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Chapter 17: Sufficient Reflection; Sins of Weakness


As a condition for mortal sin, sufficient reflection requires awareness that an act would be seriously wrong by the standard of moral truth, not just superego or social convention. Sufficient reflection is ideally present when one grasps the inherent value of being morally good and the reasonableness of conforming to conscience in general and in this particular case, and understands the intelligible goods here at stake, their relevance to divine goodness, and the relationship between human fulfillment and fulfillment in Jesus.

Sufficient reflection is adequately present if one either understands that the choice might be gravely wrong or sees the intelligible good, the duty, and at least implicitly the religious significance of accepting some moral authority, such as the Church, which proposes norms as truths. This means for Catholics that, although they may not see why an act which the Church’s teaching forbids is wrong (and may in general not distinguish between the Church’s teaching and its law), they nevertheless know that the Church forbids the act, and they believe they ought to obey the Church’s teaching. The requirement of sufficient reflection is not met at all, however, if one grasps neither the true wrongness of the matter in itself nor the moral foundation of the authority which says it is wrong.

Weakness in the face of strong emotion has a considerable bearing on the question of moral responsibility. Although the will and the emotions do not directly interact, will can shape emotions indirectly (for example, one can choose what to think, and so alter emotion by what one thinks about), and emotions likewise can affect the will indirectly. Emotion begins the process which leads to action by spontaneous willing. Furthermore, even when one acts by choice, emotion can influence the will by causing one to attend to certain possible courses of action and ignore others, and by causing one to reconsider a possible course of action after having first rejected it.

These considerations are relevant to sins of weakness. (Wrongful behavior whose guilt is mitigated by circumstances, but where emotion is not abnormally strong, is not a sin of weakness; nor is truly nonvoluntary behavior, which is not sin at all.) Sins through weakness involving grave matter pose an important pastoral problem, and the analysis of this chapter focuses on them.

Such sins occur in four different cases. First, where emotion keeps one from making or carrying out a morally required choice (this is a sinful omission, but not mortal sin since there is no definite choice). Second, where emotion distracts one from the grave wrongness of an action (again, there is no mortal sin, but one has a grave obligation to try to avoid such situations). Third, where strong emotion leads one to act in a manner inconsistent with previous upright character (if all the conditions for mortal sin are present, there is no reason here to suppose one commits only a venial sin). Fourth, where wrongdoing in face of strong emotion is not a more or less isolated occurrence, but part of a pattern—temptation, struggle, sin, repentance, renewed temptation. Sins of this last kind can be called “quasi-compulsive” sins of weakness. They present a common and difficult challenge to pastoral ministry.

Three conditions define quasi-compulsive sin of weakness. First, although the individual confronts the same sort of temptation repeatedly, most of the time he or she desires to avoid the sin; there is evidence of a real will to stop sinning. Second, when confronting temptation, the individual resists at first, knowing that the matter is grave and consent ought not to be given. Third, he or she does not lose sight of the grave immorality of the possible act, but giving in to temptation, does so with the intention of repenting later. Such sins admit of considerable variety; desire (for sexual pleasure, for food, for alcohol, and so on) is the most common motivation, but emotions like hostility can also play this role.

In this century, pastoral treatment of quasi-compulsive sinners through weakness has been increasingly mild. Often it is suggested that, although the conditions for mortal sin are met, such people do not really sin mortally. But the longstanding pastoral practice of the Church and recent documents of the magisterium do not support this view. True, there can be a lack of free choice or sufficient reflection in particular cases. But if the usual conditions are met, one must suppose that when the matter is grave mortal sin has been committed, even though the action was motivated by passion and done reluctantly, with the intention of repenting.

Furthermore, a quasi-compulsive sinner through weakness can simply stop sinning mortally. Otherwise, one is in the position of saying that a mortal sin, which implies freedom and responsibility, is inevitable, a trait which excludes freedom and responsibility. In our fallen condition, none of us could long avoid mortal sin without God’s grace. As it is, however, God gives everyone sufficient grace to avoid mortal sin entirely. This position, found in Scripture and the Fathers, is taught definitively by the Council of Trent.