A reader writes:
About a month ago, you ran a post in which you talked about 2 of the 3 conditions necessary for mortal sin: adequate knowledge and deliberate consent. I was wondering if you would mind running a post that deals with the third: grave matter.
Specifically, I have the following question: in paragraph 1858, the Catechism states that grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments. However, I've also heard it said that all sins could be categorized as breaking one of the ten commandments. Does this mean that all sins involve grave matter? This doesn't seem correct to me. Could you offer some guidance as to how to determine what grave matter is?
This is an area in which it seems that some further doctrinal development may occur. It is true that the Ten Commandments are usually identified as the key reference point for what counts as grave matter and that it is commonly thought that all sins can be related to the Ten Commandments in such a way that the sin is a violation of at least the principles that are behind the individual commandments.
This is not the only way of classifying sins, however. Sometimes the sins are classified based on which of the seven virtues they violate, which are then sometimes related back to the Ten Commandments.
While, if you consider them broadly enough, the principles behind the Ten Commandments may be capable of embracing every particular sin that is committed, it is not the case that every sin has grave matter.
A classic example is that of theft. If you steal a dollar from a millionnaire, it isn't grave matter because he has plenty of money and the loss of a dollar will not gravely harm him. On the other hand, stealing a dollar from a beggar in the streets of Calcutta, who needs that dollar to survive, would indeed be grave matter, because it does grave harm to the individual.
Moral theologians handle this by saying that violating the commandment "Thou shalt not steal" has potentially grave matter, but in some cases there is a parvity (smallness) of matter that keeps it from being grave. Thus stealing a dollar can be grave (in the case of taking it from someone who will starve without it) but in other cases it is not grave because of the smallness of the harm that is done (as in taking it from a millionnaire).
In trying to relate this distinction to the traditional formulation that some sins have light matter (making them venial) while others have grave matter (making them potentially mortal), it is tempting to say that any sin, if done to an extreme enough degree, will have grave matter, and thus that all sins are potentially grave, it being parvity of matter that prevents them from being grave.
I am inclined toward this view, and in the process of checking it out, I've asked others trained in moral theology whether they can think of any sins that always have light matter, that never could be grave no matter the extreme degree to which they are carried. They haven't been able to think of any, and neither have I. Thus I'm inclined to say everything is potentially grave if carried out in an extreme enough fashion.
Where the dividing line is crossed between grave and non-grave matter is not clear. The gravity of the matter is based on the harm done, and there is not an objective standard by which we can judge harm. There are certain clear and commonly agreed upon reference points (e.g., anything that would take a life would be grave; anything that would cause mild annoyance would be non-grave), but ultimately the assessment of gravity is a matter that can only be subjectively assessed, leading to the common rule that those who are non-scrupulous should go ahead and confess if there is doubt about whether a sin was grave and those who are scrupulous should confess only when they are sure that the sin was grave.!