Mortal or venial: Is it a sin to argue?

By Jenna Marie Cooper

Question Corner

Q: A couple of weeks ago, I got into an argument with another parishioner during a meeting off of church campus and not directly related to church business. Shortly after the meeting, I received an email from our priest saying that rage was a sin and I needed to go to confession. When I went to confession that priest said that getting angry was not a sin and that God and Jesus both got angry. Was my priest correct in sending me such an email? (Location withheld)

A: It looks like your question has multiple layers. One level is the technical-theological question of whether, or in what circumstances, anger might be a sin; another is a more pastoral question of whether this situation was handled appropriately.

Theologically, we know that the Church considers sins to be either mortal or venial. A mortal sin is a spiritually deadly sin. For a sin to be mortal, it must be an act that is seriously wrong, in and of itself (called grave matter); and this act must be freely, deliberately and knowingly chosen. If a sin does not involve grave matter, or if it’s committed in a less-intentional way, it is not a mortal sin but is what we call a venial sin. Of course, the priest assesses that distinction for us in the Sacrament of Penance.

Anger, or synonyms such as wrath or rage, are often included in traditional lists of sins. However, whether anger is mortal or venial sin -- or even a sin at all -- depends on the circumstances of a given situation. For instance, simply having an emotion is a morally neutral experience; merely feeling angry is not a sin. As your priest noted, we know from Scripture that even Jesus had feelings of anger (See Jn 2:13-17) which were righteous.

Still, our reactions to our emotions, and the behavior we choose to exhibit as a response to them, do have the potential to be either sinful or virtuous. For instance, choosing to express our feelings of anger by harming another person would likely be a mortal sin. Yet again, context is important; and it’s difficult to make judgements about what responses to anger are or are not sinful in the abstract. Even in your example, getting into an argument might be sinful if the conversation demonstrated a lack of respect for the other person or was filled with cruel accusations or cursing. But an argument that is more like a lively debate, or a difficult-but-necessary conversation, might not be sinful at all, even if there are feelings of anger involved.

Pastorally, there are instances where pastors have an obligation to correct a person exhibiting sinful behavior.

For the most part, our personal journeys to overcome sin and grow in virtue -- including when and how often to approach the sacrament of penance -- are things that Church’s law treats with respect and discretion. Catholics are required to make a sacramental confession at least once a year if they are conscious of having committed any mortal sins, and it might be helpful to ask advice (from priests who know us well) about how frequently we should go to confession given our individual strengths and weaknesses. But the discernment of whether a person would need to confess a sin after engaging in a heated argument is ultimately something that should be discussed between the person and the priest in the Sacrament of Penance.

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Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].