Central to the Judeo-Christian understanding of covenant (and creation) has been the recognition of the possibility and the fact of man's rejection of the loving initiative of God. The story of the God-man relationship from creation to final fulfilment, both individually and collectively, has become the story of salvation, the progressive continuance of the divine initiative of love in seeking to overcome man's failure to respond. This failure to respond in love to God is what is called sin and appears in the Bible as action, state, and power. Christian tradition has tried to remain faithful to these biblical ideas in presenting and reflecting on the saving message and power of Jesus Christ through the centuries.
While sin has been seen as a power in the world to which men are exposed, and by which they are influenced, this "original" sin has been sharply distinguished from "personal" sin. Personal sin confirms the original power of sin in the world and draws the person into the specific rejection of God which is at the heart of all moral evil. Thus personal sin is attributable to the individual who knowingly and freely effects his own rejection of God. Knowledge of what he is doing and freedom to do it become the analytic description of the personal character of sin as it comes from the heart of man (Mk 7; Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1a2ae 74, 75). Diminution or elimination of such knowledge or freedom clearly diminish or eliminate personal responsibility for sin.
In the New Testament the religious character of sin as rejection of God is clearly implied. This notion has prevailed in the Christian tradition even though it was somewhat blurred in the later manuals of moral theology because of their unduly legal interpretations of Augustine's definition of sin as any word, deed, or desire contrary to the eternal law (C. Faust. 1.22, 27; Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1a2ae 71.6).
Rejection of God. Thus the explicit or implicit rejection of God as the supreme good for man is the genuine Christian tradition of sin. As such it involves serious, indeed lethal consequences. Where the true notion of sin is realized and the rejection of God complete, the true life which the love of God bestows is lost; and should one persevere in this state into death, it is lost forever. Sin in its proper sense is mortal.
Yet the New Testament and subsequent Christian tradition recognizes that even those who enjoy the love of God in Christ are sinners who must continually ask forgiveness (Mt 7.3 "speck" and "beam"; Mt 7.12 "Our Father"; 1 Jn 1.8; Jas 3.2). The Fathers of the Church and the practice of Penance confirm this distinction between sins that reject God and exclude from the Kingdom (Gal 5, 19 ff; I Cor 5.9), and the slight almost inevitable sins of all Christians. The official teaching of the Church has developed and confirmed this (Council of Carthage 418 Dictionnaire de la Bible 228; Trent DB 1536; Pius V, C Bajum DB 1920).
The scholastics attempted a systematic exposition of this distinction between mortal (death-dealing) and venial sins. Aquinas insisted, in line with the tradition, that venial sins were called sins analogically; mortal sins were truly sins. Since then sins have been seen as venial either because of the imperfection of the act (lack of knowledge of consent) or the triviality of the matter involved. For mortal sin there must be full knowledge (awareness), full consent, and grave matter. Recent developments in psychology have alerted us to limitations on our knowledge (natural and real) and freedom that were hitherto barely suspected. Such developments do not exclude knowledge and freedom necessary to the traditional notion of mortal sin, although they make it less frequent.
Fundamental Option. The emergence of the idea of fundamental option or basic orientation helps us to understand how individual actions as expressions or modifications of the fundamental option may not easily reverse it in either conversion or mortal sin. For the virtuous whose fundamental option is for God, and the good, evil actions will not easily overturn this option and when they do are more likely to be the critical completion of a process. Such critical actions alone should be classified as mortal sins, and the grave matter necessary for mortal sins is then related not to any arbitrary decisions of God or Church but to matters of such importance as are capable of involving the person at the core of his being. Only such fundamental decisions could overthrow a basically good orientation or confirm an evil one at a new level. In different areas of behavior and for different individuals, the threshold of this importance will vary, although the Christian and moral traditions provide clear indications in many areas of what the threshold is. Where that threshold is reached, the agent, because of lack of knowledge or freedom, may not become fully involved and mortal sin may not be committed. Where the threshold is not reached, the agent may choose to make this an issue of such importance that he becomes involved to the extent of mortal sin.
Given his historical condition, the human agent does not possess the fullness of his being at any historical moment and so cannot commit himself completely and irrevocably without the possibility of repentance in historical mortal sins. Irrevocable commitment occurs only at death, either with love or the final impenitence which is the real sin unto death.
See Also: fundamental option; sin.
Bibliography: p. delhaye et al., Théologie de Péché (Tournai 1960), partial English tr. a. gelin and a. descamps, Sin in the Bible (New York 1964). p. delhaye et al., Pastorale du Péché (Tournai 1961), b. haring, The Law of Christ, I (Cork 1961). l. monden, Sin, Liberty and Law (New York 1965). d. o'callaghan, ed., Sin and Repentance (Dublin 1967). j. regnier, What is Sin? (Cork 1961). p. riga, Sin and Penance (Milwaukee 1962). h. rondet, Notes sur la Théologie du Péché, (Paris 1957). p. schoonenberg, Man and Sin (London 1965). m. j. taylor, ed., The Mystery of Sin and Forgiveness (New York 1971).