The Purposes of Punishment according to Thomas Aquinas

Punishments, whether punishment with which parents punish their children for misbehaving, judges declare punishment for a crime, or God punishes men's sins, have various ends or purposes. Thomas Aquinas summarizes these purposes under two headings: 1. To restrain or inhibit voluntary evil; 2. to establish order there, where a crime has made disorder.

The evil of punishment is imposed to coerce and to order the evil of guilt. (De Malo, q. 1, a. 5, ad 7)

After the remission of sin, punishment is needed for two ends: to settle the debt, and to provide a remedy (In IV Sent., dist. 20, q. 1, a. 2, qa. 1)

Punishment as salutary: healing evils or preventing them

Inasmuch as punishment is aimed at restraining or hindering evil, Aquinas describes punishment as medicinal or salutary, either for the wrongdoer himself, or at least for the larger community. In the best case, the punishment helps to rehabilitate the wrongdoer, training him to live justly as a member of the larger human community; in any case, it helps secure the community freedom from injustice by deterring subsequent crimes by the one guilty of wrongdoing or by others, whom the threat of punishment deters from such crimes; making the criminal incapable of committing further crimes by imprisonment, exile, removal of status or authority used to commit crimes, etc.

Punishment as retribution: balancing out the wrong done

Inasmuch as punishment is aimed at balancing the crime, by which an individual has exerted their will against the requirements of justice and the common good, with an imposition by the community of something contrary to his will, Aquinas describes punishment as vindictive, or retributive.

We have an intuitive feeling: one who has done wrong has harmed another person or the community, thereby deprived that person and the community of some good, and so owes them a debt; again, one way of (at least partially) resolving this debt is by "paying back" the evil to the wrongdoer.

Where is the justice in this "payback"? What distinguishes this "payback" from mere vengeance, or the notion that "two wrongs (i.e., a wrong done to the wrongdoer) make a right"?

St. Thomas Aquinas writes:

"the failing of a voluntary action is the essence (constituit rationem) of sin and guilt, so the failing of any good imposed on someone contrary to the will of the one on whom it is imposed, is the essence of punishment. For punishment is imposed as a medicine for guilt, and as setting it in order. As medicine, inasmuch as man, by reason of punishment, is held back from guilt when, in order that he not suffer what is contrary to his will, he foregoes doing a disordered action that would otherwise please his will. It sets it in order, since by guilt man transgresses the limits of the natural order, giving more to his will than he ought. Hence he is led back to the order of justice by punishment, through which something is taken away from his will. From this it is evident that a fitting punishment is not given for guilt, unless the punishment is more contrary to the will than the guilt is pleasing. (Compendium theologiae, ch. 121)

A person who acts unjustly creates an inequality within the community, a disturbance of the order by which all are members of the community are fundamentally equally ordered to the common good of the community as participants in it. The inequality consists in an excessive exertion of the wrongdoer's will against the order of natural or civil law by which the common good is preserved and promoted. Insofar as freedom is a good, this exercise of free freed from the demands of law, is a kind of advantage the wrongdoer has arrogated to himself in comparison with other citizens: he enjoys freedom and other common goods of the community preserved by the order of law, while not respecting the equal right of others under that law.

This inequality, consisting in the exertion of an individual's will against the demands of law and the common good, may be removed, and equality of all citizens with respect to the common good and the law, by the imposition, by a competent authority, on the wrongdoer of something contrary to his will.

Since the purpose of punishment is the re-establishment of equality before the law, punishment can only be imposed by one authorized to apply the law in the name of the community; such an authority may also declare, in a particular case, that punishment will not be imposed (amnesty), which insofar as it is a judgment made by a lawful authority for the common good, is in its own way equally a re-establishment of the order of justice.

Retribution is essential in constituting punishment

In order for punishment to be just, indeed, to be punishment in the strict sense, it must have an element of retribution. Civil authorities might come upon of the idea of deterring theft by taking some random person, whipping them publicly, and announcing, "this and ten times more will be done to anyone who commits theft". This, however, would not be punishment, but terrorizing, not a just subordination of individual good to the common good, but the instrumentalization of individuals for the state.

Healing or inhibition of evil is the primary purpose of punishment in civil or human communities

Yet while retribution is necessary in order that punishment actually be punishment rather than merely a way of striking fear into the populace, it is not the principal goal. Aquinas sees the goal or purpose of punishments within civil communities (in contrast with punishment in purgatory or hell imposed by God as creator and ruler of the universe) as being medicine for or restraint of sin.

  • Punishments are not directly intended by the legislator, but are medicines, as it were, for sin. And therefore the equitable person does not apply more pain than suffices for restraining sin. (Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics V, lectio 16)
  • The infliction of punishments should not be sought for its own sake, but punishments are inflicted as medicines for restraining sins. And thus they have the character of justice just insofar as they restrain sins. (ST (Summa Theologiae) II-II, q. 43, a. 7)
  • The punishments of this present life are more medicinal than retributive, for retribution is reserved for the divine judgment. (ST II-II, q. 66, a. 6)
  • The punishments of the present life are not sought for their own sake, because this is not the time of final retribution; but they are sought insofar as they are medicinal, aiding either the correction of the sinning person, or the good of the republic, whose tranquility is procured by the punishment of people who sin. (ST II-II, q. 68, a. 1)
  • Vengeance is made by inflicting something painful on the sinner. Therefore we must consider the mind of the avenger. If he intends principally the evil for the one on whom he takes vengeance, and rests in that evil, vengeance is completely unlawful, since to delight in the evil of another person pertains to hatred, which is contrary to the charity by which we should love all men. Nor is someone excused, because he wills evil on someone who inflicted evil on him, just as one is not excused because he hates someone who hates him… but if the avenger principally looks to some good that is attained through punishing the sinner, e.g. his correction, or at least restraining him [from further sin] and quieting others, and the preservation of justice and the honor of God, vengeance can be licit, so long as the other suitable circumstances are present. (ST II-II, q. 108, a. 1)
  • Vengeance is licit and virtuous insofar as it tends to restrain evils. (ST II-II, q. 108, a. 3)
  • All mortal sinners are worthy of eternal death as regards the future retribution, which is according to the truth of the divine judgment. But the punishments in the present life are rather medicine (than retributive). And therefore the death penalty is only inflicted for those sins that result in grave harm to others. (ST II-II, q. 108, a. 3, ad 2)

Consequently, to consider retribution alone, or to punish merely to "pay someone back" for a crime committed, is an insufficient reason to punish, and therefore to punish in this way would be unjust. Again, to impose a greater punishment than necessary in order to attain the goals of healing the evil, and/or preventing or restraining future evils, is inappropriate and therefore unjust.

The goals of punishment set certain limits to what punishment may be suitable and just for a given crime, but also provide guidelines: the suitable punishment will depend on the nature of the crime, how voluntary the crime was and how set the wrongdoer's will is on wrongdoing, how prone people in general are to such a crime, whether the deed tends to be attractive or abhorrent, etc. I will return to this point in a subsequent post.

(Update August 8, 2018: two more citations from St. Thomas Aquinas added)

Praying for temporal goods and the reward of the righteous

Do the saints tend to be healthier, wealthier, and wiser than the rest of mankind? Do holy farmers, e.g., overall enjoy better crops, healthier children, etc., than industrious and careful but less holy farmers? Most Catholics, I believe, would without too much hesitation say "no". We don't associate holiness with temporal or outward prosperity bestowed by God. And this is also the catholic tradition. ("Whether temporal goods fall under merit," Summa theologiae, I-II, q. 114, a.10)

And yet, when we consider praying for good crops, healthy children, health for ourselves, and the like, we tend to assume that those who pray for them are more likely to receive them than those who do not, or at least to think that if we pray for them, we are more likely to receive them than if we do not. But should we really expect God generally to reward these particular acts of piety with temporal goods to a greater degree or in a different manner than he rewards charity and holiness with temporal goods?

The problem is, I suspect, that we haven't radically assimilated a necessary condition of prayer, namely that we ask for temporal goods only inasmuch as they are conducive to salvation. (Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 83, a. 6). We at any rate frequently do not consciously think of this qualification when we pray for good weather for an outing or event, or other such things. We don't exclude it, perhaps, so that we would desire good weather and ask for it even if we knew it would be less conducive to salvation than bad weather would be. But it's not so present in our minds.

But if those who are righteous, and therefore merit eternal life and what leads to eternal life, do not, in general, enjoy more of these various temporal goods, we may gather that more temporal goods are not, in general, more conducive to salvation than less temporal goods. Consequently, we shouldn't expect, on average, to become richer if we pray for money than if we don't, nor, on average, to be healthier if we pray for health than if we don't, and so on for other temporal goods.

This argument doesn't exclude the possibility that for a particular group at a particular time (e.g., during some period of the Old Testament), it belonged to the divine pedagogy to lead his people to faith in him through temporal rewards, both for doing good and for praying to him. It argues only that such temporal rewards of righteousness or prayer don't belong to the christian dispensation in general.

This conclusion doesn't mean we shouldn't pray for temporal  things, but that we shouldn't, ultimately, pray for them in themselves, only inasmuch as they are possible means and contexts in which the "good Spirit" is given us. We should read the promise "how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him", (Mt 7:11) in light of Luke: "how much more will your Father from heaven give the good Spirit to those who ask him?" (Luke 11:13) and the christian tradition of prayer, and so, when we pray for particular goods, pray for them only inasmuch as they might help us and others towards salvation.

Aquinas on permitting a priest to reveal a confession

Can a priest, with the penitent's permission, reveal to another person a sin which he knows under the seal of confession? Aquinas takes up this question in his Commentary on the Sentences of Lombard (In IV Sent., distinction 21, q. 3, a. 2 — translation of this article in the Supplement to the Summa, q. 11, a. 4).

He explains, there are two general reasons binding a priest to keep secret sins he has heard as a confessor, within confession. First, and most importantly, because in hearing a person's confession, the priest acts in behalf of God, and so knows the sins only as God's minister [or: knows the sin only as God does]. Secondly, in order to avoid scandal, that persons become unwilling or less willing to go to confession because they feel they cannot be confident that the priest will preserve the secrecy of the confession.

Aquinas goes on to say that the penitent can bring it about that what the priest previously knew only "as God" (or as God's minister), he know also "as man", and the penitent does this when he gives him permission to speak [to another person]. (quod facit dum eum licentiat ad dicendum). Consequently, if the priest then speaks to others, he does not break the seal of confession. But scandal could still be possible, if someone hears that the priest told what he heard in confession, without hearing that the penitent gave him permission to tell, and so the priest must take care to avoid scandal.

The interpretive crux of this article is, what does Aquinas means when he says that the penitent makes the priest know as man what he formerly knew as God "when he gives him permission to speak"? Commentators offer two quite different interpretations of the statement. According to one interpretation, when the penitent gives the priest permission to speak, he tells him again, now outside of confessor, the sin he wishes him to tell another person. According to the other, precisely by giving the priest permission to tell another person what the penitent told him in confession, he thereby enables the priest to know as a man what he formerly knew only as God's minister, and thereby to speak based on that knowledge outside of the sacramental context.

The principal argument in favor of the first interpretation is basically the following: Outside of confession, the priest cannot use the knowledge which he has from confession. Consequently, if the penitent tells him, "you can tell people what I told you last year in confession," the priest cannot use any knowledge of the confession to know what it is the penitent is giving him permission to tell. Even if he tells him some detail, "you can tell people what I told you in confession last year when I confessed being the one who burned that house down," the priest cannot use any other knowledge of the confession to know in more detail what the penitent was permitting him to tell.

Against this first interpretation, and in favor of the second interpretation, are these considerations: first, if the priest, even with the penitent's permission, cannot use the knowledge he has from confession, but has to reacquire it, then he can under no circumstances ever say anything about the confession, no matter how much the penitent gives him permission, and no matter how much the penitent retells outside of confession what he previously told him in confession. For on this hypothesis, if the penitent tells him "you can tell people what I told you in confession," and the penitent says "I told you X and Y", the priest would still be unable to use the knowledge he has from the confession to verify what the penitent is telling him. Thus he would only be able to say "he told me X and Y," or "he told me that he confessed X and Y," but not "he confessed X and Y". But for the priest to reveal what someone tells him outside of confession, or for a priest to say that someone told him that he confessed one thing or another, is in no way to reveal what he knew through confession. Thus the assertion that a priest, with the permission of the penitent, can reveal to another a sin that he knows under the seal of confession, would be meaningless. To be more precise, it would be only incidentally true — that which he happens to know under the seal of confession, he can reveal to another if he also knows it through another means, and the person who tells him in that other context gives him permission to pass it on.

Following up on this point, Aquinas in the immediately following article (both in the original text, the Commentary on the Sentences, and in the compiled Supplement to the Summa), asks whether a man may reveal that which he knows through confession and through some other source besides, and says that he can. According to the first interpretation of the article we are considering, it would be merely a particular case of this more general point, so it would be strange that Aquinas does not allude to this.

Finally, Aquinas certainly does not understand a priest's knowing what he heard in confession "as God" as excluding all use of that knowledge, but as excluding all use that would reveal a sin — as God covers sins that are submitted to him in penance, so must the priest, as God's minister, conceal sins submitted to him in penance. (In IV Sent. dist. 21, q. 3, a. 1, qa. 1, or supplement, q. 11, a. 1). Indeed, Aquinas opines that an abbot who learns in confession of a prior's sin that would make it disastrous for him to remain in office, he can relieve him of the office of prior on some other pretext, and thus avoid all suspicion of divulging the confession. (Note that it is now forbidden by canon law for those in authority to make any use for external governance of knowledge about sins received in confession at any time [CIC 984 § 2].)

Rock climbing and judging people

To do one's best at rock climbing and remain safe, one should prepare for the worst, and think the best, and when deciding whether to climb a particular face under given circumstances, make an objective judgment of the difficulty and risk.

a. Prepare for the worst — when making preparations, assume the worst case scenario. If you can do something to increase safety in the event of a problem (e.g., a runner unexpectedly comes out), assume the problem will arise, and take action to ensure safety nonetheless.

b. Think the best — focus on the goal, rather than a potential fall. Being well prepared and attentive, so that you climb with care and will react rightly and quickly to any incidents, will help you climb well and increase your safety. But being afraid of falling won't help you climb well. Having done all you can to increase safety and decrease the risk of falling, and being attentive so that you can react quickly if a piece of stone breaks off, a runner comes out, a climbing starts falling, etc., it's better to focus on the intended goal of climbing successfully than the possibility of a failure and fall.

c. When deciding whether to make a climb, it's best to make an objective assessment of it. One shouldn't ignore the risks (assuming the best), but there is also no need to pretend they are worse than they are (assuming the worst).

I find these three ways of relating to risk in rock climbing a good analogy to three ways St. Thomas Aquinas gives of making judgment about things or persons. In a Summa article on whether doubtful matters should be decided in the more favorable/more charitable fashion, ST II-II, q. 60, a. 4, he makes a threefold distinction:

a. When making an assessment about a possible evil of a person in order to remedy it, one should in doubtful matters incline towards assuming the worst. (E.g., if you see signs of someone abusing alcohol, and if you can act in such a way as to help him if your suspicions are accurate (without harming him if your suspicions turn out to be inaccurate), than you should do so, rather than assuming the best, and failing to act.) (ad 3)

b. When making an assessment about a fault or vice of a person in himself, one should in doubtful matters assume the best, even if it is objectively less likely — it's much better to be wrong in assuming the best of someone, than to be wrong in assuming the worst of someone. (Again, in the situation where you see signs of someone abusing alcohol, you should, as regards your attitude toward that person, assume the best — should not think less of his character or virtue due to this suspicion) (ad 3)

c. When making an assessment about things, one should make a judgment according to what is most probable.


As in rock climbing, to the extent that you can hinder an evil by assuming the worst and preparing for it, you should do so, so also, to the extent that you can hinder a potential vice of someone by assuming the worst and acting to hinder it, you should do so.

Yet as, in regards to the possibility of falling, having taking all the steps to increase safety, and avoiding entering into an excessively risky situation, you should climb with confidence rather than fear, so also, in regards to the person's own character, your attitude should be positive, looking to the virtue you hope he has, rather than to a vice that he might have.

Aquinas on Marrying to Support One's Parents

Is someone obliged to marry if that is the only way he can support his parents?


This article is from Quodlibetal 10, q. 5, a. 1.

Whether someone is bound to contact marriage in order to support his father by the marriage dowry, if he is not able to support him otherwise.


It seems that a son who cannot support his father unless by marrying he receives a dowry from which he can look after his father, is not obliged to contract marriage in order to support his father.

1. Since charity is orderly, he is obliged more to himself than to his father. But it would be praiseworthy for someone to face death in order to preserve his virginity. Therefore someone is not obliged to contract marriage in order to save his father's life.

2. Further, precepts are not opposed to counsels. But preserving virginity is a counsel, as is evident from 1 Cor. 7:25. Therefore the precept of honoring one's parents does not oblige someone to lose his virginity.

On the contrary: Affirmative precepts are binding at certain times and in certain places. But the time when one's parents are in need is a time when one is bound to honor one's parents. Therefore at that time someone is bound by this precept. And so it seems that he is bound to contract marriage, if he cannot otherwise support his father.

Response: It should be said that the case proposed does not seem to be readily possible, since it can scarcely happen that someone is unable to support his parents without contracting marriage, at least by manual work or by begging. But if this were to happen, the judgment to be made in this case concerning the preservation of virginity would be the same as concerning other works of perfection, such as entering religious life.

Now different people have different opinions about this. Some say that if someone's father is in need, he should give all that he has, if he has anything, for the support of his father, and he can thus licitly enter religious life, committing the care of his parents to the heavenly Father, who feeds even the birds.

But because this opinion seems too severe, it seems to me better to say the following: he who desires to enter religious life may see that he cannot live in the world without mortal sin, or cannot easily do so. If he fears the danger of his committing mortal sin, then, since he is more obliged to care for the salvation of his soul than for the bodily need of his parents, he is not obliged to remain in the world. But if he sees that he can live in the world without sin, it seems one should make a distinction: if his parents can in no way live without his services to them, he is obliged to serve them and to forego other works of perfection, and he would sin by leaving his parents; but if they can in some way be supported without his services, just not respectably, he is not therefore obliged to forego works of perfection. The case is different when someone has already entered religious life; for since he has already died to the world by religious profession, he is freed from the law by which he was bound to his parents in worldly services, as the Apostle teaches in Rom 7:6. But in other, spiritual matters, such as by prayers, etc., he is bound to serve his parents.

What has been said about entering religious life can also be said about the observance of virginity and other works of perfection.

Replies to Objections

Reply 1. To the first objection, therefore, it should be said that if someone has not professed virginity, he should not die of hunger before contracting marriage [but should marry if that is necessary in order to live].

Reply 2. To the second objection it should be said that nothing prevents a precept from being opposed to a counsel in a particular situation.

Infants and Holy Communion

In the previous post, Faith, Intention and Sacramental Reception of the Eucharist, I spoke about the necessity of an intention to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist in order to enter into the sacramental union with Christ specific to this sacrament (rather than merely have Christ within one's body, just as a ciborium does). This raises a question about infants receiving Communion, as is customary in Eastern rites, both Catholic and Orthodox. Can they be said to receive sacramentally, and to receive the grace of the Sacrament?

Thomas Aquinas's position on this is not entirely clear. Though he knows about the Eastern practice of giving the Eucharist to infants, he argues that this is unfitting. The Eucharist should be given only to those who have or have had devotion to it (Summa Theologiae, III q. 80, a. 9). It can be given to those who have lost the use of reason on the condition that they previously had devotion to the Sacrament, but should never be given to those who have never attained the use of reason. It is not clear, however, that Thomas Aquinas considers these persons incapable of thereby being spiritually and sacramentally united to Christ through the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. It may even be more probable that he simply considers it unfitting to the dignity of the Sacrament to give it to those who have shown no actual devotion to it.

Two points should be made in regard to the question: first, the degree to which this was and is practice of the Church makes it virtually certain that the Sacrament can in fact be sacramentally received and fruitful for infants too young to know what they are doing. (St. Thomas was not aware of how wide-spread the practice had been). It was at one time almost universal practice to give Holy Communion to infants, at least on certain occasions, such as at baptism or when in danger of death–the latter practice was seemingly based, in some cases, upon a very literal reading of John 6:53 ,"unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you"; but even if partially based on a misunderstanding, it manifests the conviction that infant reception of the Eucharist was not merely understood as a sign for the adults, but as fruitful for the infants themselves. Again, it has remained and is common practice in multiple rites of the Church. To maintain that the Church has been and is all this time practicing a kind of abuse of the Blessed Sacrament by giving it to those incapable of receiving it, as though they were capable of receiving it, is not a very sound position.

Secondly, when infants receive the Eucharist in an ecclesial and liturgical context, the theological principle that those who are incapable of making an act of faith on their own receive the sacrament and grace in virtue of the faith of others, well established in the case of baptism and confirmation, seems just as applicable. Infants who receive Communion from those who intend to give the Sacrament to them, receive Christ sacramentally and receive grace from him.

For some more information on the practice of Infant Communion, an article by Charles Crawford, Infant Communion: Past Tradition and Present Practice (PDF), is available online.

Aquinas, Averroes, and Habits

A question for my readers: Aquinas quotes numerous times Averroes definition of a habit as "that by which one acts when one wills", and seemingly relies on this definition when he argues, for instance, that the habits animals acquire are not habits in the full sense, since "they do not have the power to use or not use them, as seems to belong to the account of a habit." I do not know of any passage where he justifies this part of the definition of habit as helping to make a clear and systematic treatment of the principles of human action.

I have a number of difficulties with this restriction of the term habit: (1) It does not apply to "habits" of being, such as health or beauty; (2) it does not seem to belong in a meaningful sense to natural habits such as synderesis; (3) in the case of men, the freedom to act or not to act doesn't seem any more applicable to a habit than to other, less stable inclinations or disposition to action–if anything, it seems less applicable.

(Update: number 1 above could be explained by the fact that the definition "that by which one acts when one wills" is meant only to define habits of action, not habits of being; still, the fact that definition does not apply to "habits" of being is at least an indication that it is not included in the meaning of the term habit, or the Latin "habitus" — which is related to "habere" and "se habere").

My question is, then, has St. Thomas simply adopted a linguistic usage of the term "habitus" from Averroes' Commentary on Aristotle, or is there some real justification for the insertion of this phrase "that by which one acts one when wills" into the definition of a habit?


Faith, Intention and Sacramental Reception of the Eucharist

While discoursing on who can receive the Eucharist sacramentally (Summa Theologiae III, q. 80, a. 3), St. Thomas Aquinas describes three cases where the one consuming the Eucharist does not receive the Eucharist sacramentally: when the Eucharist is consumed by an unbeliever, an animal, or by one who does not know it to be the Eucharist, for instance, if he thinks that the host is not consecrated. About an unbeliever who receives the Eucharist:

Even if an unbeliever receives the sacramental species, he receives the body of Christ under the sacramental sign. Therefore, he eats Christ sacramentally, if "sacramentally" refers to that which is eaten. But if it refers to the person eating, then properly speaking he does not eat sacramentally, because he does not use what he receives as a sacrament, but as simple food. Unless, perhaps, the unbeliever intends to receive that which the Church bestows, although he does not have true faith regarding the other articles or even regarding this sacrament (Summa Theologiae III, q. 80, a. 3, ad 2).

About an animal that consumes the Eucharist, or a person who does so unknowingly:

Even if a mouse or dog eats a consecrated host, the substance of Christ's body does not cease to be present under the species as long as these species remain, that is, as long as the substance of bread would remain [if it were bread], just as happens if it is cast into the mud… and yet it is not be said that the brute animal consumes the Christ's Body sacramentally, because it is not unable to treat it as a sacrament. Consequently, it does not consume the Body of Christ sacramentally, but only accidentally, just as he who consumes a consecrated host not knowing that it is consecrated (ibid., ad 3).

If I rightly understand Aquinas's position, it could be described in the following manner: the Body of Christ is present under the species of bread as long as the species of bread remains, and in this enters into any person or animal who consumes this species; but, if they do so without at least an implicit intention to receive the Body of Christ, they are not united sacramentally with him; the Body of Christ is present in them in the same way that the Body of Christ is present in a ciborium, or perhaps in a vessel of water that is dissolving the species of bread (somewhat analagous to the process of digestion dissolving the species).

In a similar manner, one who knows that he is consuming the Eucharist, but does not intend to do so sacramentally, does not in fact receive sacramentally. There are two quite different ways  this could occur: (1) someone could ritually receive Communion, e.g., during a Mass, while intending not to receive sacramentally, to be sacramentally united to Christ; this would be a grave sin against the Sacrament; (2) someone could consume the consecrated species in another context; e.g., a minister of the Eucharist consuming a host that falls on the floor, someone consuming remaining hosts or the Blood after Mass, or purifying the sacred vessels. This seems to me not to be a sacramental reception. One liturgical argument that could be advanced for this is that an institute acolyte may take and carry the chalice to the credence table (without receiving it from the priest) and purify it there. If such purification is to be considered a sacramental reception of communion, then this would be self-communication, which is generally forbidden.

Though the distinction between "receiving that which is the Sacrament" and "sacramentally receiving the Sacrament" may in this case seem a subtle one, I wonder whether it might not be  a valuable point of contact with some of the protestant understandings of the Eucharist and their emphasis on the role of faith. Admittedly we cannot overlook the differences; the Council of Trent expressly rejected Luther's position that the Real Presence is only there in the consumption of the Eucharist (in usu) (Session 13, Canon 4); but such points of contact, even if they do not involve simple agreement, are still important.

Are We Obliged to Do the Impossible?

In asking whether passions and emotions can be sinful, Aquinas raises the objection:

“No one sins in doing what he cannot avoid,” as Augustine says (On the Free Choice of the Will III, 18). But man cannot escape the inordinate movement of sensuality, since “the sensuality ever remains corrupt, so long as we abide in this mortal life, and that is why it is signified by the serpent,” as Augustine says (On the Trinity XII, 12,13). Therefore the inordinate movement of the sensuality is not a sin. (ST I-II, 74:3, obj. 2).

The response he makes to this objection is that though it is impossible to avoid all inordinate movements of sensitive appetite, it is possible to avoid any particular inordinate movement, and that this ability is sufficient for a voluntary sin.

[The corruption of the sensitive appetite] does not prevent man from using his rational will to suppress individual inordinate movements, if he has a presentiment of them. He can do this by, for example, turning his thoughts to other things. Yet while he is turning his thoughts to something else, an inordinate movement may arise about this also: thus when a man, in order to avoid the movements of concupiscence, turns his thoughts away from fleshly pleasures and to the consideration of science, sometimes an unforeseen (impraemeditatus) movement of vainglory will arise. And therefore a man cannot avoid all such movements, on account of the aforesaid corruption. But it is enough, for the account of a voluntary sin, that he be able to avoid each individual one. (Ibid., ad 2)

Now, if a man is in proximate danger of having an extremely disordered desire for sensitive goods, it seems clear that he ought to do what he can to avoid that, and would be guilty of neglect if he turned his attention to avoid sins into which he is in no special danger of falling. Consequently, it seems to follow from Aquinas's position that a man can in one and the same period of time have acted morally as well as he could, have made the best moral decisions that he could make, and yet be guilty of a voluntary sin. This conclusion seems, on the face of it, rather problematic.

Does Aquinas hold the same position when he considers more particular matters? It does not appear so. In a later article, he asks whether disobedience is a mortal sin, and raises the objections:

Someone is said to be disobedient when he does not fulfill his superior's command. But superiors frequently give so many commands that it is scarcely or not at all possible to keep all of them. Therefore, if disobedience were a mortal sin, it would follow that man could not avoid mortal sin, which is an untenable position. Therefore disobedience is not a mortal sin. (II-II 105:1 obj. 3)

Now, it seems equally true in this case that a person could keep any given command, and thus, by focusing on keeping the most important commands, he fails to keep some of the less important commands (whether because of time conflicts or just because there are some many commands that he can't remember all of them). It was nonetheless absolutely speaking possible for him to keep any individual one of those other commands, and thus by Aquinas's general reasoning, it would seem that the failure to keep the command remains a sin.

Aquinas does not accept the reasoning in the concrete, however, but replies:

No one is obliged to what is impossible. Therefore, if a superior gives so many commands that a subject cannot fulfill them, the subject is free of sin. And therefore superiors should refrain from giving very many commands. (Ibid, ad 3.)

I'm not sure what to think about Aquinas's position here. Is he, in an attempt to describe scientifically a real human experience, to get at the experienced psychology of such faults, making an abstract argument that is not strictly valid, and this becomes evident when one considers not abstract but concrete cases? Or is there a decisive difference between the two cases?

Aquinas On The Evidence For Original Sin

In a previous post, I quoted Newman and Chesterton speaking of evil as evidence for either the non-existence of God or the existence of original sin. Aquinas touches briefly on this topic in the Summa Contra Gentiles III, ch. 52. He outlines the argument as follows: God in his providence rewards good deeds and punishes evil deeds. But the whole human race is subject to various bodily and spiritual punishments: death, hunger, thirst, ignorance, weakness, etc. Therefore there is some sin of the human race that is being punished by these pains. Aquinas then raises the objection that all of these pains need not be punishments, since they simply follow from man's nature; being made up of various elements, man must be capable of death and corruption; again, "the sensitive appetite must incline to things in which the senses delight, and which at times are contrary to reason, and the possible intellect is in potentiality to all things intelligible, and has none of them actually, but has by its very nature to acquire them through the senses, and therefore with difficulty acquires the knowledge of truth, and is easily led astray by the imagination."

In response, Aquinas says, "one can with sufficient probability think [one can reasonably think; satis probabiliter poterit aestimare] that, divine providence having fitted each perfection to that which is to be perfected, God united a higher to a lower nature in such a way that the former would dominate the latter, and, should any obstacle to this dominion arise through a defect of nature, God by a special and supernatural act of kindness would remove it." The empirical argument for original sin presupposes more than the kind of divine providence that can be philosophically proven; it presupposes something like a providence in which God's care for man knows no limits, in which, from the very beginning, he gives man as much as possible.

Now imagine several different suppositions: (1) the atheistic position that there is no God, (2) the position that there is a God who is the cause of the world, and who intervenes in the world, but has little special concern for man, (3) the position that there is a God who is the cause of the world, but whose special providence for man regards only the future destiny of man (or man's soul), (4) the Christian (and to some extent Jewish) faith in God.

The existence of evil constitutes significant evidence for original sin only on the fourth supposition or a similar one. And conversely, the doctrine of original sin makes the world in which we live more intelligible only in light of the fourth supposition (the Christian or similar view of divine providence).

Thus rather than taking the prevalence of evil as evidence that either there is no God or that there is Original Sin, it would be more accurate to say that the prevalence of evil constitutes evidence that either the Christian view of God and divine providence is wrong, or that the Christian doctrine of original sin is correct.