Rock climbing and judging people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Aquinas, Averroes, and Habits

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

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

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

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


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?

Instincts Regarding Determinism and Moral Responsibility

Shaun Nichols and Joshua Kolbe describe in a paper, Moral Responsibility and Determinism: The Cognitive Science of Folk Intuitions (PDF), several studies aimed at delineating common intuitions regarding the (in)compatibility of moral responsibility and determinism. Having one universe, universe A, described in which everything, including human decisions, is completely caused by the foregoing events, so that they cannot happen differently than they do, and another universe, universe B, in which human decisions are not completely caused by foregoing events, and could be different than they are, the vast majority (90%) say that the second universe is more like the one in which we live.

The participants are further asked either an abstract or a general question regarding the possibility of moral responsibility in universe A:

Of those asked the abstract question, "In Universe A, is it possible for a person to be fully morally responsible for their actions?   Yes    No", 86% responded that it is not possible for a person to be fully morally responsible for what they do.

Of those presented with the concrete scenario and question, "In Universe A, Bill stabs his wife and children to death so that he can be with his secretary. Is it possible that Bill is fully morally responsible for killing his family?", 50% responded that it is possible.

Presented with the even more detailed scenario, "In Universe A, a man named Bill has become attracted to his secretary, and he decides that the only way to be with her is to kill his wife and 3 children. He knows that it is impossible to escape from his house in the event of a fire. Before he leaves on a business trip, he sets up a device in his basement that burns down the house and kills his family. Is Bill fully morally responsible for killing his wife and children?", 72% responded that he is fully morally responsible!

The authors suggest that these contradictory intuitions suggest that the greater affective reaction to the concrete scenario.

Now, an alternative explanation would be that it was simply the concreteness of the scenarios that led to the different responses. The more concrete ways that the presents see in which the actions proceeded from Bill's intellect and will, the more likely they are to respond that he is or could be fully morally responsible.

In an attempt to exclude this possibility, the authors made another experiment in which all participants were presented with concrete situations. Some were asked:

As he has done many times in the past, Bill stalks and rapes a stranger. Is it possible that Bill is fully morally responsible for raping the stranger?

Others were asked:

As he has done many times in the past, Mark arranges to cheat on his taxes. Is it possible that Mark is fully morally responsible for cheating on his taxes?

Under the stipulation that these persons are supposed to exist in universe B, in which human decisions are not entirely caused by foregoing events, almost all responded that the persons could be fully morally responsible for their actions (95% responded that Bill could be fully morally responsible for the rape, and 89% that Mark could be fully morally responsible for cheating on his taxes).

Under the stipulation that these persons are supposed to exist in universe A, in which human decisions are entirely caused by foregoing events, nearly all responded that Mark could not be fully morally responsible for cheating on his taxes; only 23% answered that he could be fully morally responsible. 64%, on the other hand,  responded that Bill could be fully morally responsible.

The authors argue from this study that the concreteness of the question or scenario is not responsible for the different responses, but the kind of affective response elicited by the scenario.

It is an interesting study, and doubtless affect plays in a role in the responses, but there does occur to me another possible factor that the authors do not consider, namely that the participants' instinct is that, in fact, the decision to cheat on one's taxes, because it does not directly concern fundamental human goods, is only secondarily a moral matter and can be determined by circumstances and external causes, while the decision to rape someone, being more directly concerned with fundamental human good, cannot be determined by circumstances and external causes. Such an instinct would explain the results: since the persons have an intuition that the decision to rape cannot be a non-moral action, and also a belief that in a deterministic universe all actions are non-moral, their responses are close to 50-50; the persons asked about Mark have an intuition that the decision to cheat on taxes can be a non-moral action, though in normal circumstances it is a moral action, and so, since there is no conflict with their belief that in a deterministic universe full moral responsibility is impossible, the majority answer that Mark cannot be fully morally responsible.

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.

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).

Counterfeit Charity

St. Francis de Sales in his Treatise on the Love of God devotes the fourth book to describing how we may lose charity, and there notes how charity, which is properly a share we have in God's own love, produces a likeness of itself on the human level. So long as charity remains, this is all fine and as it ought to be, and charity indeed makes use of this human love. But a certain danger exists that one may fall away from charity, and be deceived by this merely human love into thinking that one still possesses charity.

When holy charity residents for a long time in a receptive soul, she produces a second love, which is not a love of charity, though it proceeds from charity; it is a human love, yet it is so much like charity that even if afterward charity perishes in the soul it seems to be still there, inasmuch as it leaves behind this picture and likeness of itself, which so represents charity that one who was ignorant would be thereby deceived. (Treatise on the Love of God, book IV, ch. 9)

When separated from charity, this human love, no longer being opened upon the unlimited and divine good, must be restricted in its scope. One is willing to do some things for this sake of this love, but not others.

And yet there is a great difference between charity and the human love it produces in us: for the voice of charity declares, impresses, and effects all the commandments of God in our hearts; the human love which remains after it does indeed sometimes declare and impress all the commandments, yet it never effects them all, but some few only. (Ibid.)

One who fails in watchfulness, who lets his commitments slide, as it were, and over a period of time neglects the love of God or neighbor, may not notice any sudden fall from charity, but may seem to themselves and to others to still be in a state of charity.

I have seen certain young people, well brought up in the love of God, who, putting themselves out of that path, remained for some time during their miserable decay still giving great signs of their past virtue, and, the habit acquired in time of charity resisting present vice, scarcely could one for some months discern whether they were out of charity or not, and whether they were virtuous or vicious, till such time as the course of things made it clear that these virtuous exercises proceeded not from present charity but from past, not from perfect but from imperfect love, which charity had left behind her, as a sign that she had lodged in those souls (ibid., ch. 10).

Hence, while this human love is certainly good, its capability of appearing as true charity is a danger for us, who may think we have charity when we do not.

Though this imperfect love be good in itself, yet it is perilous for us; for oftentimes we are contented with it alone, because having many exterior and interior marks of charity, we, thinking we have charity, deceive ourselves and think we are holy, while, in this vain persuasion, the sins which deprived us of charity increase, grow great, and multiply so fast that in the end they make themselves masters of our heart (ibid.).

The way to discern whether or not one loves with true charity, whether charity or merely its counterfeit is present, is by considering what would be willing to do for God, should friendship with God require it. If there is anything we would not be willing to do for God even if friendship with him demanded it, our love is not the true love of charity, but a merely human love that appears like it.

But, you will ask me, what means is there to discern whether it be Rachel or Lia, charity or imperfect love, which gives me the feelings of devotion wherewith I am touched? If when you examine in particular the objects of the desires, affections and designs which you have at the time, you find any one for which you would go against the will and good-pleasure of God by sinning mortally, it is then beyond doubt that all the feeling, all the facility and promptitude which you have in God's service, issue from no other source than human and imperfect love: for if perfect love reigned in us—Ah! it would break every affection, every desire, every design, the object of which was so pernicious, and it would not endure that your heart should behold it. (Ch. 11)

Though St. Francis de Sales does not explicitly speak about the other result of the examination–that one finds nothing for which one would go against the will and good-pleasure of God by sinning mortally–since the question is how to "discern whether it be… charity or imperfect love", it seems the logical conclusion that if in examining oneself, one finds nothing for which one would go against the will of God by sinning mortally (and the basic attitude one seeks to have toward God is one of love rather than, say, fear of hell), that one should have confidence that God's grace has kept one in his love.

One note of caution on this: St. Francis de Sales takes for granted that one has the capacity and willingness to make an honest examination of oneself; if one is unwillingly to examine oneself honestly before God and in God's light, then a lack of awareness of anything for which one would violate God's will by mortal sin would not seem to constitute particularly good evidence for the presence of charity.

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.