I started to have the feelings that the seriousness of the sins are changing in today's age compared to the past.

My question is: Does it also change in the God's eyes? -or- My Question is: Does the seriousness of sin change based on the age we live in?

I noticed that some of the sins are much easier to commit in our times then it was in the past. Does this make them less serious in the eyes of God. Do they have less affect to damage our spiritual life compared to people in the past?

For example pornography, in the past a person had to make a significant effort in order to get a material like we can find today on the internet. In that time you would consider such a person a deviant, pervert and actually he would only commit probably 1/8 of what you can get today. Even Christians from time to time take a peek because of their weakness. Does it make them the same sinners as the people famous of this behavior couple hundred years ago? Or because it's just a click away it makes them more vulnerable and because of this less responsible for the sins?

Another examples could be alcoholism, gluttony, materialism and so on... Just because now we have easier access to it, we become more likely to commit these sins, does it also makes us bigger sinners in comparisons with people from the past?

I would prefer catholic answer of understanding sins, please.


4 Answers 4

  1. First, as to the gradation of sin:

    The Catholic Church recognizes that some sins are "worse" than others. For instance, it divides sins into mortal sins and venial sins (CCC 1854-1855):

    1855: Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.

    Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.

    As for this division between really bad sins, and less bad sins, The Church cites the distinction already evident in Scripture (1 Jn 16-17):

    If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal.

    Furthermore, even within the "mortal sins", The Church makes further distinctions in regards to gravity: " The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft" (CCC 1858).

  2. Mortal Sins

    What makes a sin mortal? The general rule stated above is that a mortal sin is one which destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law, turning his heart away from God. The Church has tried to further clarify the characteristics which make a sin mortal (CCC 1857):

    For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent."

    a) Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments (CCC 1858).

    b) Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent (CCC 1859). The older term "material sin" was used in circumstances where one of these two were lacking.

  3. Has the seriousness of sin changed?

    Objectively speaking, the seriousness of sin has not changed. To kill a man is just as objectively evil as has ever been (for instance).

    However, the guilt assigned to the sinner for his sins may indeed change from time to time, or be different from culture to culture; this has to do with "full knowledge" and "complete consent".

    Imagine a society where watching pornography is fairly common. Those born into this society, and who are not taught otherwise, might come to believe that watching pornography is not a sin --- or if a sin, a very minor one, like being impolite to your parents. Such a person would clearly get the facts wrong. But it may really be possible for such a person to come to be ignorant about the gravity of this offense. The Church teaches that in such cases the guilt may be diminished (CCC 1860):

    Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.

    But supposing that, on the contrary, there were civil laws that made it rather difficult to obtain access to pornographic materials. Then a person couldn't claim ignorance (or at least couldn't claim full ignorance): for in trying to violate the norm he would most likely inquire as to the reason for the ban in law of the prohibited action, or at least be nebulously aware that the act in question is seen as wrong in some way, and that would awaken his conscience into action (if this person be morally mature at least to some extent). And in any case, it could not be said that such a person acted without "deliberate intent". But if there was free intent, then there was consent.

    On the other hand, in a society which doesn't prohibit access to pornography and/or makes it readily available as an acceptable choice, the conscience of him who wishes to access pornography and who has never been taught that access to pornography is wrong might not be awakened nor disturbed to the sin he is attempting. Nor might his conscience/reason/mind give him the opportunity to deliberate as to what he is attempting is wrong, or whether he consents to it: for instance, he might access pornography to an extent because his friends are doing it and not based on a careful analysis of his actions.

    Thus, given the circumstances of time, place, culture, education, upbringing, cultural influences, our own psychological make-up, and sometimes our own passions, etc. the guilt imputed to the sinner for a particular sin may indeed be diminished. Notice, however, that THIS IS NOT A GOOD RESULT. The objective evil of the sin remains just as bad! The fact that people and societies do not perceive the full nature of their actions is not a sign of health, but of decay. It is the action of The Evil One leading people astray. And the fact that God doesn't punish these sins as badly as they deserve has nothing to do with the how holy (or how sanctified) the particular person who commits them is --- on the contrary, it has everything to do with His Mercy and how spiritually sick the sinner is.

  4. "A World Without Sin" (Assuming one believes all the foregoing).

    One particular (evil) route towards people being free of the guilt of sin might go as follows: Corrupt society and its education so much that all individuals lose any inkling as to good and evil; then any and all of their actions will be entirely devoid of any considerations or knowledge about the divine law; and thus, the argument goes, they will be entirely free of any guilt due to sin.

    This will not work, because:

    a) As The Church teaches (CCC 1860), the moral law is written deeply into the hearts of men, and as such it is not easily eradicated. The promptings of our conscience in regards to the moral law will always be there, even if severely muffled by the culture around us. Certainly men can be taught to ignore these promptings, much like they can be taught to ignore (certain amount of) pain, but it is not a given that all men will ignore their consciences forever, and those who don't will inevitably speak up (if given an opportunity). Yes, these men can be silenced as good men are always silenced in despotic regimes, but this silencing will have to be continuous throughout the existence of this culture.

    b) Even if such cultural programme can be carried out, I don't think that the society which puts it into effect will survive in the long term. After all, disobedience to the entirety of the moral law cannot lead to a flourishing society, but rather to unmitigated chaos. In a society where anyone can lie in open court about the action of his neighbor, where anyone can feel free to hunt his neighbor (before kidnapping his neighbor's wife for himself), or where no authority higher than oneself is recognized --- such a society cannot last for very long.

    c) As The Church teaches (CCC 1860), the "full knowledge" clause applies to unintentional ignorance. If one intentionally makes oneself ignorant of the implications of the moral law, or if one intentionally forgoes educating oneself in these implications in order to avoid the responsibilities therefrom (as the proposal suggests), one doesn't avoid the guilt and/or penalties of sin.

    c) Finally, let's look at the original assumption behind the suggestion. The assumption behind the proposal is to avoid guilt/punishment for the sins committed and not necessarily to come closer to God and grow in holiness. Clearly this is not a very mature motivation for a Christian! To forgo flourishing in order to gain the pity of God in regards to our sins is analogous to the idiot who intentionally makes himself blind in order to obtain the societal benefits that are given the blind because they are at a disadvantage.

  5. Conclusion

    There is nothing I know that says that sins "lose their potency" as times goes by, or as societies become more "evolved" or "enlightened". A sin remains as evil as ever objectively speaking.

    Now, there can certainly be an appearance that some sins are less wrong today than they used to be --- and this is nothing but an optical illusion --- because (I think):

    a) They are more common in our society today than they used to be --- The Evil One has certainly been making advances of late in some areas ---, and

    b) People have an intuitive notion that their sin is less grave because it is now more common. People who think so are intuitively picking up on the fact that under the new circumstances they can have less knowledge about the nature of their actions and they can have less deliberate intent to commit them. But they are wrong in thinking that their now common sin is less grave. It remains as grave as ever --- it remains as evil as ever. What they are intuitively trying to grasp is that they are imputed less guilt now for their evil deed than they had been in the past because now they have some mitigating circumstances. In other words, people confuse the gravity of the sin with the amount of responsibility they have for it. Their responsibility for the sin may be diminished, and therefore they conclude that the gravity of the sin has diminished --- But this is incorrect. The evil of an action and the harshness of the punishment for it are different things.

  • Good approach and detail. Thank you and keep up the good fight.
    – user13992
    Commented Jul 20, 2014 at 20:58

I think the following should be added, on the subject of a material sin not being a formal sin if the sinner didn't know that it was wrong. Catholic doctrine distinguishes between "vincible" and "invincible" ignorance. Invincible ignorance means you were ignorant through no fault of your own; you had no way of knowing. The thalidomide example in Matthew's answer would be a case of invincible ignorance. Invincible ignorance prevents a bad action from being a formal sin. Vincible ignorance, in contrast, occurs when you don't know something is a sin because you avoided listening to people who would have told you. When the information that some action is wrong is easily available but you refuse to look into the matter (especially if it's because you really want to do that action and are afraid you might learn that it's wrong) or to believe what Scripture or the Church teach about it, then such intentional ignorance won't excuse you from formal sin.

  • this still doesn't answer my question...
    – Grasper
    Commented Jul 15, 2014 at 12:34
  • This was, as the first sentence indicated, merely an addendum to Matthew's answer, which does answer your question. Commented Jul 15, 2014 at 15:51
  • let's say all criteria were met in all cases.
    – Grasper
    Commented Jul 15, 2014 at 17:51

You need to make the distinction between material sin and formal sin. Formal sin (what we usually mean when we just say 'sin') is when there is a bad action and we know it is bad but do it anyway. Our knowledge of the evil is crucial for there being a formal sin.

However, we can also be ignorant of the evil in our actions. For example, doctors in the 1950's prescribed the drug thalidomide to pregnant women in order to east their morning sickness. Unknown to the doctors was the drug's ability to cause severe deformations in the baby. These deformations are not good; they are evil. However, the doctors did not know that this would happen and were prescribing the drug to help the pregnant women.

Because the doctors were ignorant of the evil in giving the drug to the pregnant women, there was no formal sin in the doctors actions. However, the evil of the physical deformations did occur, so there was evil and we would say there was material sin. A person can only be accountable for doing what they know to be wrong and their awareness of it being wrong. Just how bad a formal sin would depend on how much they were aware it was an evil action. They cannot be held accountable for what they did not realize was wrong, and there is nor formal sin for doing something you do not know to be wrong.

Thomas Aquinas would say the two things that plague human beings are sin and ignorance. The doctors were ignorant of any bad effects of the drug, so they can not be held responsible for those affects. There was no formal sin.

Today (and probably throughout history), there can be much ignorance of the awareness of the evils in doing certain things. People do not readily see the evil and think they are not bad. These things still have bad affects on us, but only God can judge as to if it was a formal sin and how much a formal sin it was. If the actions are bod for us, then there is material sin, because they are bad for us, but due to ignorance just how much formal sin can be judged only by God.

Christ is a 'light' and through faith we can be brought to see the evil in actions when others do not readily perceive the evil. Also, but faith we can be averted of doing evil when our intellect does not readily perceive the evil in the action.

  • My understanding of how the Catholics categorize sin is different. I don't know of any distinction between material sin and formal sin. Are those official definitions that the Catholic Church uses?
    – user3961
    Commented Jul 14, 2014 at 21:28
  • Never mind. That answer kind of cuts off there. Here's a source on Formal vs. material sin.
    – user3961
    Commented Jul 14, 2014 at 21:39
  • Mortal, or serious sin, and venial, or less serious sin would pertain to formal sins, but distinguish between the gravity of the sin. Both require knowledge and free will. To commit a mortal sin, you must know that it is a mortal sin, it has to be a mortal sin, and you freely decide to do it. You know it is wrong, but do it anyway. Material sin is when someone does something bad, but does not know it is bad. It is not a sin in the common usage of the term 'sin', but there is an evil done. (In the last comment, I hit return and it posted, so last line makes no sense.)
    – Matthew
    Commented Jul 14, 2014 at 23:39

Starting with the definition of sin from a Catholic perspective:

113. What is sin?

A. Sin is an offense against God [has infinite dignity], by any thought, word, deed or omission against the law of God.

cf. Penny Catechism, 113

The reference is God, who is offended by the sinner, when the sinner commits a sin as defined above.

So it is the person who is offended who can say what offended him before no longer offends him. Examples: Jesus declaring all foods clean and restoring marriage according to God's original purpose.

According to Catholicism, there are mitigating circumstances: knowledge and free will. While a person can commit what is an objectively sinful, the guilt (not = guilty feelings) can vary from 'did not commit' a sin to 'committed the sin' depending on the knowledge and the level of assent given on the part of the person's will.

Hence the LORD's:

"And that servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more." [cf. Lk 12:47-48]

I started to have the feelings that the seriousness of the sins are changing in today's age compared to the past.

Some reasons are [lack of] formation, neglect of parents and pastors, breakdown of families, societal influence and pressure (e.g. even Catholic princes are now supporting homosexuality), one's justification of one's sinful behavior and the numbing of one's conscience due to sin1, etc.

1. cf. CCC 1865 1865 Sin creates a proclivity to sin; it engenders vice by repetition of the same acts. This results in perverse inclinations which cloud conscience and corrupt the concrete judgment of good and evil. Thus sin tends to reproduce itself and reinforce itself, but it cannot destroy the moral sense at its root.

  • so it means, that it somehow makes the same sin committed in the past different from the sin committed now?
    – Grasper
    Commented Jul 15, 2014 at 12:35
  • @Grasper Only if the offended says so. He is the reference. and it doesn't imply that he is arbitrary. Another example Sabbath used to be on Sabbath but now on the First Day [of the LORD's (the reference to him again) Resurrection]. It is about Him, to our benefit [... our duty and our salvation].
    – user13992
    Commented Jul 15, 2014 at 17:08

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