Thursday, May 31, 2012

The unavoidability of sin

Aquinas says that without grace we can avoid each individual mortal sin but not all mortal sin, at least not for a significant length of time.

On its face, this seems contradictory. After all, I can avoid the first mortal sin. If I avoid it, then I should be able to avoid the next one. And so on. And hence I should be able to avoid all mortal sin.

But this argument mistakenly agglomerates what one can do. For instance, suppose that there is a mine field with a thousand mines. I know how to defuse a mine, but I have an independent probability of 10% of slipping and detonating the mine. It's correct to say that each mine can be defused by me—being able to do this with 90% reliability is sufficient for this—but it is incorrect to say that I can defuse the whole minefield. It is appropriate to look at the minefield that one is to defuse and think: "This is an impossible task without help."

The person without grace is unable to presently control her future actions in favor of the good. Each individual action is in her power, but she cannot control them all at once. Hence she can rightly look with trepidation at her future moral life and say: "This is an impossible task without help."

But a virtuous person can control future actions in favor of the good en masse, by growing in virtue and resolving to do good.


Heath White said...

I think the paradox still has some force. With respect to the mine field analogy, it is not true that it is literally impossible for me to defuse the minefield. It is only very unlikely. Maybe that is not too comforting, and so when Aquinas says “impossible” we should read “impossible for all practical purposes” or some such. It is only very likely that we’ll need grace. I don’t think that’s quite what the anti-Pelagians had in mind.

Butit raises a different problem. We are held responsible for our sin, according to Aquinas, because we could avoid each one of them. But suppose I do try to defuse the minefield and get blown up on the 38th mine. It would be quite unfriendly to say, “Well, he could have defused it. That’s what you get for carelessness.” If I had not died at 38, I would have died at 39 or 40 or 52.

So it seems to me that possibility, in whatever sense we think is relevant, and responsibility go together. It seems a bit of sleight of hand to appeal to the whole minefield when we talk about the need for grace, but appeal to the individual mines when we talk about responsibility.

BTW, the anti-spam captcha materials are getting VERY hard to read.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Even given quantum mechanics which says that there is a nonzero probability of a pig flying, we say pigs can't fly.
Maybe one can't be blamed for it's being the case that some mine or other exploded, but if one was careless, one is to blame for THIS one exploding.

Anonymous said...

Physical labor makes for a better analogy. I can left 10 pounds once. Can I lift 10 pounds a billion times in a row? No, of course not.

Moral life is exactly like that. It's hard, and one gets exhausted from time to time.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

I will address the 90% diffusing the land mine and the 10% chance of being blown up, knowing that it is impossible to sweep the entire mine field. Here, I have this to say about that 10% chance of being blown up, how to reduce it. Here is a checklist of items:
1. Put on the whole armor of God, as in Ephesians 6:13-20. Do this daily, preferably the moment you wake up.
2. Maintain constant vigilance as per 1 Peter 5:8.
3. Pray the prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel to defend us in battle.
4. Use Holy water, spray yourself down if you have to.
5. Pray the Rosary and focus on the virtue of each Mystery.
6. Focus on the 3 Theological Virtues, the 4 Cardinal Virtues, and the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit. If you feel you are lacking in any of these, ask the Father to give them to you.
7. Receive the Eucharist as often as possible. Daily, if you can manage it.
8. Receive the Rite of Reconciliation on a bi-weekly basis.
9. Wear a scapular.

You’ve now got your bomb disposal suit on. This should give good blast protection. Now for some strategy:

1. Treat each mine separately. One mine at a time, when diffusing. Thinking of the whole field at once and that you can’t sweep it all because you have only 90% chance of being successful which you deduce to one mine out of the ten will blow you up can be counterproductive. Start afresh with each mine. This way each mine has a 90% chance of being diffused.
2. While diffusing mines - realize that when temptation strikes, the best time to diffuse it is to rebuke it the moment it hits your thoughts. This is critical. You must stop it in that instant. A moment later stopping them is like stopping a runaway horse. Realize you cannot stop a runaway horse by pulling harder on both reins (especially if using a snaffle bit). The harder you pull the more the horse leans on the bit for balance, and will engage his hindquarters for more power. You must use a one rein stop and circle the animal tightly (snaffle bit more effective here than curb bit, that’s a paradox with snaffle bits). Once you pull that horse’s head practically to your knee with that single rein, he cannot engage himself to run off, to buck, nor to rear. However, it will be a while before the mischief leaves the beast’s mind. So be patient. When temptation gets past the initial thought phase, fighting it directly (the both reins pull) won’t work. If you can, get up and go do something else and realize that at least 20 minutes will pass before the temptation’s energy is diffused.
3. In a temptation situation, do not “fight fire with fire”. I have read about philosophies that say things like that. That doesn’t work. You only get a bigger fire.
4. With some temptations, you must run from them instead of fighting them, as Joseph ran from Potiphar’s wife.
5. The Lord will not allow you to be tempted beyond your power to resist. This is an important consolation.
Now with this strategy, we are better equipped to approach each mine. Here are important things to keep in mind about the nature of each mine:
1. The mine itself will not always appear to be evil or dangerous. In fact most of the mines that get us do not look like mines at all. They appear as something good; however, the difference is that they are a lesser good. It is essential to differentiate between a lesser good, and the Perfect Good found in God. These mines are not necessarily things that have been bad for us in the past. The most important thing about these mines is that they are not bad in and of themselves. They in fact are good things to which we have given a higher priority than God.
2. Realize where ever there is a lesser good involved, because it is not the Perfect Good, there is always an empty space, however small and apparently insignificant where evil may enter. This is because nature abhors vacuums. It is precisely in this small, apparently insignificant spot where the most deadly explosive charge of the mine is located.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...


"Moral life is exactly like that. It's hard, and one gets exhausted from time to time." Cast your cares upon the Lord. Realize that by ourselves, yes we will find it hard and we will get exhausted. Ask for the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. Rest in the Lord. Take His yoke upon you.

To all:

Pray Psalm 91 on a twice daily basis. In the Eastern Churches it is prayed at noon. It is frequently prayed at Compline in the Western Church. So pray it at noon and at bedtime. You will adequately cover the "terror of the night" and the "arrow that flieth in the day".

If you get blown up by mine 38, 39 or 40 or whichever, realize that while you have a breath in you there is always repentance with redemption available.

BTW, the anti-spam captcha materials are getting rediculous.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

This thought just came to me: That 10% chance that the mine will blow up on us is there to keep us humble, lest we fall into the deadliest of all sins - pride. Keep in mind that Paul asked God to remove a thing from his flesh, and God said no. That thing was there to keep Paul on track lest he should slip into pride. My maternal grandmother told me that in her day in Latvia when a Gypsie wanted to put a curse on some one, he would say "May you become proud." Therefore, let us approach each of our land mines with the realization that that 10% is there to keep us humble, to keep us from becoming complacent. So take this field, one mine at a time focusing on humility each time.

Another thing - never take your eyes off of Jesus while in this minefield. If you begin to start feeling undue anxiety over the mines you are difusing it is a dead give away that you focus is off of Christ. Realize that Peter was also walking on water as long as he focused on the Lord. He began to sink the moment his focus shifted to how big the waves were - and he did the right thing immediately when that happened, he called upon the Lord.

One final thing, the best tool that you have to diffuse these mines is forgiveness. Keep in mind the Lord's prayer "Forgive us our tresspasses AS WE FORGIVE those who tresspass against us." This is important blast protection in this mine field.

I would like to remind everyon that we are starting June, the month of the Sacred Heart.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Pruss, I'd like to know where Aquinas says this, since I think it contradicts the canons of the second council of Orange, which make it clear that nobody can avoid any sin whatsoever without grace. Something intuitively tells me Aquinas would not have said anything to the contrary. In any case though, it seems to me that so long as it is logically possible to fail to sin without grace, it is logically possible to never sin even without grace (even if implausible).

Perhaps what Aquinas meant by being able to avoid mortal sin without Grace was simply that in some logically possible worlds at time t1, I could have done some morally evil action, but in the actual world it did not even occur to me to make a voluntary choice between that action and some morally preferable action. If that is what is meant, then that seems compatible with the Church's teaching. However, that we can move ourselves towards the good without Grace in a fallen state seems flatly opposed to the canons of Trent on Justification, most of which were simply adapted from the second council of Orange.

Please let me know if you find where Aquinas purportedly makes this claim - if its not too much trouble.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Sure: Summa Theologica I-II, 109, 8, reply to obj 1: "Man can avoid each but not every act of sin, except by grace, as stated above."

I don't see the claim that no one can avoid sin without grace among the Canons of the Second Council of Orange.

The closest I can find are Canon 20: "That a man can do no good without God. God does much that is good in a man that the man does not do; but a man does nothing good for which God is not responsible, so as to let him do it."
and Canon 22:
"Concerning those things that belong to man. No man has anything of his own but untruth and sin. But if a man has any truth or righteousness, it is from that fountain for which we must thirst in this desert, so that we may be refreshed from it as by drops of water and not faint on the way."

But to satisfy Canons 20 and 22 does not seem require anything besides saying that all good action requires divine concurrence and maybe something like common grace.

And in the conclusion we have: "The sin of the first man has so impaired and weakened free will that no one thereafter can either love God as he ought or believe in God or do good for God's sake, unless the grace of divine mercy has preceded him."

But this does not say that one cannot refrain from sin without grace.

Anonymous said...

You say: "to satisfy Canons 20 and 22 does not seem require anything besides saying that all good action requires divine concurrence and maybe something like common grace."

I think that's quite right, but common Grace remains a form of Grace. Moreover, other canons say things to the same effect. Consider Canon 7:

"If anyone asserts that we can, by our natural powers, think as we ought, or choose any good pertaining to the salvation or to the message of the Gospel without the illumination and inspiration of the holy Spirit... he is misled by a heretical spirit, not understanding what the voice of God says in the Gospel, 'Without me you can do nothing' (John 15:5), nor the words of the Apostle, 'Not that we are sufficient to think anything of ourselves, as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God' (2 Cor. 3:5)" (quoted from Dave Armstrong, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, p.56-57)

I take it that Aquinas wouldn't deny this, and thus has some 'special' definition of Grace here, or maybe a definition of 'special Grace'.

You then say: "And in the conclusion we have: "The sin of the first man has so impaired and weakened free will that no one thereafter can either love God as he ought or believe in God or do good for God's sake, unless the grace of divine mercy has preceded him." - But this does not say that one cannot refrain from sin without grace."

This may be trivially true, but I think that when one reads the canons together, with the Augustinian Hermeneutic with which they were composed, it becomes incredulous to deny that the canons do not teach that one cannot refrain from sin without Grace.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and thank you for actually pointing me to the relevant passage in the Summa.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Canon 7 is about actions that further our salvation, not about refrainings from sin.

Refraining from sin is not sufficient for salvation. Salvation also requires a positive and supernatural love for God. That's why even Adam and Eve needed grace.

"but I think that when one reads the canons together, with the Augustinian Hermeneutic with which they were composed, it becomes incredulous to deny that the canons do not teach that one cannot refrain from sin without Grace"

You might be able to get the claim that the authors of the canons thought that grace was needed to avoid each sin. But since the canons don't say it, and don't say anything that (as far as I can tell) entails it, that's neither here nor there, since what is binding in such matters is what the authority intentionally says, not what the authority thinks.

It is a general interpretive principle for canon law, and applicable here, that restrictive canons are to be understood narrowly.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for those responses, I'll need to think on this some more. I suspect that I am unimpressed by that response intuitively because I don't think there is a qualitative difference between choosing not to sin and choosing to do good. The difference is a matter of degree, it seems, but not one of kind. In either case we are moving ourselves towards 'the good', or else away from it. However, as I said, I'll need to think on it some more. I'd be happy to hear any further thoughts if you care to respond again. As a final thought, do you think that a Catholic could maintain my position while remaining faithful to the Catholic Church? If so, then it seems it is at least a point of open debate - however, in order to make sense of your position I suppose I would need to understand what it means to make a qualitative distinction between refraining from sin and moving oneself towards the good in acts of charity, etc.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think Aquinas' view implies that one can choose to do good without grace, since I suspect he will say that any action not at the good is sinful.

However, I think the Thomist will distinguish between actions directed at natural goods and actions that further salvation.

DrDoctorDr said...

Right; that is simply Thomas's distinction between praiseworthy and meritorious acts. See ST I-II, Q. 21.

Anonymous said...

I found this quote recently and thought I'd add it to the comments of this post in case it proved an interesting addition.

"Such, then, being the condition of human liberty, it necessarily stands in need of light and strength to direct its actions to good and to restrain them from evil."
~Leo XIII, Libertas