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.