If one, faced with the threat of being burned alive, denied Christ, would his sin be mortal? It seems that it was treated as such in history, but how can this be so in light of CCC 1859 which says that 'complete consent' is needed for a sin to be mortal?

  • Just to be clear, is the situation that someone is being told to deny Christ whilst under threat of burning? Or are you drawing from historical accounts of burning witches? (Presumably that they deny Christ despite the threat of burning). Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 11:42

2 Answers 2


Peter denied Jesus three times within a gap of an hour (Lk. 22 : 56-60) . But he repented immediately ( Lk 22: 62) and was later chosen by Jesus as the leader of His Church. See that Jesus gets it confirmed from Peter not once, but three times as if a taunting reminder of the latter's `ditching' of his Master (Jn 21: 15-17) that he really loved Jesus . God who can see the inner thoughts of His children, is the only one who can judge the situation on merits and decide whether the one who is being persecuted commits a venial sin or mortal sin by denying his faith in the Lord.

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    That doesn't really answer the question. All sins can be repented and forgiven, whether venial or mortal.
    – OrangeDog
    Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 13:30
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    If any sin can be forgiven, what is the difference between mortal and not mortal?
    – h22
    Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 14:57
  • @h22 Among other things, one needs to repent of one's mortal sins in order to get to heaven. christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/15037/… Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 15:37

Fear (unlike compulsion/violence) doesn't take away involuntariness. The person in your scenario chooses to deny Christ, not in itself but only on account of avoiding what he fears.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II q. 6 a. 6 ("Whether fear causes involuntariness simply?") ad 1:

the will does not consent, but is moved entirely counter to that which is done through compulsion: whereas what is done through fear, becomes voluntary, because the will is moved towards it, albeit not for its own sake, but on account of something else, that is, in order to avoid an evil which is feared. […] what is done from compulsion, the will does nothing inwardly; whereas in what is done through fear, the will does something.

You are correct that sin must be voluntary. One cannot be forced/compelled against his will to sin.

But does the persion in your scenario commit a venial or a mortal sin? Discussing "Whether fear is a mortal sin?" (Summa Theologica II-II q. 125 a. 3 co.), St. Thomas Aquinas writes:

fear is a sin through being inordinate, that is to say, through shunning what ought not to be shunned according to reason. Now sometimes this inordinateness of fear is confined to the sensitive appetites, without the accession of the rational appetite's consent: and then it cannot be a mortal, but only a venial sin. But sometimes this inordinateness of fear reaches to the rational appetite which is called the will, which deliberately shuns something against the dictate of reason: and this inordinateness of fear is sometimes a mortal, sometimes a venial sin. For if a man through fear of the danger of death or of any other temporal evil is so disposed as to do what is forbidden, or to omit what is commanded by the Divine law, such fear is a mortal sin: otherwise it is a venial sin.

See the related question: "Can 'feelings and passions' make an act involuntary?"

Pope St. Marcellinus was deposed for having offered incense to idols out of fear but later recanted and was re-elected pope.

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    Doesn't this presuppose that the statement denying Christ is offered truthfully? What if the victim lies to his oppressors, and renounces Christ while not meaning it? Wouldn't the sin of lying be much less serious than the sin of apostasy?
    – tbrookside
    Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 21:36
  • @tbrookside Even if it were considered a lie and nothing else, it would still be grave. From the Summa, on lying: "For if this be about divine things, it is contrary to the charity of God, whose truth one hides or corrupts by such a lie; so that a lie of this kind is opposed not only to the virtue of charity, but also to the virtues of faith and religion: wherefore it is a most grievous and a mortal sin." newadvent.org/summa/3110.htm#article4. Commented Mar 1, 2022 at 2:26
  • @Geremia Okay, the fear in my scenario is a mortal sin. But, is the act of denying Christ yet another mortal sin, or it is just venial due to fear? Are there two mortal sins? One of fear and another of denying Christ or is there a mortal sin of fear and venial sin of denial?
    – Ph Ex
    Commented Mar 1, 2022 at 13:24
  • @PhEx "is the act of denying Christ yet another mortal sin" Yes, denying Christ is a mortal sin of unbelief. See also: "In Catholicism, does sin compound?"
    – Geremia
    Commented Mar 1, 2022 at 16:04
  • @Geremia But why is the act of denying Christ a mortal sin if it is not done with full consent (due to the threat of being burned alive)? I understand that the fear itself is a mortal sin, but an act of denying Christ (which is a separate act from fear) is itself done out of fear, and therefore it seems that it is not done with full consent. Or somehow, the act of denying Christ is done with full consent?
    – Ph Ex
    Commented Mar 1, 2022 at 16:42

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