TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 16: The Distinction Between Grave and Light Matter

Question G: How can some kinds of morally evil acts be compatible with charity?

1. The solution of the problem of grave and light matter appears to require a synthesis of certain insights of fundamental option theories and St. Thomas’ account. Those who hold that fundamental option is a basic commitment seem correct in thinking that a basic commitment of the right sort can render certain immoral acts compatible with charity. Thomas seems correct in suggesting that the difference between grave and light matter is to be found in the depth to which various kinds of immoral acts can disrupt existential harmonies.

2. With these insights as basic, the following solution is proposed to the problem of the distinction between grave and light matter.

3. There is a fundamental option in Christian life, namely, the act of living faith. Jesus says: “Believe in God, believe also in me” (Jn 14.1). Although Scripture does not use the language of fundamental option, it teaches that the act of faith is the basis of salvation.36 Faith is God’s gift: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn 6.44; also 3.11–21; 12.44–50). It is all-important to be united with Christ “and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil 3.9; cf. Rom 3.28–30; 4.2–12; 9.30–33; 10.8–12; Gal 2.16; 3.5–9; and so on).

4. Besides being God’s gift, faith also is a human act: Abram “believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gn 15.6; also Rom 4.3; Gal 3.6; Heb 11.8–12; Jas 2.22–24). Since faith is a human act, the believer puts faith in God: “He who believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me” (Jn 12.44; also Mk 16.16; Acts 14.23; Rom 10.8–17). Christians “follow the example of the faith which our father Abraham had” (Rom 4.12), and faith shapes the remainder of Christian life: “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Gal 2.20; also 2 Cor 13.5; Jas 2.14–26). Maintenance of one’s faith requires effort (see 1 Cor 16.13; 2 Cor 13.5; Col 1.23; 1 Tm 1.18–19; 6.11–12; and so on).37

5. Following Scripture, the Catholic Church also teaches definitively that faith is the foundation of all justification and the beginning of our salvation, that it is God’s gift, and that it is accepted by a free human act (see DS 1528–32/799–801, 1552–54/812–14, 3035/1814; DV 5; DH 2–3), which must shape a life of good works (see DS 1532–39/801–4; LG 35; DH 10). The “split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age” (GS 43; cf. GS 21). Indeed, Vatican II comes close to saying that faith is the fundamental option of Christian life when it teaches that by the obedience of faith “man entrusts his whole self freely to God” (DV 5). Hence, if anything can be called the fundamental option of Christian life, the act of faith deserves this title.38

Bernard Häring says some questionable things about fundamental option, but he seems correct in suggesting that the fundamental option of Christian life is faith. By faith one accepts God’s truth and love; faith includes gratitude and self-commitment. “. . . Christian life is the creative and faithful concretization of the basic act of faith. Faith means wholeness and salvation to the extent that it is filled with hope and trust and bears fruit in love for the life of the world. If it is active in love, faith is truly a fundamental option. Hope and love do not belong only to the later unfolding of faith; they are an essential part of faith as a fundamental option. The unfolding of these three virtues—faith, hope and love—understood as integration of faith and life, occurs in the choir of virtues.”39 In other words, the act of living faith is the formative principle of Christian moral life. The sin for St. John is lack of faith in Jesus (see 13‑A); iniquity or godlessness and living faith are the two basic states in which human persons can be, now that the Word has come into the world.

6. In considering the basic commitment of living faith to be a fundamental option, the present theory nevertheless differs in an important way from current theories of fundamental option. Because it is faith in Jesus, who is not only God but man, Christian faith is specified by a definite content: One accepts revealed truth and the offer of a share in divine life from and within Jesus’ Church. Although one’s baptismal commitment of faith makes some specific demands, it does not immediately organize one’s whole life. Hence, although a perfectly holy Christian would never act without reference to faith, many actions, both good and bad, of faithful pilgrim Christians have no direct reference to their fundamental option of faith.

7. Thus, the act of faith is not simply an option for God or for moral goodness. Rather, it is an option for Jesus as Lord, and so faith has both explicit and implicit specific determinations. Some morally evil acts are incompatible with faith’s specific requirements; such acts thereby involve grave matter. Other morally evil acts are not incompatible with the specific requirements of faith, and these, though incompatible with perfect charity, are only light matter. One does not determine one’s self against or turn away from the life of Christian faith even in deliberately choosing an act involving only light matter.

8. Since faith specifies that certain harmonious relationships must be protected in certain ways, as St. Thomas pointed out, it violates charity to infringe upon these relationships in ways which are excluded. Charity is violated because such infringement violates the requirements of the faith by which charity is accepted.

9. To sin against faith itself is an act of infidelity. By such a sin one loses faith, since willingness and unwillingness to accept God’s self-revelation cannot coexist. But as the Council of Trent definitively teaches (see DS 1577/837), not all mortal sins are sins against faith. This is so because the commitment of faith has definite implications which extend beyond faith itself. One who makes the act of Christian faith accepts responsibility for living as a member of the Church and for cooperating in its apostolic and eucharistic life.

10. It follows that faith implicitly excludes kinds of acts which are inconsistent with living as a member of the Church. Among these are all the kinds of acts which would be disruptive of any human community whatsoever and all the kinds of acts which are specifically disruptive of communion and cooperation in the Church. The implications of faith for ecclesial communion exclude not only acts against God, such as idolatry, and acts against human community in general, such as homicide, but also acts which abuse one’s own body, such as fornication (see 1 Cor 6.15–20).

11. Some morally evil acts violate neither the specific requirements of faith itself nor any of its implications for ecclesial life. The life of faith and the work of the Church can go forward despite the presence of such sin in her members. Of course, to will any moral evil is inconsistent with complete openness to integral human fulfillment and so, indirectly, is at odds with perfect love of divine goodness. However, the deliberate choice of an immorality which does not violate faith or any of its implications—except, of course, the general implication that living faith points toward perfection in charity—does not displace or qualify the self-commitment of faith, by which one abides in the gift of divine love. The self-determination of the venially sinful choice constitutes an isolated, secondary self which limits without displacing the primary self; the self which is determined by the fundamental option of Christian faith remains the primary self of the deliberate venial sinner. Hence, some morally evil acts are light matter.

12. Because faith is commitment to the covenant relationship, grave sins violate this relationship. Hence, idolatry and lack of faith are called “adultery” in Scripture (see Hos 2.4; 3.1; Mt 12.39; 16.4; Mk 8.38). The faithlessness to the covenant involved in serious injustice toward one’s neighbor can be viewed in the same way (see Jer 9.1–5). However, just as spouses fall short of perfect love in many ways without violating their marital covenant, so God’s people fall short in many light matters of Jesus’ holiness without committing mortal sin.

Thus, a deliberate act of stealing a newspaper is only a venial sin because it neither is incompatible with faith itself, nor incompatible with one’s standing in the Church, nor incompatible with the communion of the Church, nor detrimental to her mission. It is simply immoral. Of itself it would imply that one does not love divine goodness; but the act of faith blocks this implication.

By contrast, homicide or substantial theft will disrupt human relationships; such acts among members of the Church will be destructive of its human unity, and against outsiders will block their inclusion in the redemptive community. Because of the special characteristics of the community which the Church is, kinds of acts are grave matter which would hardly be important enough to consider crimes in any other society. In particular, the Church is not a society only of outward relationships, but of inward communion. For this reason, grave matter extends into the heart. Even sins of thought have a deep communal significance.40

In sum, the act of living faith is a Christian’s fundamental option. This act excludes as inappropriate not only everything not compatible with faith itself but also everything not compatible with specific conditions of the life of faith. It does not exclude all immorality, and so there is light matter. However, anything which the Church clearly and firmly teaches to be mortal sin certainly is incompatible with the act of living faith. If one deliberately chooses to do such an act, one is unfaithful to one’s commitment of faith, even though one does not commit a specific sin against faith itself, such as heresy.

13. As St. Augustine points out, even in the light of faith one cannot always easily see why some matters are grave and others light.41 Still, in general the distinction has an intelligible foundation. In particular cases, the Church’s conviction and constant teaching can be based on an insight, born of long experience, which perhaps defies easy articulation. If the Church teaches that a certain matter is grave, we can be sure there is some reason why it is grave, though the reason might not be obvious. And given that a certain kind of act is considered grave matter, one who deliberately chooses to do an act of that kind cannot be living the life of a faithful member of the Church.

14. Someone might object that some matters traditionally considered grave seem to be purely personal—they have nothing obvious to do with the Church or one’s relationship with God. But one cannot decide independently what is purely personal. The theological distinction between grave and light matter is rooted in Scripture’s distinction between expiable faults and crimes which cut one off from the People of God, between the failings of those who faithfully follow Jesus and the malicious hearts of those who reject or turn aside from his way (see 15‑B). As St. Paul points out, Christian life is not purely individualistic; it is life in and for Jesus, and this has implications even for “purely personal” actions: “None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom 14.7–8).

15. The definitive teaching of the Council of Trent on the sacrament of penance helps make clear the ecclesial dimension of serious sin. The faithful must confess their mortal sins to a priest ordained and given jurisdiction to hear their confessions; certain sins may be reserved to episcopal or pontifical authority (see DS 1679–85/899–902, 1686–88/903). Underlying this system is the truth that sacramental absolution is a juridical act (see DS 1685/902, 1709/919). A person who is contrite and has a firm purpose of amendment—conditions which should be fulfilled prior to confession—already is morally upright and may indeed already be in grace. Yet sacramental confession remains necessary, because sin does not simply concern the relationship between one’s will and God, as if this relationship were a purely spiritual and individualistic one. Every serious sin affects one’s whole relationship to God in and through Jesus; but this relationship for its part arises and endures, is injured and restored, in the human communion of the Church (see LG 11; PO 5).42

A man living openly in incest is not committing a merely private sin; he is corrupting the community (see 1 Cor 5). St. Paul teaches: “If any one has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to you all” (2 Cor 2.5), thus making clear the significance of an offense for the community as a whole.

Private judgment concerning sin is excluded (see Rom 14.4, 10; Jas 4.12). The leaders of the Church are responsible for rebuking sinners in the presence of the assembly (see 1 Tm 5.20). After several attempts at correction, a person can be given up as perverse and self-condemned (see Ti 3.10). However, this judgment is reserved to the Church (see Mt 18.17). The power of binding and loosing, of forgiving or retaining sins, has been assigned by the Lord to the Church, and her judgment is valid in heaven (see Mt 16.19; 18.18; Jn 20.23). The communal or ecclesial significance of sins underlies the injunction that Christians, though personally responsible each for his or her own life, bear one another’s burdens (see Gal 6.2–5). It also underlies the practice of mutual confession and prayer for forgiveness (see Jas 5.16).

The ecclesial significance of serious sin is brought out most clearly by two things. First, the Eucharist is the actuation of the unity of the Church in the redemptive act of Jesus (see 1 Cor 10.16–17). Sin and participation in the Eucharist are at odds; the sinner falls under judgment for unworthy participation (see 1 Cor 11.26–34). Second, since communion in the Church overcomes sin and since the Church has power to forgive sin, separating oneself from the Church puts one beyond the possibility of repentance and forgiveness (see Heb 6.4–6).

St. Augustine develops in many ways the understanding of the relationship between grave sin and the Church. In some sense, grave sin cuts one off from the Body of Jesus; for this reason, one in grave sin is excluded from the Eucharist. Yet the separation is not total. The practice of penance is available to the grave sinner, and for one who is baptized, no sin is absolutely unpardonable (see FEF 1532, 1536, 1874, and 1919). Mortal sin means spiritual separation from the Mystical Body of Christ; one does not abide spiritually in Jesus, and so is unfit to share Holy Communion.

Still, there is a difference between such sin and the separation from the Church of heretics and schismatics.43 The difference between grave and light matter thus holds for persons within the Church who still have faith; some continue to build their lives on the foundation of faith in Jesus, and these commit only venial sin, but others build in a way which cannot at all stand upon this foundation, and these commit mortal sin (see S.t., 1–2, q. 89, a. 2).44

36. See F. X. Durrwell, C.Ss.R., In the Redeeming Christ: Toward a Theology of Spirituality, trans. Rosemary Sheed (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963), 81–116. Heinrich Zimmermann, “Faith,” Encyclopedia of Biblical Theology, 243–57; C. H. Pickar, “Faith (In the Bible),” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 5:793–96.

37. It seems clear that in the Johannine writings, sin is basically infidelity, flight from faith’s light: Eugene J. Cooper, “The Consciousness of Sin in 1 John,” Laval Théologique et Philosophique, 28 (1972), 237–48. For a detailed exegetical study of Johannine texts which shows that faith as a human act is central in the reception of the grace of begetting and also the basis of the Christian life, see Matthew Vellanickal, The Divine Sonship of Christians in the Johannine Writings, Analecta Biblica, 72 (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1977), 105–213, esp. 149–52 and 190; the sonship is manifested in the life of faith: 227–63, esp. 261–63; summary, 353–58.

38. The centrality of the act of faith in Christian life also is stressed in the Protestant tradition. See, for example, Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 4, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, Part I, trans. G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1956), 740–79, summarized (757–58) by Barth: “Like love and hope from other aspects, faith is the act of the Christian life to the extent that in all the activity and individual acts of a man it is the most inward and central and decisive act of his heart, the one which—if it takes place—characterises them all as Christian, as expressions and confirmations of his Christian freedom, his Christian responsibility, his Christian obedience. On whether or not this act takes place depends whether these acts are rightly done from the Christian standpoint.” It would be difficult more clearly to characterize faith as the fundamental option of Christian life without using the expression.

39. Häring, Free and Faithful in Christ, 197; also see John H. Wright, S.J., “The Meaning and Structure of Catholic Faith,” Theological Studies, 39 (1978), 716–17.

40. Some claim that the position that there is no parvity of matter in the area of sexual sins is a modern development. In the sense in which it is meant, this claim certainly is false. St. Thomas already clearly made the point that the only possible kinds of venially sinful acts in the domain of sex are legitimate, noncontraceptive marital acts which are engaged in with unreasonable desire—for example, intercourse chosen more for self-gratification than for the shared experience of marital unity (De malo, q. 15, a. 2). Any kind of sexual act other than legitimate, noncontraceptive, marital intercouse always is grave matter (see S.t., 2–2, q. 154, aa. 4, 12).

41. See M. Huftier, “Péché Mortel et Péché Veniel,” in Théologie du Péché, ed. Ph. Delhaye et al. (Tournai: Desclée, 1960), 395–401.

42. For helpful discussions with references, see Dionigi Tettamanzi, “La Dimensione Ecclesiale e Sociale del Peccato del Cristiano,” La Scuola Cattolica, 107 (1979), 489–511; Karl Rahner, “Forgotten Truths about Penance,” Theological Investigations, vol. 2, Man in the Church, trans. Karl‑H. Kruger (Baltimore: Helicon, 1963), 166–70; “Penance as an Additional Act of Reconciliation with the Church,” Theological Investigations, vol. 10, Writings of 1965–67 2, trans. David Bourke (New York: Herder and Herder, 1973), 125–49. Although objections can be raised to certain aspects of Rahner’s view on the matter, especially with respect to his thesis that the forgiveness of the Church toward the sinner is the res et sacramentum of the sacrament of penance, his argument and references nevertheless support the point that the relationship with God is injured and restored in the human communion of the Church. Rahner’s acceptance of fundamental option is hard to reconcile with this very incarnational and Catholic conception of mediated grace.

43. Huftier, op. cit., 403.

44. See St. Augustine, Exposition on the Book of Psalms, 81 (80), 20.