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Chapter 17: Sufficient Reflection; Sins of Weakness

Question D: What three conditions define quasi-compulsive sin of weakness?

1. First, although one who sins in this way confronts the same sort of temptation repeatedly, most of the time he or she desires to avoid committing the sin. The reality of this will-not-to-sin is evidenced by some real effort. For example, the sinner goes to confession, prays, tries to avoid the occasions of sin, and in general takes steps to try to keep the temptation from arising.

2. This first condition is very important. By contrast, the sin will no longer be one of weakness if the sinner decides, when in a normal state of mind, to abandon further efforts to resist the temptation. So, for instance, a Catholic who deliberately adopts, reluctantly but more or less permanently, an alternative sexual lifestyle, knowing it to be excluded by the Church’s constant and very firm teaching, is no longer a sinner through weakness. Rather, the will to do what is recognized as morally wrong is now constant.

3. Second, when the quasi-compulsive sinner through weakness experiences temptation, he or she resists at first, knowing the matter is grave and consent ought not to be given. A choice is made not to sin; there are efforts to distract attention by thinking about something else, by engaging in a suitable activity, by praying, and so on. Yet emotion is powerful enough to frustrate these efforts; attention is drawn back to the sinful possibility. In this way, the sinful possibility becomes fascinating.

4. This second condition not only makes it clear that the sin will be one of weakness but also clearly separates it from sin of the third type (described in C), where the sinner is not so experienced in struggling with and giving in to passion. The quasi-compulsive sinner has reached a kind of wavering equilibrium between a good will and a sinful will. Good will rejects the sin most of the time, but bad will gives in to it when passion is strong. Even when this sort of sinner falls into a cycle of great regularity, which discourages resistance, the transition from good will to sin is more or less prolonged, not sudden.

5. Third, this sort of sinner does not lose sight of the grave immorality of the possible act, as does the second type of sinner (described in C) who is distracted by emotion from its serious wrongness. Still, the possibilities proposed for choice do tend to become impoverished, until they might be formulated as follows: Either I can continue to struggle (seemingly indefinitely, with no victory over temptation in sight), or I can surrender to the temptation, do what is sinful now, but soon regain my normal state of mind and repent. At this point, quasi-compulsive sinners often give in to temptation, choosing to do the evil act which will satiate desire and still it. But they make their choice with the provision that afterwards they will repent, not persist in sin.

6. This third condition is especially characteristic of quasi-compulsive sin. The sinner regretfully takes a short break, as it were, from virtue, from the will to resist, and from God: “I’ll be back soon, Lord.” The alternative to sinning seems very bleak: endless temptation. In many cases, furthermore, and especially when the sin is in the sexual domain, the sinner is discouraged by the suspicion that a sin of thought has already been committed. Thus, although the quasi-compulsive sinner freely determines his or her self by a choice which is understood to be seriously wrong, such a person also and at the same time truly chooses to make a contrary choice—namely, to repent soon after the sin is committed. Moreover, the sinner perhaps chooses to sin now as much to escape the torment of temptation as to enjoy the satisfaction of the sinful act.

7. It is important to notice that quasi-compulsive sins of weakness, as defined by the preceding three conditions, still admit of considerable variety. Although they are motivated mainly by desire, one might also think of examples of such sins motivated by other emotions, such as hostility. As for the desires which lead to quasi-compulsive sins of weakness, often they are sexual, but desires for food, alcohol, and other drugs can also motivate sins according to this pattern.

8. Sometimes people commit sins of passion at regular intervals without any real effort to resist desire when it arises. Though they may make some gesture of repentance each time, they are not quasi-compulsive sinners through weakness, for they have no real purpose of amendment. Some persons who behave in this way probably do not commit mortal sins, even though what they do involves grave matter. Either they lack the maturity of conscience to grasp in a minimally adequate way the gravity of what they choose; or they really do act compulsively, without free choice; or, while aware that what they choose is evil in some sense, they no longer realize at the time of choice that it is contrary to moral truth. If their guilt is not genuine but is only a sense of violation of superego and social convention, their gestures of repentance might be adequate even though they have no genuine purpose of amendment.

Appendix 1 considers mitigating factors in moral consciousness. Many such factors can be at work in the case of the quasi-compulsive sinner through weakness.

For example, the adolescent boy may only slightly grasp the moral foundation of his own act of faith, and may perceive the mortal sin of masturbation almost entirely in terms of a risk of punishment and an obligation to go to confession; his conscience with respect to the guilt involved might largely consist in superego guilt and self-disgust for failure to keep the rules of the Church. Moreover, his surrender to temptation might be followed almost instantly by the execution of the choice and remorse.

By contrast, a mature person striving to overcome alcoholism might understand very well the intrinsic evil of self-destructive drinking and have a good insight into its sinfulness. His or her surrender to temptation might require intermediate thought and action—for example, a trip to a liquor store—and might lead to a more or less extended period of insobriety.

Quasi-compulsive sins of weakness often are said to be “habits of sin.” To the extent that this expression suggests regularity in pattern, it is correct. However, it can be misleading in two ways. First, classical theology would have considered a sin habitual only if one were resigned to it and committed it regularly without resisting the temptation. One who is an habitual sinner in this sense is in much worse moral and spiritual condition than the quasi-compulsive sinner, other things being equal. Second, the modern psychological notion of habit primarily applies to acts done without a definite choice in each instance. The quasi-compulsive sinner does make a choice. Therefore, much of the psychology of habit is irrelevant to his or her situation.4

4. Concerning the difference between “habitus” in St. Thomas and “habit” in modern psychology, see Servais Pinckaers, “Virtue Is Not a Habit,” Cross Currents, 12 (1962), 65–81.