Further clarification is needed for a deeper insight into the problem of sufficient reflection and grades of responsibility. The awareness which fulfills the requirement for sufficient reflection can be of absolutely minimal adequacy, or it can be full and rich. The fuller and richer the awareness, the greater the responsibility.
Awareness of moral truth demands understanding of relevant basic human goods. If one’s moral basis for the act of faith itself is in an insight into human goods such as religion and truth, the depth with which one grasps these goods affects the extent of one’s understanding of the moral truth that one ought to be faithful to the Church’s teaching. A mature Christian need only reflect upon his or her life from childhood to the present to realize that the meaning of religion as a good has unfolded gradually and probably will unfold much more in the future. Many others, even including those older and more intelligent, probably understand this good far less than oneself. If so, their infidelity would not have as grave a significance as would one’s own.
Awareness of moral truth also demands some understanding of the inherent reasonableness of loving all human goods and acting for integral human fulfillment. One can have a great deal of insight into this without having any of the sophistication required to articulate it reflexively. Some people are much more clearheaded than others about moral truth; some grasp very little in morality except at the levels of superego and social convention. Once more, one can reflect on one’s own growth in insight and realize that other people experience similar growth, but some far less than others.
Awareness of moral truth does not exist in isolation in the intellect; it is always surrounded by a more or less completely integrated (or nonintegrated) cognitive and affective context. In other words, some people see little or no connection between their thinking in general and their moral thinking; for others, insight into moral truth is closely knit with the remainder of experience and knowledge.
Similarly, some people have a working understanding of the moral weight of only some of the human goods and modes of responsibility, and so are able to have many desires and interests, many goals and purposes in life, which remain for them in a “free area,” like the free area of behavior upon which superego and social convention make no demands. The more totally integrated one is, the more one realizes that to violate conscience is to violate reality, genuine community, reason and sense, and one’s self. Thus, some people can know that something is gravely wrong yet feel that doing it is not very important, while others who have the same intellectual awareness of grave wrong will have a total personal awareness of the absolute importance of avoiding such a thing.
Besides the preceding variable conditions of awareness of moral truth, there are other mitigating factors in moral consciousness, which lessen the practical force of the judgment of conscience that something would be seriously wrong.
An extremely important factor is the number of live options and practical alternatives one enjoys. For example, a person brought up in a city slum typically confronts many temptations to do what is morally evil. When the genuine conscience of moral truth begins to work, the individual realizes that doing evil is wrong. Few young people in such a situation, including those involved, think it right to take dope, and “right” here is not just a matter of superego or social convention. The practice is recognized as self-destructive and foolish, socially damaging, and a flight from reality. But the temptation is present and has great appeal, partly because the individual in these circumstances faces so much discouragement about any possibility of living a good and fulfilling life. Moreover, merely being told of possibilities does not change matters. A young person in the slums finds it hard to be interested in goods he or she has not adequately experienced, very hard to believe it worthwhile to share in goods other than those conspicuously enjoyed—often by immoral people.
Sometimes limited intelligence and emotional obstacles generated by lack of loving care in infancy make it very difficult for individuals to rise above the levels of superego and social convention and gain much insight into moral truth. Such individuals can accurately apply the moral categories of conventional morality, yet experience little moral force in these conventions, since they neither embody the compulsion of superego, nor the authority of community (for one alienated from that community), nor the appeal of moral truth (for one who is virtually blocked from understanding this truth).
Abnormal psychological conditions, which are manifold in type and degree, can limit or distort moral consciousness in many ways. If what a paranoid believes about the intentions of other people were true, his or her actions would not be as unreasonable and morally defective as they seem. Yet even the most extreme abnormalities can leave some grasp on moral truth and thus some responsibility to make right choices. Psychotics sometimes argue that their condition exempts them from moral responsibility for their actions. Such a rationalization would be unnecessary if there were not, in fact, awareness of responsibility, which can be awareness at the level of moral truth.
All these mitigating factors in moral consciousness introduce endless variations in the degree to which someone can understand and appreciate the moral truth that would be violated by a wrong choice in grave matter. In reality the evil of a mortal sin the same in kind can be present in various people—or in the same person at different times—in endless degrees, which only God can judge.
It does not follow that a confessor or moral counselor ought to try to assess these degrees, to determine at some point that mitigating factors eliminate grave moral responsibility, and to inform the penitent or person counseled of this opinion. People assess themselves and do so in their own terms; their ability to examine their consciences after the fact is not likely to differ much from their ability to apply their consciences when they are about to choose.
Therefore, for the confessor or counselor to deny grave responsibility will not be taken as a judgment concerning what he or she personally considers grave responsibility, but as a denial of what the penitent or person counseled regards as such. But to deny this reality, whatever precisely it is, is only likely to encourage an evasion of whatever responsibility there is. In this way, well-intended efforts to unburden a person of guilt can be damaging to moral growth.
All moral guidance is like the raising of children. A good parent does not present children with special moral standards reduced to suit them. Doing so would guarantee that they would never become able to make morally mature commitments, since moral truth is one. However, one does not expect children to grasp the existential world and respond in an adult way, any more than one expects them to grasp and respond in an adult way to the natural environment. In either case there is only one reality; children must be helped to grow up within it and learn to accept it.