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.

Aquinas on Mortal Sins of Passion

Though Aquinas clearly affirms that the influence of passions on the will can decrease the degree of voluntariness, and thus the merit or demerit of good actions or sins, when it comes to gravely disordered acts, such as fornication, masturbation, or theft, he still sees the issue as basically black or white: either the act is voluntary, and then it is a mortal sin; or it is not voluntary, and then it is not properly a sin at all. He affirms this position both in the De Malo, and in the Summa Theologiae.

De Malo, question 3, article 10

Whether sins committed out of passion are imputed to man as mortal fault

It should be said that since men sometimes commit adultery out of weakness or passion, and do many crimes or shameful things, as Peter did when he denied Christ out of fear, no one should have any doubt that sins perpetrated out of passion are sometimes mortal.

To understand this we should consider that the necessity based on something one's will has power over does not keep an act from being a mortal sin, just as, if someone stabs a dagger in someone's vital members it is necessary that that man die, but stabbing him is voluntary. Hence the death of the man who is stabbed is imputed to the one who struck him as a mortal fault.

And it is similar in the case we are considering; for given that reason is bound by passion, it is necessary that a disordered choice follow, but the will has the power to repel this bond of reason. For it was said that reason is bound due to the soul's intention being vehemently drawn to the act of the sensitive appetite; hence it is turned away from considering in particular that which it knows universally. But the will has the power to turn the intention to something or not. Hence it has the power to keep reason from being bound. Therefore the act committed on account of reason's being bound is voluntary; hence it is not excused from fault, even mortal fault. But if the bond of reason by passion goes so far that it is not in the will's power to remove such a bond, as if someone becomes insane through some passion of the soul, whatever he commits would not be imputed to him as fault, as neither would it be imputed to any insane person—unless perhaps such a passion was voluntary from its very beginning; for then the will could from the beginning prevent the passion for going so far; thus murder committed through drunkenness is imputed to man as fault, since the beginning of drunkenness was voluntary.

Summa Theologiae I-II, Question 77, Article 8

Whether a sin committed out of passion can be mortal

It should be said that mortal sin, as was said above, consists in turning away from the last end, which is God; this turning away pertains to the reason in its deliberation, since it is reason that orders things to the end. Therefore the only way in which the soul’s inclination to something which is contrary to the last end can be not a mortal sin, is because reason is unable to resist this inclination by its deliberation, as is the case in sudden movements of the passions. But when someone out of passion goes on to do a sinful act, or to deliberate consent, this does not happen suddenly. Hence reason by deliberating can resist this further act; for it can get rid of, or at least prevent it [from leading to action], as was said above. Hence if it does not resist it, it is a mortal sin. Thus we see that many murders and adulteries are committed out of passion.

In response to the third objection, which argues that mortal sin consists in turning away from God, and only man's spiritual faculty of reason can do this, while passion cannot strictly speaking turn toward or away from God, Aquinas argues:

It should be said that passion does not always impede reason totally from its act; hence it retains free judgment, so that it can turn away from or toward God. If, however, the use of reason were totally taken away, there would be neither a mortal nor a venial sin.

This response of Aquinas seems to indicate that his position is in fact quite a bit stronger than that “sin committed out of passion can be mortal”–that in his mind, every act that is objectively gravely disordered, if it is at all voluntary, though committed under the influence of passion, is a mortal sin.

Mortal Sin and Fundamental Option 2

In the previous post I attempted to describe a man who, as far as morally possible, related to his family in a manner analogous to the manner a Christian relates to God, so that even things that normally are not incompatible with marital love would exclude it.

We could also consider a more realistic case, in which a man's fight with his wife isn't incompatible with loving for her. There are, still, individual acts that are quite incompatible with love for her, e.g., attempting to kill one of their children, or signing over all his property to another woman for whom he has strong feelings. In this case, too, it's psychologically not possible for him to go rapidly back and forth from loving her to performing such acts incompatible with loving her, unless those acts are not really voluntary—and are performed only due to being drunk, for instance. Such acts that involve breaking off his love for his wife in most cases only complete and manifest a process begun long ago, of failing in love for her.

Aquinas on the Sin of Drunkenness

From the De Malo to the Summa Theologiae Aquinas apparently makes a shift in his judgment about drunkenness. While in the De Malo he says that getting drunk is of itself a venial sin, in the Summa Theologiae and in the Commentary on Romans (as well as the Commentary on 1 Corinthians), which are widely considered to be of a later date than the De Malo, he says that getting drunk is of itself a mortal sin.

De Malo

In the De Malo, q.2, a. 8, Aquinas asks whether a circumstance can make a venial sin into a mortal sin. The third objection argues that getting drunk once is a venial sin, while getting drunk many times is a mortal sin. Hence a circumstance (the frequency) makes a venial sin into a mortal one. He replies:

To the third it should be said that getting drunk many times is not a circumstance that constitutes a species of sin, and therefore as getting drunk once is a venial sin, so getting drunk many times is a venial sin, speaking per se; but accidentally and by way of disposition getting drunk many times can be a mortal sin, as for example, when by the custom of drinking someone comes to have so great complacency in drunkenness that he would be willing to get drunk even if it involved the contempt of a divine precept. (De Malo, q.2, a. 8 )

Again in q. 7, a. 4, where the same question comes up again, a similar objection is raised:

1. Augustine says in a sermon on Purgatory that if anger is held onto for a long time, and if drunkenness is a regular (assidua) occurence, they are then numbered among mortal sins. But such sins are generically venial sins–otherwise they would always be mortal sins. Therefore a venial sin becomes mortal through the circumstance of regularity or duration. (De Malo, q. 7, a. 4)

He makes a similar reply, though with a different argument.

It should be said about drunkenness, that it in itself makes the reason actually not turned toward God, i.e., so long as the drunkenness lasts the reason cannot be turned toward God. And since a man is not obliged at all times to actually turn his reason towards God, drunkenness is not always a mortal sin; but when a man gets drunk regularly, it seems that he is not concerned about whether his reason is turned toward God, and in such a case drunkenness is a mortal sin, for it seems that on account of the pleasure of wine he despises the turning of his reason toward God. (De Malo, q. 7, a. 4, ad 1)

Summa Theologiae

In I-II, q. 88, a. 5, he asks whether some circumstance of an act can make a venial sin into a mortal sin. The first objection is of particular interest, because it is almost exactly the same as that in De Malo, q. 7, a. 4. Aquinas writes:

Augustine says in a sermon on Purgatory that if anger is held onto for a long time, and if drunkenness is a regular (assidua) occurence, they are then numbered among mortal sins. But anger and drunkenness are not generically mortal sins, but venial sins–otherwise they would always be mortal sins. Therefore a circumstance makes a venial sin into a mortal sin. (I-II, q. 88, a. 5)

In reply, he says:

About drunkenness we should say that that it has in itself the character of a mortal sin; for when a man without necessity and merely for the sake of the pleasure in wine, make himself unable to use his reason, by which a man is directed to God and avoids committing many sins, such an act is expressly contrary to virtue. But it can be a venial sin on account of some sort of ignorance or weakness, as when a man is ignorant of the strength of the wine, or of his own incapacity (for drinking), so that he does not expect to get drunk; for in such a case the drunkenness is not imputed to him as a sin, but only the excessive drinking. If, however, he gets drunk frequently, this ignorance can no longer excuse him, and his will seems to choose drunkenness rather than refraining from an excess of wine; hence the sin becomes again what it is by its own nature [namely a mortal sin]. (I-II, q. 88, a. 5, ad 1)

Again in the Secunda Secundae, q. 150, a. 2, where he takes up drunkenness specifically, and asks whether it is a mortal sin, he gives the same reply:

Someone may be well aware that he is drinking immoderately and thereby getting drunk, and yet he would rather be drunk than abstain from drink. Such a man is the one who is properly speaking called a drunkard [in contrast to persons who drink too much without knowing it, or get drunk without expecting it], because moral character comes not from things that occur accidentally and aside from the intention, but from that which is directly intended. In this way drunkenness is a mortal sin, because then a man willingly and knowingly deprives himself of the use of reason, bu which he performs virtuous deeds and avoids sin, and thus he sins mortally by running the risk of committing  sin. For Ambrose says in the book On the Patriarchs: "We say that one should avoid drunkenness, since it keeps us from avoiding grievous sins. For the things we avoid when sober, we unknowingly commit through drunkenness." Therefore drunkenness, speaking per se, is a mortal sin. (Secunda Secundae, q. 150, a. 2)

In the reply to the first objection he interprets Augustine's saying in the same way as he does in the Prima Secundae.

His treatment in his Commentary on Romans and on 1 Corinthians is very much like that in the Summa Theologiae.

How to Account for the Difference?

The divergence between the account in the De Malo and in the later writings could be explained in several ways:

(1) Aquinas may have become stricter in general, and thus stricter in his judgment of drunkenness. (This would be an interesting subject of research. I don't know of any studies investigating such a line of thought).

(1b) He may have gained more experience of the harmful things people do when drunk, and pronounces judgment accordingly.

(2) He may be envisioning quite different contexts. In the De Malo he may be envisioning, e.g., a monk in his cell who gets drunk by drinking too much wine, and the principal or only harmful consequence is that he can't pray or contemplate at that time, while in the other works he is envisioning a person engaged in various activities and in active relationships with other persons, who is liable to damage things or injure other persons if he is drunk.

Mortal Sin and Fundamental Option

One of the reasons why many theologians have been attracted to the theory of a "fundamental option" is that it seems in certain respects to correspond better to real-life experience. If we consider visible human relationships, between two married persons for example,we don't find persons who go frequently back and forth from being totally committed to each other, to selfishly rejecting each other, back to total commitment, and so on. As a rule, the relationship will overall either be gradually improving or deteriorating, and individual quarrels don't completely disrupt the relationship. If a man ceases to love his wife on account of a single dispute or fight, that would be taken as a sign he didn't really love her in the first place, or that he had been neglecting his love for her, letting various selfish interests break it down, and that the quarrel is only the terminus of a long process.

Leaving aside the theological aspect, based on God's covenant with man, the supernatural virtue of charity, etc., what is happening when a person resolves to live a certain manner of life, and yet occasionally, or perhaps frequently, performs concrete acts that are inconsistent with that? For example, he resolves to live for his family, and looks for his happiness within his family (and in the wider sense, within his society). But he sometimes performs acts, such as staying out excessively late drinking with his fellow workers, that don't make sense within that framework, but only make sense on the supposition of a preference for something else above happiness as a member of his family, within a framework in which what he wants is the ultimate point of reference, where self-love is the final measure. Or in other words, in terms of the end/means relationship, certain acts he does objectively can't be truly ordered towards the end of family happiness as a final goal, but only towards some other end, that may be thought of more vaguely (living a pleasant life), but that at any rate is some other final goal.

One might explain the situation in several ways:

1. The ultimate goal of his life is, and remains, the common good of his family and his happiness within that family, though he performs individual acts that don't make sense and are unreasonable in terms of that goal.

2. The ultimate goal of his life is all along some vague goal (living a good life, a social and pleasant life, or the like), in which his family's good is one element among others, though an important one.

3. The ultimate goal of his life is the good of his family most of the time, but when he does acts objectively contrary to that goal, then when he is doing those acts, he thereby re-orientates himself towards another final end, and remains directed towards that end until he makes a fresh resolve to live his life as a whole for his family.

The first and second explanations do seem, on the face of it, more plausible interpretations of what is going on than the third.

If we accept the first explanation, what would that mean in terms of the voluntariness of the man's acts? Since whatever one wills, one wills for the sake of one's final end, the man is therefore willing, for the sake of his final end, to do something actually inconsistent with that final end. This would seem to imply that his act is not perfectly voluntary, at least not in the respect in which it is contrary to his ultimate end. (This distinction, though it is often forgotten or overlooked, is an important one. An act may be completely voluntary in the sense that it is the result of a very conscious and explicit choice, without all of the goodness or badness of that act necessarily being voluntary).

The analogy one might make with love for God and the performance of sinful acts is, I think, clear. For the time we will continue to leave aside the issues pertaining to charity as an virtue infused by God and dependent on grace. A person who resolves to life his live above all for God, and yet on not so infrequent occasions does things objectively inconsistent with taking God as the rule for one's life, is like the man in the example above, who resolves to live for his family, and yet fails at certain times to act in consistency with that resolve. If one held that he continues, in fact, to be seeking God as his ultimate end, it seems one would similarly have to say that the acts objectively inconsistent with that end, or at any rate the badness and stupidity of those acts, are not entirely voluntary. Thus they would constitute venial sins by reason of a lack of full voluntariness.

But on this account, would any acts be fully voluntary? I'll return to this question in another post.

Why We Need Habits

Why do we need habits? If what makes people different from animals is their ability to know truth as such, wherever it is to be found, and not only some limited environment, and again, their capacity to love and seek for goodness, wherever it is to be found, habituation seems to be a kind of degradation of the human being. To act from habit is like acting from instinct, rather than from judgment and choice, insight and love.

To this I would say that it might, indeed, in some sense be ideal if we could have complete insight into the situations in which we live, know all of the implications and effects on human goods and relationships that various possible actions would have, and in view of all this, make a conscious choice before doing any new action.

All this, however, is mere fantasy, or at least speculation (maybe Adam could actually have made decisions that way before the fall). It is totally impossible for us to have every single aspect of a situation in mind, and to explicitly trace all of the particular goods involved in our actions (health, pleasure, the good of laughter, relationship with friends, material goods, etc.) in a detailed manner back to the supreme good, God himself. If we were to attempt to do so, we would take a ridiculous length of time to decide, for instance, when shopping, whether to buy a cheaper but slightly less good tasting or less healthy food  or a more expensive but better food.

In order to make decisions in a reasonable time frame and to act upon our decisions, we need to be immediately inclined to many particular goods to be loved and pursued: to the good of our family and friends, the good of society, the good of studying, the good of music, etc. Moreover, we need to be able to easily and readily make a judgment of the proportion of one good to another, as in the example of spending a little more money for better food.

This "readiness" and inclination to pursue certain goods, to favor one over another, to make a certain balance between them, is the result of a conditioning that occurs over time, as the result of many particular actions and we do, reactions we have to events that happen, our favorable or unfavorable perceptions of other person's behavior, especially those we consciously or unconsciously see as role models. When this conditioning acquires a kind of stability, it is what Aristotle and St. Thomas call a "habit."

In English we reserve the name "habit" for the kinds of conditioning that lead us regularly to a particular action, even without thinking about it. We don't give the name "habit" to primarily perceptive capacities, such as an acquired ability to readily recognize the music of Chopin, or to the acquired capability of quickly weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of one purchase or another. The name "habit" is mostly restricted to inclinations to actually perform a certain action. And even then, we usually don't use the term "habit" to the disposition to perform a certain action if a conscious decision is involved. E.g., if a husband has acquired the readiness to stop watching television, or to take out the trash, or other such things, as soon as his wife asks, we wouldn't tend the use the term "habit." But essentially the same kind of conditioning has occurred that occurs when we get into the habit of pressing the snooze on our alarm clock in the morning, of ruffling our hair, of arriving early (or late), etc. The main difference is that some of these habits (or dispositions) involve mostly our reasoning or perceptive faculties, others involve our instincts, others involve the whole person, with thought, choice, and emotion. We speak of habits mostly in reference to those dispositions that involve instinctive or even mostly unconscious action.

One disadvantage of this usage in speech is that we may not recognize all the parallels between this sort of conditioning, and the conditioning of our person–thought processes,  decision making processes, and emotional reactions–that is essential for virtuous behavior.