ASK FATHER: If I am in the state of mortal sin, is there any point in praying?

From a reader…


Thank you for the good work you do through this blog. I check it once or twice daily, because I always look forward to your insightful and incisive commentary.

May I ask: If I am in a state of mortal sin and thus lacking charity, will my prayers avail of anything? In a word, and please pardon the bluntness, is there any point in praying while in a state if mortal sin?

Oh my, yes!  There is always a point in praying and your prayers are always attended by God who is mercy, love and patience.

Prayer for good things is never in vain.  Prayer that God’s will be done is never not effective.

When we commit a mortal sin, it is true that we kill the life of grace in the soul.  That’s why we call the sin “mortal”: it kills us spiritually, insofar as the indwelling of the Trinity is concerned.

However, mortal sin does not remove our baptismal, or confirmed or ordained or married character.  We still pray as baptized children of God and God listens.

In these cases, we open ourselves to the graces that God is constantly pinging us with.  Think of something like sonar… ping ping ping trying to get our attention to bring us back up out of the dark depths to which we dropped ourselves.  God offers us the sort of graces that help our a) self-understanding (“Rats, I really am a sinner who has deserved Hell and who has offended a loving God.”), and b) realization that there’s a way out (“I could go to confession.”) and c) the strengthening of resolve to get off our backsides and actually go to seek reconciliation (“Let’s DO this thing!”).

The Lord’s parable about the foolish young prodigal son of his father shows us these stages.  First, he realizes what a horrid state he is in.  Then, he remembers his father’s house.  Then, he resolves to go home and actually gets moving.  Meanwhile, the father isn’t just hanging around, he is watching for his son’s return and, before the foolish kid even gets to the house, the father goes to him.

God offers us what are called prevenient graces… graces that “go before” so that we can then accept the sanctifying grace that returns with confession and absolution.

There is no sin that is so great that we little mortals can commit that God won’t forgive provided we ask for forgiveness.

He wants to forgive.  He’s waiting to forgive.  He’s listening for our plea.

It is as if while with one hand he pours subtle graces into our minds, with the other hand cupped to His ear He listens for even the slightest reaction so that He can give us more.  Our conversions are truly our conversions, but they also come with God’s helping hands.  Think of a child who has offended.  Dad says, “What do you say?”  “Sorry!”

Pray especially when you are pretty sure that you are not in the state of grace.   Ask for all the graces you need to understand yourself better and then to be strong to get up and go to confession.

While there is breath and heartbeats in our bodies, God is showering us with graces, even those who have virtually hardened their hearts through neglect or conscious resistance that becomes habit.  He offers the graces even though we pridefully armor ourselves against them.

Everyone… if you have not been to confession for a while and you are pretty sure you are in the state of mortal sin – BECAUSE YOUR PROBABLY ARE! – take this post as a poor tool that God may be using to tweak you into action.


Has it been a long time since you said those words to the confessor?

“Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee…”.

Has it been a long time since you heard those words of the confessor?

EGO TE ABSOLVO…. I absolve you…”.


Remember the freedom of the newly reconciled.  Think of the lightness of spirit and the relief and the knowledge that you can make good Communions again.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, ASK FATHER Question Box, GO TO CONFESSION and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. jaykay says:

    Sincere thanks for that assurance, Father, as the very same question had often occurred to me. Really, in the sense of praying on behalf of others, the Holy Souls etc. I love to pray for them and, well, wondered whether… Mind is at rest now.

    And thanks also to the querist for having raised it, and thus having promoted your response.

  2. Joe in Canada says:

    I agree that if say a priest is in a state of mortal sin, but performs the work of the Church in a prayer such as the eucharistic prayer, that prayer is answered.
    But if a person willfully persists in mortal sin, wouldn’t the effect of grace be like water dropping onto a stone?

  3. otsowalo says:

    The past few days, I was praying for the graces of courage and contrition to go to confession. Then, just the other day, I felt being nudged to go to Mass during my lunch break. Lo and behold, the light at the confessional was on (it turns out, confessions in that chapel goes from 6AM to 8PM). I thought I could put off confessing for another day, but, no. I felt being pulled to fall in line for confession.

    I did. I was also advised by father to go to confession regularly.

  4. monstrance says:

    Not to pray while in a state of mortal sin –
    Precisely the behavior that Satan would relish.
    To chain you up in despair and hopelessness.
    Don’t give him the satisfaction.

  5. LatinMan says:

    “However, mortal sin does not remove our baptismal, confirmed, or married or ordained character.”

    Not to nitpick, Father, but marriage doesn’t confer a character. It’s a state of life, but it doesn’t imprint an indelible mark on the soul like the other three sacraments.


    [I didn’t say that the sacrament of matrimony confers an INDELIBLE character. Marriage does not, as for example, baptism confer an indelible character. However, the sacrament of matrimony creates an indissoluble bond of unity between the spouses. This bond is “sealed” by the Holy Spirit (CCC 1624, 1639, 1640). That language is similar, by the way, to how the Holy Spirit “seals” the indelible character conferred in other sacraments. In matrimony, the indissoluble bond endures so long as both the spouse are alive. It is dissolved only when one of the spouses dies. The sacramentally married state is not just a “state of life” as, for example consecrated virginity or religious life, which can be dispensed. Valid consummated marriage cannot be “dispensed” or “annulled” or “dissolved”. If a sacramental marriage has taken place, there is an indissoluble bond between the spouses as long as they are alive. That bond is real]

  6. Water dropping onto a stone can have a signifigant effect over time. Pray, fast and make sacrifices for conversions.

  7. NBW says:

    Thank you very much, Father Z. This is very helpful!

  8. fmsb78 says:

    Some big converts were people in mortal sin that prayed with true contrition.

    St. Padre Pio once said that “the sinner who is sorry for his sins is closer to God than the just man who boasts of his good works”.

    Just don’t “discern” and line up for Holy Communion kids.

  9. Clinton R. says:

    Thanks be to God for this Sacrament. Our Lord is there in the Confessional waiting to hear us be contrite and heartily sorrowful for our sinfulness. And He is there to give us forgiveness and the Grace to sin no more. Thank you, Father for always exhorting us to GO TO CONFESSION!!!

  10. Mr. Graves says:

    Does God still honor our prayers for family/friends/world events when in a state of mortal sin? Or only those that tend toward repentance for our state?

    I confess (no pun intended), this post has left me in a more luminous darkness re the efficacy of prayer when in a state of sin.

  11. Morrie Chamberlain says:

    I always tell any lapsed Catholic. GO TO CONFESSION!

  12. Garth says:

    A good post, but I was taken aback at the mention of a married character. Matrimony confers a sacramental character? Then how could anyone ever remarry?

    [The sacrament of matrimony creates an indissoluble bong of unity between the spouses. This bond is “sealed” by the Holy Spirit (CCC 1624). That indissoluble bond endures so long as both the spouse are alive. It is dissolved only when one of the spouses dies.]

  13. VonOrigen says:

    Thanks for the informative post, Fr. Z. This particular question has confounded me for quite some time (kind of like mortal sin itself, as a matter of fact) and I had hoped you would eventually address it.

    I’m reminded of this line from “The Exorcist”–

    MERRIN: I think the point is to make us despair… to see ourselves as… animal and ugly. To reject the possibility that God could love us.

  14. Pingback: FEEDBACK: “I went to confession for the first time in nine years tonight.” | Fr. Z's Blog

  15. blarneyman says:

    Could you comment on Aquinas’ teaching that a soul in mortal sin, after committing the said mortal sin, loses all previous merits it had attained and can only begin anew to merit after sacramental confession. He also teaches that the soul in mortal sin cannot merit the good while in the state of mortal sin.

    Thank you.

    [Yes, I can comment on that. DON’T COMMIT MORTAL SINS! At the same time, whatever the soul in the state of mortal sin can or cannot do, GOD cannot be limited by our sin. Prayers are not vain. But to be on the safe side, don’t be stupid and DON’T COMMIT MORTAL SINS! And if you have, don’t remain stupid, GO TO CONFESSION! That brings back all the merits with the state of grace.]

  16. Bosco says:

    I have an extraordinarily difficult time coping with either what may be called constant scrupulosity or, as a confessor once told me long ago, a tender conscience – the latter I take it means that I put all of my actions under the scalpel perform effectively an autopsy of my actions. This confessor told me my judgements were sound and much more acute than most penitents. It is a real cross.

    I have what I can only describe as unrelenting storms of impure thoughts (days long sometimes and both physically and psychologically painful) which catch me unguarded and though I try to pray and fend them off I can never really discern whether I at any point have deliberately entertained or willingly lingered on any particular unchaste thought to the point that it became a mortal sin and must be confessed.

    How can I discern what matters are grave?

  17. Fr. Kelly says:

    Thank you for this , Fr. Z.

    For those who are having trouble with Fr. Z’s reference to a character of marriage, I might offer this as a suggestion.
    Admittedly, the Church does not generally use the word Character about marriage as it is a reference to the unremovable mark placed upon a Roman Legionnaire upon his inception into the legion. Whether it was a brand or tattoo or other distinctive mark, it could not be removed without cutting away the very flesh upon which it is imprinted, leaving ample evidence of its having been there. (Remember the movie “Gladiator”). In any case, thenceforth, he bore that mark unto enduring glory or enduring shame, and, as the success or failure of the Legion reflects upon him, so does his honor or dishonor reflect upon the legion.

    The Church regularly uses this analogy to help us think about the unremovable (indelible) “mark” placed on our souls in the Sacrament of Baptism and upon certain men in the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
    Nevertheless, it can be an apt way of speaking of the indissolubility of marriage as Fr. Z. has done here.

    Baptism changes the soul of the neophyte Christian in an irreversible way, giving him “sonship in the Son” , entitling him to a share in the Grace of Christ and inviting him to share in the Glory of heaven. The newly baptized is marked as one who is destined for heaven. This mark cannot be removed, even if the Grace of Christ is lost through subsequent mortal sin, and (horribile dictu!) even if he should persist in this sin all the way until death and lose his salvation through his own evil choices. Thus, this sacramental character is borne to his greater glory in heaven, or to his enduring shame in hell.

    The Character of Baptism is imprinted in the immortal soul and is entirely unremovable, since the soul cannot be carved away, in whole or in part as the flesh of the shoulder can be. Likewise the character of Holy Orders. Once ordained, a man is “a priest forever according to the Order of Melchizedek. Even if he is reduced to the lay state, he is still a priest. The imprint of the Character on his soul remains to his greater glory in heaven or to his unspeakable shame in hell.

    The imprint of marriage on a couple who receives the sacrament is similar to this in one way, but dissimilar in another:
    As Fr. Z. says, it is unremovable. The sacramental marriage, once it is ratified and consummated, is utterly indissoluble by anything other than the death of one of the spouses.
    The dissimilarity to Orders and
    baptism lies in this: that the “character” is imprinted not into an immortal soul as such, but onto a union of two persons composed of body and soul. As long as both of them are still body and soul composites, they are indissolubly united to each other and no power on earth can separate them.
    However, once one of them ceases to be a a composite of body and soul (which happens when at death, his or her immortal soul is definitively separated from the body, and faces the particular judgment) There is no longer a union of two persons which can be a marriage.

    The only reason the marriage ceases, is not because somehow it lacks a permanence that it could have, but rather that the union of persons in which it consists depends the continued existence of the persons who make up the union. When one of them ceases to be at death, The marriage is unable to persist.
    This does not happen for baptism or priesthood, because, while the composite ceases to be at death, the immortal soul does not and since those characters are imprinted in the soul, they remain.
    Since the character of marriage is imprinted not in the soul itself but in the union of two composite persons, it ceases when one of the composite persons cease.

    If it were like a mark on paper, the marks of baptism, confirmation and orders are indelible, because the ink cannot be erased, and the paper is fireproof. In the case of marriage, the ink cannot be erased, but the paperon which it is inscribed can be burned away.

    Hope this helps

  18. Fr_Andrew says:

    In my, admittedly-limited, experience, I think the confusion happens over the correct understanding that when we are not in the state of grace we cannot merit. Merit is reward and the principle, or foundation of merit is Sanctifying Grace. Without it, no merit.

    That simply means we cannot merit conversion. We can also not merit final perseverence, but we sure as heck can pray for it and should. The Prodigal Son was not owed anything upon his return, and was only planning to beg for the lowest place in the house, which he was still not owed. The father did not just give him the lowest place, but showed him with grace. So too for the soul.

    God has to arrange for final perseverance, just like in conversion. We can stand in the way, but we cannot make it happen. We are not owed it, we cannot merit it, but we do need it, and God has promised it if we ask and won’t give it if we don’t ask.

    That is precisely why we should pray if we should find ourselves not in the State of Grace. We are not owed it, sure, but the good Lord is still listening and will work with whatever good dispositions we have and provide us grace to convert if we sincerely ask. We just must not get in the way. He doesn’t owe this in justice, but he is not merely Just, he is also Merciful and sees our weakness and sends grace even when it is not owed.

    So I agree with Father Z. Pray for contrition, and go to confession!

    You won’t shock us, and we won’t think less of you for the worst sins. We’ll be every so happy you got that monkey off your back and you let us help you do it! What joy it brings to a priest’s heart to be the instrument of God in catching the big fish!

  19. Simply, our works and prayers are less effective in the state of mortal sin.

    Never give in to despair that its all ‘no use’ and give up. The other aspect is that once one is back in the state of grace, the merits of your good works and prayers are restored, just as the soul once again becomes clean as it was at baptism.

  20. Egad_Trad_Dad says:

    This post calls to mind the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican: while neither were in a state of grace, we are assured by Christ that the latter’s prayer was heard.

  21. Fr_Andrew says:


    The Catholic doctrine is that works (including prayer) done without Sanctifying Grace are not only less effective, but are totally ineffective towards our salvation.

    You can think of the piggy-bank of merit (the Supernatural currency that “buys” our mansion in heaven) being made out of Sanctifying Grace. If we have no Sanctifying Grace we have no piggy-bank in which to save up merit. Our work is ineffective towards heaven.

    Since that Sanctifying Grace is a gift of God and we cannot merit the bank that stores merit, all we can do is ask God for it. We can’t earn it. That’s precisely why we must ask. Why would God give us something we don’t ask for or seem to want?

    In that limited sense, yes our prayers are “less effective” because they can only help us clear the natural obstacles to God’s grace, and rely totally on his Mercy which we cannot deserve in any strict sense.

    If we think, however, that a man who is not in the State of Grace can do anything of Supernatural value towards his salvation we would be embracing a form of Semi-Pelagianism. Today that’s an easy mistake to make since we have been told for so long that a “sincere” pagan probably can save his soul without conversion, and some bishops and priests have suggested universal salvation. Even so it’s still a mistake and I’d not want to be that priest or bishop at my meeting with Our Lord.

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