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In the Penitential Act at Mass, all present confess that they have sinned and ask for God's forgiveness. The implication seems to be that everyone present has sinned since the last time they made such an act. Indeed, it seems to me (though I may be mistaken) that the Catholic belief is that everyone still on Earth continues to fall into sin, even if it is in the most minute way.

On the other hand, every sin is an act of free will, and hence avoidable. Since there can be only finitely many acts of free will between penitential acts, this should imply that it is possible to go between penitential acts without sinning at all.

So my question is this: What is the Church's true doctrine concerning the ability of human beings to maintain avoidance of all sin? Does it teach that some do, in fact, maintain avoidance of all sin? Or does it believe that while it is possible to avoid all sin, to do so is so difficult as to be impossible in practical terms? Or is it something else?

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    > The implication seems to be that everyone present has sinned since the last time they made such an act. This is not a correct implication. One may have sinned before the last act and has yet to go to Confession. The act on its own doesn't absolve mortal sin. The "I have sinned" (peccavi in Latin) is understood to refer to a past action -- it's an acknowledgement of our fallen nature (having sinned) and our dependence on God (through Grace) with the help of the intercession of the Church ("all the angels and saints... brothers and sisters pray for me...") – eques Jun 11 at 17:47
  • That's a fair distinction to make. In that case, I might reframe the question without reference to the Mass or to Reconciliation: If it is possible to avoid sin in an individual instance, why isn't it possible to avoid sin over the course of an entire lifetime by stringing such instances together? I understand the probability of that might be incomprehensibly small, but why is it impossible? – Jeh Jun 11 at 18:35
  • Ultimately, it is a stringing together of "successes" of avoiding sin and as one develops the habit of choosing good, it becomes easier. However, grace is always required and grace may be lost. If there were no free will, evil wouldn't be imputed to man as sin since he wouldn't be culpable (he didn't choose it then). – eques Jun 11 at 18:42
  • I understand developing habits, but I don't understand why one cannot avoid sin simply by mere chance. Though St. Thomas Aquinas does make an interesting argument here: books.google.com/… – Jeh Jun 11 at 19:08
  • By mere chance? What does chance have to do with it? Either you choose to do some evil or you choose not to do something good. Ultimately, your will is involved. Aquinas is right – eques Jun 11 at 19:10
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The concept of moral certitude may be helpful here. As defined in the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Certitude,

Moral certitude is that with which judgments are formed concerning human character and conduct; for the laws of human nature are not quite universal, but subject to occasional exceptions.

Moral certitude is distinguished from metaphysical certitude (e.g., 2+2=4). Given the harmful effects of original sin (i.e., a weakened will and a darkened intellect), I have a moral certitude that I will sin in the future.

Fr. Alfred Wilson, in his excellent book Pardon and Peace, sums up our situation nicely:

The wise man says: “I shall most likely fall again, but I am going to do my very best not to fall.”

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  • That does get to the heart of my question. Thank you! – Jeh Jun 27 at 15:43
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The Council of Trent, the most important Council of the Church when speaking of the true nature of justification (i.e. because it was in response to the Protestant heresy which principally denied it), taught the following infallibly:

If any one saith, that a man once justified can sin no more, nor lose grace, and that therefore he that falls and sins was never truly justified; or, on the other hand, that he is able, during his whole life, to avoid all sins, even those that are venial, — except by a special privilege from God, as the Church holds with regard to the Blessed Virgin; let him be anathema.

(Canon 24, Session 6, Decree on Justification)

So quite clearly it is not possible to avoid all venial sin, except by a special or unique grace and privilege of God which, as it is implied here, was only given to the immaculately conceived mother of God, the new Eve.

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  • While that clarifies some things, it does not answer all aspects of my question. Over the course of one's whole life, one makes finitely many acts of free will, each of which can theoretically avoid sin. So is the Church's reason why one cannot make the correct decision in every single one of them simply a matter of it being prohibitively difficult to do so, or is it impossible in the literal sense for some other reason? And what about going 24 hours between penitential acts, as opposed to one's whole life? How much time must pass before we can guarantee one has sinned? – Jeh Jun 11 at 16:55
  • Without grace one cannot avoid sin (acc to Catholicism). It's not about time between Penitential acts and there certainly isn't any time that must pass before we can guarantee that one has sinned. – eques Jun 11 at 17:43
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    I don't think there's a set limit of time, as if God strikes us with sin every so many minutes or hours, only the guarantee that no one who is justified can go "his whole life" without sinning at all, which is the point of this canon. It doesn't get more specific (minutes, hours, days, months). It just says don't claim you have the capacity to be completely free from sin, because this life is fraught with sin and difficulty and temptation and concupiscence, as St. Paul says, "the thing I want to do, I do not, but the thing I hate, I do." – Sola Gratia Jun 11 at 17:45
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    The Our Father certainly assumes daily need of repentance at the least, "Give us this day our daily bread, ... forgive us..." – Sola Gratia Jun 11 at 17:48
  • Thank you for your replies. So, in light of that fact that "it just says don't claim you have the capacity to be completely free from sin, because this life is fraught with sin and difficulty and temptation and concupiscence," would it be fair to say that the Penitential Act and injunction to go to Reconciliation once a year do not necessarily imply we have sinned since last time, but direct us to be penitent anyway, since we may not be aware of our own sins? To be clear, I am having this conversation with a Protestant with a more optimistic view of avoiding all sin. – Jeh Jun 11 at 18:14

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