Monday, December 1, 2008

Spiritual sickness and spiritual death

There is a temptation for Catholics—also present for non-Catholic Christians but with different terminology—to settle for avoiding mortal sin. After all, if one has living faith and does not reject Christ's salvific grace through mortal sin, one will be saved. So why should one worry about venial sin?

Leaving aside the question of purgatory—for that is not the heart of the issue, but something more in the way of an effect of it—here is one thing that is wrong with this. In a state of mortal sin, one is bereft of living faith, of charity and of Christian hope. One is spiritually dead. If one is not a state of mortal sin, then one is spiritually alive. But surely we are not merely satisfied with being alive.

It would be silly to say: "I shall not go to the doctor. Yes, I have a great big ulcer, but after all, I am alive, and that is all that matters." While there may be contexts where it is appropriate to shout with joy "I am alive!" as if that was all that mattered—for instance, right after one's life (spiritual or physical) has just been saved. But as regards the body, we do not just want life. We want a life of health. One can be alive, but very ill, close to death. There is still reason to have the joy of life—there is a qualitative difference between that life and death—but that is not what we aspire to. (Here, of course, one recalls what Socrates says about how happiness is thought to require health of body and in fact requires health of soul.)

But there is a disanalogy between the physical illness of those who are physically alive and the spiritual illness of those who are spiritually alive. For while this particular physical illness may not win out, our mortal body is after all heading for the grave—perhaps unless the eschaton intervenes.[note 1] But while spiritually ill though in a state of grace, there is reason to hope—not just hope to overcome that particular illness, but to overcome them all, by the grace of Christ living in us. Thus we do have more reason to rejoice over being spiritually alive than over physically alive—but this rejoicing cannot lead to idleness, since after all, how much do we want to prolong our ill health?


Heath White said...

It is my view that all kinds of spiritual ills, including this one, result from the fact that while people may or may not "know", they anyway do not "believe" (cf. your earlier post) that one's true good lies in an intimate relationship with God that is necessarily hampered by sin.

Dan Johnson said...

It may be that the very fact that somebody "settles" for venial sin precisely thereby turns the venial sin into a mortal sin. According to Aquinas (as far as I understand him), if you "endorse" a venial sin with your reason -- that is, you're "ok" with it, you approve of it, you refuse to repent of it even when you see it as a sin -- it is no longer venial but mortal.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Quite possibly.


Interesting idea. Do you have a reference in Aquinas?

Dan Johnson said...

I'm not quite sure exactly where Aquinas says this. It is in De Malo. There is a chapter in there on venial and mortal sin. I'm thinking that the reference I have in mind comes as a response to an objection somewhere in that chapter, having to do with how venial sin can become mortal sin. Aquinas denies that you can just add up venial sins to mortal ones, but he says there is a grain of truth to this idea: if you continue committing the same venial sin over and over, he thinks, it is almost inevitable that you will at some point endorse the sin with your reason (or else you wouldn't keep doing it), and this is enough to turn it mortal.

He also makes reference to this idea when discussing the particular capital vices in De Malo as to whether they are usually mortal or venial. Interestingly, this same point works in reverse: a sin that is "mortal by reason of its kind" (like anger or envy) can take venial forms if it is "incomplete" -- which means that it is either not endorsed by reason (and so just a passing feeling that I quickly reject) or it is about something trivial.

Brandon said...

I think it may be De Malo II.8 that Dan is thinking of. Aquinas definitely says something like this of the sin of drunkenness at De Malo II.8 ad 2:

"The frequency of inebriation is not a circumstance constituting a species of sin. And so, absolutely speaking, getting inebriated frequently is as much a venial sin as getting inebriated once. But getting inebriated frequently can be a mortal sin accidentally and dispositively. For example, such would be the case if a person were by habit to be brought to so great a state of complacency in inebriation that the person would deliberately get inebriated in contempt of the divine precept."

The whole article provides background to this claim.

Dan Johnson said...


That is exactly the quote I was thinking of. Thanks for pointing it out.

The key there is "deliberately get inebriated in contempt of a divine precept."

Alexander R Pruss said...

I guess the way I'd read that text is this. It is one thing to commit a venial sin despite its being forbidden by God. But it's another thing to commit an otherwise venial sin because it's forbidden by God. The latter is a grave sin, since it is an explicit sin of rebellion against God (besides being a venial sin of, say, gluttony).