Thursday, March 22, 2007

Is Material Sin a Moral Evil?

"BV" emailed me the following question:
I recently became involved in an online discussion, and was wondering if you may be able to provide me some insight (I searched your blog, and didn't see where it may have been discussed before). The key question we're disagreed on is whether material sin involves a moral evil.

I've been arguing from the position that it does--that it still offends God, that it still constitutes the privation of moral goodness, but that the individual is not culpable for the moral evil. My interlocutor has been arguing that it does not--that because the person does not know the action is wrong and does not consciously choose the wrong, that therefore there is no moral evil.

Although in a way academic, I think this distinction is important and material sin is not all that infrequent. Can you maybe provide some insight, or point me towards some resources that could help me understand this better?
Good question.

Assuming that the act in question contravenes a moral norm, it would be a sin and a moral evil. This is regardless of whether or not the person who commits the act is aware of it's sinful nature. A moral evil exists whenever God's law is broken. Period.

When a person commits a material sin, they break God's law without knowledge that their action had such an effect. But, regardless of their knowledge, God's law is still broken, it is just that the guilt of this action is not imputed to them. They are not culpable or held accountable for it.

So, the question here is really not whether or not a moral evil exists but whether or not the person in question is to be held accountable for it. The objective immorality of an action does not depend on our awareness of this immorality.

I hope that helps. Here are some links where you can learn more: Pax Christi,


  1. Dear Nicholas,

    Thanks so much for your post! It seems we agree, though I see some things in the links provided which seem to disagree:

    "Sins committed without reflection or consent are called material sins; that is, they would be formal or *real* sins if we knew their sinfulness at the time we committed them." (Baltimore Cathechism #3 link; emphasis added)

    The implication being that material sins are not real sins (i.e., not a moral evil).

    "In the same way, everything we do thinking it to be wrong or sinful is wrong and sinful for us, though it may not be wrong for those who know better." (Baltimore Catechsim #4 link)

    The point I'm understanding here is that moral evil results from acting against conscience. Even if we do a "materially" good thing, acting against our conscience causes it to be a moral evil.

    By moral evil are understood the deviation of human volition from the prescriptions of the moral order and the action which results from that deviation. Such action, when it proceeds solely from ignorance, *is not to be classed as moral evil*, which is properly restricted to the motions of will towards ends of which the conscience disapproves." (New Advent: Evil link; emphasis added)

    Again, the point that moral evil arises solely from the movement of the will against conscience.

    "When, even without subjective fault on the part of the person involved, these acts are in contrast to the divine model, they still run counter to the ultimate finality of his being. That is why what is called "material sin" is something which should not exist, and which constitutes in the moral order a reality which is not indifferent." (Pope Pius XII link)

    Here it seems the Pope is stopping short of calling material sins a moral evil. He says material sins are a reality, that they should not exist, and their existence is not indifferent, but he seems to consciously avoiding calling them a moral evil.

    This is part of my trouble: Although the position I've stated makes sense to me, in someways the counterargument does too.


  2. BV,

    Man, I feel stupid right now. I didn't even realize that the links I provided challenge my arguments! Where's the nearest hole for me to bury my head in!?!? It appears that God has seen it fit to humiliate me. Praise God.

    I don't know what to do with all this. It runs contrary to what I've always believed about sin: that the morality of actions are goverened by their objective conformity to the Law of God. The subjective element that appears to be present in these passages you quoted is something entirely new to me. Perhaps I am misunderstanding these articles. Perhaps I am wrong. I need to consult one of my professors.

    I'll get back to you on this.

    Pax Christi,

  3. Hey no prob--I had the same experience too. :-) I really appreciate you checking into this, and look forward to hearing what your professors say!


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