TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 16: The Distinction Between Grave and Light Matter

Question F: How does St. Thomas explain the distinction between grave and light matter?

1. According to St. Thomas, some kinds of acts have about them something specific and intelligible which makes them incompatible with the harmony engendered by charity between humankind and God, and within human society. Blasphemy and idolatry are simply not compatible with reverence for God and subjection to him; theft and homicide are simply not compatible with a good community. But there are other kinds of acts which involve some disorder yet are compatible with maintaining these harmonious relationships. If, for instance, somebody tells a lie which does not infringe upon faith or hurt anyone, perhaps to help someone or just for fun, or if somebody eats or drinks a little too much, then an act venial in kind is done (see S.t., 1–2, q. 88, a. 2).

Thomas holds that any kind of disordered act can be made into a mortal sin by the sinner’s bad intent, for one can take the occasion to alter one’s ultimate end, or one can do an act venial in kind for a mortally sinful purpose—for example, tell small lies to further seduction. Also, lack of sufficient reflection and full consent can render a disordered act which is mortally sinful in kind so imperfect as a human act that it becomes a venial sin (see S.t., 1–2, q. 88, aa. 2, 5–6). But Thomas is insisting upon a principle which goes beyond these considerations.31

2. In his explanation of venial sin, Thomas observes that when one wills what of itself is incompatible with charity, one’s sin is mortal by virtue of what one is doing. Thus blasphemy, perjury, and the like are against the love of God; homicide, adultery, and so on are against the love of neighbor. By contrast, idle talk, joking lies, overeating, and the like are somewhat disordered, but they are not against the love of God or neighbor (see S.t., 1–2, q. 88, aa. 1–2).

According to Thomas, sin is like a disease of the soul; mortal sin is like death. The principle of upright spiritual life is order to the ultimate end. If this order is lacking in one’s life, then one has no place to begin putting oneself straight. The disorder in one’s life is not reparable from within one’s life itself. Therefore, sins which destroy order to the end are of themselves irreparable, although even they can be overcome by the re-creative power of God. But sins which involve disorder only in respect to something subordinate to the ultimate end are reparable. The power of the Spirit being available, one can repent of venial sins by reorganizing according to the principle of the end, which still is in control of one’s life. Such sins are like sicknesses that do not cause death, ones which the body can overcome by its inherent vitality (see S.t., 1–2, q. 72, a. 5; q. 88, a. 1; 2–2, q. 24, a. 12).

3. Thomas further explains that venial sin is called “sin” only in a derivative and mitigated sense. Somehow related to mortal sin, it shares by this relationship in the significance of sin, but in itself is not sin in the same sense as mortal sin. “For venial sin is not against the law, since one who sins venially does not do what the law forbids or fail to do what it requires by a precept; but he or she behaves apart from the law by not keeping to the reasonable mode which the law points out” (S.t., 1–2, q. 88, a. 1, ad 1).32

4. Consistently drawing out the implications of this position, Thomas holds that, although a venial sin is not referred to God and his glory, neither is it directed to a different ultimate end. Rather, by the constant order of one’s life to God as ultimate end, even the venial sin itself—though not, of course, precisely as sin—is directed toward God. Venial sins only interfere with means, that is, with things ordered to an end (see S.t., 1–2, q. 88, a. 1, ad 2; cf. q. 72, a. 5; q. 88, a. 2; q. 89, a. 3).

5. Although Thomas’ explanation is suggestive, it does not appear to solve the problem. It suffers to some extent from conceptual difficulties analogous to those of current theories of fundamental option.

6. One of these difficulties is that although it might be true that mortal sins are contrary to the ultimate end while venial sins only interfere with things ordered to the end, this does not explain matters. The sins which Thomas considers mortal because they are violations of charity also interfere with means: the good of religion and the good of justice. At the same time, even a light matter such as the theft of a very small amount is immoral because one proceeds unfairly; but to act unfairly is not consistent with integral human fulfillment and so, it would seem, is at odds with love of divine goodness, in which the particular good violated by this act is a participation.

7. Moreover, the position that the mortal sinner acts against the law while the venial sinner only behaves apart from the law seems questionable. The immorality involved in a very small theft surely is forbidden by the norm which prohibits theft. If not, in what sense would it be true that it deviates, as Thomas admits it does, from the reasonable mode of action indicated by the law?

8. Again, the distinction Thomas makes is plausible as long as one thinks only of the examples he offers. However, according to the Church’s teaching, which he accepts as determinative, many acts which do not obviously violate the goods of religion and justice (“charity” toward God and neighbor) nevertheless are classed as acts grave in kind (see GS 27). Among these are suicide, mercy killing of a willing person, and many sexual sins, including acts of simple fornication and homosexual acts between consenting adults. At the same time, certain acts which can be quite disruptive of society, such as nonmalicious gossip and the forming of cliques, are not usually regarded as grave matter.

9. Still, despite its weaknesses, there is something helpful in Thomas’ discussion of the way mortal sins disrupt existential harmony on its various levels and venial sins do not. Unlike the theories criticized in questions D and E, Thomas’ account of grave matter shifts the focus away from the ultimate end and charity considered in themselves to human goods such as religion and justice. It seems almost self-evident that if they are fully deliberate, acts such as blasphemy and perjury, which violate the good of religion, thereby exclude charity. Moreover, one feels that it makes sense to say killing and adultery are grave matters because of what they do to interpersonal human relationships, while idle talk and white lies are venial because they have no such impact. The question is how to relate these sensible insights to the theological distinction between grave and light matter, namely, that a deliberate choice of the first is incompatible with charity while a deliberate choice of the second is not.

The account proposed by Thomas has caused his commentators a great deal of difficulty. The Carmelites of Salamanca, for instance, realize that some sins mortal in kind are not directly contrary to charity. Their explanation is that such sins are disruptive in ways God in his wisdom and goodness wills to forbid; therefore, the moral norms which express God’s mind and will strictly prohibit such acts. But one who loves God does his will; therefore, such acts are mortal sins.33

Again, there has been a long debate about the ultimate end of venial sins. One plausible view is that such acts simply have no ultimate end, but this position is not compatible with Thomas’ general theory of action (see S.t., 1–2, q. 1, aa. 4–6).34 However, his theory of action also has its problems. For instance, according to Trent’s definitive teaching, a sinner prior to justification does good, preparatory acts aimed at fulfillment in divine life, but only after doing them receives charity (see DS 1526/798, 1528/799). How could Thomas account for the possibility of such acts?

These difficulties are rooted in Thomas’ conception of humankind’s last end. He tends to think of the ultimate end as if it were a goal, rather than the ideal of integral fulfillment in all goods, and to think of charity as if it were somehow more specified than it really is (see S.t., 1–2, q. 1, a. 7; 2–2, q. 23, a. 4; cf. qq. 37–43). Thomas tries to show that one person cannot simultaneously direct acts to diverse ultimate ends, and he supposes that sinners seek absolute fulfillment in some definite goal, such as acquiring wealth (see S.t., 1–2, q. 1, aa. 5–7).

But, as a matter of fact, people can pursue diverse goods without ordering them to one another and without ordering all of them to anything ulterior. For example, a dissolute man can seek both sentient pleasure and status as a political leader. Similarly, a Christian girl of fourteen can sincerely try to live her faith insofar as she is aware of its requirements, yet simultaneously and without reference to her faith (and without serious sin) try to become a cheerleader for the sake of the activity itself and the status it will give her with her schoolmates. Hence, Thomas seems to have made a mistake in assuming that an ultimate end must promise integral fulfillment (see S.t., 1–2, q. 1, a. 5). At least, this premise needs to be proved; Thomas does not prove it; and his failure to do so renders question-begging his use of it to show that a person can have only one ultimate end.

Furthermore, Thomas teaches that one living in mortal sin can do good acts and can have genuine Christian faith.35 The Council of Trent also teaches definitively that by some mortal sins one can lose grace without losing faith (see DS 1544/808, 1578/838). It hardly seems possible that a person can act for one and the same end in sinning mortally and in doing nonmeritorious but morally good acts, including the act of faith.

Consider the case of a person living in a pseudomarital relationship. Reflecting upon the sinfulness of his or her situation, such a sinner might deliberate: “I could give up this illicit relationship, I could give up my faith, or I could persist in this relationship and admit that I am living in sin.” If the third possibility is chosen, the sinner reaffirms both his or her faith and the pseudomarital commitment. Clearly, these two simultaneous acts cannot be directed to one and the same ultimate end.

The truth seems to be as follows. Anything sought for its own sake, not for something ulterior, is an ultimate end in a given situation of choice. Any such ultimate end must be or include an intelligible good spontaneously willed. But there are several such goods, which are organized into a single ideal of integral fulfillment only when one accepts and consistently lives by a single world view. Many people have no such coherent world view. Christian faith serves this organizing function in Christian life, yet one can, and the mortal sinner does, fail to live it consistently. Thus, one person at the same time can be self-determined in respect to two or more goods, without willing these for some one ulterior good.

If this criticism of Thomas’ theory of the end is right, and if the account of charity as a principle of Christian life in chapter twenty-five also is correct, then there must be something very important short of charity and integral human fulfillment which mortal sin violates and venial sin does not. Moreover, this principle needs to have the specificity and intelligibility (at least, in the light of faith) of a norm or source of specific norms. Thomas has failed to make clear the necessity for such a principle and has offered no account of what it might be.

31. The view that lightness of matter is reducible to imperfection of the act, central to fundamental-option theories, is not new. Some medieval theologians held this position, but the consensus of the great theologians, including St. Thomas, formed in conscious opposition to it. See Ioanne Velez Puyada, S.I., El Pecado Venial “Ex Genere Obiecti” de Pedro Lombardo a Santo Tomás (Madrid: Pontificia Universitas Gregoriana, 1971), 59–73.

32. If anyone defends Thomas by saying that by “law” he refers only to the law of charity, his explanation is saved only by being rendered completely inane.

33. Collegii Salmanticensis Fr. Discalceatorum, Cursus Theologicus, tr. xiii, disp. xviii, dub. 1, sec. II–III.

34. See P. DeLetter, S.J., “Venial Sin and Its Final Goal,” Thomist, 16 (1953), 32–70.

35. See De malo, q. 2, a. 5, ad 7; S.t., 2–2, q. 4, a. 4; q. 10, a. 4. This argument against Thomas’ position also is exemplified by the challenge based on Trent’s teaching that by God’s grace sinners do acts prior to justification which prepare for it (see DS 1526–27/798). If a person can have only one ultimate end at a time, what is the single ultimate end of the sinner in doing such acts? If it is the true ultimate end, then the sinner already is justified, for (according to Thomas) only charity directs good acts to this end (cf. S.t., 2–2, q. 23, a. 8), and being in mortal sin is incompatible with charity (cf. S.t., 2–2, q. 24, a. 12). But if the preparatory acts are directed to some other ultimate end, how can they lead to justification?