BASED ON THE WRITINGS OF THE SUMMA OF ST. THOMAS AQUINAS
FOR THE CONFRATERNITY OF THE PRECIOUS BLOOD, BY
FRS. WALTER FARRELL AND MARTIN HEALY, 1952
CHAPTER 11, CAUSES OF SIN
EVERY SINFUL ACT is a voluntary act. It is an act of will. But it is an act of will that is out of order. It is an act of will against the rule of right reason or the eternal law of God. When a pickpocket steals a man's wallet, the sin is not in his hand which seizes the wallet but in his will which chooses to take unjustly the property of another man. The will is directly the cause of the decision to steal. But this choice or decision to steal is contrary to the law or rule of reason. The will is therefore indirectly the cause of the lack of proper order in the act. But it is precisely this lack of order in the act which makes it sinful. Therefore the will is the cause of the sinfulness of the act. Every sinful act then is an act of the will.
BUT MAN'S WILL can be influenced by his reason and by his sense appetite, by God and by the devil, by man and by sin itself. To understand sin clearly we must measure the influence of all these factors on the human will in the commission of sin. It is well known that men attribute their sinful acts to a variety of causes. Some say they sin through weakness. Some claim that the devil makes them sin. Others excuse their sins by appealing to ignorance. To avoid unhappiness intelligently it is necessary to see clearly the true influence of the various causes of sin.
SINCE A SINFUL ACT is an act of the human will, the basic cause of sin is within man himself. It is his will. But the will is influenced by reason and by man's sense appetite. We shall consider first then these internal causes of sin, that is, the reason, the sense appetite and the will of man.
MAN'S REASON CAN BE THE CAUSE of sin through ignorance. The murderer who says he would not have killed if he had known what he was doing testifies to the fact that ignorance can lead to sin. But the exact relationship of ignorance to sin or to moral guilt must be properly evaluated.
SINCE EVERY SIN is a voluntary act, involuntary ignorance excuses a man from sin altogether. If a Catholic totally forgets that it is Friday and eats meat, he is breaking the law of abstinence. But his act is not a sin. If he had known or remembered that it was Friday, he would not have eaten the meat. When a man's ignorance is not his own fault, then the sinful act which he commits through that ignorance is not a sin at all.
BUT THE CASE CHANGES when the ignorance is voluntary or due to the man's own fault. A Catholic eating in a restaurant wants to order meat. But he thinks it might be Friday. He could learn the truth by asking the waiter or by consulting the calendar over the cashier's desk. But he is in too much of a hurry. So he neglects to ask what day it is. When he eats meat that day, his ignorance is partially the cause of his sin, but it does not excuse him entirely. He could have known the truth easily and he was obliged to discover it.
LASTLY IGNORANCE OF ONE of the circumstances of L a sinful act may excuse a man from one sin, but not from another. A burglar is surprised in the act of theft by a policeman. He draws his gun in the dark and kills the policeman. Later he discovers he has killed his brother. Had he known the policeman was his brother he would not have fired the gun at all. His ignorance excuses him from the sin of fratricide. But it does not excuse him from the sin of murder, because he knew he was shooting at a man, even though he did not know that the man was his brother.
THE SENSE APPETITE OF MAN can also be a cause of sin. The strength of the passions can distract a man's reason and so lead him to judge that something can be done which is really sinful. A man and a woman may know generally that sexual intercourse outside marriage is sinful. But they will excuse it in their own case on the plea that they have a passionate love for one another. The strength of their passion does not excuse them. But it has hindered their reason from making a proper judgment on their act. It is for this reason that sins of passion are called sins of weakness. For the strength of the passion weakens the judgment of reason and ultimately weakens the strength of the will in the pursuit of what is truly good.
OBVIOUSLY SINS OF PASSION are due to an excessive love for self. A man commits sins of passion because he has excessive desire to acquire good things for himself. His excessive desire for the good things of this world shows that he loves himself more than he loves God. He is bartering or exchanging God, Who is the perfect, eternal Good, for the temporary, imperfect goods of this world.
PASSION CAN DIMINISH the malice of sin to the extent that it diminishes the voluntariness of the act. But once again we must make a distinction similar to the distinction made in the case of ignorance. The man who commits a sin of lust after he had deliberately inflamed his passions by reading obscene literature or looking at obscene pictures is fully responsible for his sin. But the man who is provoked to anger by a sudden and unmerited physical attack upon himself, is not fully and willfully responsible for the blows which he strikes in return. And if his anger rises suddenly and strongly, it may even run away with his will and prevent his act from being voluntary at all. In this last case his act will not be a sin at all.
IGNORANCE ON THE PART of reason and the passions of the sense appetite are causes of sin to the extent to which they influence the action of the human will. We might call them contributory causes of sin. The will itself is the basic or essential cause of all sin.
THIS IS SEEN most clearly in what we call sins of pure malice. A sin is purely malicious when a man's will chooses evil knowingly. A "confidence" man knows that defrauding a widow of her life savings of ten thousand dollars is a seriously sinful act. He knows that such an act cannot lead to true happiness in God. But he prefers the money to God. He prefers a lesser temporary good to the eternal friendship of God. He chooses evil knowingly, that is, he prefers a temporary good to the exclusion of the eternal Good which is God.
SINS OF MALICE ARE WORSE than sins of ignorance or passion. This is so because the will is the basic principle of human acts. The man who sins through ignorance or passion is like a man who is temporarily ill. When his illness passes---when he learns better, or when his passion subsides---he can recover easily. But when a man is chronically ill of a serious disease then his recovery is uncertain and sometimes most improbable. So too the man who sins through sheer malice has a disease of the will itself. Neither knowledge alone nor the cessation of passion removes the disease of a bad will. A man with a bad will has a more or less permanent inclination to evil. And because the will is the basic principle or source of free human acts, sins of malice are more evil in themselves. That is why men forgive sins of ignorance or of passion more readily than they forgive sins of malice. We can forgive a man when we say that he did not know what he was doing. But we resent a man's actions when we say that he does them on purpose.
BESIDES THE CAUSES OF SIN which are inside man himself, there are other indirect causes of sin which are outside man. Men say that God, or the devil, or that other men lead them into sin. We must now examine the truth of such claims.
SINCE GOD IS SUPREMELY GOOD, and not at all evil, it follows that God is never the direct cause of sin.
As the cause of all being and all action God is the cause of the being in the act ot sin. But the lack of order in the sinful act comes only from the defective or sinful will of the sinner.
SOMETIMES GOD PUNISHES a sinner in this life by withdrawing the Divine grace which would enlighten the mind of the sinner so that he would see the error of his ways and soften the heart of the sinner so that he would mend his ways. But it is important to note here that God does this only as a punishment of sin. Often, too, such punishment shows the sinner how much he needs God's help and so it leads the sinner to repentance. But in any case God Himself is still not the cause of sin. The sinner still sins by his own bad will.
THE DEVIL IS CERTAINLY a cause of sin in man. He goes about, as Sacred Scripture says, like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. He hates men and would do them all the harm he can.
BUT, ONCE AGAIN, the power of the devil to make men sin should not be exaggerated. Every sin is a free act. And the devil cannot attack man's freedom directly. The devil leads men to sin only by proposing temptations to men. He can act on men's imaginations or their sense appetites. But he cannot get inside the reason or will of man to force him to sin. It is man's privilege to retain his freedom before God, the devil and other men.
MEN CAN LEAD OTHER MEN to sin through suggestion. But this is also only an indirect cause of sin. No one can escape the responsibility of his own sins by saying that other men tempted him. Every man's sins, from this point of view, are his own because he is free to sin or not to sin.
BUT THERE IS A WAY in which one man's sin caused sinfulness in the whole human race. The sin of Adam, the first man of our race, has made all men sinful. It is a dogma of the Catholic Faith, a doctrine revealed by God Himself that Adam's sin in Paradise is passed on to all his descendants by way of human generation. This is indeed a great mystery. But we have God's word that it is true. The important thing is to try to understand correctly what is meant by this truth.
THE SIN WHICH ADAM PASSES ON to all his descendants is called Original Sin. It is called Original because it has as its cause the first or original human sin, that is, the sin of Adam's disobedience to God. It is also Original because it infects all men in so far as they take their origin from Adam, the first man of our race, by way of human generation.
BUT IF SIN is always voluntary, how can Original Sin be sin at all in the descendants of Adam? We are not personally responsible either for Adam's first sin or for the state of sinfulness in which we are born because of his sin. How then can Original Sin get into our souls?
THE ANSWER to this perplexing question lies in the fact that in God's plan Adam was the head of the whole human race both physically and spiritually. In the plan of God all men were contained physically in Adam. All men are the physical descendants or children of Adam. We all come from the seed of Adam. This applies also to the spiritual order. God regarded Adam as the spiritual head of the human race. He gave to Adam certain spiritual gifts which were to descend to all his posterity as a gift to human nature. We shall discuss the nature of these gifts later. For the present it is sufficient to note that they were gifts to the whole of human nature as it was contained in Adam. If Adam remained faithful to God, they were to be passed on with human nature to all men. If Adam failed God by sin, then these gifts would be lost to all human nature carnally descended from Adam.
BUT ADAM FAILED. He sinned against God. Consequently he lost these gifts for himself and for all his descendants. As a result each human being who is born by way of carnal generation from Adam comes into the world without the original spiritual gifts that God gave the race in Adam. It is the absence of these gifts which we call Original Sin. This sin is voluntary in each human individual not by his own will but by the will of Adam, the physical and spiritual head of the human race. I have sinned, not by my own personal will, but by the will of Adam acting as the head and, so to speak, the spokesman of the whole human race. I lack the original gifts that God generously gave to all human nature because Adam lost them through his own voluntary act of sin. This lack is sin in me in so far as I was contained in Adam who was the head of the human race.
THE GIFTS WHICH ADAM LOST for himself and for all men are summed up in the name Original Justice. Original Justice is a condition of human nature in which all man's powers exist and act in perfect harmony with one another and in subjection to God. Man, as we know him, is a complex or complicated creature. The facts of human nutrition, growth, disease, and death show that there is in man a life similar to the life of plants. The facts of sensation---in sight, hearing and so on---and motion from place to place show that man has a life similar to that of the animals. The facts of human speech and thought and love show that man has the privilege of intellectual life and love and freedom. But, as the facts also show, the proper balancing of these aspects of human life through the functioning of the human powers of the sense appetite and reason and free will is not easy. The sense appetite inclines strongly to its proper object---the pursuit of sensible good and the avoidance of physical evil. Sometimes this inclination is so strong that it blinds the reason and induces the will to act against man's real good. Sometimes the intellectual desire for knowledge leads a man to neglect his sense appetite unreasonably to the injury of his physical health. When God created man He knew that the delicate balance between man's powers that is necessary for successful human living would be too difficult for nature alone to accomplish easily. So he gave to Adam for the whole race the gift of Original Justice.
THROUGH THE GIFT OF ORIGINAL JUSTICE Adam's will and reason were properly subjected to God in grace. Through the subjection of the will to God man's sense appetite and even, to some extent, his vegetative life, were subjected to reason and will. Original Justice thus established in Adam a perfect harmony between man's various powers. His sense appetite was always under the control of reason and will and his reason and will were subject to God. Consequently Adam was a perfect man, fully equipped to pursue the Vision of God efficiently and easily. Had he remained faithful to God this same harmony between man's powers would have been passed on to all his descendants as a gift of grace to human nature. But he failed and so he lost this gift of Original Justice for himself and for all his descendants.
THIS LACK OF ORIGINAL JUSTICE is the only sin we inherit from Adam. His other personal sins do not affect the human race. Further, this sin affects all of us equally. Just as death is equal in all who are dead, for they all lack life, so Original Sin is equal in all since all lack Original Justice. In all men there is the same lack of harmony between man's powers in themselves and in relation to God.
ESSENTIALLY ORIGINAL SIN consists in this lack of harmony between man's powers in themselves and in relation to God. But once the harmony in man's powers established by the gift of Original Justice is disrupted the sense appetite begins its tremendous drive toward sensible good, even against the rule of reason and to the exclusion of man's spiritual good. This lack of order in man's sense appetite is what we commonly call concupiscence.
ORIGINAL SIN then is like a disease in human nature. Human nature is ill-disposed. It is out of order. The sense appetite of man is struggling with his reason and will. And his will has lost its original subjection to God in grace.
IT FOLLOWS from this that Original Sin affects man's soul, not his body. Original Sin is disorder in the soul of man. And since sin is concerned principally with the will, it affects first of all the will, then the reason and finally the sense appetite.
IT IS THE DISORDER of Original Sin in the soul which makes it easy for the individual man to fall into personal sin. We might be tempted to think that this element in God's plan for men was unfair. But we must remember that the Original Justice which God gave Adam to establish proper order in man was a free gift. God did not have to give it to men. The loss of this gift does not mean that men must struggle harder to be good than they would if God had not offered this gift to Adam at all. The power of the sense appetite to cloud reason or weaken the will is quite natural in man. Original Justice made this power completely subject to reason and will. But this was a special Divine gift.
ONCE WE GRANT that man comes into this world with Original Sin, that is, with disorder in his human powers, and once we recognize that men commit personal, actual sins, then we must also recognize that personal sin leads to other sins. It is this that we have in mind when we speak of the seven capital sins. By a capital sin we mean a sin that is the source or reason for committing other sins. A capital sin is a vice, or an evil inclination whose goal moves man to evil actions or sins in the pursuit of that goal. Thus excessive pride may move a man to steal in order to keep up appearances, or to lie about others in order to emphasize his own excellence. Or envy will lead a man to lie, to cheat, to steal in order to destroy someone else's property or excellence or reputation.
THERE ARE SEVEN CAPITAL SINS or vices: pride, covetousness, gluttony, lust, envy, anger and sloth. They are all disordered inclinations to seek good or to avoid evil.
PRIDE IS AN INORDINATE DESIRE for one's own excellence. But since perfection or excellence depends on a man's possession of good, pride leads man to sin in the pursuit of his own good. The proud man will lie or cheat to better his own reputation.
COVETOUSNESS IS AN INORDINATE desire for wealth or for possessions in this world. Man seeks possessions because he thinks they will enable him to do what he wants. The covetous man will violate all the laws of reason and justice to gain money or property. And when he has them he will either sin to retain them or will use them to commit other sins.
THE GLUTTON SEEKS inordinately the goods of his own body. So he overeats or drinks to excess. The lustful man pursues excessively the good of sex which is intended for the good of the race. He will do whatever is necessary to gain his sinful pleasure.
THE MAN who is eaten by envy sorrows at the good fortune of others because he regards it as a hindrance to his own good. The angry man will seek by any means to injure others because he considers their good a threat to himself. Lastly, the slothful man will neglect his own spiritual welfare because he is afraid of the labor involved in seeking true happiness. His laziness will lead him to omit to do what he ought to do to be truly happy.
OUR SURVEY OF THE CAUSES of sin in human life shows clearly that the chief cause of sin is the human will. Every man is free to choose good or evil. Reason may be ignorant, the sense appetite may be strong. But in the last analysis it is the will which chooses evil. It is the will which sins. The devil may tempt man. But man is free, he need not fall. Original Sin, the sin transmitted to us by Adam, may make us weak in the face of temptation. But it does not destroy free will. Our personal sins are our own sins. In relation to Adam we are to some extent like the children of a millionaire who lost all his money. We cannot begin life with as much power as our father once had. But we have, through our free will and the grace of Christ, the power to build up our own fortune in good works. If we sin instead, it will be our own fault.
SINCE SIN IS CHIEFLY DUE to our own bad will, unhappiness is our own making. If we use our free wills and the grace of Christ to build up the virtues within our souls, we can avoid unhappiness. The wise man is the man who cultivates virtue. The happy man is the virtuous man.
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