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Class 23


The placing of the treatise on sin here is very logical. Saint Thomas has already described the moving of the free human creature toward God. He will later look at this reality of God working without, but he’s already discussed how God works in. Saint Thomas now brings in what is in contradiction to the divine fecundity within us. We have viewed the divine image in the human person, the Christian has he responds to the inspirations of the human being. Metaphysically speaking, sin is a deprivation, a lack of correspondence to possible human values. Saint Thomas had already rejected the Manichean heresy that matter is evil and that evil had a positive reality. Sin is a subtraction of something from reality. We are able to establish relationships with people and go out toward others. When we go out of ourselves, we find happiness. When we give that up, we sin. Sin is always a lack of something, even when we choose soemthing. He who steals, or murders, gives up reaching out toward soemthing. Although seen psychologically, sin is soemthing, soemthing that we do. But it is a lack of goodness that could have been there. The point of reference by which we can describe sin will be the virtues, the theoretical grasping of a good in order with our nature, true goods. The sinfulness of acts is seen through the prism of natural goodness attained in the virtues. We can look at sins by what commandments they contradict, but Saint Thomas prefers to contrast them with the virtues. There’s an important pastoral point here. Sin is not most important. Our attention should be focused more on the good that we can do with God’s help, and sometimes we don’t even know that we can do.

Philosophy would call sin an evil human act, a misuse of liberty. There is an aspect of sin which is comprehensible to reason. Sin is not totally comprehensible, however. We need faith to comprehend the meaning of sin. A theological reflection sees it as an offense against God, and a mystery. We can reject his loving advances and his happiness, which we reject. To fully approach the mystery of sin, we should include in our presentation original sin, redemption, sacraments, all of which sin denies. We don’t really know why.

In the history of salvation, the concept of sin was gradually purified. The notion of sin developed with the experience of God. In some texts of the Bible, there is the notion of material transgression that is punished immediately. Hosea presents it as an offense against the love of God.[30] Sin is an infidelity or an ingratitude.[31] It is a stupidity.[32] There is a transfer to a more personal notion of sin, from the communal notion traveling to the seventh generation. Sin might no longer even be punished in this world. Sin is never presented in the Bible as an abstract transgression of the moral order. Sin is always against someone, a human or God. There is no division into immoral and irreligious acts. In the New Testament, sin is presented as an offense against the Father which the Son repairs. The Greek word for sin, amartia, denotes a failure or a missing, like a bad arrow shot. It suggests a negative failure rather than a positive transgression. St. Paul almost personifies sin, a personal power which holds us in his grasp. Sin is shown in the Bible to be universal. All people are subject to sin. Sin causes the hardening of human hearts, and the worst punishment sin brings is the capacity to sin anew. Sin is deceitful, unjust and unlawful. It meets with the love and sacrifice of Jesus. Sin is real, but so is the remedy.

The two moments of sin

St. Augustine defines sin as conversio advertens, Saint Thomas says sin is a word, act or desire contrary to the eternal law of God." There is a formal and material element: the formal element is the aversion to God and his divine law, and the material element is the conversion, turning towards something. The aversion to God is not always complete. The conversion toward the created good does involve an aversion from God. The sinner as he converts to some value averts from the wisdom of God which is in God’s eternal law. The sinner by his voluntary conversion turns away from God and his order. He wants to pull out a fragment of reality from dependence on God and order it in accord with his own program. St. Augustine defined it in a way to cover the sins of omission. Since the divine law is sapiential, we can say sin involves a rejection of the rational order. Sin is not only a rejection of the person of God but a rejection of his order expressed in his eternal law.

The reference to divine law is important, because some say they don’t reject God in choosing a disordered act. Psychologically this may be true, but adultery is contrary to the nature of marriage. Subjectively he may not intend to avert from his wife, but his conversion to the other woman he averts from his wife. A sinful act, contrary to the law of God, is an aversion from God even though it might not be conscious. The Nominalists deemed acts sinful only because they violated God’s will. Sin was seen only in external relationship to the law. This nominalist interpretation led to a split between the natural and the supernatural order, leading 17th century theologians to distinguish a philosophical sin, an irrational sin, contrary to common sense, and a theological sin. They thought that philosophical sins were not necessarily mortal, whereas a theological sin was a violation of God. It was condemned in 1690 by Alexander VII. It is today the theory of the fundamental option. The choice of a grave moral option, for them, does not contradict the love of God and is hence not a mortal sin. This theory has been rejected by John Paul II several times. The reference to eternal law in St. Augustine’s definition points to the irrational aspect of the human act. In every sinful act, there is a conversion to a changeable good, a disordered attraction to a good. In every sin, there is an aversion from the unchangeable good who is God. The sinner doesn’t submit himself to God in some aspect, which is the sin of pride, though it is often general and not specific. These two movements are present in every sin irrespective of the psychological awareness of these moments. The psychological focus may be more on one aspect, like the money one’s stealing, but also involved is the aversion to God.

Often the aversion to God is unconscious. But since sin involves the conversion to a created good involves the formation of an idol, which screens God. For a moment, God, the source of our ultimate happiness, is put aside. Since every sinful act involves an act of concupiscible aspect of pride. Jesus shows us the two contrary elements, humility and poverty, contrary to the two elements of a sinful act.

Malum, peccatum, and culpa

Saint Thomas also makes other distinctions. There is a distinction between malum, peccatum, and culpa. Malum, evil, means a lack of the required form, order, or measure. Evil is the lack of that which ought to be. If a volcano erupts and destroys my roof, that is an evil — a house out to have a roof. There is something missing. Peccatum, strictly speaking, is an act which lacks the required form, order or measure. Peccatum involves a human act deprived of the rational measure, ascertained by reason. It is an act ion which the relationship to reason is missing. It is a human action which could be reasonable, but it is not. The act is not proportionate to its ultimate end. Analogously, Saint Thomas speaks a peccatum natura, a human action deprived of a natural mean even though it is not willed — walking with a limp. Original sin is a peccatum natura. Culpa means a voluntary peccatum. If the action would not be willed, it will not be a fault, even though it may contain a disorder. In common usage, the term peccatum and culpa is often the same. If we look at the fault, we’re looking at the subjective aspect of the act, whether it was willed. If we look at the peccatum, we’re looking at the objective aspect of the act. There are some disordered acts which are not willed. Is an outburst of anger a sin? This asks about the rationality or irrationality of the action. If it is disordered, outside of the mean, it is a peccatum. But is it imputable as a fault? Maybe not, if it is not willed. The action may be a peccatum but not be a culpa. Actions which are irrational peccata, even though, through some mental disorder not willed, they will have consequences for the soul. The level of the fault may be limited.

We should make the distinction between true fault and the feeling of fault. There are people who feel guilty without the sin, and who sin without any bad feeling. The emotions are premoral, which may have their source in childhood.

When we speak of sin, we speak of a free human act involving the reason and will which entails a diversion from the ultimate end. If we look to the rational order, we emphasize the peccatum, and to the voluntary order, to the culpa. The Proportionalists are unaware of this distinction. The call the ontic evil the malum, and moral evil the culpa, without perceiving the peccatum. This is an attempt to tie the moral qualification of acts solely to the will. If the intention is good, the act will therefore be good. This is contrary to the consistent teaching of the Church. The relationship to the will answers the question whether it is truly human; the relationship to reason about whether it is good or bad. We can study peccata themselves, but for a full picture we have to include the picture of the will, of the fault.

Malum culpae, malum poenae

Saint Thomas introduces the distinction between the evil of fault, malum culpae, and the evil of punishment, malum poenae. The evil of fault is a deprivation flowing from within the will. If the movement of the will toward goodness is lacking something, this is the evil of fault. The evil of punishment is a deprivation that falls upon us from outside the will. The man who willfully murdered is at fault. His willing didn’t have the orientation to the true value of the respect of life. When he is imprisoned, he suffers the deprivation of liberty, the malum poenae. This distinction is important to understand Saint Thomas’s talk on original sin. What is formal in original sin is the diversion from God. We’re born with a will diverted from God. In the will, there is a certain deprivation. The will doesn’t have the focus toward goodness as a result of original sin. This is something that flows from the willing of the will. This is why original sin is called a culpa. We need the sacrament of Baptism, which restores the orientation of the will toward God. What is material in original sin is the disorder of our nature, concupiscence, which falls upon us, the evil of punishment. To understand this distinction, we shouldn’t have a legal notion of malum culpae and malum poenae. We shouldn’t tie a culpa to a punishment and then ask why we deserve punishment for original sin. Saint Thomas doesn’t have this juridical understanding, but an understanding of deprivation. The will has an inherent orientation toward goodness, but this determination, as a result of original sin, is not one-hundred percent, like in angels. We can see that things are true goods for us, but the orientation is not spontaneous. Baptism heals the malum culpae in the will, magnetizing the compass to God, though we don’t experience this psychologically.

Is this classical definition of sin, with the formal and material distinctions, aversion and conversion, sufficient? Contemporary theology also points to other elements. Every sin is an aversion from our vocation to which we are called. Some sins don’t have an aspect to our vocation, though. Each sin involves the wounding of the Church, by wounding the mystical body of Christ. It cuts down the sanctity of the Church. Sin destroys not only the sinner but the participation in the life of the Church and separation of the brethren. Reconciliation brings us back into communion with God and with the Church. There is also the question of the morality of imperfections. If we don’t go to weekday Mass, it’s not a sin. If we don’t make use of a grace, is it sinful? Some have claimed that all positive imperfections are sinful. Others distinguish between venial sin and imperfection, and say the latter isn’t a sin, but perhaps there is a sinful laziness involved. This question is formulated on the basis of norm ethics, and Saint Thomas would probably think it’s a stupid question which won’t lead to the right answer. To grow in the spiritual life, we have to avoid imperfections. We need to surrender to divine love and trust in divine mercy in our response. This relationship with God is demanded. When love of God is weak, there may be no transgression of precepts. We should focus on growth in love.

The location of sin

Saint Thomas then studies the causes of sin after studying its essence. In looking on the material cause, he looks at the location of sin. Evil is a deprivation, but we can ask about the subject of the sin. It is a human act which is deprived of that which it must have. The sinner lacks an order to its ultimate end. Sin makes the person rot. It causes an indisposition in the person and the faculties. How are the faculties involved in the sin? Basically, Saint Thomas says, sin is in the will. The reason issues a judgment and the will decides to act against the judgment. The reason can also be the subject of the sin when in a culpable way the person is ignorant. The lack is in the reason. Since the will can move the reason to pass judgment, so the will can urge the reason to pass judgment on insufficient evidence. We see that all the faculties are involved. The emotions insofar as they are capable of being ordered by the reason and the will are also the subject of what is disordered by sin. Most important, however, is the will. The location of sin in the faculty is the material cause of sin.

The internal efficient causes of sin

Saint Thomas then looks to the efficient cause of sin, internal or external. Sins may be caused by temptations or former sins. The external causes are multiple. The internal causes of sin are three. The division into the sins of ignorance, weakness, and malice may seem to be artificial, because all faculties are involved in the sins to different degrees. This distinction, nevertheless, looks to the dominant faculty of the sin. Only an ignorance which is directly willed, a consequence of an act of the will, bears responsibility for the sin which ensues. The doctor who was lazy in medical school is morally culpable for his botched operations. The internal cause of his errors and his lousy work as a doctor is his ignorance. The sins of weakness are all those sins in which the passion had a decided influence. The passion is so strong that control is made difficult. These persons cannot resist temptations. His reason is fine, but once a temptation comes he cannot resist. The will wills, but the members disobey. The weak may want goodness, but their passions carry them away. The one who sins out of ignorance feels no anguish. But the one who sins out of anguish, feels the anguish. The passions eclipse the judgment of the conscience. This is why we need virtues which enable the rational control of the emotions. The sins of weakness, if not subjected to repentance and control, may become sins of malice. If people don’t act as they think, they begin to think as they act and their consciences become blind.

Sins of malice are when the will is corrupted. The will doesn’t have the initiative in ignorance and weakness. In the sins of malice, the will is conscious of its inclination. There is a decision of the will. If someone acquires a habitués of an evil action, this is not an excuse. It adds the malice to the action. The habitus is always inventive, using reason and the will in an action. The thief studies the floor plans for months. Such a sin is always thought out, not mechanical. The evil is consciously cultivated and the person is vicious and not just a sinner. Many never cross the threshold either of virtue or vice. So a sin which flows from a vice is always malicious, it’s always out of one’s industry. This vicious person has neither ignorance or anguish, but the malicious sinner even celebrates and loves his sins. This doesn’t mean repeated sinners are malicious or vicious. Sins can become "habitual" in the sense of repetition, but not in the sense of Saint Thomas’s notion of habitués. There might be a sin of weakness, not of malice here.

This distinction among ignorance, weakness, and malice doesn’t correspond to the difference to mortal and venial sin. You may have the sin of malice in attacking someone verbally in a light way, whereas sins of weakness in which the will is fully involved may be a mortal sin. These are the internal efficient causes of sin.

External efficient causes of sin

We are susceptible to influences from without. Saint Thomas looks at the question of whether God can cause sin, the devil, and others. We have texts in the Bible that imply God causes sin. But there are opposing texts.[33] We see a certain development and purification in the Bible. God is never the cause of sin, but he is the cause of the physical being of the act — he holds the sinner and the poison in existence. The defect in the act comes from the sinner, from his corrupt will. God does, however, permit that we fall, so that we might see the need for grace and conversion. Saint Thomas says that God allows us to fall into mortal sin so that we might be healed of the sin of pride. God can make use of evil tyrants for the glory of the martyrs. This doesn’t mean that God is a proportionalist, that he does evil with a good intention. But he permits that good may come out of evil.

The devil can certainly influence our senses, memory, emotions; he can also influence our external senses, but he rarely does this. The devil could enlighten our intellect, but he doesn’t, because we would see through his deceit. The devil cannot influence our willing. He can suggest an object, but he cannot of necessity move the will. Only God, who has created our will, can move the will out of necessity. It is important to remember St. John of the Cross, who said that as God is more and more active in the human soul, he shows more how the grace affects the soul to the devil. The passive purgations in the night of the senses and the spirit entail a certain chaos in our spirit. This is a chaos which the devil may be inciting. As we begin the spiritual life, moments of trial will fall upon us and the weakest points of our personality will begin to crack, so that God teaches us humility and that part of our being which hasn’t been transformed by grace. Our attention should not be on obsession and possession, but on the grace of God. We should be calm but vigilant.[34] Temptations are conquered by acts of faith, submitting to God. We move to the supernatural level. Whenever temptations come, we move to the supernatural level.

Original Sin

At the end of the discussion of the causes of sin, Saint Thomas introduces the discussion on original sin. We don’t have the revelation of the doctrine of original sin in the Old Testament. Genesis demonstrates that we are the objects of a special treatment of God, which we lost at the instigation of the evil one. It doesn’t say much about the original sin in us. In the Old Testament, the Genesis account didn’t have the influence we attribute to it. Nowhere in the Old Testament is human sin tide to the sin of Adam. We have some echoes of it in later Old Testament texts. St. Paul first says that human sinfulness has its source in the sin of the first man. He wants to present the novelty of Christ.[35] Paul’s focus in on Jesus. Those who lived between Adam and Moses, their personal sins couldn’t have been on account of their personal sins — it must have been because of Adam. Paul realizes that humanity forms a community of sinners with Adam at their head. God looks at us as a people of sinners to be saved through Christ. Even though we belong to Christ, there is some of Adam within us. In each of us, there is the new regenerated person and soemthing of the old man. Baptism is the death of the old man. Paul didn’t write about the sin of the infants, but in talking of the universality of sin, it is there, which is why whole households were baptized in the early church.

Personal sin is in its essence a voluntary act. Theologians distinguish between peccatum originale originans and originatum. To understand Saint Thomas on original sin, we have to perceive the solidarity of the human race. There was no social contract with Adam, but a descendence. It is not a question of our voluntary sinful act, but just as the will moves other faculties to action, so the sin of Adam conditions the nature of all those derived from him. We are born with this ill disposition in our nature. Original sin in us is the lack of an appropriate disposition of our nature. We receive a nature which has an orientation to its true end, we have the natural desire to see God, but we don’t have the means to see God. We receive a nature deprived of the supernature which Adam had. We need grace to have a loving relationship with God. Adam’s state of grace was given as a dowry to human nature. The deprivation of these gifts in us is a lack. All of us as human beings participate in this state. We’re the bearers of this state which has the characteristics of sin. Original sin is a deprivation of original justice.

The formal aspect of original sin is the deviation of the will, turned away from its true end and incapable of itself of attaining its true rectitude. The lack of the harmony causes all of the faculties to move irrationally to their appropriate objects. We are weak. The tendencies of the faculties to search for their own objects doesn’t mean that there are new appetites, but the lack of a harmony. The faculties seek changeable goods, which is contrary to original justice. Concupiscence and final death is the material element of original sin, which is what we mean when we call original sin an entitative habit, not an operative habitués. If it were operative, there would have to be habits in the faculties, but it inheres in the soul.

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