Questions Answered – January 2019

Mortal Sin and the Individual Conscience

Question: My question is about the “full knowledge” element for mortal sin. My belief has always been in line with the following statement from the FAQ section of the popular program “The Light Is On For You” that is employed in many dioceses around the country: “Full knowledge means that one is aware that God or the Church he founded considered the act sinful (even if one doesn’t totally understand why it is sinful).” I have recently been told that this definition if wrong. I have been told that, as a baptized Catholic, I can be fully aware of the Church’s teaching that an action is gravely sinful but if I do not actually believe it, then I can never commit a mortal sin by engaging in that act. In other words, as long as I act in accord with my own sincere beliefs, it is impossible for me to commit a mortal sin. I am looking for an authoritative magisterial statement that explicitly rejects this. Can you help?

Answer: The general answer to your question is that the statement you quote from the program is correct. The issue of the place of knowledge in moral responsibility is an important one. This is because one cannot love what one does not first know. A child who has never tasted chocolate cannot cry for it. This is true of all goods including the good which is God Himself, the ultimate end of moral life. In fact, there are two orders regarding the relation of means to an end. The first is the order of intention in which the end comes first and the means come second. The intellect has priority here. Before determining the means and the road to pursue in any journey, the final destination must be determined. The second order is the order of execution in which the means are actually carried out in practice. One can intend the final destination in a journey and fail to take the first step. The will has priority here.

In all moral choices, whether of good or evil, the intellect is like the eyes and the will is like the feet. The character of evil results from the will desiring something as a good which is not a true good. One can love a good which is false. When the will goes after such a good, it is rather like taking a journey and either ending in a ditch or falling off a cliff. The strength of the desire would carry one very far afield unless guided by the truth of reason.

When one is forming one’s conscience, which is itself a process of reasoning in which the moral truth is applied to conduct, one must be certain that what one is proposing to do actually corresponds to the truth. Since conscience is a process of reasoning, like all exercises of logic, it can be mistaken. If this is the case, there are two issues to resolve in determining whether will actually is responsible for the disorder which is introduced into the character by the mistake and thus incurs responsibility for either good or evil.

The first regards the possibility of the will altering the ignorance which caused the mistake. If the ignorance precedes the action of the will, then the will can do nothing about it. In the case of evil, though the act remains a sin, the will does not incur responsibility for the deed. This is what is traditionally known as invincible ignorance.

On the other hand, should the ignorance result from factors under the control of the will, then the person’s act is more voluntary and more responsible for committing sin because there is a callous indifference as to the truth. This is called vincible ignorance. This is normally demonstrated in negligence. A student is too lazy to study in medical school, cheats on tests, becomes a doctor, and kills a patient on the operating table. A lawyer takes a fee but loses a capital case because he is simply too lazy to do the work necessary to defend his client adequately. Each could claim ignorance, but they could have done something about it and did not. In other words, they could and should have known the truth which would have guided their action properly.

The second issue regards the manner in which an erroneous conscience binds a person to act. St. Thomas maintains that a person is bound to follow an erroneous conscience, but in doing so he cannot avoid sin. In following his conscience he sins against the objective order and in acting against his conscience he acts against what he subjectively considers the will of God. Such a conscience binds only conditionally. If one can change his conscience, one must. The norms for this come from the teaching on vincible and invincible ignorance already evoked.

In the case presented, the ignorance does not result from negligence but from positive dissent. In matters connected with faith, including both faith and morals, arguments from authority are the strongest arguments. This is what the Catholic Church has always taught. Were someone to know the teaching of the Church and use his dissent from it as a justification for an evil moral choice which constituted a mortal sin, he would be even more guilty of sin, not less. The quote above rightly addresses how deep the knowledge must be. One need not be a theologian but just understand with common knowledge that what the Church teaches is contrary to one’s proposed practice.

Magisterially, the Catechism of the Catholic Church sets out some of the possible sources for a vincibly erroneous conscience. These include: “Rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching.” So full knowledge that something is in fact a teaching of the Church and rejection of that teaching in moral action does not excuse from mortal sin.


Adoration of Saints vs. Adoration of God

Question: Do we adore the saints and Mary in the same way that we adore God?

Answer: In moral theology, the term adoration refers to an exterior act of the virtue of religion. The virtue of religion is a connected virtue to the virtue of justice. If justice is the constant and perpetual will to give to another his due, the virtue of religion entails the constant and perpetual will to give God his due. Since man can never repay God in any sort of strict equality for the good of existence, much less many other things, religion is a connected virtue and not a part of strict justice itself.

The virtue of religion recognizes the rights of the Creator which are, of course, very extensive because all man has and is occurs as a result of divine power, truth, and love. There are two interior acts of this virtue: devotion in the will and prayer in the intellect. These result from a true attitude toward the Creator of respectful obedience and recognition of dependence for everything. The formation of these internal attitudes is essential to the development of this virtue.

Since man has a body as well as a soul, these interior acts are fostered by two exterior acts: adoration and sacrifice. Sacrifice involves a victim, a priest, and an altar, and strictly speaking refers to the offering of some return to the Creator in recognition of all we have received from him.

Adoration, on the other hand, refers to the exterior use of the body in actions which express or excite devotion and prayer. They are things like candles, body postures, music, art, genuflections, kneeling and the like which are directly related to the worship of God. Thomas Aquinas distinguished three types of adoration.

The first are those actions which denote reverence for God alone. This is called latria in Greek. It is reserved for God, Christ’s human nature, the Blessed Sacrament, and artistic representations of Christ. The traditional teaching on the veneration of images is expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, ‘the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype,’ and ‘whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it.’ The honor paid to sacred images is a ‘respectful veneration,’ not the adoration due to God alone. Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is” (2132).

Since the saints are examples to us of those who have lived an especially holy life, they are venerated but not worshiped. In Greek this is called dulia. Our Lady is not a goddess. But in imitation of the Magnificat in Scripture: “All generations will call me blessed” (Lk 1:48), Catholics call her blessed with a special veneration which is not latria nor dulia, but a special veneration expressed by the term hyperdulia.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

Please send your questions to:
Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
375 NE Clackamas St.
Portland, OR 97232
Or please see the Ask a Question page to send it online.