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Dangerous Habits – Serious or Mortal Sin?

December 26, 2016 by  
Filed under Addiction, Challenges, Fr. Bartunek, Spiritual Direction

Dangerous Habits


Dear Father John, What if someone has a habit which is a grave sin (say, porn, masturbation, gambling, alcohol, fornication, etc.) so there is probably not full consent. Can they receive communion, or do they have to go to confession before communion in each instance? Or is that something the priest should address on an individual basis in Confession?

Your instinct here seems to be on target.

Factors that Reduce Moral Culpability

falschspielergerardvanhonthorstthecardsharks for post on dangerous habits
Mortal sin involves three elements:

  1. grave matter,
  2. full knowledge of the evil of the action,
  3. and full consent to the action.

When we have developed habits of sin – whether or not we may be fully responsible for the development of that habit – we sometimes get to a point where we commit sinful actions under the influence of compulsions. At times, this compulsive behavior pattern impedes the full exercise of our freedom, which can diminish our moral responsibility for the particular action (even when we have been fully responsible for having formed the habit in the first place). In that case, “full consent” may be lacking, and even though grave matter and full knowledge is involved, the sin may be venial instead of mortal. Here is how the Catechism puts it in #2352:

To form an equitable judgment about the subjects' moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.

Traveling the Path of Spiritual Growth

Having said that, it is important to remember that sinful actions are sinful because they go against what is truly good for us. So someone who is stuck in habitual sin of the kinds you mention should embark on a journey of conversion and ongoing spiritual growth in order to allow God’s grace room to bring back moral integrity and spiritual freedom. Regular confession should be part of that journey, along with a vigorous life of personal prayer (vocal and mental), an avid Eucharistic life (frequent communion, adoration), meaningful relationships in the Lord (fellowship), some kind of spiritual direction or mentorship which includes accountability, and a generous engagement in works of mercy and apostolate. Only when all of these dimensions of our lives are healthy can we make steady progress in our pursuit of spiritual maturity and holiness.

Getting Personalized Advice

If someone takes up that journey with sincerity and perseveres in it even through falls and moments of backsliding, most confessors would advise that person to bring their falls to confession each week, but not necessarily oblige them to go to confession after each individual fall before receiving Holy Communion. The compulsive element in the behavior, combined with the clear commitment to the path of conversion would, in most cases like this, indicate the person’s moral culpability as regards those individual falls is diminished, such that each fall doesn’t constitute a mortal sin.

Nevertheless, it is important for someone in a situation like this to reach out to a priest confessor to speak about their particular situation. Other elements may be at work, and, as the old saying goes, “no one is a good judge in his own case,” so we need the support and the objective point of view that comes from a trustworthy priest or qualified spiritual guide in order to advance humbly, peacefully, and truthfully under these conditions.

I hope this helps.

Yours in Christ, Fr. John Bartunek, LC


Art for this post on Dangerous Habits: Falschspieler (The Card Sharps or The Card Sharks), Gerard van Honthorst (1590-1656), undated, PD- US author's life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • Patti Knudsen

    Good grief!!! You are forgiven! Ha. Seriously, one of the best posts ever, on a very tender and difficult subject for many serious Cathholics. I think many people wonder about this. What actually constitutes GRAVE? It really is not that obvious to most of us….Is missing mass as serious/grave as abortion??? Is drinking to excess as serious and grave as a habit of viewing pornography or committing adultry?? Gambling? At what level? Spending money you should be using to support your family?? Where does it end??? Forming a Catholic conscience is NOT as easy as one might think. And some people, unfortunately, are more sensitive when the conclude something is a MORTAL sin, when perhaps, it’s not……not to say they aren’t sinners. Their consciences just bother them more. Scrupulosity is a terrible burden. Thank you for your insights. I hope they do help people. And a Merry, Blessed Christmas and Wonderful, Joyful New Year!

  • v schraa

    Not all the instances of habitual sin are of equal gravity. Alcoholism might be due to heredity, lessening culpability, and even if not, it is a ‘solitary’ sin and yet if done deliberately is still mortal. Fornication and pornography though are far more heinous as other people are used as objects for self-gratification. These cause scandal, contribute to societal breakdown and not least is an offense against marriage and the relationship between Christ and His Church which it signifies. They are also considered in our neo-pagan culture to be acceptable forms of recreation, so there is much catechetical work to be done; two generations have been ill-informed, if informed at all. Trying to work out the degree of culpability can only be done individually as I see it.

    • LizEst

      …working that out in the seal of confession!

      • v schraa

        Of course! The assumption here in this website is that we’re talking about Roman Catholics, ‘grave sin’, Confession and Communion. I was only making a distinction on the degrees of gravity, of course once the penitent understands the nature of his problem frequent Confession (absolution), much prayer, sincere resolution and confidence in God’s help will free him. All sins offend God, and contributed to His Crucifixion, weaken the Mystical Body, but while some sins are “solitary” and will put oneself in Hell, it’s a more heinous sin to lead others there with you.

        • LizEst

          v schraa — Well, the preponderance of people who visit are Roman Catholics. We also have many Eastern Catholics, Protestants, other religions, and even atheists who stop by. It’s always good to proclaim God’s truth with clarity and charity!

  • Philip George Regan

    I am reminded of Our Lords comments to Saint Faustina” .. the greater the sinner – the greater the right he has to my Mercy ”

    So let no-one despair Our Lord never rejects a sinner with a Contrite Heart .. in fact Jesus makes clear that distrust in His Mercy wounds him more than the actual Sin itself .

    Do you Trust in the Divine Mercy of Jesus or are you stuck in the guilt of your shoddy sin ?

  • LizEst

    No, priests do not assume kids are innocent and don’t need confession. A good habit of going to confession regularly, begun in childhood, augers well for continuation into adulthood. We were all born with original sin. So, we are susceptible to world, the flesh and the devil … children included and, perhaps, more so in this day and age, when many are not taught right from wrong.

    • jcsmitty

      Priests in the 1950’s (I’m 69 years old) were more likely to presume children to be innocent than priests today. The things today’s kids are exposed to was not common knowledge when I was growing up, nor did we have the vocabulary to name certain sins in Confession. I specifically remember trying to confess a habitual sin while my classmates and teachers waited outside the confessional, but I didn’t know how to confess it. The priest was very patient as I told him I did “bad things,” but as he began listing stuff (“Did you steal from your mother, etc., etc.”) I was very conscious of my waiting classmates wondering why I was in there so long and just wanted to get done. I can’t even remember how I ended my confession to get out. The point of my previous post, however, is that the habit persisted for years despite the guilt and inability to get rid of it. Not once, even through my teens, did I ever hear a priest explain certain types of sins. I finally learned about certain sins as an adult. What is truly interesting to me is that we all have an innate sense of right and wrong, so that even without knowing what that sin was, I still experienced guilt about it and knew it was wrong.

      • LizEst

        jcsmitty — Thank you for your witness. That is an excellent summary of what can happen. God bless you during this Christmas season and the coming new year.

        • jcsmitty

          Thank you also. May the Lord continue to accompany and bless you in 2017!

  • Philip George Regan

    If it helps at all – just before I conclude my confession I ask Jesus for his forgiveness for Every Sin and Offence I have ever committed – that does help to avoid any uncertainly or ambiguity in the matter , it was a Jesuit Priest who gave me this advice.

    Also Our Lords Mercy is not restricted to the confessional box – every night I always ask for Jesus Mercy and Pardon – ” Lord Jesus – have Mercy on this poor sinner! … and as he Loves to forgive – he does ! Its all about Trust,

    • LizEst

      Yes, God’s mercy is not restricted. However, the Church does require us to make use of the sacrament of confession to obtain absolution. In fact, it’s one of the precepts of the Church (“To confess our sins to a priest at least once a year”. See paragraph 2042 here: )

      Mortal sin separates us from the Body of Christ. When the priest pronounces: “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and the resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, we can be sure that our sins are forgiven. We cannot presume on God’s mercy by not taking these sins to confession. It is a good practice to beg God’s mercy every night. But, we must not stop there. We have to confess these sins in the confessional. To stop there makes a mockery of this beautiful sacrament which Christ established saying: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:23). And, to stop there can also add to one’s sins by committing the sin of presumption.

      Philip George — I’m pretty sure you understand this. I’m writing this for those who will read your comment and, because of this, believe it is OK not to confess one’s sins.

      • marybernadette

        Your reply is so important, Liz. Tragically, the “Sacrament” is under attack today as with the other Teachings of the Church. A few years ago, a man I was acquainted with, was going to Mass frequently and receiving Holy Communion but was adamant about “Confession”, that he did not need to ‘tell his sins to the Priest’ but only to (directly) to God. Of course, I don’t know if he committed ‘mortal’ sins. However, as you say, everyone is required to go to Confession at least once a year.

      • Philip George Regan

        aTo be fair I think you will find that far from advocating dispensing with the Sacreaent of Reconcilation I did in fact mention tips given to myself be a Jesuit priest to facilitate Sacramental Confession – which does rather negate your statement.
        But it does remain True that we can ask for Gods Mercy outside the confessional box as well as I do every night through humble prayer.
        Whatever method is used what is vital is a Contrite Heart and a firm purpose of ammendment – and above all TRUST in the Infinite Mercy of Our Saviour.

        • LizEst

          LOL! Yes, I agree that you did not advocate dispensing with the sacrament of Penance. As I indicated, I wrote what I wrote because some folks, if they do not read carefully, might get the impression that all that’s necessary is to ask for mercy at the end of the day and not make use of confession. And, you know, we do have a lot of different people who visit our site including those of other faiths, Christian and non-Christian, and even atheists and agnostics. God bless you Philip George Regan!

          • Philip George Regan

            In fact the Sacrament of Confession we gain not just absolution of our Sins – but Our Lord will grant us additional graces – and the Priest himself gains a grace from hearing our Confession …. so what is there not to like about Sacramental Confession ?

          • LizEst

            Amen to that. I love this sacrament. Grace upon grace!


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