The Eighth Way

all your grace are belong to us

Month: September, 2012

Be Ye Reconciled: Part 3

Okay. So. This part is a pretty big task. Also, I am going to rely on the mercy of everyone reading this because there are a lot of disputed issues and pitfalls. Essentially I’ll be trying to explain Question 73 of the First Part of the Second Part of the Summa Theologiae. Synthesizing and doing justice to each article here will be a challenge.

When we want to determine the praise or blame (culpability) to assign to an action we have to wrestle with all the various circumstances that can effect human action. We can never have a perfect picture of all of these circumstances. Only God can have a perfect picture. However, we do our best. When we are considering sin and want to know how much blame should be applied to a sinful action we can look at specific things to determine how grave the sin was. This is really important for everyone to understand. Let me explain why.

When you are preparing to go to confession you generally want to determine what sins you have that are mortal so you can confess them. As I said earlier, I think this is unhelpful. Instead we should number our sins and then determine how grave they are. Thinking of sin as a disease is really helpful here. When we go see the doctor we don’t generally tell him what complaints are deadly. We tell the doctor that we are experiencing a number of problems, some worse than others. The doctor, on his part, will try to determine the degree of each complaint to prioritize treatment. So, in preparing to go to confession it is not a bad idea to think about our list of spiritual ailments. First we should treat them all as equally harmful. After all, each sin is in some way an offense against God and does damage to the Mystical Body of Christ and contributes to the general evil in the world. Then, in our preparation for the Sacrament, we should try to discover which sins cause greater harm than others. To be able to do this we need to honestly reflect on our culpability for each action. This is hard at first, but it becomes easier. So what is the criteria we should use to judge each sin? Here we turn to the Angelic Doctor.

The first question we should ask ourselves concerns who we primarily offend by the sin. Sins against God, like blasphemy, are worse than sins against human beings which are worse than sins against the other animals or other living beings. Also, there is a distinction between internal and external offenses. So, murder is worse than theft because murder offends the person directly while theft harms the person indirectly (by way of things attached to a person). This makes perfect sense, stabbing a person is worse than stealing their wallet, blasphemy is worse than destroying a holy icon. Offenses against persons is worse than things and offenses that attack a person directly are worse than those that attack him indirectly.

The second question we should ask concerns the virtue we offended in our sinful act. Virtues are placed in a ranking based on their excellence. Charity is greater than hope or faith. These theological virtues are greater than the natural virtues. This is why it is good to have a copy of the Summa Theologiae around. If you look at the so-called “Treaties on the Virtues” you will see a proposed ordering. So, the more excellent the virtue we neglected to practice the more depraved the vice.

The third question is easy. Is it a sin of the flesh or a sin of the mind. Sins of the flesh are less grave than sins of the mind. I’m reminded of a friend who was listening to me rage against the industry that is Las Vegas (I despise that place). This friend is a Monk. He quickly told me, “Gabriel, those are the sins of children. If you want to see real sins, come to the Monastery.” We laughed but he was right. Lying, gossip, or grudge holding are more grave than fornication, unjust violence, or drunkenness. The old saying is, “sins of the flesh are the least grave but more frequent, sins of the mind are the most grave but less frequent.”

The fourth question has to do with the will. Essentially the distinction here is about whether the cause of the sin was internal or external. So, the way I would put this is thus: Did I know it was a sin and still chose to do it without external motivation or was I compelled by external forces. The more one is compelled by external forces the less grave the sin.

The fifth question is a little difficult. It has to do with the circumstances that surround the action. I don’t mean circumstances in the common use of the term. I mean, what are the ways that my sins effects the world and others. There are three types. Aquinas gives a great example to demonstrate what he means by the first type. He proposes the situation where a man commits adultery. Well, if the woman he did this act with was also married then now the sin is more grave because he facilitated her committing adultery and not simply fornication. So, the relevant circumstance in this example is that the woman was also married. But, if the man didn’t know that she was married then his ignorance of that circumstance absolves him of blame for that circumstance. But, if he knew that she was married then his sin would be graver. So, this circumstance changes the nature of the sin by adding injustice against the woman’s spouse. Another circumstance would be what Aquinas calls the ratio of the sin. This is the sort of circumstance where a man sins in more ways than one by a single act. It is similar to the first kind but it is multiple instances of the same sort of sin in a single act. So, the example that Aquinas gives is the wasteful man who both gives what he ought not give to who he ought not give it. So, an example is someone who gives an inordinate amount of money to a charity thus depriving his family of some necessary goods as opposed to a man who does the same but gives the money to a criminal organization. The third type of circumstance is when the sin is just bigger. So, embezzling $100 from your company is bad but embezzling $1,000,000 is far worse. So, one way to think about this whole thing is that sins stack.

The sixth question has to do with quantity of harm. Simply, were more hurt by my sin. So, the person who commits fornication is better off than the person who commits fornication in public. This should be pretty obvious.

The seventh question is about the state of the one offended. This is similar to the first question but instead it has to do not with the objective category but with relationships. So, it is more grave to injure a saint than a sinner because he is more closely united to God. It is more grave to harm a friend than a stranger because he is more closely related to you. It is more grave to harm many people than one person because of our responsibility toward our neighbors.

The eighth and final question has to do with your own state. First, the more virtuous you are as a person the more grave the sins you commit become. Second, sinning is a lack of gratitude toward God because he is the source of all good things. Thus, the degree of ingratitude with respect to the excellence of the goods God has given you makes a sin more grave. Also, if you have a public station like a political office or you are a religious leader then your sins can be more grave than the common man. The example here is the priest who is a fornicator or the prince who commits injustices. The priest has taken a vow of chaste celibacy and the prince is the guarantor of justice. Hence in the areas of life over which a public person has command, his sins in those areas of his influence become more grave.

So these are question:Who did I sin against and how? What virtue did I neglect to practice? Was it a carnal or spiritual sin? Did I freely chose to sin or was I compelled by external factors? To what degree was I aware of circumstances that increase the gravity of my sin? How much harm did my sin cause? What is the status of the person injured with respect to God, yourself, and others? What is my state before God and man?

In my next and final post of this series I’ll tie all these things together and help provide a sure means of approaching Confession in a healthy, adult manner.

Be Ye Reconciled: Part 2

Previously, I shared an insight about some of the underlying reasons why people either never go to confession or become scrupulous. It’s becoming my belief that both of these dispositions are born out of a poor understanding of how to judge whether a sin is confessable matter or not. Before I offer some practical solutions I want to explore a better of way of understanding the degree of a particular sin.

So, I said that every sin has an objective character but also a subjective application. What do I mean by this? I mean we have to understand what a sin actually is in its broadest sense. Fundamentally a sin deprives the whole of the created order of some good. Another way to put this could be that when we sin we add evil to the world. But properly speaking, by sinning we remove goodness from the world. This isn’t the first thing we usually consider. These days we either consider the relational or legal aspects of sin first. We often think about who we offend or what law or rule we broke. These two things are part of sin but they are not the first consideration. We must first realize that sin, no matter its degree, is an act of violence against the good of God’s creation and God himself.

Why is this important? If we ground our understanding of sin in either relationality or legality then we ground sin in something arbitrary – shifting sand. If it is grounded in relationality then something could cease to be considered a sin if the one offended doesn’t experience the offense or ceases to be offended by  it for some reason. So in this scenario, if Molly is married to John and he commits adultery then it is only a sin if Molly considers adultery a sin. If Molly and John have a so-called “open marriage” then neither would experience adultery as an offense. See the problem? Also, if we ground sin in legalism or rule following it is equally arbitrary. If a law changes then the law doesn’t recognize what was previously considered wrong as an offense any longer. Take for instance the sin of abortion. The American legal system doesn’t view abortion as an evil – a sin. So, it is either neutral or a good according to the American legal system. But, prior to the judicial ruling of Roe v. Wade it was considered an evil act according to the law. So, it should be pretty clear that neither relational experience nor law are sufficient grounds for determining the objective aspect of sin. But, if we ground our understanding of good and evil in ontology, in the nature of creation, then we can speak intelligibly about the objective qualities of sin.

So, when we consider an action we must determine if the action is objectively good or evil. An action is objectively good if the action is consistent with nature. An action is objectively evil if the action is contrary to nature. So, giving a plant water is good. Giving a plant ammonia, however, is not so good. This objective characteristic is not the same as the assignation of praise or blame for the action. So, when we judge an action we want first to know if it is objectively good or evil. We must know this before we determine the praise or blame we should assign to the person who did the act. The reason for this is because of the relationship between the objective characteristic of an action and the process of assigning praise or blame. This is because an act that is objectively good could, in the assignation of praise or blame, be judged either a praiseworthy act (which is obvious) or a blameworthy act (not so obvious). An objectively evil act never becomes praiseworthy and is always blameworthy (on some level). So, the objective characteristic is binary. An act is either objectively good or evil. The subjective characteristic (praise or blame assignation, also known as culpability) is a gradient or sliding scale.

Okay, if you have been able to wrap your mind around this then you are ready for the next part. If not, reread this and comment on my Facebook wall and I can try to clarify some of the details. But, I want to stop here in this post so that these basics can sink in. Next, I’ll post about how to determine the praise or blame that should be assigned to an act. This is the heart of what I want to get at. But, I needed to start here before we moved to that conversation. Once all these parts are together I’ll offer the promised practical solutions for how we should approach the Sacrament of Penance, a.k.a., Confession, a.k.a. Reconciliation.

Be Ye Reconciled: Part 1

I was having a conversation with one of the Brothers last night. We discussed the ways we evaluate a human action to determine how to attribute praise or blame for a given action. You may wonder why. Well, it’s really important on many levels and for various reasons. But, for those of us studying in preparation for priestly ordination it is of the utmost importance. Like a doctor in the examination room, so too the priest in the confessional. The priest needs to be able to diagnose the spiritual ailments of the penitent. Only then is he able to provide the best treatment for you.

Just like a disease of the body, sin is a disease of the soul. Just like a disease there are certain objective characteristics that afflict a patient but there are also subjective characteristics of a given disease. Often a disease manifests itself in unique ways particular to the biology of the individual patient. So too sin. Sin has an objective character but it also has a subjective manifestation in the individual penitent. The bad doctor is unable to recognize the balance between the objective and the subjective. So too the bad confessor.

While we were having this conversation. I was struck by how perilous the poorly educated confessor is to the everyday practice of the faith. The primary example that came to mind was the method many of us have been taught to help determine whether we ought to go to confession or not. We are often taught that we must confess all our mortal sins but not necessarily our venial sins. Setting aside the absurdity of not confessing our venial sins, the idea that we are to confess all our mortal sins is crazy. Why? It is impossible for us to determine which sins are mortal or which are venial with absolute certainty.

I’m sure this is a surprising, if not a scandalous statement to many of you. But, it’s simply the reverse corollary of the fact that we can never be certain if we are in a “state of grace.” But why can’t we know for sure if we’ve committed a mortal sin? Think about the criteria for a mortal sin. You need to have sufficient knowledge that the action is evil, you need to make a complete act of the will, and the action must be sufficiently grave. But here’s the problem. We can’t know any of these things with certitude. Only God has a certain knowledge of these things. So, what is the practical effect? Because of this ambivalence toward our current state of grace we end up in one of two camps. Either we don’t recognize the evil of our sinfulness or we think that every bad thing we do is a mortal sin. We lack the ability to judge the gravity of our sins. The result is that we become apathetic or we become scrupulous.

Hopefully, everyone reading this is a little shaken. This is what many of us have been taught since childhood. Few of us have any other tools to examine our consciences. Because I’ve gone pretty long I’ll try to offer some solutions in future posts. Hopefully this will help free us to enter into the life of holiness with greater joy, hope, and peace.

Christian Friendship

I was reflecting on the Gospel story of the men who tear through the roof to get their sick friend in to see Jesus. It’s really touching. To me it has become an image of true friendship. They work so hard to get him to Jesus without concern for any obstacle. This is what friends do for each other. Many soldiers express this depth of friendship on the battlefield. They say that the reason for fighting changes from being primarily about the mission. They primarily fight for their buddy in the foxhole. An intense common goal is, in fact, the very foundation of friendship.

The Greeks understood this. For this reason they numbered friendship as the penultimate type of love. It’s greater than eros, i.e., the love of the desirable. It’s a shift. We love the other not because of what they can give us. We love them because we share a common cause. What that common cause is defines the friendship. Pirates, for instance, have a vicious friendship. They share a common goal for the sake of whiskey, women, and cold hard cash. Many secular fraternities are little more than pirates without a ship. But a virtuous friendship is often a marvel to behold. Through it, friends are lead to a life of natural happiness.

Even greater, a Christian friendship has the goal of mutual salvation. No foxhole is greater than the spiritual one. How beautiful it is to see such a friendship. It is the building block of the Christian community and especially the Religious community. Remember, even Christ called his own disciples his friends.