by Jayson M. Brunelle, M.Ed., CAGS
Is there a formula that we can use to determine the morality or immorality of human acts? As a matter of fact, there is! To determine the moral goodness of a human act, three components are essential: (1) the object of the act; (2) the intention of the person performing the act; and (3) the circumstance surrounding it. It should be noted that all three of these conditions – or qualities – must be “good,” in order for the act, as a whole, to be objectively “good” and “morally praiseworthy.” For example, a politician who decides to devote a portion of his time to a worthy cause is certainly performing what, at least on the surface, appears to be a commendable, laudable human act. With the above axioms in mind, we may state that, thus far, the act itself is objectively good. Yet, if we learn that his sole intention in performing this action is to win over the voters, and the circumstance is such that one or more major local news affiliates will be broadcasting from that very spot, thereby providing the budding politician with ample opportunities for free exposure, it’s not difficult to see that this act, as a whole, isn’t “good.” The act itself may be good, yet the selfish intention and self-serving circumstance render the entire act immoral.
Moreover, another fundamental and often misunderstood truth regarding Christian morality is the distinction between mortal sin and venial sin. Most know that mortal sin is a grave extremely serious violation of God’s divine law of love, whether it is a sin against love of God, neighbor or self. Yet, in order for any sin to be mortal, three conditions must be met: (1) the “object,” or the “act” itself must be gravely, or very seriously evil, such as acts of murder, rape and/or adultery – all of which are intrinsically, or inherently evil; (2) the person must possess a full knowledge of the grave sinfulness and evil of the action; finally, (3) the person must act with full consent of the will, in full freedom; which is to say, s/he must not be acting out of habit, fear, any extreme emotion or psychological duress, external coercion, or the threat of ongoing and/or future hardship and/or suffering. Each of these latter psychological conditions or frames of mind are addressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as serious impediments to the full exercise of freedom of will; and, for that reason, can significantly, if not completely, mitigate the guilt. The sole impediment to knowledge is ignorance. Yet, to exonerate one’s self on the grounds of ignorance, particularly when one has had ample opportunity to become informed and has intentionally avoided doing so, only serves to compound the sin as one of double malice.
Thus, for a human act to be mortally sinful unto spiritual death (so serious that it would cause the Spirit of God in our soul, or sanctifying grace, to flee and depart from our souls, leaving us spiritually lifeless and utterly vulnerable to the prompt action of Satan), the three conditions that must be met are (1) Grave matter; (2) Full knowledge and (3) Full consent of the will.
That said, it is still a requirement of every Christian to participate in the life-long process of informing and enhancing one’s conscience. By remaining faithful to the marvelous practices of daily Eucharist, the praying of the Holy Rosary and the patient acceptance of the sufferings that God chooses for us, we participate with Our Lord, through Our Lady in the ongoing work of Redemption, which is carried out and renewed at every Holy Mass.