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Chapter 15: Distinctions among Sins; Sins of Thought

Appendix 1: Mortal sin and the modes of voluntariness

In chapter nine, I distinguished diverse modes of voluntariness. The doing of a positive act by free choice is the central mode of voluntariness, but there are several others. In which of these is mortal sin possible? In the following examples, I always assume sufficient reflection prior to the relevant choice.

Obviously, mortal sin is possible in the voluntariness with which one adopts a proposal, whether that proposal is adopted for its own sake or as a means to an ulterior end. For example, mortal sin is present in adopting the proposal to kill a person out of revenge or to kill a person one otherwise would have to support in order to avoid this burden.

Mortal sin also is possible in the voluntariness with which one accepts foreseen consequences one ought not to accept. For example, to market a product which one foresees will imperil the life and health of many who use it could be a mortal sin, although one neither intends this peril as an end nor chooses it as a means. (Whether the sin is mortal or not—indeed, whether there is any sin at all—will depend upon whether and how great an injustice one is willing to do.)

The voluntary in cause can involve mortal sin. One who needlessly and deliberately enters the occasion of mortal sin commits mortal sin; one who gives easily avoidable scandal which will likely lead to mortal sin commits mortal sin. For example, ordinarily people who produce and people who consume pornography commit mortal sins in this way, since the choice to do either ordinarily responds to no moral requirement and is likely to lead to mortal sins (at least of thought) in oneself or others.

Executive willing is the acceptance without an additional choice of significant aspects of one’s actions which come to attention only in performing them. Because there is no mortal sin without sufficient reflection and full consent, there will be no mortal sin in executive willing unless it occurs in the performance of an act already mortally sinful. For example, if a person venially sins by deliberately getting into a quarrel with another, and knowingly but without a further choice carries the quarrel to the point that the matter is grave (begins to inflict serious harm), the voluntariness involved in executive willing does not make the deliberate venial sin into a mortal one.

However, executive willing in the carrying out of a mortally sinful choice can specify the sin, making it worse than it otherwise would be. For example, when Ma Fia, bent on mortally sinful revenge, is glad to carry it out when she learns it involves homicide, then her sin becomes murder, although her original choice was not specifically to commit murder, and in the press of action she makes no new choice. A person who makes a mortally sinful choice to embark upon a certain way of life will be responsible for the gravely wrong acts done in the course of unrepentantly living that life, even though many of these acts will be done without further thought about their sinful character or a distinct choice to do each wrong act.

Omissions in which there is a choice can be mortal sins. For example, if one chooses to kill a baby by withholding food and fluids, then one is guilty of homicide just as one would be if one chose to kill it by drowning it in the bath. (One who chooses to kill by the purposeful omission also might be guilty of an additional sin of cruelty, to the extent that the child’s suffering is foreseen and accepted as a means of avoiding the legal implications for oneself of straightforward homicide.) Also, omissions foreseen as consequences of choices to do something else can involve mortal sin. For example, people who foresee that they are likely to miss Sunday Mass altogether if they do not get up for an early Mass can commit a mortal sin if they choose to stay up very late partying, knowing they never will be able to get up for early Mass.

Omissions which in no way depend upon a mortally sinful choice cannot be mortal sins, since mortal sin requires the full consent present only in choice. Thus, the parents who know they should do something about their child’s health and fail to make up their minds to do (or not to do) anything are morally guilty of neglect but the sin is not mortal, unless it is an outcome of some earlier, unrepented, mortally sinful choice. Again, the person who is being tempted by lustful desire can be at fault for failing to resist the temptation, but there will be no mortal sin if there is not a choice—for example, an earlier, unrepented, mortally sinful choice which has led to the present temptation and failure of resistance, or a current choice to continue to entertain a temptation one knows one should set aside.

Other modes of voluntariness (discussed in 9‑G) can involve venial sin but not mortal sin. Those whose spontaneous willing is disorderly because of past mortal sins of commission or omission, those who do wrong with no present awareness because of past mortal sins which led to present obtuseness or error, and those who are ready to sin seriously but have not chosen to do so were guilty of mortal sin in the past or might be guilty of it in the future, but are not guilty of it now by these derivative modes of voluntariness. Of course, one who has not repented a past mortal sin remains guilty of it now.

In sum, the inadvertent faults and unknown sins which arise in voluntariness apart from choice cannot be mortal sins. However, one who chooses to commit a mortal sin and who, by executive willing, does something specifically more serious than what was chosen is guilty of what he or she knowingly and willingly does in carrying out the original, mortally sinful choice. Similarly, one who makes a mortally sinful choice which leads to subsequent, gravely evil acts and/or omissions can be guilty of these grave sins even if sufficient reflection and/or an actual choice are not given in each and every instance of sin which makes up a sinful life.