instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, August 03, 2013

The problem of specific gravity

This week's addition to the list of Things I Understood Until I Tried Explaining Them is distinguishing  between grave matter and non-grave matter.

It came up in a discussion on the difference between intrinsically evil acts and mortal sins. "Intrinsically evil acts" is a class of sins based on what makes the act sinful: 
Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature "incapable of being ordered" to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church's moral tradition, have been termed "intrinsically evil" (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. [Veritatis splendor 80]
"Mortal sins," on the other hand, is a class of sins based on whether the sin is congruent with loving God. Bl. John Paul II gives us the familiar list of three necessary conditions for a sin to be mortal:
...mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent. [Reconciliatio et paenitentia 17]
On the other hand,
when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent. [Catechism of the Catholic Church 1862]
So "intrinsically evil acts" relates to what makes an act evil and "mortal sins" relates to how evil the act is.
The conclusion.

From here, the question becomes whether there are any intrinsically evil acts that don't have grave matter as its object. And I have to say, when the Church talks about intrinsically evil acts, she tends to focus on those that are gravely evil; e.g., St. Paul:
Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.
In Reconciliatio et paenitentia 17, Bl. John Paul II explicitly links the two concepts:
It must be added... that some sins are intrinsically grave and mortal by reason of their matter. That is, there exist acts which, per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object. These acts, if carried out with sufficient awareness and freedom, are always gravely sinful.
So what about sins that are intrinsically non-grave and venial by reason of their matter? These are among the "light and daily sins" the Council of Trent teaches even the holiest of men commit on occasion (absent a special privilege of God). The Church does talk about them often enough, just not usually in explicit terms of "light matter." Which I suppose makes sense; what chiefly matters about them isn't that they are objectively venial, but that they are objectively sinful, while the "mortal" part of a mortal sin is worth a foot stomp.

And what is the difference between "grave matter" and "light matter"? Here the language of the Church tends to be vague and inexact:
Man knows well by experience that along the road of faith and justice which leads to the knowledge and love of God in this life and toward perfect union with him in eternity, he can cease to go forward or can go astray without abandoning the way of God; and in this case there occurs venial sin. This however must never be underestimated, as though it were automatically something that can be ignored or regarded as "a sin of little importance."

For man also knows, through painful experience, that by a conscious and free act of his will he can change course and go in a direction opposed to God's will, separating himself from God (aversio a Deo), rejecting loving communion with him, detaching himself from the life principle which God is and consequently choosing death.[Reconciliatio et paenitentia 17]
 So... you know it when you see it? And I'm not just cherry picking a quotation to back up my point; a few paragraphs earlier, Bl. John Paul II comes right out and says:
Why and to what degree is sin a serious matter in the offense it commits against God and in its effects on man? The Church has a teaching on this matter which she reaffirms in its essential elements, while recognizing that it is not always easy in concrete situations to define clear and exact limits.

While frustrating to someone looking for a tidy quotation to sum it up, I think this open-ended vagueness  reflects the actual nature of the distinction rather than the fuzziness to date of the Church's thinking. "The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behavior [VS 78]," and there's no single scale of human behavior such that all behavior below some level is light and all at or above that level is grave. The different species of human acts can't be put in order heuristically; it seems to be, necessarily, a matter of sorting them into their different categories one at a time.

Now, the language used to describe the distinction between light and grave, or between mortal and venial, is often suggestive of a continuum on which a threshold could be set. Reconciliatio et paenitentia quotes St. Thomas:
Therefore when the soul is so disordered by sin as to turn away from its last end, viz. God, to Whom it is united by charity, there is mortal sin; but when it is disordered without turning away from God, there is venial sin.
But if you want to specify a threshold a priori, you're posing a sorites paradox for yourself, and those are tough to get much benefit from. In that same article, St. Thomas explains why we don't need to do that to ourselves:
Now the difference between venial and mortal sin is consequent to the diversity of that inordinateness which constitutes the notion of sin. For inordinateness is twofold, one that destroys the principle of order, and another which, without destroying the principle of order, implies inordinateness in the things which follow the principle: thus, in an animal's body, the frame may be so out of order that the vital principle is destroyed; this is the inordinateness of death; while, on the other hand, saving the vital principle, there may be disorder in the bodily humors; and then there is sickness.
In other words, there isn't a single continuum of gravity of objectively evil behavior, on one end of which the sins are light, while at the other end they are grave. There are two continua, along each of which the gravity of behavior increases, but the continua don't connect. On the grave continuum, all behavior destroys the habitual love of God; on the light continuum, no behavior destroys the habitual love of God. There are no two behaviors such that the difference in the behaviors themselves is incremental, yet one is an abandonment of God and the other is not.

How do we know which continuum a specific behavior falls on? I don't think there's any way around looking at it as a specific case. We have dogmatic but incomplete lists of objectively grave sins, we have centuries of pastoral theology treating light and daily sins, and we have the Sacrament of Penance to work through the details in concrete situations.

If you're particularly concerned about knowing whether a sin is objectively grave, I'd say the best way is to pray that the Holy Spirit will vivify the gifts of knowledge and wisdom He gave you when you were baptized.