Splendor of Truth - The Moral Life

Conscience, Virtues, Passions, and Sin


If I truly have free will, why does God give me rules?  Doesn’t being free mean I can do anything I want? (CCC 1730-1742)

First, it is essential to understand that man is not absolutely free. A very clear example of this is our existence – we did not choose it. We were created without our consent; our beginning was not determined for us. As well, our end is also predetermined. This needs to be explained, for it can be misinterpreted if it is not understood well. How is our end predetermined? Our end is predetermined because we were created for beatitude and happiness with God for eternity. He made us this way, it is part of our nature, and it is something we cannot change. Therefore, we have chosen neither our beginning, nor our end.

Last, we do not choose what is good and what is evil; this is what Adam and Eve tried to do in the Garden. It is the Lord who chooses what is good and evil. He is sovereign. The car does not know better than the designer and manufacturer what is good for it. We often believe that we the creature know more than the Creator. However, we are fortunate because we have a loving God; this means that what He considers good is also for our good and happiness. As well, that which He considers good is reasonable and can be discovered by our natural reason. He gives us the capability of knowing and understanding the good. Truth and justice toward God and neighbor determine moral law, and we can understand what this consists of through our reason. Therefore, all men know, through reason alone, that which is good and evil. It is lie that we are not able to know what is good and evil. We did not create these constraints, but we do have the power to discover and know them.

If I am not absolutely free, for what do I have the freedom?

God has gifted us with free will because He wants us to move toward Him and arrive at Him by our own decision. Love is not love if it not free. However, there are two aspects to this freedom.

First, our freedom allows us to move toward the good or away from the good. This ability to turn away from the good is actually a defect of freedom, and it is not something the angels or saints in Heaven have. They see Truth in all its fullness, and they cannot (and do not want to) turn away from it.

The second aspect of our freedom is in fact true freedom. We have the ability to choose the path we take to move toward the good. Within the valid choices dictated by moral law, we have been given the freedom of choosing which path we take to arrive in Heaven. An analogy will be helpful. I stand at the bottom of a mountain, and I am trying to reach the top (Heaven). There are many paths that I can take to reach the top, and this is where my freedom comes in. I am given the freedom to take any path I want to reach the Lord. However, unfortunately, we can also choose to not even climb, and we can choose to walk further down into the valley. This is an abuse of our freedom and it goes against our nature because we were created for the top, and we will only be happy once we reach it.

What did Jesus mean when He said “the truth will set you free”?

Again, we will use the mountain for an analogy (from the previous question). If I am at the bottom of the mountain and I need to reach the top, but I don’t know I need to reach the top, and I don’t know about the paths to take to get there, I am not free. I am a slave to the little knowledge I have, and I am relegated to the bottom of the mountain. But if I am shown the top, told I am called to get there, and shown the paths I can take, I am truly free. I have within me all the information I need in order to get there, and I have the freedom to choose what path I want to take. Truth opens me up to all my possibilities that lead to union with God. I know what I need to do and what I should not do.

What is the meaning of being “a slave to sin.”?

“A person is a slave of whatever overcomes him” (2 Pt 2:19). When we sin, we act against our own nature (for we are created for good), violate our freedom (for its purpose is to take us to God), and turn our back on the good. To help explain this truth, we must understand that our wills are controlled by our reason. Our reason informs our will what is good and what is bad and dictates a course of action. However, our passions, due to our fallen nature, can interfere in this process. Every sin is a violation of reason – why would we logically do something that we know will hurt us? For remember, everything God asks of us is for our happiness and our good.

When we sin, we have allowed the passions to dominate our will instead of our reason. Because there is usually some pleasure attached to sin, sinning repeatedly in the same area leads to vice. Vice is a sin that has become habit. Addictions are prime examples of this. The more we sin, the stronger the vice becomes, and the more difficult it becomes to fight the sin and our passions that are so enmeshed in it. The passions become stronger the more they are given victory. (On the contrary, the more we choose the good, the more free we become because the good becomes a habit; this is called virtue.)

Reason, however, is precisely what makes us human. Animals are controlled by their passions, but human beings have the unique capability of acting according to reason. If the passions have taken precedence over reason, we are reduced to an irrational creature controlled by passions. This is not someone who is free. At this point, the will has lost the ability and freedom to attain its desired end, which is happiness.

What is the relationship between freedom and responsibility? (CCC 1731-1738)

Because we have been given the gift of freedom, we are also responsible for the acts we choose. Choosing good earns us praise and merit. Choosing bad earns us blame and reproach. We will be rewarded (positively or negatively) for our actions, for we chose them. However, an act is imputable only if it is directly willed. The responsibility for an act be reduced or even nullified due to “ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors.”

The fact that we are given responsibility and freedom is a beautiful gift of the Lord. By imparting this gift to us, He is allowing us to participation in our own salvation and glorification. He knows a prize is much more meaningful when we know we earned it. Being given an ‘A’ for doing nothing has very little meaning. However, being given an ‘A’ because we worked hard is something we will feel good about. By allowing us to freely choose our acts and experience the consequences of them, our life in Heaven will be exponentially more satisfying.

What makes an act morally good or morally evil? (CCC 1749-1756)

Because we freely choose our acts, they become moral acts, and can be evaluated as either good or evil. The morality of an act depends on three elements:

The object chosen – The object is “what” you are doing. Some example of objects are praying, fasting, playing, helping someone, etc. In order for an act to be morally good, the object chosen must be good. Some objects are intrinsically good or bad, while some are neutral. For example, praying a good object. Theft and murder are always bad objects. Drawing a picture is a morally neutral object.

The intention – This is the goal and motivation behind the act. It answers the question “why?” and is the reason a person acts. A single action can have more than one intention. For example, if I help my neighbor, I may have the intention of helping him, as well loving God through that person. The intention is very important in determining the morality of an act. First, a good intention does not make an intrinsically bad behavior good or just. The end does not justify the means. For example, you cannot commit adultery to have a child. Second, a bad intention makes any action morally evil. For example, if I help my neighbor only to be seen by others and praised for it, then the good act becomes a morally bad one.

The circumstances – While the object and intention directly contribute to the morality of an act, the circumstances are secondary. The circumstances (which include the consequences) can reduce or increase the goodness or evilness of an act (example: stealing a piece of gum or a million dollars). As well, they can reduce the responsibility (fear induces you to do something bad). They cannot change the morality of an act itself, but only increase or decrease its strength. They cannot make a bad act good.

In order for an act to be morally good, the object, intention and circumstances must all be good. It is wrong to judge an act only by intention. The object as well has to be good, as well as the circumstances surrounding it.

Is it allowable to do evil if you believe a good will come from it? (CCC 1753,1759-1761)  

No. Good intentions or a good end cannot make a bad act good.

Are our passions good or bad? (CCC 1763-1770)

First it is important to define passions. Passions are feelings, emotions or affections. Of themselves, they are neither good nor bad. They become good if they help us to do good, and they become bad if they lead us to sin. Passions should be controlled by our reason, and not visa versa. When we allow our passions to dominate our reason, we fall into sin and vice. Perfected humanity is when the passions and reason live in harmony, both helping man to do good. However, concupiscence as a result of the Fall often puts the passions and reason against one another. As we perform more good acts, and increase in virtue, our passions and reason become more harmonious, and our reason and will have more power over our passions. It is important to note that the Christian life does not require us to suppress our passions, but to direct them to the highest good under the guidance of reason. It often requires a re-ordering of the passions, but not their destruction or suppression.

What is our conscience? (CCC 1776-1779)

There are multiple ways of expressing the reality of the conscience. We will give a few to help understand. It is the voice of God inside of man. It is an interior law imprinted in our minds. It is a judgment of reason in which a person recognizes an act to be morally good or bad; this judgment can apply to past, present or future acts. The conscience has three actions: First, it is able to recognize what we have done. Second, it judges what we must do or must not do. Third, it judges what we have done as evil or good.

There are some fundamental truths about our conscience. Our conscience does not decide what is good and evil, but instead, it already knows good and evil, and it judges our actions according to this knowledge. All men have this knowledge of basic moral principles (called synderesis). This is why John Paul II and Vatican II call it the “voice of God” inside of us (Dominum et vivificantem 43 and Guadium et Spes 16). This ability makes us morally responsible for our actions. It is also what gives us our profound dignity. We have the ability to choose the good, thereby forming our own destiny. We participate in getting ourselves to Heaven and in the reward we will one day enjoy there; it is not simply determined for us. Again, this participation and self-determination is what makes us unique and chosen among creatures.

What are our responsibilities regarding our consciences? (CCC 1780-1794)

Our primary duty is to form and educate our conscience. A well-formed conscience is truthful and righteous; it makes judgments according to reason and in favor of the true good. We have true freedom when our conscience is educated and has knowledge enough to choose rightly. (See What did Jesus mean when He said “the truth will set you free”?) We form our consciences through education, prayer, and putting our faith into practice. When we are presented with difficult situations, in which a clear path is not obvious to us, we have the responsibility to diligently seek what is right and good. In our quest, we will be assisted with the graces of the Holy Spirit; we can be aided by the example and advice of others; and we will be guided by the teachings of the Church.

Should we always act according to our conscience? (CCC 1786-1789)

Yes. Man should always act in accordance with his conscience. If he were to act against it, he would condemn himself. However, this judgment of conscience can be in conformity with reason and divine law or it can be erroneous and against them. This is why it is so important to form our consciences well.

If we are supposed to always follow our conscience, what happens if our conscience is uninformed and we make a bad choice? Are we morally responsible? (CCC 1790-1794)

There are certainly instances in which our consciences, through ignorance, have made bad judgments. A person is responsible and culpable when he "takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin" (Gaudium et Spes 16). In others words, we are responsible for our errors when we have been lazy or negligent in seeking the truth. In terms of being blinded by sin, we are all witness to the seeming lack of conscience of those who have grown accustomed to a life of sin. Each sinful act suppresses our conscience. As we continue to sin, we become more accustomed to drowning out its voice. After time, it loses its strength and seems to disappear. However, though beaten down, the conscience, by the mercy of God, will never be extinguished. With His grace, it is possible that one’s conscience may be illuminated and set aflame once again. This is why prayer for the conversion of hearts is so important and so powerful.

Some contributing factors to ignorance of conscience are: an ignorance of Christ and his Gospel; bad examples given by others; being enslaved to our passions; believing that we, and not God, determine what is good and evil; a rejection of the Church's authority and teaching; and a lack of conversion and love.

On the other hand, if the ignorance is invincible or not the person’s fault, then the person is not responsible for the erroneous judgment made by his conscience. For example, a mental disorder may remove culpability in this regard. 

What are the virtues and why are they important? (CCC 1803-1829)

“A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do good” (CCC 1803). Doing good occasionally is not virtue. The key words here are habitual and firm. A virtuous person is one who does good consistently. Virtuous people move towards and pursue the good with all their strength. Virtue is only acquired by actions. In other words, the more we do something, the stronger the habit becomes. The more we choose to act good, the more we become habitually good. The opposite is true as well. The more we sin, the more the sin becomes a habit; this is called a vice. A virtuous life makes us like God.  

There are two classes of virtues: Moral (or cardinal) and Theological.

Moral Virtues: These virtues are natural, in that they help to perfect our natural faculties (intellect, will, passions, etc.) As well, they are acquired by human actions. As we practice them, they increase in strength. We are aided in their practice by education and divine grace.

Prudence – Prudence is “right reason in action” (St. Thomas). Prudence helps our reason know the true good in all circumstances so that we can correctly judge how to act. It is the backbone of all the other virtues, and it guides their practice. For example, I may be very just, having a good sense of right and wrong. Prudence, however, guides me in how to practice this justice, telling me when, where and how it should be used. For example, if a mother sees her child acting inappropriately in public, depending on the offense, she should prudently judge whether it is appropriate to correct the child immediately in public or wait until later when they have a private moment.

Justice – Justice prompts us to give people and God what is due to them. Justice toward fellow man means to respect their rights as a person, to acknowledge their dignity, to promote harmony in relationships, to look out for the common good, and to be fair to all.

Justice to God is often called the “virtue of religion.” Since God created us and gave us everything, including His love and His Son, it is only just for us to give Him our worship, adoration, love, and our whole selves. 

Temperance – Another synonym for temperance is moderation. Temperance helps is to have a proper balance in the use of created things; it helps us moderate our attractions and pleasures, keeping them within what is honorable. “All things in moderation;” this is an oversimplification, but it helps us get a good sense of the virtue. Temperance recognizes that created things and our desires are good, but can become harmful to us if they are not controlled by our wills. Some examples may help. Food is a good thing, and so is our enjoyment of it. However, we cannot eat whatever we want, whenever we want. Similarly, we must main our health, but putting an overemphasis on what we eat in order to do so is an excessive concern in this area. As well, our sexual desires are good. However, we need to understand their proper use. We need to understand the mind of God in terms of their origin, their meaning, and His intentions concerning them. If we do not and we allow these desires to reign unchecked, then the desires will have dominion over our wills and they will harm us.

Fortitude – This virtue helps us to pursue good consistently, even in the midst of great difficultly. It helps us persevere amidst trials. It helps a person renounce fear and embrace sacrifice, even sacrifice to the point of death.

Theological Virtues: These virtues are infused directly by God, and they are first infused into the soul at baptism. They are the foundation of all other virtue, giving them life. They allow us to share in God’s divine life. Without them, it would not be possible to share in His life. They are not natural to human nature, like the moral virtues, which is the reason that God must give them to us directly.

Faith – Faith allows us to believe in God, in all that He has revealed to us, and all that the Church professes for our belief. In faith, we assent to all that God has revealed, and we give ourselves fully to God – we submit to Him our intellects and will. One who has faith must live it, profess it, be a witness to it, and spread it. It is necessary for our salvation, and it must be present with hope and love in order to unite us with Christ and His Body.

Hope – Hope allows us to desire Heaven and trust in Jesus’ strength and the grace of the Holy Spirit to get us there. It answers the desire of eternal happiness that lies in each one of us. We all want to be happy forever and hope allows us to believe that this desire will one day be fulfilled in Heaven. It keeps us from discouragement and relying on our own strength, since its confidence rests in the power of God and not us.

Love (Charity) – Charity allows us to love God for His own sake above all things, and it allows us to love our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God. It is the greatest of all the virtues, and without it, all the virtues lose all strength and effective. “If I have not love…I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:1-3). It binds all the virtues together in perfect harmony, and without it, a person cannot practice any of the other virtues. Love is the source of all and at the same time the goal which we seek.

What is sin? (CCC 1846-1853)

Sin is:

An offense against reason – Every sin is unreasonable. It hurts us and others, and it does not make sense to hurt ourselves, to cause ourselves and others harm.

An offense against truth – Every sin goes against truth. When we sin, we believe a lie or act according to something that is not true.

An offense against right conscience – Every sin is an act contrary to our conscience. We know we have done wrong.

A thought, word, or deed contrary to God’s law.

An offense against God’s love – Every time we sin, we choose a lesser good over the Greatest Good (God). We turn away from His love.

A rebellion against God – Just like the first sin of Adam and Eve, every time we sin, we try to “make ourselves like gods.” We try to decide good and evil for ourselves, instead of trusting our Creator and Father to determine what is best for us.

An act of disobedience – This is why Christ came to obey. He wanted to show us that obeying the Father is what brings us life, peace and happiness.

A love of oneself over the love of God.

What is the difference between mortal and venial sin? (CCC 1852-1864)

It is self evident that some sins are more serious and grave than others. Lying about the color of your shirt is certainly not as serious as killing someone. Tradition and experience have led the Church to classify sins as either venial or mortal.

Mortal Sin – From its name, we can see that this sin is more serious: it delivers a mortal or fatal wound to our heart. In mortal sin, man deliberately turns away from God by choosing to gravely violate His law. It destroys charity in our hearts and breaks our relationship with God. In mortal sin, we lose sanctifying grace, and we are no longer in the state of grace, which is required for our salvation. The only way to restore this relationship is through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. If a mortal sin remains un-confessed, a person will go to hell upon death. This makes sense, for in committing a mortal sin, a person has deliberately turned his back on God and walked away. This may seem harsh, but the key to understanding this is that our sin is a free choice, and God respects our freedom. He will do everything He can to lead us back to Him, but if we choose continually to spurn His love, we will die cut off from His love. For a sin to be mortal three conditions must be met:

1.       The sin must be of grave matter. Grave matter means that the sin must be very serious. Murder, theft, adultery, abortion, masturbation, and sexual acts outside of marriage are all acts of grave matter. This list is not exhaustive, but it helps to give a general idea.

2.       The sin must be done with full knowledge. One must know that he is committing a grave act contrary to God’s law. If someone is unintentionally aware of the gravity of an act, their culpability would be reduced. Feigned or intentional ignorance does not get rid of responsibility, but rather can increase it. However, unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove guilt for a sin. However, no one can be deemed ignorant of the principles of moral law which are written on our hearts and consciences.

3.       The sin must be done with complete consent. In other words, a person must have committed the act in full freedom. A grave sin committed under threat of death would diminish the guilt of the act. As well, strong feelings and passions, mental disorders, and external pressures can diminish the free character of the choice.

Finally, though we can judge an act to be a mortal sin (as we have done in the list of mortal sins above), we must always leave the judgment of the person to God’s justice and mercy. As well, we must never consider that any sin is too great for His Mercy and forgiveness. The greatest sins are but a drop in the ocean of His Mercy. He begs and pleads, unto the point of death, for sinners to return to His loving arms, in order that He may forgive them. We simply need to turn around. 

Venial Sin – In venial sin, a person acts against moral law in a less serious way, or he acts against moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or consent. By sinning venially, a person does not cut himself off from God’s love; however there are still many negative consequences:

It weakens love in us.
It shows a disordered affection for created things, rather than God.
It hinders a person from practicing virtue and doing good.
It merits us temporal punishment (in other words, it increases the time we will have to suffer on earth or in Purgatory).
When we deliberately commit venial sins again and again without confessing them, we make ourselves more apt to fall into mortal sin.

In general, the greatest way to prevent sin (mortal or venial) is through the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession). In this Sacrament, God not only forgives sins, but He also grants us graces to help us not to sin again in the future.

What is vice? (CCC 1865-1866)

Vice is habitual sin. The more we sin, the more we are inclined to sin again, and then the sin becomes a habit. Just as doing good over and over again will lead to virtue, doing bad repeatedly leads to vice. Vice distorts our sense of right and wrong and hinders our conscience from judging correctly.

What are the “seven deadly sins”, and why are they called “deadly”?

The “seven deadly sins” are more appropriately called capital sins. The seven capital sins are pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth. These 7 sins are “capital” or “deadly” because they lead to other sins and lie at the root of all sin.

If I sin, and no one else ever knows about it except me, does it affect anyone besides myself? Does it necessarily hurt even me? (CCC 1865-1869)

Yes. All sin hurts us. God gives us laws because He wants us to know how to achieve perfect happiness and have fullness of life. Basically, He is saying if you follow my way of love, you will find perfect and fulfillment or happiness. Whenever we go against these rules, against love, we hurt ourselves. This is always true, regardless if we are alone or with people, because sin is first an offense against God – and God is always with us.

Second, we are part of the Body of Christ. As we all know from human experience, if one part of our body is hurt, injured or suffering, the rest of our body is affected as well. Sin always hurts us and the rest of the Body, the Church. Even if no one ever knows about a sin, except the person who committed it, that sin has negative consequences on the rest of humanity. The consequences will be great or small depending on the seriousness of a sin. Just like a great injury or sickness to one part of the body can do great harm to another part, grave sin can do great harm to humanity. (Example: Cancer in the liver can lead to painful and dangerous effects in many other places in the body.)

This only makes sense. We have no trouble believing that a good act has positive consequences, regardless of whether or not it is seen; therefore, we should not have difficultly understanding that the same is true for a bad act. Take prayer for example. We believe that prayer has positive affects even though no one but God may know about the prayer.  If every good act has a positive consequence on humanity, then every bad act must have a negative consequence on humanity. This should give us great hope instead of despair because we believe that every good act, great or small, can bring about the salvation of souls. This should inspire us to do good, practice virtue and fulfill our duties in even the smallest of things, knowing that God can take a little “yes,” elevate it, and use it in a great and powerful way.



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