2.0 Intrinsic Evil

This objection, as stated in the second, fourth and fifth Dubia of the four Cardinals, is that it must be affirmed as valid that:

  • Absolute moral norms exist that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and which are binding without exceptions (VS 79).
  • Circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice (VS 81).
  • Conscience can never be authorized to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts by virtue of their object (VS 56).

2.1 Doctrinal Background of the Objection

The teaching of the Church on absolute moral norms and intrinsic evils is summarised by CCC 1753 to 1756:

A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means  

The circumstances, including the consequences, are secondary elements of a moral act. They contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts (for example, the amount of a theft). They can also diminish or increase the agent’s responsibility (such as acting out of a fear of death). Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil

The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some concrete acts – such as fornication – that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil …

It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it”.

This reflects the teaching of Pope St John Paul II in VS referred to in the Dubia, including at 79 and 81:

One must therefore reject the thesis, characteristic of teleological and proportionalist theories, which holds that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species — its “object” — the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice is made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned

In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture. The Apostle Paul emphatically states: “Do not be deceived: neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10).

If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain “irremediably” evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. “As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt), Saint Augustine writes, like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?”.

Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act “subjectively” good or defensible as a choice”.

It is also in accordance with the rejection in VS 56 of any ability of conscience to discern exceptions to absolute moral norms:

[S]ome authors have proposed a kind of double status of moral truth. Beyond the doctrinal and abstract level, one would have to acknowledge the priority of a certain more concrete existential consideration. The latter, by taking account of circumstances and the situation, could legitimately be the basis of certain exceptions to the general rule and thus permit one to do in practice and in good conscience what is qualified as intrinsically evil by the moral law. A separation, or even an opposition, is thus established in some cases between the teaching of the precept, which is valid in general, and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final decision about what is good and what is evil. On this basis, an attempt is made to legitimize so-called “pastoral” solutions contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium, and to justify a “creative” hermeneutic according to which the moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, by a particular negative precept”.

2.2 Rules and Discernment

AL 304 provides, with reference to St Thomas Aquinas, that:

It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being … It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations”.

However, AL 305 provides that:

For this reason, a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in “irregular” situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives … Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end”.

Accordingly, it can be seen the reason AL provides general moral laws cannot be simply be applied to particular situations, is the existence of mitigating factors which reduce culpability for situations which remain objectively sinful.

Further AL 302 confirms these mitigating factors are those mentioned by the CCC:

In another paragraph, the Catechism refers once again to circumstances which mitigate moral responsibilityFor this reason, a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved”.

As outlined at 1.0 Mortal Sin, particularly at 1.3 Reduced Culpability and Mortal Sin, the principle that reduced subjective culpability can render objectively and intrinsically grave sins venial rather than mortal, is based on the traditional moral theology of the Church and was confirmed by Pope St John Paul II on a number of occasions.

Further, as confirmed by VS 81 and CCC 1754, affirming circumstances may reduce subjective culpability does not deny the existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts without exceptions, as they cannot remove the evil or make good an intrinsically evil act.

2.3 Consequences as Mitigating Circumstances

CCC 1753 and 1759 confirm, with reference to St Thomas Aquinas in CIDP 6, that the “end does not justify the means”. In the words of St Thomas Aquinas:

For example, someone may steal to feed the poor; his intention is right, but he is lacking the requisite good will. So no evil can be excused because it is done with a good intention (Rm 3:8): “Those who [say we] say ‘Let us do evil so that good may come’ are justly condemned””.

This is put most strongly and poetically by Cardinal Blessed John Henry Newman, in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1865) at Chapter 5:

The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse”.

That this principle applies to adultery is confirmed by St Thomas Aquinas in De Malo q. 15, a. 1:

We are not permitted to do for any good end what is sinful by reason of its kind, as Rom. 3:8 says … But a just man, a virtuous man, commits adultery with the wife of a tyrant in order to kill the tyrant and liberate his country, as a commentator says … Therefore, even adultery as such is not a sin …

We should not agree with the commentator on this point, since one ought not commit adultery for any benefit”.

However, as noted by CCC 1754, “circumstances, including the consequences … can also diminish or increase the agent’s responsibility (such as acting out of a fear of death)”. Accordingly, while consequences “can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil”, they can reduce subjective culpability.

AL 301, with reference to St Thomas Aquinas in De Malo q. 2, a. 2, provides consequences may reduce culpability as:

Mitigating factors in pastoral discernment … The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situationsMore is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule … A subject may know full well the rule … yet … be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin … Saint Thomas Aquinas himself recognized that someone may possess grace and charity, yet not be able to exercise any one of the virtues well … in other words, although someone may possess all the infused moral virtues, he does not clearly manifest the existence of one of them, because the outward practice of that virtue is rendered difficult”.

A similar idea is also expressed in AL 298, which states:

One thing is a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins”.

In this regard, it must be noted that some have interpreted the references to “further sin” and “new sins” in AL 298 and 301 not to refer to mitigating circumstances which reduce (but not eliminate) evil, but instead to mean that “extramarital sex could be a moral duty” as “not sleeping with one’s new partner would be worse than sleeping with them”.

However even if this interpretation could be maintained in good faith on a plain reading of AL 301, it has been clarified by Pope Francis that AL cannot be understood in this way, in his rejection of situational ethics which would preclude intrinsic evils (refer 2.6 below).

Further papal spokesman Fr. Antonio Spadaro, whose article gave rise to the suggestion that “extramarital sex could be a moral duty”, rejected the idea in the strongest terms:


That AL 301 is indeed intended to refer to mitigating circumstances can also be seen from an attentive reading of the paragraph itself, which places the idea of “further sin” firmly in the context of an example of mitigating factors.

For example AL 301 is headed “mitigating factors”, and the reference to “further sin” is bookended by references to subjective factors which limit the ability to make a decision. Similarly, in Fr. Antonio Spadaro’s article the same context is provided, “recognition that, in a particular case, there are limitations which attenuate responsibility and guilt – particularly where a person believes they would fall into a worse error, and harm the children of the new union”.

Moreover, as outlined by the Dubia, these clarifications must be accepted as guiding the interpretation of AL. It would be radically inconsistent with a request for the “Holy Father, as supreme teacher of the faith, called by the Risen One to confirm his brothers in the faith, to resolve the uncertainties and bring clarity”, to then reject the clarity once it has been provided.

Accepting then, that AL 301 does relate to mitigating factors, in the words of St Thomas Aquinas in De Malo q. 2, a. 2 it can be seen such consequences can be a type of coercion, which diminish the voluntary character (i.e. complete consent) required for a sin to be mortal (refer 1.0 Mortal Sin):

The necessity resulting from coercion is absolutely contrary to the voluntary, and such necessity altogether excludes moral fault. But there is a kind of necessity that is compatible with the voluntary, for example when a sailor is compelled to jettison cargo in order to keep the ship from sinking. And things done out of such necessity can have the nature of moral wrong insofar as they are partially voluntary”.

This coercion is not to be understood as an inordinate fear which overrides reason, which St Thomas Aquinas teaches can be a further sin rather than a mitigating circumstance (ST II-II, q. 125, a. 3):

[F]ear is a sin through being inordinate, that is to say, through shunning what ought not to be shunned according to reason … But sometimes this inordinateness of fear reaches to the rational appetite which is called the will, which deliberately shuns something against the dictate of reason: and this inordinateness of fear is sometimes a mortal, sometimes a venial sin. For if a man through fear of the danger of death or of any other temporal evil is so disposed as to do what is forbidden, or to omit what is commanded by the Divine law, such fear is a mortal sin: otherwise it is a venial sin”.

Rather St Thomas Aquinas teaches what mitigates is the involuntariness which arises from the threat of evil consequences which can follow from good acts, which is not a passing passion, but a fear which can endure as long as the threat remains (ST II-II, q. 125, a. 4):

Wherefore if one were to incur evils of the soul, namely sins, in order to avoid evils of the body, such as blows or death, or evils of external things, such as loss of money; or if one were to endure evils of the body in order to avoid loss of money, one would not be wholly excused from sin. Yet one’s sin would be extenuated somewhat, for what is done through fear is less voluntary, because when fear lays hold of a man he is under a certain necessity of doing a certain thing. Hence the Philosopher (Ethic. iii, 1) says that these things that are done through fear are not simply voluntary, but a mixture of voluntary and involuntaryFear excuses, not in the point of its sinfulness, but in the point of its involuntariness”.

The Buenos Aires Directive at item 6 confirms one evil consequence which may “diminish responsibility and culpability” is where “a person judges that he would fall into a subsequent fault by damaging the children of the new union”.

This, as noted in AL 298, relates to the situation acknowledged by FC 84 “where, for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate”. In this situation, Footnote 329 to AL 298 further states:

In such situations, many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living “as brothers and sisters” which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, “it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers”.

In other words, if one accepts the demand of the Gospel to live in complete continence, the union may break down resulting in grave harm to the children (for example from being financially or otherwise abandoned by the other partner).

These grave evils do not eliminate the moral duty for the D&R to live in complete continence, or even less create a mortal duty to commit adultery. This is because, as confirmed by St Augustine in his De Mendacio at 13 and 14, a person is not responsible for the sins of others:

[W]hat if these terms were offered to a Martyr, that, upon his refusing to bear false witness of Christ and to sacrifice to demons, then, before his eyes, not some other man, but his own father should be put to death … Is it not manifest, that, upon his remaining steadfast in his purpose of most faithful testimony, they alone would be the murderers who should slay his father, and not he a parricide into the bargain? As therefore, in this case, the man would be no party to this so heinous deed, for choosing, rather than violate his faith by false testimony, that his own father should be put to death by others … so the like consent, in the former case, would not make him a party to that so foul disgrace, if he refused to do evil himself, let others do what they might in consequence of his not doing it

But if the question be, which of these he ought in preference to avoid, not being able to avoid both but able to avoid one or other: I will answer, His own sin, rather than another’s; and rather a lighter sin being his own, than a heavier being another’s”.

Nor would these grave evils reduce culpability if, on the contrary, they were in fact to be committed by oneself rather than the other partner. This would not be an example of external coercion which limits complete consent, but rather a voluntary choice not constrained by third parties.

However, if the grave evils are threatened to be committed by the other partner, in accordance with the CCC and St Thomas Aquinas they are rightly considered to reduce culpability as long as their threat remains.

2.4 Ongoing Mitigation  

One objection which is raised to treating consequences as mitigating factors, is that coercion or fear do not in fact mitigate while the threat remains, but only while they overwhelm a person’s capacity for deliberate reason.

In this regard, when considering the question of when mortal sin can become venial, St Thomas Aquinas provides an example of a sudden non-deliberate act (ST I-II, q. 88, a.6):

Nevertheless a sin which is generically mortal, can become venial by reason of the imperfection of the act, because then it does not completely fulfil the conditions of a moral act, since it is not a deliberate, but a sudden act This happens by a kind of subtraction, namely, of deliberate reason. And since a moral act takes its species from deliberate reason, the result is that by such a subtraction the species of the act is destroyed”.

Further St Thomas Aquinas confirms the involuntariness and mitigation provided by such sudden events ceases, once a person has time to deliberate and consent (ST I-II, q.74, a. 10):

Now it is possible for one of the articles of faith to present itself to the reason suddenly under some other aspect, before the eternal law … can be consulted, on the matter; as, for instance, when a man suddenly apprehends the resurrection of the dead as impossible naturally, and rejects it, as soon as he had thus apprehended it, before he has had time to deliberate and consider that this is proposed to our belief in accordance with the Divine law. If, however, the movement of unbelief remains after this deliberation, it is a mortal sin … A sin which is against the eternal law, though it be mortal in its genus, may nevertheless be venial, on account of the incompleteness of a sudden action, as stated … in this way, that which in the sudden movement was not a mortal sin, becomes a mortal sin in virtue of the deliberation which brought it into the light of a higher consideration”.

However, such sudden events are not the only factors which St Thomas Aquinas accepts render an act at least partially involuntary, as complete consent is not given. These other factors include violence and fear (ST I-II, q.6, a. 5 and a. 6), in relation to which St Thomas Aquinas notes (ST Supplement, q. 47, a. 1):

Compulsion or violence is twofold. One is the cause of absolute necessity, and violence of this kind the Philosopher calls … “violent simply,” as when by bodily strength one forces a person to move; the other causes conditional necessity, and the Philosopher calls this a “mixed violence,” as when a person throws his merchandise overboard in order to save himself. In the latter kind of violence, although the thing done is not voluntary in itself, yet taking into consideration the circumstances of place and time it is voluntary. And since actions are about particulars, it follows that it is voluntary simply, and involuntary in a certain respect … Wherefore this latter violence or compulsion is consistent with consent, but not the former. And since this compulsion results from one’s fear of a threatening danger, it follows that this violence coincides with fear which, in a manner, compels the will, whereas the former violence has to do with bodily actions. Moreover, since the law considers not merely internal actions, but rather external actions, consequently it takes violence to mean absolute compulsion, for which reason it draws a distinction between violence and fear. Here, however, it is a question of internal consent which cannot be influenced by compulsion or violence as distinct from fear. Therefore as to the question at issue compulsion and fear are the same. Now, according to lawyers fear is “the agitation of the mind occasioned by danger imminent or future””.

These factors do not mitigate due to an inability to deliberate, but rather because they compel consent. Indeed, the fact that deliberate reason is not overwhelmed by fear, is precisely the reason St Thomas Aquinas gives for why fear of evil consequences makes an act only partly involuntary (ST I-II, q. 6, a. 6):

And that which is done through fear is voluntary, inasmuch as it is here and now, that is to say, in so far as, under the circumstances, it hinders a greater evil which was feared; thus the throwing of the cargo into the sea becomes voluntary during the storm, through fear of the danger: wherefore it is clear that it is voluntary simply. And hence it is that what is done out of fear is essentially voluntary, because its principle is within. But if we consider what is done through fear, as outside this particular case, and inasmuch as it is repugnant to the will, this is merely a consideration of the mind. And consequently what is done through fear is involuntary, considered in that respect, that is to say, outside the actual circumstances of the case”.

It can therefore be seen that the involuntariness and mitigation provided by fear of evil consequences does not cease when a person is able to deliberate, such that it can only reduce culpability while a person is overwhelmed in a moment. Rather it mitigates despite the fact a person makes a deliberate choice under the circumstances to avoid the evil consequences, as the evil consequences themselves are circumstances which compel consent.

Accordingly, such fear is able to reduce culpability for so long as the threat of the evil consequences remain, rather than only before a person is able go through a process of deliberation and discernment.

2.5 The Commandments and Impossibility

Another objection which is raised to treating consequences as mitigating factors, is that it treats the commandment of God against adultery as impossible to observe. For example, the Criteria for the Application of AL from the Bishops of Malta at Item 9, states “there are complex situations where the choice of living “as brothers and sisters” becomes humanly impossible and give rise to greater harm (see AL, note 329)”. Similarly in AL 273, in reference to the lack of freedom of drug addicts, Pope Francis speaks of it being “practically impossible for them not to choose that evil”.

In this regard, while Canon 23 of the 6th Session of the Council of Trent confirms:

If anyone says that a man once justified … can during his whole life avoid all sins, even those that are venial, except by a special privilege from God, as the Church holds in regard to the Blessed Virgin, let him be anathema”.

Canon 18 of the 6th Session of the Council of Trent states:

If anyone says that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to observe, let him be anathema”.

Further Pope Ven. Pius XII applied this teaching of Trent to continence in his 1951 Allocution to Midwives:

It will be objected that such an abstention [from conjugal union] is impossible, that such a heroism is asking too much. You will hear this objection raised; you will read it everywhere. Even those who should be in a position to judge very differently, either by reason of their duties or qualifications, are ever ready to bring forward the following argument: “No one is obliged to do what is impossible, and it may be presumed that no reasonable legislator can will his law to oblige to the point of impossibility. But for husbands and wives long periods of abstention are impossible. Therefore they are not obliged to abstain; divine law cannot have this meaning.” In such a manner, from partially true premises, one arrives at a false conclusion. To convince oneself of this it suffices to invert the terms of the argument: “God does not oblige anyone to do what is impossible. But God obliges husband and wife to abstinence if their union cannot be completed according to the laws of nature. Therefore in this case abstinence is possible.” To confirm this argument, there can be brought forward the doctrine of the Council of Trent, which, in the chapter on the observance necessary and possible of referring to a passage of St. Augustine, teaches: “God does not command the impossible but while He commands, He warns you to do what you can and to ask for the grace for what you cannot do and He helps you so that you may be able” 

It would be a wrong towards men and women of our age to judge them incapable of continuous heroism. Nowadays, for many a reason,—perhaps constrained by dire necessity or even at times oppressed by injustice—heroism is exercised to a degree and to an extent that in the past would have been thought impossible. Why, then, if circumstances truly demand it, should this heroism stop at the limits prescribed by the passions and the inclinations of nature? It is clear: he who does not want to master himself is not able to do so, and he who wishes to master himself relying only upon his own powers, without sincerely and perseveringly seeking divine help, will be miserably deceived”.

Similarly Pope St John Paul II, in his 1983 Responsible Parenthood Address, taught:

To maintain that situations exist in which it is not, de facto, possible for the spouses to be faithful to all the requirements of the truth of conjugal love is equivalent to forgetting this event of grace which characterizes the New Covenant: the grace of the Holy Spirit makes possible that which is not possible to man, left solely to his own powers”.

However, that the moral commandments may be “humanly” or “practically” impossible, does not mean it impossible with Grace. As Christ himself taught in Matthew 19:26, “But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”.

In this regard, CCC 1615 notes in relation to the seeming impossibility of the indissolubility of marriage:

This unequivocal insistence on the indissolubility of the marriage bond may have left some perplexed and could seem to be a demand impossible to realize. However, Jesus has not placed on spouses a burden impossible to bear, or too heavy – heavier than the Law of Moses. By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, he himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God. It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to “receive” the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ”.

Further, as noted by AL 295:

For the law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace, even though each human being “advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of God’s definitive and absolute love in his or her entire personal and social life””.

And AL 297:

As for the way of dealing with different “irregular” situations, the Synod Fathers reached a general consensus, which I support: “In considering a pastoral approach towards people who have contracted a civil marriage, who are divorced and remarried, or simply living together, the Church has the responsibility of helping them understand the divine pedagogy of grace in their lives and offering them assistance so they can reach the fullness of God’s plan for them”, something which is always possible by the power of the Holy Spirit”.

Nor is actual impossibility implied by accepting external difficulties reduce culpability. This can be seen in Dante’s treatment of the first sphere of heaven, where those forced to break vows dwell, in the Paradiso 4.82-7:

If their will had been unbroken, like that which kept Lawrence on the grid and made Mucius stern to his own hand, then, as soon as they were free, it would have driven them back on the path from which they had been dragged; but will so firm is rare indeed”.

Those like Dante’s Piccarda, a nun who was forced from her convent, did not mortally sin given the external coercion involved and are thus numbered with the blessed in heaven. And yet as shown by martyrs such as St Lawrence, it was possible for them to resist even unto death. Accordingly, there is still a venial sin able to be imputed to them, which restricts them to the lowest of Dante’s nine spheres of heaven.

2.6 Role of Conscience

AL 303 states that:

Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel.  It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal”.

However this cannot be understood as affirming a type of situationalism, which would provide that conscience can authorized legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms, as confirmed by Pope Francis during a Dialogue with Jesuits on October 24 2016:

In the field of morality we must advance without falling into situationalism: but, rather, it is necessary to bring forward again the great wealth contained in the dimension of discernment; this is characteristic of the great scholasticism. 

We should note something: St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure affirm that the general principle holds for all but — they say it explicitly — as one moves to the particular, the question becomes diversified and many nuances arise without changing the principle. This scholastic method has its validity. It is the moral method used by the Catechism of the Catholic Church. And it is the method that was used in the last apostolic exhortation, Amoris laetitia … The morality used in Amoris laetitia is Thomistic, but that of the great St. Thomas himself”.

This rejection of situationalism, as compared to St Thomas Aquinas on prudence, strongly echoes Pope Ven. Pius XII in his series of addresses in 1952 on the errors of situational ethics (44 Acta Apostolicae Sedis 417 – 418 (1952)):

[H]atred of God, blasphemy, idolatry, abandoning the true faith, denial of the faith, perjury, murder, bearing false witness, calumny, adultery and fornication, the abuse of marriage, the solitary sin, stealing and robbery, taking away the necessities of life, depriving workers of their just wages, monopolizing vital foodstuffs and unjustifiably increasing prices, fraudulent bankruptcy, unjust maneuvering in speculation – all these are gravely forbidden by the divine Lawmaker. No examination is necessary. No matter what the situation of the individual may be, there is no other course open to him but to obey  

St. Thomas’ treatment of the cardinal virtue of prudence …  (Summa Theologiae, II-II, q.47-57). His treatise evidences a sense of personal activity and of actuality which contains whatever is true and positive in Situation Ethics, while avoiding its deviations from the truth and its confusion. It will suffice, therefore, if the modern moralist, desirous of penetrating the new problems, will follow along the same lines”.

2.7 Law of Gradualness

Nor can AL 303 be understood as affirming a “gradualness of the law”, condemned by FC 34, where it is assumed there are “different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations”.

Rather AL explicitly reiterates Pope St John Paul II’s proposal for a “law of gradualness”, which is: (AL 295):

[N]ot a “gradualness of law” but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law”.

Further, AL 300 confirms:

Given that gradualness is not in the law itself (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 34), this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church”.

It may be objected that AL does not enjoin a decisive break with sin, as outlined in the 1997 Vademecum at 3.9:

The pastoral “law of gradualness” … consists of requiring a decisive break with sin together with a progressive path towards total union with the will of God and with his loving demands”.

However, as noted in the 1997 Vademecum at 3.8, a decisive break does not require an immediate end to a sin where reduced culpability renders it difficult to do so straight away:

In general, it is not necessary for the confessor to investigate concerning sins committed in invincible ignorance of their evil, or due to an inculpable error of judgment. Although these sins are not imputable, they do not cease, however, to be an evil and a disorder. This also holds for the objective evil of contraception, which introduces a pernicious habit into the conjugal life of the couple … The principle according to which it is preferable to let penitents remain in good faith in cases of error due to subjectively invincible ignorance, is certainly to be considered always valid, even in matters of conjugal chastity. And this applies whenever it is foreseen that the penitent, although oriented towards living within the bounds of a life of faith, would not be prepared to change his own conduct, but rather would begin formally to sin”.

In this regard, the 1997 Vademecum is merely following the theory of “good faith” taught by St Alphonsus Liguori, in his TM Lib. 6.

Nor should references in AL to the Church’s teaching on marriage as an ideal, such as that to it as an “ideal to be more fully realized” (AL 303), be understood to be inconsistent with  FC 34’s warning (reiterated by VS 103) that married people:

[C]annot however look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future: they must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties with constancy”.

This has been confirmed by Pope Francis in his 2017 Roman Rota Address, where he stated:

The Church, thus, with a renewed sense of responsibility continues to propound marriage in its essential elements — offspring, the good of the spouses, unity, indissolubility and sacramentalitynot as an ideal meant only for the few, notwithstanding modern models fixated on the ephemeral and the passing, but rather as a reality that in Christ’s grace can be lived out by all baptized faithful”.

Moreover this link between mitigating factors and progressive growth is echoed in AL 308:

At the same time, from our awareness of the weight of mitigating circumstances – psychological, historical and even biological – it follows that “without detracting from the evangelical ideal, there is a need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively appear”, making room for “the Lord’s mercy, which spurs us on to do our best””.

Accordingly it can be seen the law of gradualness, not gradualness of the law or situationalism, is precisely the what AL 303 is referring to when it speaks of:

[T]he most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal”.

This is confirmed by AL 303 itself, which consistent with the “step-by-step advance” (FC 34) and “progressive path” (1997 Vademecum at 3.9) called for by Pope St John Paul II, provides in relation to those who have not achieved the objective demand of the Gospel that:

In any event, let us recall that this discernment is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized”.

Therefore, in accordance with the logic of AL, any reception of Holy Communion by those whose culpability for objectively grave sins is reduced is not an end point, but rather a means of helping them break free from their limitations and sin.

In the words of AL Footnote 351:

I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak””.

This is consistent with CCC 1393 to 1395, which provides:

Holy Communion separates us from sin … For this reason the Eucharist cannot unite us to Christ without at the same time cleansing us from past sins and preserving us from future sins

As bodily nourishment restores lost strength, so the Eucharist strengthens our charity, which tends to be weakened in daily life; and this living charity wipes away venial sins. By giving himself to us Christ revives our love and enables us to break our disordered attachments to creatures and root ourselves in him …

By the same charity that it enkindles in us, the Eucharist preserves us from future mortal sins. The more we share the life of Christ and progress in his friendship, the more difficult it is to break away from him by mortal sin.

That Holy Communion is not an end point can be particularly seen in this ability to free people from their limitations, including those which reduce culpability. This growth may see a sin which was venial become mortal if not ceased, as limitations to full knowledge and complete consent are overcome with the help of Grace.

In these circumstances, the logic of the teaching of AL would mean a person who may have been able to receive Holy Communion fruitfully due to reduced culpability for a time, will no longer be able to do so as the urgency of living up to the demands of the Gospel increase.

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21 thoughts on “2.0 Intrinsic Evil

  1. With respect, you have put a lot of work into this. However, your answer to the objection on the intrinsic nature of sin is unsatisfying.

    With respect to the Angelic Doctor, who both the First and Second Vatican Councils elevated as the underlying basis of all sound theology, there has also been firm magisterial development in this realm.

    Just as we no longer accept the Doctor for the underlying understanding of the conceptus, we also have to clarify his teaching with respect to intrinsic nature of particular acts. This is what I was taught at Navarre when I obtained my licentiate in moral theology and dogmatics.

    In particular, Veritatis Splendor defined intrinsic nature in such a way that certain components of the Doctor”s teaching no longer hold in the same way. VS, which is the cornerstone of do he teaching on intrinsic nature of acts holds a much higher level of magisterial authority than any apostolic exhortation.

    AL simply cannot hold, and while we shold assume the goodwill of the Holy Father, do he her is absolutely no way to justify those living in adultery after being divorced and “remarried” can ever be justified in receiving Communion.

    One may argue the Holy Father does not authorize this, assumed while I am willing to accept that, it is absolutely imperative that this be confirmed through answering the dubai so that he may confirm his brethren.

    Doctrine, assumed ND in this case dogma spake from the mouth of Christmas himself, can only be received and understood in the exact same way it was as originally taught. (See Vatican I).

    I wonthink debate this more. But I will say that the Malta Bishops have aposticized at this point.


    • Thank you for taking the time to consider my Apologia. In terms of Veritatis Splendor, as noted in this Section and my 1.0 Mortal Sin, it confirms reduced culpability can apply to intrinsic evils. VS 81 provides that:

      “If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it”.

      That is mitigating circumstances can reduce, but not eliminate, the evil of an intrinsically wrong thing like adultery. In this regard, for Holy Communion to be fruitful it is only necessary for it to be possible for the evil of adultery to be reduced (from mortal to venial), rather than eliminated. Accordingly VS does not deny adultery can be a subjectively venial sin, such that it does not preclude fruitful reception of Holy Communion.

      This is, at least, my understanding. If you have any reason to believe I have misunderstood VS, please do let me know, so that I may reconsider my position.


  2. Scott, you have an undertaken an exceedingly difficult task, and performed it with great care. I greatly respect that.

    I agree with much you have said, but I do not agree with some of your individual conclusions, (I have only read about 1/2 so far). Here’s one:

    While these grave evils do not eliminate the moral duty for the D&R to live in complete continence, or even less create a mortal duty to commit adultery, in accordance with the CCC and St Thomas Aquinas they are rightly considered to reduce culpability as long as their threat remains.

    I don’t think it will (generally) work out this way. I think that the reduced culpability that obtain in the case you mentioned above (in footnote 329) “if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, “it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers”, only obtains while a couple erroneously imagine that this rationale actually EXCUSES the adulterous behavior, so that they think they are actually not committing sins. When they discuss the matter with their pastor, he is obliged to set them straight about this, saying that “no, the intention to reduce tensions between us to keep the welfare of the kids is NOT an acceptable basis to continue to have sex between you, it is gravely and intrinsically disordered EVEN WHEN you fear that the kids’ welfare will be harmed.” (And more, about relying on grace, etc.) Once they have been properly schooled in the Church’s teaching, they will not be able to think that “harm to the children” is reasonable as a basis for ongoing sexual relations between them, and then the fear of harm to the children can no longer be a cause of reduced culpability sufficient to reduce the sin to venial. The reduced culpability does not last “as long as the threat remains”, it is resolved when the threat is revealed as not one that could ever morally condone their sexual union. The new information eliminates the “inculpable error of judgment”. If they obstinately hold to their former judgment, then it is no longer inculpable.

    Of course, it would be a different pathway for a couple that never even comes to their pastor to discuss the problems. They may never realize that the fear is not a justified basis for the ongoing sexual union. But of course, generally in that case they are not in the position of “inculpable error of judgment” simply speaking: as AL indicates they are supposed to consult the priest (though it is hardly as unabmbiguous as it could have been on this point). The failure to do so usually indicates an unwillingness to become better informed, out of fear of hearing clearly what they already suspect, or even know implicitly. While in each case the exact determination of whether their reduced culpability for the adulterous behavior might take more than the wisdom of Solomon, they would be unable to use that as an excuse for not approaching the pastor: a person is not excused from the danger of a sacrilegious communion by being unsure of whether he has been committing mortal sins and not trying to find out through appropriate means.

    I think that AL footnote 329 will be read by many (who are not trying to distort the Pope’s thinking) as condoning the possibility of a couple being RIGHT that in their case going on with their adulterous union is the right thing to do because otherwise the risk of harm to children would be too great. It SHOULDN’T be read that way, because doing so eviscerates VS and FC, but I think that some bishops really believe this (false) thinking already, and are taking 329 as confirmation.


    • Tony,

      Thank you for your kind comments.

      In terms of your difficulty, I think you may be conflating limits on intellect (i.e. full knowledge), with limits on will (i.e. complete consent).

      That is to say, when AL speaks of the suffering of children reducing culpability, it is not referring to people being ignorant that adultery is wrong. It is speaking of them knowing it is wrong, but it being extremely difficult for them to avoid that wrong, given the external coercion represented by the looming harm to their children.

      Other examples of mitigating factors which make sin in a sense involuntary by impairing the will, include the intrinsic evils of denying Christ or lying to avoid my death or others. While I know denying Christ or lying is intrinsically evil, and indeed that martyrdom is the demand of the Gospel, the duress / coercion of a gun to the head of myself or others might make it very difficult for me to actually do the right thing. In this case I still sin, but I think all would agree the coercion means my sin would be less than voluntary, and thus my guilt is reduced (such might be the case in the example of the novel Silence by Shūsaku Endo).

      In terms of those who incorrectly think AL suggests adultery can be the right thing to do, they will certainly exist. However that error cannot be attributed to AL itself, as it is very clear the adultery remains an objective sin (i.e. AL295,297,302,303,305 etc, as summarised in my 3.2 Pre-Existing Exceptions). If the adultery was in fact the right thing to do, as for example applies where evils are not intrinsically so (i.e. self-defence in respect of homicide), there would not in fact be any sin at all (objective or otherwise).

      Indeed those who fall into this error are in fact opposing a key imperative of Pope Francis, which is that we are sinners in need of mercy.


  3. Scott, I would be concerned with 2 things in your response. First,

    the duress / coercion of a gun to the head of myself or others might make it very difficult for me to actually do the right thing. In this case I still sin, but I think all would agree the coercion means my sin would be less than voluntary, and thus my guilt is reduced

    I don’t want to attribute to you something you are not intending, but from this you seem to imply that any cause that impinges on the voluntariness of the act would be something that makes the act “less than voluntary” and therefore the guilt would no longer be the guilt of mortal sin. I don’t think this is valid. I recognize that you may not have intended to imply this, but some out there are speaking as if that’s what mitigating factors do.

    There are, of course, degrees of influence by mitigating causes, and not all degrees imply such an invasion of freedom as to change responsibility from “free enough” for mortal sin to “not free enough” for mortal sin. For instance, one of the mitigating factors is habit. But “habit” comes in an infinitude of degrees of strength, because in the formation of the habit each separate act (with each separate degree of resistance beforehand) either strengthens or weakens the habit itself, making it more or less a mitigating cause. ONE single bad act cannot create enough of a habit to reduce culpability for the next from being mortal. Nor the second… So, at some point along the way in the formation of a bad habit, the habit will be strong enough to reduce freedom sufficiently to excuse from mortal sin, and some several bad acts before that level of habituation, it wouldn’t be – though it would be enough to affect the freedom to act, negatively, making it less free than otherwise. Hence it is possible to commit a mortal sin while the will is less than perfectly free, but still not so imperfectly free as to diminish capacity to resist the bad choice sufficiently to excuse from the guilt of mortal sin.


    I think you may be conflating limits on intellect (i.e. full knowledge), with limits on will (i.e. complete consent)

    Well, I was trying not to, but we’ll see. The Church in the martyr times of persecution had to deal with the cases of Christians who, in the face of death threats, recanted their Christianity and bent the knee to idols. If my memory serves, the Church practice was to treat this sin as extremely grave, so much so that there was debate as to whether it could be forgiven. In the event, (so far as my memory of what I read about this), they were forgiven – but with lifelong penance: the sin was treated as mortal sin. In the face of the examples of the martyrs before them, they knew that if put in the same circumstance they were obliged to submit to death, and that the grace needed would be given them. This knowledge, I think directly affects the freedom of the will when the threat comes.

    If you think of how fear operates, I think you will find it odd (at least I do) to consider a fear that “the children will suffer if our ‘spousal’ tension gets too great” to mitigate a SPECIFIC act of adultery. LEt us assume, for this example, a couple who accepts their priest’s instruction that adultery is not moral even when fear of harming the children rears its head, who have decided to TRY to live chastely by abstaining from sex. There will be two passions involved: the one is positive, a desire for the pleasure of the bed with the other person; the second a fear of what mounting tension will do to the relationships in the ‘family’. The first passion is direct and specific towards a concrete act that can be imagined directly and accomplished directly here and now: a temptation to DO something. The second is inchoate: it is against some “condition” that is admits of degrees, more and less; and it is intractable as to “fixing” by one act alone such as saying a prayer. But a moment that the first passion is severely strong is highly unlikely to be a moment that the second is felt strongly, and vice versa, for the in human psyche as one passion strengthens the second will diminish in urgency. A couple who is feeling afraid overwhelmingly is unlikely to be feeling desire overwhelmingly. And if you are feeling fear overwhelmingly, the fear is of some inchoate future “condition of too much tension”, not an immediate danger that can be fled or prevented by an act here and now. Sex here and now will REDUCE the tension right now for a short time, but cannot eradicate the tension in that inchoate future; only a deliberate choice to regularly have sex will address that, and such a choice is deliberate because – since it regards FUTURE temptations of fear rather than a current one – is not excused by the current fear.

    Fear of an immediate threat acted upon is a fear that may excuse from mortal sin, surely. But this is because the immediacy impinges on the manner in which the knowledge “this is wrong” is present to the mind and will. Fear of a long range future threat, which cannot be fixed by a single act here and now but only by a series of acts over a long time, by these very facts loses the immediacy and thus loses the very feature that MAKES the fear reduce such voluntariness and culpability below that of mortal sin.


    • Tony,

      I totally agree with your first point. I have added a new section, 1.8 Rarity of Mortal Sin, which clarifies I do not endorse the error to which you refer.

      In terms of your second point, my understanding from Aquinas is that there is a distinction between fear as an inordinate passion (which can be a sin – ST 2-2 Q125, A3), and fear as a consideration of evil consequences. In this regard Aquinas states (ST 2-2 Q125, A4):

      “Wherefore if one were to incur evils of the soul, namely sins, in order to avoid evils of the body, such as blows or death, or evils of external things, such as loss of money; or if one were to endure evils of the body in order to avoid loss of money, one would not be wholly excused from sin. Yet one’s sin would be extenuated somewhat, for what is done through fear is less voluntary, because when fear lays hold of a man he is under a certain necessity of doing a certain thing. Hence the Philosopher (Ethic. iii, 1) says that these things that are done through fear are not simply voluntary, but a mixture of voluntary and involuntary.

      Fear excuses, not in the point of its sinfulness, but in the point of its involuntariness.”

      It is this second type of fear I think is applicable to the D&R. Again, I will update the Apologia to clarify this point.


  4. Tony,

    I tried to make a similar objection in 1.0. Mortal sin, but the way you describe it is brilliant and I think will help Scott to understand that fear or other factors diminish culpability in so far they are present at the moment of action in such a strong manner that they render an act involuntary. That’s what some people refer to as retrospective vs prospective.

    The priest can’t tell them to go ahead and have sexual intimacy in the FUTURE because at the moment they spoke maybe she was terrified about the future of their kids in such a way that she couldn’t possibly use her free will. As you point out, that’s an oversimplification of how reason, free will, passions, etc. work. That idea is not supported by traditional catholic moral theology.

    I will add other objections to this section soon.


  5. Scott, I still think that the fear you are identifying will diminish culpability so that it is not mortal is not rightly put.

    “diminish responsibility and culpability” is where “a person judges that he would fall into a subsequent fault by damaging the children of the new union”.

    If I may recast what the is being said here, a person might say to himself “I should sin now so that I don’t commit THAT sin later.”

    The problem is NOT that the thing he is intent on avoiding isn’t evil. It is. He is supposing / fearing that he will do evil things that will damage the marriage and the kids. Those would be evils. It’s that you can ALWAYS avoid that kind of evil by another means than that of committing a sin.

    As a result, when this person has recourse to his pastor to discern his condition, his pastor will certainly explain to him that THIS FEAR that he has of a later evil CANNOT be directed through to the avenue of “commit this sin here to avoid that later sin”. That is, once he has had the moral picture explained, the mechanism of avoiding that future evil through this sin of adultery is no longer something that mitigates this present sin.

    As an example: An evil man has your child at gunpoint. He demands: either kill the mayor of the city, or give me $1000. If you go out and kill the mayor out of fear he will kill your child, you are not excused from full culpability, because the fear (death of the child) does not excuse NOT TAKING A SIN-FREE route to avoid it.

    Once the pastor explains that you definitively have a sin-free pathway to avoid the later evil, you cannot be excused for employing a sinful means to avoid it.

    BTW, I do not deny that a person who is ignorant of the right way to understand and view the avoidance of the future sins may have a lesser culpability even to the point of making the sin venial, until he receives instruction from the pastor. Although, even there, “do not do evil that good may come of it” is a very foundational feature of the natural law, (since it flows directly out of “do not do evil”), and nobody is wholly excused from having a sense of it, even if they cannot articulate it clearly.


    • Tony,

      I agree with you on this point, and will amend the text to clarify. If the situation is a person suggesting they will commit an arguably graver evil (harm the children), if they don’t commit an arguably lesser one (adultery), then I don’t think that reduces culpability.

      I would assert reduced culpability only applies where the evils of doing good are something for which the person would not properly speaking be responsible for. For example the OTHER spouse abandons the kids if sex is denied. Only in these cases would there be an external coercion which limits full consent.

      I would accept a confessor could suggest it would be better to commit the less grave sin rather than the greater one, on the basis that the Church teaches it is not scandal to encourage people to do better rather than worse (even if better is still sin). This opinion is expressed in the old Catholic Encyclopedia at least (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13506d.htm):

      “May one advise another bent on committing a great crime to be satisfied instead with doing something less evil? This question is much discussed, but the opinion which considers such a course justifiable is probable and may be followed in practice”.


      • You equivocated on ‘evil’ in that reply, and so cannot use the Catholic Encyclopedia in your argument.

        Your statement boils down to:

        (1) If I do not commit the [moral] evil of adultery, it will result in the evil [harm] of my companion leaving our children.
        (2) the [moral] evil of adultery is less bad than the evil [harm] of abandonment
        (3) Therefore the best thing is to commit adultery.

        Comparing moral evils to harms is precisely the kind of consequentialism VS (consonant with Tradition) was rejecting. This entirely falls within Aquinas’ example of adultery being impermissible even to saving an entire kingdom from ruin. Neither can you fix it by not equivocating on “evil” and saying you are trying to avoid the moral evil of abandonment rather than the harmful effects of abandonment, for two reasons. The first is that it is not clear adultery is less morally evil than abandonment (both being gravely evil), and the second being that I am not justified to commit grave sins, and entangle my companion in that grave sin too, by fear that someone my companion may commit a different grave sin in the future if we don’t both commit this grave sin right now.

        The CE article won’t help you on that. That is more like me fearing that when Bob says, “I am going to kill Jim!” and I am pretty certain he really means it, that I might say, “Why don’t you just trash his new car instead?” I am not sure if I agree with the probable opinion or not, but either way the situation doesn’t apply, because I am not just trying to talk Bob back from doing something gravely evil to something not as bad (with the mind that I could, I would convince him to do no evils at all) but instead entangling both me and my companion in the same grave sin in order for my companion not to commit a different grave sin alone.

        At that point we are uncomfortable close the Garden, which warrants these words from St Augustine:

        “[Eve] accepted as true what the serpent told her, but the man could not bear to be severed from his only companion, even though this involved a partnership in sin. He was not on this account less culpable, but sinned with his eyes open.

        “Having as yet no experience of the divine severity, he was possibly deceived in so far as he thought his sin venial. And consequently he was not deceived as the woman was deceived, but he was deceived as to the judgment which would be passed on his apology: “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me, and I did eat.” What need of saying more? Although they were not both deceived by credulity, yet both were entangled in the snares of the devil, and taken by sin…

        “This falling away is spontaneous; for if the will had remained steadfast in the love of that higher and changeless good by which it was illumined to intelligence and kindled into love, it would not have turned away to find satisfaction in itself, and so become frigid and benighted; the woman would not have believed the serpent spoke the truth, nor would the man have preferred the request of his wife to the command of God, nor have supposed that it was a venial transgression to cleave to the partner of his life even in a partnership of sin. “


  6. Thank you for writing this.

    One precedent you could add for diminished culpability is Castii Conubii 59, where Pius XI said that if one person in a marriage wants to stop using contraceptives and the other doesn’t, the first is not sinning if they have contracepted sex. We can assume that Pius XI meant mortal sin (he was being brief since he was making a minor point).

    This precedent has been overlooked in this debate, and I’ve only seen one person cite it, who was the one that made me aware of it.


    • Thank you for the kind words, and extra food for thought.

      In terms of CC59, that is an interesting precedent, which is also referred to in the 1997 Vademecum at 13. I have not included it, as it seems to form part of a tradition (including Denzinger 2795 and 3634, footnoted in the Vademecum), which is about passive cooperation in evil acts. That is, one is excused from participating in contraceptive acts, when ones own act is not itself illicit (i.e. you are just trying engage in proper martial acts). In this tradition for example, you might be excused if your spouse used the pill against your objections, but not for cooperation in say sodomy.

      So at least for me, I don’t think it is quite on point (i.e. as the sexual relations of the D&R are in themselves are illicit). Particularly as I am keen not to stretch any precedents too far, even if they are perhaps of some relevance.


  7. ThomasL,

    I am afraid I may have been unclear. I am definitively not saying “the best thing is to commit adultery”. As I have repeated said, adultery is intrinsically evil, it is always sinful (even if only venially so) regardless of the consequences.

    My point here was, if we have say three options (a) don’t sin, b) sin badly, c) sin worse), the fact you could sin worse doesn’t mitigate your guilt for sinning badly.

    The only point of the reference to Catholic Encyclopedia is, if a person asked a confessor if b) or c) was worse, the confessor could without scandal say:

    “God asks you to do a). But if you refuse his call, it is at least better (though not good) to do b)”.

    This advice, while not justifying the person or reducing their guilt, could be offered in my view as part of the law of gradualness.


  8. @Scott,

    Thanks for the reply, but I don’t think that quite addresses the point. Of course by “best” I did not mean best absolutely, just best the in the context of the argument. Perhaps “better” would have been the better choice of words, as I only presented two options, of which (by your argument) adultery was the better option of the two.

    But that doesn’t fix the equivocation problem. A moral evil is not better *morally* than suffering a hardship or harm (the effects of being abandoned); and moral evil vs suffered harm is strictly incomparable.

    Secondly, it does not fit even gradualness as you suggest. If you hold that the evil to be avoided was not the harm/hardship of one parent abandoning their children, but rather the moral evil that parent abandoning their children, you still have not made your case.

    It quite simply is not clear that it is *morally* better for two companions to commit the grave sin of adultery together rather than running the risk that one *might* commit the grave sin of abandoning their children.

    Nor is it possible to adduce even from your second example that BOTH can commit a grave sin in way that is partially justified, so that one can prevent the other from perhaps committing an also grave sin.

    All of your examples regarding gradualness are of a single individual (person A) being talked out of doing something really bad to something not-quite-as-bad.

    But you are using the example to partially justify person B doing something that is at least as morally evil, arguably even worse, than what person A had threatened to do in the first place. And it does not even run as a straight substitution of person B doing evil rather than person A in order to spare A the guilt, since the alternative act now involves both A & B doing evil.

    The closer example to what you are saying is:

    Person A: I am going to lie to the trial tomorrow. I am going to say I saw Bob do it.
    Person B: Instead of that, why don’t we both skip town tonight and rob the bank over in Peyton tomorrow just like we did back in Holdsburg?

    Now we’ve got two people breaking the 8th commandment instead of one breaking the 7th, but it is not at all clear why that is better or falls under the law of gradualness. Saying, “They were already banking robbers, but A was not yet a perjurer,” is about as close as you can get, but I do not think it will get you very far.


    • ThomasL,

      Just taking your example, because it is the clearest illustration of your point, I would agree that does not represent a proper application of the law of gradualness. However, I suppose we are now at risk of casuistry, and are discussing a matter beyond what we would have to say AL authorizes. So I will concede my thought bubble on this point, though different to the example you provide, could well be wrong.


  9. One point I would like to make about the “law of gradualness” is a confusion that is being introduced by obscure and ambiguous language surrounding it. I don’t think we will get the concept more clearly except if we step away from the obscure terms being used and shift to other descriptions.

    In principle, a Catholic in a state of mortal sin cannot “gradually” come to be in a state of grace through the commission of acts that are, over time, gradually less evil. Until he repents of the grave evil acts he has done, and either goes to confession or makes an act of perfect contrition, he cannot recover a state of grace. And both going to confession and making an act of perfect contrition are definitive acts that occur as discontinuities from the prior condition: there is no “gradualness” about those concrete acts.

    This we would expect because of the basic reality that a person who is in the state of mortal sin is spiritually dead, and there is no way to pass from dead to life via a gradual “increase” in liveliness. Only something ALREADY ALIVE can grow gradually, nothing dead can. Putting more and more band-aids on a corpse does not bring it closer and closer to being alive, only an abrupt change can do so, an intervention by grace.

    Properly speaking, the best context of the “law of gradualness” pertains ONLY to persons who are already in the state of grace, where it speaks to their gradually increasing in perfection, growing in holiness, advancing in making God alone the pure intention of their acts, etc. These are all gradual.

    With regard to a Catholic in the state of mortal sin, gradualness MAY take place wherein God uses actual graces to draw them away from satisfaction in evil, and eventually lead them to reconsider their position. The actual graces may move them gradually to reconsider their understanding of reality, or readjust their willingness to live with evils. But not one of these incremental changes puts them one iota into the realm of sanctifying grace, whereby they can perform an act out of due and proper love of God as He is in Himself, i.e. out of charity. Before that (discontinuous) change occurs, EVERY act they undertake, no matter how good it is in its species (giving to the poor, unselfishly giving up honors or wealth, etc) is deformed in its intention because it is done not from charity but from a deformed ultimate motive, and this lack renders such act completely without eternal merit, as such. (It can, perchance, render the person more disposed to accepting the grace or repentance and transformation back to the state of grace, but the acts prior to accepting and engaging in such repentance are not themselves meritorious. Nor are they praiseworthy in themselves – as acts from charity are – but only “praiseworthy in a sense” as lending towards repentance.)

    At the same time that God may use gradual changes to draw a person away from being satisfied with their state of sin, He can also use abruptness, as He did with St. Paul. And, in fact, there is little in principle to recommend to us a preference for gradually departing from a state of sin rather than doing it abruptly. Arguably, any benefits toward gradualness in this process can be offset by contrary tendencies, such as: people tend to get more comfortable with their sins as they persist longer, seeing in them ‘normal’ conditions. It is true that we should not expect and plan on my neighbor D&R Catholics to come to repentance in an instant, and there will almost always be prior events causing a change in their disposition toward the grace of repentance. However, we cannot pretend that behavior that consists in a reduction of the sinfulness of their acts and condition (such as abstaining from sex one week per month) is, simply speaking, meritorious or praiseworthy. so much as potentially beneficial – a good of utility only – if and only if it eventually leads them to repentance. Whether it is likely to do so is entirely a matter of prudence and cannot be broadly categorized very easily. It is indeed better to commit less grievous mortal sins than to commit more grievous mortal sins, but if the change to committing the less somehow defers or <obstructs the person reconsidering the morality of it altogether, it might not actually be in his best interest ultimately. (Say, a person who draws back from intentionally getting drunk every night, to only doing it on Fridays and Saturdays where it does not damage his job.) The nature of these incremental changes, and the manner in which they lead to repentance under God’s Providence, is so variable and contingent that one could hardly describe the movements of a person in the state of mortal sin toward repentance as under a “law” of gradualness, for there is no principle causing regularity about it at all. What is not at all true is that the normal progression of a person in the state of mortal sin to the state of grace be from grievously evil, towards being less grievously evil, towards (eventually) the barest, least evil condition that can be mortal, and THEN pass over into a state of grace. This is a completely false picture, and if (as some seem to think) the “law of gradualness” is to be taken that way, then it is sowing confusion rather than light.


  10. Right. Well, I think that the expressions used in AL are so hopelessly obscure and denuded of contextual placement that it is inevitable that people will misuse these passages to get the completely wrong sense out of them. The expression “the law of gradualness rather than gradualness of the law” is just about as opaque as any expression you could ask for. It could be quantum physics for that matter.


  11. Pingback: De Omnibus Dubitandum Est – A Dialogue | Reduced Culpability

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