Supernatural Acts in Mortal Sin

by Andrew Nimmo

This is a consideration of what supernatural acts are possible for a Catholic who is in mortal sin.

Contrary to the Protestant position which would make all the acts of sinners sinful, the Church teaches that those in this world in mortal sin can still do naturally good acts. I say "in this world" because the Protestant view is true of those in hell. Every act of the damned is a sin. But in this life we can act illogically, committing venial sins in a state of grace and doing good acts while in mortal sin.

It is also true to say that those in mortal sin cannot go for long without committing further mortal sins. This is because we act according to our ultimate end. Mortal sin makes me my ultimate end and greatest love. This will dictate my actions. As this state is fundamentally selfish it will incline me to act in such a way that I prefer myself to God - this is what mortal sin is. In this state I will be inclined to see my greatest desire as worth having at any cost and if sin is required in order to have it I will commit it. Whether pleasure or power or money or fame is what I seek, temptations to sin in order to get it take on the character or appearance of good, since I have made myself my ultimate end. This is not to say that desiring pleasure etc. is bad of itself, but the state of sin and the vices which support it incline me to want it inordinately, not according to the order of reason. So, for example, if I want the pleasure of sex for its own sake, excluding that for the sake for which it exists, ie the procreation of new human life within the sanctity of marriage, I will get it using whatever means I want: fornication, adultery, contraception (blocking the effect of the act and thus going for pleasure alone - the definition of selfishness) etc. Yet as all creatures are fundamentally good, and as the will is naturally ordered towards good, whenever we sin, it is always with reluctance. In other words we would rather attain what we want without having to sin to get it. No-one likes a troubled conscience. Part of us hates the personal and social disorder that our sins cause. We would prefer that what we want wasn't wrong.

But as I said above, not all acts of the sinner are sins and thus the sinner can do many good natural acts. The sinner can even love God - but not above all things as long he remains in mortal sin. There are many good things the sinner can do:

Man can do naturally good acts in mortal sin, but can he do supernaturally good acts? (All supernatural acts are good.) In His infinite mercy God keeps the virtues of faith and hope in the soul of the sinner unless the sinner commits a sin against these virtues. Thus faith and hope remain in the soul of the person in mortal sin in a preternatural state, existing without their subject, which is grace. These virtues are true supernatural virtues, but as they are not enlivened by charity, the virtue incompatible with mortal sin, they are not meritorious. Without charity faith and hope are said to be unformed or dead virtues. The sinner can still make acts of faith and hope, but they are not meritorious acts. Nor is salvation possible to the man with hope and faith alone - it must be faith and hope informed by charity. These virtues are still of great value. They are said to be salutary. This means that they lead to salvation. By them the sinner can still believe what God has revealed, hope for heaven and the grace of repentence, and make acts of imperfect contrition. But he does not have charity. He does not love God above all things. Are these acts when done by a man in the state of mortal sin truly supernatural? They are. How is this possible? They are done, as with all supernatural acts, through the action of actual grace. Actual graces move our intellect and will to do supernatural acts. The acts of dead faith and hope are supernatural, salutary but not meritorious. In summary:

One of two things can happen to the above schema. Either the sinner dies in mortal sin, in which case he is forever incapable of any supernatural acts, losing even faith and hope, or he returns to the state of grace. How does one return to the state of grace? How we can rise from spiritual death to life? Only God can raise the dead. Only divine grace can raise us from our fallen natural state to the supernatural order, a journey of infinite distance. This is done through a sacramental grace such as that of baptism or confession (sacrament of penance), or through an extra-sacramental actual grace enabling the sinner to make a perfect act of contrition. Either way the man is now constituted just, in a state of loving God above all things, i.e. of charity and grace, and capable of performing meritorious acts. The acts merit the reward of an increase of grace.

What does the new schema look like?:

Thus may we see the various states in which man can act and the various ways the supernatural can operate in him.

Andrew Nimmo


Andrew Nimmo is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted December 2000. It was published in Universitas, No. 8 (2000).
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