Chapters 8 to 11 – Extracts on Reduced Culpability

Contemporary Moral Theology Volume 1 – Questions in Fundamental Moral Theology – By John C. Ford and Gerald Kelly 

Extracts on Reduced Culpability (all emphasis added and footnotes omitted)

Chapter 8 – Situation Ethics: Some Further Observations – Page 127

For instance, as we shall explain later, some Catholic authors have gone entirely too far in their theories of diminished subjective responsibility, but this is not the same as the situationist tendency to change or abolish objective moral standards. Yet the language of the former is sometimes unfortunately somewhat similar to that of the latter.

Chapter 10 – Imputability and Unconscious Motivation – Page 174-179

The theologian, as well as the layman, has always been interested in the question of human responsibility; and this interest is perhaps especially keen concerning a negative aspect of the question, the problem of grave responsibility for serious sin. Human sympathy instinctively leads us to hope that men are not guilty of the apparently vast number of serious sins they commit; for mortal sin deprives a man of eternal life, and delivers him, if unrepentant, to eternal death. Situationists would reduce the number of mortal sins in the world by diminishing the objective binding force of the moral law; even by completely abolishing it in certain peculiarly difficult circumstances. Orthodox theologians know that the problem cannot be solved in this way. They are more likely to seek a solution on the subjective side, by appealing to factors which prevent man from being fully responsible for the deeds he actually commits. Unfortunately, however, one can go too far in this direction also. A recent, and prominent, example of this kind of thinking was manifested by Abbe Marc Oraison in his book Vie chretienne et problemes de la sexualite.


This book was a doctoral dissertation. The author is a gifted and zealous priest, who is also a physician and a psychiatrist. He did not deny traditional standards of the objective order of sexual morality. Rather, he insistently defended these standards and claimed that modern scientific sexology confirms them. In this he differed from the situationists and from many Freudians, although his work was inspired by Freudian psychoanalysis and Freudian sexological theory. Nevertheless, the practical consequences of his theory, as far as sexual sins are concerns, would be scarcely distinguishable from the consequences of applied situation ethics. In his book, he finds a solution for the sexual crises of the Christian conscience by urging to the limit – and considerably beyond – the distinction between material and formal sin, that is, between objective malice and subjectively responsibility.

Almost all mankind, in this theory, is so sexually immature, and so much dominated consciously or unconsciously by passion, that in practice and as a general rule we must presume that sexual sins are only materially grave, that is, the person who commits them is not subjectively guilty of mortal sin. Man’s unconscious profoundly influences his “voluntary of execution,” depriving him, practically, of the power of inhibiting his sinful sexual acts. But he still has his “voluntary of choice” by which he approves or disapproves these acts and actions. It is only in the rare case in which he deliberately approves of them that he will be guilty of formal mortal sin. The sin consists, formally, not in being sick, or in exhibiting the symptoms of the sickness, but in not wanting to get well. This doctrine is applied not only to people who suffer from obvious mental, emotional, or sexual pathology, but also to all those persons whom most of us would describe as normal.

The inevitable inference from this is that sins of masturbation (p. 98), homosexuality (p. 117, pp. 250-51), fornication and adultery (pp. 195-97), and conjugal onanism (pp. 223-27) must be presumed in the vast majority of cases to be only material mortal sins. Those who confess them should be properly instructed as to their grave malice, and gradually educated to that (rare) stage of sexual maturity where they will no longer occur. But while they continue to occur, the sacraments are not to be refused, and the victims of this pathology should be instructed that it is permissible to receive Holy Communion after these things happen without first confessing them (e.g., pp. 223, 251). The reason is clear: They have not been guilty of formal mortal sin.

This brief summary picks out only the objectionable points and in doing so doubtless oversimplifies, omitting a great deal that is instructive and worthwhile. These good points, as well as the author’s courage in confronting an acute moral problem, probably account for the fact that some reviews, while definitely critical, had been surprisingly temperate and sympathetic.

Underlying these practical conclusions of Abbe Oraison there seems to be a fundamental misconception, the idea that normality is illusory, that everyone is a victim of sexual pathology. And this in turn is based not only on Freudian theory but on a misconception as to what original sin did to human nature.

Of course there is a certain improper sense in which it can be said that we are all emotionally sick, or sexually sick, as a result of original sin. Concupiscence itself can be broadly described as a sort of sickness of human nature in its fallen state. But it is only in some topsy-turvy world that everyone is a pathological problem in the real sense of the word – certainly not in the world of common sense, nor in the world of Christian tradition and Christian practice.

At about the same time as Abbe Oraison’s book was published, Pius XII delivered his address on the education of the Christian conscience, in which he solemnly and authoritatively rejected the thesis that sexual passion as a general rule destroys the freedom necessary for the commission of a grave fault. A year later, in his celebrated address to the psychotherapists, the pope emphatically reaffirmed the principle of the responsibility of the normal man, with special reference to modern psychoanalytical theories. In this address the Holy Father insisted that the soul with its free will, not the instinctive drives of the unconscious, is the fundamental governing force in man: “That these energies may exercise pressure on an activity does not necessarily signify that they compel it.” Even in cases of psychological sickness, the misdirected instincts should not be prematurely considered “as a sort of fatality, as a tyranny of the affective impulse streaming forth from the subconscious and escaping completely from the control of the conscious and the soul.”

Pius XII was most emphatic of all in repudiating the idea that in the reality of everyday life and as a general rule passion excludes subjective guilt and subjective responsibility. He said:

It is not possible, therefore, when studying the relationships of the ego to the dynamisms that compose it, to concede unreservedly in theory the autonomy of man – that is, of his soul – but to go on immediately to state that in the reality of life this theoretical principle appears to be very frequently set aside or minimized to the extreme. In the reality of life, it is argued, man always retains his freedom to give his internal consent to what he does, but in no way the freedom to do it. The autonomy of free wills is replaced by the heteronomy of instinctive dynamism. That is not the way in which God fashioned man. Original sin did not take away from man the possibility or the obligation of directing his own actions himself through his soul. It cannot be alleged that the psychic troubles and disorders which disturb the normal functioning of the psychic being represent what usually happens. [Italics ours.] The moral struggle to remain on the right path does not prove that it is impossible to follow that path, nor does it authorize any drawing back.

Abbe Oraison’s book appeared in 1952. The papal statement just quoted (which did not name Oraison) appeared on April 13, 1953. The book was put on the Index early in 1953, but this fact was not made known until January, 1955. Soon after the announcement was made Abbe Oraison submitted to the decree of the Holy Office, and has since publicly signified in the press his acceptance of the decision.

It is to be deeply regretted that at a moment when the baffling problems of subjective morality and formal guilt are in need of careful scrutiny and development, and when the moralist needs to reappraise his norms for estimating subjective guilt, especially where the mentally or emotionally sick are concerned, a serious work of this kind should appear, which clearly passed the limits set by traditional Catholic doctrine and practice. An official condemnation was the inevitable result. But we may express hope that this condemnation will not discourage other serious, but more conservative, efforts to solve what Vermeersch referred to, almost thirty years ago, as one of the great challenges to the modern moralist, the “grave and thorny problem … of subjective imputability.”

Chapter 11 – Freedom and Imputability Under Stress

In the last chapter we saw an exaggerated and untenable version of the doctrine that passion takes away subjective imputability; and since that opinion was based on psychoanalytical theory, we attempted to clarify some of the general questions raised by the new psychology of the dynamic unconscious.

It is possible to go too far in the opposite direction also, and make little or no allowance for the modification of human responsibility due to emotional disturbances. There is little danger today nowadays that anyone will return to the outmoded doctrine of interpretative advertence, according to which a man was guilty of his objectively sinful conduct even if he did not actually advert to the malice of that conduct at all, provided he could have and should have adverted to it. Still less is there any danger that we would ever go back to the crude estimates of earlier ages, in which the mere external performance if an act was, in effect, almost the only criterion of guilt.

But there is a danger that some may be too mechanical in applying inadequate rules of thumb. There are such things as compulsions and uncontrollable urges. There are such things as neurotic disturbances which may fall far short of any stereotyped picture of insanity and yet have very serious effects on human acts. And priest who has spent long hours in the confessional knows of the difficulties and the weaknesses that often manifest greatly diminished culpability. We are learning more and more about the internal and emotional obstacles to the exercise of freedom. If we do not take them into account we run the risk of judging consciences too severely. The problem is how to take them into account justly, without endangering the principle of human responsibility.

When insisting on human responsibility the theologian and the moralist should not be thought of as prosecuting attorneys, bent on finding men guilty of their misdeeds – while the psychiatrist is cast in the role of defense counsel. The thesis of diminished responsibility may not be as comforting as it appears on the surface. The shoe of nonresponsibility fits both feet. If it excuses from sin, it also eliminates merit; if it reduces blame, it also minimizes virtue. For good actions are not imputable to a man, either, unless he is free. They are not his in the moral sense. It is no compliment to human dignity to deprive man of the most human power he possesses.   

When this matter of responsibility is discussed with a materialistic psychologist, the point at issue is a basic one as to man’s nature, and how he us to arrive at his destiny. Is he basically and essentially a self-governing being? Is it through reason and free choices for which he is responsible that he governs himself and reaches his last end? Or is he a complicated automaton who is the creature of his unconscious, or of other forces, driven this way and that by hidden emotional and instinctual forces? The theologian answers that the essential governing force in man, the thing that differentiates him from other animals, is his reason and free will.

But when the problem is discussed by psychologists and theologians who accept man’s rational nature and free will (as we intend to discuss it here), it is a problem as to degrees of responsibility, and especially as to the degree of responsibility required in the concrete for the commission of mortal sin. For heaven and hell are at stake when a decision involving mortal sin is being made.

We shall try to explore the question with the help of established theological principles and whatever psychological information we have at our disposal. As will appear, it is a thorny problem indeed, and one we cannot hope to solve completely. Our purpose is rather to clarify it somewhat, by focusing attention on what we consider the nub of the problem, and by eliminating if possible some misunderstandings. We hope thus to encourage others to make more profound studies in the light of the philosophy of liberty, the psychology of will and emotion, and the theology of grace.


[Omitted] … When we say the will is free we mean that the human being endowed with such a will has the power, given certain prerequisites of knowledge and motivation, of saying yes or no, freely, to a proposed action, or of choosing freely between two alternative courses of action. “Freely” does not mean easily or without reluctance, although sometimes free choices are easily made. “Freely” means that at the time the choice was made, the man could have made the opposite choice – even if with difficulty or repugnance. He was not compelled by external or internal pressures to choose as he did. He did it himself. He made the choice when he could have made the opposite one, and for that reason, and only for that reason, he is responsible for it. If he chooses what is morally good, he is worthy of praise as a man. If he chooses what is morally bad he is worthy of blame. But without freedom of choice the act is not his in the moral sense; he is not responsible for it cannot be imputed to him; he is worthy of neither praise nor of blame. No one is morally responsible for what he could not help doing. The words “moral responsibility” and “moral imputability,” and the word “morality” itself, are all devoid of meaning, except in the hypothesis that man has the power of free choice, thus understood, in some of his acts.

Which ones? We say: the deliberate ones, that is, those done with knowledge and consent. We are interested most of all in those actions by which man chooses God or rejects God, chooses mortal sin or rejects mortal sin, administers a sacrament, makes a law, sentences a criminal, gives judgement in a lawsuit, binds himself by contract. And so of other important choices and decisions. Unless a man, acting with deliberation, is endowed per se with sufficient freedom to make such choices really his own and be fully responsible for them so that they must be imputed to him for reward or punishment, or as valid or invalid, then our religious beliefs and our social institutions do not make sense.


Moralists have discussed the conditions for responsibility for mortal sin more thoroughly than the conditions for juridical and sacramental acts. In fact they sometimes refer to the discretion required for serious sin (presumably because better understood) as the measure of responsibility in other matters. For example we read that for valid matrimonial consent: “there is certainly required the discretion which is sufficient for sinning gravely, and in fact, greater discretion.”

As for mortal sin, moralists teach unanimously that to be guilty of it one must commit it with “full deliberation and full consent of the will.” This phrase is even in the catechism. And since they use terms like “perfect advertence” and “perfect consent” one might easily get the impression that for mortal sin it is necessary to have the most clear-cut intellectual apprehension of the alternatives involved and an almost unmixed adherence of the will to the evil act which is chosen. Such an impression would be strengthened by reading a sentence like the following:

For as long as man is prevented by his subjective condition from evaluating his last end in accordance with its worth, and intending it with corresponding efficacy, he is unable to decide about that end by an act proportionate to it, with the result that his inordination is only venial.

But it becomes quickly apparent, when the act of deliberation of advertence is described in greater detail, that moralists have in mind a degree of knowledge and consent which is far from being 100 hundred percentage perfect. For instance the author just quoted says of the advertence necessary for mortal sin:

It is not required, however, that the advertence last as long as the sinful action lasts, but it is enough that it was present at the beginning of the action, or even before the beginning if the sinner willed to begin the act and carry it out … Nor us distinct advertence to a certain definite malice demanded; rather, a consciousness in confuse of something gravely evil suffices. Nor must there be explicit attention to the offense against God, since philosophical sin does not exist. And reflex advertence is not required: the direct cognition which is drawn from habitual knowledge suffices. But perfect comprehension of the substantial malice is necessary; although with regard to some special circumstance known habitually it is said to be enough if it is present to the intellect in a subconscious or confused way.   

Such explanations (and they could be culled at random from the other authors) make it clear that the theologians who speak of full or complete or perfect deliberation and consent are really demanding only sufficient deliberation and consent.


“Sufficient” is a relative term. It implies degrees of freedom and degrees of imputability. This fundamental supposition underlies our entire discussion. But the concept of degrees of freedom is a confusing one, as we shall see. Nevertheless it is a commonplace among moralists and canonists. At the risk of laboring the obvious we would like to insist on this idea of degrees of freedom and imputability, because it is frequently not understood by psychologists and psychiatrists, who think the free will of the theologians is some sort of inexplicable omnipotence of choice; and is lost sight of at times, because of the equivocation in the use of the word “freedom,” even by confessors and counselors.

The free will defended by theologians does not operate in an unreal vacuum. It is not a magic wand of the spiritual sphere which man can wave “at will” over his conduct and decisions. It is not independent of the hard facts of bodily existence and the baffling implications of human emotion. Every moral manual enumerates ignorance, passion (that is, emotion), fear and force as obstacles which diminish freedom and sometimes do away from it. Moralists also discuss temperament, organic disposition, endocrine glands, drugs, acquired habits, education, environment, mental illness and unconscious motivation as modifiers of human acts. This modification implies that there are degrees of freedom and imputability.

Even in the criminal law of the Church, criminal imputability admits of an indefinite number of degrees. It is spoken of as being augmented (in a few cases) and diminished (in a great many cases) by such things as fear, passion, age, drunkenness, mental illness, and the rest. Since in modern canon law there can be no crime at all without grave subjective guilt to begin with, that is, without a subjectively imputable moral sin, and since the degrees of criminal imputability attempt to follow as closely as possible the norms of moral imputability, it is evident that canon law takes it for granted that within the limits of mortal guilt there are many degrees of imputability. In other words, granted sufficient freedom for grave culpability, the criminal law raises the further question of degrees of this grave culpability.

In moral theology it is common teaching that given a sufficient diminution in the degree of freedom, the subjective guilt of what is objectively a grave sin can be changed from grave culpability to venial culpability propter imperfectionem actus. We speak of semideliberate acts, and of imperfectly voluntary acts. These expressions mean that the acts referred to, though they are human acts, and ex objecto gravely sinful acts, are so lacking in deliberation or so imperfectly consented to that subjectively they cannot be more than venial sins.

Therefore the scale of imputability ranges all the way from the minimum that is compatible at all with the concept of a free, human act, up through all the degrees of venial culpability, across the dread threshold of mortal sin, through all the indefinite gradations of mortal guilt, to the highest point of the very limit of human malice. The two critical points on this scale are the point at the very bottom which distinguishes a free actus humanus from a nonfree actus hominis, and the point, surely very much higher on the scale, that distinguishes mortal guilt from venial guilt.


To put the matter fancifully, if one were given marks on malice and culpability where bad actions are concerned, or on virtue and merit where good actions are concerned, or on degrees of freedom where both are concerned, the marks might range all the way from one percent to ninety-nine percent. Zero percent would mean no human act at all; and we avoid one hundred percent because it seems more appropriate to angels or devils than men. Still speaking fancifully, what is the passing mark for mortal sin? Certainly not ninety-nine percent freedom. The full deliberation and consent of the moralists does not demand that much. Is it ninety percent? Seventy-five percent? Sixty percent? Who can say? Some would put it higher, others lower. Only God knows the exact answer  


Our purpose in asking such questions, however, has been, at this point, merely to emphasize the important fundamental notion that there are indefinitely numerous degrees of freedom. We said above that to speak of degrees of freedom is confusing and that the word itself is equivocal. The reason is that moralists and theologians seem to use the word freedom (as we have in the preceding pages) in two very different meanings. We shall call these two meanings philosophical freedom and psychological freedom. The first does not admit of degrees, the second does.

By philosophical freedom we mean the libertas indifferentiae which we attribute to the human will in scholastic philosophy. It is the kind of freedom which is required to have a human act. It presupposes advertence and rational deliberation, and has its metaphysical roots in the power of the intellect to make objectively indifferent judgments. There have been bitter theological controversies about its relation to grace and to God’s concursus with human acts. Even in defining it, theologians have difficulty in prescinding from these disputes. But we believe the description we have given of free will in the philosophical sense would be admitted by theologians of all schools. It is “the power, given certain prerequisites of knowledge and motivation, of saying yes or no, freely, to a proposed action, or of choosing freely between two alternative courses of action. “Freely” does not mean easily or without reluctance, although sometimes free choices are easily made. ‘Freely’ means that at the time the choice was made, the man could have made the opposite choice – even if with difficulty or repugnance.

Is it not obvious that freedom thus understood does not admit of degrees? We can say of any action either “He was able not to have done it” or “He was not able not to have done it.” It is either the one or the other. It cannot be a little of each. There is nothing in between. The absolute, physical power of choice, the freedom of the will from internal coaction, stat in indivisibili.

By psychological freedom we mean freedom from obstacles and pressures which make the exercise of philosophical freedom difficult. We call it psychological for want of a better word, and because it is the kind of freedom psychologists often speak about. Most of not all of the above-mentioned modifiers of human acts are obstacles to this freedom. Freedom in this sense, then, obviously does admit of degrees; it is by its very nature not absolute but relative. The fewer or weaker the obstacles the greater the freedom and facility with which the will can choose, and direct the execution of bodily activities.

It is unfortunate that the one phrase “freedom of the will” should be used to describe these two widely different things. Philosophical freedom is something positive and active. It is the power or faculty by which the will determines itself to this or that. It is freedom TO determine its own choices. Psychological freedom is passive and negative. It is freedom FROM the obstacles, pressures and impediments which make choices difficult. Philosophical freedom is the ability to choose IN THE FACE OF obstacles and pressures. Psychological freedom is the facility of a choice which results from THE ABSENCE OF obstacles and pressures.

Although these are such different things we frequently use the one word “freedom” to describe them both. When we say that passion interferes with freedom, sometimes we mean the kind of passion which prevents all deliberation and makes philosophical freedom impossible; sometimes we mean the degree of passion which leaves the fundamental human act essentially intact but creates greater or lesser obstacles to the exercise of freedom, thus diminishing the voluntary. We speak of diminished liberty, diminished sin, diminished voluntary, diminished responsibility and diminished imputability, in the same sentence in which we speak of the complete exclusion of the human act. Even careful writers will speak of diminished liberty when they mean diminished voluntary or diminished sin; or will speak of a diminished human act, when they mean diminished imputability of a human act. If we were more exact in our terminology and used the words libertas, voluntarium, actus humanus, peccatum and imputabilitas in their exact meanings we would probably avoid much of this confusion.

We have spent so much time on this question of degrees of freedom and the distinction between philosophical and psychological freedom because we believe it will throw light on our problem. To us it seems clear that for mortal sin both kinds of freedom are essential, the absolute, physical freedom which is the philosophical “liberty of indifference,” and the relative psychological freedom from obstacles and difficulties, a sufficient degree of which is required before a human act can be gravely imputable.   

We have now established with considerable accuracy what our problem is. Supposing that the prerequisites of philosophical freedom are present, and that a person is acting freely in a philosophical sense, how can we discover what is meant by sufficient psychological freedom for mortal guilt? We are especially interested in cases of severe emotional stress, of so-called “irresistible impulses,” of obsessions and compulsive urges. On the scale of psychological freedoms what is the passing mark for grave imputability? What follows will not solve completely this problem but will supply, it is hoped, some theological guideposts which will keep us from putting the mark too high or too low.


The first theological guidepost is this: We must start with the presumption that the normal individual is ordinarily capable of that degree of psychological freedom which is necessary to incur grave culpability. If this is not true, certain age-old practices of the Church are unintelligible. For instance, the way in which the Church has administered the sacrament of penance to the faithful, the way in which under guidance confessors are prepared for their task, would not make sense except on the basis of this presumption. Furthermore the Church presumes that ordinary people have sufficient freedom to contract marriage validly, and we have been that it is very likely that at least as much discretion is required for valid matrimonial consent as is required for subjective grave culpability.

Likewise in the administration of the criminal law of the Church it is presumed that the average individual is capable of a delict, and this presupposes a capacity for grave moral imputability. This presumption holds true in the criminal law even when a crime is committed through passion. The law considers the imputability diminished, it is true, but very often presumes that in spite of the impulses of passion there was still a crime. This could not be true according to canonical principles unless there was sufficient responsibility for mortal guilt, which is an essential element in every crime.

That the presumption remains true even when a man is put under consideration pressure from emotion, passion, or concupiscence has been recently reaffirmed on at least two occasions with great emphasis by Pius XII. One of these occasions was his address to the psychotherapists, when he said:

Original sin did not take away from man the possibility or the obligation of directing his own actions himself through his soul. It cannot be alleged that the psychic troubles and disorders which disturb the normal functioning of the psychic being represent what usually happens. The moral struggle to remain on the right path does not prove that it is impossible to follow that path, nor does it authorize any drawing back.

There can be no doubt that the Holy Father spoke here of a degree of autonomy which was compatible with grave guilt. But if it were not clear from this passage, it is explicit in his discourse on the Christian conscience as to the object of education. There he taught in solemn terms that:

the divine commandment of purity of soul and body still holds without any lesser obligation for the youth of today. They also are morally bound and, with the help of grace, are able to keep themselves pure. We reject, therefore, as erroneous the assertion of those who regard lapses as inevitable in adolescence, and therefore as not worthy of serious notice, as though they were not grave faults, because, they add, as a general rule passion destroys the freedom needed for an act to be morally imputable.

On the other hand one should keep in mind that these passages refer to normal situations. One of them leaves room for a different presumption in the case of the mentally sick …

The second guidepost is the truth that there are a great many mortal sins in the world. Sometimes one hears exaggerated statements to the effect that a formal mortal sin is almost impossible to commit, or that a formal mortal sin hardly ever actually takes place. To hold such propositions would be to contradict experience and the ordinary teaching and practice of the Church. Much of the Catholic teaching and practice in moral matter clearly supposes not only that formal mortal sin exists but that it is by no means a rarity. It may well be that the number of merely material mortal sins is very large, but this does not reduce the number of formal sins to a negligible number …

The third guidepost is the doctrine of grace. If it seems harsh to hold that there are so many sins, yet we must remember that they really are avoidable with the help of God’s grace, and that God never refuses this grace. Perhaps if one were to consider merely the natural psychology of man, one would have to take a pessimistic view of his interior powers of self-control and self-determination. But we have the assurance from revelation that God’s grace is sufficient for us and that He will not allow us to be tempted beyond our strength. That is why we can speak of Christian heroism and why we can demand at times fidelity to the teaching of Christ at the price of heroic sacrifices, and this under pain of serious sin. Such demands would be hard to understand unless we could count of God’s special help for special difficulties.

However, we should not interpret the phrase “My grace is sufficient for thee” to mean that God promises to preserve everyone even from material mortal sin. Suppose a case of a madman who goes berserk and murders his custodian. He commits a material mortal sin. Did this happen because he failed to cooperate with the grace of God? Was God’s grace sufficient to keep him from being tempted above his strength if only he had accepted it, then or earlier? No one believes any such thing, because such a person is simply incapable of any cooperation. Something similar could be true of one who is not so sick that he is incapable of a human act altogether, but is sick enough so that he is pathologically impelled to the commission of a sinful act. And so once more we see how important it is to distinguish between those who are sick and those who are well. This makes all the more damaging the error of those who would have us believe that as a result of original sin (or as a consequence of unconscious domination) everyone is mentally or emotionally ill.

At all events the promise “My grace is sufficient for thee” means sufficient grace to preserve from formal sin. It does not tell us that, no matter what the interior pressure, God’s help is always so abundant that there will be no material sin by one who cooperates with it. We are in a mysterious realm here in which often enough we simply do not know when human helps are in vain and only the divine help of grace can avail. But in doing battle against the mysterium iniquitatis, the tragedy that afflicts mankind, medicinal grace and mental hygiene do not exclude one another. The man of faith relies on all the help there is, both natural and supernatural. Even St. Paul could have invoked all his own natural powers of self-control, and in addition whatever assistance he could find from the philosophers and sages of his time, and still cry out with a whole heart: “Unhappy man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death? The grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Having seen some of the guideposts which keep us from being too lenient in setting the standards of grave culpability, we shall turn now to some considerations which will keep us from being too severe in our judgements of consciences.

Let us centre our discussion around two questions which are sometimes put to penitents (and very usefully) in order to elicit from them information about their subjective dispositions at the time an objectively mortal sin was committed. The first question is: “Did you realize fully that it was a grave sin?” The second: “Could you have resisted?” …

It will be seen that we have in mind here the type of case … in which the penitent understands the import of these questions and is capable of giving an accurate account of his own inner experience at the time of the event.

Unless we are mistaken, it would be improper to conclude universally from an affirmative answer to either one of these questions, or to both of them, that there must have been a mortal sin …

Rather than admit any such general presumption we prefer to say that the cases in which grave subjective guilt is absent occur frequently but that each case has to be decided on its merits. We think this position is more in accord with the statements of Pius XII quoted [above]. Just as it is improper to apply rigidly a mechanical rule based on mere intellectual advertence to the malice of the act, so also it is a mistake to rely on a mechanical rule based on a general presumption of irresponsibility. The only general rule which we would recommend is this: Subjective disabilities and impediments excuse the average man and woman from mortal guilt much more frequently than a reading of moral theology manuals might lead one to suppose.    


In making a judgement of grave guilt the confessor will have to rely first of all on the enlightened testimony of the penitent’s own conscience. God judges men on the basis of their conscious motives and decisions. It may be that the unconscious is playing a significant role in this penitent’s conduct, but the confessor will be a poor judge of that … But we added “of an enlightened conscience” because so many penitents are ignorant or confused and are poor witnesses to their own inner experiences.

When exploring the conscience of the penitent, the two questions we have discussed … can be very useful: “Did you realize fully it was a grave sin?” and “Could you have resisted?” Our criticism of these questions was by no means meant to deny that they are frequently useful. We merely pointed out that affirmative answers to these questions do not indicate conclusively that mortal sin has taken place. Intelligent negative answers to them can indicate clearly that mortal sin has not taken place.

We mention here, without elaboration, some further criteria or considerations which when present should lead the confessor to judge leniently the question of mortal guilt in individual cases …

Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all in helping the confessor to make his judgement is a knowledge of the general state of the penitent’s soul. If a penitent is making serous efforts to lead a life pleasing to God; if he is sincerely trying to overcome this habit and avoid the individual acts; if he avoids the occasions that are avoidable, frequents the sacraments and is constant in prayer; and especially if on individual occasions when temptation comes he does not yield except after long struggle or a hard one – the confessor should be lenient in judging the case.

A confessor or spiritual guide cannot form a prudent judgement about the state of the penitent’s soul unless he takes the time and trouble to do so. If penitents are rushed in and out of the confessional they may receive valid absolution, but the confessor will fail in his office not only as a teacher, father, and physician, but, in these difficult cases, in his essential role of judge. Many of these cases can be dealt with much more effectively by the spiritual counselor outside the confessional. When the confessor or spiritual father has taken the trouble to understand the penitent’s case well enough to make a prudent judgement about it, he should then help him to know the true state of his soul, whatever it is.   

He should tell him the truth as he sees it. His judgement is a human and imperfect one, but our Lord has instituted the sacrament of penance in such a way that He wants to make use of our human and fallible judgements in applying the grace of the sacrament to the soul of the sinner. Let the confessor tell the penitent the truth. Nit the unexplained truth: “You committed mortal sin,” or “You did not commit mortal sin”; but the truth with kindness and tact, the truth with appropriate advice and encouragement. For no matter what the truth is as to the mortal guilt of the penitent there is still work to be done: the eradication of the bad habit. Nothing will serve as a better foundation for helping the penitent to understand himself and accomplish this task than the truth about the state of his soul. Only on this basis can the confessor or spiritual father cooperate effectively in his restoration.   

Consequently, if the priest is convinced that the penitent has sinned mortally he should tell him so, with kindness and with encouragement for the future; trying to bring him to a better disposition of sincerity and fervor in his Christian life, in accordance with the usual pastoral practice for dealing with sinners.

If he remains doubtful about grave subjective guilt but believes it is really probable that the penitent has not committed mortal sin, again he should tell him the truth as he sees it … Even this will be very encouraging to a penitent who has been sincerely trying. Furthermore it will keep him trying, when a lapse occurs in the future. Too often these penitents, after failing once, conclude that they have already sinned mortally when this point is actually doubtful. They then give up, say: “What’s the use?,” and make no effort to avoid further falls before the next confession. Telling them the truth as far as it can be discovered will be the best spur to continued resistance against temptation, besides being the vest basis for collaboration in eradicating the habit.

Finally, if the confessor or spiritual father is convinced that the penitent has not been guilty of mortal sin he should tell him this also; again with kindness and encouragement, but being careful not to lull the penitent into a false sense of security. He should not allow the penitent to think that because the acts already performed were not gravely guilty this automatically absolves him from all responsibility for them. It would be worse to allow him to think he has no responsibility for the future. Besides being false – since in the great majority of the cases we are speaking about the acts seem to have been free human acts, and therefore venially guilty ones – this can be very demoralizing for the penitent … 36


In the present chapter we have tried to clarify rather than to solve some of the formidable problems of subjective moral imputability. These problems confront the moralist on every side … We believe that all theologians are agreed that for formal grave culpability there is required not only liberty of indifference, which we have referred to as philosophical liberty, but also a certain degree of the liberty from obstacles and pressures which we have referred to as psychological liberty. This is implicit on the common teaching that objectively grave sins become only venially sinful ob imperfectionem actus in certain circumstances.   

The problem is to determine what degree of psychological freedom is required and not to put the mark so high as to negate the fundamental moral responsibility of the average man and woman. We must confess that the problem is obscure and baffling. Frequently we can only admit our ignorance. We believe, however, that given the traditional conceptions of sufficient deliberation and sufficient consent, and given the psychological knowledge we now have as to emotional and instinctive obstacles to human acts, we are staying well within the bounds of the theological requirements in concluding that we should judge much more leniently than we have in the past a great many individual cases of human misconduct and frailty. “Though man may be more reasonable than the psychiatrists believe, he is less so than the philosophers think.”


36. The confessor or spiritual father must have the courage of his convictions, too, in accepting the logical consequences of the judgement “This penitent is not committing formal mortal sins.” When he judges prudently that in the special circumstances of the given case future acts of self-abuse will not involve formal mortal guilt, he must not forbid the penitent to receive Holy Communion without confession after such materially sinful acts take place. Whether it would be advisable for the penitent to confess first would depend on the circumstances. In cases where the well-informed penitent’s frame of mind after such an act is this: “I have probably not committed grave sin and am probably still in the state of grace,” the penitent has the right, according to sound principles of probabilism, to receive Holy Communion after making an act of perfect contrition. However, depending on the disposition and intelligence of the penitent, the confessor may frequently think it more advisable that confession precede Holy Communion in such cases, especially if confession is easily available. Cf. Angermair, loc. cit., p. 119.

3 thoughts on “Chapters 8 to 11 – Extracts on Reduced Culpability

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