Why Catholics Don’t Understand Sin

By: McCarthy, James; ©2001
Though many Catholics worry about their sins, few understand the true seriousness of the matter. In this month’s article, Jim McCarthy explains how three practices of Roman Catholicism mislead Catholics as to sin and its consequences.

Why Catholics Don’t Understand Sin

Though many Catholics worry about their sins, few understand the true seriousness of the matter. Consider how the following three practices of Roman Catholicism affect how Catholics think about sin and its consequences.

Sacramental Cleansing of Sin

One way that Roman Catholicism misleads its people as to their sinfulness is through the sacrament of baptism. Usually administered as soon after birth as practical, the Church teaches that this rite has two powerful effects upon a person. Baptism cleanses the soul of original sin, the guilt inherited from Adam. At the same time it infuses or pours sanctifying grace into the soul. This grace makes the individual holy and acceptable to God. The Church says that through baptism a person is born again, brought into a state of grace, made spotless and innocent before God, and becomes a member of the body of Christ.

None of this is biblical. The Scriptures teach that sinners come into a right relationship with God through personal repentance and faith in Christ (Mark 1:15; Romans 10:9-10). This involves a decision that each person must make for himself (John 1:12-13). Baptism follows as the public expression of one’s commitment to Christ as Lord and Savior.

The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, teaches that baptism is the cause of spiritual rebirth. Parents can and must decide for their children. They bring their infants to the Church; the priest baptizes them and issues a baptismal certificate; and their children grow up believing that they are heaven-bound.

Consequently, when Catholics are told that they are sinners who need to be born again, it makes no more sense to them than it did to Nicodemus when Jesus told him the same (John 3:1-21). For Catholics it actually makes less sense, for according to the Church they have already been born again.

Formalized Excuses for Sin

The second way that Roman Catholicism misleads its people as to their true spiritual condition is by classifying sin into categories. Catholics are told that there are two kinds of sin, venial and mortal.

Most sins are venial, that is, pardonable infractions against God’s law. They weaken one’s spiritual vitality and incur a temporary form of punishment. But venial sins have no ultimate bearing on whether a person goes to heaven or not.

Mortal sins kill the life of God in a person, removing sanctifying grace from the soul. Should a person die in that condition, he would spend eternity in hell. To be forgiven of a mortal sin, a Catholic must confess it in the sacrament of confession.

It is not easy, however, for an act to qualify as a mortal sin. The Church says that the sin must meet three requirements. First, it must be a big sin, serious or grave in the vo­cabulary of the Church. Second, the person performing the sin must be conscious that the action is grievously wrong. Finally, the individual must willfully choose to disobey God, though fully aware that God is able to help him to resist the temptation.

In practice these requirements become ready-made excuses to rationalize sin away. For example, if two people, driven by passions that they feel are beyond their control, fall into sexual immorality, the act, according to the Church, is only a venial sin. In the same way Catholics often wink at drunkenness, arguing that a person may be struggling with a deeply-rooted bad habit, breaking under pressing mental strain, or succumbing to a genetic weakness toward alcohol. If committed under such circumstances, not even a lifetime of practicing immorality or drunkenness is punishable by hell. Neither is such conduct a rea­son to question whether the person is truly born-again.

The Bible teaches the opposite. It says that all sins are mortal: “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The Scriptures warn fornicators and drunkards not to deceive them­selves; they will not inherit the kingdom of God unless they repent and forsake their sin (Proverbs 28:13; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Those who continue to practice sin should realize that they have never been born again (1 John 2:3-4; 3:4-10).

When Catholics raised with Rome’s definition of sin are first exposed to what the Scrip­tures have to say about it, they find it unreasonable and excessively severe. Jessa Vartanian, writing in the San Jose Mercury News[1], described her first exposure to biblical preaching on sin as shocking. Though raised with a solid Catholic upbringing, Vartanian stopped going to Mass during her college years, finding it somewhat meaningless. A few years later, sensing a void in her life, she visited an evangelical church looking for spiritual strength. The minister spoke that day of his own mother, describing her as the most loving, caring, and unselfish woman he had ever known. Vartanian recounts, “The whole congre­gation, including me, was feeling warm and fuzzy.” Then, Vartanian writes, the preacher “dropped the bombshell.” He said, “But my mom isn’t going to heaven.”

Vartanian couldn’t believe her ears:

I held my breath. What did he mean? He’d just painted a picture of a saint. Despite being a good person, he said, his mom didn’t believe Jesus Christ was her savior. And, according to him, if you didn’t believe that, no matter how wonderful a person you were, you wouldn’t be taking the Up escalator.

Jessa Vartanian was equally amazed by the reaction of the congregation. Apparently no one but she was bothered by what the preacher had said. This caused her to question whether Christianity, regardless of the variety, was right for her. Since that time she has developed her own philosophy of life.

What I’ve come to believe is simple: that if you live a loving, caring life with respect for yourself and others—basically, if you’re a good person (and I realize my definition will differ from yours)—that you will “go to heaven,” or whatever it is that happens when you die, if anything happens at all.

Though Jessa Vartanian may not realize it, what she has come to believe has much in common with what she had been taught as a child by the Roman Catholic Church: we are not defiled sinners; sin is not punishable by eternal death; and if you live a good life, you will probably go to heaven.

The preacher’s text the day Vartanian visited that evangelical church may well have been “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) or “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Both are incompatible with Roman Catholic thinking.

Trivialized Punishment for Sin

Roman Catholicism further misleads its people as to the magnitude of their guilt through its teaching that sinners can make up for their sins. The Church says that when a person commits a venial or mortal sin, he stores up temporal punishment which must be paid for either now here on earth or later in purgatory. In this life a Catholic can make satisfaction

for his sins by performing voluntary acts of penance, such as abstaining from certain foods, saying a series of prayers, offering up his sufferings, or giving money to the poor. The individual may choose what form of penance he will perform, or, as in the sacrament of confession, a priest can assign an act of penance.

In either case the result is the same. Catholics are left thinking that sin is not that big a deal. How could it be, if saying a few prayers can make reparation for it?

When I told Tony, an easy-going Catholic, that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) he wouldn’t accept it as truth.

“That’s not fair,” Tony objected.

“What would be a more just sentence?” I asked.

“Seems like two weeks in hell should be enough,” Tony answered, betraying what he thought about his sins.

Acts of penance also leave Catholics confused about the uniqueness and significance of Christ’s sufferings on the cross. Pope John Paul II says that we all share in the redemp­tion through our sufferings.[2] If that’s the case, a Catholic might easily reason, what’s so special about Christ’s sufferings?

Adapted from Conversations with Catholics by James G. McCarthy (Harvest House Publishers: Eugene, 1997)


  1. Jessa Vartanian, “A New Leaf,” San Jose Mercury News, January 19, 1997, 2 G. Used with permission.
  2. Pope John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris. See also Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 618, 964, 1505, 1521, 1532.

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