What makes one mortal sin worse than another mortal sin?

There are three fonts of morality: (1) intention, (2) moral object, (3) circumstances.

Whenever any one font is gravely disordered, the act is objectively a mortal sin; it is a gravely immoral act. Any moral disorder in any font makes the act a sin. Grave disorder makes the act a mortal sin; otherwise, the disordered act is a venial sin. Whether a font is ordered, disordered, or gravely disordered is based on the love of God above all else, and the love of neighbor as self.

Mortal sin versus venial sin

“A mortal sin is an act that is so gravely immoral before God as to be entirely incompatible with true love of God and neighbor. An actual mortal sin includes sufficient culpability to take away the state of grace from the soul, and to deserve eternal damnation.

Saint Thomas Aquinas: “Therefore when the soul is so disordered by sin as to turn away from its last end, viz. God, to Whom it is united by charity, there is mortal sin; but when it is disordered without turning away from God, there is venial sin.” (Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 72, A. 5.)

Pope John Paul II: “And when through sin, the soul commits a disorder that reaches the point of turning away from its ultimate end, God, to which it is bound by charity, then the sin is mortal; on the other hand, whenever the disorder does not reach the point of a turning away from God, the sin is venial. For this reason venial sin does not deprive the sinner of sanctifying grace, friendship with God, charity and therefore eternal happiness, whereas just such a deprivation is precisely the consequence of mortal sin.” (Reconciliation and Penance, n. 17)

“Mortal sin differs from venial sin both by degree and by type. Any mortal sin is more serious than any venial sin, so they differ by degree. Mortal sins are greater in degree, since they offend God more. But mortal sin is also a different type of sin, the type that deserves eternal punishment. No one is ever sent to Hell merely for unrepentant venial sins. But one unrepentant actual mortal sin is sufficient to condemn the person to eternal punishment in Hell.” (Conte, Catechism of Catholic Ethics, n. 021)

Mortal sin and the three fonts

Whenever any one font of morality is gravely disordered, the act is always necessarily objectively a mortal sin. No matter how shiningly virtuous and good the other two fonts may be, the gravely disordered font makes the act a mortal sin. To say otherwise is to adhere to the heretical error called proportionalism. We do not weigh the good and evil in the three fonts, and then approve of the act if the good proportionately outweighs the bad. Instead, we seek to avoid all moral evil. For all moral evil is sin.

[Judith]
{5:21} And, as long as they did not sin in the sight of their God, it was well with them. For their God hates iniquity.

[Proverbs]
{8:13} The fear of the Lord hates evil. I detest arrogance, and pride, and every wicked way, and a mouth with a double tongue.

[1 John]
{5:17} All that is iniquity is sin.

One gravely disordered font makes the act as a whole an objective mortal sin.

“A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together. An evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself (such as praying and fasting “in order to be seen by men”). The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some concrete acts – such as fornication – that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil.” (CCC, n. 1755).

A evil intended end makes the whole act a sin. An evil moral object vitiates (morally corrupts) the entire act. Also, if the moral evaluation of the circumstances makes that font immoral, again the act as a whole is a sin.

Degrees of mortal sin

“Some mortal sins are more serious, since they have a greater moral disorder, and other mortal sins are less serious, since they have a lesser moral disorder. But all mortal sins are gravely disordered. Some mortal sins offend God more than other mortal sins, because they are more thoroughly in conflict with His Goodness and with the goodness that He intends for all Creation.

“Examples: (1) A man steals a significant amount of money from his neighbor, so that the loss causes serious harm; this theft is a mortal sin. But the same type of sin, theft, becomes more serious if more harm is done. (2) A man steals all of the money that his neighbor, a poor widow, had to live on; she has no family left to help her and now cannot pay for food, medicine, or shelter. This second theft is a more serious mortal sin because more harm is done in the consequences of the knowingly chosen act.

“(3) A married couple use a barrier method of contraception (not an abortifacient method). This use of artificial contraception is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral; it is a mortal sin. (4) A married couple conceive a child, and then they agree to abort the child. Direct abortion is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral; it is a mortal sin. However, more harm is done by abortion than by contraception (abortifacient contraception is a separate case) because abortion kills an innocent human person, whereas mere contraception does not. Therefore, abortion is a more serious mortal sin than the mortal sin of contraception. (Abortifacient contraception sometimes works by killing a conceived human person, rather than by preventing conception, in which case the abortifacient contraception is a type of abortion and is more serious.)

“(5) A man and a woman have natural sexual relations outside of marriage; this sexual sin is a mortal sin. (6) If a man and a woman have unnatural sexual relations outside of marriage, the sin is objectively a more serious mortal sin. This sin has a greater degree of moral disorder because the one act is both sex outside of marriage and an unnatural sexual act. (7) If a man rapes a woman, outside of marriage, by means of an unnatural sexual act, the act has an even greater degree of moral disorder, because the one act is rape, and an unnatural sexual act, and sex outside of marriage. (8) If a husband rapes his wife by means of an unnatural sexual act, the act has a still greater degree of moral disorder, because the one act is rape, and an unnatural sexual act, and a serious offense against the institution of marriage established by God.

“Any sexual sin committed within marriage is more sinful than the same sexual sin committed outside of marriage because the sin additionally offends against the institution of marriage established by God at the beginning of the creation of the human race. Moreover, any sexual sin committed in a marriage where the husband and wife have the true Sacrament of Marriage is more offensive to God than the same sexual sin committed in a merely natural marriage, because the sin additionally offends against a Sacrament, as well as against the institution of natural marriage.” (Conte, Catechism of Catholic Ethics, n. 85)

One mortal sin is worse than another mortal sin when it has a greater degree of moral disorder in its three fonts. A sinful intention makes a mortal sin more gravely disordered. A more sinful intention makes a mortal sin more gravely disordered. An additional evil moral object makes a mortal sin more gravely disordered. A more sinful moral object makes a mortal sin more gravely disordered. And the more harm that is done in the consequences of the act, when that harm is not outweighed by reasonably anticipated good consequences, the more sinful is the act.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator

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