Formal or Actual Sin versus Material or Objective Sin

In Catholic moral theology, an act is a knowing choice of the human person. Some acts are interior; they are confined to the mind and will. Other acts are exterior, then involve some bodily action. But exterior acts are always accompanied by an interior act of the mind and will. Thus, an act is nothing other than a knowing choice of the will.

An act is immoral when it offends God. An act is immoral when the act is in some way contrary to the two great commandments, the love of God above all else, and the love of neighbor as self. Love is the foundation of the eternal moral law, and so all sin in contrary to love, properly understood.

An actual sin is an immoral act, committed with at least some knowledge of its immorality and some freedom of choice. Formal sin is actual sin; these two terms have the exact same meaning.

An objective sin is an immoral act, without regard to whether it was committed with knowledge and deliberation. Material sin is objective sin; these two terms have the exact same meaning.

An act can be an objective sin, without also being an actual sin. For example, a non-Catholic couple might use contraception in their marriage without knowing that it is sinful. An objective sin is still properly called sin, because, in truth before the eyes of God, that choice is to some extent, in some way, incompatible with the threefold love of God, neighbor, self. When a human person commits an objective sin, without knowing that it is immoral, or without any freedom of choice, then act is not an actual sin. Only actual sin includes guilt before God.

An objective sin that is not also an actual sin still includes some type of knowledge. A person who lies knows that he is asserting a falsehood, and so every lie is an objective sin. But if the person mistakenly thinks that lying is sometimes moral, his objective sin of lying might not be an actual sin. For he lacks knowledge of the immorality of the act. In other words, he knows what he is doing, but he does not know that what he is doing is immoral. Every act is a knowing choice.

An act can be both an objective sin and an actual sin. For example, when a person commits the sin of direct abortion, knowing that it is gravely contrary to the moral law, since it is a type of murder. The act is objectively sinful, and it is committed with knowledge and deliberation.

An act can be an actual sin, without also being an objective sin, as when the person mistakenly thinks that an act is immoral, and commits the act as a knowing choice. However, in such a case, the act is still, in another sense, an objective sin, since it is always objectively immoral to knowingly choose to commit an act that is against one’s conscience. For example, if a person asserts a truth, mistakenly thinking it is a falsehood, he commits the sin of lying. It is objectively wrong to assert as if it were true, what one believes to be false.

Mortal sin is an immoral act thoroughly contrary to the love of God above all else, or the love of neighbor as self. Every actual mortal sin is incompatible with the state of grace, and with eternal life in Heaven. Every actual mortal sin deserves eternal punishment in Hell, if the person does not repent before death.

Venial sin is an immoral act not entirely incompatible with the threefold love of God, neighbor, self. No venial sin, nor set of venial sins, ever deprives the person of the state of grace, nor deserves eternal punishment.

The word Sin

Some foolish commentators claim that no act should be termed a “sin”, except actual sin. They claim that the use of the terms objective sin or material sin are unfitting and even harmful, because culpability is only found with actual sin. These claims are contrary to the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. The Church has always used the term “sin” to refer to the objective norms of morality, to acts that are offensive to God, apart from an actual sin.

The guilt of original sin

Adam and Eve committed actual mortal sin, and so they lost the state of grace and were exiled to this beautiful yet fallen world. Their actual sin was to knowingly and deliberately disobey God. But all descendants of Adam and Eve inherit original sin. This inherited sin does not include a knowing choice; it is not actual sin. Yet the Church has always called it “sin”. Original sin includes some guilt, a type of corporate culpability, that accrues to us by our membership in the fallen human race.

Council of Trent: “2. If anyone asserts, that the prevarication of Adam injured himself alone, and not his posterity; and that the holiness and justice, received of God, which he lost, he lost for himself alone, and not for us also; or that he, being defiled by the sin of disobedience, has only transfused death, and pains of the body, into the whole human race, but not sin also, which is the death of the soul; let him be anathema: — whereas he contradicts the apostle who says; By one man sin entered into the world, and by sin death, and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned.”

The Council of Trent infallibly condemned the idea that the descendants of Adam only inherit death and bodily suffering, and not also “sin”. So we cannot prefer a terminology which refuses to refer to original sin as “sin”. Nor can we say that only actual sin is “sin”, since that assertion implies a reject of the infallible definition quoted above.

Council of Trent: “If any one denies, that, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is conferred in baptism, the guilt of original sin is remitted; or even asserts that the whole of that which has the true and proper nature of sin is not taken away; but says that it is only razed, or not imputed; let him be anathema.”

The Council of Trent infallibly taught that original sin “has the true and proper nature of sin”, and condemned the rejection of this idea. But original sin is not actual sin, therefore “sin” is not to be restricted solely to actual sin. For original sin is truly and properly called sin.

On the other hand, the same Council taught that concupiscence is not truly and properly called sin, because it only tends toward sin:

“This concupiscence, which the apostle sometimes calls sin, the holy Synod declares that the Catholic Church has never understood it to be called sin, as being truly and properly sin in those born again, but because it is of sin, and inclines to sin.”

Sacred Scripture

In addition to the example from Scripture cited by the Council of Trent, other verses use the term “sin” to refer to immoral acts, whether or not they are committed with knowledge and deliberation.

[1 John]
{3:4} Everyone who commits a sin, also commits iniquity. For sin is iniquity.

Sin is defined by Sacred Scripture as “iniquity”, meaning unfairness. All sins are in some way contrary to the love of neighbor, and so all sin is an unfairness to others. Therefore, Scripture also says:

{13:8} You should owe nothing to anyone, except so as to love one another. For whoever loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.
{13:9} For example: You shall not commit adultery. You shall not kill. You shall not steal. You shall not speak false testimony. You shall not covet. And if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
{13:10} The love of neighbor does no harm. Therefore, love is the plenitude of the law.

But the sins given as examples above are harmful to one’s neighbor, even if they were committed without knowledge and deliberation. They are objectively harmful acts, not solely because they are committed as actual sins. For the very ideas of unfairness and harm are objective norms. Therefore, it is truly said that all sin harms our neighbor:

Pope Saint John Paul II: “In other words, there is no sin, not even the most intimate and secret one, the most strictly individual one, that exclusively concerns the person committing it. With greater or lesser violence, with greater or lesser harm, every sin has repercussions on the entire ecclesial body and the whole human family.” [Reconciliation and Penance 16]

Even an objective sin, which lacks the culpability of actual sin, harms our neighbor and therefore is correctly termed “sin”.

For example, a non-Catholic might mistakenly think that direct abortion to save the life of the mother is moral. But that choice, even if it were not an actual sin due to invincible ignorance, is a severe type of unfairness to the unborn child; the harm done is very grave. So in accord with Scripture, we must refer to all direct abortion as a grave sin, even if it were not, in a particular case, an actual sin. For sin is iniquity. When our act objectively harms our neighbor, by any type of objective unfairness, the act is sin.

{5:17} You shall not murder.
{5:18} And you shall not commit adultery.
{5:19} And you shall not commit theft.
{5:20} Neither shall you speak false testimony against your neighbor.
{5:21} You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his house, nor his field, nor his man servant, nor his woman servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything out of all that is his.’

The Ten Commandments include positive and negative precepts (“you shall” and “you shall not”). The negative precepts forbid certain immoral acts. These acts are sinful in themselves, regardless of the knowing choice of the act. If we could not use the term “sin” to refer to the act itself, apart from a culpable choice, then sin would not be an objective realty. The result is an approach to morality that is devoid of objective norms, and detached from the Ten Commandments and all other commandments and teachings of the Church on morality. In this scheme, the person would only be responsible before his or her own conscience, without regard to its proper formation under the objective requirements of the eternal moral law. And that is essentially the aim of this type of restricted terminology, whereby only actual sin can be called sin at all: to free the human person from objective moral norms, allowing each person to choose what is and is not good or evil.

Canon Law

Canon law is not mere regulation. The Canons include assertions on faith and morals. They apply the teachings of the Church on faith and morals to the practice of the Faith. Now Canon law uses the term “sin” for objectively immoral acts, apart from any judgment as to whether the act was an actual sin:

Can. 915 Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.

Can. 1007 The anointing of the sick is not to be conferred upon those who persevere obstinately in manifest grave sin.

If the above Canons are interpreted as referring only to actual sin by the term “manifest grave sin”, then both Canons would be futile. They would have no effect because there would be no way to determine if the objectively grave sin, which is manifest to the community of believers, were also actual sin.

The only possible interpretation is that “manifest grave sin” refers to any objective mortal sin that is manifest, and not only to actual sin. Only if the Canons refer to objective (material) sin can the Sacraments of holy Communion and Anointing of the Sick be denied in certain cases.

As stated above, the objective mortal sin must be manifest and must be committed with obstinate perseverance. Does this condition of obstinate perseverance imply actual sin? Not necessarily. First, a person might commit an objective mortal sin with a sincere but mistaken conscience, on a continuing basis. Such a sin might meet the conditions stated, “manifest” and “persevere obstinately”, without actual mortal sin. Second, the term “grave sin” has a meaning in the above Canons, independent of the qualifiers “manifest” and “obstinately persevering”. In other words, the Canon implies that a sin can be “grave sin” without being manifest and without obstinate perseverance.

Therefore, the Church has chosen to use the term “sin” (in this case “grave sin”) to refer to objective sin, not solely to actual sin.

Second Vatican Council

Vatican II spoke on the topic of invincible ignorance, when a person commits an objective sin, without realizing it is an immoral act:

Gaudium et Spes: “In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.”

Notice that the Council teaches that human persons are held by God to “objective norms of morality”. Though the text is on the topic of conscience, a conscience is only called “right conscience” when it is guided by the “objective norms of morality”. We cannot detach the objective requirements of the eternal moral law from conscience by saying that nothing is, in any sense, a sin, unless it is actual sin.

Catholic Ethics

The field of Roman Catholic moral theology has long used the term “sin” to refer to objective sin, also called material sin, and not solely to actual sin, also called formal sin.

The term actual mortal sin is of particular importance here. Two different infallible teachings of Ecumenical Councils use the term “actual mortal sin” (Florence, Lyons II). The term defines that type of sin which, absent repentance, condemns to eternal punishment in Hell. But if only actual sins can be called “sins” at all, then the term would be inaccurate, since the term “actual” would be unnecessary. But if the terminology of the Councils is accurate, then we must admit that some mortal sins are not actual mortal sins, but only objective mortal sins. And this has also been the understanding of Catholic moral theology.

The Compendium of the Catechism defines sin in terms of its objective immorality: “Sin is a word, an act, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.” [Compendium, n. 392]. This definition is simply the definition of sin given by Saint Augustine, though perhaps “deed” would be a better translation than “act”, since act is used more generally to include a word, or deed, or a knowingly chosen desire. Saint Aquinas agreed with that definition, in the Summa Theologica. In another work, Aquinas defined sin similarly: “Sin is nothing else than a morally bad act.” [St. Thomas, “De malo”, 7:3]

In each of the above definitions, sin is primarily defined by its immorality, by its objective conflict with the requirements of the eternal moral law. And Catholic moral theology has followed Augustine and Aquinas in this regard, using the term “sin” for objective or material sin, as well as actual or formal sin.

In a particular example, both Augustine and Aquinas assert that “every lie is a sin” [Summa Theologica III Q 110 A 3; On Lying 1]. But the act of lying, i.e. asserting a falsehood, would not be an actual sin for persons who mistakenly think that some lies are moral. Even so, these two Saints and Doctors of the Church teach that “every lie is a sin”, without the qualifications needed to make a false assertion also an actual sin. Clearly, they both use the term “sin” for objective sins, and not solely for actual sins.

“The Church’s moral theology has always distinguished between objective or material sin and formal sin.” Colin B. Donovan at EWTN

“An action which, as a matter of fact, is contrary to the Divine law but is not known to be such by the agent constitutes a material sin; whereas formal sin is committed when the agent freely transgresses the law as shown him by his conscience, whether such law really exists or is only thought to exist by him who acts.” Catholic Encyclopedia

“A wrong choice which conforms to erroneous conscience or one made by a person unable to make a relevant judgment of conscience is called ‘material’ sin, while a choice which violates conscience is ‘formal’ sin. To the extent erroneous conscience is culpable, however — that is, to the extent one is responsible for being mistaken — material sins also involve guilt.” Germain Grisez, Christian Moral Principles

The Absurdity of the Claim

The claim that nothing is truly and properly called sin, other than actual sin, necessarily implies a number of false conclusions. If only actual sin can be called sin, then acts forbidden by the Ten Commandments cannot be called sin: murder, adultery, theft, false witness, refusing to worship God. But is it absurd to say that these acts are not objectively sinful, but only a sin based on the individual’s conscience.

The same can be said for any objective sin. If nothing is sin but actual sin, then the Church could not unequivocally condemn direct abortion, contraception, adultery, premarital sex, same-sex marriage, and many other acts. For the reply would be that these acts are not properly called sin, unless they are against conscience. Under this scheme, a person can commit innumerable immoral acts, and then claim to have avoided all sin, on the basis of the assertion that he or she does not believe the acts to be sinful. Moreover, the Church would then be unable to use the term “sin” for the many gravely immoral acts committed throughout the world, since the Church cannot know, in each case, whether the sin is actual.

And that is the implicit goal of this claim: to free the human person from the yoke of objective moral norms. The person can then claim to have committed no sins at all, or only occasional venial sin, because the objective norms of the eternal moral law would no longer be applicable. Although persons who take this point of view pay lip service to objective moral norms, the rejection of the term “sin” for anything other than actual sin does have the effect of distancing the chosen acts of the human person from the objective norms of the moral law.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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