Does an erroneous conscience excuse us?

This post continues the consideration of the binding force of authority, in particular of conscience.

1. It seems that an erroneous conscience always excuses. For what is proposed by an erroneous, is judged as good to do or good to avoid doing. Now a good will is a will that tends to its proper object, the good. Therefore the will that tends to the presented good by choosing what is judged to be good or rejecting what is judged to be evil, is a good will. Thus erroneous conscience excuses a will of evil in following that conscience.

2. Further, if an erroneous conscience sometimes does not excuse, then, since a man is always obliged to follow his conscience, a man would be compelled to do evil, either by following his conscience and thereby doing (unexcused) evil, or by violating his conscience. But the culpability of sin presupposes the possibility of acting otherwise, as St. Augustine says “No one sins in that which he cannot avoid.” (Retract., I, 9 / PL 32:596; cf. De libero arbitrio, III, 18 / PL 32:1295) Therefore erring conscience must always excuse.

On the contrary stands the authority of the psalmist, when he prays for the forgiveness of “hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12), and of St. Paul in the letter to the Corinthians: “I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.”

The Catechism also teaches, that when conscience errs due to error, one must distinguish whether the ignorance is his fault. “This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility…. In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits…. If – on the contrary – the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him.” (CCC 1791, 1793). Therefore an erroneous conscience excuses sometimes, but not always.

I respond that to ask whether error of conscience excuses from evil, is to ask whether the evil of what is done according to conscience is to be attributed to the one who, in acting according to his mistaken conscience, does something objectively bad. For example, a doctor may believe himself obligated by his profession and duty, or in conscience, to assist a woman in ending an unwanted pregnancy, and may do so even in a situation that, objectively, means killing an innocent person, which is contrary to natural and divine law. Is he guilty, before God, of murder?

The general principle applicable to such cases is that everything connected with a human act, whether good or evil, is to be attributed to the will just to the extent that such circumstances or characteristics of the act are voluntary, either directly, or at least indirectly. Thus, if a cook, having taking usual and reasonable precautions, serves up strawberries and cream, not knowing that the strawberries are contaminated with salmonella, poisoning the guests is not be attributed to the cook’s will, he is not to be morally blamed for the incident. But if a food distributor simply ignores reports of food poisoning, paying no attention to them at all, the resulting food poisoning from lots of contaminated food would truly and fairly be attributed to him. Although not directly willed or intended, it is a result of the voluntary ignorance, and in this sense from his will.

The same distinction may be applied to the ignorance or error of conscience, when someone’s conscience tells him he must do something, which actually is bad, though he does not know that. He does not directly will to do evil, but rather to do the good which he perceives in what he does. So the badness of what he does is not directly voluntary, as willed by him. Yet it may be indirectly voluntary, if his ignorance of the badness is voluntary, if, say, he at some time knew that he should consider the morality of the situation more carefully, but refused to do so, for reasons of public opinion, his career, or the like.

Even if the cause of the ignorance or error be general or remote, in the measure that a man is liable for that cause, by voluntary action or negligence, he is liable for the resulting error and the disordered action proceeding from it.

To illustrate this, we might compare man, with manifold interests and responsibilities, desires, and knowledge, to a company with many workers that, produces and maintains complex equipment, say aircraft for example. To save on the number of employees needed, the bosses might be pressured to have workers who double check calculations work faster; if it can be foreseen that this hurry will lead to a number of mistakes over time, and it should be predictable with some degree of probability that this would lead to the failure of jet engines, which then happens, a resulting airline crash and deaths could be attributed to the company.

Similarly, a boss, having once adopted an abusive pattern of behavior he saw in others, if he downplays and dismisses any concerns raised about the way he treats the workers under him as merely motivated by envy or a political ideology such as “wokeness”, he might become so convinced that this is a normal human way to treat employees, that he doesn’t have any doubt about it, and has a secure conscience. This ignorance, inasmuch as it arises from a voluntary, blameworthy neglect to form his views and attitudes in a balanced and authentically human manner, would be indirectly voluntary, and therefore his behavior would be morally blameworthy, despite experiencing no guilt in acting this way.

Or if a man sees to it that he is surrounded by flatters who praise him for his cleverness when he takes advantage of loopholes in the law to cheat others and enrich himself, and, as a result, ends up with a sincere opinion that “as long as it’s legal, it’s ok,” he is guilty of this error and of his resulting unjust practices, even though his conscience not accuse him on this point.

The same distinction applies when ignorance causes a judgment of conscience that something is evil that is actually good.

A man might consider it evil to believe in Christ as the Church proposes Him for belief, not due to his own fault, but because, without fault (or significant fault) of his own, he is convinced that Christ is a myth or a false prophet or that Christianity, at least as proposed by the Church, is harmful and destructive of human happiness. In such a case, he would not sin by refraining from belief in Christ, according to his erring conscience, since his error is not his fault. He would, on the other hand, sin if he were to believe in Christ contrary to his conscience.

A man, might, on the other hand, consider it bad to believe in Christ because, having over time given himself ever more to the pursuit of power, pleasure or fame, he has adopted the view and now believes without question that a religion which preaches self-denial, humility, and the giving of one’s life, is demeaning and wrong. This disbelief, resulting from sin so as to be indirectly voluntary with respect to what is bad about it, is therefore morally blameworthy.

These principles and distinctions can be helpful for examining our own conscience. They further manifest how we can defend and uphold natural and divine law without presuming to pass judgment on the guilt or lack therefore of others before God. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God;” (Romans 14:10) Since God alone knows the hearts of men, he alone can judge (surely and definitively) to what degree ignorance and error is voluntary. “I the Lord search the mind and try the heart, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings.” (Jer 17:10)

This suffices for the reply to the first objection; the one following an erroneous conscious is not blameworthy for clinging to the good as perceived, but for, through his own fault, believing something evil to be good or something good to be an evil, and therefore actually tending to evil.

To the second objection we reply, it is true that no one sins in that which he cannot avoid, and when a man is not able to avoid having an erroneous conscience, he is not blameworthy for following it. But when it is someone’s own fault that his conscience is in error, he is rightly blamed for the disordered action he does in following his conscience. The dichotomy “following his conscience (thus doing evil), or violating his conscience (thus being evil)” is indeed a false dichotomy. For since man is by nature ordered to the truth and desires the truth, conscience will never absolutely forbid a man from reconsidering his moral situation and correcting his conscience. Thus he is able to avoid all sin by correcting his conscience, and then following his corrected conscience.

We may be confident that God, who wills all men to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4), always enables a man to remedy a voluntary error of this sort. But on the supposition, that a man’s conscience were so darkened through voluntary fault, that he was absolutely unable to correct his conscience, the disordered deeds he would perform in following his conscience would not be, morally speaking, additional sins, but merely the necessary fruit of his previous sins.

We note, further, that though involuntary ignorance excuses a man of moral fault, he does not free a man from the consequences of disordered behavior. That which contravenes natural and human goods remains harmful, even if, without personal fault, someone is genuinely convinced that this behavior is not harmful.

Does an erroneous conscience oblige us

This post continues the series on the authority of conscience.

It seems that an erroneous conscience does not oblige us to act in accordance with our conscience.

1. For the obligatory force of conscience is derived from the necessity of pursuing a good or avoiding an evil that conscience judges as something necessary to be chosen or avoided. But when conscience is in error, that which is judged to be an indispensable good or to be evil is not actually such. Therefore, an erroneous conscience does not oblige us to choose or avoid it.

2. Again, an erroneous conscience may be in contradiction to a higher law, such as the divine law. But a lower rule of our behavior, as conscience, cannot overrule a higher rule such as the divine law. Rather, when two rules conflict, we are obliged to follow the higher one. Therefore erroneous conscience at least does not always bind.

But against this stands the authority of St. Thomas Aquinas, who states that “every will at variance with reason, whether right or erring, is always evil.” (ST I-II, q. 19, a. 5) Therefore even an erring conscious obliges the will to follow it.

Further, the Church assembled in Council of Vatican II teaches, “In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life.” (Dignitatis humanae 3). The Catechism similarly states: “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.” (CCC 1790)

I respond that, as stated previously, conscience is a judgment by which constraints, or rules for action in relation to the attainment of happiness are known as applicable to specific concrete actions. Conscience always proposes something as a rule for a concrete action, which is to be done or avoided; for example, “I must complete this work assignment, as I have promised to”, or “I must not receive Holy Communion, because sacramental confession is necessary before every Holy Communion, and I have not been to confession since my last Holy Communion” Whether the rule or the application therefore is objectively correct, by conscience we hold something as a rule for a concrete action. And, given that conscience is erring, the discrepancy between the “objective” truth of the matter and the judgment of conscious is unknown. Otherwise conscious would not be erring, but still deliberating or doubtful.

Since we can and mustchoose the good and choose to avoid evil inasmuch as it is known to us, we are therefore obliged by conscience, even when this conscience is mistaken.

It is worth noting, however, that the feelings that correspond to conscience may sometimes counterfeit conscience, producing quasi-judgments about what we should do. For example, an emotionally and physically abused spouse might feel guilt at the thought of separating from an abusive spouse, and, corresponding to this guilt, the thought “I can’t do that!” They might continue to have such feelings and thoughts, even have careful, prayerful discernment that has lead to a prudent decision to separate, for their good and the good of the children.

We are not, in principle, bound by these feelings and thoughts, and especially not when they are in contradiction to the true judgment of conscience, which is not a feeling or impression, but a judgment of our mind according to the truth as best we are able to know it.

The response to the first is apparent from this. When a man has an erring conscience, he is not obliged to follow that conscience in virtue of the objective good or evil in the action in question, but in virtue of the good or evil which he believes to be in it. Thus, if a man believes that chewing the consecrated host when receiving Holy Communion is wicked, he is obliged to avoid choosing to do that, not because it is objectively a bad thing to do, but because his will relates to it in the way that he understands it, as a bad thing to do.

To the second we may reply that a higher rule can override the obligation of a lower rule only when the two rules can be separated from each other. For example, if a bishop orders that a priest remain in pastoral duty in his diocese rather than transfer to another diocese or pursue contemplative life, the pope could overrule this ruling of the bishop. But if the higher rule is only applied through the mediation of the lower rule, the higher rule cannot nullify the lower rule. If, for example, the priest could only knew the decision of the pope through the bishop’s order, he would be obliged to what the bishop claimed the pope had decided, whether the bishop was telling the truth or not. But morally binding laws are applied to specific acts through the judgment of conscience, and therefore we are bound to follow conscience, though it at times be objectively mistaken.

Celibacy and the sexual abuse crisis

Over the past years, when a larger report of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests comes out, again and again opponents of priestly celibacy come out suggesting that the Church's discipline, in the Roman Rite, of requiring permanent and perpetual celibacy of its priests, contributes to the abuse crisis, or is even a major risk factor, or still more strongly, "will predictably produce this kind of result".

Others claim that "Clerical child sex abuse has nothing whatever to do with celibacy."

The truth, as is many cases, likely lies between these extremes, though it is cannot be neatly located on the scale from "causes the crisis" to "has nothing to do with it".

Leaving aside any empirical statistical evidence on the frequent of sexual abuse by celibate or non-celibate men, some aspects of celibacy would, taken on their own, suggest a connection between priestly celibacy and abuse, while others would suggest an inverse correlation (mandatory celibacy for priests countering the risk of someone abuser vulnerable persons).

Marriage as a remedy for concupiscence — suggestive of a connection between mandatory priestly celibacy and abuse
Marriage has long been described by Christian saints and writes as a remedy for concupiscence, by St. Augustine (see, for just one example, On Marriage and Concupiscence, Thomas Aquinas (see Summa theologiae, supplement, q. 42, article 3, Whether matrimony confers grace, and a multitude of others (see a selection of texts in the post Is marriage for the weak?). In this respect, it would not be surprising to find that those who are not in a position to legitimately satisfy sexual desire in marriage, are more likely to satisfy sexual desires in illegitimate ways, up to and including abusive ways. Celibacy does not make a man's sexual desires perverse or disordered; rather, his sexual desire is lacking order to begin with, being in the first place an instinctual drive, that must be governed by reason; the lack of the structured governance of that drive provided in marriage will, in the absence of contrary remedies, tend to lead to more disordered desires and acts.

Celibacy as freely chosen, involving abstinence even from legitimate sexual pleasure in marriage — suggestive of an inverse correlation between mandatory priestly celibacy and abuse
On the other hand, no one is forced to become a priest, and so, when we speak of priestly celibacy, we are not speaking of celibacy imposed randomly, independently of man's will, or even against man's will. Rather, it is a celibacy freely chosen (even if, in a particular instance, chosen principally as a condition or means to the desired end, the priesthood). If those who freely choose celibacy do so with adequate deliberation and a firm will to live it, if they belong to those "who can take it" (Matthew 19:12), we should, other things being equal, expect them to less frequently fall into sexual sin. For he is capable, or takes the means to render himself capable, of refraining from satisfying sexual desire in a legitimate manner in marriage, is much more capable of refraining from satisfying sexual desire in a sinful manner.

Celibacy as chosen by reason of being drawn to that way of life or not drawn to marriage — possibly suggestive of a connection between celibacy and abuse
No one is forced to become a priest. But also, in most cases, priests are, in the first instance, self-selected. Catholic communities and bishops could, in theory, come to men with the proposal, "we would like you to be a priest; are you willing to remain celibate for the rest of your life, study theology, to serve the Church in this diocese, etc.?" But, in many or most cases, the decisive initiative is taken by the men themselves who consider the priesthood. Given the association of the priesthood with celibacy, this has a unintended consequence: those who, for whatever reason, are not inclined to marriage — homosexuality, asexuality, sexual immaturity, sexual disorders — will be over-represented among applicants to the seminary. In the absence of an adequate mechanism to identify and exclude them, persons with certain sexual problems may also end up being over-represented in the presbyterate. And, very plausibly, some of those sexual problems will manifest themselves in distorted ways, including abusive ones.

Celibate priesthood as a special class — positive and negative aspects
A fourth point regarding celibacy is somewhat ambivalent: the discipline of celibacy tends to reinforce the image of the priesthood as a special class of Christians. This aspect of celibacy, might, in some times and places, contribute to a culture set firmly against all abuse, inasmuch as other priests who get wind of possible abuse are keen to uphold the reality of their class as a holy state, called in a special way to Christian virtue and holiness, and for whom, therefore, such sins are still more intolerable than they are in the case of lay persons. On the other hand, that the celibate priesthood makes up a special class may also have the opposite effect, lead to a culture permissive of abuse, because (1) one stands up for one's own, defends one's brother priests, assuming their innocence or downplaying their faults, because (2) one desires to uphold the image of the priestly state as a holy state, or because (3) the discrepancy in one's own life between the greater ideal of holiness to which one is called and one's actual life, causes one to misjudge the gravity of other sins; in the theological tradition, and expressly in the 1917 code of canon law, canon 132, clerics in major orders are so obliged to chastity that to sin against it is to be guilty of sacrilege (the notion behind this is that the priest's whole self, including his body, is dedicated to the Lord as something holy, so to sin against it is to violate what is holy); a priest guilty of habitual impurity, whether by fornication, adultery, masturbation, pornography, or impure thoughts, could possibly become thereby less inhibited from a crime such as abusing minors than a lay person guilty of the same habitual impurity would; similarly, a priest guilty of such impurity, whether occasional or habitual, may view such a crime by another priest less seriously than a lay person would.
Various problematic issues arising in connection with the priesthood as a special case are often treated under the notion of clericalism, by pope Francis (Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis to the People of God), and others (e.g., Sexual abuse and the culture of clericalism).

In view of these considerations, some of which, taken on their own, would suggest a link between celibacy and abuse, while others would suggest that celibate priests might be less likely to be sexually abusive, it is not too surprising, that, on some accounting, sexual abuse of minors (or at least behavior evoking a serious accusation of such abuse) is as common by married Anglican clergy as by celibate roman catholic clergy. (See, e.g. Does Celibacy Contribute to Clerical Sex Abuse? by Richard Cross, and the therein reference studies.)

At any rate, the issue is much more complex than "celibacy is unrelated to the issue of sexual abuse" or "celibacy is a principal cause of sexual abuse".

The Pain of Hell

Is God a torturer?

A difficulty some persons have with the doctrine of hell is the impression that hell implies vengeance and torture, which are incompatible with loving God. It is of course quite understandable that the more caution humans are in establishing punishments, the less they look at punishment as a deterrence and the more they look at it as a corrective for criminals, the harder it will be for them to understand an eternal punishment that is only employed in order to keep men from sin and evil through fear of this punishment.

The classical understanding of the punishment and pain of hell, since the middle ages and to some extent in the Father so of the Church (although the modern view of the pain of hell also finds a basis in some patristic thought) is more or less: God wills all human beings to come to him, to love him and their neighbor, and thereby to attain their own happiness. Now, in order to love, one must forego works that contradict this love; hence, to motivate men to withdraw from these evil deeds, God established the eternal separation from him and the pain of hell as punishment for works that fundamentally contradict love. The understanding of the fire of hell as a material, physical fire corresponds well to this understanding of hell, although this understanding of hell's punishment is not essentially connected with the notion of material fire.

Some modern theologians (e.g., Rahner, Greshake, Kehl, quite possibly Ratzinger) are of the opinion that this "classical" understanding of hell can no longer be maintained, that this understanding of hell is incompatible with a God who is merciful love. If God now does everything out of love, even in relation to sinners, we cannot say that suddenly after their death God no longer acts towards sinners out of love, but only or at any rate decisively out of justice. These theologians then understand the punishment of sin as an innate consequence of guilt, not as something more added by God as a disincentive to sin. That does not inflict pain on the sinner as a punishment. The punishment is the suffering inherent in sin, the ultimately unavoidable consequence of turning away from God, the source of goodness and of peace. Sin is a rejection of love. Hell is the fixation in this unloving state. But without love a person must finally be unhappy and suffer.

Several things speak in favor of this hypothesis, of this understanding of hell. In the Christian tradition we definitely do find the thought that sins brings its own punishment with it. We also very often find the thought the God, in his mercy, punishes sinners in hell less than they deserve. But if God in his mercy punishes sinners less than they deserve, it is plausible or even probable that he has not planned more punishment for hell than necessary or appropriate in order to discourage people from sinning. Hence, if the suffering inherent in sin can be appropriately described with the words that Scripture uses, such as fire, the worm, eternal destruction, and so on, than this punishment suffices as a deterring warning from sin, and it is probably that God brings about no further pain.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also tends somewhat in this direction. It has nothing to say directly to what was traditionally called the poena sensus (the sensible or experienced pain/punishment of hell, in contrast to the punishment that consisted in a privation, in not enjoying God [poena damni]). It says "the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs." (n. 1035) But other than by the use of the term "chief punishment" doesn't give even an hint that there is any other punishment. The phrasing does not seem to exclude the view that the principal punishment consists in separation from God, while other punishment consists in the experience of loss and loneliness subsequent upon this voluntary separation. It seems to leave open both the classical and the modern view.

Speaking about the eternal punishment of hell and the temporal punishment of purgatory, the Catechism says, "These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin." (CCC 1472) Pope John Paul the second says something quite similar, but substitutes "punishment" (castigo) for "vengeance" (vendetta): "Man… can unfortunately choose to reject [God's] love and forgiveness once and for all, thus separating himself for ever from joyful communion with him. It is precisely this tragic situation that Christian doctrine explains when it speaks of eternal damnation or hell. It is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life…. The images of hell that Sacred Scripture presents to us must be correctly interpreted. They show the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God." (General Audience, July 28, 1999).

On the other hand, whatever one thinks of this hypothesis of modern theologians, it would be a mistake to think that we can readily reject as impossible the classical understanding, held by many fathers and doctors of the Church. It is a mistake to suppose that God must act as we would act if we were entrusted with the rule of the universe and other human beings. It may be that the classic understanding of hell cannot be entirely understandable from a human perspective. This would not, however, immediately imply that this understanding is false. It could also be a sign of our very limited insight into the providence, love, and justice of God. As noted, the Catechism is rather careful on this question. It says "the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs", (n. 1035) suggesting another punishment besides this punishment, but maintaining silence on the question of what exactly this is.

Living Without Mortal Sin?

Do some persons live and die without ever committing any mortal sins? Recently Fr. John Zuhlsdorf ("Fr. Z") stated that "there is only one woman ever who" was "entirely free of mortal sin throughout their life”. Despite correction by several commentators, he continued to defend his claim, putting forth the arguments that (1) one cannot prove the absence of mortal sin (since God alone knows the heart), (2) "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us." (1 John 1:10), and (3) "by definition Original Sin is mortal sin and we all commit it. We all have the guilt of Original sin."

In the past I have also heard somewhat similar opinions from other sources. So, a few remarks on the matter:

(1) The burden is on the one who claims that a person who has done wrong to prove it. If someone claims that St. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, committed a mortal sin, it is up to the one who claims this to prove it. It will not do to say "prove that it's not so!" Granted one cannot directly prove that St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, St. Maria Goretti, St. Dominic Savio, Bl. Jacinta of Fatima, etc., never committed a mortal sin, it surely lies on the one who accuses them of having committed mortal sin to prove it. To claim as a fact that someone committed grave evil is objectively slanderous unless one has some way of being sure that they did so. Now Fr. Z seems to suggest having a solid basis for making this claim in the doctrine that grace is a gratuitous gift (we can't know with the certainty of faith if we are in the state of grace), and that we all sin (1 John 1:10). However, and here lies the problem, the saints and doctors of the Church do not agree with him in his interpretation of these doctrines and their implications.

(2) From the Fathers through the Council of Trent and beyond, the assumption is that some, but not all, fall into sin after baptism. It is clear that grace suffices to in fact persevere a substantial length, and indeed an entire life, without sin. It may be a minority, but it is supposed to be at least some.

I quote also St. Thomas Aquinas, responding to an objection that grace cannot be a habit in the soul, since a habit is something stable and permanent, whereas grace is easily lost, since it is lost through a single act of mortal sin: "Although grace is lost by one act of mortal sin, it is not easily lost, because it is not easy for someone who has grace to do such an act, on account of his inclination to the opposite action, as the Philosopher says in Ethics V, that it is difficult for a just man to do unjust deeds." (De veritate q. 27, a. 1, ad 9). If mortal sins are not frequent in all Christians, then you can be sure that some have died without committing any mortal sins (since some die a few years after reaching the age of reason, some a single year afterwards, some a few months afterwards, etc.), unless, far from positing the traditional providence of God that preserves some people from any mortal sin ("caught up lest evil change his understanding or guile deceive his soul." Wis 4:11), one posits a very special providence of God seeing to it that everyone other than Mary falls into mortal sin, a rather problematic hypothesis.

(3) Moreover, we have positive, and strong evidence that individual persons have lived without committing any mortal sin: certain persons, who have been canonized as saints by the Catholic Church, have testified that other persons (also later canonized as saints by the Catholic Church) lived and died without committing any mortal sin. For example, St. Robert Bellarmine testified it of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, and St. John Bosco testified it of St. Dominic Savio. This view of St. Aloysius life is moreover affirmed by the liturgy itself, in which we pray, "O God, giver of heavenly gifts, who in Saint Aloysius Gonzaga joined penitence to a wonderful innocence of life, grant, through his merits and intercession, that, though we have failed to follow him in innocence, we may imitate him in penitence." The implication of this prayer is that St. Aloysius preserved baptismal innocence, and that the vast majority of persons did not. (Updated correction: Or the prayer may mean by "innocence" that he committed not only no mortal sin, but also none or next to none fully deliberate venial sin; then the implication would be that the vast majority of persons have committed at least some fully deliberate venial sin.)

Leaving aside the theological and rational arguments (which are in favor of some living and dying without committing mortal sin), if one has to choose between St. Robert Bellarmine, St. John Bosco's, and the Roman liturgy's view, and the personal interpretation of another individual, one would be wise to side with the saints and with the liturgy of the Catholic Church.

(4) Regarding St. John's statement that "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar" (1 John 1:10), I simply recall his own statement in the same epistle, "All wrongdoing is sin, but there are some sins that are not mortal," as well as "No one born of God commits sin; for God's nature abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God." (1 John 3:9)". The sins we are commit, the "daily sins" (St. Augustine), are in most cases venial sins, and John is including these when talking about sin when he says "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar."

(5) Regarding original sin, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches explicitly that original sin does not have the character of personal guilt in us, nor is it "committed" by us: "[Original sin] is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called "sin" only in an analogical sense: it is a sin "contracted" and not "committed" – a state and not an act.
Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam's descendants (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 404-405)"

In any event, even if one could theoretically call original sin "mortal sin" by analogy, that is not the traditional Catholic usage of "mortal sin" (Otherwise it would be senseless to ask, for instance, whether someone could be in original sin and venial sin, without mortal sin, as St. Thomas Aquinas does), nor is it the usage of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

To sum up, the testimony of the saints and of the Church is that grace can and does indeed preserve some people (and not just the Blessed Virgin Mary) from all mortal sin, and also points out some concrete saints whom grace has so preserved from mortal sin throughout their lives.

Lying and Moral Intuitions

Peter Kreeft recently wrote a post titled "Why Live Action did right and why we all should know that". There are three elements to his thesis, two bare affirmations–Live Action did right; we should all know that–and an affirmation of how any sound person would know they did right.

His position and argument can be summed up in the following sentence:

By an intuitive judgment that is based on moral experience and on a comparison with other ways of defending person's lives (eg., spying, physical harming someone else to keep them from killing people), it is evident to most people, and to all normal human beings that what Live Action did is right, and if you think otherwise, you're morally stupid, and care about principles or moral uprightness more than about people.

I'm not going to take a position on the legitimacy of what Live Action did, but I take a definite position on this manner of arguing: it is unsound, guilty of several classic fallacies, and uncharitable, arguing by ridiculing one's opponents.

1. Appeal to the people–because most people think its so, it must be so–or simply begging the question. Peter Kreeft premises: Most of my students immediately and firm conviction is that Dutchmen "were not wrong to deliberately deceive the Nazis about the locations of the Jews they had promised to hide". He then affirms that these students "know, without any ifs or ands or buts," that such Dutch deception is good, not evil, and that anyone who is more certain of a universal philosophical principle, from which he would conclude that such deception was wrong, "is not functioning as a human being but as a computer, an angel, a Gnostic, or a Kantian."

When we discuss Kant and the issue of lying, most of my students, even the moral absolutists, are quite certain that the Dutchmen were not wrong to deliberately deceive the Nazis about the locations of the Jews they had promised to hide. … They know, without any ifs or ands or buts, that such Dutch deception is good, not evil. If anyone is more certain of his philosophical principles than he is that this deception is good, I say he is not functioning as a human being but as a computer, an angel, a Gnostic, or a Kantian.

Here Kreeft is either (1) begging the point at issue, using his students merely as a illustration of that which he takes as a fact anyway, namely that whatever deception was realistically necessary to save lives (whether one uses the term "lying" or not) was good, or (2) arguing from the fact that the intuition of most persons is in favor of lying in such situations.

2. Begging the question and ridiculing your opponent: "Physical hiding and verbal hiding are two sides of the same coin, whether you call it lying, or deception, or whatever you call it. What it is, is much more obvious than what it is to be called. It’s a good thing to do. If you don’t know that, you’re morally stupid, and moral stupidity comes in two opposite forms: relativism and legalism. Relativism sees no principles, only people; legalism sees no people, only principles."

3. Argument by ridiculing your opponent: "If lying is always wrong, then it is wrong to lie to a nuclear terrorist (the “ticking time bomb” scenario) to elicit from him where he hid the nuclear bomb that in one hour will kill millions if it is not found and defused. The most reasonable response to the “no lying” legalist here is “You gotta be kidding”—or something less kind than that."

4. Argument from analogy, which, however, reduces to the previous fallacies, either appeal to the people or a begging of the question). The genuine morality of what Live Action did is the same as that of spying in order to save lives. But spying in order to save lives is morally right. Therefore what Live Action did is morally right.

The closest analogy I can think of to Live Action’s expose of Planned Parenthood is spying. If Live Action is wrong, then so is all spying, including spying out the Nazis’ atomic bomb projects and saving the world from a nuclear holocaust.

This is a logically valid argument. Kreeft does not argue for the premise that spying is morally licit, but this premise is probably not disputed by those whom he is opposing. The more questionable premise is his supposition that the morality of spying is the same as that of lying. He does not give any argument for this, thus it is either simply assumed (begging the question) or assumed on the basis of majority opinion.

 

Peter Kreeft does give a certain argument in favor of the use of the argument from majority opinion in moral matters: because they deal with concrete realities, "moral experience, instinctive moral judgments about concrete situations by our innate moral common sense" has priority over "clear definitions of general moral principles and valid logical reasoning from them"

Several questions pose themselves in regard to this: (1) what do we do when faced with a moral situation, such as that of lying to save someone's life, where the instinctive moral judgment says it is morally right, and the instinctive moral judgment of others says that it is morally wrong? If we say that the instinct of the majority is right, it seems we would have to say that the use of artificial contraception is morally right, a conclusion Kreeft would not accept. In the Aristotelian and Thomistic account, it is not just anyone's instinctive judgment which is decisive, but the judgment of the virtuous man? Is Kreeft so sure of his virtue that he can say that one who denies that his instincts are correct are "morally stupid" and is "not functioning as a human being"?

(2) What do we do when faced with a moral situation where, when the situation is presented in one way, we have one instinctive moral judgment, and, if the situation is presented in another way, we have a different instinctive moral judgment?

I hope to return to the question of instinctive judgments and moral reasoning in a later post.

See also: A Response to Peter Kreeft, On Lying, posted on the New Theological Movement Blog, and Augustine vs the Priscillianists by Mark Shea, two other responses worth reading.

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?

It's All Adam's Fault!

In several recent posts, I argued that when a person is to some degree determined toward evil on account of an external cause, he is to that degree less free and responsible for doing the evil. In a similar vein someone might argue: it is practically speaking a foregone conclusions that we are going to commit many sins, because we are born sinners, and we are born sinners not because of anything we did (as in Origen's account), but because of Adam. It's his fault, not ours. He's really the one responsible for our sins!

There are a couple of complementary ways to approach this objection. First, we may insist, as the Early Church Fathers, as well as nearly all the Eastern Fathers tend to do, that we still retain the basic freedom to choose what is good; the divine spark and light of the Spirit in the soul has been dimmed, but not totally extinguished from the soul. This is the objective approach to answering the objection.

But how do we reconcile all these affirmations, that (1) to the degree that one person's bad action is predictable on account of the agency of another person, the former is less free and less responsible for that bad action, that (2) on account of Adam's sin, we are virtually certain to commit numerous sins, and that (3) we remain free and responsible for our sins?

The first way of doing so is to recognize that our present freedom, while real freedom, is merely a dim shadow of the freedom that is possible to the human spirit. The freedom of all of our free acts and choices, both good and evil, is a shadow of the freedom of a man whose spirit possesses true mastery of choice, for whom the "perishable body" does not weigh down the soul. If our sins are ten thousand times less voluntary than Adam's sin (which may or may not be true), this does not mean that our sins are involuntary, or that we are not free, but that Adam's freedom was a freedom greater than we can possibly imagine.

The other way to answer the objection is that whatever the cause of our sinfulness, that is, our separation from the holiness of God and our tendency to sin, the fact remains that it is we who are sinful, we who sin, we who so often act in disgraceful and shameful fashions. C.S. Lewis illustrates this well in the Problem of Pain:

Theoretically, I suppose, we might say ‘Yes: we behave like vermin, but then that is because we are vermin. And that, at any rate, is not our fault.’ But the fact that we are vermin, so far from being felt as an excuse, is a greater shame and grief to us than any of the particular acts which it leads us to commit. The situation is not nearly so hard to understand as some people make out. It arises among human beings whenever a very badly brought up boy is introduced into a decent family. They rightly remind themselves that it is ‘not his own fault’ that he is a bully, a coward, a tale-bearer and a liar. But none the less, however it came there, his present character is detestable. They not only hate it, but ought to hate it. They cannot love him for what he is, they can only try to turn him into what he is not. In the meantime, though the boy is most unfortunate in having been so brought up, you cannot quite call his character a ‘misfortune’ as if he were one thing and his character another. It is he—he himself—who bullies and sneaks and likes doing it. And if he begins to mend he will inevitably feel shame and guilt at what he is just beginning to cease to be.

Augustine emphasizes (in some respects excessively) this second approach to the state of sinfulness in which we are born. This approach, in contrast to the first, is principally subjective, focusing on our experience of a separation from God, our corresponding behavior, and consequent shame. Though this second approach would not suffice on its own to answer the objection that would deny our responsibility for sin, it is a valuable complement to the first approach.

Are They Few Who Sin?

In the posts Is predictability incompatible with responsibility for sin and The Difference Between Truth and Error, I argued that external causes (genetics, upbringing, circumstances, etc.) that are not the result of a person's will, and yet make it more likely that that person will commit an objectively evil act, decrease the voluntariness of that act. As pointed out in a comment, this principle could be used to absolve almost everyone of responsibility for sin, and in fact is not infrequently so used in modern times. Clarence Darrow argued in the trial of Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold for murder: "Nature is strong and she is pitiless. She works in mysterious ways, and we are her victims. We have not much to do with it ourselves. Nature takes this job in hand, and we only play our parts…. What had this boy had to do with it? He was not his own father; he was not his own mother….All of this was handed to him. He did not surround himself with governesses and wealth. He did not make himself. And yet he is to be compelled to pay." Though this argument was not credited by the judge, who stated that it did not pertain to the court to make a judgment of ultimate responsibility, one might argue that God judges precisely on the basis of ultimate responsibility, and does not condemn a person for an act to which he was largely led by upbringing, circumstances, etc.

What to say about this? For the sake of illustration, and in the spirit of modern science, let's describe a person's amount of responsibility with a number from 0 to 1, where 0 means the person is totally free of responsibility, and 1 means he is totally responsible. Where is the dividing line between the acts of sin for which God holds a man accountable, and the acts for which God does not hold a man accountable? If God does not condemn a person for sin unless he is at least 0.99999 responsible for it, the view that nearly everyone goes to heaven might be quite a bit more plausible. Conversely, if God condemns a person for sin if he is even 0.00001 responsible for it, the view that nearly everyone goes to hell would become more likely.

We do not have direct insight into the mind and judgment of God on this matter, but we have hints about his answer; God's answer to the question of this post would seem to be similar to his answer to the question "Are they few who will be saved?"

Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. (Luke 13:24).

Whatever God's future judgment may be about those who are led to sin through their upbringing, their culture, and so on, our earnest concern should be to avoid sin and to follow Christ, and similarly to draw others away from sin and to Christ.

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.