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Can Failing to Do Something Be a Sin?

Earlier this week, I wrote an article, “Why Do We Choose to Sin”. Following that article, a person asked me to write about “sins of omission.” Most often, when we talk about sin, we talk about what we have done that is wrong. These would be “sins of commission“. We commit these type of sins when we actively do something wrong.

What if we “omit” to do something? Can failing to do something be a sin? The simple is yes. That’s probably not what you wanted to hear. We struggle enough with the things we have done wrong. Now we have to also worry about what we have omitted.

Sins of commission tend to be a little easier to identify. It is clear we have done something. In making an “Examination of Conscience”, we can use the “Ten Commandments” and “The Seven Deadly Sins” to ask ourselves did we something wrong. We know what we did. We ask ourselves was it wrong.

Regarding “sins of omission”, it can seem more vague. It is much harder to come up of a list of what we omitted than what we committed. My advice here is not to worry too much. No one can do every thing. No one is supposed to do every thing alone.

When examining our conscience for “sins of omission”, there may be something that sticks out in your mind that you wonder if you should have done. If there is, ask the Holy Spirit to help you decide if you could have done it? We are not asked to do what it is beyond our ability. If you could have done it, ask yourself if you were called to do it. Was God asking you to do it?

Of course, we can also ask ourselves if there are any moral ramifications to not doing it. For instance, you could take a walk today. However, if you didn’t, there is no sin involved.

Where might we look to help identify examples of “sins of omission”? We generally think of the “Ten Commandments” in terms of “sins of commission” but I think “sins of omission” can be found in not following the Commandments.

For instance, the Third Commandment is to keep the Sabbath holy. Perhaps, instead of going to Mass on Sunday, we chose to do something else. In doing that, one might think of it as a “sin of commission”, centering on what we did. However, what if we were just lazy and didn’t go to Mass on Sunday. It would be a sin. Is it a sin of commission or omission?

How about the Fourth Commandment to honor our father and mother? When we are children, this commandment generally means we were disobedient. We did something wrong. We committed it. On the other hand, as adults, breaking this commandment might mean not helping our parents when we are able. We omitted honoring our father and mother.

We can also consider the Eighth Commandment to not bear false witness. Here, we include lying. We tell something contrary to the truth. We commit a lie. What about not lying but not telling the truth either? We “leave something out.” Could this not be a “sin of omission”? I say “could” because we don’t have to tell everyone everything. Paragraph 2489 of the Catechism of Catholic Church says “no one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.” It is not a “sin of omission” to not tell something to someone who doesn’t need to know it. (This is not the same as telling them something contrary to the truth. That would be a lie.)

Do the Seven Deadly Sins have offer guidance regarding “sins of omission”? There is one that I think gets at the core of some sins of omission, slothfulness. Slothfulness relates to laziness and hence “omission.” However, it is not the same as laziness. We can be lazy about raking the leaves but failing to rake them do not always constitute a sin (if we are not breaking a promise or obligation). Slothfulness involves failing to do something we should or have an obligation to (cf. my article “Sloth – The Last of the Seven Deadly Sins”). This relates to not going to Mass and not helping our parents when we can.

In examining our conscience for sins of omission, we might also ask ourselves if we failed to perform “works of mercy” that we should have. We find the Corporal Works of Mercy in Matthew 25:31-46. For example, have we done what we could to feed the hungry and visit the sick? (For a video presentation on the Corporal Acts of Mercy and the Spiritual Works of Mercy, see my video presentation, The Journey to Jesus: Acts of Mercy.)

Lastly, regarding possible types of “sins of omission”, I will mention social sin. In the context of “sins of omission”, the question on social sin would be to ask ourselves if there is something we could do to have “structures” in society that fail to help people in their basic needs (see my article “Social Sin and Structures of Sin: What Are We to Do?”).

Before concluding, the person who brought up this topic asked if “sins of omission” might more reflect a “poorly formed conscience.” While we might miss noticing “sins of omission” because of a poorly formed conscience, I don’t think, we commit them anymore because of it than “sins of commission” (for more on conscience, see my article, “Do We Listen to Our Conscience?”)

I hope this helps you better understand “sins of omission”. If not, you can always ask questions.


Fr. Jeff

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