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.

More Notes on the Goodness of the Passions

When a man is affected by a passion, things seem to him greater or smaller than they really are, as to a lover, what he loves seems better, and to him who fears, what he fears seems more dreadful. Consequently owing to the defect of right judgment, every passion, considered in itself, hinders the ability of deliberating well. (Summa Theologiae 44:2).

St. Thomas thus argues that while fear inclines us to think about how to avoid the thing or danger we are afraid of, it has the tendency to distort our judgment of the matter. From this it might seem to follow that it would be ideal never to feel fear, that we would thus act most reasonably and humanly. Thomas does not, however, draw this consequence, but affirms the value of fear for human, rational action.

If fear is moderate, not disturbing the reason very much, it conduces to acting well, insofar as it causes a certain solicitude, and makes a man deliberate and act with greater attention. If, however, fear increases so much as to disturb the reason, it hinders action even on the part of the soul. (Summa Theologiae 44:4)

In this passage Aquinas grants the point he made above, that even moderate fear has a certain tendency to incline our judgment to it, and in this way to make our judgment less objective. But when fear is moderate, and when it is directed to something that is a real danger, a real possible evil, then the benefits outweigh the harm.

In general the effect of such emotions, which is to make us focus on certain aspects of what is before us, and to judge them accordingly, has potential benefits and potential risks: (1a) Though an emotion such as fear may make us overestimate the fearfulness of an evil, (1b) if we would otherwise have underestimated it, then it brings our estimation closer to the truth; again, (2a) though the emotion may make us overlook certain things, (2b) it may also bring certain things to our attention, which we would otherwise not have given attention to.

In the larger picture, the largest factor determining whether passions and emotions are beneficial or detrimental for truly human action, is the formation of the emotions, which takes place through the acquisition of virtue. When an emotion itself is a formed and reasonable passion, the overall effect is almost always good.

A note on Aquinas's use of scripture here: In the Sed Contra of 44:4 he cites St. Paul, "With fear and trembling work out your salvation" (Phil 2:12), and remarks in the body of the article that though excessive fear hinders us from acting well, St. Paul is not speaking of this kind of fear. This seems to be an indication that Aquinas is not simply using St. Paul as a "proof text" for an opinion he gets from, say, Aristotle, but sees a real and significant doctrine on the role of emotions in Christian life in the Sacred Scriptures, though of course, in this systematic work, he does not go into all detail of exegetical questions.

With fear and trembling work out your salvation

Holy Envy

You might have thought occasionally, with holy envy, about the adolescent Apostle John, quem diligebat Iesus – whom Jesus loved. Wouldn’t you like to deserve to be called ‘the one who loves the Will of God’? Then take the necessary steps, day after day. (St. Josemarie Escriva, The Forge)

St. Thomas Aquinas defines envy as sadness over some good or excellence another person possesses, inasmuch as one perceives this good or excellence as taking away from one's own good. Understood in this way, envy is said to be bad "in itself", and indeed "in its species"

Now the focus of a person's sadness might be on his own not having what the other person has, with an accompanying wish to have it himself, or it might be on the other person's having what he doesn't, with the accompanying wish that the other not have it. (He gets to have a day off, and I don't! If he gets to, then I should too!… I don't get to have a day off, but he does! If I can't have one, he shouldn't either!)

While the latter type of envy is the worse of the two, both types are bad if and inasmuch as they consider the good of another person, in relation to one's good, as something bad and undesirable. This is contrary both to truth and to charity: to truth, since it is not truly bad, but good; to charity, which seeks the good of others.

What about "holy envy"? How does that relate to the usual meaning of envy?

While there are a couple of usages of holy envy, the most exemplary one is probably an admiration for a true and noble good that another person has, which one either cannot or does not have, accompanied by a longing so strong as to cause pain, or nearly do so. Inasmuch as there is a pain involved, a pain that somehow arises from not having something someone else has, it is similar to envy in the usual sense of the term. The difference is that the pain or sadness is not really about the other person's possession of good, but is caused by one's own great desire to possess that good. Supposing that this yearning and any consequent pain is not excessive, but remains without reason, and is not depressing, but motivating one to pursue that good, this yearning is itself good. This yearning for something truly good that one sees in another, this great desire that is or verges on being painful, is what is meant by "holy envy."

The Moral Goodness of the Passions

Can passion or emotion increase the moral goodness of human action, or does it always decrease it? It might seem at first that it always decreases it, since human or moral action is an action that is chosen deliberately, which implies a rational judgment. But passion tends to win reason's judgment over to itself: whenever we feel as though something is pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad, possible or impossible, etc., we will be inclined to judge the matter to be really so. Insofar as passion tends to sway reason over to itself, it impedes the judgment of reason. Thus it seems that passions or feelings make our judgments, and in consequence our decisions, less true, and consequently less good from a moral perspective.

Now, given that feelings or passions can be in accord with reason and with man's true good, and that they can be indirectly voluntary, being willed or permitted (see the previous post The Moral Value of the Passions), it is clear that this is something good. It is a moral good not only to do an act of kindness for someone, but it is also a moral good to feel kindly toward them.

Yet it is not simply a matter of two separate moral goods. Feeling kindly, if one also wills to be kindly, may increase the person's overall attention to and intention of being kind, and in this way intensify and perfect the human act as a voluntary act.

What about the objection, that passion always hinder rational judgment and choice? The first response to this is that sometimes passions or feelings actually come from rational judgment and choice, and so if they affect reason and choice afterward, it is by way of supporting them, not tearing them down. In such a case the passion does not decrease the moral goodness of an action. We may and should admit, however, that a judgment and choice which is largely the result of passion or emotion is less good or less bad than a similar judgment and choice that does not result from passion. Thus someone who strikes another person out of anger performs an act less morally bad than someone who strikes another person out of simple dislike for that person. Similarly someone who does an act of kindness for another person simply because of feeling pity for them, performs an act less morally good than someone who does an act of kindness for another person because that other person is a fellow human being and created in the image of God.

Does this mean, though, that the ideal is to never have any passions or emotions except those that are the result of rational judgment and choice? Yes and no. Considering only the abstract relationship between passion and reason, this is an ideal. But taking into account our actual situation and our limited ability to make rational judgments without the data of emotion, such an absolute priority of reason over emotion is not an ideal to be striven for. First of all, it is impossible. Secondly, it is actually undesirable for us in our present state, for several reasons: (1) we often need to react somehow or other to an event, before we have time to think. And it is better to react well in most such cases, and badly in a few, than to always do badly by failing to react in time; (2) we would often overlook many important aspects of a situation or of a person, if various feelings did not direct our attention to them; the feeling of pity, for example, often draws us to give more and more appropriate attention to the need of other persons than we would otherwise.

The Moral Value of the Passions

It is clear that passions, feelings, or emotions can be good or bad. First of all some are in themselves pleasant (and in this sense good), such as joy, hope, and similar emotions, others in themselves unpleasant (and in this sense bad), such as sadness, anxiety, and the like (though they can be good with respect to their purpose, as will shortly be evident). Secondly, and more importantly, passions can lead us to good actions or away from harmful actions. Fear of one's child being harmed may lead a person to give greater attention to the child; hope of completing a great project may lead a person to persevere and to give greater effort, and so on.

Thus the passions can be good and useful (or harmful, as the case may be), and in this sense have relevance for a human and moral life. But do the passions themselves have moral value? Are they themselves morally good or bad?

It might seem that  passions are not morally good or bad, since they are, after all, passive. They aren't something we do, but something we feel. Thus they don't seem to be voluntary, to be something we are responsible for, and so we can neither be blamed nor praised for them.

But this objection doesn't sufficiently take into account the various indirect ways in which we can control our feelings, and thus ways in which feelings themselves are voluntary, though indirectly. A person is able to, for example, nourish a grudge, by deliberately thinking about his grievance against someone. Similarly someone is able to increase feelings of sympathy, inasmuch as, e.g., he imagines himself in the place of a suffering person. Or again, to decrease his anger, inasmuch as he takes care to think on the bigger picture, on positive aspects of the situation instead of negative ones, etc. In such cases the greater or lesser degree of emotion is itself voluntary, to the extent that one voluntarily promotes or hinders it.

A lesser, but still very important way in which an emotion or lack thereof can be voluntary, is inasmuch as someone is physically, psychically and morally capable of doing something to increase or lessen the emotion, and ought to do so, yet fails to do so. In this case the omission itself, being voluntary, makes the consequent lack of influence over the emotion also voluntary in a secondary way. Thus a person inclined to violent anger, if he fails to take any precautions to control his anger, may be rightly blamed for the escalation of his anger.

The Good of the Irascible Appetite

Why does human nature have "irascible" appetites? St. Thomas Aquinas, in explaining why we have an irascible faculty–which though named from "anger", ira, includes all appetite aimed at attaining goals which are difficult, and which require overcoming obstacles (not necessarily enemies)–makes a comparison with all natural and corruptible things, and says that things which are fallible, and can be hindered from reaching an end, need to have an inclination not only to seek their end, but also to overcome obstacles.

One might here raise an objection: in the case of man, at least, the desire for a good or pleasant end should be enough, since when a person is seeking an end, then he will not only go towards that end out of his desire for it, but will also push aside or go through obstacles out of that same desire. Take the case of a man who desires to untie a package. If he encounters difficulty in untying the knot, his desire to untie the package is enough to make him persevere, without getting angry or high-spirited, or being dead set on finishing the untying whatever happens. In fact, he may be less effective if he gets angry at the knotted cord. To what purpose then an additional appetite aimed specifically at overcoming this obstacle?

Leaving aside for a moment this particular example, I'll try to expand on St. Thomas's explanation, and then then return to discuss the particular case.

The sensitive appetites do not attain to the account of the good as such, but directly concern very particular goods. Hence, anything painful has a nearly direct contrariety to pleasurable goods. Moreover, as Plato remarked, we estimate a pleasure or pain that is present to us as greater than an actually equal pleasure or pain in the future. For these reasons, a present difficulty or pain involved in seeking the goods we want, by lessening the desire aroused by our imagination of these goods, would hinder our efforts to attain them. For example, a man trying to push a heavy stone in his garden in order to make room to plant more vegetables, will be at least somewhat put off by his hand hurting.

In order to be more successful in attaining the goods we want, in the face of difficulties, we have a special desire which is aimed at the “difficult good”. Such a desire is not directly mitigated by the difficulty or pain involved, but indeed strengthened, though it can be indirectly weakened, inasmuch as the desire on which it is based (the desire of attaining something good and pleasant) is weakened by the difficulty or pain. To avoid even this indirect mitigation from being too substantial, the irascible appetites have a kind of independence from the simple desires on which they are based. Once someone, foreseeing great difficulties in winning a prize in a contest, steels himself to do so, he may well persist in his attempts, even if he no longer has the original desire to win the prize—if he learns that it is not what he thought it was. Similarly, when a person who is angry with someone because he thinks the other person cheated, learns that they didn't, he may remain angry… and perhaps think of other bad things the person did, to “justify” the anger.

This distinct and somewhat independent desire for achieving difficult goods, precisely because of its specific relationship to what is difficult, and its independence from simple desire for what is good or bad, supports us far more in seeking future goods when things get difficult than the simple desire for them would. The flip side of this, however, is that this desire can support us too much. If the person becomes really resolved to move that stone whatever happens, he may break his wrist in the process, a result that isn't justified for the sake of growing a few more vegetables. Anger especially in many cases moves us more than is justified. It is probably mostly useful in situations where (1) physical aggression is required, or (2) a particular person is disposed to inertia even when notices injustices which he could and should rectify.

Returning to the particular case of the knotted package, it is probable that anger, or even great determination is not particularly useful in this case, unless the best way of opening the package is ripping the rope by bare strength (supposing no knife is available, and the knot can't be untied). But this doesn't show that anger or spiritedness is unnecessary, only that it is not perfectly well directed. Anger, spiritedness, determination are helpful in overcoming specific kinds of obstacles, or in specific situations for specific persons, but as immediate appetites not perfectly governed by reason, these appetites of anger, determination, drive, etc., are also often aroused in situations where they aren't so helpful.

Aquinas's Moral Theology

The Aquinas Institute will be offering an eight week study program covering the first part of the second part of the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, which comprises his treatment of Christian moral life in general (the second part of this part then takes up particular Christian virtues and actions one by one). I will be teaching the third of the four blocks of this program, covering virtues, beatitudes, and the Gifts of the holy Spirit.

What is the value of studying Thomas Aquinas on the moral life? There are many ways to answer this question; I here propose just a couple fundamental points. Aquinas integrates multiple deep insights that are frequently played off against one another, and thereby gives a much fuller and more accurate account of human life. What do I mean by this? Many theories of ethics and morals, beginning from the true presuppositions that man's rationality and self-determination are essential to morality, see morality as something entirely relative, as simply created from within a person. Others, beginning from the fact that many actions have some human goodness or badness in them prior to a person's understanding or choice of those actions, see morality as something absolute apart from man, to which man must conform, as to an extrinsic rule. (One variation of this view would have it that the goodness or badness of an action derives from the fact that God commands it or forbids it; another variation would have it that the goodness or badness is something just in the act itself).

Both of these views rest on some true insight, but fail to adequately take into account the insight of the other view.

In Aquinas' understanding of morals, these two aspects of human morality are taken up, and closely intertwined. God is our last end in the first place not because we choose him for our end, but because he is infinite goodness, who alone can fully satisfy our desire, and who contains all other goods within him. Yet we seek God in a manner that corresponds to our human nature, which first possesses an abstract concept of happiness, or satisfaction of desire, and only consequently attains or is granted the insight that God alone is this goal. Similarly an action such as telling the truth is good because it builds up the human goods of truth and fellowship, while an action such as stealing is bad because it doesn't correspond to, and harms the good of the natural human fellowship that naturally arises between human persons. But these actions are only moral goods or evils, human goods or evils in the full sense, inasmuch as they are recognized for what they by a human being, and chosen. The morality of an action, good or bad, is thus not realized apart from the personal insight and choice of the one who acts. Aquinas can therefore firmly maintain that there are some actions which are bad, just because of the kind of action they are (malum ex genere), but also that a person is always obliged to follow his conscience, and indeed, if a person's mistaken judgment of what he should do is not the result of his voluntary negligence, arrogance, or other fault, then he deserves no blame for following his erring conscience.

Similarly there is often dispute about whether goals and motives, or laws and rules, or character and virtue are the principal factors for human and moral life (In ethics these sometimes take the name of virtue ethics, deontological ethics, and consequentialism or utilitarianism), and evidence for one is often taken as evidence against the others. Here, too, in Aquinas all three of these aspects are integral to his moral thinking. Beginning with the last end as the first principle of moral action, he gives an undeniable primacy to the goal, or end of action. Nonetheless he does not subordinate virtue to man's ultimate end as a mere means to it, but consider it as a part of the end, and as the inner principle by which man attains that end. Law, too, in being known by man, becomes a first principle of judgment, by which a man makes rational decisions, and thus makes his way toward his end, God. The first principle of law is either, formulated generically, "do good and avoid evil," or, formulated specifically, "love, and do what you will." (St. Augustine's formulation–Aquinas usually simply places the commandment of love as corresponding to the first rational judgment to do good and avoid evil.)

These three aspects of moral life, together with a fourth human aspect, that of feelings, emotions, and passions, and a properly divine aspect, that of grace (man's share in divine life), are treated in the Prima Secundae, and will be taken up in four two week intensive courses from May 24th to July 16th, 2010.

Of course, studying Thomas Aquinas is not everything. If moral theology consists in studying, understanding, and explaining how God and his revelation in Christ affects how we live, and living isn't something realized in the abstract, but in all the concreteness of the here and now, then it pertains integrally to moral theology to consider present issues and problems, issues that did not arise for St. Thomas, and which require some particular considerations he did not make. But Aquinas's moral theology does provide a strong basis to address present issues, and to dialogue with proponents of other theories.