Monday, July 26, 2021

Material and formal mortal sin, and an insidious form of scrupulosity

This post is aimed primarily at Catholic readers, and especially Catholic readers given to a certain mode of scrupulosity (a disorder where one is unduly and irrationally worried about one’s sinfulness) I will describe further on down. I will say a little about the distinction between material and formal sin, then discuss a special form of scrupulosity that is enabled by knowing the distinction, and end with some philosophical considerations that should help defuse this form of scrupulosity.


The Catholic tradition distinguishes material and formal sin. Material sin is an action that is objectively in itself against the moral law. Formal sin, on the other hand, is an action insofar as one is morally culpable for it. Formal sin requires that one believe the action to be wrong and that one be sufficiently free in performing the action. Talking of something as material sin, or material sin of a certain sort, is talking of the act in itself. Talking of it as formal sin, or a formal sin of a certain sort, is talking of the relation between the agent and the act.

One can have material sin without formal sin: if in a very difficult medical ethics case, a doctor is told by a panel of otherwise trustworthy bioethicists that an operation is permitted, and performs the operation, and it turns out the bioethicists were wrong, the doctor has committed a material sin, but is unlikely to be guilty of formal sin.

The distinction can also be used not simply to remove responsibility but to reduce it. The Catholic tradition distinguishes mortal sin, which separates one from God by a definitive (but forgiveable, since God’s grace is immense) act of rejection, from venial sin, which does not definitively reject God. Given this, you can have mortal material sin which is not formally mortal. In such a case, you might not be clear enough on the grave wrongness of the action or you might be insufficiently free for the sin to be formally mortal, although you have enough clarity and enough freedom for formal venial sin.

A form of scrupulosity:

At the same time, logically speaking, things can go in the other direction. You can have material sin without formal sin. If the difficult medical operation is in fact permissible, but the trustworthy bioethicists tell the doctor that it is wrong, and the doctor performs it while believing it to be wrong, the doctor commits a formal sin without a material sin.

Similarly, it should be logically possible to have a sin that is materially venially sinful but which is formally mortally sinful because the agent misjudges the act as much worse than it is.

In my late teens and 20s, I suffered a lot from scrupulosity: I was constantly afraid that I had committed a mortal sin, in a way that was disproportionate to my actual moral failings (which I had plenty of, but mainly they weren’t the ones I was scrupulous about). And the possibility of a materially venially sinful act that is formally mortally sinful worried me a lot. I would say to myself things like: “Granted, on reflection, this was not objectively a mortal sin, and maybe not even a sin at all, but maybe at the time I thought it was grave, and so I was formally mortally sinning.” And I would engage in fruitless and agonizing soul-searching to figure out what it was that I was thinking when I was engaging in the act. I know I am not alone in suffering from this.

But even though it is logically possible to have a formally mortal sin that is materially venial, it is a striking historical fact that the Catholic tradition typically uses the formal-material distinction to excuse rather than to accuse, to the point where one fairly recent writer in a very helpful piece on scrupulosity actually writes that it is impossible to have the materially venial but formally mortal combination.

I thought about this, and realized that there is actually an asymmetry between using the formal-material distinction to lower responsibility and using it to boost responsibility. Here it is. Cases where a materially mortal sin is formally venial due to the agent’s error are easy to get given our individual and communal fallenness. All that’s needed is that the agent have enough considerations—say, coming from errors circulating in the community—against the thesis that the act is gravely wrong to induce sufficient doubt to make the action as done by the agent no longer be a definitive rejection of God.

But cases where a materially venial sin becomes formally mortal due to the agent’s error require that the agent definitely see the action as wrong. And that requires a more thoroughgoing kind of epistemic malfunction. It’s not enough that error induce sufficient doubt—that’s quite easy, hence the commonality of the responsibility-reducing case—but the error has to sufficiently silence the truth to make the agent definitely believe the erroneous thing. For without definite belief that the action is gravely wrong we do not have formally mortal sin.

Imagine that Bob is committing gluttony by eating one more potato than he should, and due to some error—perhaps grounded in an eating disorder—he starts worrying that eating this potato is a mortally sinful case of gluttony, but he continues eating nonetheless. But here is something else that is likely: unless Bob is very far gone down the path of error, he likely has a bit of common sense testifying in him that eating an extra potato is not a serious matter. On the one hand, then, he has error pulling him to think that it is mortally sinful to eat the potato, but on the other hand, he has common sense. The result is very likely to be a divided mind, rather than a mind definitely believing that the action is mortally sinful, and hence it is very unlikely that the action be formally a mortal sin.

In other words, it is easy to muddy the waters enough to reduce responsibility, but it is a lot harder to come to the kind of definite erroneous belief that would be required to increase responsibility.

And a fortiori it is even harder to have a case where an action isn’t materially sinful at all but due to error it becomes formally mortally sinful. Again I think such cases are possible, but I expect they are quite rare.

Finally, I would think that the rare cases where the formal-material distinction functions to raise responsibility are going to be even rarer in Catholics. For Catholics not only have conscience, but they have the Church’s guidance, and so it is even harder for them to be definitely mistaken.


El Filósofo said...
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ASBB said...

I have experienced this myself. Let me share a related scrupulosity worry that piggybacks off this. In the situation you describe where one is unsure about the mortal status of the act concerned, maybe it's correct that the rational doubt insulates one from sinning mortally *by eating the potato*, but perhaps there is a second, higher-order sin of insouciance to venial sin that is itself mortal. So I often have the thought "Ok, I'm probably not mortally sinning by eating the potato, but is the fact that I persist despite the doubts mean that I am displaying an insouciant attitude towards the commission of venial sin? Is the risk-taking itself - the flippancy with which I'm treating venial sin, is that mortal?". Then I experience all the same panic again at the higher level.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I don't think insouciance about venial sin has grave matter. I don't think you can bootstrap your way from venial to mortal sin like that: there is a vast qualitative difference between them.

Compare: If I calumniate you by saying you committed sin X, my calumny is (at least materially) a mortal sin if X is a mortal sin; if X is a venial sin, my calumny is a venial sin. If I deliberately try to persuade you to commit sin X, my act of persuasion is (at least materially) in itself a mortal sin if X is a mortal sin and a venial sin if X is a venial sin. If I fail to seek divine forgiveness for sin X, if X is a mortal sin, my failure to seek forgiveness is in itself (at least materially) a mortal sin, while if X is a venial sin, my failure to seek forgiveness is a venial sin (presumably I would be kept in purgatory until such time as I see forgiveness for it).

In examples like this where an attitude towards a sin is itself sinful, typically that sinfulness is proportioned to the degree of the sin. Similarly, insouciance about a venial sin should be venial.