ASK FATHER: Does idolatry incur a greater penalty than other mortal sins? Wherein Fr. Z rants.

From a reader…


Does violation of the First Commandment of the Decalogue (such as acts of literal idolatry and/or demon worship) entail a greater penalty / injury to the offending baptized Catholic than mortal sins against the other Commandments? Is it more serious because it is an explicit rejection of the True God, rather than a “mere” offense against God like violations of the other commandments? Should it incur automatic excommunication? Is violating this Commandment in a category of its own?

Mortal sin is mortal, deadly to the life of the soul.   Mortal sin kills the life of grace in the soul.

Both human experience and divine revelation verify that some sins are worse than others.

Some sins, venial sins, while bad because they involve the choice of a good inferior to God, are not so bad that they destroy charity and turn a person from God.    Other sins are more than just bad.  When they involve grave matter and are done with full knowledge and deliberation and consent of will, they do destroy charity, constitute a rejection of God and grace. They need healing from God, especially through the ordinary means He Himself established, the Sacrament of Penance.

Just as mortal sins are worse than venial sins, so too some mortal sins are worse than other mortal sins.

Please stop and note this, however.   If you are dead, you are dead.  You can’t be deader than dead.  But when it comes to the reckoning of your life before the Just Judge, the King of Fearful Majesty, and your final and eternal disposition… there are degrees.  Depending on one’s sins and on one’s final state of life at the time of death, some people’s eternal destiny will be worse than others.

Mind you: there isn’t a good place to be in Hell.  There are only hideous and more hideous degrees. Damned means damned… not sort of damned.   (I leave aside here the issue of limbo, an concept that has not been formally defined by the Church )

We have an indication from the Lord Himself about the gradations of Hell when he said in Matthew 11:

20 Then he began to upbraid the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! woe to you, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”

I get a little shiver reading that and I consider how in these United States … well…. you know.   Sometimes I think that if God doesn’t burn us down to the dirt, He’ll owe Sodom an apology.  Who knows?  Maybe bad government and a virus will wake at least some of us up to our collective wrongs.  But I digress.

In addition to Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, in the parable of the faithful and unfaithful slave in Luke 12, one receives a lighter beating and the other a heavier beating.   This is not just a moral story for our earthly rewards and punishments.  It is about the return of the Master at the unexpected hour and the reckoning of our lives.

Also, if we are to “treasure up” treasure in Heaven by good deeds and so forth, so that we have greater reward in heaven, so to we can “hoard down” payment in Hell.  Some will have more hoarded than others.  All of it will be bad, no matter how long and intensely you are hoarding now.

You ask about idolatry and the 1st Commandment of the Decalogue.

It is the FIRST of the Decalogue for a reason.  It is the most important.  It is reasonable to say that violations of the FIRST Commandment, when deliberate, understood and willed, are worse than other sins, such as sins of the flesh.

Mind you: just because one sin is worse than another, that doesn’t mean that that lesser sins is not of consequence.  As I said before, dead is dead.  If you are dead from being shot through the heart, or if you are dead because you died of a disease, you are still dead, either way.

Commit idolatry or deliberately, repeatedly, publicly harm someone’s reputation and scandalously work to get others to do the same… you are dead in your soul and you are going to go to Hell if you don’t repent and make public reparation.

Should idolatry incur excommunication?

Good question.

Idolatry is the giving of divine worship to anything other than God.  It is, if deliberate and understood and willed, the worst of mortal sins.

Even unwilling acts of idolatry, such as when in time of persecution some Christians out of fear of death or torture offered incense to the “genius” of the Emperor, are grave, mortal sins.

Get this: worshipping God in the wrong way is a serious sin.  Think about THAT and our scrambled sacred liturgical worship in some places in the Church today!

Of course, there are unquestionably those mitigating factors of ignorance and so forth involved in one’s subjective guilt for this sin: some people don’t know any better.  Objectively, however, it is still wrong and displeasing to God.  It is idolatry.

Non-Catholics will sometimes accuse Catholics of idolatry because they think, wrongly, that we worship Mary or the saints and their images.   We do worship Blessed Sacrament, because the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ in our presence.  We venerate Mary and the saints and honor them lovingly for the sake of our love of the of the Trinity.   In their case, God is worshipped through the honor we give to them.  They are not honored or worshipped in themselves only, apart from God.

And speaking of non-Catholics, it would be wrong, an act of idolatry, to participate fully, consciously, actively in false, non-Catholic worship.  That does not mean that a Catholic cannot attend the, say, the Jewish funeral of a friend or the Lutheran wedding of cousin.   We can do so out of friendship and respect, but we cannot actively and consciously participate in false worship as we would if we were attending Holy Mass.   That sort of thing can indeed incur a censure in some instances, such as participating in the impossible attempt to ordain a women with the Sacrament of Holy Orders.  Such an act of false worship is not just sacrilege, it is idolatry.

Hence, when it comes to excommunication for idolatry, there are already canons on the book that impose censures for certain sins.  And since every grave sin that can incur a censure is, to one extent or another, a turning from God to a lesser good, then every sin has an implicit element of idolatry.

However, the question remains: should explicit acts of idolatry incur an excommunication, either automatic or declared after a process?

Yes, salvo meliore iudicio, they probably should.  If we acknowledge that idolatry is the worst of sins and if lesser sins can bring censures, then it is reasonable that at least explicit, deliberate public acts of idolatry should incur a censure.

However, the Church gets to decide which sins incur which censures.

The Church has, in different times, had different censures, different disciplines, depending on the needs of the day.  From time to time they change.  In a similar but more positive way, the Church elevates certain saints to the honor of our altars because, in that time period, they were deemed to be examples for the faithful needed for that time.   In other centuries, others were emphasized.  This is a prudential judgement made by the Church for the sake of our living our vocations well.  Similarly, the change of laws from time to time is for the good ordering of the Church.  At least that is supposed to be the intention.   The Church’s laws do not share the same level of authority that doctrinal definitions will have.  The Church’s laws are positive laws of an institution which are crafted by little, well-intentioned (hopefully) human beings.  They are not the same as God’s positive law, manifested in the Ten Commandments.   The Church’s laws require our respect and obedience, but not our veneration.

And so we circle back to the Decalogue.

Is idolatry in a category of its own?

In a way, yes.  There seems to be an element of idolatry in every sin, since every sins is, to one extent or another, a replacement of God with a created good.  Perhaps it is for that reason that the Church seems to stick to applying censures to the lesser sins, which are still grave.

It was a good question.  It could be that our canonists reading this will know more.


I want to keep as many of you as possible out of Hell and safe on the road to heaven.  I mean that for my manifest, public haters and enemies as well.  Search your hearts well.  Repent and make amends.  If you don’t, you are in serious spiritual peril.   I want only what is best for you, whatever that might be, because I want you to wind up in the bliss of heaven one day.

As long as I am digressing…

Just as there are two “levels” of sorrow for sin, less perfect attrition and more perfect contrition, I have two motives for desiring that even enemies make it to heaven.  First, there is a good, but perhaps less perfect motive: I want the Devil to lose… big time, every time.  Each time a soul goes before God and is damned to eternal separation from God, you can imagine the Enemy to shout in self-agonizing malice, “That’s one more that You won’t have!”   The reason we are in existence at all is to bring greater glory to God.  For this we exist as our over-arching vocations.  So, I want the Enemy to lose big time.  The conversion of sinners and the entrance of souls before the Beatific Vision brings immense joy to Heaven.   And that’s the more perfect reason for wanting the conversion of enemies, that more souls will be happy before God and with as many others as possible, so that His praise and glory and charity be multiplied through the pleasing worship by His images.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Mariana2 says:

    ” it would be wrong, an act of idolatry, to participate fully, consciously, actively in false, non-Catholic worship.”

    Ouch. For example, my Lutheran mother’s funeral. I did join in the prayers and sing the hymn and what not (but I chose all Catholic music to be performed, except one piece by Bach, which I think is excusable : ) ). Likewise at Lutheran ‘confirmations’ and weddings. So GO TO CONFESSION?

    And what do I do next time, not listen and not join in any prayers?

    [I want to head off the panic right here and now. It’s okay to sing a good hymn with others. Some are perfectly acceptable to Catholics even though they are not from the pen of a Catholic writer. (And think about how many dreadful, even heretical pieces there are NOW in parishes which were written by Catholics!) It is perfectly okay to recite, for example, the Lord’s Prayer with non-Catholics. It is okay to say “Amen” to a good petition to God. It would not be okay to say a prayer or affirmation about, say, their “eucharist” or “communion” or any creedal statements of their communities. This means a) knowing your Faith well and b) listening attentively to what is being said and perhaps scanning ahead if hymns are posted. It is not wrong to be silent. It is not wrong discretely to pray the Rosary. It is not wrong to be respectful of what they are doing. But a mature Catholic must be able to distinguish between the sort of participation with which we engage at Holy Mass and that with which we engage at some other church’s worship, even something as emotional as the funeral of a parent… which is something that converts often have to deal with. As far as confession is concerned, only you know what you were doing at that time. I would imagine that it was a strongly emotional period and event for you and that whatever participation you had was charged with powerful feelings and maybe a little fog from the circumstances of planning. I would not beat yourself up about this. And for anyone else tempted to jump in with a “What about the time I…?”, I urge you to think it through.]

  2. anotherphilothea says:

    I’ve heard it said that every sin can be traced back to a First Commandment transgression.

  3. Chrysologos says:

    ‘….. and perhaps scanning ahead if hymns are posted.’
    Always I do this before Mass, especially when attending Mass outside my parish for special occasions.

  4. rhig090v says:

    Your last paragraph was tremendously edifying for those of us struggling to pray for our enemies. It really puts it into perspective! Thanks as always

  5. iamlucky13 says:

    “Idolatry is the giving of divine worship to anything other than God. It is, if deliberate and understood and willed, the worst of mortal sins.”

    A thought I’ve had when thinking about idolatry: Who in their right might, if they really understand the truth about God’s existence and primacy in the universe, would willfully commit idolatry? We know the fallen angels did, but among humans, I would think it exceedingly rare.

    Instead, I view idolatry as primarily an ignorant act. When I learn of activities by people who profess to be Catholic but like to mix in pagan or new age practices, my normal suspicion is a lack of catechesis and a failure to think critically about whatever they have been taught. When I read about the golden calf, I’m more inclined to suspect weakness of the Israelites’ faith led them to grasp for some visible god, as opposed to fully recognizing that it was the God of Abraham who had brought them out of Egypt, but they preferred a shiny statue.

    At the same time, the ignorance I suppose to exist is not necessarily excusable. And idolatry can still be willful, such as if someone knows participation in Wicca ceremonies is illicit, but feels they know better than the Church.

    I’m also starting to more recently take heed myself of the warnings I’ve heard for decades against the more subtle forms of idolatry that often lead to our other sins. For example, why did I put off making many of my planned charitable donations until the very end of the year? Because at least a part of me was putting love of that money ahead of the God’s desire for us to support the Church and give alms. And why did I then rush to complete the donations before the end of the year? Because I was doing it in part for the material consideration of my taxes rather than love of God.

    I guess this fits in with anotherphilothea’s statement that every sin can be traced back to a First Commandment transgression.

  6. Kent Wendler says:

    It seems to me that there are self-proclaimed Catholics who seem to consider the Decalogue as optional, take ’em or leave ’em: e.g., the Fifth and abortion. Thus they seem to actually be worshiping a strange god who has given us the “ten suggestions”. Would this qualify as a “strange god” as mentioned in the First Commandment?

  7. Tooksam says:

    Excellent post. One of the nudges in my conversion was Catholicisms desire to pray and help even her enemies get to heaven.

  8. TonyO says:

    Thank you, Fr. Z, for a very clear posting.

    Instead, I view idolatry as primarily an ignorant act. When I learn of activities by people who profess to be Catholic but like to mix in pagan or new age practices, my normal suspicion is a lack of catechesis and a failure to think critically about whatever they have been taught.

    Iamlucky13, I too think there is a lot of ignorance involved. Perhaps even nearly all the time.

    But not absolutely always. There are a few horrific persons out there who have chosen to throw their lot in with demons and evil and to willingly and deliberately snub God purely for the sake of offending Him. For these, the act of idolatry is so gravely malicious that it exceeds in kind other mortal sin. Here’s one way to look at it: for most mortal sins, it’s a matter of choosing some other good in place of God. But for the act of intentionally offending God merely to offend Him, they don’t even have the (slight) justification of seeking after some good, they are seeking evil itself AS IF it were good. This is pure, unmitigated malice. And of course it exceeds in evil other mortal sins.

  9. Imrahil says:

    Sometimes I think that if God doesn’t burn us down to the dirt, He’ll owe Sodom an apology.

    Let’s not make light about the punishments we are in fact receiving (may the Almighty end them in his mercy).

    Setting the eternal destiny aside for a moment (where the inhabitants of Sodom actually have a good chance anyway of having had last-moment repentance; at least those drowned in the Flood did, see 1 Petr 3,20, and they were culturally accustomed to see the strike as done by God, even if they before had stood against Him), the inhabitants of Sodom got a comet thrown on their head, died (painfully, perhaps, but for a short time) and that was it.

    And the one just man who, while not complicit, still had endured their company and somehow lived in peace with them (that is, I guess, if we allow ourselves a little boldness: a guy like you and me – not Abraham, not the Sodomites) got an emergency exit. So did his wife, his daughters and his daughters’ fiancés (though some of them then said “no”).

    But then, of course, our punishment is not so painful. It is only an agony of helplessness and despair [not the sin called despair, which it would only be if it had also ceased to hope for the end of all this insert-expletive at least in the life after death; but very much despair as far as natural life is concerned, and so, as those who are not moral theologians generally use the word] without foreseeable end. Something else? Oh, I forgot: if we scream about it, we generally get “shut up” as an answer, “oh yes, it’s hard for everyone, and just you always remember, others have had it so much worse”.

    Rhetorics set aside, I think it is at least debatable whether our lot (pun not intended) might not already be worse than those of the inhabitants of Sodom.

  10. EC says:

    The real kicker is – leaving aside the truly Biblical punishment of the virus, out of modern-day Egypt where suspicious alliances are being formed, punishing Italy especially hard, soon after the events in October – those who presume to be practicing Catholics who do not actually believe in the Real Presence are engaged in a form of idolatry, in a formal (but not material) way, as they are giving outward worship to what they do not think to be anything particularly intrinsically special. It is perhaps worth considering… what have we gotten ourselves into… when maybe 50% of people showing up on Sunday (those who even show up!) actually are in this situation.

  11. JoanM says:

    Increasinglt I find mysekf thakin Jrsus for knowingly intending to stay wiht us in thEucharist. The most beautigul Sacramnt Thank yo umost Holy God Thank you

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  13. Tucson6849 says:

    Would putting and offering bowl filled with dirt for the god Pachmama on the high altar at St. Peter’s or perhaps striking coins with this “earth mother” image constitute idolatry? If the person doing this was a religious, for example a pope, would this not be apostasy?

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