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Chapter 17: Sufficient Reflection; Sins of Weakness

Question F: Can the quasi-compulsive sinner through weakness simply stop sinning?

1. The answer with respect to all sins involving grave matter must be “Yes.” Otherwise, we would be faced with the absurdity of a mortal sin (which implies freedom and responsibility) which is simply inevitable (which excludes freedom and responsibility). Two things must be kept in mind to understand this point.

2. First, although quasi-compulsive sinners really do choose to do what they recognize to be grave matter, still, as was explained, someone might seem to commit such a sin yet not actually do so. In the concrete it is often difficult and sometimes impossible, even for the sinner, to know whether the conditions for mortal sin have been met. One cannot tell whether apparent quasi-compulsive sinners who continue sinning are doing all they can. Especially if effort is intensified and some progress made, there is some reason to suspect that the apparent quasi-compulsive sinner is guilty only of venial sin.

3. Second, no sinner can simply stop sinning through his or her unaided power. In our fallen condition, without grace we could not help making free choices which would be mortally sinful; alienated from God, we cannot enjoy even that fulfillment which is naturally suited to us. However, God’s grace is sufficient that those united to Jesus and enjoying the gift of his Spirit can certainly choose to resist every temptation to mortal sin (see S.t., 1–2, q. 109, aa. 8–9).

Catholic teaching concerning the sufficiency of grace becomes clearer if one recalls that the Christian lives by the Spirit. To be adopted as a child of God truly transforms one inwardly; one has the power of the Spirit by which to live a life worthy of a member of God’s family. “No one born of God commits sin; for God’s nature abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God” (1 Jn 3.9).8

4. Scripture teaches: “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor 12.9). God does not demand the impossible (see Mt 11.30; 1 Jn 5.3). Those who are children of God love his Son; those who love him can keep his commandments (see Jn 14.23). God provides both the desire to do his will and the very free act by which one does it (see Phil 2.13).

5. The Fathers of the Church, especially St. Augustine, insist very clearly and firmly that God gives sufficient grace. “A man, helped by God, can, if he will, be without sin” (FEF 1720). “God, therefore, does not command what is impossible, but in commanding he also admonishes you to do what you are able, and to ask his help for what you are unable to do” (FEF 1795). Even the most hardened sinner is offered help enough to repent, if only the grace is accepted (see FEF 2097, 2232). A fortiori, grace must be sufficient for one who only sins through weakness.

6. The Council of Trent teaches definitively that sufficient grace is given so that mortal sin can be avoided altogether and God’s commandments can truly be fulfilled (see DS 1536/804, 1568/828). To assert that someone who repeatedly commits mortal sins cannot respond to God’s grace and simply stop committing them, given willingness to stop, is to deny a defined truth of faith.

7. Behavior which would be gravely sinful if freely chosen but is not gravely sinful because not freely chosen with adequate understanding of its gravity may be inevitable in Christian life. Even the upright person commits at least some venial sins which are not fully deliberate. From the very beginning of a person’s life in Jesus, however, and no matter what remnants of the fallen condition of humankind or one’s own past sin might remain, mortal sin is altogether avoidable.

It is useful to reflect upon the question: What is the place of sin, especially sin of weakness, in Christian life?

Every sort of mystique of sin must be avoided. Sin has no place in Christian life, as if mortal sin were in any way a necessary or appropriate experience or phase of development. There is never a time when it is at all suitable or in any way good for one who has been adopted as a child of God to be alienated from him. Moreover, the psychospiritual value of common experiences of sinners should not be overestimated. The intense experiences of guilt and forgiveness of those who commit quasi-compulsive sins of weakness are not in themselves conducive to the development of a genuine spiritual life. The intensity of these experiences is connected far more with the guilt of superego and social conformity than with an awareness—which is much more conceptual than emotional—of the real guilt which consists in the state of sin itself.

Given these cautions, a sound principle for this reflection can be stated: God permits evil only because he can bring good out of it. Hence, even serious sin in Christian life is an occasion of some great good, often including a good to be realized in the sinner’s own life (see S.t., 1–2, q. 79, a. 4).

A true understanding of the guilt of sin serves as a point of departure for a more grateful and deeper love of God, just as the love of lovers reconciled after a quarrel often is deeper than before. A correct understanding of the reality of quasi-compulsive sin of weakness leads directly to genuine humility. One knows that one cannot stop sinning by oneself but certainly can with God’s grace, and one therefore seeks and accepts this grace. The first principle of Alcoholics Anonymous is precisely this: I realize my life is out of control and that I need the help of a higher power.

If there were no temptation to sins of weakness, many people would lack the occasion to develop beyond the levels of superego and social convention, to think seriously about what it means to live a Christian life, and to undertake to organize life in the form of personal vocational commitment. The occurrence of the temptation, even though it sometimes is consented to, thus provides an important opportunity for growth in the Christian life. Certainly, no quasi-compulsive sinner through weakness is likely to achieve a real and lasting victory over such sin, without also being helped to develop a more mature conscience and to undertake the responsibilities of Christian life at a deeper level.

Those who try to make the living of the Christian life less burdensome by denying the grave sinfulness of many sexual sins are making a serious mistake. The person committing sexual sins freely, even without subjective guilt, is left at a rather infantile level of Christian existence. Such a person never will grow up spiritually, as must one who faces these sins for what they are and wins victory over them. Moreover, the sinfulness of these acts is not eliminated by its denial. Even people following such opinions in good faith experience in their spiritual lives many ill effects.

These effects probably account in part for the fact that these acts are recognized as grave sins. For instance, sexual sins committed mainly for pleasure and relief of tension involve introducing and constantly reinforcing a split between one’s conscious self (which feels tension and pleasure) and one’s body (which is an object used for self-gratification). This dualism of self and body is false and it leads to false beliefs and attitudes with respect to spiritual reality. For the dualist, spiritual reality either is reduced to unreality, as objects and experience divide the real, or spiritual reality is separated from the bodily and regarded as a higher and purer realm. This latter view is incompatible with the Incarnation and so is radically anti-Christian.

God could have redeemed us without human cooperation. He also could have done so by the life, death, and glorification of Jesus without our cooperation. He chose, however, not to redeem us without us, evidently in order to allow us to share in the nobility of his redemptive work. This work is no less noble when we begin where we must, with ourselves. As Vatican II teaches: “Christ obeyed even at the cost of death, and was therefore raised up by the Father (cf. Phil 2.8–9). Thus he entered into the glory of his kingdom. To him all things are made subject until he subjects himself and all created things to the Father, that God may be all in all (cf. 1 Cor 15.27–28). Now, Christ has communicated this power of subjection to his disciples that they might be established in royal freedom and that by self-denial and a holy life they might conquer the reign of sin in themelves (cf. Rom 6.12). Further, he shared this power so that by serving him in their fellow men they might through humility and patience lead their brother men to that king whom to serve is to reign” (LG 36).

Healed by contrition and reparation, the wounds of sin can be important powers of love and service, powers one would not wish to be without, however strongly one hates the sins whose commission occasioned their acquisition. United with our sinless Lord Jesus and with the sinners he calls us to help him save, we hope one day to stand in the Father’s presence and say: Thank you, Father, for allowing us to share in your work of redemption. And to Jesus each of us should hope to say: Thank you, Lord, for allowing me to share in your work of my redemption.

8. See Ignace de la Potterie, S.J., and Stanislaus Lyonnet, S.J., The Christian Lives by the Spirit (Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, 1971), 181–82.