06 June 2009

Mortal Sin & Culpability: two case studies

First, I want to say how pleased I am that HancAquam readers did such an excellent job of analyzing the two case studies below! It's encouraging that the fine distinctions were made and the correct conclusions reached.

Here's my take on the case studies. . .

Both Beth and Sue committed an intrinsically morally evil act, acquiring an abortion.

Beth committed a mortal sin b/c her act met all three criteria for mortal sin. As an intrinscially morally evil act, abortion is certainly a grave matter. As a former Catholic with a graduate degree in theology, she certainly knew that abortion is an intrinsically morally evil act. Since she is an adult, in complete possession of her reason, and not in any way temporarily mentally imparied, she deliberately consented to the act. Her apostacy from the Church and subsequent history of fornication is irrelevant to the analysis of this case. An abortion acquired by a rigouously faithful married Catholic woman with no history of fornication would be mortally sinful.

Sue did not commit a mortal sin. Though her abortion is an intrinsically morally evil act, she acquired the abortion without full knowledge of the moral implications of the act and her minority grants her the assumption of the inability to consent. By no fault of her own, Sue is ignorant of the Church's teachings and confronted by a culture of gang violence hostile to learning. That her pregnancy is the result of rape is irrevelant to the intrinscially morally evil nature of the act of abortion, but it does mitigate against the assumption that she is free to consent to the abortion. Rape is devastately traumatic and can severly impair the victim's ability to render culpable judgments.*

Beth is culpable for her mortal sin to the degree that she was truly free to acquire the abortion. Her culpability could be somewhat mitigated if she has a legitimate fear that being pregnant would hurt her in a significant economic fashion--if, for example, her firm had a history of demoting or firing pregnant women. This situation would count as indirect duress. However, the case states that she acquired the abortion in order not to hurt her chances for a promotion not to save her job. Culpability might be somewhat mitigated on the grounds that being a pregnant lawyer in NYC poses a threat to her reputation and the possibility of doing her job at the levels of expected professionalism. Inordinate pressure from her boyfriend, if present, would certainly mitigate culpability.

Since Sue's abortion is not a mortal sin for her, her culpability for the act is zero. The overwhelming pressures of her mother's authority and her violent school life make her little more than a pawn. Poverty and lack of education will almost always mitigate against culpability if culpability is in question. Under duress, she cooperated in committing an intrinsically morally evil act, but she did not sin. Remember: we cannot be forced to sin (venially or mortally) nor can we sin by accident or in ignorance.

In the combox, Annie writes, "So, if the Church did indeed push Beth away through a series of even minor actions or attitudes, those people share in her sin too." To the degree that Beth was deliberately "pushed out," I would agree. But this question needs quite a bit of fleshing out. I am often told by ex-Catholics that they were "driven out" of the Church by an evil pastor or group of hateful parishioners. When pushed for details, these folks almost always reveal that what actually happened was that they were living a publicly sinful life and found the parish's unwillingness to celebrate their sinful lives to be "unwelcoming." In other words, no one pushed them anywhere. They left the Church when they started living publicly sinful lives. The parish's refusal to celebrate their sin was the appropriate medicinal response. Rather than repenting and asking for forgiveness, they chose to leave. Calling this "being pushed out" is false. I've also been told by ex-Catholics that they left the Church b/c they were silenced or harassed or shunned. Again, details are the key! In most cases these folks were pushing dissident theologies, abusive liturgical practices, or causing scandal by stirring up chaos. I also know of cases where orthodox Catholics were "pushed out" of a parish for what they felt were illegitimate reasons. Sometimes the reasons given seemed illegitimate to me. And sometimes the reasons were good. There are, of course, plenty of cases where nothing more than parochial politics, parishioners feuds, and evil pastors get folks booted. To what degree of culpability these folks would be held to if they committed a mortal sin while under this sort of duress is open to debate.

Thanks for playing! We might do this again soon. . .

*My initial phrasing here was ambiguous, so I've amended the paragraph to clarify my point.


  1. hey!

    this was really enlightening, thanks!

  2. *My initial phrasing here was ambiguous, so I've amended the paragraph to clarify my point.

    Yeah, Father, that was a good idea. I read earlier today what you had originally wrote there and was waiting for my temper to cool down before I replied (so I could be civil), but you obviously saw the problem. :-)

    Thanks again for the lesson. Learned a lot.

  3. Maria, thanks for not yelling at me!

    It's odd that when I am writing what I am writing seems to make perfect sense. Of course, this is b/c I have the Whole Thing in my head, making the necessary connections.

    When I went back to re-read the post a few hours later, I was struck by that paragraph's deep ambiguity.

  4. Anonymous6:26 AM

    "An abortion acquired by a rigouously faithful married Catholic woman with no history of fornication would be mortally sinful."

    Maybe. I am thinking of Judie Brown's examples in her book, Saving those Damned Catholics, where some have been counseled to receive an abortion by a priest and even in some very sick and disgusting cicumstances, the abortion "blessed" by the priest.
    I think the first act of apostosy does play a role in it.
    But I have been wrong before. :)

  5. I'm sorry I'm late to the party, but I had to ask... Father, isn't an act considered intrinsically evil precisely because it is an act which is so fundamentally contrary to natural law that man cannot be invincibly ignorant of its sinfulness (unless of course, an individual were mentally impaired in such a way that he was incapable of any mortal sin)? I would argue that no mitigating circumstance can absolve Sue of "not" knowing the grave matter of the sin of abortion. Isn't that what St. Thomas and the Church teach? That, in fact, that is what defines an intrinsically evil act?