Mortal Sins and Ignorance II – Where and When is the Mortal Sin?

When a person commits a mortal sin out of ignorance, when does he commit a mortal sin, and in what does it consist? Take the case of a married person believes that contraception is not intrinsically wrong, and consequently judges in a particular case that he or she is obliged to use artificial contraception in order to ensure that the married couple can educate well the children they already have. According to Aquinas's account, the choice and act of contraception in this case is either no sin at all, or it is a mortal sin (from the analogy of contraception, he seems likely he would consider this  generally to be a mortal sin). Let's suppose that the ignorance is not invincible ignorance, and the choice and use of contraception is a mortal sin.

There are two ways we might interpret the case: (1) the mortal sin might be found in the grave and voluntary neglect to acquire the knowledge that would have kept him from sin, or (2) the mortal sin might be in the act that proceeds from ignorance, even if the ignorance itself was not a mortal sin; in this case one would have to say that the actual disorder arises due to the ignorance, yet the voluntariness of the disordered act (which is necessary in order for it to be sinful) is on account of the prior neglect to acquire knowledge. A similar pair of accounts could also be made of sins committed out of passion, though it is not as evident as in the case of ignorance: (1) the sin could be attributed to the neglect to resist the passion, or (2) to the act that follows upon the passion, inasmuch as this disordered act is voluntary by reason of the lack of resisting the passion, (even if the failure to resist the passion in itself was not a mortal sin).

Let us first assume the second interpretation of the case at hand. Now, in the period of time when the choice for contraception is made, it is not in fact possible to rectify the ignorance. Therefore the voluntariness of the ignorance and the disorder of the choice consequent upon the ignorance must be related to a prior neglect over a longer period of time. In this case and according to this interpretation we indeed have an individual mortal sin chosen and committed at a particular time, yet at least one of the elements necessary in order for that sin to be mortal, namely the voluntary neglect to form his or her conscience, is not to be found simply in the short period of time leading directly up to that choice, but over a relatively long period of time.

What if we take the first interpretation? Then we understand the very neglect of forming the conscience to be the mortal sin, and would probably understood there to be formally no additional wickedness in the act that follows from the ignorance. (That is, when someone acts according to a malformed conscience, and does an objectively disordered act that he believes to good and perhaps morally obligatory, this act does not have any new wickedness. If it is called an additional sin, it is called so because it is materially a new act that shares in the prior wickedness of the neglect to form the conscience, of which it is the expression and manifestation.) According to this interpretation, when is the person guilty of grave sin for neglecting to form his conscience? We would have great difficulty in pinpointing an exact time. More importantly, even if we were able to pinpoint an exact time when the person became guilty of grave sin of neglect to learn what is truly good and evil, there would in many cases be nothing particularly special about that time. (Similarly, if someone steals $20 from a coworker every day, there would come a point where he is guilty of grave wrong against his coworker, and a mortal sin, without there necessarily being any special new decision "to be a thief" or "to be unconcerned for others' property.") A grave sin of neglect to form one's conscience is committed at a particular moment only insofar as that moment morally carries along with it a long previous chain of neglect of which it is, so to speak, a finishing link. According to this interpretation, too, then, the mortal sin of neglect of conscience, is sinful only on accord of a long period of neglectful behavior.

According to either interpretation it seems necessary to admit that there are mortal sins whose sinfulness cannot be analyzed in terms of a brief deliberation and choice, or even a series of choices over a few hours, but whose sinfulness and voluntariness has to be related to a relatively long period of time, measured possibly in months or years. I am not aware of Aquinas explicitly recognizing such a dependence of sin upon previous voluntary acts, but he does speak about something similar in regard to conversion to God. Having spoken of how God can move someone immediately to a complete conversion of heart and to charity, Aquinas goes on to say "Sometimes, however, one act disposes someone to the infusion of grace only by a remote disposition, and the following act disposes him still more, and so on, so that the last disposition is attained out of many good acts, insofar as a subsequent act always acts in virtue of all the preceding ones" He compares the completeness of conversion to the gradual disposition of a chip of stone to be broken off from it: "as is evident in drops of water hollowing out a stone, where it is not each and every drop that takes away something from the stone, but rather, all the preceding ones are disposing the stone to be hollowed out, and one last agent, in virtue of all the preceding ones (insofar, that is, as it finds a matter disposed through the preceding drops), completes the hollowing out.

Aquinas on Mortal Sins and Ignorance

When speaking about the influence of passions on the will, Aquinas takes the position that so long as people retain the use of reason and free will, if they are moved by passion to do a gravely disordered act, then they sin mortally. Only if they are so overcome by passion that they no longer have the ability to judge and to act freely are they excused from mortal sin, as they are excused from sin altogether.

St. Thomas takes a similar hard-line position regarding ignorance of universal principles of law, such as the prohibition of fornication, at least in his later writings. (In De Malo q. 3, a. 8 Aquinas says that if an act is done in ignorance in one respect, and knowingly in another, then it is voluntary in the respect it which it is done knowingly, and involuntary in the respect in which it is done in ignorance, as when someone does not know that fornication is a sin, he voluntarily commits fornication, but does not voluntarily commit a sin–and Aquinas does not add anything about the fornication being indirectly voluntary, because of neglect in acquiring knowledge about its sinfulness.)

But in the Summa Theologiae and in the later part of the De Malo Aquinas considers the case of a person who believes that fornication is a venial sin, and is of such a mindset that he would definitely refrain from fornication, if he knew it were a mortal sin. He puts forth the argument in an objection: the difference between mortal and venial sin is that the person who sins venially loves some creature more than he ought, yet loves it less than God, while the person who sins mortally loves some creature (at least himself or his own will) more than he loves God. But a person with such a mindset seems obviously to love the good he is seeking less than he loves God, since he would be willing to forego it if he knew it was contrary to the love of God. In the Summa he responds to this by saying that if the ignorance entirely excuses from sin, the person would of course not commit a mortal sin, since they would not sin at all. But if the ignorance is not invincible, and does not entirely excuse from sin, then the ignorance itself is a sin, and contains in it a lack of divine love, inasmuch as a man neglects to learn those things through which he can preserve himself in divine love. (ST I-II 88:6 ad 2; see also ST III 80:4 ad 5; De Malo q. 7, a. 1, obj 18 and response).

Similarly in a Quodlibetal question he says, "sometimes an erroneous conscience does not absolve or excuse from sin, namely when the error itself is a sin, proceeding from ignorance of that which someone is able to and obliged to know, as for example, if someone believed fornication to be simply a venial sin, and then, [if he committed fornication], although he would believe that he was sinning venially, he would not be sinning venially, but mortally" (Quodlibetal 8, q. 6, a. 5)

St. Augustine, Penance, and the Forgiveness of Sins

In the early Church, the practice of the sacrament of confession was not a very common affair. While there is certainly testimony to the confession of light sins in the sacrament of confession, it was most associated with severe sins that demanded a canonical and public penance. St. Augustine frequently connects the forgiveness of light sins to the prayer "forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us":

Therefore baptism is sealed with the seal of Christ, that is, when you are dipped in the water, and as it were passed through the red sea. Your sins are your enemies; they follow, but only unto the sea. When you enter it, you will escape them, they will be destroyed, as the water covered the Egyptians while the Israelites escaped through dry land. And what does the Scripture say? Not one of them remained. You have sinned many sins, you have sinned few sins; you have sinned great sins, you have sinned small sins. What of it, when not one of them remained? But since you are going to live in this world, where no one lives without sin, therefore the forgiveness of sins is not only in the washing of holy baptism, but also in the Lord's prayer, a daily prayer, which you will receive after eight days. In it you will find your daily baptism, as it were, so that you give thanks to God, who gave this gift to his Church, which we confess in the creed, so that when we say “holy Church,” we add “forgiveness of sins.” (Sermon 213)

When ye have been baptized, hold fast a good life in the commandments of God, that ye may guard your Baptism even unto the end. I do not tell you that ye will live here without sin; but they are venial, without which this life is not. For the sake of all sins was Baptism provided; for the sake of light sins, without which we cannot be, was prayer provided. What hath the Prayer? “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.” Once for all we have washing in Baptism, every day we have washing in prayer. Only, do not commit those things for which ye must needs be separated from Christ’s body: which be far from you! For those whom ye have seen doing penance, have committed heinous things, either adulteries or some enormous crimes: for these they do penance. Because if theirs had been light sins, to blot out these daily prayer would suffice. (The creed: A Sermon To The Cathechumens)

The canonical penance, like baptism, could only be made once. This did not necessarily imply despair over the salvation of the salvation of those men who fell back into sin while undergoing penance or afterward, though it might suggest some doubt about the certainty of the genuineness of repentance:

There are some men whose wickedness goes so far that, after having undergone penance, and been reconciled to the altar, commit the same sins again, or even worse sins. And yet God, who makes his sun rise even over such persons, does not grant any less than before the gift of life and salvation. And although they are given no opportunity for penance in the Church, God does not forget his patience toward them.

If one of them says to us: “either give me again an opportunity for penance or proclaim as beyond hope, so that I may do whatever I want, so far as my resources and human laws allow me, having intercourse with prostitutes and abandoning myself to all kinds of lust that are condemned in the eyes of God though praised by most men. Or if you call me away from this iniquity, tell me if for the future life it is of any value for me to despise the blandishments of illicit pleasure, for me to deny the incitements of lust, if in order to chastise my body I deny myself even many things licit and granted to me, if I torment myself even more than before in penance, if I groan with greater sorrow, if I weep more abundantly, if I live better, if I give more bountifully to the poor, if I burn more ardently with the charity that covers a multitude of sins?” who of us is so foolish as to say to that man, “none of that will benefit you in the future; go, enjoy at least the sweetness of this life”? May God keep us from such a monstrous sacrilege and madness!

Although, therefore, for reasons of prudence and for the sake of the salvation of souls the Church's discipline provides opportunity for humbling oneself in penance only once, lest the medicine be seen as cheap, and thus less useful for the sick, seeing as the less it is despised, the more salvific it will be, who will dare to say to God: “Why do you again forgive this man who after having once embraced penance again bound himself in the snares of sin?” (Epistle 153)

Although Augustine generally distinguishes grave sins, for which one must be separated from the Body of Christ, and undergo a period of penance, from light sins, forgiven through the Lord's Prayer–"Forgive us, as we forgive others"–this distinction does not consistently line up with the distinction mortal-venial.

17. … Whenever that carnal or animal sense introduces into this purpose of the mind which is conversant about things temporal and corporeal, with a view to the offices of a man’s actions, by the living force of reason, some inducement to enjoy itself, that is, to enjoy itself as if it were some private good of its own, not as the public and common, which is the unchangeable, good; then, as it were, the serpent discourses with the woman. And to consent to this allurement, is to eat of the forbidden tree. But if that consent is satisfied by the pleasure of thought alone, but the members are so restrained by the authority of higher counsel that they are not yielded as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin; this, I think, is to be considered as if the woman alone should have eaten the forbidden food.

But if, in this consent to use wickedly the things which are perceived through the senses of the body, any sin at all is so determined upon, so that if possible it is also fulfilled by the body, then that woman must be understood to have given the unlawful food to her husband to eat it together with her. For it is not possible for the mind to determine that a sin is not only to be thought of with pleasure, but also to be effectually committed, unless also that intention of the mind yields, and serves the bad action, with which rests the chief power of applying the members to an outward act, or of restraining them from one.

18. And yet, certainly, when the mind is pleased in thought alone with unlawful things, while not indeed determining that they are to be done, but yet holding and pondering gladly things which ought to have been rejected the very moment they touched the mind, it cannot be denied to be a sin, but far less than if it were also determined to accomplished it in outward act. And therefore pardon must be sought for such thoughts too, and the breast must be smitten, and it must be said, “Forgive us our debts;” and what follows must be done, and must be joined in our prayer, “As we also forgive our debtors.” For it is not as it was with those two first human beings–in that case, each one bore his own person, and so, if the woman alone had eaten the forbidden food, she indeed alone would have been smitten with the punishment of death; we cannot say this in the case of a single human being now, that if the thought, remaining alone, be gladly fed with unlawful pleasures, from which it ought to turn away directly, while yet there is no determination that the bad actions are to be done, but only that they are retained with pleasure in remembrance, the woman as it were can be condemned without the man. Far be it from us to believe this. For here is one person, one human being, and he as a whole will be condemned, unless those things which, as lacking the will to do, and yet having the will to please the mind with them, are perceived to be sins of thought alone, are pardoned through the grace of the Mediator. (On the Trinity XII, ch. 12, emphasis added.)

Inasmuch as the Church's belief is manifested in her practice, the discipline of penance in the Church may support one or another interpretation of the common courses of a Christian's life.

While not having a strictly logical connection with it, the practice of having penance after baptism be a one-time only affair would harmonize with the idea that the fundamental orientation of people's lives cannot be expected to rapidly and frequently change, and in this sense the early practice of the Church would support with a certain interpretation of a fundamental option.

Aquinas on Mortal Sins of Passion

Though Aquinas clearly affirms that the influence of passions on the will can decrease the degree of voluntariness, and thus the merit or demerit of good actions or sins, when it comes to gravely disordered acts, such as fornication, masturbation, or theft, he still sees the issue as basically black or white: either the act is voluntary, and then it is a mortal sin; or it is not voluntary, and then it is not properly a sin at all. He affirms this position both in the De Malo, and in the Summa Theologiae.

De Malo, question 3, article 10

Whether sins committed out of passion are imputed to man as mortal fault

It should be said that since men sometimes commit adultery out of weakness or passion, and do many crimes or shameful things, as Peter did when he denied Christ out of fear, no one should have any doubt that sins perpetrated out of passion are sometimes mortal.

To understand this we should consider that the necessity based on something one's will has power over does not keep an act from being a mortal sin, just as, if someone stabs a dagger in someone's vital members it is necessary that that man die, but stabbing him is voluntary. Hence the death of the man who is stabbed is imputed to the one who struck him as a mortal fault.

And it is similar in the case we are considering; for given that reason is bound by passion, it is necessary that a disordered choice follow, but the will has the power to repel this bond of reason. For it was said that reason is bound due to the soul's intention being vehemently drawn to the act of the sensitive appetite; hence it is turned away from considering in particular that which it knows universally. But the will has the power to turn the intention to something or not. Hence it has the power to keep reason from being bound. Therefore the act committed on account of reason's being bound is voluntary; hence it is not excused from fault, even mortal fault. But if the bond of reason by passion goes so far that it is not in the will's power to remove such a bond, as if someone becomes insane through some passion of the soul, whatever he commits would not be imputed to him as fault, as neither would it be imputed to any insane person—unless perhaps such a passion was voluntary from its very beginning; for then the will could from the beginning prevent the passion for going so far; thus murder committed through drunkenness is imputed to man as fault, since the beginning of drunkenness was voluntary.

Summa Theologiae I-II, Question 77, Article 8

Whether a sin committed out of passion can be mortal

It should be said that mortal sin, as was said above, consists in turning away from the last end, which is God; this turning away pertains to the reason in its deliberation, since it is reason that orders things to the end. Therefore the only way in which the soul’s inclination to something which is contrary to the last end can be not a mortal sin, is because reason is unable to resist this inclination by its deliberation, as is the case in sudden movements of the passions. But when someone out of passion goes on to do a sinful act, or to deliberate consent, this does not happen suddenly. Hence reason by deliberating can resist this further act; for it can get rid of, or at least prevent it [from leading to action], as was said above. Hence if it does not resist it, it is a mortal sin. Thus we see that many murders and adulteries are committed out of passion.

In response to the third objection, which argues that mortal sin consists in turning away from God, and only man's spiritual faculty of reason can do this, while passion cannot strictly speaking turn toward or away from God, Aquinas argues:

It should be said that passion does not always impede reason totally from its act; hence it retains free judgment, so that it can turn away from or toward God. If, however, the use of reason were totally taken away, there would be neither a mortal nor a venial sin.

This response of Aquinas seems to indicate that his position is in fact quite a bit stronger than that “sin committed out of passion can be mortal”–that in his mind, every act that is objectively gravely disordered, if it is at all voluntary, though committed under the influence of passion, is a mortal sin.

Mortal Sin and Fundamental Option 2

In the previous post I attempted to describe a man who, as far as morally possible, related to his family in a manner analogous to the manner a Christian relates to God, so that even things that normally are not incompatible with marital love would exclude it.

We could also consider a more realistic case, in which a man's fight with his wife isn't incompatible with loving for her. There are, still, individual acts that are quite incompatible with love for her, e.g., attempting to kill one of their children, or signing over all his property to another woman for whom he has strong feelings. In this case, too, it's psychologically not possible for him to go rapidly back and forth from loving her to performing such acts incompatible with loving her, unless those acts are not really voluntary—and are performed only due to being drunk, for instance. Such acts that involve breaking off his love for his wife in most cases only complete and manifest a process begun long ago, of failing in love for her.

Aquinas on the Sin of Drunkenness

From the De Malo to the Summa Theologiae Aquinas apparently makes a shift in his judgment about drunkenness. While in the De Malo he says that getting drunk is of itself a venial sin, in the Summa Theologiae and in the Commentary on Romans (as well as the Commentary on 1 Corinthians), which are widely considered to be of a later date than the De Malo, he says that getting drunk is of itself a mortal sin.

De Malo

In the De Malo, q.2, a. 8, Aquinas asks whether a circumstance can make a venial sin into a mortal sin. The third objection argues that getting drunk once is a venial sin, while getting drunk many times is a mortal sin. Hence a circumstance (the frequency) makes a venial sin into a mortal one. He replies:

To the third it should be said that getting drunk many times is not a circumstance that constitutes a species of sin, and therefore as getting drunk once is a venial sin, so getting drunk many times is a venial sin, speaking per se; but accidentally and by way of disposition getting drunk many times can be a mortal sin, as for example, when by the custom of drinking someone comes to have so great complacency in drunkenness that he would be willing to get drunk even if it involved the contempt of a divine precept. (De Malo, q.2, a. 8 )

Again in q. 7, a. 4, where the same question comes up again, a similar objection is raised:

1. Augustine says in a sermon on Purgatory that if anger is held onto for a long time, and if drunkenness is a regular (assidua) occurence, they are then numbered among mortal sins. But such sins are generically venial sins–otherwise they would always be mortal sins. Therefore a venial sin becomes mortal through the circumstance of regularity or duration. (De Malo, q. 7, a. 4)

He makes a similar reply, though with a different argument.

It should be said about drunkenness, that it in itself makes the reason actually not turned toward God, i.e., so long as the drunkenness lasts the reason cannot be turned toward God. And since a man is not obliged at all times to actually turn his reason towards God, drunkenness is not always a mortal sin; but when a man gets drunk regularly, it seems that he is not concerned about whether his reason is turned toward God, and in such a case drunkenness is a mortal sin, for it seems that on account of the pleasure of wine he despises the turning of his reason toward God. (De Malo, q. 7, a. 4, ad 1)

Summa Theologiae

In I-II, q. 88, a. 5, he asks whether some circumstance of an act can make a venial sin into a mortal sin. The first objection is of particular interest, because it is almost exactly the same as that in De Malo, q. 7, a. 4. Aquinas writes:

Augustine says in a sermon on Purgatory that if anger is held onto for a long time, and if drunkenness is a regular (assidua) occurence, they are then numbered among mortal sins. But anger and drunkenness are not generically mortal sins, but venial sins–otherwise they would always be mortal sins. Therefore a circumstance makes a venial sin into a mortal sin. (I-II, q. 88, a. 5)

In reply, he says:

About drunkenness we should say that that it has in itself the character of a mortal sin; for when a man without necessity and merely for the sake of the pleasure in wine, make himself unable to use his reason, by which a man is directed to God and avoids committing many sins, such an act is expressly contrary to virtue. But it can be a venial sin on account of some sort of ignorance or weakness, as when a man is ignorant of the strength of the wine, or of his own incapacity (for drinking), so that he does not expect to get drunk; for in such a case the drunkenness is not imputed to him as a sin, but only the excessive drinking. If, however, he gets drunk frequently, this ignorance can no longer excuse him, and his will seems to choose drunkenness rather than refraining from an excess of wine; hence the sin becomes again what it is by its own nature [namely a mortal sin]. (I-II, q. 88, a. 5, ad 1)

Again in the Secunda Secundae, q. 150, a. 2, where he takes up drunkenness specifically, and asks whether it is a mortal sin, he gives the same reply:

Someone may be well aware that he is drinking immoderately and thereby getting drunk, and yet he would rather be drunk than abstain from drink. Such a man is the one who is properly speaking called a drunkard [in contrast to persons who drink too much without knowing it, or get drunk without expecting it], because moral character comes not from things that occur accidentally and aside from the intention, but from that which is directly intended. In this way drunkenness is a mortal sin, because then a man willingly and knowingly deprives himself of the use of reason, bu which he performs virtuous deeds and avoids sin, and thus he sins mortally by running the risk of committing  sin. For Ambrose says in the book On the Patriarchs: "We say that one should avoid drunkenness, since it keeps us from avoiding grievous sins. For the things we avoid when sober, we unknowingly commit through drunkenness." Therefore drunkenness, speaking per se, is a mortal sin. (Secunda Secundae, q. 150, a. 2)

In the reply to the first objection he interprets Augustine's saying in the same way as he does in the Prima Secundae.

His treatment in his Commentary on Romans and on 1 Corinthians is very much like that in the Summa Theologiae.

How to Account for the Difference?

The divergence between the account in the De Malo and in the later writings could be explained in several ways:

(1) Aquinas may have become stricter in general, and thus stricter in his judgment of drunkenness. (This would be an interesting subject of research. I don't know of any studies investigating such a line of thought).

(1b) He may have gained more experience of the harmful things people do when drunk, and pronounces judgment accordingly.

(2) He may be envisioning quite different contexts. In the De Malo he may be envisioning, e.g., a monk in his cell who gets drunk by drinking too much wine, and the principal or only harmful consequence is that he can't pray or contemplate at that time, while in the other works he is envisioning a person engaged in various activities and in active relationships with other persons, who is liable to damage things or injure other persons if he is drunk.

Mortal Sin and Fundamental Option

One of the reasons why many theologians have been attracted to the theory of a "fundamental option" is that it seems in certain respects to correspond better to real-life experience. If we consider visible human relationships, between two married persons for example,we don't find persons who go frequently back and forth from being totally committed to each other, to selfishly rejecting each other, back to total commitment, and so on. As a rule, the relationship will overall either be gradually improving or deteriorating, and individual quarrels don't completely disrupt the relationship. If a man ceases to love his wife on account of a single dispute or fight, that would be taken as a sign he didn't really love her in the first place, or that he had been neglecting his love for her, letting various selfish interests break it down, and that the quarrel is only the terminus of a long process.

Leaving aside the theological aspect, based on God's covenant with man, the supernatural virtue of charity, etc., what is happening when a person resolves to live a certain manner of life, and yet occasionally, or perhaps frequently, performs concrete acts that are inconsistent with that? For example, he resolves to live for his family, and looks for his happiness within his family (and in the wider sense, within his society). But he sometimes performs acts, such as staying out excessively late drinking with his fellow workers, that don't make sense within that framework, but only make sense on the supposition of a preference for something else above happiness as a member of his family, within a framework in which what he wants is the ultimate point of reference, where self-love is the final measure. Or in other words, in terms of the end/means relationship, certain acts he does objectively can't be truly ordered towards the end of family happiness as a final goal, but only towards some other end, that may be thought of more vaguely (living a pleasant life), but that at any rate is some other final goal.

One might explain the situation in several ways:

1. The ultimate goal of his life is, and remains, the common good of his family and his happiness within that family, though he performs individual acts that don't make sense and are unreasonable in terms of that goal.

2. The ultimate goal of his life is all along some vague goal (living a good life, a social and pleasant life, or the like), in which his family's good is one element among others, though an important one.

3. The ultimate goal of his life is the good of his family most of the time, but when he does acts objectively contrary to that goal, then when he is doing those acts, he thereby re-orientates himself towards another final end, and remains directed towards that end until he makes a fresh resolve to live his life as a whole for his family.

The first and second explanations do seem, on the face of it, more plausible interpretations of what is going on than the third.

If we accept the first explanation, what would that mean in terms of the voluntariness of the man's acts? Since whatever one wills, one wills for the sake of one's final end, the man is therefore willing, for the sake of his final end, to do something actually inconsistent with that final end. This would seem to imply that his act is not perfectly voluntary, at least not in the respect in which it is contrary to his ultimate end. (This distinction, though it is often forgotten or overlooked, is an important one. An act may be completely voluntary in the sense that it is the result of a very conscious and explicit choice, without all of the goodness or badness of that act necessarily being voluntary).

The analogy one might make with love for God and the performance of sinful acts is, I think, clear. For the time we will continue to leave aside the issues pertaining to charity as an virtue infused by God and dependent on grace. A person who resolves to life his live above all for God, and yet on not so infrequent occasions does things objectively inconsistent with taking God as the rule for one's life, is like the man in the example above, who resolves to live for his family, and yet fails at certain times to act in consistency with that resolve. If one held that he continues, in fact, to be seeking God as his ultimate end, it seems one would similarly have to say that the acts objectively inconsistent with that end, or at any rate the badness and stupidity of those acts, are not entirely voluntary. Thus they would constitute venial sins by reason of a lack of full voluntariness.

But on this account, would any acts be fully voluntary? I'll return to this question in another post.

Fundamental Option and Salvation

The CDF in Persona Humana (1975) and Pope John Paul II in Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (1984) and in Veritatis Splendor (1993) reject the theological theory of a fundamental option insofar as such a theory is understood or interpreted in a manner that denies the traditional doctrine concerning mortal sin, whereby any one conscious and deliberate grave violation of the moral order, which is rooted upon love of God and neighbor, is enough to separate a person from God.

There are those who go as far as to affirm that mortal sin, which causes separation from God, only exists in the formal refusal directly opposed to God's call, or in that selfishness which completely and deliberately closes itself to the love of neighbor. They say that it is only then that there comes into play the fundamental option, that is to say the decision which totally commits the person and which is necessary if mortal sin is to exist; by this option the person, from the depths of the personality, takes up or ratifies a fundamental attitude towards God or people.

In reality, it is precisely the fundamental option which in the last resort defines a person's moral disposition. But it can be completely changed by particular acts, especially when, as often happens, these have been prepared for by previous more superficial acts. Whatever the case, it is wrong to say that particular acts are not enough to constitute mortal sin.

According to the Church's teaching, mortal sin, which is opposed to God, does not consist only in formal and direct resistance to the commandment of charity. It is equally to be found in this opposition to authentic love which is included in every deliberate transgression, in serious matter, of each of the moral laws.
… A person therefore sins mortally not only when his action comes from direct contempt for love of God and neighbor, but also when he consciously and freely, for whatever reason, chooses something which is seriously disordered (Persona Humana, n. 10, emphasis added).

Two distinct principles are here affirmed. First, the orientation of one's life is not a decision made in abstract from the concrete choices to act in the here-and-now. That to which one ultimately orients of one's life (one's final end) must be, at least virtually, the end of every voluntary human action. If an action is in fact incompatible with one's end, the voluntary performance of that action is implicitly a redirection of one's life towards some other end, with which that choice is compatible. Thus a person who once made a decision to life for God, and then, for the sake of money or pleasure, gravely violates the order of charity, is implicitly redirecting his life towards money, pleasure, or, more likely, towards some broader and vaguer goal, such as "the kind of life I decide on" (in this case one makes oneself, rather than God, the ultimate measure of one's life).

Secondly, Persona Humana affirms not only that one's fundamental orientation can be changed by concrete choices, but that one individual concrete choice of something gravely disordered can change one's orientation. (Note, however, that it does not very clearly affirm that one individual choice totally on its own can change one's orientation, though it suggests it by the wording "especially when, as often happens, these [particular acts] have been prepared for by previous more superficial acts."

Later Statements

The same principles are affirmed in Reconciliation and Penance, n. 17: (1) "Mortal sin exists also when a person knowingly and willingly, for whatever reason, chooses something gravely disordered. In fact, such a choice already includes contempt for the divine law, a rejection of God's love for humanity and the whole of creation; the person turns away from God and loses charity."  The concrete choice to do things that are incompatible with having God as one's final end, can alter one's orientation to the final end. (2) "Thus the fundamental orientation can be radically changed by individual acts." A single act may suffice for this change of orientation.

And again, in Veritatis Splendor, n. 68:

Man does not suffer perdition only by being unfaithful to that fundamental option whereby he has made "a free self-commitment to God" (Dei Verbum, 5; cf. Persona Humana, n. 10) . With every freely committed mortal sin, he offends God as the giver of the law and as a result becomes guilty with regard to the entire law (cf. Jas 2:8-11); even if he perseveres in faith, he loses "sanctifying grace", "charity" and "eternal happiness" (cf. Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 17)

Veritatis Splendor, n. 70, quotes the section of Reconciliatio et Paenitentia that we quoted above, reaffirming this teaching.

Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi

Pope Benedict in Spe Salvi takes a position that sounds quite similar to the theory of a fundamental option. He is speaking directly about salvation or damnation, but in accordance with the teaching of the Church that "to die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1033), what he says has implications about mortal sin.

Persona Humana says, "There are those who go as far as to affirm that mortal sin, which causes separation from God, only exists in the formal refusal directly opposed to God's call, or in that selfishness which completely and deliberately closes itself to the love of neighbor" (emphasis added).

Pope Benedict XVI says in Spe Salvi:

With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. [While this does not actually imply that an individual choice doesn't, or doesn't frequently alter one's "life-choice", it does suggest it to some extent.] There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. [This sounds very much like the position of the theologians mentioned in Persona Humana.] This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1033-1037). On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbors—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfillment what they already are (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1023-1029).

46. Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life. For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter?
In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ's Passion. At the moment of judgment we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. (Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi – emphasis added)

The Pope seems to be saying that those persons who have not descended so far as to have "totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love," and who "have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves," have not definitively rejected Christ, but are living in such a way that he is still their final end, though their orientation towards this end is covered up (contradicted?) by numerous concrete choices they make and actions they perform, and that they will be saved, though "as through fire." Unless we posit a moment of revelation and conversion in the very instant of death or afterward, this would imply that the "great majority of people" is not in a state of mortal sin.

Do any of my readers know of passages from Pope Benedict XVI/Cardinal Ratzinger that would shed light on his understanding of a fundamental option/life-choice?

In a coming post or posts I'll try to delve into some of the difficulties from a Thomistic perspective.

Perfect Contrition and the Sacrament of Penance

I was struck today by a potentially misleading formulation in the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding the necessity of intending to confess one's sins in the Sacrament of Penance.

A certain inseparability of remission of sins and the Sacrament of Penance is taught by the Council of Trent and by Pope John Paul II:

Council of Trent

Docet praeterea etsi contritionem hanc aliquando charitate perfectam esse contigat hominem que Deo reconciliare priusquam hoc sacramentum actu suscipiatur ipsam nihilominus reconciliationem ipsi contritioni sine sacramenti voto quod in illa includitur non esse adscribendam.

[The Council] teaches, further, that although this contrition is sometimes perfected by charity and reconciles man with God before this sacrament [of confession] is actually received, this reconciliation is still not to be ascribed to that contrition without the intention of receiving the sacrament [sacramenti voto] that is included in that contrition.

God willed reconciliation to take place in Christ and in his Mystical Body, the Church, in a visible manner. True repentance for sin and love for God implies a desire to accept God's will in this, as in other matters. Hence it includes a desire to sensibly receive reconciliation, in the instrument instituted by Christ, namely sacramental confession. The Council, responding to the Protestant position, insists that one must make reference to this means established by Christ in giving an account of how reconciliation now takes place in Christ.

Reconciliation and Penance (Pope John Paul II)

This same understanding is presented by John Paul II from a pastoral point of view in Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (Reconciliation and Penance). For the believer, the doctrine about the sacrament of confession has as a practical consequence that one desire to receive the grace of reconciliation in an "incarnate" manner, that is in the sacrament.

The first conviction is that for a Christian the sacrament of penance is the primary way of obtaining forgiveness and the remission of serious sin committed after baptism. Certainly the Savior and his salvific action are not so bound to a sacramental sign as to be unable in any period or area of the history of salvation to work outside and above the sacraments. But in the school of faith we learn that the same Savior desired and provided that the simple and precious sacraments of faith would ordinarily be the effective means through which his redemptive power passes and operates. It would therefore be foolish, as well as presumptuous, to wish arbitrarily to disregard the means of grace and salvation which the Lord has provided and, in the specific case, to claim to receive forgiveness while doing without the sacrament which was instituted by Christ precisely for forgiveness.

Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Catechism of the Catholic Church seems to make an attempt to simplify the teaching:

1452 Contritio cum ex amore provenit Dei super omnia amati, « perfecta » appellatur (caritatis contritio). Talis contritio veniales remittit defectus; etiam veniam obtinet peccatorum mortalium, si firmum implicat propositum ad confessionem sacramentalem recurrendi quam primum possibile sit. (Cf Concilium Tridentinum, Sess. 14a, Doctrina de sacramento Paenitentiae, c. 4: DS 1677.)

1452 When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called "perfect" (contrition of charity). Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible. (Cf. Council of Trent (1551): DS 1677.)

However, this way of expressing the need for the sacrament of Penance is potentially quite misleading. Rather than saying something along the lines of "it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins–genuine contrition includes the firm resolution etc." it says that contrition arising from love of God above all things (charity) "obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution etc." The intention of the author(s) of this text may have been to say, in a subtle way, "one who is really contrite and loves God above all things will desire to observe the visible expression of reconciliation established by God (the Sacrament of Penance); one who is unwilling to observe this visible expression is deceiving himself if he thinks that his contrition is genuinely motivated by love of God." But as it stands, the text suggests that it is possible to have contrition arising from charity, and yet remain burdened by unforgiven mortal sin. This is practically a contradiction in terms, since charity is friendship with God, and a share in God's own love and life, while mortal sin consists in the loss of the divine life in us, and in separation from God. Moreover, if we granted that it were possible to have charity without sins being forgiven, in the event that one was not resolved to have recourse to sacramental confession, we would, in effect, be treating the sign of reconciliation with God (the Sacrament) as more important than the reality of friendship with God and participation in his life (charity).