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.

5 thoughts on “Mortal Sins and Ignorance II – Where and When is the Mortal Sin?”

  1. You are neglecting the reality of the last 40 years which introduces what is hidden for decades in moral theology tomes thanks to clericalism…the right of the struggling, prayerful conscience that has read all there is to read and still dissents on the not yet clearly infallible…(see Germain Grisez/volume one of Way of the Lord Jesus/page 854/for the most conservative version of this).
    Prominent theologians like Fr. Karl Rahner who edited the Enchiridion Symbolorum (knew his dogmatics) and Fr. Bernard Häring (who supported the papal position for years but then changed partly from seeing a woman have a breakdown due to having one more child)…both priest-theologians told laity that they could proceed in this area according to their prayerful sincere consciences and no Pope stopped either Rahner or Häring on this one issue and on their advice to laity.

    This would have been the perfect occasion for a Pope to sanction both men very publically by name as Fr. Charles Curran was for multiple issues and in ecclesiastical court and no Pope did so to Rahner and Häring whose only substantive dissent was on this one issue. That lack of papal sanction to this ad hoc crisis sent a message to any very literate Catholic…that Rahner and Häring could not be said to have gone against permitted nihil obstated moral theology and thus could not be accused formally of anything by the Popes who spanned their careers. Ergo their advice by papal silence was implicitly not something a Pope could sanction successfully in ecclesiastical court.

    1. The post is an analysis of mortal sins committed out of ignorance. I am not ignoring either the fact that (1) some things are done out of an ignorance that are not culpable, or not significantly so, as when persons have done all that they can, or as much as they are obliged to do to attain the knowledge necessary for living well, and to free themselves from grave error or from excessive attachment to certain opinions, or the fact that (2) some instances in which persons do not follow the Church's teaching when it is not infallible will not be cases of ignorance at all, but will be cases where their opinion is the true one. (Quod potest deficere, quandoque deficit; among all of the cases in which the Church is not infallible, it will sometimes err; otherwise it would be infallible also in those cases.)

      I take it that your main point is the first one. Granted the Church's teaching that contraception is intrinsically wrong, then those who believe it is not are in a state of ignorance. However, if this ignorance is not their own fault–if it does not arise from their willful negligence to learn from reliable sources, or from a disordered attachment to their own ways of thinking–then it is invincible ignorance, and the acts done consequently are not done out of a culpable ignorance. There is a reason why I said "Let’s suppose that the ignorance is not invincible ignorance."

      You may also have intended the second point. If the Church's teaching on contraception were erroneous, then those using contraception with a conviction that it is morally legitimate would not be acting out of ignorance, but out of true opinion or knowledge. However, since I follow the Church's teaching on this point, I assumed that those who are convinced that contraception is not wrong are in ignorance–either culpable or inculpable ignorance.

      If it helps to consider the point of this post, one might replace "use artificial contraception" with "have an abortion", "kill a sickly relative who cannot enjoy life anymore," "torture someone for the sake of vengeance", or something similar. Any of these could in principle be done with a conviction that the act is morally justified, and this mistaken conviction would either be inculpable/invincible, or culpable (the case I take up in this post).

      1. Mine was the second point but I am smiling this past week vis a vis a previous discussion we had last week on section 80 of Splendor of the Truth. Two muslims who had planned to kill the Pope were deported from Italy this past week to their original country and it is a perfect example of how John Paul did not define his terms sufficiently when inter alia he condemned "deportation" as an intrinsic evil in section 80. Apparently this week neither this Pope nor the entire curia nor the world episcopate feel constrained to plead with Italy and have them call back the two murder planners to Italy.

  2. This is a very hard saying.

    In my own experience of sinning, one of the most common kinds of ignorance is when I know that there is something sinful about what I am doing, but I am not exactly sure if in this particular case that it is/ was mortal. It certainly seems that in the account that STA is giving here that I either have to say that my ignorance is invincible (which it almost certainly is not) or that I commit a mortal sin. This seems demand a clarity of thought that most human beings simply do not and cannot have.

    1. Ignorance of Universal Principles
      Aquinas's position is, or at least seems to be, that the universal principles of law are sufficiently within one's power to know, that ignorance of them is substantially inexcusable — thus the disorder of a gravely disordered act proceeding from such ignorance is substantially voluntary and so mortally sinful.

      Aquinas does not attempt to give an exhaustive list of what these universal principles of law are, but understands at least the ten commandments to be included.

      The Catechism of the Catholic Church in some sense affirms the same general principle: 1860 Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man.

      The Catechism, even less so than St. Thomas, does not state which principles of natural law are intended in this affirmation. While it surely does not intend to say that "no is deemed to be ignorant of" any precept that belongs in any way to natural law, it also surely means to say more than that no is ignorant of the first precept of natural law, "do good and avoid evil". It does not here give examples, either, as Aquinas gives the example of fornication.

      Since this post was a follow up to the previous post talking about
      sin that follow from "ignorance of universal principles of law," I assumed this context. Perhaps I should have stated it explicitly.

      Ignorance of Particular Acts
      Aquinas does not believe that one is always able to know in particular that a concrete act is objectively disordered. Hence one is not in every case gravely obliged to this knowledge, and in some cases may not be obliged at all. Aquinas several times gives the example (a rather odd one, though with a scriptural precedent for it) of a man who has sexual intercourse with a woman whom he honestly believes to be his wife.

      The situation you are describing seems more like this latter type. For example, if I make fun of someone because it gives me pleasure, and don't realize that this act is likely to hurt him very badly, I commit an act that is objectively seriously disordered, and if done with full realization would be mortally sinful. Yet if the ignorance doesn't proceed from a total lack of consideration for that person, but from carelessness, it would seem to be venially sinful. (Since most cases of making fun of people don't hurt them gravely, there doesn't seem to be a general grave obligation to take particular care to notice whether it might cause great harm in a particular case.)

      The same thing, I think, would apply to some cases of theft, lying, gluttony, sexual sins, etc.

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