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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 RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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