Why is Hell Eternal?

There is general agreement among Fathers, Doctors, and recent theologians that those punished in hell are incorrigible. In cases where some allowed or allow the possibility of a certain soul's or person's conversion (whether that conversion occur through the first time meeting with Christ in the case of pagans who did not know Christ on earth, through a medicinal, purifying penalty, or in some other  way), they do not consider such a person doomed to everlasting punishment in hell.

However, there is less agreement on why those in hell are incorrigible. The common patristic account, when an account is given by those fathers who uphold everlasting punishment in hell, is that God has established this lifetime for grace and repentance, withholds his grace after death from those who died without charity, and therefore no conversion to God is then possible. Thus a person need not have fundamentally perverted their natural desire for good, need not be thoroughly bad, in order to punished in hell forever; it is enough to be overall more bad than good; one grave sin is enough.

The departed have not in the grave confession and restoration; for God has confined life and action to this world, and to the future the scrutiny of what has been done.

8. What shall we do in the day of visitation… when He will reason with us, and oppose us, and set before us those bitter accusers, our sins, comparing our wrongdoings with our benefits, and striking thought with thought, and scrutinizing action with action, and calling us to account for the image which has been blurred and spoilt by wickedness, till at last He leads us away self-convicted and self-condemned, no longer able to say that we are being unjustly treated — a thought which is able even here sometimes to console in their condemnation those who are suffering….

9. … [His right judgment] places in the balance for us all, our entire life, action, word, and thought, and weighs against the evil that which is better, until that which preponderates wins the day, and the decision is given in favor of the main tendency; after which there is no appeal, no higher court, no defense on the ground of subsequent conduct, no oil obtained from the wise virgins, or from them that sell, for the lamps going out, no repentance of the rich man wasting away in the flame, and begging for repentance for his friends (St. Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 16).

Recent theologians (possibly including Joseph Ratzinger), reluctant to affirm that the incorrigibility of those in hell is due to God's hardening their hearts in sin through a withdrawal of their grace, commonly hold that only those are in hell who have so distorted and perverted their will through deliberate sin, that it is impossible for them to convert, or impossible without a strict miracle. Thus only persons who became thoroughly bad in this life are in hell.

A middle position might be that in the moment of death God's love is so encountered that persons, depending on their life up till then and their state at that moment, necessarily either accept God's love, or so forcefully reject it that they thereby become thoroughly bad, even if previously they were not so, but had just failed to subordinate some true good to God.

It seems necessary to take one of these positions. Man's first, original will has to be good, since it is a natural will, from God, the creator of nature. And all man's particular choices and voluntary acts derive from this first original will for goodness, which must, just considered in itself, remain, as long as man's nature remains. Hence, man must remain capable of conversion to the true good, if guided through the right influences. Thus incorrigibility must be due either to God's taking away the possibility of those influences (a hardening of man's heart), or man's being in himself so set in evil that he is utterly closed to those influences that could otherwise draw him to good through his first and natural desire for goodness.

Aquinas, Sin and Fundamental Option

In the previous post I summarized various evidence pertaining to a fundamental option in the sense of an orientation that changes through a series of acts. This post attempts a sketch that does justice to all of the evidence, as far as that is possible.

(1) A person who is strongly committed to the love of God and neighbor, to following the commandments, does not generally turn away from that path by a single choice and act taken in isolation, but by a gradual process of neglecting that love. This process may indeed culminate in a habitual state or act that is gravely contrary to charity, but the voluntariness of that habit or act must be referred to the persistent previous neglect of charity. An act objectively contrary to charity performed by a person strongly committed to the love of charity, if it is not the culmination of previous acts, is probably not fully voluntary. Conversely, if an objectively disordered act truly is fully voluntary, it is probably the culmination of a long process of neglect of relationships to other human beings, to God, to oneself, and only as a culmination of this voluntary process is the evil of the act fully voluntary.

This position harmonizes with the qualification made by Persona Humana: "[The fundamental option] can be completely changed by particular acts, especially when, as often happens, these have been prepared for by previous more superficial acts" (Persona Humana, n. 10).

The flip side: just as an anomalous bad action performed by a virtuous person is probably not fully voluntary, so an occasional repentance of a person set upon vice could be a superficial repentance, that does not really involve full voluntary acceptance of God's love and full willingness to turn from sin.

(2) On the other hand, if a person is not strongly set on any particular goal, it does not seem impossible to frequently, and in a short period of time, change the goal that he does have, including changing from a life directed toward God to a life directed toward himself, by mortal sin, especially inasmuch as supernatural grace and charity, by a which a person is in the highest manner directed toward God, transcend human experience.

This view of moral life has practical consequences. It means, for example, that greater weight should be given to patterns of behavior than to individual acts–not that individual acts are unimportant, but that they are important inasmuch as they express the interior of a person, one's will, which is more surely expressed in the way one lives one's commitments and furthers one's relationships than in individual acts taken in isolation.

Summary of Evidence on Rapidity of Sin or Conversion

In this post and the next I will try to wrap up the considerations of sin, fundamental option, etc., which I have been considering in recent posts.

If we somewhat generalize the theory that mortal sin and conversion consist in the exercise of a single, fundamental option that lies at a deeper level than the freedom of choice involved in individual acts, we are left with the following position: mortal sin (turning away from God) normally occurs over a fairly long period of time, and is expressed in many concrete acts, none of which taken in isolation would constitute mortal sin; the will to perform a gravely disordered act normally has the character of full consent only when it is the summing up of a voluntary pattern of behavior, the term of a series of disordered acts. Similarly according to this view, and leaving aside miraculous conversions, the openness for grace and intention to avoid sin normally comes to be over a longish period of time, is only fully willed when it is the summing up of a series of acceptance of actual graces.

The opposite position would say that mortal sin always consists in the performance of a single act, which taken on its own would constitute a mortal sin. A middle position would say that mortal sin frequently consists in a single willed act,  but also frequently consists in a wickedness of will that is voluntary only in reference to a whole series of willed acts.

Below follows an attempt to sum up the evidence for the two positions:

In support of the possibility of sin or conversion taking place gradually (as experienced psychologically)

1. The existence of mortal sins arising from or consisting in the neglect to form one's conscience. (There is usually not one extra special moment when a person is particularly aware and conscious of neglect.)
2. Aquinas's affirmation that a person receives grace as soon as they are capable of acting morally, and being responsible for their choice of good or evil (this affirmation is implied, in, for example, ST I-II 89:6, which I haven't since the transition from immaturity to responsibility is psycholoigcally a gradual one.)

In support of changes in man's final goal actually being rare or generally occurring over longer periods of time
1. The affirmation that "it is not easy for the person who has grace to commit a mortal sin."
2. The early Church practice where penance was rare, and for grave sins could only be given once.
3. The psychological difficulty or unusualness of rapidly changing one's orientation and commitment, going from being strongly and totally committed to one goal to giving up that goal as the supreme guiding principle of one's life, to taking it up again etc.

In support of the possibility of sin or conversion being located in a single act

1. The Church's teaching on mortal sin, that a single mortal sin committed with full knowledge and consent is sufficient to deprive one of charity.
2. The fact that grace and charity depend on God's gift, and transcend experience, mean that a single act by which one draws toward God or away from him may suffice to gain or lose the habit of charity, even though psychologically one act just on its own cannot normally generate or destroy a habit.

In support of sin and conversion actually being frequently or normally located in a single act

1. The practice of lay Christians and confessors of treating every objectively disordered act that proceeded from an act of choice as a mortal sin depriving the doer of charity.
2. Similarly, the practice of not treating patterns of behavior as involving mortal sin unless they include individual concrete acts that are considered to be mortal sins.
3. The fact that for mortal sin a person need not orient himself toward a totally new end, but only fail to take God as the rule for an end they were seeking all along (e.g., a person formerly seeking honor in subordination to God on one occasion seeks honor without subordinating to God, and in a manner incompatible with a life lived for God).

Permanence of Grace

In discussing what grace is, Aquinas raises an objection that it cannot be a habit, because it is easily lost: "if grace is something in the soul, it seems that it must be a habit… but it is not a habit, for a habit is a quality that is not easily altered, as the Philosopher says in the Categories, while grace is removed with the greatest ease, since it is lost by one act of mortal sin. Therefore grace is not something in the soul" (De Veritate, q. 27, a. 1, obj 9).

In response, Aquinas denies the premise of the objection, that grace is easily lost. "Although grace is lost through a single act of mortal sin, grace is not easily lost; for it is not easy for the person who has grace to do such an act, on account of his contrary inclination, as Aristotle says in Ethics V, that it is difficult for the just man to do unjust deeds."

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.

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.