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Chapter 17: Sufficient Reflection; Sins of Weakness

Question A: What is needed for sufficient reflection?

1. “Conscience” has several meanings (see 3‑A), among them awareness of the pressures of the superego and the demands of social convention; but this is not enough for sufficient reflection. Sufficient reflection is awareness that a choice would be seriously wrong, taking “seriously wrong” in a sense determined by moral truth. Persons instructed in the Catholic faith will recognize seriously wrong acts as mortal sins, either because the Church’s teaching identifies them as such or because they know a seriously evil act might be a mortal sin and realize that to choose what might be a mortal sin is to commit mortal sin.

2. The requirement of sufficient reflection is met ideally under certain conditions. These include awareness of the inherent value of being morally good and of the reasonableness of conforming to conscience both in general and in this particular case; and understanding of the intelligible goods at stake in the possibility under consideration, of their relevance to divine goodness, and of the relationship between human fulfillment in general and fulfillment in Jesus.

3. This ideal knowledge is accessible not just to those who have studied theology but to ordinary, well-instructed Christians, even though they may not be able to articulate what they know. Nor need they be highly spiritual persons, already so formed by upright choices and virtues that they are instinctively repelled by the very thought of doing wrong. Well-instructed children and recent converts can have rich moral insight into Christian faith, without having that holiness which makes the Christian manner of judging second nature.

4. Even if it is not met ideally, the requirement of sufficient reflection can be met adequately in either of two ways. First, even a person without faith can have sufficient insight into moral truth to judge that making certain kinds of choices can be gravely immoral. Second, the requirement of sufficient reflection can be met adequately if a person sees the intelligible good, the grave duty, and at least implicitly the religious significance of accepting some moral authority which proposes norms as truths. Those who see the grounds for accepting a moral authority can also perceive that a possible choice would seriously violate a norm proposed by this authority. They are therefore in a position to reason: I ought to follow norms proposed by this authority (for instance, the Church); to choose in this way would violate a norm proposed by this authority (for instance, to choose this sexual act would violate a norm taught by the Church in Jesus’ name); therefore, I ought not to make this choice.

For example, a child, normally around seven years old, can grasp the moral truth that it is right to be obedient to parents and others set in authority by parents, and can believe that disobedience is offensive to our heavenly Father. (Under what conditions the child’s duty to obey is grave and at what point children become able to recognize this gravity are difficult questions which need not be treated here.1) Similarly, some adult Catholics see in much of the Church’s moral teaching only the supreme level of social convention, but they do realize that the Church has the words of eternal life, that it is right to try to live a Catholic life, and that obedience to the Church is what God asks of them.

5. There is no reason to think that those who only adequately meet the requirement of sufficient reflection will comprehend, even with faith’s light, the grave immorality of what the Church’s teaching characterizes as such. Indeed, they may very well not see why a particular act—say, masturbation or perjury in a minor matter—should be taken seriously. But they do grasp that the matter is one in which the Church’s teaching demands obedience, and they are further convinced that it is right to obey the Church’s teaching. Knowing this teaching excludes an act and realizing one ought to live by this teaching, such persons commit sin if they freely choose to do the act.

6. It might be supposed that when the requirement of sufficient reflection is fulfilled only adequately, failure to see how the act is wrong in itself allows an individual to treat the Church’s moral teaching on the matter as if it were Church law. If this were the case, every moral teaching would be open to change and exception as law is. But a faithful Catholic who thinks of the Church’s moral teaching as if it were Church law will not consistently treat it as such. True, one who accepts most of the Church’s moral teaching as the conventions of the Christian community will not be able to distinguish clearly between Church laws and the moral norms which the Church teaches. But such a person can understand and accept that some norms proposed by the Church are absolute, and that their violation for any reason whatsoever constitutes unfaithfulness to the Church and her Lord.

7. The requirement of sufficient reflection is not met at all if a person grasps neither the seriousness of the matter in itself nor the moral foundation of the authority which proposes the norm excluding it.2 For example, four-year-old Mary can be taught that it is a mortal sin to play in the middle of the highway, so that she realizes she acts wrongly in disobeying and even calls this a “mortal sin.” But she cannot realize the serious wrongness of disobedience at the level of moral truth, and so she cannot reflect sufficiently to commit a mortal sin. Similarly, mere feelings of guilt and consciousness of breaking the Church’s rules do not demonstrate that one has the awareness of grave matter required for adequately sufficient reflection; one must also be aware that one is being unfaithful to the Church to which one ought to be faithful.

8. Understanding of the various factors involved in moral truth can range from absolutely minimal to full and rich. The fuller and richer sufficient reflection is, the greater the responsibility of the sinner. Other things being equal, the guilt of a mortal sin is greater or less depending on how much insight one has into the factors which make it wrong.

It might be supposed that a confessor or counselor should try to assess these degrees of responsibility and inform the penitent or client of this assessment. However, this is unnecessary and likely to be misleading. Each person’s conscience accepts norms according to his or her own capacity. Individuals bring the same standards into play in judging their failings as in making their choices. Thus, confessors and counselors need not instruct anyone to adjust his or her standards downward; rather, they should educate toward a better understanding of moral truth, which will lead to a more profound awareness of guilt if this truth is violated.

In considering the wrongful actions of others, we must maintain the important distinction between material sin and formal sin, that is, between the moral unacceptability of what is done and the possible guilt of the person doing it. The requirement of sufficient reflection is the most important factor which enables us to maintain this distinction. There simply is no way to know whether others grasp the moral truth and choose contrary to it. Perhaps they more or less sincerely believe that what they are doing is right; even if this belief is mistaken through their own fault, the extent of that fault cannot be determined.

Hence, the Christian can abide in every instance by the injunction, “Judge not,” without thereby being reduced to tolerant acceptance of everything people say and do. For example, acts of racial discrimination or killing the unborn can be rejected firmly, without ultimately judging and condemning persons who do such acts. Only God knows whether they grasp the wrongness of what they are doing with minimally adequate sufficient reflection. However, insofar as Christian teaching includes the proposal of an integrally human way of life, all who share the responsibility for handing on this teaching must bear witness to the moral truth about wrongful actions. To do so is in no way condemnatory or judgmental.

1. However, I think that some authors are too quick to conclude that preadolescent children are totally incapable of sin. See, for example, Robert P. O’Neil and Michael A. Donovan, Sexuality and Moral Responsibility (Washington: Corpus Books, 1968), 4–25. These and other authors uncritically assume that the results of psychological studies of what children can say about theoretical ethical problems are a sound basis for inducing what they can think about the practical question of their duty to obey. (See chapter three, appendix 1, for discussion of the psychological data.) O’Neil and Donovan also rely on the theological theory of Thomists who hold that one who cannot commit a mortal sin cannot commit a venial sin. This theory both presupposes St. Thomas’ way of distinguishing between grave and light matter (criticized in 16‑F) and oversimplifies his position by assuming that even the child brought up in the faith must begin moral life with an option for an ultimate end.

2. In the absence of sufficient reflection, a person still can have theoretical knowledge which does not guide action and can have action-guiding cognition at the lower levels of superego and social convention. Such cognition, which is inadequate for sufficient reflection, has been called (confusingly) “conceptual” in contrast to the relevant “evaluative” cognition. See John C. Ford, S.J., and Gerald Kelly, S.J., Contemporary Moral Theology, vol. 1, Questions in Fundamental Moral Theology (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1964), 224–28 and 270–75. The knowledge of moral truth required for sufficient reflection also is conceptual, but it includes some concepts and propositions in addition to those included in theoretical knowledge or in action-guiding cognition at the lower levels which fall short of knowledge of moral truth.