Lost Sense of Sin: Catechetical Gaps Filled w/ Wisdom of Saints (I/II)

The Faith Understood

Anyone familiar with Catholics United for the Faith (CU F) knows the valuable work it has done in analyzing catechetical texts. For many years, CU F was a voice “crying out in the wilderness.”

Its work of prophetic witness and careful analysis was vindicated when the U.S. bishops’ committee set up to evaluate catechetical texts found that the vast majority of texts in use over the last few decades were deficient. From now on, they said, all catechetical texts approved for use must be in conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

We must now direct our attention to “filling in the gaps” in our own and others’ religious educations, which have suffered from the catechetical deficiencies that the bishops have acknowledged. One of the most important of these gaps concerns clarity about the evil of sin. Lack of understanding about the evil of sin and lack of wisdom in avoiding and overcoming it greatly holds back the transformation that the Father’s love intends for us.

And there’s nowhere else that we can get a more profound grasp of both the evil of sin and how to overcome it than in the writings of the Doctors of the Church. In this short article we can only scratch the surface of the available riches, and we will do so by drawing upon the wisdom of St. Teresa of Avila.

Teresa, at the request of her spiritual director, wrote an account of her life, an actual autobiography, entitled “The Book of Her Life.” In this work, as in all her writings, Teresa is very honest in speaking of her weaknesses and mistakes. She clearly identifies a number of things that blocked her progress after an initially promising start during her first few years in the monastery. One of these was lack of clarity about the nature and evil of sin.

Carelessness About Sin

Teresa makes a very striking statement about how carelessness about sin seriously blocked her progress: “As for venial sins, I paid little attention; and that is what destroyed me.”[1] She points out that this was partly the case because she was given advice that “was liberal and permissive.” “What was venial sin they said was no sin at all, and what was serious mortal sin they said was venial. This did me so much harm. . . . I went on in this blindness for I believe more than seventeen years until a Dominican Father, a very learned man, enlightened me about many things.”[2]

At the same time, Teresa acknowledges that she probably should have known better what was right and wrong and that there may have been something in her that too easily accepted this very bad advice. Scripture makes clear that there is something in all of us that has an inclination to look for advice that will let us follow our selfish desires: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4).

Teresa makes, though, a very important distinction between deliberate and freely chosen venial sin (advertent) and venial sin that is not deliberately and freely chosen (inadvertent). She gives a very clear description of what she means: “Be careful and attentive-this is very important-until you see that you are strongly determined not to offend the Lord, that you would lose a thousand lives rather than commit venial sins-that is, advertently; for otherwise, who can go without committing many?”

When Scripture comments that “the just man falls seven times a day” (Prov. 24:16), Teresa understands this as referring to a basically righteous person inadvertently committing small-venial-sins. She thinks that these faults may be with us throughout our life to some degree even though we are progressing on the spiritual journey.

Teresa comments that such inadvertent venial sins, although unfortunately common, don’t impede the spiritual journey nearly as much as freely choosing to commit “small” sins. Her definition of “advertent” venial sin is clear: “It seems to me a sin is very deliberate when, for example, one says: ‘Lord, You see it, and I know You do not want it, and I understand this; but I want to follow my whim and appetite more than Your will.’ It doesn’t seem to me possible that something like this can be called little, however light the fault; but it’s serious, very serious.”[3]

Making a decision never to freely choose to commit even a small sin is an important turning point in the spiritual journey. As Teresa points out, freely choosing to commit a “small” sin isn’t really a little thing if we are trying to live a life pleasing to God.


[1] Teresa of Avila, The Book of Her Life, in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1987), v. 1, 4:7, p. 67.

[2] Ibid., 5:3, p.71

[3] Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, v. 2, 41:3, p. 197.


In part two, we will see what St. Teresa of Avila says about failure to avoid the near occasions of sin, and the danger of self-reliance.

Ralph Martin is the author of a number of articles and books the most recent of which are The Urgency of the New Evangelization: Answering the Call (2013), as well as Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization (2012) and The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints (2006).

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in the Jul/Aug 2006 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine]


Art for this post on the lost sense of sin: Teresa of Avila, Peter Paul Rubens, 1615, photographed by David Monniaux, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported, Wikimedia Commons.

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