your own consciences, saying only that I would to God that those who can refrain from such things, as an offering to our Divine Redeemer, would refrain forever. When people say, "It does me no harm," I say to myself, "You do not know what harm it does you. You are not conscious how much has been taken off from the bloom of your mind, or from the clear purity of your eye and heart, by what you have seen, heard, and been conscious of, even though it has neither met the ear nor the eye."

One more example. If there is anything in the world which causes deterioration of character, manifold temptation, obscuration of mind, darkening and tainting of heart, it is dangerous friendships. The friends we choose — friends that are pleasant to us or flatter us, whose heart within, though known to God, is not suspected by men, and yet perhaps known to us — may be a world of temptation. Choose your friends from among the friends of God. Be not united with any that are separated from Him; for they will breathe into your ear, while you are unconscious, that which will pervade your whole spiritual being. All the dangerous temptations that you are likely to be exposed to — books, theaters, and the like — are as nothing compared to a dangerous friendship.

I will now simply sum up what I have said. The consequences of venial sins are, first of all, diminution of grace, the hindrance of the reception and operation of grace, the predisposing of the soul to mortal sin, the displeasing of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and the unspeakable facility with which those venial sins may pass into mortal.

In the commencement, I said I hoped to satisfy you before I finished, that venial sins are not small sins. Not many words are necessary. No sin can be small which is a great offense against a great God — against a great Majesty, a great Authority, a great Purity, a great Justice, a great Truth. No sins can be small which can only be cleansed away in the Precious Blood of the Incarnate Son of God. Yes; not the least venial sin that was ever committed can be absolved but through the Precious Blood which was shed upon the Cross. "Little sins!" God have mercy on those who talk this language! Once more. The least venial sin grieves the Holy Ghost. Can any sin be small which grieves the Spirit of God, of whom it is said, "All sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men, save only the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost"?1 Lastly, the venial sins we so easily commit will detain us from the vision of God after death, we know not how long. Though they do not, like mortal sin, separate us from the vision of God to all eternity, they will — we know not how long — separate us until every pain has been borne, and every sin has been expiated.

My last word, dear brethren, shall be very practical. Disorderly minds — that is, minds that live without rule, minds that have no order in their life — are always in danger of venial sins, and therefore of mortal — always walking on the brink of the precipice, always on the very verge, always putting their foot into the net. Now, I will give you one easy rule of practice. Every day of your life place yourselves, as I have said, under that noonday sun of God's perfections, and pray to God the Holy Ghost to illuminate your hearts with such a knowledge of God and of yourselves, that, in the light of His perfection, you may see the least deviation of your thoughts, words, and deeds from His holy will.

There was a time when you — every one of you — were white as snow; in your baptismal innocence you were spotless, you had not then a stain! The Precious Blood had cleansed away Original Sin, and as yet you had not contracted mortal sin, and perhaps in your childhood few venial sins. In the sight of the Judge, in the sight of your Redeemer, what are you now! What spots, what stains dark as night and red as scarlet! How is all that beauty and whiteness destroyed by ill habits, not of mortal sin — remember, I am not speaking of that now — but by venial sins of tempers, jealousies, envy, sloth, neglect of God, self-indulgence! The examples I have given are sufficient — sins of the tongue, sins of personal ostentation, sins of reading, sins of worldly pleasure, sins of dangerous friendship.

What are you now? Where is the white robe of your Baptism? And as to the debt of pain for sins, unless a life of penance, self-denial, generous sorrow shall cleanse away those debts in this life, there remains but one way, the fires of Purgatory, in which those sins can be expiated. Hear the Word of God: "Other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid; which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble, every man's work shall be made manifest; for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work burn, he shall suffer loss [therefore those words are spoken not of mortal sinners, those words are altogether spoken of those who have upon them only venial sins]: but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire." (1 Cor. 3:11-15).


1. The sin referred to in this Bible passage (Matt. 12:31) is that blasphemy by which the Pharisees attributed the miracles of Christ, wrought by the Holy Ghost, to Beelzebub, the prince of devils. Now this kind of sin is usually accompanied by so much obstinacy and such willful opposing of the Spirit of God and the known truth that men who are guilty of it are seldom or never converted: and therefore they are never forgiven because they will not repent. Otherwise there is no sin which God cannot or will not forgive to such as sincerely repent and have recourse to the keys of the Church. See also p. 16, p. 24 and p. 107.

2. See p. 125 for further explanation of this Bible passage and of the difference between sin and concupiscence.

3. Sins of immodest fashions may be mortal, depending on the degree of immodesty and the wearer's intention.

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